The PopCult Bookshelf
American Exxxtasy: My 30-Year Search for a Happy Ending is a real treat for non-snobby film fans. It’s the life story of John Amero, who is not exactly a household name, but he’s led a fascinating life as a pioneer of underground cinema and has even flirted with mainstream success. If you are not offended by the idea of treating people who worked in the porn industry as real folks, then you really ought to enjoy this book.
This is the first book published with a co-imprint of The Rialto Report, the website I’ve written about here previously that documents the golden age of porn via articles and podcasts. Amero was their first contact when they began their mission, and it took years of prodding by them to convince him to tell his life story.
It’s a pretty wild life story: A young man from a small New England fishing town grows up to become one of the most influential exploitation filmmakers in the 1960s, and then goes on to pioneer hardcore straight and gay porn, before winding up his film career producing a mainstream documentary for NBC. Mainstream audiences may not know of such films as Body of a Female, Diary of a Swinger and The Corporate Queen, or they may pretend not to know about Blonde Ambition and Every Inch a Lady, but these were all very profitable independent film releases. They just aren’t quite the “art films” that are discussed in “polite company.”
The remarkable thing about American Exxxtasy is how positive and upbeat Amero has managed to remain. Growing up in a family ripped apart by mental illness, being confused about his sexuality and eventually coming to grips with being gay, and then living in New York City through the eras of Stonewall, LGBTQ rights and AIDS, one would expect Amero to be at least a little bitter or embattled, but that is not the case here.
Some of the tragedies of his life are presented with no small amount of humor, like where he gets hit on by the priest at his father’s funeral. Other deaths, such as his brother, his companion and his best friend, are touching, but not morose. You don’t get the feeling that Amero is a person who wallows in hopelessness.
That probably explains why he was able to produce movies on a shoestring budget, finding shortcuts to get around lean financial times and always managing to eke out a living with paying gigs to keep the movies coming. It takes a ruthless optimism and no small amount of mental toughness to fight against the odds to follow your dreams.
In American Exxxtasy, the meaty parts about the actual filmmaking process are engrossing. This is not like reading about how many hundreds of special effects artists worked on a Spielberg movie. This is about buying cheap film stock and running around New York, shooting without a permit, while trying not to get busted for filming topless women. This is the story of guerilla filmmaking back before anybody called it that.
We also learn of Amero’s childhood, and his early life in New York in the late 1950s, working in menial jobs at CBS and ABC, and how his story includes encounters with Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Andy Warhol, Montgomery Clift, Anthony Perkins, and Olympia Dukakis.
Exploitation film aficionados will eat up the stories of his partnership with his bother, Lem, and his friendship with fellow underground filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay. Plus they’ll get a kick out of reading about his dealings with various, possibly mob-connected, grindhouse film distributors.
Ashely West and April Hall are credited as co-writers, but as they do with The Rialto Report, their voices are not evident. I’m certain they did a heck of a lot to guide and edit Amero, but the story is his to tell, and they step back let him tell it splendidly.
American Exxxtasy is a true American success story told with wit, humor and genuine emotion. It captures a moment in the film industry that we will never see again. This is a first-person account of a cultural and sexual revolution played out in one man’s life. Perhaps Amero’s happy ending is that he has enjoyed a life well lived and can share his story with the world.
American Exxxtasy: My 30-Year Search for a Happy Ending will be available from any bookseller on November 1. You can order it using the ISBN code, or you can get a signed first edition now, directly from the publisher.