Thursday, February 26, 2009

Porn, Torture and Torture Porn: “Graphic Sexual Horror,” Interview with co-director Anna Lorentzon

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Porn, Torture and Torture Porn: GRAPHIC SEXUAL HORROR, Interview with co-director Anna Lorentzon

Watching “Graphic Sexual Horror,” Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell’s nonfiction look behind the rise and fall of heavy BDSM porn site, the first thought that came to my mind was from my film critic’s perspective: “How’s this gonna play in Peoria?” And the second thought was inevitably from my submissive’s perspective: “Is this gonna give my lifestyle a bad name?”

There is no pat answer to either question, which is why I was so thrilled that co-director Lorentzon found time to let me pick her brain prior to the film’s East Coast premiere at this year’s CineKink Film Festival, on Friday, February 27th at 11:10 pm at Anthology Film Archives. (Full disclosure: “Un Piede di Roman Polanski,” an homage to Roman Polanski’s foot fetish by myself and Roxanne Kapitsa, will screen the following evening as part of the festival’s “Twisted Knickers” shorts program at 6:45 pm. Stop on by!)

But as I finally sat down to discuss the doc with director Lorentzon, who worked as a producer at from 1999 until the site was strong-armed by Homeland Security into closing, I found I didn’t have any questions for her – merely some very strong reactions that I hoped she could shed some light on. So it actually took me by surprise to discover that the issues I was struggling with as an audience member were the same issues that prompted the filmmakers to make the film, and ones that they still struggle with to this day. Frustratingly, there are no answers to the ethical questions “torture porn” raises – only a Pandora’s Box of more questions. So I guess the best one can do is approximate that struggle in image and word.

Lauren Wissot: “The reality of how something is made doesn’t necessarily correlate with what it looks like,” the model Lorelei says in the film. Watching “Graphic Sexual Horror” I thought of Errol Morris’ doc “Standard Operating Procedure,” and its whole premise that those infamous Abu Ghraib photos pave the way for more questions than they answer. For people not in the BDSM scene site founder PD’s artwork and the Insex scenes look like snuff films, pure and simple, but to someone like me who’s been involved in that world for 14 years they look like standard operating procedure for a heavy sub session.

Anna Lorentzon: It’s only because they see something sexual that someone might see as real, as snuff. But obviously everything we did there was staged, and all the girls gave their consent to participate. It’s interesting that people don’t worry about the women in horror films getting tortured because they know it’s fake – yet they’re disturbed by faking torture?

LW: Yeah, even though producers obviously hire pretty young things to get axed in horror films for the sexual titillation! I think exposes this uncomfortable truth, which is another reason it might disturb people. But the site is really more like pro wrestling – where yes, it’s staged, and yes, the bruises are real.

AL: Yes.

LW: Also, one of my favorite parts of your film is the “screen test” footage, only in this case potential models tell the camera, “I’ve been instructed to use the name yx,” (which simultaneously has sci-fi and losing one’s identity to slavery overtones) or are asked (for legal purposes, I assume), “Are you O.K. with bruises and rope burns?” rather than recount any personal history. What stood out for me was the one crucial question that should have been asked but wasn’t, “Are you O.K. with someone hijacking your head?” For that’s really what these girls were consenting to. The irony is that a lot of these women viewed Insex as an alternative to stripping or “porn.” But this is fucking – they’re getting mind-fucked!

AL: Yes, but I think that in most situations in life you don’t know what you’re getting into. There was one guy in the audience at Slamdance who compared it to the corporate world he was a part of. Firms don’t tell you when they hire you that you’re going to be working sixteen-hour days, what you have to do to get that bonus. No company does that. They’ll push you to your limit as well – the only difference maybe is that the corporate world does it over an extended period of time. The girls at Insex worked short intense shifts, a day, or a week at a time.

LW: Yes, but at least for me the fact that PD repeatedly hired models that were neither lifestyle nor professional subs struck me as completely unethical. Participating in a heavy session requires training and skills that few of these women seemed to possess. PD never properly screened potential employees in the first place. But I guess the fact that both PD and the girls got greedy, got so corrupted by the money flowing in that they did things they otherwise never would have done, is also a great analogy for our current economic crisis.

AL: But greed also forces people to have to make a decision about what they’ll consent to – and hopefully to grow from that decision.

LW: I think the other big mistake PD made was in not realizing that his artistic passion had become a business. It’s the same thing that happens to a lot of lifestyle doms who transition to pro; they don’t understand that what they do with their personal slaves is not always translatable to “for hire” gigs. Isn’t this often the case, though, with unstable artists who don’t have a clue once money becomes involved? I mean, look at Mickey Rourke!

AL: But I think PD’s greatest problem is that he’s a control freak.

LW: (laughing) Well, yeah, he’s a master!

AL: Right. But he’s not a businessman – he’s an artist. If he could have given up that control and hired someone to manage Insex he wouldn’t have been under the stress that caused him to make all the bad decisions. We did those interviews with PD after Insex had closed and he was a lot calmer, a lot more able to admit his failings. His openness and ability to reflect surprised me.

LW: One of my favorite quotes is when PD calls that “glassy eyed” euphoric state some of the models reach the “money shot,” for he’s absolutely right. Though Insex specializes in torture porn it’s different from both snuff films and hetero and gay male porn in that it’s female climax-centric. No men are having orgasms onscreen. Also, the whole artistic collaboration between master and slave, PD and especially the model Lorelei, one of the few true subs interviewed, captures the essence of BDSM play. The women at Insex may be hogtied and caned but they aren’t disrespected.

AL: Yes, it’s all about the woman. Which is also why, as one guy in the film says, he couldn’t get his girlfriend to do a lot of things in the bedroom, but once the camera was turned on at Insex she’d do almost anything. It’s the issue of the spotlight – pride – wanting to impress the audience.

LW: But it’s also really refreshing that you got PD to talk about his serial killer fascination on camera, for some of the best BDSM players are the ones with the darkest fantasies, who allow themselves to explore in a safe environment rather than keeping desire down and exploding – and as a result, raping and murdering pretty young things picked up in a bar.

AL: Yes, and we even used to hear from a lot of members saying that Insex provided an outlet, that now they didn’t feel the need to transfer those fantasies to real life. And with the models I can’t think of even one girl who was psychologically harmed as a result of working for the site.

LW: If they were psychologically disturbed they were probably that way before they got to Insex. Speaking of real life, Metal Man also brings up a great point when he says that where he’s from in Eastern Europe they torture people who don’t want to be tortured, and “Here we torture people who want to be tortured – and we pay them. We’re the criminals?” The fact that Homeland Security harassed Insex, that the credit card companies now control our content, is the real pornography – every bit as disturbing as the corruption by money endemic in the sex industry.

AL: Well, governments like to keep their monopoly on torture.

LW: (laughing) Well said!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Sneak Peek at Bandaged

“Bandaged” is S&M filmmaker Maria Beatty’s foray into the indie mainstream – if one could call a flick best described as “Mädchen in Uniform” meets “The English Patient” meets “Eyes Without A Face“ “mainstream.” Fittingly, none other than Abel Ferrara is serving as executive producer, though it just as easily could have been David Cronenberg since Beatty’s stunningly visceral cocktail of sex and bodily terror would surely merit that auteur’s seal of approval.

To read the rest of my review visit The House Next Door.

Monday, February 23, 2009

CineKink Film Festival: The Auteur

With as succinct a title as Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” James Westby’s “The Auteur” follows Italian director Arturo Domingo, a man of uncompromising vision. (“We don’t have the budget for rose petals,” a production designer patiently pleads onset, to which Domingo replies, “Do you not hear what I’m saying?” then continues with his explanation of how he wants those rose petals to fall.) Unfortunately, Domingo has fallen on hard times. Having lost control of his masterpiece to scissor-handed producers years ago, financing for the epic that will return the Italian auteur to his once celebrated status now has been pulled unless he can get his onetime muse to work with him again.

Never mind that Westby’s film is fiction, and that the title of Domingo’s masterpiece is “Full Metal Jackoff” – nor that former muse Frank E. Normo (a hilariously happy-go-lucky John Breen) won’t consent to play Bob the Banger in the epic “Gangbangs of New York” because the part requires circumcision. Westby has crafted a brilliant little indie satire – a “Blue Movie” for cinephiles.

To read the rest visit the Screengrab at Nerve.

CineKink Film Festival: The Agony and The Ecstasy: The Workshop

So as someone who has never desired nor even understood the appeal of monogamy in the first place (and who spent nearly six enlightening and loving years as the personal slave to a married, gay-for-pay hustler, the first year of which I chronicled in my own memoir “Under My Master's Wings”), and who has yet to discover my own sexual hang-ups, perhaps I’m the wrong critic to review “The Workshop,” Jamie Morgan’s documentary that chronicles a 10-day sexual seminar in the woods outside of San Francisco led by a British spiritual guru named Paul Lowe. While participants are shown the way to enlightenment via getting naked and fucking like rabbits, it’s nevertheless a brutal course for Morgan and his fellow polyamorous newbies, filled with conflicts about body image and fidelity, the playfulness giving way to tears of pain, and proclamations of feeling “vulnerable.” Yes, as someone who would answer the question, “Wanna go to an orgy?” with “Sure, if there’s gonna be bodybuilding strippers there, preferably Latino,” I guess I’m just too shallow to relate to all these emotional “issues.” What’s with all the bitching and moaning? I wondered. I wanted to scream at the screen, “It’s only sex, people! Get over yourselves!”

To read the rest visit my Sex Beat column at Carnal Nation.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fusion and CineKink Film Festivals - Save the Dates!

Thursday, February 26th at 4pm at NYU (721 Broadway, 9th floor)

I will be appearing on the “Smart Talk: Women & Film in the Blogosphere” panel at this year’s Fusion Film Festival (and best of all, all events are free!)

Saturday, February 28th at 6:45pm at Anthology Film Archives

Un Piede di Roman Polanski – Roxanne and my warped homage to the master director’s foot fetish will be premiering in the “Twisted Knickers” shorts program at this year’s CineKink Film Festival.

Hope to see everyone there!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Defense of Ted Haggard

Larry King’s interview with Ted Haggard – the pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals until his meth and rentboy proclivities forced his ouster – on CNN Thursday night blew my mind more than the charges that brought the former tweaking queen into the spotlight in the first place. Though he’s been making the talk show rounds to help promote Alexandra Pelosi’s The Trials of Ted Haggard, which also aired Thursday night on HBO, the real revelation is that Haggard has actually got something important to say in lieu of the predictable, anti-gay bible thumping we’ve all come to expect from the fundamentalist movement. In fact, how Haggard views his sexuality isn’t that much different from the viewpoint I’ve advocated in Whose Gay Pride? in which I called for a reevaluation of the very definitions of gay, straight and bi.

To read the rest visit my new Sex Beat column at Carnal Nation.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy Belated Birthday to Henry Rollins

Flipping channels the other day I was surprised to see that the rock and chat show hosted by hardcore icon Henry Rollins (who turned 48 on Friday the 13th!) on the Independent Film Channel still hasn’t been given the boot. I still remember one of the original episodes years ago that literally made me cringe when the middle-aged punk rocker, absurdly deferential and so clearly out of his league, interviewed maverick director Werner Herzog. It was the first time I realized Rollins’ problem, that in his thirst for knowledge he devoured facts that he was unable to digest, only spew them back up like after a bad drinking binge. He’s an intellectual poseur really, a geek wanna-be, and what’s so ironic and disturbing is that he’s forever going against one of the founding tenets of punk rock – just be yourself. Longing to be part of an intelligentsia far out of his reach (“If only I read enough books about black holes maybe I can get Stephen Hawking on the show!”), Rollins ignores his own talents – and remains painfully unaware of his own limitations.

But for me, the truly defining moment came during a segment showing Rollins typing a tongue in cheek letter to ultraconservative pundit Ann Coulter who undoubtedly wouldn’t know Rollins from a roach spray salesman (or did she, in fact, meet him back in the day when the singer achieved what was probably one of his lifetime goals of appearing on her friend Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect”? I certainly could picture Ann and Bill in a prizefighting debate while Rollins looked on like an eager puppy begging to jump in, oblivious to the truth that no matter how hard he worked he’d never have the skills to turn pro). Yet what bothered me most were his smart-ass suggestions to her, that the Republican cheerleader become his “domestic-concubine” who would just “shut the fuck up” and worship him. Hot and bothered me most. With every “shut the fuck up” typed by fingers connected to those brawny tattooed arms I imagined dropping further and further to my knees in adoring submission until I would finally take that punk rock cock in my mouth. So in a sense my sexual frustration watching the beefcake Rollins mirrored his own frustration with himself. I would fuck him in a heartbeat, I thought, if he would only just shut the fuck up.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Life As A Canvas

“Lauren Wissot explores the similarities between Jeremiah Zagar's “In A Dream” and Pamela Tanner Boll's “Who Does She Think She Is?”, two documentaries that highlight the challenges involved in creating art as well as the eternal plight of struggling artists.”

In other words, the good news is the latest issue of Filmmaker magazine is available at a newsstand near you. And the bad news is my interview’s also only available at a (non-virtual) newsstand near you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Trials of Ted Haggard

Originally published at SpoutBlog:


Alexandra Pelosi’s “The Trials of Ted Haggard” is a behind-the-scenes peek at the fallen pastor post meth-and-male-escort-scandal as he struggles to rebuild his life now that he’s been banished from his Colorado Springs mega-church and forced into exile in Arizona. Traveling from “safe house to safe house” with his loving wife Gayle (who explains her decision to stand by her man with a no-nonsense, “I don’t believe in writing people off,” and well-adjusted sons, they literally rely on the kindness of strangers. And if you think I’m being metaphorically melodramatic describing Haggard and his kin in biblical terms of banishment from their holy land, forced to wander like ancient Jews, think again. One of Pelosi’s frequently used title cards actually explains that the New Life Church inexplicably fixed it so the sweet-natured Haggard not only can’t preach in Colorado or anywhere else – he’s been booted from the entire Rocky Mountain state!

Unfortunately, Pelosi’s documentary has a haphazard, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute kind of feel, with new footage randomly inter-cut with video of old sermons (the sexual misconduct accusation by a church member that recently came to light is even tacked on at the end via one of those title cards that fill in the story’s gaps). The film doesn’t delve into the reasoning behind Haggard’s punishment from the Colorado Springs evangelical community, nor the impetus driving those Arizona Christians to take the Haggard family in. And that’s a major missed opportunity for Pelosi. As someone who came of age in the vibrant hardcore/new wave/goth scene in Colorado Springs in the late 80s it’s hard for me to imagine any organization in Colorado being able to ban an individual from the whole darn state. Colorado, never a hotbed of liberalism, has mysteriously become part of the Bible Belt while Arizona embodies the “live and let live” ethos of Sin City (the state’s proximity to Nevada alluded to in the film by Haggard himself who points out a church cross not far from the border of Sodom in the sand). And yet this important context for those trials of Ted Haggard is never remotely explored.

Pelosi, who got her start as a producer for “Dateline,” has crafted a “CNN: Special Investigations Unit” type piece that quickly skims the surface, rather than deeply probing the world of this thrillingly complicated and refreshingly sincere man who bravely refuses to define himself in strict and easy terms of gay, straight and bi. And if anyone was suited to doing just this it was the director herself, who got to know Pastor Ted personally while filming Friends of God. The two are a perfect match, with Pelosi’s line of enthusiastic, hyper-inquisitive questioning as bubbly and bighearted as the ever-optimistic Haggard’s disposition. When Pelosi asks, “How does it feel to be in exile?” Haggard honestly replies, “We’re miserable,” staring straight into the camera. There’s no flinching from the truth or spinning of words with this self-pitiless “sinner,” whose adultery and drug use trump admitted homosexual impulses in his view of sins to be repented, and who uses adversity as an opportunity to grow.

Instead of lamenting unemployment Haggard, whose bachelor’s degree in English bible renders him a high school graduate in the secular world, makes lemons from lemonade, gushing about feeling like a teenager as he goes on the first job interview of his life. “If they don’t Google me I’ll get the job,” he surmises afterwards. Nope, there’s nothing sensational about Haggard the traveling health insurance salesman who offers roasted marshmallows to his houseguests. Like Willy Loman he’s just a struggling family guy doing the best he can to keep his loved ones from becoming destitute, less a fallen man of the cloth than a recession-proof hero, a motivational speaker and self-help guru who truly practices what he preaches. Now if only the equally highly motivated Pelosi would have focused her lens on how he got that way.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

5 High Points in Punk Rock on Film

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

It was 30 years ago this week that Sid Vicious rang the death knell for punk rock, overdosing on heroin on February 2nd while awaiting trial for the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen. So in honor of the spike-haired rebel who was the face (if not the sound) of punk, and whose chaotic life ended at the tender age of 21, I present five punk rock films that really rock.


Suburbia was released in 1983, and though Sid Vicious had flamed out along with punk’s heyday years before, America’s hardcore scene was in overdrive with bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys reinventing the music by playing at the speed of light, pumping up the adrenaline from coast to coast (and causing this minor threat to later consider the Ramones as slowpoke as The Beatles.) Director Penelope Spheeris, best known for docs like “Decline of Western Civilization” and her later forays into sellout Hollywood, thrillingly applied the original punk DIY ethos to filmmaking, using guerrilla tactics and nonprofessionals to create a time capsule of L.A.’s underground scene. In other words, the film not only documents punk, it is punk – and a must-see for a young punk as much as the latest Bad Brains album was a must-hear. In fact, I must’ve seen this film about a group of runaways who form a punk family a dozen times during my anarchistic teenage years, never sober and usually with my own extended, Mohawk coiffed, leather-and-chain-wearing family. Indeed, the image of lead character Evan kicking at white walls like a trapped animal, futilely trying to fight his way out of society’s cage, often would be the last I’d see before passing out next to a spike-toed Doc.

“Repo Man”

Emilio Estevez has never been as good as he was in “Repo Man.” Appropriately released in that Orwellian year of 1984, Alex Cox’s surreal take on the world of mercenary repossession agents is every bit as bizarre as anything Terry Gilliam ever put onscreen. As punk rocker Otto, Estevez stoically faces losing his job, being dumped by his girlfriend, UFOs and government conspiracies – not to mention a quintessentially slimy Harry Dean Stanton as his mentor – all set to a soundtrack featuring everything from Iggy Pop to the Burning Sensations (whose ditty “Pablo Picasso” has some of the punkest lyrics ever written: “All the girls would turn the color of an avocado/ When he’d drive down the street in his El Dorado/ Though he was only five-foot-three girls could not resist his stare/ Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole – not like you”).

“Sid & Nancy”

I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about “Sid & Nancy” in my recent Criterion Collection essay at The House Next Door, but suffice to say that this true love story of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his junkie groupie-turned-girlfriend Nancy Spungen is anything but your typical tabloid biopic. Alex Cox’s 1986 film is nothing less than a masterful visual translation of the greatest punk rock story ever told. As with “Repo Man,” the director digs deep, discovering the surreal in the everyday while mining the humanity and even humor of the nihilist 70s. Songs by The Pogues and the late Clash front man Joe Strummer round out the soundtrack. And of course, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb are equally unforgettable as the leads.

“Valley Girl”

Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film is basically “Romeo and Juliet” set in the San Fernando Valley with no sword fights, a happy ending and, most importantly, as Sparks would say, “music that you can dance to.” Nicolas Cage plays the punk rock, knight-in-shining-armor Randy to Valley Girl Julie (Deborah Foreman) with just the right mix of lovesickness and weirdness. Equally impressive is the soundtrack, with such classics as Josie Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer Boy?” and songs by virtually every new wave band that mattered, from The Psychedelic Furs to Sparks to The Plimsouls. And as an added bonus, it contains one of the best pickup lines ever, “I like tacos, ‘78 Cabernet and my favorite color is magenta.” Totally awesome!

“This Is England”

My awestruck review pretty much sums up my passion for Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical 2007 film about growing up skinhead in the early 80s of Thatcher’s Britain. Defying every cliché with subtlety and specificity Meadows follows 12-year-old Shaun whose dad has been killed fighting in the Falklands War as he discovers a father figure in the leader of the local skins, taking tough love and hard lessons from his new Doc-stomping, Ben Sherman shirt clad family. In fact, “This Is England” is the perfect companion piece to Spheeris’ “Suburbia,” released nearly a quarter century before, proving that punk rock really didn’t die with Sid, and that it never lost its heartfelt cool.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sid Vicious (May 10, 1957 – February 2, 1979)

“Sid & Nancy,” Alex Cox’s heartfelt take on the true-life relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen—a love that ended when Sid stabbed Nancy to death in the Chelsea Hotel, then died of a drug overdose while awaiting trial—could easily have been just another rock biopic. Instead, through the use of fantasy-tinged reenactments (favoring the surreal in lieu of the straightforward), Cox transforms this gritty tabloid story into something deeper. It's a perfect example of finding truth through fictionalization.

To read the rest of my essay The Criterion Collection #20: Sid & Nancy visit The House Next Door.