I think that if we could ever somehow travel back in time and directly observe the past, ancient Rome wouldn’t look like Russel Crowe in Gladiator. It would look more like Caligula or Fellini Satyricon. Not because those two films are particularly historically accurate, but because watching them conveys the constant sense of “WTF?!?” you get when you visit a very different culture.
After waiting way too long, I finally rented Bret Wood’s film Psychopathia Sexualis. It’s definitely an odd film, but worth seeing in studying our history of sexuality. Psychopathia Sexualis was a very important book in the evolution of sexuality in general and kink in particular, the first book to put the words “sadism” and “masochism” together.
Wood’s film is a set of interconnected vignettes, dramatizing the case studies Krafft-Ebing collected as well as inferred scenes. They’re shot in a style intended to suggest the early days of silent film, as if some German expressionist had tried to make a film version in the 1920s.
My visit to New York City fortunately coincided with the Cinekink film festival, in part sponsored by TES. I managed to attend many, though not all of the films screened this year. My reviews in chronological order:
Writer of O (Dir. Pola Rapaport, 2004, USA, 80)
This a documentary about journalist and editor Dominique Aury, better known in kink circles as Pauline Reage, author of the literary BDSM classic, The Story of O. It’s a combination of live actors performing scenes from the book, archival footage of Aury, a journalist and intellectual, and her lover Jean Paulhan, interviews with Aury decades later, and actors reenacting scenes from a short story which could be called “The Writing of the Story of O.”
While I appreciate the director’s efforts in research and storytelling, I didn’t get a clear sense from this movie of why Aury wrote this particular book. I don’t think that Aury made up this highly detailed fantasy out of whole cloth, with no inspiration. The Catholic imagery of martyred saints and divinity through self-abnegation is certainly part of it, but where did the rest of it come from? Was Aury a secret reader of Gothic pulp on the side?
My subsequent phone conversation with Ms. Rapaport, who was most helpful, was in many ways more informative than her film. I learned that Aury was raised as a Protestant by her Anglophile father, despite the very Catholic subtext of O. Furthermore, Aury said she hadn’t read anything by Sade until after O was published. There’s also some anecdotal support for my theory that Aury was unsatisfied with the physical nature of her relationship with Paulhan, both of whom were high intellectuals, and wrote a novel in which the main character is treated only as a body. My further guess is that Aury had some access to BDSM erotica (naughty flagellation books go back into the 19th century if not earlier, and John Willie’s magazine Bizarre had been published for several years before O appeared). Aury’s accomplishment is to recontextualize the genre by writing it in a higher literary mode, and also writing what had traditionally been seen as a male-dominated genre and turning it to female concerns. She brought BDSM erotica a level of intellectual and literary respectability.
All of this is guesswork, of course. To be honest, I haven’t read all of the novel anyway. As the publisher was kind enough to give away copies, I have no excuse.
As a historian of kink, my requirements are highly picky. I would still recommend this film to anyone with an interest in kink history.
Liberty in Restraint (Dir. Michael Ney, 2005, Australia, 90 mins.)
A documentary about the life and work of Australian fetish photographer and ex-junkie Noel Graydon. Unlike Barbara Nitke, Graydon is a direct participant in the Scene, not an observer.
The best part of the film is Graydon doing an elaborate restaging of a painting of the Crucifixion, as a protest of a confessed pedophile being left in charge of the local Roman Catholic church. Graydon includes himself and his friends and family, particularly his wife and infant daughter, in the image, which shows people in rubber on the cross while two men in clerical garb walk off, pleased with themselves.
Made in Secret: The story of the East Van Porn Collective (One Tiny Whale, 2004, Canada, 86 minutes)
This film does for amateur, progressive porn what This is Spinal Tap does for heavy metal. A mockumentary about a collective in East Vancouver who make adult videos for their own viewing and no one else’s; porn for people who drink soy milk, ride bicycles and use words like “hegemony.” An unseen documentarian follows them on the making of their latest film, “Bike Sexual.”
The irony of this film is that, in making a mockumentary about the making of a pornographic film, the performers danced on the edge of making a pornographic film anyway. There’s one scene of two men kissing, and we get to see the setups of several sequences in the nonexistant film, which requires people partially undressing and getting physically intimate.
The last act makes the narrative grind to a halt. One member proposes bringing their latest video to a small alterna-porn festival in Portland, and another member blocks this, despite the fact that she’s not in the video at all. This turns into an example of collectivism at its worst.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Made in Secret. It’s deadpan funny, once you’re in on the joke, but I kept wondering what is the point. Mockumentaries work because they are deadpan explorations of something familiar, while most people don’t know what collectivist-made, egalitarian, progressive video porn would look like.
I had wondered, why hadn’t I heard of these people? Turns out I hadn’t because they didn’t really exist, though the cast of the film did attend the screening.
Women in Love (Dir. Karen Everett, 2005, USA, 59 minutes)
A hybrid of documentary and mockumentary, real footage mixed with dramatized incidents from the director’s real life. That is, unless the director really does tape herself while searching for her underwear, talk her lovers into wearing body mikes to the beach and somehow set up dual cameras for reverse shots before having emotionally charged talks. Could have been shorter or funnier, preferably both.
Going Under (Dir. Eric Werthman, 2004, USA, 98 minutes)
This is a narrative fiction film. A married therapist tries to have a non-kink relationship with his pro-Domme, who is trying to leave the life. The film works well, in that both the therapist and the Domme are well-rounded people. I was quite involved in the story, particularly the therapist who wanted desperately for something he couldn’t quite define.
Another good scene was between the domme and a high paying client who nitpicks every detail of her dress, style and even her tone of voice. It was both funny and sad, and probably how a lot of real life scenes play out.
There were a few problems. The therapist visits pro-dommes with his wife’s knowledge and consent, but this interesting aspect of their relationship is unexplored. It isn’t even clear if seeing the Domme outside of a kink setting violates the terms of their marriage.
Another glitch is that when the therapist goes to a club (Paddles in New York City), the film shows a public scene, after which people applaud. I have never in my twelve years seen people at a play party applauding others. After a demonstration or talk, yes, but not other people at a party.
The director, who did a Q&A after the show, said that people in the Scene often have some kind of trauma in their past. In this case, the therapist had learning disabilities when he was a child, and a series of female teachers and therapists who helped him. The domme had an incestuous relationship with her father.
As I discussed it with my companion, she thought this was promoting the old idea that people in the Scene are all screwed up and have incest or rape or what have you in their backgrounds. I had mixed reactions. From a storytelling viewpoint, you need to explain characters’ motivation, in this case, why they’re in the Scene. I think that people get into kink in part because of issues in their family background, not necessarily as severe as parent-child incest, but perhaps fathers who are merely unattentive.
As a portrayal of kinky people, Going Under is generally even handed thoughtful, and what lapses there are from realism are for the sake of the story. I actually preferred it to Secretary.
Pornology New York (dir. Michele Capozzi, 2005, USA, 85 minutes)
I had thought this would be a documentary about the early days of the NYC scene, as had been described to me at the last TES meeting. It was, sort of, but it was really more about the present day.
It starts out with the group shot of some people who had been a big part of that time, now apparently bygone in these post-9/11, post-Giuliani, post-real estate boom era. Then we go to a small apartment which is likened to Andy Warhol’s Factory, except this is about making gonzo porn videos (a woman masturbating naked on the hood of a New York police car and a couple fucking on open deck of a tour bus), so it’s called the Fuck Factory. This looks less like a porn company than some weird scam for unattractive older men to get bareback sex from young wannabe porn stars. Their star male performer won the “World’s smallest penis” on The Howard Stern Show.
One disturbing moment shows a young porn performer sticking strawberries in her vagina and somehow pulling out her IUD. Either the IUD was improperly installed, or something is seriously wrong with that woman’s cervix. Only now that her IUD has come out, the guy puts on a condom.
If this is what the good old days of the New York Scene was like– beautiful young women being paid to have highly unsafe sex with “schlumpy, middle-aged guys”, as my companion described them– then I don’t think we’ve lost much.
The sequence on pornstar, pro dominatrix and shaman Porsche Lynn was interesting, but too brief.
The final sequence, involving play between real people at the late, lamented Hellfire club (known as the Manhole to gay men), more or less made up for the preceding. Lenny Waller, who looks like Santa Claus with black leather and tattoos, is one of the founders of the leather scene in NYC, and the manager of the Hellfire. He turned out to be an interesting and sensible looking fellow, and I hope I get a chance to interview him.
After the sheer ickiness of the Fuck Factory sequences, it was a tremendous relief to see tender, passionate BDSM play between people who liked each other.
After the last showing, I went to the wrap party at the Oliva bar near the theater at E.2nd and Houston and had a chance to talk to some of the people. I asked Michele Capozzi about the IUD incident, and he said he left it in, as it happened. As for my concerns about the barebacking, he said people involved in porn get tested all the time. Anybody who knows about the window period before HIV infection can be detected won’t be reassured by this.