Thursday, February 28, 2013

Portal: Interview with The Curator and Review of Vexovoid


Generally categorized as death metal or blackened death, if you’ve never heard Portal before, I’m hard-pressed to describe their chaotic sound. They’ve built up a cult following over the years and metal fans seem to either obsessively love them or wring their hands in consternation because they don't understand what the hell is going on. Chances are if you like Morbid Angel, Immolation, Beherit, Mitochondrion, or Deathspell Omega, you will enjoy Portal, though they are not exactly like any of those bands. Or any band ever, except maybe Impetuous Ritual, which is loosely a Portal side project. Basically if you've never heard Portal and you like your metal weird, they come highly, highly recommended. 

Began in Brisbane, Australia by The Curator (vocals) and Horror Illogium (lead guitar) in 1994, everyone in Portal uses an alias and wears a mask of some kind to obscure their normal appearance (typically executioner’s hoods). The Curator became famous for wearing a clock mask on his head, but has retired it for a demented pope’s habit and a tattered wizard’s hat, among other things. The Curator and Horror Illogium are currently joined by Aphotic Mote (rhythm guitar), Ignis Fatuus (drums), and Omenous Fugue (bass). 

Vexovoid is their fourth studio album and follows 2009’s Swarth. It sticks pretty closely to their traditional sound: distorted, swirling, down-tuned guitars, disorienting sound effects, guttural, menacing vocals and an overall unfriendly atmosphere. This is bleak, extreme metal that evokes real feelings of horror, chaos, and disorientation. The album is not a huge departure from Swarth, so fans will not be disappointed, but it is also new and complex enough to warrant me listening to it several times in one week. Everyone else should keep in mind that Portal is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. If you want to be actively challenged (if not outright threatened) by music, listen to the album here and buy it on Amazon or through Profound Lore. The amazing cover art is from the Reverend Kriss Hades and the album is comprised of seven tracks and is surprisingly short, at about 35 minutes. It was released on February 19th by Profound Lore. 

The Curator was kind enough to cross the internet-space-time continuum and answer a few questions about the new album. 

Satanic Pandemonium: So far Vexovoid is my favorite album of 2013. Can you talk about the inspiration behind it and how it progresses what you are trying to do with Portal?
The Curator: Vexovoid was developed and fueled from our own lore. No outer references tarnished its conception, as is with 90% of our works.

SP: How do you summon up the kind of atmosphere you need to write and record?
TC: Portal is merely our interpretation of Death Metal, which we think should be dark.

SP: Your music has always felt very cinematic to me and I’ve read that you have many influences outside of music, such as the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Can you name any other inspirations?
TC: We are not a Lovecraftian Band. We only borrowed from the Mythos in our infancy and had reference themes on several tracks.

SP: Your live shows are very stylized. Where do you get ideas for your various costumes and how are these produced?
TC: All regalia is out sourced through various global merchants. The way we present ourselves physically is merely an accompaniment for our Aural spectrum.

SP: Seeing Portal at Maryland Death Fest was one of my absolute favorite shows. Do you have a favorite city to play in or a favorite show to date?
TC: America was an eye opener for certain with Portland and Seattle being highlights for myself.

SP: I'm sure everyone who has heard the new album wants to know: When are you coming back to the U.S.?
TC: We would like to cross the divide again in the future; however, I cannot place a date on it. Thank you for your Time and support.

SP: Thanks again! I hope I get to see you guys live sometime in 2013.

I also had to include this: The Top Ten Most Ridiculous Things Written on the Internet About Portal This Month from Chips and Beer. Visit Portal on Facebook. Happy listening, or, rather, very unhappy and possibly sanity unraveling listening. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

CAMILLE 2000


Radley Metzger, 1969
Starring: Danièle Gaubert, Nino Castelnuovo, Eleonora Rossi-Drago, Philippe Forquet

Though he tread somewhat similar thematic ground with the earlier Carmen, Baby, also a literary adaptation, Metzger’s Camille 2000 is the film I would consider to be his first masterpiece. Based on Alexander Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias, which was most famously adapted as Verdi’s opera La Traviata and as George Cukor’s film Camille (1936) starring Greta Garbo, Camille 2000 concerns the beautiful, wildly independent Marguerite and her doomed romance with the young, innocent Armand. Marguerite is essentially a courtesan. She is a drug addicted party girl, kept by a wealthy older man, but is not opposed to entertaining others in order to keep herself in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed. She also enjoys throwing orgy parties at her house just for fun. Armand is instantly smitten with her and eventually wins her over, though he is angered and upset by her lifestyle. 

She briefly tries to change her ways and even supports Armand financially, because he has had his allowance cut off due to her reputation. But she knows it cannot last. Marguerite discards Armand and returns to her life of sex, drugs, and parties, hiding her heartbreak and concealing a dark secret that will soon spell her doom. Like Carmen, Baby, this is about a woman who has gained financial independence through her sexuality, a sexuality that Metzger portrays as essentially positive, a sign of a strong personality and secure individualism. While Carmen (and her powerful eroticism) is linked to a certain criminal element, Marguerite is a consummate party girl and her love of sex and dependence on it is mirror by other addictions, namely drugs. She is a slave to her lifestyle and past decisions have spelled her death sentence in the form of a terminal sexually transmitted disease. 

Model and actress Danièle Gaubert is absolutely radiant and the camera worships her. Nino Castelnuovo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Massacre Time) is very nice to look at, but pales in comparison to Gaubert, who completely overwhelms him. The chemistry between Gaubert and Castelnuova is somewhat lacking, but thanks to Gaubert’s expressiveness, it doesn’t really take away from the film. The dialogue is simple, but this is the first time Metzger’s trademark wit and humor are present, something that would shine in his later classics like The Opening of Misty Beethoven.  

As for the sex, there isn’t anything mind blowing or taboo busting, but Metzger’s portrayal of promiscuity is, as always, matter of fact and pleasingly free of judgement. He explores some questions common to his films, such as how sex and love relate to identity and to ownership. There is a truly wonderful scene towards the end of the film where everyone attends a prison-themed S&M party. Camille 2000 is worth watching just for the costumes and set pieces during this scene. This is also Metzger's most explicit film to date, showing more nudity and a little more softcore sex than his earlier works. Instead of close ups of faces in presumed ecstasy, there are actually full-framed shots of entangled bodies with the usual refreshing emphasis on female as well as male pleasure. Be forewarned that almost all of the sex scenes are very long. 

The film in general is perhaps overly long with slow pacing and gradually building intensity that moves towards a predictable conclusion, but both as an exercise in style and as an example of erotic filmmaking, Camille 2000 is definitely worth a look. Style is far more important than substance here, but that is where Metzger really shines. Though some of his early films like Therese and Isabelle are lovely, this is really where he began to expert with outstanding results. There is wonderful cinematography from Ennio Guarnieri and art director Enrico Sabbatini packs every frame with color, texture, fabrics, weird inflatable furniture, oddly shaped mirrors, and fantastic, futuristic costumes that celebrate excess. Marguerite’s bedroom, with its glass, mirrors, and shiny white sheets foreshadows the hospital scene at the end of the film, where she and Armand have their final, emotional meeting. The score by Piero Piccioni is another fantastic element. You can listen to it here. 

Camille 2000 is my favorite early Metzger film and it comes highly recommended. There is a Blu-ray from Cult Epics, who are restoring and releasing Metzger’s films with the utmost care and respect. They have included deleted scenes back into the film and recorded a commentary track with Metzger, among other special features. There is also a great region 2 Blu-ray with even more special features and a DVD combo from Arrow.

Edit: Arrow was kind enough to send me their fabulous new Camille 2000 Blu-ray, which is worthy of some additional attention. This February, they released Camille 2000 on dual format Blu-ray + DVD with two other Metzger titles, Score and The Lickerish Quartet, all of which are restored with incredible respect and detail. And they were personally overseen by Radley Metzger. The print here is so far the most complete released in the U.K. and I believe reflects the most complete version of the print available in general (it seems to be from the same source as the Cult Epics U.S.-released Blu-ray).

It was fairly standard for Metzger’s later films to be released in cut versions, particularly the hardcore movies he made as Henry Paris. Though Camille is a softcore film, some scenes were removed upon its theatrical release. The Arrow version is 124 minutes, while many other releases reflect the 116 minute trimmed print. The transfer is a 1080p/24fps MPEG4-AVC codec in the original 2:35.1 aspect ratio, restored from the original Technicolor 35mm negative, with some of the extra footage taken from another 35mm interpositive print. It is certainly the best this lush, beautiful film could possibly look. The remaining dust and spots were purposefully left in by Metzger, who wanted the film to have an original look, which means most post processing was also avoided. The audio also sounds great and optional English subtitles were included.

There are also some wonderful special features that make this release well worth picking up. The audio commentary track from Metzger and film historian Michael Bowen is my favorite extra and sheds some light on an era I have been revisiting extensively in February and will continue to look at in March: ‘60s and ‘70s erotica and porn. Also included is On the Set of Camille 2000 with behind the scenes footage of stars Danièle Gaubert and Nino Castelnuovo and narration from Metzger. A cut scene is included, “Sylviana’s Bare Striptease,” as well as an alternate take, a comparison of the print restoration, and original trailers for all three films Arrow has restored. The set also includes a collector’s booklet with essays from Robin Bougie (Cinema Sewer). On a final note, this is a region free release, so even though it comes from the U.K., it will work in any player. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of THE DEVILS by Richard Crouse

I’ll never forgot the first time I saw The Devils (1971), Ken Russell’s blasphemous masterpiece about a 17th century priest who is accused of possessing a convent full of nuns and is subsequently tortured and executed, despite his innocence. I was 19, and someone brought me a (very bad quality) VHS copy because they knew I liked extreme cinema. I cannot express how unprepared I was for the insane, beautiful mixture of sex, violence, and religion that followed. I spent the next hour and half watching it with my jaw basically scraping the ground. From that moment, it has been one of my favorite films, if not my favorite, and I have gone on a ten year quest to find a restored, uncut print of the film. So far I have found an uncut bootleg and the British Film Institute released an absolutely beautiful, restored DVD (with the cut scenes included on a second disc) in 2012, but Russell’s classic of hysteria, repression and political persecution remains elusive, particularly for American audiences. It is, unarguably, one of the most controversial and inaccessible films of all time.

Richard Crouse’s book, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils(released last October from ECW Press) documents the long, arduous journey the film made from pre-production to its first official DVD release 40 years later. Crouse explores Russell’s primary historical source, Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon, as is packed with details about the chaotic production. Everything from the casting of stars Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed and many other major and minor players; the set design from British wunderkind Derek Jarman; costumes from Russell’s then wife Shirley; the score by avant-garde composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; and more is covered in depth. Crouse also looks at the disastrous reception of The Devils from Warner Bros., audiences, and film critics, and the recent attempt at a revival after footage thought to be lost was found and restored to the film. This warm, funny, fascinating book is recommended to Ken Russell fanatics, cinephiles in general, and anyone interested in the dubious process of film censorship.

Toronto resident Richard Crouse has had a long career as a film critic and Canadian TV personality. He has written several films books, including The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, hosted IFC’s show Reel to Reel, Bravo’s In Short and has appeared on many Canadian TV and radio programs. He is a regular fixture at North American film festivals, and is obviously a huge fan of Ken Russell. Allegedly, he has seen The Devils200 times. In a few years, I will hopefully give him a run for his money, but his devotion to this criminally neglected and censured film is the driving force behind Raising Hell.

The book is chock full of detailed interviews. Crouse managed to track down most of the surviving cast and crew, film historians, and contemporary directors who (rightly) love the film, such as Guillermo del Toro, David Cronenberg (who gives very positive feedback about working with Oliver Reed on The Brood), Joe Dante, William Friedkin, and more. He was fortunately able to interview Russell before his death in November 2011 and many snippets of this are included throughout the book. Crouse also examines the loving, but volatile relationship between the very similar Russell and Reed, two personalities fascinating enough to span several volumes.

Crouse goes into depth about the late ‘60s/early ‘70s film scene, and the evolution of censorship in the short period between The Devils and The Exorcist. Part of the controversy is that even though a film like The Exorcist was given a free pass, despite scenes of a child masturbating violently with a crucifix, among other things, The Devils was cut to shreds. Warner Bros. effectively green-lit a very expensive film with the biggest set since Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, then demanded a never-ending series of cuts and made sure audiences and critics ignored it. Two of the scenes in question – the “Rape of Christ” scene, where a room of hysterical and mostly naked nuns have sex with a giant statue of Christ on a crucifix, and a concluding scene where their Mother Superior masturbates with the charred thigh bone of the executed priest – were ordered removed by Warner and thought lost for 25 years. Film historian Mark Kermode recovered them after a long and impassioned search, and Crouse gives credit where it is due, including Kermode as one of the first champions of the film. Despite the fact that a complete version is now available, Warner has continued its ridiculous treatment of The Devils. Currently, they have only begrudgingly allowed a region 2 DVD release from the BFI, with the cut scenes sequestered on a second disc and no Blu-ray or region 1 permissions in sight.


My complaints about Crouse’s book, which was clearly a labor of love, are few. I would have enjoyed a transcript of his interview with Russell before the screening of The Devils at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto in 2010, as well as photographs and illustrations from the film’s production. But these are minor issues. Also included are appendices and absolutely wonderful cover art from Rue Morgue artist Gary Pullin. The book is available from Amazon.com and most retailers as a paperback or in a Kindle edition. To hell with Warner Brothers.

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse


House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films is Kier-La Janisse's newest film criticism tome. Just before her screening of Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll in Philadelphia last November, she was kind enough to speak with me about the book, which was named after the alternate, U.S. title for Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, a Spanish giallo starring Paul Naschy and directed by Carlos Aured. I am finally getting around to writing a review, even though I think I finished reading it about three days after I picked it up. Janisse’s book, the first of its kind, is an “autobiographical exploration of female neurosis in horror and exploitation films.” 

If you are unfamiliar with her name, Janisse is extensively involved in the North American horror community. She’s been a contributing writer for Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Filmmaker and others, and has already published one book with horror/cult publishers FAB Press, A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi. She co-produced the documentary EUROCRIME! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ‘70s and been the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror. Janisse has programmed films at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest, at Canada’s CineMuerte horror film festival, etc. She edited Fantasia International Film Festival’s former online magazine Spectacular Optical and founded The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She also founded and curated the now-defunct Montreal film center, Blue Sunshine. Learn more about her at her personal site, Big Smash! Productions. 

House of Psychotic Women is chock full of film facts, history, and criticism, combined with essays about Janisse’s personal life. She essentially compares crazy women in genre film with herself and the other crazy women in her life, opening up a dialogue about the role film plays in our own personal narratives. This is one of the most interesting examinations of female hysteria and madness and comes highly recommended, whether you want to read about horror films or you are a memoir junkie. It is also a great reference work. Janisse mentions hundreds of films, some of them well known, but many are more obscure. She breaks the book into ten sections, organizing the films and chapters of her life by subject. To give an idea of the range, she covers things like The Entity, The Corruption of Chris Miller, Singapore Sling, 3 Women, Repulsion, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Haunting of Julia, Secret Ceremony, Cutting Moments, The Piano Teacher, Possession, Antichrist, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly, Martyrs, Images, All the Colors of the Dark, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and many, many more.

The book took Janisse over a decade to finish and is a combination of critical film writing and autobiographical essays, merged together and loosely related. Though she has stated in interviews that an autobiography of a non-famous person is slightly ridiculous, I disagree. There are certainly readers who will see this as an exercise in self-indulgence, but it is a fascinating look at why one person is able to relate to certain works of art, this case, certain horror and exploitation films. I’m honestly surprised that no one had previously thought to do a combination of film theory and memoir, as the latter subject is so popular (just look at the rankings for David Sedaris over on Amazon.com). And as someone who grew up watching horror movies as a way to escape from a bad childhood, I think it is academically valid to examine the relationship between spectatorship and catharsis, voyeurism and therapy. 

Janisse’s autobiographical sections mirror the horror and exploitation films she discusses. She covers her abusive childhood, her mother’s rape, running away and being sent to teen detention centers, drug use, dysfunctional adult relationships, mental breakdowns, and more. Her writing style is neither sensational or sentimental and though she discloses many candid, personal stories, she spends an equal amount of time talking about damaged female characters and film personalities, moving fluidly between memoir and analysis. One of my few criticisms is that, outside of relating various life events and connecting these to certain films, she is unable to create a full, compelling narrative arc, as the best memoir writers are able to do. She needs more narrative and a more cohesively structured one. But it is easy to forgive this because her book is fascinating and brave and I hope to see more film writing like it. 

Also included is a lengthy appendix of reviews. If the film was covered earlier in the book, it only gets a short paragraph, otherwise Janisse writes up to a page about a number of films that fit in with her subject matter. While I understand why this section was necessary, it’s a little disappointing that this takes up half the book, but it is a great reference and, as far as I'm aware, the only one about female characters in horror. 

Pick it up from the wonderful FAB Press. Though the beautiful hard cover is sold out, there are still paperbacks available through the FAB Press site directly or through Amazon. This 360 page volume is as lovely to look at is it is interesting to read, with many, many images throughout. There are 32 pages of full color stills, posters and promotional artwork, as well as family photos, illustrations and mementos from Janisse’s life. FAB Press never fails to release great books on genre cinema and this is surely one of their best. I can't wait to see what Janisse comes out with next. 

STORY OF O


Just Jaeckin, 1975
Starring Corinne Clery, Udo Kier, Anthony Steel

A young, beautiful woman, known only as O (Corinne Clery), allows her boyfriend Rene (Udo Kier) to take her to Roissy, a chateau where she will be trained in the exquisite art of the samurai sword. Just kidding. She's actually being trained to be a sexual submissive. She will be beaten, blindfolded, gagged, ordered around and made sexually available to anyone who wants her, anytime, anyway, anyhow. She does this to prove her undying love for Rene, who is greatly pleased with her progress. Eventually Rene, who now "owns" her, gives her away to his closest friend, Sir Stephen. O and Sir Stephen have a more challenging relationship, which O initially resents, but they come to have a much closer, more intimate bond.

Based on Pauline Reage's famous novel of the same name, Histoire d'O is a difficult film to wrap your head around. I've read the novel many times, so I'm obviously biased in favor of the text. When both were released - about twenty years apart - there was a media shit storm about women's rights, decency, etc. I don't really see why anyone would make such a big deal. Everything that happens is between consensual adults. Nothing - implied rape, torture, branding, beatings and so on - happens without O's consent and she is asked several times if she wants to stay at Roissy, if she wants to stay with Sir Stephen and if she is alright with the things being done to her. Her answer is an unconditional yes.

I really loved this book growing up. I read it when I was way too young, but the author manages to transcend the shackles of normal smut, particularly bondage smut. Pauline Reage, the pen name for journalist Anne Desclos, surprised audiences by being female. She allegedly wrote the book as a love letter to her older, married lover. It came out later that the lover in question was Jean Paulhan, her boss, member of the Académie Française, writer, critic, and editor of the famous literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française. He was a huge fan of Sade, which explains Declos' obvious inspiration. The novel is beautifully written, compassionate and details a woman's spiritual, transcendant experience. Though she endures such things as whippings and rape, these experiences bring her to a higher level of consciousness and closer to an ecstatic erasure of identity.

Of course, the film doesn't quite reach these heights, but its still a beautiful, competent work of erotica by the same director who gave us Emmanuelle. The acting is good for erotica of this period, particularly the sassy, sexy Corinne Clery (better known as the Bond girl in Moonraker who gets mauled to death by dogs and as the female lead in Yor, Hunter from the Future), though I wish we saw more of Udo Kier. Despite the subject matter, the film isn't particularly explicit. It was initially given an X/NC-17 rating, but you don't see a whole lot of explicit sex. There is a lot of female frontal nudity and at least half the film has a naked person in frame. The violence is tame and mostly not shown, as is the sex. You honestly can't even call most of this softcore.

The DVD is available on a barebones release that looks like it was transfered from someone's shitty VHS tape. And it's fullscreen. I managed to forget about this twenty minutes into the film, so Jaeckin is obviously doing something right with lush colors, beautiful women and elaborate scenery. Story of O does come recommended, but only to fans of '70s erotica.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

ARAKIMENTARI


Travis Klose, 2004

The first time I saw some of Nobuyoshi Araki's work, I fell completely in love. Granted I was in my early teens and it shocked the hell out of me, but aside from being saucy, explicit, erotic, and taboo-breaking, his photography is beautiful and is worth viewing again and again. Arakimentari documents the great photographer's life and work. It comes highly recommended to any of his fans or to those seeking an introduction to Japanese bondage photography.

Most of the documentary takes place while Araki is working, so we are able to see his methods, sit in on some of his shoots, and meet his models. He also goes through several old and unpublished books of work with a look of absolutely child-like glee on his face. He discusses his early career, his passionate relationship with his wife, journalist Yoko Araki (who died in 1990), and some of the Japanese taboos he has broken over the years. The many moments with Araki are by far the best parts of the documentary and I honestly wish they went on longer.

There are also a few interviews with celebrities who love his work, were inspired by him, or who have worked with him. Most of them poignantly cover different areas: Bjork hired him to photograph her, Takeshi Kitano worked with him in Japan, and Richard Kern is a fellow boundary-pushing photographer (from the U.S., if you're unfamiliar). Bjork is kind of lackluster, doesn't go very in depth, and mostly talks about how amazing he is. Takeshi Kitano is more insightful, though I adore him so much I could listen to him talk about the grass growing. Richard Kern also gives a great interview and provides insight on how influential Araki is in the photography industry, particularly in the world of erotica and sexually subversive art.

As I said, this comes highly recommended. In addition to providing a loose introduction to erotic photography, it is a great place to discover Araki's work. He's an artist anyone with an interest in porn, erotica, or bondage should know about, though he has done a lot more than just erotic photography. Aside from the fact that his work is amazing, he's one of the most prolific photographers in the world. With 350+ books of art and more always ready to come out, his work ranges from erotica, pornography, fashion, portraiture, flowers, etc. His bondage photography is masterful, beautiful, and comes particularly recommended. Tartan has a nice single disc DVD that is at least worthy of a rental.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

GRAPHIC SEXUAL HORROR


Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell, 2009

I am only slightly ashamed to admit that I enjoy sadomasochistic porn. If you don't or don't at least have an interest (or perhaps a secret curiosity), then Graphic Sexual Horror is NOT the documentary for you. In fact, this type of review is the very reason I put an adult content warning on my blog. It doesn't get much more "adult" than this.

Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell's co-written, co-produced and co-directed documentary covers the almost decade long run of Insex.com, one of the world's most notorious and explicit bondage websites. Run by ex-college professor Brent Scott from 1997 - 2005, the site was allegedly shut down due to pressure from Homeland Security's Antiterrorism Act. The site became famous for its graphic, disturbing live feeds, where female submissive models would subject themselves to a variety of sexual and physical tortures, resulting in real, un-acted and frequently unscripted sexual exchanges.

The documentary is blatantly pro-Insex, though I think it presents an honest look at the business and the individuals involved, allowing people to voice their frequently unromantic and contradictory opinions. The runtime is balanced pretty evenly between sex scenes, interviews with the models and collaborators, and interviews with Scott, also know as pd. The scenes cover the gamut of SM from extreme bondage, penetration, whipping, piercing, crucifixion, water torture, electrocution, suffocation play and so on. Probably my favorite thing about the documentary is the high level of art accompanying most of the scenes. I'm sure that sounds crazy, but Scott took an obvious amount of pleasure and interest in his position (owner and main male dom), designing incredibly elaborate scenes inspired by paintings, films and other works of art. Frequently involving complex set pieces, props and elaborate costumes, Scott was forced to build and design a lot of the equipment himself. It is wondrous to behold.

The interviews with the models leave little to the imagination. Most of the girls make it clear that though they had an interest in BDSM and enjoyed the experience, they were there for the money and the exposure. A couple of jobs with Insex usually resulted in subsequent fetish modeling opportunities. Though fetish model Lorelei Lee was given the most in depth interviewee, many of the models describe their experiences with rich detail and emotion. They discuss certain touchy issues like "private" unpaid scene play with Scott, getting fired for bailing on a scene, and frequently doing things they were not told was going to happen and did not want to do. For instance, how do you use a safe word when you a) have a ball gag in your mouth, b) are being held under water or c) are otherwise indisposed? This brings up a lot of interesting issues about the rights of female porn performers, one that is too complex to really get into here, but this is a subject certainly not explored enough by pro-porn advocates.

Overall I really enjoyed Graphic Sexual Horror  It is a very human look at a difficult and complicated industry, plagued with a wide variety of problems. Probably my favorite thing about the documentary is that is an inside look at a particular industry and company made by insiders, so Lorentzon and Bell are able to explore a wide range of issues. The intimacy and exposure the filmmakers were able to get here is surprising. It is evident that Graphic Sexual Horror was made with interest, compassion, some love, and a lot of respect.

The DVD, which was released in 2010, was unfortunately pulled from Amazon right after it was on the top ten list for documentaries and for independent films. Fortunately, it has since returned. It also won a lot of festival awards and comes highly recommended from a wide audience. I just wish we could get over this ridiculous obscenity issue. I really don't understand censorship. Five year olds aren't going to accidentally stumble across Graphic Sexual Horror or Insex.com when they turn on the TV.

You can also purchase the film at their website, Graphic Sexual Horror. And if you are so inclined, a Dutch company bought out Insex's footage when they got shut down, much of which they are posting online at the Insex Archives. The Dutch sure know how to share the love.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Porn Studies


Americans undeniably have a fascination with porn stars. Whether people are avid fans or virulently trying to get porn banned, it is obviously captivating enough that certain stars, Ron Jeremy, Jenna Jameson, and Tracy Lords, among others, have become household names. In the last few years, a number of interesting studies have come out about what it means to be a porn star. Here are two recent examples that I thought were relevant to share during Golden Age of Porn month, to hopefully challenge some preconceived notions.  

The first is from November 2012 and was published in the Journal of Sex Research, which means that it is a peer reviewed study. Titled Pornography Actresses: An Assessment of the Damaged Goods Hypothesis, this is concerned with examining the psychological state of female porn stars. Stereotypically, porn stars are thought to be emotionally damaged, victims of abuse, drug users and/or morally bereft. According to them:
"The present study compared the self-reports of 177 porn actresses to a sample of women matched on age, ethnicity, and marital status. Comparisons were conducted on sexual behaviors and attitudes, self-esteem, quality of life, and drug use. Porn actresses were more likely to identify as bisexual, first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners, were more concerned about contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and enjoyed sex more than the matched sample, although there were no differences in incidence of CSA. In terms of psychological characteristics, porn actresses had higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality compared to the matched group. Last, female performers were more likely to have ever used 10 different types of drugs compared to the comparison group."

In other words, there is nothing to the idea that porn stars are “damaged goods.” Of course psychology is a soft science, interview subjects provide their own answers and are thus able to manipulate them, and this is a relatively small sample, but it is still encouraging. Read the full study by following the above link. 

The second study was not for a peer reviewed journal, but was undertaken and recently completed by Jon Millward, who went through the entire Internet Adult Film Database and looked at 10,000 porn stars to find out “what the average performer looks like, what they do on film, and how their role has evolved over the last forty years.” Working with the premise that the average American female porn star is blonde and busty, Millward learned that she is, in fact, a brunette B-cup. He also examined other factors, like whether these ladies on average have piercings or tattoos, how tall they are, how much they weigh, skin color/race, age, what type of sex acts they perform, how long they stay in the business, common names, and more, in order to come up with a demographic profile. Though he focuses more on women, men are also included in the study.

Visit his site to view a number of graphs and visuals and to read the full, fascinating report. It would be interesting to see how this could be further developed. Studies like these two help to dispel common myths about the porn industry. The Journal of Sex Research, which I mentioned above, is another great place to read more studies like these. 

And here’s some more food for thought: an article about the 20 richest porn stars, both men and women. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

THERESE AND ISABELLE

Radley Metzger, 1968
Starring: Essy Persson, Anna Gaël, Barbara Laage, Anne Vernon

One of the earliest films to present a positive and erotic portrayal of lesbianism, Metzger’s well-known art film concerns two teenagers, the quiet Therese and the rebellious Isabelle. They meet at boarding school after These is abandoned there by her newly remarried mother. She strikes up an intense friendship with Isabelle, one that quickly turns into a secret love affair, as intense as it is brief. Soon after their relationship begins in earnest, Isabelle’s mother takes her away to somewhere else in Europe, never to be seen again by Therese. 

Based on the novel by Violette Leduc, this French-U.S.-Dutch co-production is framed by scenes of the adult Therese visiting the boarding school and remembering her relationship with Isabelle. Some of Leduc’s flowery prose is preserved in lengthy narration, a technique used in nearly all of Metzger’s early films and a lot of ‘60s erotica. The voice-overs are primarily used during the drawn out sex scenes between the girls. These moments are light on nudity or explicit sex and instead focus on eroticism and romance. As with some of Metzger’s early films, there are facial close ups and a lot of staring intensely at the ceiling and moaning, but mostly out of focus, heavily shadowed scenes that imply more than they show. Their sexual exploration is melancholic, slow, and full of discovery. 

The lovely Essy Persson (she starred in the earlier, erotic Swedish film, I, A Woman, which was distributed by Metzger in the U.S. and was very scandalous at the time) is clearly too old to play a teenage girl, but is otherwise perfect for the role. Her somber, lovesick presence nearly overwhelms Hungarian actress Anna Gaël (Erotic Trap, Nana and a very interesting life in addition to her acting career), though the latter has some key scenes, such as a fist fight with another girl at school and a frustrating scene where she hires a room at a whore house so that she and Therese can be alone together for once. The characters of Therese and Isabelle are both very basic, which limits the film to a certain extent, but prevents things from getting too complicated or silly. Therese and Isabelle also eschews the typical characterizations used by Metzger in many of his films from this period: the strong, independent, and sexually experienced woman with a troubled life that has a tragic outcome. 

With the increased eroticism, beautiful black and white cinematography from Hans Jura, and somewhat tragic romance, I mostly viewed Therese and Isabelle as one of the filmic stepping stones to Metzger’s later, more sexual and more interesting works. It is certainly one of his most accessible efforts and is unlikely to shock any modern viewers. The film is historically important because of its positive portrayal of the lesbian relationship. It brings the lonely, love-starved Therese an intense connection with someone else and only ends poorly because Isabelle is removed from school. The final scenes of the young Therese show her being comforted by another school mate and running off to play a game. This has elements of later films like Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, and though I am pleased that Therese and Isabelle has a more positive ending, I think Metzger, with his trademark style, could have further explored their imaginative inner lives and developing sexual fantasies. 

The vagueness of the plot and inconclusive ending is in Metzger’s favor, making this film feel more like a sad, erotic daydream than an exercise in realism. Fans of ‘60s erotica will enjoy this slow burn of a film, rich with atmosphere and surprisingly thick erotic tension, despite the lack of shock value for contemporary audiences. There is a decent DVD from Image/First Run that is worth checking out. Ignore most of the other reviews, which either say this is one of Metzger’s masterpieces (those come a little later) or mainstream negative reviews like the one from the frequently idiotic Ebert, who declared, “This is it, the worst movie of the year.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961
Starring: Lucyna Winnicka, Mieczyslaw Voit

“Being possessed pleases me. It is me who opens my soul to the demons.”

Ken Russell's The Devils is not the only film adaptation of the story of the possession at the Ursuline convent in Loudon. In 1961, Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz (Night Train, The Hostage of Europe) made a film based on a novella of the same name by writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Mother Joan of the Angels aka Matka Joanna od Aniołow aka The Devil and the Nun. Instead of focusing on the trial and execution of Father Grandier, Kawalerowicz’s film follows the events after this, the four subsequent years of possession for Mother Joan and her convent. A priest, Father Suryn, travels to Mother Joan’s isolated convent to investigator the possession allegations after Father Grandier’s death. Suryn develops a deep connection with Joan and is determined to save her soul, regardless of the cost to his own. 

Suryn’s character is based on a real priest, one written about in a lengthy section in Huxley’s book on Loudon. Huxley calls him “a victim of neurosis,” and this film will likely interest fans of possession films where the victims of various neuroses are typically female. It certainly makes an interesting counterpoint to The Devils, feeling somewhat like a sequel even though it was made ten years prior. 

With incredible performances from Lucyna Winnicka as Mother Joan and Mieczyslaw Voit as Father Suryn, Mother Joan won a Special Jury Prize at the 1961 Cannes Festival, but was otherwise ignored by critics and audiences. This quiet, starkly beautiful and tragic film is almost an inverse of Russell’s classic. It is disturbing, but for very different reasons. In an interview with KinoEye, Kawalerowicz explains that this film “is a love story about a man and a woman who wear church clothes, and whose religion does not allow them to love each other... The devils that possess these characters are the external manifestations of their repressed love.” 

Mother Joan is not a political film. It is, somewhat like The Devils, a film about the difficulty of navigating between good and evil. Possession has become the only way to express identity and give room to the inner world of sexual fantasy that has been repressed for so long in Joan and the sisters, as well as Suryn. With that said, both the sexual content and the possession scenes are extremely restrained, despite scenes of exorcism, self-flagellation, and death. Kawalerowicz excels with simple black and white shots, such as one scene of the nuns lying on the floor around the altar like so many crosses. Doubles, reflections, mirror images and shadows abound in the film, along with some surreal exorcism sequences where the nuns seem float as they walk along in trance states and are visually compared with birds in flight. 

Mother Joan has a small cast, limited locations and a subtle, hymn-focused score. Without Kawalerowicz’s masterful cinematography and grasp of style, this would probably have felt like a theatrical production. This haunting, eerie and understated film is a meditation on repression, love, faith, and madness and, like The Devils, deserves a critical resurgence. It is available on DVD from Second Run cinema

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day: My 13 Favorite Romantic Songs from Horror and Cult Movies


Sometimes horror and cult movies, despite their often extreme subject matter, address love and romance. Often this is accompanied by a special song. Here are 13 of my favorite for this Valentine's Day, in no particular order.

1. Riz Ortolani - Cannibal Holocaust Opening Theme
I’m sorry, but I have always thought this song was really romantic. 


2. Willow’s Song from Wickerman
Not only is this actually a really sweet, melancholic, and kind of erotic song, but in the film it was sung by a hot, naked woman pounding on the walls in sexual frenzy.


3. The Ramones - I Want You Around from Rock ‘n Rock High School
One of my favorite romantic fantasy scenes from any movie ever. Riff Randall + Joey Ramone forever. 


4. Paul Williams - Old Souls from Phantom of the Paradise
A sad, romantic song from a sad, romantic movie. A bonus is that it’s sung by Jessica Harper from Suspiria fame. 


5. Q Lazzarus - Goodbye Horses from Silence of the Lambs
Taken from the amazing scene where a naked Buffalo Bill dons a lady skin suit, dances around, and proclaims “I’d fuck me.” As Oscar Wilde one said, to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance. 


6. Take My Breath Away from As Tears Go By
Yes, I know that the original Berlin version from Top Gun is really romantic, but Wong Kar Wai had the song adapted in Cantonese for his first film, As Tears Go By. Must be heard to be believed. It is played is during a scene where the two characters realize their love for one another and finally find each other after a series of near misses and awkward exchanges. 

7. Dramarama - Anything, Anything from Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
How could I not include this? It doesn’t really fit in with this movie, which is not at all romantic, but who cares. 

8. Lou Reed - Satellite of Love from Velvet Goldmine
Todd Haynes film that is loosely based on the love affair between David Bowie and Iggy Pop was the first romantic drama (other than Casablanca) that I really enjoyed. There is a particularly sweet scene between the Bowie and Pop characters where they listen to my favorite version of “Satellite of Love” with Bowie on backing vocals.


9. Angela’s Theme from Sleepaway Camp
It’s difficult to have sexy time at camp - or anywhere - when you’re confused about your gender. But he’s begging you to stay anyway, because you’re just what he’s looking for. 


10. Fastway - If You Could See from Trick or Treat
‘80s power ballads are always romantic, but a whole soundtrack full of Fastway is just amazing. Plus this is a satanic horror movie where the heavy metal nerd gets the pretty girl in the end. 

11. Michael Jackson - Ben from Ben
Yes, this is sung by a youthful Michael Jackson and is for a movie about a young boy’s deep friendship with the titular rat, Ben, who massacres humans when he is not in the warm embrace of his homo sapiens buddy. But if you read the lyrics this is clearly a love song about a “special” friendship.


12. Roy Orbison - In Dreams from Blue Velvet
David Lynch knows how to capture many different types of sexual and romantic feelings all at once, many of them unpleasant. Movie aside, the original “In Dreams” evokes many of these feelings on its own. “In dreams you’re mine all of the time.”


13. Rebekah del Rio - Llorando from Mulholland Drive
Another example of Lynchian love scenes. Sexy, romantic, devastating and somehow absolutely terrifying. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

SHORTBUS


John Cameron Mitchell, 2006
Starring: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker

I absolutely adore John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote, directed and produced Shortbus, his second film after the more famous Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a queer drama/comedy, kind of like with Hedwig, except with explicit sex instead of songs. The film shows intersecting stories that revolve around a local sex club/art salon in New York, the titular Shortbus, which is frequented by a sexually diverse, emotionally challenged group of people. Sofia, essentially the centerpiece of the film, is a married sex therapist who pretends that she and her husband are happily married and have a wonderful sex life. In reality, she has never achieved orgasm. She works with Jamie and James, respectively a former child actor and a former prostitute, a gay couple who are considering opening up their relationship. When she freaks out during a session, they take sympathy and invite her to Shortbus, held in the home of Justin Bond, a drag performance artist (who plays himself). She loosens up a bit and becomes friends with an uptight dominatrix named Severin, who has never had a real relationship. The film charts the difficulties of Sofia, Jamie and James, and Severine, leading somewhat towards the crux of their problems and a believable solution.

Shortbus is certainly flawed, but its almost hippy-like sentimentality is a refreshing break from other dramas with unsimulated sex, many of which are deeply challenging and anything but sexy. At its core, this is an indie drama about emotional isolation, about people attempting to make a connection with other people in the other way they know how: sex. This completely charming film is able to overcome its sometimes trite script and the actors overcome limited performances with their sheer devotion to the characters. The core actors helped create the story with Mitchell through a series of improv sessions and workshops. Unfortunately Sofia’s quest to find an orgasm is the central plot point of the film, which seems tame compared to some of the other characters’ problems. I also feel that the “quest for an orgasm” plot drive is more tame and conventional than the rest of the film wants to be. As a result of this, there are many fluffy sitcom-like moments that become a bit grating. 

I think Shortbus remains the most sexually explicit non-pornography film made in the U.S. Much of the sex is unsimulated; there is hetero- and homosexual sex, oral, anal, masturbation, threesomes, use of sex toys, some mild S&M, and so on. One of the finest scenes in the film involves a male threesome where one character sings the national anthem into his partner’s asshole. Shortbus deals with various sexual and emotional problems in a warm, sensitive way, but it definitely isn't the kind of film to watch when you're in the mood for a typical romantic comedy. 

Despite the film’s flaws, Mitchell’s aim to challenge conventional portrayals of sex in mainstream cinema makes this film very much worth watching. The film looks great, and though it lacks the over-the-top style of Hedwig, you can clearly tell that this is a Mitchell film. The documentary footage, shot by James’ character, is a particularly nice touch. There are also many delightful moments of humor and wit and the overall light, joyous tone is refreshing without fully embracing a happy ending and positive solutions for all. As Justin Bond so fittingly puts it, Shortbus is “like the ‘60s, but with less hope.” I loved the film and it comes highly recommended. Pick up the region 1 DVD, which has some lovely special features, including an interesting commentary track from Mitchell and some of the cast members. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

MUTANTES: PUNK PORN FEMINISM

Virginie Despentes, 2009

“The concept of obscenity is a totalitarian tool to reduce women, ultimately, to a piece of flesh.” -Catherine Breillat

Virginie Despentes, known for the controversial New French Extremism film Baise-moi (2000, meaning “Fuck me,” but sometimes titled as “Rape me”), created this made-for-TV documentary about sex-positive, pro-porn feminism. She interviews a wide range of subjects across the U.S., and in Paris and Barcelona. This movement, which began in the U.S. in the ‘80s and flourished in the ‘90s and ‘00s, embraces sex work and pornography as potentially pro-feminist, rather than the conventional feminist view that these things debase women. Female artists, writers, filmmakers, pornographers and performance artists began reclaiming sex and pleasure, as well as advocating for sex workers. Many of the artists and filmmakers interviewed are or were sex workers: prostitutes, call girls, porn actresses, strippers, etc. Despentes, herself a former prostitute and porn critic, interviews a wide range of subjects and focuses on the growth of the movement and the works produced within it. 

Her interview subjects include many notable women. Here a few you should know: 

French director Catherine Breillat (one of my favorites) is known for sexually explicit films that explore female sexuality, such as Romance, Fat Girl, Sex is Comedy, and Anatomy of Hell. She is also a novelist and professor at the European Graduate School. Lydia Lunch, one of my only female role models growing up, is a musician, writer, performer, actress, and one of the most important and famous members of the New York No Wave movement that spanned music, literature and film. 

Stripper, porn actress, performance artist, sex educator, editor, writer and producer Annie Sprinkle is a very important member of the pro-sex, pro-porn feminist movement and has created such amazing pieces as Public Cervix Announcement, where she inserted a speculum into her vagina and allowed audience members to look at her cervix with the aid of a flashlight. Learn more about her here. Carol Leigh aka the Scarlet Harlot is responsible for coining the term “sex worker” and is an artist, writer, activist and filmmaker. Sex worker activist Norma Jean Almodovar began with a career as a traffic cop for the LAPD and later become a sex worker in Beverly Hills after becoming disgusted with the level of corruption in the police department. She wrote Cop to Call Girl and founded the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education.

Dr. Siobhan Brooks is an ex-peep show worker, sociologist and academic who focuses on the place of African American sex workers within the industry. She was involved in the documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE! and wrote about her sex work unionizing efforts in Organizing From Behind the Glass, in addition to many other academic articles and a book, Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. 

Californian trans musician and writer Lynn Breedlove helped found the dyke-themed punk band Tribe 8, has done spoken word performances at a number of LGBT festivals, has authored a novel, acted in a few films, created a comedy show, etc. Swiss-born erotic wrestling enthusiast Sondra Goodwin makes pornography for women and was involved in HBO’s Real Sex.  New York producer, director, and actor and Maria Beatty is known for her black and white BDSM and fetish films. Coralie Trinh Thi is a former porn actress and co-directed Baise-moi with Virginie Despentes. American writer, editor, producer, sociologist and sexologist Carol Queen has written Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, among many other instructional sex books, and a novel, as well as organizing instructional sex-positive events and workshops, such as Bend Over Boyfriend (about pegging). 

Though this documentary has its flaws, it covers important subject matter and its heart is definitely in the right place. Despentes encourages viewers and interviewees to question the meaning of pornography, sexuality, gender, feminism, sex work, etc. The movement’s examination of what makes someone a feminist was particularly relevant and interesting to me. Though I am female, I’ve never considered myself feminist -- due in large part to the fact that the only self-asserted feminists I met growing up were definitely anti-porn. When I finally found out about this movement, it was a huge breath of fresh air. Sex, pleasure, and pornography are all things that can and should be liberating, a means to express, embrace and understand the self. 

Despite some initial reservations, I couldn’t help but enjoy and appreciate Mutantes. It is available on DVD from Solaris. This film is intellectual, sexy, and amusing. Those unfamiliar with the movement will likely learn a lot and come away with many things to think about. Be forewarned that the documentary includes many clips of movies and archived live performances, many of which will be shocking for the casual, non-porn friendly viewers, as the wide range of subject matter includes S&M and pornography.

Monday, February 11, 2013

CARMEN, BABY

Radley Metzger, 1967
Starring: Uta Levka, Claus Ringer, Carl Möhner, Barbara Valentin

"I know her intimately… but not well."

Carmen is a beautiful waitress and con artist who lives by her own rules. She tricks a young policeman, José, who is landed in jail for helping her. When he is released from prison, she pays him back with a night of serious seduction. Predictably, he falls in love with her and wants their relationship to continue. Carmen returns his feelings, but refuses to give up her lifestyle of crime and pleasure. They are forced to go on the run after José kills one of her lovers and things go from bad to worse when he learns she has a husband. Carmen’s stubborn independence and José's passionate jealously spell disaster. 

Carmen is based on the novella by French author Prosper Mérimée, first published in 1845. It inspired dozens of adaptations, including the famous opera by Georges Bizet. The novella tells the story of the beautiful gypsy (Romani is the more correct term, I know) woman Carmen and her doomed love with the soldier Don José. The film is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Carmen and runs through all the major plot points in the novel. The tragic crux of the story is that Carmen is determined to be free, not to be owned by anyone or forced to consent to monogamy, even though she is technically a married woman. What made the novella and the opera so shocking are the portrayals of sex, crime, and an outlaw lifestyle (someone should really make a biker version of Carmen). 

Though Metzger is unable to present these elements as controversially as Bizet’s opera, Carmen’s sexual promiscuity, strength of personality, and insistence on sexual and emotional freedom represents the origins of a formula he would use throughout almost all of his subsequent films. Carmen’s control over her own sex life and reliance on her sexuality for basic survival sets up most of the sex scenes in the film, though they aren’t particularly erotic or scandalous by today’s standards. With that said, there are some cleverly perverse scenes. Carmen does a dance at a night club that involves her sitting on a wine bottle and has an affair with a politician that turns into a threesome with his kinky wife. A pop singer Carmen seduces drinks alcohol out of baby bottles and makes a few infantilism references, and there is a lovely sex scene shot through colored glasses and bottles. Sex is implied, but never explicitly shown, and there are a lot of facial close ups, particularly during implied oral sex scenes. Overall this is a literary drama with some eroticism, unlike Metzger’s later films which emphasize erotica and/or hardcore sex more than plot. 

With Carmen he developed the formula that would become so successful with his later films: an eroticized, modernized literary adaptation with a strong, central female character. Though this is his first color film, it lacks the opulent style and welcome humor that made his middle period so enjoyable. Carmen is one of the darkest of Metzger’s films and though the titular character seems fond of José, she repeatedly mocks his love and manipulates him into aggression and murder, eventually her own. Uta Levka (she appeared briefly in his previous film, The Alley Cats) is absolutely beautiful here, but is a cold, restrained and even mean-spirited version of Carmen. Claus Ringer, an utterly un-Spanish looking José, is unfortunately bland and boring. His lack of personality justifies Carmen’s disinterest in him, which makes the plot less believable.

I would not recommend this jazzy, swinging ‘60s version of Carmen for first time Metzger viewers, but it is worth seeing if you’re a fan of his other work or of ‘60s erotica movies. This film helped kick off some of his later, great works when it received a measure of success, particularly from positive critical reviews and a nice write up from the New York Times. There is a DVD box set from Image Entertainment, The Radley Metzger Collection Volume 3, which includes the superior The Lickerish Quarter and the far inferior The Princess and the Call Girl. Unfortunately these box sets are known for their miserably bad transfers, so I would go with the single disc Image release or just a rental. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

AGES OF LULU aka LAS EDADES DE LULU


Bigas Luna, 1990
Starring: Francesca Neri, Oscar Ladoire, Maria Barranco, Fernando Guillen Cuervo

Based on Almudena Grandes's best-selling novel of the same name, Ages of Lulu concerns the sexual awakening and subsequent journey of a young Spanish woman, the titular Lulu. The film begins when she is a teenage school girl with a crush on her older brother's friend, Pablo. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, Pablo takes Lulu's virginity. Already from the beginning, she is never really involved in "vanilla" sex; Pablo involves her in a fetishistic pubic shaving scene knowing she has never had a prior sexual encounter. This is also probably around the time that viewers inexperienced with European erotica begin to get very uncomfortable -- or aroused.

In love with Pablo from the beginning, Lulu is distraught to learn that he has to go away for a few years to take up a teaching post. When he returns, she is still young, but much more sexually mature. They resume their relationship and marry. For a few years they are happy and have children. They continue to push the limits of their mutual comfort zones together and explore their mutual sexuality with things like anal sex and cruising for transvestites.

Things take a turn for the worse at a party when Lulu thinks her husband is attempting to have an affair, an element they have not yet introduced into their relationship. He attempts to smooth over the fight by involving her in an erotic encounter with another man. In a dark room, with Lulu tied up and blindfolded, Pablo brings in his best friend and Lulu's brother. Both men have sex with her at the same time and she doesn't discover until afterward that it was her brother, leaving her sickened and angry. (Honestly she gets over it pretty quickly.)

Their fights and frustrations continue and eventually Lulu takes the children and leaves a distraught Pablo. Now on her own, she devotes almost all of her time and money to sexual pursuits. She becomes interested in the underground gay sex scene and after tiring of videos, goes in search of a live experience. When she becomes addicted to these mostly-gay orgies, she starts to run out of money and seeks a new way to pay for the encounters: by involving herself in the underground sex performance scene. Unfortunately, things are far more dangerous than she anticipated.

The ending scene is truly traumatic and uncomfortable, similar to Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, though less gratuitous and more reliant on emotional subtlety than shock value. Bizarrely, the ending is not tragic, but I don't want to give everything away. I'm so used to moralistic erotic tales where the protagonist gets their unfortunate (and usually undeserved) just desserts for wandering down the path of sexual excess, such as Belle de Jour, but this doesn't happen to Lulu. She goes too far and gets burnt, but you never get the sense that director Bigas Luna is judging or punishing the character for her appetite. It is simply a journey of independence and self-exploration, and I think that's the real reason Ages of Lulu is one of my favorites.

Francesca Neri is charming and sweet as Lulu, always coming across with a certain amount of innocence and naivety, even with she is engaging in acts that would make Caligula blush. Ages of Lulu is relatively well filmed and though it can lag at points, well written. I can't personally say how it compares to the novel, though I am a little surprised that Ages of Lulu was Grandes's first novel and became an international best seller. But then Europe is a lot more sexually open-minded than the U.S.

This is definitely not a film for everyone and parts of it are pretty extreme. If you aren't used to watching erotica, I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point. For seasoned fans, especially anyone who enjoys more explicit subject matter, this film comes very highly recommended. As far as I can tell, Ages of Lulu is not available in a region one release. Surprise. There are several region two prints available and I own the region two Bigas Luna box set, which comes highly recommended.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

THE ALLEY CATS



Radley Metzger, 1966
Starring: Anne Arthur, Karin Field, Sabrina Koch, Charlie Hickan, Uta Levka

“The swingin' sixties like you've never seen them.”

Radley Metzger’s third film (second directed solely by him), The Alley Cats is sort of a mad spiral of European swinging ‘60s infidelity. Leslie and Logan are engaged. He is having an affair with one of her friends, but is paranoid Leslie is cheating on him, which she soon begins to do out of sexual frustration. Irena, an elegant acquaintance, begins an affair with Leslie, who finds some liberation, but also some confusion, in her new found promiscuity. 

This is one of Metzger’s more disappointing early films and even though it tries to be sexy and shocking, will likely be too tame and slowly paced for modern viewers. This is more of an erotica melodrama than a softcore porn film. There is almost no nudity and though sex is a regular occurrence, it is not shown on screen (or is shot through a greased up lens). A lot of people mush their faces together, though. Even though it is not as developed as Metzger’s later films, it shares themes that would reappear, like a positive view of lesbianism, the subtext of posing for art as an invitation for sex, a woman going on a sexual journey to gain control over her life, and sexy European settings filled with sexy people who seemingly do nothing but party and have sex. Though the film lacks Metzger’s trademark humor and wit, there is some absolutely hilarious dialogue, such as “Me? Where have I been? Around the world in 80 ways, that’s where I’ve been.” There are a number of once-shocking but now silly scenes, like a sexual whipping that suddenly turns into a threesome and a moment when Leslie’s first illicit sex partner writes how great she was on her sleeping body in lipstick. Predictably and somewhat upsettingly, it ends with what I think is an affirmation of heterosexual monogamy. 

I can’t complain at all about the lovely ladies present. Ann Arthur is great as Leslie in her only role, playing up the character’s vulnerabilities. Sabrina Koch, also in her only film role, stands out as the somewhat predatory lesbian Irena. There are also more familiar faces, such as German actress Karin Field, who appeared in a number of crime-horror hybrids known as krimi: Night of the Vampires, The Hunchback of Soho, The Mad Butcher, Web of the Spider, etc. The lovely Uta Levke makes an appearance as a very sexy night club dancer. She was also in a few krimi - The Hunchback of Soho, The Monster of Blackwood Castle, etc. - in Metzger’s Carmen, Baby, in Fulci’s comedy Operazione San Pietro, and in Vincent Price vehicles The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. 

The Alley Cats is available on an out of print DVD from Image Entertainment and in First Run Features’ Radley Metzger Collection Volume 1 box set, which includes Camille 2000 and Therese and Isabelle. Apparently the transfers are quite bad, so I would stick with the Image release or wait for something better. Do not get this movie on accident, though. Despite The Alley Cats’ flaws, it has Metzger’s trademark beautiful visuals and fun, jazzy score and comes recommended for anyone who enjoys '60s erotica. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

THE DREAMERS

Bernardo Bertolucci, 2004
Starring: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel

Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually explicit romantic drama set in Paris, 1968, concerns three young cinephiles: Matthew, an American studying French, and the twins Théo and Isabelle. They meet at the Cinémathèque Française, which all three attend religiously until it is shut down for political reasons. Matthew has no friends until Théo and Isabelle seek him out and soon bring him home for dinner. When their parents go out of town, Matthew essentially moves in and the three ignore the outside world with an intense exploration of cinema, sex and identity until their idyll is shattered by the events of the outside world. 

Known for his beautiful, sometimes controversial films, The Dreamers is no exception. Due to its sexual content, the film was released in two versions, an uncut NC-17 limited release and a shorter R-rated version. The sex is certainly more explicit that most historical dramas with tons of male and female nudity, shots of genitalia, etc. I don’t think anyone reading a cult movie blog should feel uncomfortable about the kind of sex and nudity portrayed here, but then I’ve never understood why violence is more acceptable than sex in the visual arts (at least in the U.S.). The sex is obviously simulated and is not going to blow any pornography enthusiasts out of the water, but it might be too intense to watch with, say, a family member or a coworker. There is the implication of incest between Théo and Isabelle, particularly in the scenes where they sleep naked in the same bed, but this is never fully realized. 

All three of the actors seem perfectly comfortable with the nudity and sex scenes. It is difficult to say that one of the three shines more than the others, but Eva Green sets herself apart simply because she is the only primary female character and because she is so lovely. Incredibly, this was her film debut despite strong encouragement from her family and agent not to take the role. Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is known for choosing daring roles. He gives a great early performance here as Matthew and perfectly expresses the character’s vulnerability, insecurity, and anxiety. Though none of the characters are very developed, Pitt’s Matthew is responsible for the arc of the story. French actor Louis Garrel (Ma Mere, Les chansons d’amour) may have less material to work with than the other two actors, but he brings intelligence, charm and mystery to Théo’s character. 

The flawless cinematography from Fabio Cianchetti is a strong reason to see this film. Both the Parisian exteriors and the interior of the apartment have a painterly influence and there are many visual references to other classic films. The script was written by British writer Gilbert Adair, based on his novel The Holy Innocents, which he later re-wrote as The Dreamers, allegedly feeling that the film improved on the original novel. The only major difference between the film and the novel is that Matthew explores a sexual relationship with Théo as well as Isabelle. I’m not really sure why this was left out of the film. 

The politics — Matthew as a pacifist and Théo as a violent revolutionary (though only in talk, not action) —  weave in an out of the film and don’t form a cohesive argument. In case you are unaware of the history, Paris in 1968 was the setting of the infamous May student riots, which could be a fascinating film in and of itself. A general strike of students successfully brought the French economy to a standstill, if however brief. The government nearly collapsed. Amidst this historical setting is a second backdrop: classic cinema and the French New Wave. There are clips of historical figures like François Truffaut and Henri Langlois inserted into the film. Scenes from various films are also inserted into The Dreamers or quoted or acted out by the three protagonists, such as a famous scene where the three recreate the race through the Louvre Museum from Godard's Bande à part

Cinephiles will absolutely love many moments of The Dreamers. Bertolucci manipulates the three characters' love of and reliance on cinema to create a dream world of emotionally stunted but smart and imaginative people who live their lives by watching films. Their exile in the apartment symbolizes their withdrawal from life, which Bertolucci refuses to romanticize. They live in absolute squalor, blow through the money their parents gave them, have no money for food, and play cruel emotional games with one another that are instigated by Isabelle. The characters, particularly the twins, represent the failures of insisting to exist in an imaginary world, frozen in time, while the real world is blaring outside their window. 

The Dreamers is a film about too many things - a specific period in French and cinematic history, a battle for personal identity, a debate about political effectiveness, and sexual exploration. The film’s love of cinema and related love of sexual exploration will delight many viewers, but there is just not enough development and cohesion to put this on the same level as some of Bertolucci’s great works, like Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. It has tremendous potential and comes highly recommended, but unfortunately fizzles out into frustrating inactivity and a murky, anticlimactic ending. The film raises subjects and asks questions it is simply incapable of fully exploring or answering. 

This French-British-Italian co-production is available uncut on DVD from Fox. The disc includes two documentaries, Bertolucci Directs The Dreamers and Outside the Window: Events in France, May 1968. There is an audio commentary track (recorded separately) from Bertolucci, Adair and the producer, Jeremy Thomas, as well as a few more extras. A mediocre Bertolucci film is still worlds better and more interesting than the best work by your average filmmaker.