Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Taming the Tittering Tourists: 50 SHADES OF GREY, 9 1/2 WEEKS, EXIT TO EDEN, SECRETARY + SHE DEMONS, Franco, Bunuel, Josef von Sternberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet

Most fans of 50 Shades of Grey--the kinky BDSM bestseller by E.L. James--were wincing (and not in a good way) at last week's debut of the forthcoming film adaptation's conventional, fashion mag-slick trailer - "I didn't like it the the sixth time, when it was called 9 1/2 Weeks!" But no one asked the big question: What's wrong with cinema that it can't seem to capture the sickly turn-ons of a good bondage book? When I saw and heard the conventional sounding Edward of the piece, Mr. Grey (Jamie Dornan), the "masterful" captain of industry and 'wealthy, spontaneous, travel-minded' gentleman (the kind of man every girl with an online personal ad pines for --take it from me, so hard) with a dirty little secret. I was glad to see he had one of those freaky reptilian-bird-alien-CGI-hybrid faces like old Bob Pattinson's, but his hair, suits, and voice, not to mention age, are as ROTM as any lawyer-cum-porn star in a 90s direct-to-cable office thriller.

There, there. There's always Wild Orchids 4.
Maybe no one now working today could have filled the Mr. Grey part with any degree of affect, except Harvey Keitel (a prospect too odious perhaps to consider seriously, which is exactly why it would have been awesome). It also may have worked if Dornan kept his Irish accent, or wore his hair in a crazed tousle to give himself the air of a coked-up Caligula, but there are just too many young male models with nothing but gym muscles and hair gel by way of 'gravitas' pretending to be high-powered executives on network TV for him to stand out.  Dornan is beautiful but would he ever make it as a dom outside of a Westworld-style robo-fantasy? I know some girls who are or were dominatrixes for a living. They are terrifying, even off the clock. They'd tear him apart without even needing to crack a whip.

And that's the problem with adaptations of bondage books in a nutshell. The reason that shit gets ladies so hot is that it's Freudian --it runs deep. Anger over one actor playing a character already cast in the mind of every turned-on broad in America is normal, anyone who read the book first feels that way, but sadomasochistic stuff is doubly difficult because what's so very erotic on the page becomes either too goofy and tame (Secretary, Exit to Eden) or too genuinely violent and disturbing (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) once committed to screen. Too much visual information (facial cues) lead us right out of the sadomasochistic spectator pleasure position and into the empathic concern position. On the printed page, the bondage fantasy recaptures the pre-empathic age when we tattled constantly on our fellow children in hopes of witnessing their humiliation via mom's wooden spoon or dad's belt (1). The mix of vicarious anal phase humiliation and pain conjures sadistic glee instead of concern and outrage because empathy hasn't quite kicked in yet. Kids are more concerned about what they can get away with doing without getting punished. This fear of punishment gets to the dark chthonic heart of animal desire in the anal and oral phases. Ideally we evolve past this sadistic stage by around third or fourth grade; empathy kicks in and we suddenly don't get the same thrill torturing Japanese beetles in the driveway (2). But on the printed page (or spoken word) we can easily override the empathic response and recall the jouissance of imagining 'a child is being beaten' in a way far different from the vicarious thrill of filmgoing. Once onscreen with real actor faces saying the lines or contorting in pain, presuming we're not sociopaths or high on cocaine (3) our mammalian higher functioning kicks in.

Masochism may survive onto the big screen due to the innate nature of cinema as a voyeuristic absence (as in the films of Josef von Sternberg or Luis Bunuel) but not in the form of traditional leather and lace titillation that erotic fiction so easily accesses. Bondage stuff in reality is usually dictated by the woman. The man's either masochistic or enacting the part of the master she wants, but usually this is via spoken narrative during sex, more talk about what she'd like him to like her to do, at least in my (not insubstantial) experience. If physically enacted, there's a safe word, most importantly, and carefully laid-out rules of conduct on both sides --especially if the man is the dominant figure this is so important, and what separates spousal abuse from kinky foreplay often boils down to just these rules.

The same rules that make it possible in real life, alas, kill it in the movies.

According to Gaylyn Studlar (4), true masochism can only exist in dreams, conjured more out of a need to safely experience the abyss, to trick out the satisfactory endorphin rush that surges to accommodate sudden pain (as in the heroic measure of wasabi or hot sauce); it must be done in person or in the mind where we can imagine a transformational ecstasy that ordinary movie watching doesn't accommodate. The shocking Times Square marquee, coming attraction, or the film capsule review might enflame or awaken these latent desires, but the actual film will never measure up; it's the difference between remembering your own crazy, erotic dream and hearing about someone else's. It's the difference between seeing the covers for films like Kitten with a Whip or Naked Under Leather vs. the actual movies.

Example #1: In the 90s there was a small, velvet-lined S&M themed restaurant in midtown NYC called La Nouvelle Justine: it offered a menu that included spanking hot young slaves or being spanked, and an overpriced chocolate mousse cake in shape of a spike heeled boot for parties of five or more. While tourists and bachelorettes snapped pictures and laughed in embarrassment, tame bondage rituals were enacted and pretty slaves marched back and forth, pretending to be thrilled at the prospect of their future lucrative punishments by the diners. We were there for my roommate's orgiastic kid sister's birthday, so we bought her a hot boy of her choosing to spank, knowing she was no slouch in this department. One light (for her) slap and he jumped up and ran away with a girlish shriek; the bouncers came over to warn her to be gentle.

Fuckin' midtown, man.

Hearing is believing (from top): Weekend, Persona
I was into bondage myself, off and on, for years, always more in theory than practice (losing my virginity to "Venus in Furs" helped), but generally turned off by any evidence of it onscreen; that's why, for example, so many Nerve profiles cite as their favorite sex scene Persona (1966), which has no sex at all, 'just' a monologue about a spontaneous beachside foursome, delivered in a flat, slightly ashamed voice by Bibi Andersson.

As our French correspondent Severine notes: "Most French people would tell you that the image neutralizes the imagination in this field and suggest you to read, or ask someone to read you erotic literature." But then the book sells, gets passed around at mom's book club, and boom, a best-seller, so then someone has to make a movie of it. The problem first appeared in the mainstream via 9 1/2 Weeks (see top image), a 1986 film that had so much word-of-mouth buzz, a bit like 50 Shades has now, that it fooled people who saw it into forgetting they hated it. Its post-American Gigolo cocaine-modernist penthouse spandex-and wool socks aerobics sexual aesthetic--never my cup of tea even back then--has not aged well except as camp (see also: The Hunger, Flashdance, Shiver, Last Seduction, Disclosure, Basic Instinct) and within even that narrow confine, Weeks sucks. Even with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke (back when he was still pretty) it sucks, and they can engage in all sorts of kinky shit with ice cubes and candle wax all they want, it seldom draws more than titters. I know girls who love that movie, though I would argue they love thinking about scenes from it while masturbating. It might work being remembered but as a film it's a joke.

men in black, blondes to the right, from top: 9 1/2 Weeks (1986); Dangerous Game (1993)
Similarly, all that 'R' erotica stuff in the back row of Netflix and Amazon Prime, like Emmanuelle, Justine, or The Story of O, is never sexy except in rare instances of almost incidental hotness. They're of worth today only for their non-'erotic' elements --the hyper-active zooms, the terrible fashions, the hilariously stilted artsy blocking, terrible dubbing, cliche'd muzak and montage. Sometimes we 'remember' these films as hot, since remembering brings eventually us into the same hot zone as literature, or the dream.

Today, with AIDS awareness running concurrently with the rise of home video and internet pornography, free love has been hidden away so that the jovial bacchanal of 70s XXX marquee is gone, replaced by condoms on gym-muscled dudes so pumped with Viagara so a girl doesn't ever get a break. HBO runs endless misogynistic sleazy shit like Game of Thrones and no one bats an eye, while stuff that moves off the lip of the familiar and seems genuinely dangerous-- such as the borderline misogynistic mental torture of Madonna in Abel Ferrara's much-hated Dangerous Game (1993)--stirs our preliminary superego shock troops into inner-censorial unsexy PC knee-jerking. Maybe with coke around we'd feel different, coke censures the empathic mammalian response, but without it--thank god--we're too compassionate to enjoy another's suffering. On the other hand, there seems to be a weird distance - the famous thing where a girl shown having an orgasm will garner a film an NC-17, seeing her brutally gang-raped and murdered, an R--showing just how vindictive and resentful censors are towards women's bodies. Into this dilemma, the bondage book adaptation has two choices, an "isn't this silly?" self-aware limp dick campiness, or perfume ad textures and hairless bodies artfully entwined under misty filters, i.e. sterile affectation.


While the 50 Shades trailer reminded me of Adran Lynne's 9 1/2 Weeks (the perfume ad version) and its subsequent deluge of big budget late 80s-early 90s copycat corporate jet sex thrillers, what the surrounding outraged Grey-fanatic uproar reminded me of was the heady days of A.N. Rocquelaire, (the nom de erotique plume of Anne Rice) whose est seller bondage novel Exit to Eden was adapted into a move that wound up ruined by Hollywood groupthink in 1985. The story of an bondage-themed island resort for rich kinky decadents, it was an darkly erotic murder mystery, not a comedy, but the suits cast Dan Akroyd and Rosie O'Donnell in the leads as buddy cops (the body cop movie was all the rage in '85), which made the book's fans feel like Jimmy Stewart when Midge shows him her self-portrait in Vertigo (1958).

Another entry in the mainstream bondage category on the camp-winky side of the valley, Secretary (2002 - above) fails in ways not quite as extreme: seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal walk around an office doing paperwork clamped into a black leather stock is overly twee-quirky funny, not remotely sexy, but at least she herself is cute and her masochism acknowledged as preferable to her depression-motivated self-cutting. Still, her getting spanked for the first time by boss James Spader during office hours is the film's only sexy moment because it's unplanned (could easily win her a harassment lawsuit), dangerous (no safe word), and functional (he's correcting her typo). But soon the typos are framed along the office corridors, and quirky paint schemes turn the legal office into some 'madcap' Urban Outfitters showroom.

For true sadomasochistic affect we will have to look still farther, across the pond and back in time, and onto the Blue Underground and Severin DVD labels, to maverick auteurs like Jean Rollin, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Jess Franco. 

The latter's Succubus (1967) is a fine example of the whole twice-removed 'listening to someone else's dream' nonstarter vibe being re-charged through a neat intellectual triple reversal. A nightclub S/M performance in a film is tepid but if the dominatrix killing them for real and no one in the audience knows, then a kind of mecha-medusa-mirroring Antonioni signifier collapse leads us out of the Platonic cave altogether, like the jolt when Samara crawls out of the TV in The Ring.
Bunuel directing La Belle du Jour; She-Demons
There are rare directors who manage to understand the 'someone else's dream' dilution and reverse it yet again, to take us all the way out of the dream within the movie and out of even our dream of reality and back into their 'privatized' space, like falling asleep and waking up as your own mother, and no longer even being born. Bunuel and von Sternberg bring viewers to this death driven sense of total floating freedom via recreations of the Freudian primal scene, and a grasp of the longing to return to the pre-Oedipal total reunion with the mother. The result is a total and complete annihilation of self and free will, a surrender that overloads the superego with super-amped feedback until it shatters, freeing our recessive psychic blocks, opening the cellar doors on our subconscious basement prisons and letting all the long-repressed memories and desires escape into the open air, where of course, they evaporate, because an unbound desire is an oxymoron.

This is where French theory comes in handy, ala the concepts of masquerade and Deleuze's 'Becoming-Animal' - as in She Demons (1957, above), where castaways wander into a scene of beautiful blonde savages being whipped by Nazis. Our natural desire to kill the Nazi and free the hot jungle girl is tempered by the gun (phallic authority of the father) of the Nazi whipper and our possible misunderstanding of what's behind it all (as a child would misunderstand the primal scene). It's not erotic to watch, and over too fast to lose ourselves in via fantasy, but the kinky image and the idea that 'somewhere (on some island) a beautiful blonde demon girl is being whipped by a cruel Dr. Moreau style Nazi' lingers in the mind. When mulling through my bad movie collection, I can watch Plan Nine, Mesa of Lost Women and The Astounding She Monster over and over, but She-Demos gives me pause, due to this concept of imprisonment and abuse. Freud's 'somewhere a child is being beaten' scenario gives it a subconscious charge of queasiness. In not watching it, I'm preventing the suffering. But at the same time, I have two copies of it. And I take one everywhere I go. To get back to Vertigo, I'd say the other films are just 'safe' places like the art museum and national park, but She-Demons is the old bell tower, or Midge's step-ladder.

At the same time, whipping not 'supposed' to be erotic, not built up by smutty directors with kinky sex toys, the woman moaning in dubbed in pleasure or laughter or infantile squeals of pleasure, then and only then is it arousing --because it is so very wrong to be aroused. Because soon after the punishment, the woman reveals herself to have devolved into a gibbering devil, ala the Island of Lost Souls animal men. The House of Pain creates consciousness - arousal leads to savagery and then despair as desire is washed away - revealing the same old emptiness and fear.

Venuses in furs 
It's up to Von Sternberg and his Dietrich collaborations in the final analysis, to remain seductive as well as masochistic--the impossible hat trick. Bunuel is great but I never really feel the need to see most of his movies more than once (though I write about them endlessly), whereas the Von Sternberg-Dietrichs improve and beguile more and more with each successive viewing. If the collective 'we' are to understand why the Grey book is so popular yet the trailer isn't, Von Sternberg is the key:
"The fatalism of Von Sternberg's films is not simply an acceptance of death as an externally imposed inevitability but the expression of the masochistic urge toward death as a self-willed liberation. In choosing death, an illusionary triumph is created: the illusion of choice," (48)

"...masochism's obsession with death may be interpreted either as the expression of a universal instinctual urge or as the result of the masochistic wish for complete symbiosis with the mother and a return to nothingness,.... Eros is desexualized and resexualized; death becomes the ultimate fetish that fascinates with the promise of a mystical unity." (p. 123)
Only Bunuel and Von Sternberg ever seemed to grasp this concept, and it's interesting that both adapted the same masochistic text, Pierre Lou├┐s "La femme et le pantin," or that two different actresses play the same character in Bunuel's version, That Obscure Object of Desire, the cocktease girl who continually manipulates the lead and denies him any form of sexual release, a bond she instinctively understands he needs and appreciates (he might have some sexual liasons with her, but since we don't see them in the film/s [ever in Devil] it's a moot point; the censor's requirements are in themselves masochistic in this sense). The rapper Scarface once said, "I'm done as soon as I bust me a nut," - well, some characters never want to be 'done' - it spoils the game, turns a long elaborate twisted ritual into a disappointingly short-lived gratification followed by shame and emptiness. The whole trick to getting what you want is to deliberately want to want it rather than to have it and want your old wanting back. Most magic tricks are part sleight-of-hand and part misdirection, but in masochism, misdirection is the whole trick. The slighted hands of the clock are frozen at bedtime, right before mom comes in to kiss you goodnight and turn out the lights. If you never get the kiss, the lights stay on and the demons under the bed can't get you. 

From top: Blonde Venus, That Obscure Object of Desire
 Don Pasquale hits closest to home...

I've never been a fan of The Devil is a Woman or the Bunuel version, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) but I respect them and so question the underpinning of my own hostile reaction. I loved a girl who treated me wrong when I was ten, exploited my devotion by denying me any good cards in Candyland (she's put them on the bottom of the deck and make me draw again), borrowing my stuff and never giving it back, batting first in whiffle ball and then quitting when it was my turn, over and over. I was so smitten I never caught on to her tricks until years later. Now her memory is buried under the deck like those cards Since then I've always shied away from movies where everyone is money-grubbing like a third world tourist trapper, such as in von Sternberg's version especially. All the money he shelled out is what Atwill stresses in his re-telling of his relationship with Concha (Marlene Dietrich) to young dashing Cesar Romero, but he plays down any sexual contact (this being the only post-code Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration), leaving us with a series of bilking, check-writing, cataloguing of goods, birds, food, baskets of comestibles for the mother, and Dietrich with her hair up in baroque headdresses singing a merry peasant song about sons of bakers, and florists, "and other things that aren't so sweet." It's dispiriting, even as we realize Atwill is emphasizing these things to Romero to try to scare him off. That's fine strategy, but lousy art. It doesn't go all the way, so winds up jarring the brain with the kind of shit we go to movies to escape, i.e. the check. We see films to reach the oral gratification illusion rather than the actual gratification which leads immediately afterwards to disillusionment. A triple reversal is mesmerizing, a quadruple just exasperating as a double.

For the true masochist the velvet cage is not reminiscent of prison but of infancy. The crib bars past which one cannot crawl signify safety as well as frustration; in adulthood this feeling translates to the movie screen one cannot enter. We're locked out, but in the darkness of the audience lies amniotic safety. Don Pasquale watches Carmela make love to the younger bullfighter through bars, making him a ground zero witness to a recreated primal scene: the crib that prevents unobstructed maternal access triggers the primal scene's return in all its superego smashing Thanatos-resurrecting shame and longing. This obstruction is duplicated in the filmgoing experience, which might try to wear the mask of the sadistic male gaze but is (as per Shaviro and Studlar) masochistic in the face underneath... unless the gazer is the type who never sees anything but MGM musicals.

The sweet, cinematic pain of separation (boys to the left): Blonde Venus, Obscure Object of Desire, Persona
Devil is a Woman
True masochism pre-dates the Oedipal complex, it moves towards total reunion or separation, peek-a-boo, as it were, the return to a total reunification with the mother and the annihilation of the self (and any post-oral phase baggage that may have accrued), Eros and Thanatos are re-conjoined. There are no images at the end of this reverse embryonic journey, the eyes have yet to open, but movies can't go dark, so they'll never get there. Even without ruining a BDSM fantasy, such as by making it ridiculous through winks and snarks, or sterile through perfume ad luxury, there's already something faintly ridiculous and sad about bondage onscreen, ala that weird night at La Nouvelle Justine. It's like fiction within fiction, a double negative, which has value only as metatextual abstraction or intellectual discourse, which is why it's so beloved of French intellectuals like novelist/theorist Georges Bataille (Story of the Eye) and filmmaker/novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, but is never sexy. No matter how arty the lighting and fractured the text, the bondage and discipline stuff in Robbe-Grillet's films always looks a little sex shop goofy. There's no way to de-goofy it without going really dark. Either way, not sexy....

Gradiva (2006)
In the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, many of which are now on DVD, rustic barns, thrift store period costumes, and brand spanking new spankers mix uneasily together to no real affect. Robbe is an intellectual, take his word for it, and part of the Georges Bataille-Deleuze-Lacan industrial complex. But in the end, it boils down to the same goofy handcuffs provoking little more than boredom and vague feminist ire. Read a book, Alain! Aloud, so we all can hear. And ideally make that book Gaylyn Studlar's In the Realm of Pleasure. You're probably smart enough to understand it. That's called flattery, you craven dog! Kneel before Gaylyn's leathery whip of knowledge!!

1. Though I hear that's not done these days by parents, kids certainly can imagine being abducted thanks to nonstop media hysteria. And I'd add that when the 'child is being beaten' frisson is taken out of the parental sphere, dad loses 90% of his authority (a good dad shouldn't need to punish, but without the threat what power does he have?) Now the power is reversed, rather than the kid scared of the dad spanking, the dad is scared of the kid saying he was spanked, leading to child services' snooping and neighborhood gossip). This accounts, in my mind, for the at least part of the shift of the father's role in the house from authoritarian top dog to--essentially--older brother. 
2. That's kind of my story. I was a very kinky kid until one day, when I was around seven, torturing beetles with a neighborhood friend in his driveway, I saw one of the beetles staggering away leaking black blood on its remaining leg, and I felt totally sick and ashamed. I stood up, stepped on them all to put them out of their misery and never hung out with that kid again, the shame and sick regret forming the core of an every expanding empathy snowball, 
3. When I was studying to be a drug counselor I learned it's common for cocaine abusers to order S/M porn and bondage gear online in the middle of the night during a coke binge, forget all about it, then be appalled when it comes in the mail a week later. Sometimes they forget they ordered it and think some freak is stalking them. It's often a factor in what compels them to seek treatment.
4. Studlar, Gaylar, Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic by Garylyn Studlar (Columbia Press, 1988):

1 comment:

  1. Great post. You're absolutely bang on about literature being far better for invoking the real thing, since BDSM fantasies themselves are so cerebral. Very much in the mind rather than the actual visuals, which so easily look corny, immediately. The most erotic, sadomasochistically breath-stopping thing I've seen in a film is the way Conrad Veidt manipulates Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face, and no clothes come off. All he has to do is squeeze her arm and she sways and bends towards him, all very subtly done, yet there's no doubt in my mind that this guy could, indeed, fuck her into killing a child. It's him wearing a tuxedo (and yet looking more femme than Dietrich while wearing one) that's far more erotic than a pair of, say, leather trews.


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