In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.

If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.

Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.

I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.

-Brandon Ledet

Gracefully (2019)

My entire familiarity with gender performance as entertainment has been centered on American (or at least Western) drag tradition until recently, which was even further limited to the arena of Southern pageant drag until just a few years ago. As the influence of avant-garde Club Kids artistry is rapidly spreading on the “mainstream” drag stage, the definition of what drag is and what drag can be is changing. For instance, it was impossible to watch the glammed-up luchadores of the recent documentary Cassandro, the Exotico! and not think of how that tradition was an extension of drag artistry, not just a mutation of Mexican pro wrestling culture. Similarly, you’ll never hear the word “drag” uttered in the documentary Gracefully, but it’s clear that the unnamed Iranian female impersonator the film profiles is clearly performing a non-American variation on the artform. He performs purely as a dancer when exhibiting his art, sidestepping the lip-syncing traditions of drag as we know it. There’s also drastically different cultural history to how his own artform came to be, which means you’ll never hear the word “queer’ or “gay” uttered in the film either; they’re just not part of his background. And yet, the D.I.Y. glam artistry, political combativeness, and illusionary gender performance of his work all qualify him to be considered in a drag context – a medium that’s exponentially expanding its scope every passing year.

This unnamed dancer’s work is not some fresh invention of the modern era of drag. If anything, Gracefully catches up with the dancer in an era where his time is long gone and his traditions are threatening to fade away, forgotten. The conservative moralism that overtook his country after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made his artform obsolete—as dancing itself was effectively outlawed—making this film just as much a harsh look at art under censorship as it is a portrait of a singular, fascinating man. Once a popular sensation as a man who dances in woman’s clothing (thanks to a gendered privilege that allowed him certain freedoms women couldn’t afford), he mostly continues his art in private, performing for no one. Sub-professional venues like local wedding celebrations & nursing home visits are certainly beneath his former prestige as a nationally recognized dancer with a burgeoning film career, but it’s amazing he’s still performing at all. Hell, it’s amazing that he’s alive. He toils most days as a respectable working-class farmer and the father to six(!) adult sons, but one whose domestic routines seem like harshly quiet, cruelly restrained distractions from what truly makes him happy, what he was born to do. Any time we get to see him perform his art for the camera it’s a gorgeous act of self-expression; the tragedy of the film is how limited those opportunities have become.

Gracefully is smart to never allow the flashiness of its craft to overpower the inherent fasciation of its subject (something that unfortunately can’t be said about this year’s Cassandro, the Exotico!). When it does get noticeably artful in its framing & imagery, it’s only ever in service of its subject’s dancing—often showing him performing in pitch-black voids as if his D.I.Y. glamor was the only thing in the world that matters. Otherwise, the emotional wallops of the film arrive in surprisingly understated ways: watching him raise young calves on the farm, listening to his sons express their varied opinions on the value & morality of his art, the tragedy of his extensive femme wardrobe being locked away in storage containers where no one can admire it, etc. Lest you think we’ve already arrived at a place where drag is no longer a subversively political act (which I don’t think is true in America; it’s just the kind of thing that Very Online, jaded city-folk might say), Gracefully offers an incredibly distinct, fascinating example where it’s being censored out of existence. Its nameless subject is a kind of rebellious activist in that sense, but for the most part he only wants to have the freedom to do what he pleases: dance in women’s clothing. And he’s really good at it! It’s devastating to see that his art has been so limited by censorship that he himself has become a living archive for a dead tradition, but at least this movie consciously strives to preserve his corner of drag tradition to help ensure his legacy is not forgotten. It’s important work.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seven Minutes (1971)

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fourstar

“The sex film? I think it’s on the way out. I want to get into horror films. Suspense, mystery.” -Russ Meyer

Russ Meyer may have been done with sexploitation (if you believe that for a second) but the bosoms weren’t done with him. The director’s follow up to his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls may have pretended to be a straight-laced courtroom drama, but The Seven Minutes was just as plagued with Russ’ sexual id as any of his nastier works. Reportedly, Fox Studios took the opposite approach to its hands-off policy with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & pressured Meyer into not only adopting this specific property (an Irving Wallace novel) for the screen, but also demanding that the film achieve an R-rating from the MPAA, perhaps as a reaction to the sting of the studio’s X-rated disaster Myra Breckinridge. High octane Meyer works like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! had established a certain maniacal standard for the director’s work that The Seven Minutes demonstrates little-to-no desire to fulfill. Still, I find that the negative reaction to The Seven Minutes was largely unwarranted. It was far from Meyer’s most personal picture, but I found it to be more enjoyable than a majority of his catalog, much to my surprise.

Despite how subdued The Seven Minutes may come across at first glance, it actually commanded twice the budget of Meyer’s previous big studio effort & the director’s all-time longest runtime. There’s no doubt that the director initially intended the film to be his grandest work, his once chance to be taken seriously. So, where did he choose to set his sights for his major studio manifesto? Now on top of the world (in terms of ticket sales, anyway; most critics still scoffed at him), Meyer gloatingly fired back at the censorship boards & moral policing that plagued the theater run of his otherwise-successful film Vixen! just three years earlier. The Seven Minutes (named for the average time it takes for a woman to achieve orgasm), revolves around a courtroom battle in which an oversensitive moral vanguard attempts to convict a sexually-oriented novel guilty for the rape of a young college student by providing “living proof that a dirty book can destroy a  clean boy.” Of course, Meyer’s tirade stands firmly on the other side of the issue, railing against the hypocritical piety of the prosecutors looking to condemn this piece of fictional smut and, by extension, condemning the work of Russ Meyer himself. In a lot of ways The Seven Minutes is a highly paranoid piece of art, one that thumbs its nose at the extensive past of Meyer detractors in a grandly expensive display of gloating.

Solidifying the film’s straw man argument against the freedom of expression of sexual liberation in art, The Seven Minutes openly mocks the fictional Strength Through Decency League. One of the best stretches of dialogue in the film is the following rant at one of the STDL’s political rallies; “There is virtually no area that remains untainted by the quick buck artists who pander to our lowest forms of taste, and the public be damned. Just the other evening, my first night off in weeks, I decided to take my wife Mary & our three children to the movies. In our neighborhood, we had such subject material as rape, lust, motorcycle gangs, homosexuals, lesbians, drug abuse, you name it. Whatever happened to the movies we used to be able to take our children to?” What’s so great about this speech is that it not only jokingly jabs at the exact smut Meyer had himself been peddling for over a decade, but it also serves as a distinct antithesis to the anti-censorship rant that opens Meyer’s Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. Meyer never forgave the goody two shoes who complicated his otherwise-successful run with Vixen! He wasn’t satisfied with protesting them at the beginning of his modest indie movie Cherry, but waited to use the big time stage of his second major studio release to portray censorship-happy do-gooders as two-faced monsters who pretend to be “protecting the public”, but behind closed doors are hoarding pornography for themselves while maintaining a holier-than-thou public persona.

This aspect of The Seven Minutes positions the film as a personal work for Meyer, even if his personal interest in the work is centered mostly on a vicious pettiness. It’s not the only thing that distinguishes the film as a uniquely Meyer work, though. Old Meyer standbys like Charles Napier, Stuart Lancaster, and Uschi Digard appear in the film, as do old-hat Meyer tropes like themes of male sexual inadequacy and the idea that heterosexual romance is a form of emotional pugilism, an antagonistic back & forth  seeped much more in vitriol than sexuality. Perhaps the best metaphor for what the film accomplishes can be found in the character Babydoll, played by Shawn Devereaux. As rooms full of law men argue about decency & censorship, Babydoll undulates like the go-go dancers of yesteryear, purring like a high-pitched kitten, blaring hip dance music, and trying to make innocuous acts like eating potato chips the most seductive transgressions imaginable. When her lecherous, lawmaking cohorts bark commands like, “Babydoll, shut off that damn radio!” the push & pull between Meyer’s natural absurdity & the studio’s forced browbeating can be felt in full effect.

The difference between my reaction to The Seven Minutes & that of the film’s contemporaries is that I find that compromised dichotomy fascinating, while critical publications like Playboy Magazine called it “a losing battle of mind over mattress.” In short, The Seven Minutes featured a lot of dudes talking & not a lot of boobs bouncing, something that couldn’t be saved by Meyer’s trademark rapid-fire edits or lip service paid to the virtues of smut in the eyes of the film’s contemporary audience. The critics & the box office returns had their way with the film, making sure that it stood as the very last major studio production that Meyer saw to completion.

Although I’d sympathise with the idea that The Seven Minutes‘ courtroom procedures & undercover police work aren’t as interesting in the abstract as Meyer’s feverish nudie pictures could be, I still stand by the film’s quality as a finished product. I think that being the very first Russ Meyer film that couldn’t be read as a campy trifle may have clashed harshly with what people had come to expect from the director, resulting in a vicious reaction to a decent film that didn’t deserve to be met with such an easy dismissal. Meyer himself had even distanced himself from The Seven Minutes in the end, blaming a lot of the film’s shortcomings on the studio’s oppressive influence. I’m willing to chalk that reaction up to wounded pride resulting from the film’s hurtful reception, though, as The Seven Minutes reads as far too distinctly personal for me to dismiss it outright.

-Brandon Ledet

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (1969)

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threehalfstar

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When Russ Meyer voluntarily adopted the “X” rating for his first “hard sex” picture (read: softcore porn) Vixen!, he thought the distinction would serve as great free press. In a lot of ways he wasn’t wrong. Vixen! turned a huge, multi-million dollar profit for Meyer & opened a lot of doors to successes he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Unfortunately, not all of the attention of being the first American-made, X-rated release brought Vixen! was positive, though. A lot of moral policing followed the film across the country, resulting in, among other complications, arrests of projectionists & audience members at multiple screenings in the Deep South. In response, Meyer opened his next “hard sex” picture with the following rant:

“IN THE FACE OF RECENT EVENTS, SOME OF WHICH THREATEN OUR VERY EXISTENCE, THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO CONCENTRATE THEIR PUNY EFFORTS IN AREAS WHERE NO CONCERN IS NEEDED. THEY CALL LOVE EVIL . . . THE HUMAN BODY OBSCENE . . . WHERE THEY CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN BEAUTIFUL. OUR LAKES AND RIVERS FILL SLOWLY WITH DEATH. THE AIR WE BREATHE STRANGLES THE MIGHTY OAK. LITTLE BY LITTLE WE CAN SEE HUMAN COMPASSION AND LOVE GROWING LESS. AND STILL THERE ARE THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR TOY BANNERS OF PROTEST. THEY ATTEMPT TO THINK FOR THE REST OF US. DICTATE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE. THEY, THE STRONG AND PURE OF HEART, MUST PROTECT THOSE OF US WHO “THEY” HAVE DECIDED ARE WEAK. WE DO NOT QUESTION THEIR RIGHT TO PROTEST. BUT LET THEIR DECISIONS BE FOR THEMSELVES, FOR NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANOTHER. THINK ABOUT IT!”

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens in this way, with that full rant scrolling in ALL CAPS on top of a frantic montage of pornographic & industrial imagery, announcing that Russ Meyer’s id was back in full swing. In a lot of ways, Vixen! felt like a toned-down Meyer trying to reshape his bizarrely straight-laced perversions into a  marketable commodity, his weirdo tendencies only showing at the fringes. Cherry ditches that pretense & lets Meyer’s freak flag fly. Here, the chaotic montage work of Mondo Topless meets the soap opera, soft crime machinations of Common Law Cabin to reveal a new, fully-realized Meyer aesthetic that would soon reach its full potential in the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Not wasting any time in unleashing its madness upon its victims . . . I mean audience, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens with no less than three separate introductions. After the contextless, anti-censorship rant transcribed above, the film’s second opening rails against the “Evil of Marijuana” that “caresses all it comes in contact with.” Adopting some of Europe in the Raw‘s xenophobia (now directed at Mexico) & the industrial narration/pin-ups-in-motion formula of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, the film immediately launches into a second rant, this time against recreational marijuana use. The narrator flatly intones, “Pity the poor potheads, innocent victims subjugating their own free will at the mercy of the pusher, the real predator. Scant sympathy can be given to the parasites who would profit from the weaknesses & fragilities of the ill-informed.” Unfortunately, the film that follows is not exactly Meyer’s version of Reefer Madness. In fact, it has very little to do with marijuana at all. The best I can guess of what he was trying to accomplish there was in saying that just because he was willing to cash in on hippie counter-culture & “free love”, he in no way condoned the drugs that accompanied the scene. That’s Meyer in a nutshell. He’s willing to rail against censorship in one breath, but then chastise the youth for their recreational drugs in the next. To him, an unnatural, fetishistic obsession with gigantic breasts is wholesome & American. Marijuana? Not so much. That egotistical moralizing about What is Right & What’s Not often provides some of Meyer’s most fascinating work. For instance, the director’s new-found love of boobs-touching-boobs lesbian scenes wasn’t nearly as interesting when it was introduced in Vixen! as it is when paired in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! with lines like “I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.” Meyer’s films work best when you can see his own self-contradicting moral core battling itself on the screen.

If you’re wondering why I’ve only touched on the film’s introductions so far, without even mentioning its central narrative, it’s because they’re relentless. Reportedly, actress Linda Ashton (who played the titular Cherry) stormed off set mid-production, leaving Meyer with a half-completed picture. Perhaps this is what saved Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! from Vixen!‘s made-for-TV-esque mediocrity. After a third introduction sequence (keep in mind this film is only 70 min long) that features a  psych rock theme song, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! finally launches into action, telling an absurdly thin story about Harry, a corrupt, drug smuggling sheriff at the Mexican border, who’s ordered by his higher ups to take out a mysterious whistle-blower/assassin named Apache. Oh yeah, and he’s involved with a red hot nurse named Cherry. And other beautiful women are around also, including a prostitute named Raquel. And these women like to have sex. Some people die. It’s all very loose, as Meyer filled in the gaps of his half-finished scraps with his infamous sign & landscape montages, a naked mystic character named Soul (who recalls Haji’s distinctly similar role in Good Morning . . . And Goodbye!), and levels of sex & violence previously untouched in Meyer’s oeuvre. It’s a beautiful mess.

There are very few innovations brought to the table in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. It’s the first Meyer film to graphically suggest fellatio (which is pretty racy for him), the first to feature full-frontal male nudity, and the first to feature a black actress in the raw (a nice change of pace after the racist rants of Vixen!). Instead, Cherry is more remarkable for the way it brings all of Meyer’s old-hat tropes together for a single, incomprehensible picture. The lesbianism & food-fellation of Vixen! (this time it’s a celery stalk, not a dead fish) are back. Reaching further in the past, the violence of Meyer’s black & white roughies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! return here in full color this time in the form of decapitations & bloody gunfights. Also present are the strange back & forth cuts between the sexual & the innocuous, this time mixing the image of the titular Cherry & Raquel making love with Harry fighting Apache over possession of a rifle. There’s also the aforementioned industrial montages, naked frolicking, Wild Gals of the Naked West‘s cowboys & Indians cosplay, and misguided, far-reaching statements about women like a closing monologue that calls them “bi-products of our society, pretty toys to play with, superficial in their make-up, but so necessary to our way of life.” It’s all there.

At the time of its release, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! was the most Meyerest Meyer picture, a huge improvement upon the largely personality-free Vixen!. It’s a distinction that would be immediately surpassed in his next picture, but it still made for an interesting slice of over-sexed chaos nonetheless. It ended up being a blessing that Meyer had to piece together a half-completed picture in the editing room. I doubt the film would be nearly as fascinating if it were filmed as originally planned.

-Brandon Ledet