Sep 222010

Graphic Sexual Horror (2009), dir. Barbara Bell, Anna Lorentzon IMDB

“I’m looking for something that’ll… break through, you know?” Videodrome, 1982, dir. David Cronenberg

In the mid-90s, bondage photography was still stuck in the glamor-based, damsel-in-distress style mode that Harmony Concepts had been putting out since the 1970s.

Then came the notorious website, hardcore bondage shoots that owed more to crime scene photos than Helmut Newton. Insex was also new in that it was designed for the web: downloadable clips instead of mail-order DVDs, and live chats. It was created, almost on a whim, by PD, also known as Brent, who cited his experiences during a tour in Vietnam, when he saw a bondage show in a Japanese nightclub. He also cited his bondage-influenced performance pieces.

One of the elements that becomes apparent is that PD and Insex was all about the “realism.” As Linda Williams observed in Hard Core, hardcore porn has a peculiar preoccupation with realism, despite being a format that trades in fantasy. Insex clips made a point of fetishizing authenticity: bare brick and concrete, unfinished wood, unfinished steel bondage gear, etc. The suggested narrative is kidnapping, abduction and torture, “serial killer-esque”. The models are styled in an every-day fashion, instead of heavy makeup and styled hair, and there’s an emphasis on pushing them to physical and emotional extremes. One interviewee says, “Even if these girls were consenting… these girls were not acting.” PD waxes poetic about his models, talking about most people will only know them as lovers, while he knows them in a different way. Claire Adams, one of the models, talks about going through Insex as a “rite of passage.”

The documentary does put a lot of emphasis on the negotiation and safety in the shoots, with space heaters set up off camera and PD quizzing models on making sure they’ve had enough to eat, plus testing equipment carefully. A lot of the models went on to positions behind the camera.

Yet, there are flaws, which are the result not so much of evil or cruelty as just flawed humanity. PD and his equipment engineer argue over who was responsible for a water tank that broke, and Cyd Black says that one of the models was, allegedly unknown to PD, a drug addict who played much harder on camera than she did in real life to support her habit.

The centerpiece of GSH is a several-minute-long clip from one of the live feeds. PD slaps a model, already naked and tied up, in the face, said to be something explicitly negotiated out of the deal. One interviewee said PD simply forgot. PD pressures the model, already in tears, to continue. “It’s not about you and it’s not about me,” he lectures her from off camera. “This is not real life. This is a show.” Grudgingly, he promises not to slap her again. It’s excruciating to watch, a textbook example of what happens when you combine an overly aggressive top and an insufficiently assertive bottom.

I’m going to give PD the benefit of the doubt and assume that if the model had given him a direct, “Get me out of this, asshole!”, he would have let her go. I can also tell that the model didn’t want to stop everything, just assert the kind of control bottoms are entitled to. However, there’s also the factor of the many people watching this live feed, who are probably going to be very ticked if the show gets cut in the middle. With a regular photo or video shoot, they could have stopped, renegotiated and carried on, but people pay more for live shows. That is what is distorted this scene: the money.

PD claimed 35,000 subscribers and enough money coming in to pay models $300 per hour, plus bonuses. That kind of money changes things, and not just for people behind the camera. One of the models said she told PD she would come back for the “challenge”, but really it was for the money. Both are valid reasons to do something like Insex, but they’re very different.

If money pushed Insex into a problematic territory, money is also what brought it down. This is both one of the most interesting elements of the story and the least well documented. PD claims to have a document from Homeland Security that persuaded banks and credit card companies that hardcore porn outfits like Insex were being used to launder money by terrorist organizations, and thus Insex lost its ability to process payments, effectively killing it.

I’m not certain I buy this completely. Such a claim by Homeland Security doesn’t make much sense (If you’re going to launder money, why not pick some innocuous business nobody will examine too closely?), but this is hardly the first time government agencies have used FUD tactics to make high-profile attacks on sexual deviants. (It certainly makes a more sympathetic story than, “I blew all the money on hookers and blow.”)

Other porn producers from support this story, that the government pressures the private sector to impose limits on porn content via control of credit card processing. Yet, the documentary never shows the document PD claims he has, nor is this particular thread explored further. I wish the directors had gone into this further.

At the end of Graphic Sexual Horror, the camera flashes a series of stills from Insex photo shoots. Whatever preconceptions you might have about this kind of porn going into this documentary, you will question how you read those images. Like the best documentaries, this doesn’t tell you what to think.

Here’s an interview with Barbara Bell, co-director:

In the video store where I got “GSH”, there was another DVD on the shelf nearby titled “Live Feed.” Going strictly by the DVD case, this was another entry in the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror. In a foreign country, some tourists run afoul of a crime boss’ snuff video operation.

In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the “snuff TV” signals are originally said to originate in Malaysia, but are later said to come from Pittsburgh. This aesthetic is not the purview of crime bosses in far off lands. It’s available to anybody willing to pony up a subscription fee, anywhere.

See you in Pittsburgh.

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