You don't have to go back very far in Variety's history to discover that its film critics once had a very different job description -- one that involved reviewing not just mainstream theatrical releases, but also pornography like "Deep Throat" and "The Devil and Miss Jones."

Saturday night, a small posse and I drove down to Long Beach, Calif., to catch the "Best of Hump! Tour." For the uninitiated, Hump is an exhibitionist extravaganza hosted every year by sex columnist-turned-dirty-movie emcee Dan Savage in which ordinary folks become weekend porn stars, shooting sexually explicit short films designed to arouse and entertain a room full of like-minded strangers. (It's the same contest that inspires two straight guys to test their boundaries in 2009 mumblecore darling "Humpday.") "Normal" people agree to participate, safe in the knowledge that their work will be destroyed on the final night of the festival -- which means that for the tour, after picking his 15 favorites from the past decade, Savage had to track down their creators and ask permission to show their shorts in public again.

A quarter century back, Variety might have reviewed an event like this: At 86 minutes, the lineup runs as long as most features, it's making the rounds of movie theaters all over the country (look for it in a city near you), and it's on track to earn more than most indie films do these days. Instead, I decided to do something completely daring -- though not nearly as daring as the weekend porn stars exposing themselves onscreen, or my friend, who intends to submit next year and wanted to scope out the competition. For once, I decided to turn off my "critic brain." I left my notebook at home, silenced my inner nitpicker and embraced a completely nonjudgmental night at the movies.

As it happens, that mentality is precisely what the event aims to promote. No matter what your kink, at least one of the shorts is guaranteed to land outside your comfort zone. For example, if you like some hot man-on-man action, that doesn't necessarily mean you're comfortable with knife play, and vice versa. Given the eclectic range of turn-ons on offer (some of them invented for the sake of the event, as in Ben Harris' hilarious, stop-motion-embellished mock doc "Mythic Proportions," wherein three women open up about their forbidden centaur fetish), the lineup demands a certain amount of open-mindedness, as spelled out by Savage in a taped video introduction.

By contrast with Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," whose cast members have repeatedly insisted on its status as art cinema, the Hump event unapologetically qualifies as porn. The submissions are designed to stimulate, though they look nothing like the professional hardcore content so ubiquitous online -- and not just because the bodies aren't all plastic-surgery perfect. One entry, "Krutch," offers eye-opening insight into how a disabled woman gets off, while another, the Christopher Guest-style "The Legend of Gabe Harding," pays tribute to a plus-size fluffer.

Simply put, it's refreshing to see erotic films in which there's actual chemistry between sexual partners, where the couples (or groups, as in "Dungeons & Dragons Orgy's" horned-up nerd herd) appear to be having fun, rather than working. It also underscores the importance of screenwriting, even when it comes to dirty movies. By taking the time to plan things out in advance, these incredibly creative teams manage to capture and hold our interest, even when the "action" isn't necessarily to our liking -- like "Pie Sluts," in which a stern mistress splats her clients in the face with cream pies. This isn't a real phenomenon any more than the viral "Cake Farts" video it may or may not be parodying, but it's plenty entertaining all the same.

I clearly wasn't the only one who had checked my hangups at the door either. It was an incredibly warm room, as we all applauded each and every short, no matter how "amateur" the effort. That's the beauty of Hump, and the best-of tour in particular. When cruising for porn online, people naturally gravitate to what turns them on. By carefully curating an eclectic lineup, Savage manages to expand his crowd's horizons. It's not that audiences are likely to leave the event having discovered a new kink (though the self-explanatory "Fun With Fire" certainly lives up to its name). Rather, it's yet another way of communicating the same sex-positive message he preaches in his podcast: As long as you're not hurting anyone, embrace whatever makes you happy, and accept the fact that your neighbors might be into something different.

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