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“The Stagg Report” : When porn stars and artists connect

Twenty-something indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg is obviously interested in exploring sex, not in the porny way, but in the everyday-life, I-wonder-what-people-really-do way. (You can see trailers for his much-talked-about upcoming feature about a long-distance relationship, starring himself and Greta Gerwig, at the “Nights and Weekends” website.)

Swanberg has a three-season-old Web series on IFC.com called “Young American Bodies” (sorry, can’t link because the actors are always pulling off each other’s clothes). It’s one of those shows, like HBO’s unrenewed “Tell Me You Love Me,” that focuses with relentless seriousness on how ordinary people manage their sex lives — the kind that ends up being both unsexy and sometimes painful to watch. As Swanberg’s earnest, rumpled young actors stammer their way into and out of bed with little evident joy or emotional release, you’re reminded of what a strange species we are, that our courtship rituals can make us so unhappy.

But relief is here: Now Swanberg is also behind a much more watchable Web documentary series on IFC.com called “The Stagg Report” (nope, can’t link to this one either). The show follows a professional photographer named Ellen Stagg as she goes about her dual career: Fashion and celebrity shoots pay the bills, but her personal artistic passion is erotic art photography (which would pay the bills, she says, but only if you want to do the bidding of porn purveyors, and she doesn’t).

With its rampant female nudity and nonjudgmental “adult industry” theme, the voyeuristic Web hordes will love it. But the show’s soft-touch intelligence and compelling characters give it depth — maybe even more than its five-minute format can do justice to.

In a recent Huffington Post blog item, Stagg tells the story of how she and Swanberg came to collaborate. As different as their approaches might seem, she writes, “we realized we had a lot in common with our work and the fine lines we are always trying to not cross.” Making sexually focused art that is entwined with and fueled by their real lives, they both need to figure out how to keep some separation between the two.

But the contrasts between Swanberg and Stagg seem even more interesting and productive. She has managed a full embrace of her own erotic interests, whereas he is reflexively indirect about his. His characters tend to be consumed by their desire for this woman or that woman or the one over there, but they don’t quite come across as people who enjoy sex.

Also, their visual and emotional styles could not be more different. Swanberg prefers drab, my-first-apartment bedrooms and “realistic” emotions like ambivalence and confusion. Stagg is all about trying to capture the mysterious beauty and allure of sexuality. She has an unusual rapport with her models, who are all porn actresses. Their complex connections are the show’s main subject: The models are un-self-conscious about their bodies and what they’re doing, and Stagg is unapologetic about her fascination with them. She wants to show them as real people, but she still gives her pictures a stylized, moody glamour.

The photographer and her naked subjects chat away lightheartedly as they play around with different poses and approaches. As Stagg explains, she gravitated to these women because unlike her friends, they aren’t going to change their minds about the pictures in two weeks when their boyfriends get wind of them. It’s a mutually beneficial deal because, as Stagg says, “the adult girls need content” for their blogs and websites.

The first episode features Asa, a Japanese American from New York who has been working in adult films for a year and is savvy about where her assets lie. In the second one, we meet the willowy blonde Charlotte. Stagg, who is extremely blonde herself, tells her, “You’re the one girl I was most excited to shoot on this trip,” because “I love blondes.”

Charlotte tells Stagg that she has just filmed her first sex scene, and it sounds like she had a good time. It’s not clear if Stagg has chosen porn neophytes on purpose, but it does create an interestingly wholesome, untroubled mood. These first two women, at least, seem untouched by the darker currents that tend to make women in their line of work build a hard, exaggerated shell around themselves.

Some of the models who will be the subjects of upcoming episodes look a little wilder and more hard-core, so we’ll have to see if Stagg’s tastes run beyond girls next door.

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