Don’t take the overreaching subtitle of John Hubner’s otherwise gritty social history too seriously. As a description of the Mitchell brothers, that ”counterculture heroes” label is awfully high-flown. In fact, Jim and Artie Mitchell were good-natured booze-and-dope-fueled porn entrepreneurs (they made the movies and owned the theaters) who were either smart enough or lucky enough to hit it big just as porn was entering its early-’70s boom.
But while upper-middle-class couples were lining up for Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat and its ilk, the Mitchells were up to something different, churning out hundreds of the grimiest examples of the triple-X genre ever to sully celluloid. Not until their 337th opus, Behind the Green Door (1973), did they make their reputations as emperors of the flesh trade. By 1978, Jim estimated they had ”pissed away (something) like twenty-five million dollars.” The big fall came on Feb. 27, 1991, when Jim ended his partnership with Artie by shooting him dead. (Convicted of manslaughter, Jim is now appealing his case.)
Why Jim pulled the trigger is something Hubner is never able to make clear. Indeed, Bottom Feeders: From Free Love to Hard Core: The Rise and Fall of Counterculture Heroes Jim and Artie Mitchell is at its least compelling when it strives for the overheated, brothers-locked-in-mortal-combat tone of a TV movie. But when Bottom Feeders attends to the broader canvas of adult filmmaking’s growth from minor stag-movie operation to billion-dollar industry, Hubner’s dogged research pays off.
Talking to the shrinking ranks of those who participated in ’70s porn, Hubner unearths a wealth of information about the evolution of the Mitchells’ skin flicks. He captures the comical nightmare of the making of Sodom and Gomorrah (the Mitchells’ Heaven’s Gate), the seedy misery of shag-carpeted strip clubs with names like the Kopenhagen Intimate Lounge, and the variety of performers who crossed the Mitchells’ path. Hubner re-creates this underworld with such fascinating thoroughness and scruple that it almost doesn’t matter that the two men at its center remain, to the last, just beyond his reach. B