May 272010

Commenter Citizen Kinkster tipped me off about avant garde film director Kenneth Anger and his abortive attempt at making a film of The Story of O. From an interview in the Quietus:

I got permission from the publisher of an erotic book called Histoire d’O [The Story of O], which was later made into a rotten commercial film, which I never saw because it would spoil my vision. But even with the help of some literary people I couldn’t find the money to do it so I just move on and make another short film if the longer ones don’t work out.

Of the many longer projects you have conceived of that haven’t been realised, which of them do you most regret not happening?

Well, The Story of O, would have been beautiful because I was doing it in the style of Robert Bresson, like Les dames du Bois de Boulogne which is very understated. The subject is kinky eroticism but in my concept, I never showed anything. There are things implied but it’s a bit of a tease.

Which you have said is more powerful.

Yes, suggestion. Which is why I’m quite opposed to . . . I’m not advocating censorship, but to me, porno is a very problematic area because they defeat what they’re doing by having too much and too long and you get very bored with it, it’s like watching a sewing machine or something.

From what I’ve found so far, it’s unclear how much, if any, of this film was actually shot, or whether it was one of those things that never got out of development hell.

Another article on Anger says footage was shot, and then the story got even weirder:

He recounted his failed attempt to direct a feature-length film version of Pauline Reage’s mythic S&M novel The Story of O in Paris (“Don’t try it at home”). Describing the story as “a wanking fantasy, if you know what that means” he claimed that the production was bankrolled by money acquired by the young star’s boyfriend–ransom money from the kidnapping of the nephew of the Citroen car company’s owner. That this starlet was the daughter of the French minister of finance–and required to wear a chain attached “inside her little down there” for the shoot–ignited such a scandal that “M. Ange” was threatened with expulsion by some “magnificently cool guys” from the French government. Apparently the twenty minutes of footage that was successfully shot is lying somewhere in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise…

Yet another interview:

When I was living in France,my publisher was Jean-Jacques Pauvert.
He brought out the original edition of Hollywood Babylon, which I
wrote in French, before it came out in English. At that time Jean-Jacques
was the publisher of a rather notorious novel, Histoire d’O, by Pauline Reage.
It was an erotic novel; I guess you could call it a sadomasochistic fairytale
because it’s absolutely a fantasy, nothing that could actually happen in real
life. I met the author, whose real name is Dominique Aury, and she gave me
permission to film the book, and I began work on a black-and-white, silent
film. My model for the project was Bresson. I shot about twenty minutes,
and then the production came to a halt: it turned out that the father of the
young lady who was playing the lead was the French minister of finance.
The girl was in her late teens, old enough to make up her own mind about what she wanted to do, but at any rate, the filming had to stop when it became
known that she was playing a part in an erotic film. It wasn’t pornographic,
but did involve some nudity and some simulated S&M; most everything
takes place of camera. The film was basically an exercise in style. I
had a work print of what I had shot, which I left at the Cinémathèque
Française. Another unfinished project.

Les dames du Bois de Boulogne is a 1945 film by Robert Bresson that was itself an adaptation of an anecdote in our old friend Diderot’s novel Jacques the Fataliste.

The story concerns a woman, Helene, who is spurned by her lover Jean. To get revenge, Helene hires a dancer and prostitute, Agnes, and passes her off as a bourgeois woman to trick Jean into marrying her.

The lesbian subtext of this scene could give a hint of what Anger’s low-key version of The Story of O would have been like.

Anger’s Scorpio Rising was definitely a contributor to the leatherman style, as you can see below:

Ah, what could have been. I suspect that coyness is not something that would have worked with the source material. What’s distinctive about The Story of O is its lack of gentility or discretion, its directness and bluntness. I think, if it had been completed, most would have criticize it as a poor adaptation, perhaps even more so than the Just Jaeckin version.

PS: Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon alleges that Rudolph Valentino liked to get beaten by dominant women.

Jan 282010

From the UK Guardian:

Back in the mid-60s New York had just one leather bar, and it was inconspicuous and customers would wear their normal clothes and carry a change of costume in a bag, then switch to their chaps and black leather vest in the taxi. They were terrified a friend, even a gay friend, might see them going out in this freaky rig. Sadomasochism still sounded perverted and ever so slightly tacky – sort of New Jersey. And elderly. As if working-class, old gay men who couldn’t compete in the real bars could look appealing in leather, or at least threatening.


In 1975 a hardcore S&M monthly magazine, Drummer, started publishing. It had fairly technical information about how to torture and submit to it – we read it with avidity. The whole look and smell of gay New York culture was changing toward beefier bodies, beards, and the odour of brew, harness, sweat, and Crisco. A boyfriend of mine said that New Yorkers were so pale and unhealthy looking that black leather was the only look that suited them.

The leather bars kept pushing farther and farther uptown until they reached 21st Street and 11th Avenue with the Eagle’s Nest. There all the men seemed older and bearded and muscular and over six feet tall. At 5ft 10in I’d never felt short before except in Amsterdam. Now I was a shorty in my own city. To get from the West Village up to the Eagle, gay men had to go past three blocks of projects on Ninth Avenue starting at 16th Street. Gangs who lived in the projects would attack single gay men. We started wearing whistles around our necks to summon other gay men to our defence – a fairly effective system. I thought back to the 50s when everyone was a sissy boy with straightened hair, cologne, and a baby-blue cashmere sweater and penny loafers. Back then we would have been terrified of gangs. Not any more. Now many of us were taking judo classes.

And now the dress code was strict. The Eagle would allow “No hat other than leather cycle caps, western hats, construction hats or uniform hats. No jackets or coats other than leather or western style”.

Sep 122007

After 27 years, Cruising has finally been released on DVD. The film’s suggestion that sexual repression is more of a cause of violence than sexual expression is oddly timely, in the middle of a spate of conservative, homophobic leaders being caught with their pants down, figuratively speaking.

I’ve seen it once, years ago, possibly on TV and possibly cut. Regardless, it didn’t make a strong impression on me. I had seen the “cop/journalist enters the sexual underworld and undergoes an identity crisis” premise so many times in the direct-to-cable/video erotic thriller genre that it had become a cliche. I would like to see it again; it’s always important to see where the meme began.

I’d comment more on the film itself, if I had clearer memories of it. The only image that really stuck with me was the final shot of the cop’s fiance putting on the cop’s mirrored sunglasses and leather wheel cap, suggesting gender hybrdity and/or straight appropriation of gay imagery. How much of straight male sexual fantasy is the same as gay male fantasy, but with women instead of men?

Film Threat speaks highly of the film, saying that it’s much deeper than the imitation genre it spawned.

On one level, “Cruising” appears to be about Pavlovian conditioning. As Burns [played by Al Pacino] immerses himself deeper into the primal, extreme sensations of the bar scene, his lovemaking sessions with fiancée Nancy (Karen Allen) seem more physically aggressive. If a straight man is tossed into a sea of rough, sadomasochistic gay sex, will he begin craving this lifestyle? Will he stop appreciating the more tender, delicate advances of a woman? As it turns out, the film chickens out and never clarifies its stance on this issue of heredity versus environment (on the film’s DVD commentary track, the director admits that his movie “asks more questions than it answers”).

[William] Friedkin insists, however, that he never meant to correlate homosexuality and murder with “Cruising.” Even so, it’s easy to understand why gays would respond defensively to the film. Who wouldn’t balk after seeing their lifestyle coupled with both lurid, public orgies of rough ‘n tumble copulation and an epidemic of grisly murders?

Playing the devil’s advocate, however, perhaps Friedkin deserves to be cut some slack. The film’s terrain is clearly a limited, select subculture of the larger homosexual community, and one that did exist. Friedkin insists that most of the bar patrons featured in the film were true-to-life participants from The Day. We’re guided through heavy leather districts like Central Parks’ Rambles, and underground West Village clubs hiding between industrial meat packing plants (meat hooks dangle ominously in the foreground during several scenes).

During one hilarious sequence, customers pack a crowded bar donning patrol uniforms for a cop-theme costume night. Pacino’s character, unaware of the dress code and wearing more casual attire, is kicked out when managers accurately suspect that he’s a law enforcer. In a sea of blue police shirts, billy clubs, and dark slacks, Burns is the only real policeman in the joint – and he’s thrown out on his ear.

Gloria Brame has another take on the film, seeing it as a kind of Boys in the Band for kinky people.

You can also expect to glimpse a dangerous and unfamiliar world of leather. Sexual repression is an ugly thing and that ugliness is built into this film. These were the days before AIDS, before safe sex, and before SSC and safe words and all the other little protections that activists began to promote as a way of protecting leather people against predators. Clubs back then were raw and secretive and sleazy, filled with guilty people who led double lives and believed that antibiotics could cure every sexual disease.

Yet, despite all that, look at the men in the bar, many of whom were real players, not actors. They are a piece of leather history. They are the people who paved the way for the rest of us, who built the clubs, who opened the dialogues on SM, and who, ultimately, are responsible for taking SM out of the closet. For opening that world to public view, both the men who participated in the film and the director, William Friedkin, deserve kudos.

I have a theory that the mainstream interacts with minorities in three phases. The first is the “visibility at any price” phase, in which any kind of statement of existence is necessary, even if the minority is portrayed as clowns or monsters or victims. The second is the “really, we’re nice” phase, in which the minority is packaged as unthreatening and ready and willing to be assimilated into the dominant culture. The third is the “let’s cut the crap” phase, when internal issues and conflicts and rough edges that were suppressed in the previous stages come out. Cruising is an example of phase one. Something like the godawful film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden or the vastly superior Secretary are phase two. Kinky people still don’t have a phase three.

Mar 082007

I bought a “stripped” copy of the 1972 edition of Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook off Ebay. It’s a strange read, considering it was published the year I was born, 1972; unironic use of the word “groovy” for one thing.

Even the terminology is different. Townsend uses S and M to refer to Sadist and Masochist respectively, not Slave and Master. It’s also a glimpse into a time when you couldn’t even mail-order whips and handcuffs.

Townsend’s attitude towards women or heterosexual S/M people is not positive.

While I cannot speak from personal experience, I have discussed this heterosexual bondage scene with several people who are deeply involved in it. I found that in most cases it was the man who desired to submit. Le Grand Marquis to the contrary, I saw the antithesis of the gay leatherman involved in this. Then I found some of the most qualified Ms [masochists] saying it really wouldn’t matter: “If I’m strapped down, maybe with a blindfold over my eyes how can I tell if it’s a man or a woman who shoves that dildo up my ass?”

Thus, I may have been wrong… at least as far as the very deeply involved bottomman is concerned. As to the rest of us- the S [sadist], the less experienced guy, or the casual leather tripper- I must adhere to my original premise. In the hetero scene we have a woman, whom our society usually casts in a submissive role- and who has been emphatically placed in this role by nature’s sexual physiognomy- assuming the master’s stance. The man, who may be a leader in the business world or an otherwise strongly dominant figure, assumes the posture of a crawling slave. Thus, the elements of bondage and humiliation are much the same as ours. But the fetish… the object of adoration is completely different. For most of us, if we’re going to play M, we want to know there’s a cock attached to the S! And we want to know it’s real!

Like Krafft-Ebing, Alfred Kinsey and even Nancy Friday, Townsend’s work is in large part a collection of people’s stories, and those stories rather freely mix fantasy and fact. A large part of the book are stories men have mailed to him, many of them set in a military or paramilitary institution.