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 112007

Catholic World News has an interesting comment on modern-day mortification of the flesh.

Senator Paola Binetti, who is also a medical doctor, spoke out after another legislator, the homosexual activist Franco Grillini, made a reference to “sadomasochistic practices” of Opus Dei— specifically mentioning the cilice, a chain that is worn around the thigh, chafing and pricking the user’s skin.

Explaining why celibate members of Opus Dei wear the cilice for a few hours each day, Dr, Binetti told the Italian television audience that the practice is a small mortification, helping members to appreciate the value of sacrifice. “The cilice,” the lawmaker said, “causes us to reflect on the fatigue of daily life, such as the sacrifice of the mother who wakes during the night because her child is crying.”

I finally found a book with a thorough account of the flagellant movements of the 13th and 14th centuries, and the papal condemnation in 1349: Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (Pimlico, 2004).

The flagellants were a populist movement who, apart from flogging themselves around churches, also advocated attacking the clergy and nobility, and claimed to be able to perform miracles. Their leaders, lay worshipers called Master or Father, took confession and offered absolution. The people treated them like living saints.

This was too threatening for the powers that be. Pope Clement VI had once authorized mass public flagellations in Avignon, but a year later in 1349 he flip-flopped and issued a papal bull banning flagellation. Religious and secular authorities colluded and effectively stamped out the movement with excommunication and executions, though it flared up every now and then until the 1480s.

The irony is that the Church maintained flagellation as an ascetic and monastic practice (not a sacrament as the flagellants had it) after the papal bull. Some former flagellants repented by being flogged by priests in St. Peter’s in Rome.

Opeus Dei still practices corporal mortification to this day, though it’s generally mild stuff like taking a cold shower, fasting, remaining silent for certain periods. This is practiced by numeraries (celibate lay worshipers).

It looks to me like the issue was about control. Flagellants were a populist movement, mainly comprised of peasants and artisans, who experienced their self-inflicted pain as an imitation of Christ and a personal experience of contact with the divine. This was in contrast to the Church’s monopoly on religious experience. If you want to touch God, you couldn’t do it on your own, or see someone else do it. It had to be sanctioned by the Church.

Perhaps that this is what drove flagellation and mortification out of religious life for the laity, and made it reappear in the low culture of brothels and broadsheets. A few centuries later, we have the modern BDSM culture in Western civilization.

Incidentally, I can’t help drawing comparisons between the flagellants and the Space Monkeys of Project Mayhem in Fight Club: salvation through self-inflicted violence, growing into a paramilitary organization, plus a populist critique of elites and an apocalyptic mentality.

Aug 112006

I’ve been rethinking some of my ideas about Arthur Munby since I got a copy of Barry Reay’s Watching Hannah. For one thing, I found out that Munby did in fact write about switching in his scenes with Hannah Cullwick in his journals.

I have an urge to defend Munby against the criticisms of writers like Reay and Anne McClintock. He wasn’t that bad a guy, I think, and compared to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch or “Walter” from My Secret Life, he was a mensch.

On the other hand, reading this disturbing profile on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis made me think about Munby. As Susie Bright put it:

Many parent-types have asked, “Why are we at a place where the only way a young woman thinks she can be important or meaningful is to take her top off for a creep’s camcorder?”

Good point.

But many feminist daughter-types have countered, “It’s not the topless part that’s the problem, it’s the exploitation by this prick. If the women took their tops off for their own movie, their own orgasm, and their own point of view, it would be a completely other story.”

I identify with both sentiments. I made a lot of DIY “feminist porn” with my friends when we were young, and never had a single regret, nor would I ever say that “it was all a blur.” On the contrary, we had wildly ambitious goals about what we wanted to say about our bodies and desires. I still do.

Francis’ dirtiest secret is that he traffics in porno-puritanism, in sexual shame. His profit lies in young women snookered into doing something “shameful” that they will want to hide the rest of their lives— once they sober up. They have been ruined— the ultimate GGW turn-on. It’s the frisson of humiliation that makes him, and his audience, hard.

And why, pray tell, is ruination the hottest American Fantasy du Jour?

Francis manhandles the female reporter, then turns on a dime into a sweet talker. Francis’ involvement goes well beyond getting twentysomething girls to flash their boobs on camera. His fantasy narrative seems to be something like: Good girl goes to party, has a little too much to drink, starts acting like a bad girl, gets captured on camera flashing her tits or making out with the girlfriend, and (this is the important part) regrets it later. Without the regret, without the idea that the girl has fallen/jumped/been pushed out of her comfort zome, there’s no appeal for him. Professional models and career party girls who approach Francis leave him cold; there’s no potential for shame or guilt. He’s reminiscent of Sade, writing that there could be no volunteers at the castle in 120 Days of Sodom.

Francis still believes in good girls and bad girls, but he wants to see good girls acting like bad girls, and tearfully lamenting it the next day. That’s his fantasy script, and I don’t think it could be reconciled with consensuality. If she knows what she’s doing, it’s no good.

Munby was fascinated by the idea that no matter how rough and dirty and masculinized a working woman was on the outside, she retained ideal feminine characteristics on the inside. He convinced himself that Cullwick, because of her facial features, had noble ancestry, but was forced by circumstances to do the lowest forms of physical labor. That’s Munby’s fantasy script. Women who were too sexually knowing or aggressive turned him off, as did women who were ladies in appearance and attitude.

I don’t think either of these guys could conceivably settle into the negotiation and consent culture of BDSM. They need the real world power differential, which Munby has by dint of social class and Francis by dint of wealth and fame, and both have because of gender.

I like Munby enough to say that he might be able to step back a little, but I realize that’s wishful thinking. His desires were so specific in their object, and their social/historical context, that it’s unlikely he could be brought into the fold of modern BDSM.

Sep 142005

Hudson, Derek. “Munby: Man of Two Worlds” John Murray, 1972

It is hateful to be reminded thus, that one cannot show one’s chiefest treasure to any living soul, because of that very homeliness and lowliness which is one of its best charms to me.

-The diaries of Arthur Munby, 23 March 1862

Munby and Cullwick met in 1854, but they didn’t start keeping detailed diaries until 1860, unfortunately. Furthermore, in the first few years Munby kept tearing out pages which probably had to do with Cullwick. This is a pain, because it means that there are no direct accounts of the early stage of their relationship.

Even more frustrating, there are surprisingly few mentions of Hannah Cullwick, though they pick up in 1863. I don’t know if this is Munby’s self-censoring or Hudson’s editorial decisions. Hudson barely touches on some of the juiciest stuff, with brief quotes instead of the full entries. Cullwick calls herself Munby’s “faithful drudge and slave!” in an entry dated 3 August 1862.

I still don’t know where the Master-slave aspect came from. Did Munby concoct it from his classical education, or did it have more to do with his fondness for negro minstrel shows? Or did Cullwick devise it based on the play The Death of Sardanapalus?

Munby loved constrast and transformation. His description of working women compared their intelligence and dedication to their physical coarseness. In a photography session on 9 August 1862, he had Cullwick posed as chimneysweep, “in her dirt.”

… she was taken in the same black and forlorn condition, crouching on the ground at my feet– I doing my best to look down upon her like a tyrant! That was for ‘the contrast’: contrast indeed– but which was the nobler?

She wished to be photographed also in an attitude of her own: and this being granted, she sat down on the floor, with only her shift and serge petticoat on, & thrust out a bare foot, leaning on one knee and clasping her [locked slave neck] chain with the other hand. She was so anxious about this pose, which was very happy, that I enquired its meaning when we were alone. It was ‘the way I sit on the floor when I’m going to bed, and–think of you!’

McClintock, in “Imperial Leather”, portrays Arthur J Munby as a smug, bourgeois doofus, but I feel sympathy for Munby. Here is a guy who, whether by nature or nurture, had no interest, emotional or sexual, in the kind of women he was supposed to marry. His desires were out of step with social norms, which describes any kinky or queer person.

Munby could have married a woman of appropriate social status and continued his “studies” of working women on the sly. He could have discretely schtupped the housemaid on a regular basis. Plenty of other men of his status had mistresses or patronized prostitutes, or made sexual access a condition of employment for the household help.

Instead, he married Cullwick. This was more a matter of legitimating their existing relationship than reaching a greater degree of intimacy or commitment. It wasn’t a decision he made lightly, nor did it create the domestic bliss he hoped, but he viewed it as the moral choice, instead of the pragmatic choice. Munby didn’t exactly come out of the closet, but he didn’t lead a sham life of middle-class respectability either. He chose to follow his bliss and be wed (albeit in secret) to a woman he cared deeply about. Undeniably, there was a vast gulf in class between them, and covert power struggles, but they met each others wants and needs in a way no one else could.

Until and unless I get some serious money to purchase research collections, I have to work with Hudson’s book and the like. I hope the inter library loan for Cullwick’s diaries come through. I really need to read her side of the story.