Pink Narcissus (1971)

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pride-themed recommendation lists circling around the internet in recent weeks, many of which are taking into account the peculiar circumstances of this year’s Pride Month concurring with COVID-19 related social distancing and the additional pandemic of police brutality meant to squash the global upswell Black Lives Matter protests. In general, this year has been a difficult time to recommend any specific movies to watch in light of our current Moment, both because cinema feels like such a petty concern right now and because the nuance of the moment is so vast & complex that it’s impossible to capture it in just a few titles. The intersection of racist & homophobic institutional abuses should certainly be pushed to the forefront of this year’s Pride Month programming – something directly addressed in titles like Born in Flames, Paris is Burning, Tongues Untied, and countless others that film programmers & political activists far smarter than myself could point you towards. However, I was also struck by how much James Bidgood’s art-porno Pink Narcissus feels particular to this year’s quarantine-restricted Pride Month, even though it is a film that has nothing useful or direct to say about race discrimination. It’s too insular & fanciful to fully capture our current moment of mass political resistance, but those exact qualities do speak to its relatability in our current, simultaneous moment of social isolation.

James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. gay porno reverie was filmed almost entirely in his NYC apartment over the course of six years. Using the illusionary set decoration skills & visual artistry he honed as both a drag queen & a photographer for softcore beefcake magazines, Bidgood transformed every surface & prop in his living space into a fantastic backdrop for his rock-hard fairy tale. Pink Narcissus is a pure, high-art fantasy constructed entirely out of hand-built set decoration & an overcharged libido, a Herculean effort Bidgood achieved by living and sleeping in the artificial sets he constructed within his own living space. If there’s anything that speaks to me about the past few months of confinement to my home, it’s the idea of tirelessly working on go-nowhere art projects that no one else in the world gives a shit about. Bidgood was eventually devastated when his film was taken out of his hands by outside investors who rushed the project to completion without his participation in the editing room (so devastated that the film was credited to “Anonymous” and was rumored to be a Kenneth Anger piece for decades), but I’m still floored by the enormity, complexity, and beauty of the final product. A lot of us having been building our own little fantasy worlds and arts & crafts projects alone in our homes over recent months; I doubt many are half as gorgeously realized as what Bidgood achieved here.

There is no concrete narrative or spoken dialogue to help give Pink Narcissus its shape. The film is simply pure erotic fantasy, explicitly so. A young gay prostitute lounges around his surrealist pink apartment overlooking Times Square, gazing at his own beauty in his bedroom’s phallic mirrors and daydreaming about various sexual encounters while waiting for johns to arrive. This is more of a wandering wet dream than a linear story, with the erotic fantasy tangents seemingly having no relationship to each other in place or time. The sex-worker Narcissus imagines himself caressing his own body with delicate blades of grass & butterfly wings in an idyllic “meadow” (an intensely artificial tableau that resembles the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). An anonymous blowjob at a public urinal drowns a gruff stranger in a sea of semen (staged in a baby pool full of thickened milk in Bidgood’s kitchen). A premonition of a dystopian Times Square where ghoulish hustlers openly jerk themselves off below advertisements for artificial anuses, frozen pissicles, and Cock-a-Cola flutters outside his window. A few of these tableaus uncomfortably skew into racist culture-gazing, treating matador costumes & a sultan’s harem as opportunities for bedroom dress-up scenarios. That’s par for the course in the context of old-fashioned porno shoots, though, especially before no-frills hardcore became the norm. What’s unusual about it is how Bidgood transforms those artificial, fetishized vignettes into high art.

If there’s any one movie deserving of a Blu-ray quality restoration treatment, it’s this. Bidgood may be frustrated by the way his vision was never completely realized thanks to outside editing-room meddling, but even in its compromised form it’s an intoxicating sensory experience. It stings that you have to look past the shoddy visual quality of its formatting to see that beauty, as it’s been blown up from its original 8mm & 16mm film strips into depressingly fuzzed-out & watered down abstractions on home video. Looking at the gorgeously crisp, meticulously fine-tuned prints of Bidgood’s beefcake photography (collected in the must-own Taschen artbook simply titled James Bidgood), it’s heartbreaking to see his one completed feature film so shamelessly neglected. Even in its grainy, sub-ideal state it’s still a fascinating watch that pushes the dreamlike quality of cinema as an artform to its furthest, most prurient extreme. It’s also a testament to how much just one artist can achieve when left to their own maddening devices in isolation for long enough. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll emerge from this year’s stay-at-home chrysalis period with some equally beautiful, surreal art that some horned-up weirdo has been anonymously toiling away at in private. Considering how shitty & distracting the world outside has become, however, the likelihood of that possibility is highly doubtful.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast: Truth or Dare (1991) & Madonna’s Erotic Era

Welcome to Episode #109 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss Madonna’s erotica period in the early 90s, starting with a behind the scenes documentary on her iconic Blond Ambition Tour, Truth or Dare (1991). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Dildo Heaven (2002)

Schlock legend Doris Wishman made an honest-to-God, shot-on-video nudie cutie in the early 00s, about four decades after the nudie cutie genre was no longer of any real use to anyone (thanks to the legalization and increased accessibility of actual pornography). Wishman filmed Dildo Heaven in her 80s while working in a Florida sex shop called The Pink Pussy Cat (which is proudly featured in the film). She recycled footage from better-funded works in her heyday to pad out the runtime, further drawing attention to Dildo Heaven‘s jarring quality as a nudie cutie dislodged from its proper place in time. While it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of Wishman’s accomplishments as a smut-peddling auteur (that honor likely belongs to her 1970s collaborations with Chesty Morgan), it’s still a fascinating document of a filmmaker continuing to do her thing whether or not anyone else was interested. Wishman was the master of unerotic erotica, a schlockteur whose work prompted the question “Who is this for?” even when she was on top of her game; watching her stick to her guns four decades after appropriately-timed nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon only makes that question more humorously bizarre.

Three hot-to-trot roommates scheme to seduce their bosses: thoroughly uncharismatic men whose small-time authority make them irresistible to the bored nymphs. Meanwhile, the girls’ Peeping Tom neighbor (an adult man who dresses & acts like a schoolboy) occasionally checks in to hopefully catch them naked in their own apartment. That’s it; that’s the plot. As written-on-a-bar-napkin simple as that premise sounds, Wishman still felt the need to introduce each of these characters and their shallow motivations in an opening exposition dump, narrated like a movie trailer. This is mostly an effort to sweep any pedestrian narrative concerns out of the way so that she can get to the true business at hand: shoehorning in clips from nudie cuties, roughies, and other sexploitation ephemera from her heyday. In the laziest examples of this device, Wishman’s old movies happen to be playing on television while the girls are lounging around their shared apartment, waiting for the right time to jump their bosses’ bones. More frequently, the clips are integrated through the Peeping Tom’s adventures outside the apartment as he peers into keyholes, shrubs, and curtainless windows looking for some action. Even then, the clips are amusingly disjointed from the movie’s SOV reality, often represented with black & white film grain or roaming TV bars as if the Peeping Tom were tapping into an alternate dimension just on the other side of a keyhole.

If there’s any true letdown in Dildo Heaven, it’s that the movie doesn’t incorporate a lot of genuine dildo content. It mostly blows its load in an opening title sequence where deliriously repetitive images of clouds accompany a low-energy rap song about reaching for your dildo because it’s “HIV negative” and “fills the void” left by sexually unskilled men. Otherwise, there’s only one physical dildo that genuinely factors into the “story” Wishman tells. One of the three roommates purchases that dildo from the aforementioned Pink Pussy Cat after being haunted by the sex toys advertised in its display window on a casual afternoon stroll. This monumental purchase only really amounts to two significant moments: a nightmare sequence in which floating dildos swarm the poor girl’s bedroom while she tosses in her sheets and a hilariously dull Pink Pussy Cat store clerk explaining in exhausting, monotone detail the technical difference between a dildo and a vibrator. That’s hardly the dildo quota you’d think a movie would have to hit to declare itself a dildo heaven, but that kind of unerotic letdown is, in a way, Wishman’s personal stamp as an auteur. Her entire career was packed with sex movies that are thoroughly uninterested in sex – something that had to be a personal, artistic choice as she continued it into the long-obsolete days of early-2000s softcore.

Even beyond the absurd anachronism of brining the nudie cutie into the VHS era and the jarring frugality of Wishman pilfering her own back catalog, Dildo Heaven has plenty of minor quirks & gags that keep it entertaining as a lost trash relic throughout: winking fantasies where a man sprouts a second boner to facilitate a threesome, go-nowhere montages of girls idly hanging out on playground equipment while incongruous thriller music sets an ominous tone, a movie-length gag about the world’s cheapest wig, etc. Best of all, it’s readily apparent that Wishman was having fun while filming this unrepentant trash, enjoying her late-career celebrity as “The Female Ed Wood.” She allows herself a Hitchcockian cameo where she practically winks at the camera as she strolls by, directs a character to exclaim “What a cool magazine!” while flipping through an issue of Psychotronic Video, and even promoted the film on a legendarily bizarre episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien where she got to tease Roger Ebert for his boyish crush on Chesty Morgan. The best quality of the nudie cutie as a genre was that it was having lighthearted, knowingly campy fun with the idea of erotic titillation (a welcome contrast to the dark days of the roughies that followed). While the genre may have been long-obsolete by the time Wishman made Dildo Heaven, the novelty of that kind of playful, weirdly innocent erotica is eternal.

-Brandon Ledet

The Story of O (1975)

For the first half of the 2010s we lived on a street that was absolutely perfect for yard sales. Our version of Spring Cleaning was always kicked off by a seasonal yard sale to get as much accumulated junk out of the house as possible (a tradition that has since been supplanted by the hassle of hauling our excess bullshit to thrift stores & second-hand shops), and they were always a success. They were such a success, in fact, that friends & family would dump their junk on us to help distribute it into the ether (for a very minor payout). This ritual frequently involved my sister handing off giant Rubbermaid bins overflowing with DVDs she was eager to get rid of as streaming movies online became more of her standard entertainment routine over that half-decade. The shameless movie nerd that I am, I’d always pick through those bins myself before offering them up to the vulturous public and pull out a few titles here or there to store up in my own house, where they’d also go unwatched. My sister’s cinematic castoffs were usually recognizable mainstream movies (often good ones), but there were always one or two deeply strange outliers in there if I was committed enough to search for them. I don’t remember many specific examples, but I do remember this: No film was ever as strange to find in my sister’s discarded DVDs than the X-rated softcore drama The Story of O. It was, of course, one of the DVDs I kept for my own collection before dragging the rest of the bin to our old porch steps. I don’t want to dwell for too long on why my sister purchased this vintage S&M smut or why she chose to get rid of it, which is partly why it took me over a half-decade to finally watch the film myself – allowing it to collect dust along with the rest of my dreaded Shame Pile in the meantime. I do know why I’ll finally be selling this disc off after just one single viewing, though, which is all I can dare to report on this blog.

The Story of O arrived in an era where pornography had delusions of going mainstream, initially under the guise of being distributed as European “art films.” This particular example of French erotica wasn’t nearly as seedy as its NYC contemporaries from the 42nd street epicenter of smut, but it was still considered filthy enough to earn an “X” rating in America and an across-the-board ban in Britain all the way until the year 2000 (a familiar treatment for the appropriately-named director Just Jaeckin, who had just experienced the same censorship for his debut feature Emmanuelle). The Story of O‘s eponymous source novel had experienced prudish censorship in its own time as well, penned under a pseudonym by journalist Anne Desclos in the 1950s only to face obscenity charges (in France of all places). It’s a modern continuation of the Marquis de Sade brand of S&M, where secret societies of immense wealth torture (in this case, consenting) women in cult-like rituals for communal sexual gratification. This movie adaptation wastes no time diving headfirst into that shamelessly contrived premise. The titular O (whose full name is never disclosed) is introduced en route to her masochistic training facility, on a car ride where her lover (a baby-faced Udo Kier) instructs her on what to wear and how to act as she suffers the ritualistic torture to come. We don’t learn until many whippings later that O is a fashion photographer with an inner life & artistic sense of control all of her own, since her submission to this secret sex cult is entirely predicated on her transformation into a pleasure object (and, later, a recruitment tool to draw in future pleasure objects from her industry). It’s an absurdly artificial scenario that immediately becomes grotesquely immoral if you prod at it in terms of real-world gender & sex politics, but it’s also a familiar one to anyone who’s ever spent a minimum of ten minutes reading erotica.

I was immediately struck by the soft-focus psychedelia of this film’s imagery, with its archaic occult S&M costuming and its obsessive reflections of mirrors against mirrors to achieve a kaleidoscope effect. It has all the gorgeous visual trappings of the artsy-fartsy Euro horrors of its era, just with the straight razor giallo murders being supplanted by sadistic sex acts. And, honestly, my only chance of ever truly loving the movie was if it had applied its soft-psychedelic imagery to the horror genre instead, since its repetitive tableaus of women “willingly” being whipped while saying “No” wasn’t really My Thing (in every implied meaning of that phrase). Its total lack of pre-play negotiation, agreed-upon safe words, and tender aftercare didn’t jive at all with how I engage with S&M in my own (admittedly modern) understanding of these sexual power dynamics. At risk exposing too much of my own internal erotic imagination here, I’ll admit that I did perk up once O started exhibiting control as a top in the dungeonous playpens where the movie gets its kicks (and in her fashion photography shoots, where she commands her models in a position of excited authority), but that’s more of a last-minute afterthought than a genuine engagement with any particular theme. The most interesting narrative thread in the film is about how the cathartic power play staged in the secret society’s closed-off rooms affects O’s public persona in “real” society (and how she gradually learns the pleasures of being the objectifier, not just the object). The only problem is that The Story of O is much less interested in themes & narrative than it is in the imagery of women being sadistically bound & whipped by men, which is either going to be Your Thing or it isn’t. No amount of visual aesthetic nor historical interest can save a niche porno you just don’t find pruriently enticing, just like how no stylistic flares can save a comedy you don’t find funny.

Speaking as an outsider to this particular corner of kink, it’s probably best to avoid passing any kind of moral judgement on the erotic imagination illustrated here. There are troubling ways in which this material is reflected in real-life misogynist violence, but that’s probably a large part of what makes the taboo so enticing in the first place. Also, not for nothing, the film is ultimately about female pleasure & self-discovery, whether or not it takes a rocky, roundabout way of getting there. All I can say is that it wasn’t really My Thing, which is something I already knew as soon as I picked it out of the Yard Sale pile. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten more pleasure out of seeing which of the curbside weirdos picked it out of the Yard Sale bin instead of hoarding it for myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Cruel Intentions (1999) Celebrates its 20th Anniversary. And its 31st. And its 237th.

The mildly kinky teen sex melodrama Cruel Intentions was a major cultural event for audiences in my exact age range. I doubt I’m alone in my personal experience with the film in saying that running my VHS copy into dust in the early 2000s actively transformed me into a burgeoning pervert (and passionate Placebo fan); it was a kind of Millennial sexual awakening in that way. Still, I was shocked & amused to see Cruel Intentions return to theaters for its 20th anniversary last month as if it were a legitimate cultural touchstone instead of a deeply silly, trashy frivolity that just happened to make the right teen audience horny at the exact right time. The commemorative theatrical experience was perfect, with fresh teens in the audience who had obviously never seen the film before gasping and heckling their way through the preposterous, horned-up picture in amused awe. I even somehow found new appreciation of & observations in the film seeing it projected on the big screen for the first time, instead of shamefully watching it alone in my high school bedroom. Some discoveries were positive: newfound admiration for Selma Blair’s MVP comedic performance; awe for how much groundwork is laid by the costume & production design; the divine presence of Christine Baranski; etc. Others haven’t aged so well: its flippant attitude about sexual consent; the teen age range of its central players; its casual use of homophobic slurs; and so on. The most significant effect this 20-years-later return to Cruel Intentions has had on me, though, was in convincing me to finally seek out the work that most directly inspired it – not the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses that “suggested” its writing, but rather that book’s 1988 film adaptation, which Cruel Intentions closely mimics to the point of functioning as a feature-length homage.

Winning three Academy Awards and overflowing with stellar performers at the top of their game (Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Peter Capaldi and Uma Thurman), 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons is far more prestigious than Cruel Intentions, yet its own recent 30th Anniversary went by largely unnoticed. It’s just as overtly horny & sadistic as Cruel Intentions but combines those impulses with the meticulously staged pomp of lush costume dramas – recalling the peculiar tone of genre outliers like Barry Lyndon & The Favourite. Since they both draw from the same novel for their source material, it’s no surprise that this film telegraphs Cruel Intentions’s exact plot: Glenn Close exacts revenge on a romantic rival by dispatching John Malkovich to relieve her of her virginity before marriage (to ruin her with scandal), while Malkovich has his own virginal target in mind that presents more of a challenge (only to inconveniently fall in love with his chosen victim). What shocked me, though, is how much of Dangerous Liaisons’s exact dialogue was borrowed wholesale for the latter film, especially in early parlor room discussions of Close & Malkovich’s respective schemes. Furthermore, Ryan Phillipe’s performance in Cruel Intentions is apparently a dead-on impersonation of Malkovich’s exact line-deliveries & mannerisms, and his opening scene therapist (Swoozie Kurtz) also appears in Dangerous Liaisons as the guardian of one of his sexual targets (later played by Baranski). Cruel Intentions’s title card announcing that it was “suggested by” the 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays almost a flippant joke in retrospect. The film is clearly a direct remake of its 1988 predecessor, just with some updated clothes & de-aged players to make it more commercially palatable to a late 90s audience. It’s no surprise that I was an instantaneous fan of Dangerous Liaisons on this first watch; I’ve already been a fan of it for two decades solid, just distorted through a late-90s lens.

Cruel Intentions arrived at the tail end of many classic literary works being reinterpreted as 90s teen romances: Emma in Clueless, The Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You, Othello in O, etc. The erotic nature of the source material makes Dangerous Liaisons an awkward candidate for that adaptation template, especially if you pause long enough to consider Selma Blair’s character’s age range as a high school freshman entering the scene . . . Many of its choices in how to update the material for a 90s audience makes total sense: gay sex, racial politics, drug use, etc. I was shocked to discover, however, that the incest element of Cruel Intentions (in which two siblings-by-marriage tease each other throughout) was a complete fabrication. Close & Malkovich are ex-lovers in Dangerous Liaisons, not sister & brother. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who Cruel Intentions was appealing to in that added layer of incest kink, then, since that’s not the first impulse that comes to mind in catering to modern audience sensibilities. Weirdly, that’s one of the film’s more invigorating additions to the Dangerous Liaisons lineage. Overall, there is a noticeable potency lost in the modernization. Characters peeping through keyholes, foppishly being dressed & perfumed by their servants, and firing off barbed phrases like “I’ve always known that I was born to dominate your sex and to avenge my own” feel like they’re getting away with something you can only do in period films, and Dangerous Liaisons benefits greatly from that setting. Still, the way Cruel Intentions translates that dated eccentricity to mocking the perversions of the young & wealthy with too much power & idle time is a rewarding conceit. They look & sound utterly ridiculous in their modernization of the exact horned-up affectations of Dangerous Liaisons’s central players, which is just as uncomfortable considering their age as it is appropriate for their level of privilege: the rich are ridiculous perverts, always have been.

Cruel Intentions is too trashy & commercially cynical to match the soaring heights of Dangerous Liaisons creatively, but I do contend that it admirably holds up on its own. No one in the latter film delivers anything half as compelling as Close’s Oscar-nominated performance of cunning sexual confidence, but Phillipe’s impersonation of Malkovich’s’ villainy is highly amusing in a modern setting. Similarly, Selma Blair’s campy performance as his youngest victim shares a direct lineage with Keanu Reeves’s wide-eyed naivete in Dangerous Liaisons; they both had me howling in equal measure and there wasn’t nearly enough screentime for either. I can’t objectively say that revisiting Cruel Intentions is worth your time if you didn’t grow up with it as a sexual awakening touchstone the same way so many kids of my generation did, but I can say that if you are one of those Millennial perverts, Dangerous Liaisons is required viewing. You already love it whether or not you’ve already seen it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wild Boys (2018)

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The long-vintage buzzword “genderfucked” might be an outdated term that’s since been replaced by descriptors like “genderfluid” & “non-binary,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe the nightmare fantasy piece The Wild Boys. If any movie was ever genderfucked, it’s this one. In a way, the outdated status of the term (combined with its confrontational vulgarity) only makes it more of a perfect fit. The Wild Boys feels like an adaptation of erotica written on an intense mushroom trip 100 years ago. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its depictions & subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender. As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, The Wild Boys lives up to the “wild” descriptor in its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic sideshow. More importantly, though, the film is thoroughly, deliberately genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented through the tones & tools of the ancient past.

In The Wild Boys, adult femme actors play unruly young boys who are punished for their hedonistic crimes in a magical realist fashion that violates their gender & sexuality. Untamable rapist hooligans who act like the Muppet Babies equivalent of the masked ruffians of A Clockwork Orange, the boys find themselves in legal trouble when their depravity results in the death of a drama teacher after an especially lewd rehearsal of Macbeth. They’re punished with the same boot camp treatment unruly teens are subjected to on shows like Maury – shipped off for behavioral rehab with a mysterious, authoritative sea captain who claims he can reform the worst boys you can throw at him. The captain takes them on a journey that’s part Edgar Rice Burroughs colonialist fantasy & part William S. Burroughs genderfucked eroticism. They reach a giant oyster-shaped island overgrown with perverse sexual delights: phallic tree flowers that spurt delicious milky liquids, vaginal shrubbery that sexually clasps around human lovers like penis fly traps, testicle-shaped fruits that transform the bodies of those who consume them. It’s in that fruity transformation where the nature of their punishment and the point of the women-cast-as-boys conceit starts to make sense – as much as anything in this deliberately obscured art house fantasy ever could.

The Wild Boys is more of a sensory indulgence than a logical narrative. Silent Era cinematic textures & stark washes of purple lighting recall the intensely artificial, tenderly pornographic tableaus of James Bidgood’s art photography. It’s the same kind of intimate, gay, surreal imagery that obsessed Todd Haynes in early New Queer Cinema features like Poison. Boys’ drunken playfighting devolves into operatically beautiful orgies among a continuous drizzle of soft pillow-feathers. Out-of-proportion rear projection backdrops fill the screen with old-fashioned romanticism. As erotic & alluring as the film’s sexuality can be, however, The Wild Boys is also a work of intense supernatural menace. Gigantic tattooed dicks, dogs with glowing human faces, and an all-powerful demonic glitter-skull named TREVOR overpower the setting’s more paradisiac delights. The boys are forced to ask tough questions like “How much hairy testicle fruit can you possibly eat?” and “What will you do with your dick once it falls off?” Sex alternates between violence & sensual pleasure in an uncomfortable, artificial sensibility more befitting of delirious erotica than anything resembling real life. The resulting effect falls somewhere between Guy Maddin & Bruce LaBruce – a decidedly not-for-everyone-but-definitely-for-someone combination if there ever was one.

If recommending The Wild Boys in the 90s I might have told you to go get genderfucked. If recommending it 100 years ago I might have told you to save it for a stag party where you trusted no one would call the cops. The film’s sexuality, gender, and violence are of both those eras and, paradoxically, very much of the zeitgeist now. I guess that’s the quality that prompts people to call a work of art “timeless”, but I can’t refer to this movie as anything but hopelessly, beautifully fucked.

-Brandon Ledet

This One’s for the Ladies . . . (2018)

It’s difficult to pinpoint what separates a truly great niche-subject documentary from a mediocre one, especially in a film festival environment. At a certain budgetary & distribution level, the festival-circuit indie documentary is only going to have so much variation in its successes & failures (give or take a form-breaking bomb-thrower like Rat Film or The World is Mine). They all usually excite in their initial rush, thanks to the novelty of their subject matter that likely landed them festival screenings in the first place. The Litmus Test for a great niche-subject doc then, as opposed to a merely serviceable one, might be in sustaining that initial rush throughout. Whether in finding deeper political or societal implications in its subject beyond surface-level interest or in exploiting those surface pleasures for all they’re worth, the well-behaved small budget doc has to work tirelessly to sustain its initial, opening-minutes appeal. A straight-forward, small budget documentary about the raunchy black male erotic dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies has an even harder (heh) time than most keeping it up (heh heh) once its initial rush settles into a well-worn filmmaking groove. The initial immersion into the explosive hedonism of its subject is a tough act to either follow up or maintain, so the movie instead just coasts on that initial appeal. It mostly gets away with it.

The black erotic male dancer circuit may not see much mainstream media exposure (outside maybe the Atlanta mansion sequence in Magic Mike XXL), but it’s explained to be long-established, self-contained culture in This One’s for the Ladies, one with its own celebrities & legendary figures. Pulling clips of VHS footage from “dance events” dating back to at least the 1990s, the doc sketches out a densely populated world of celebrity dancers & dedicated fans. Oiled up muscle-men with gigantic cocks stuffed into colorful sleeves boast over-the-top monikers like Smoove, Raw Dawg, Mr. Capable, Fever, and Satan. The more well-established regulars in their audience have their own nicknames (women like Mamma Joe, Pound Cake, and Double Trouble), as their own contributions to the dance events are just as crucial as the erotic performers’. These are self-catered D.I.Y. happenings staged in living rooms, cruise ships, and rented event halls. The more infamous dancers might sell merchandise like DVD compilations, autographed headshots, and erotic wall calendars, but their art is also the center of a community where performer & patron have to pull equal weight to keep the scene alive. It’s a weirdly wholesome subculture, considering that its anchor is a group of muscled-up dancers who mime making love to strangers who wave dollar bills at their face & genitals, but its existence outside a brick & mortar strip club establishment affords it a genuine sense of community.

As compelling (and visually interesting) as that subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Dancers licking chocolate syrup from a blushing participant’s inner thigh or simulating making them squirt with a concealed water hose rig is some A+ cinematic content, and those indulgences never feel repetitive or dull. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way. It’s an understandable impulse from a filmmaker’s perspective, but this search for wider cultural context only feels satisfying when it creeps up naturally through the subject. For instance, interviews with a butch lesbian dancer named Blaze about her conflicts with fiercely Christian parents or unaccepting male dancers who don’t want her working “their” circuit both opens the film to wider cultural context and feels specific to the subject at hand (so much so that a doc just about Blaze could easily be justifiable). The same just isn’t true about tangential commentary on underfunded neighborhood schools or childhood Autism; they’re worthwhile topics in isolation, but too disconnected to be explored here in earnest.

My quick fix for This One’s for the Ladies would either be to come in 20min shorter or 20min raunchier. There’s no way the movie could ever have time to fully tackle the wide world of systemic racism outside the dance events, so it might as well just lean into the prurient strengths of its subject instead and let the implications of those cultural circumstances creep up naturally (as they do with Blaze). There may not be enough time to solve racism or poverty in a documentary of this scale, but there’s certainly time for more exposed erect dick (there’s only one!) and erotic pageantry, leaving the cultural subtext implied. Whether or not that’s the correct fix for this fine-not-great doc, it definitely needed something to help sustain the initial rush of its subject’s inherent interest – the documentary equivalent of a cock ring.

-Brandon Ledet

Fulci’s Clairvoyant Visions: The Psychic (1977) & A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

When we were first discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the 1977 paranormal horror The Psychic, we were all taken aback by the soft hand of restraint Lucio Fulci took with the film. Outside the opening clairvoyant vision in which a woman leaps to her death off a cliff & smashes her face on every rock on the way down, The Psychic felt remarkably restrained for a Fulci work, not to mention for giallo at large. This restraint extended beyond the film’s violence & sexuality to inform the way the protagonist’s visions were depicted onscreen. Unlike in most thrillers where a clairvoyant protagonist solves a murder based on their psychic visions, the clues in The Psychic are not pieced out throughout the runtime in a gradual reveal. Instead, all clues are dumped in the first act deluge of a single vision, then the individual objects of that one premonition (a lamp, a mirror, an ashtray, etc.) are examined in isolation as the mystery is solved. What I didn’t know while watching The Psychic is that Fulci had already made the movie we were expecting it to be based on its pedigree. He had already gotten the violent, erotic, psychedelic genre expectations of a clairvoyance giallo out of his system with a previous picture.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is much more at home with the giallo genre’s more lurid tendencies than Fulci’s The Psychic. It’s the inferior film of the pair, but after wondering how Fulci exercised so much restraint in the sex & violence of his latter clairvoyance horror, there was something cathartic about watching him him go full sleaze in a nastier picture with the same solving-a-murder-through-psychic-visions premise. Switching those visions from a single psychic premonition intruding while driving to a series of intense, lingering sex dreams involving orgies & lesbianism should clue you in on just how much trashier A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is than its much classier follow-up. The protagonist in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin surfers a lot of the same anxieties as her The Psychic counterpart. Both women are left isolated by absent or unfaithful husbands and discuss the disturbing intensity of their visions with the other men in their lives whose skepticism is letting them down, their psychiatrists. Instead of receiving psychic flashes of past, present, and future murders, however, the protagonist of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin receives her visions in the form of wet dreams. While trying to enjoy stuffy dinners with her family, she can hear the wild orgies thrown by her hippie neighbor on the other side of the wall. This fuels her nighttime fantasies, which typically depict her navigating a complex web of hippie flesh until she can be alone with her neighbor, a meeting that culminates in lesbian erotica staged on red satin sheets. This ritual is disrupted when one of these intense dreams ends with her stabbing the neighbor multiple times in the chest while they make love, an encounter she describes to her therapist & records in her dream journal before discovering it really happened, her neighbor was actually stabbed to death.

The fun of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the prurient first act bursts of its wet dream premonitions. The measured way The Psychic handles picking apart the details of a single psychic vision suggests a maturity for Fulci as a filmmaker, but it’s undeniably fun to watch him let loose in a more sophomoric way in this earlier, hornier work. The psychic visions of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin are prolonged, lingering indulgences that openly gawk at lesbianism & bloodshed. Their penchant for dream logic allows for non sequitur intrusions of strange images like crowded train car orgies, electric chair executions, and gigantic angry swan puppets to disrupt the hedonistic fantasies of the protagonist. You could do worse than watching a film solely to see that kind of visual excess paired with a classic score from Ennio Morricone. The problem is, like with a lot of giallo, after that lurid energy dissipates and the film shifts focus from stylized visuals to setting up the mechanics of a traditional murder mystery, it loses a lot of steam. The Psychic not only shows more restraint in its exploitation of sex & violence; it also does a much better job of constructing a mystery the audience actually needs an answer to in order to leave satisfied. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is only truly recommendable if you’ve already seen that superior work and are wondering what it would look like if it were driven by Fulci’s more salacious tendencies. It was the movie I was expecting to see when we first watched The Psychic, but it wasn’t necessarily made better for delivering on those directorial & genre-based expectations.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

-Brandon Ledet

Deadly Weapons (1974)

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The soundtrack may have gotten a little more psychedelic, the blood may have gotten a little more colorful, and the breasts may have gotten much, much larger, but not much else seemed to have changed for producer/director Doris Wishman in the decade between her by the books roughie Another Day, Another Man and her “erotic” crime thriller Deadly Weapons. Doris Wishman’s weirdly casual approach to sex & violence in her exploitation work remained entirely lateral in terms of filmmaking quality and it’s pretty impressive in its own way that a filmmaker two decades into her career managed to make something as genuinely amateurish and, frankly, as punk as Deadly Weapons. A crime thriller in which famed burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan (billed in-film as Zsa Zsa) assassinates mafia types by smothering them with her gigantic breasts, Deadly Weapons certainly pulls more weight as an odd curiosity than Wishman’s era-appropriate 1960s roughies. It’s no different than these films in terms of craft or tone, though, except that it readily provides the naked breasts her roughies would only tease (unlike her early nudie cuties like Nude on the Moon). In fact, like a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a single sitting, Deadly Weapons confronts the audience with so many shots of large, naked breasts it often feels as if you’re about to choke on them & die, like so many dirtbag mobster goons.

Chesty Morgan stars as a successful advertising executive (or so we’re told) who is dragged into a life of crime when her boyfriend runs afoul of some mafia types. Stupidly blackmailing the mob with a stolen hit list, the boyfriend is promptly murdered in his own apartment (which looks suspiciously like the apartment from Another Day, Another Man) while the buxom ad exec listens in horror on the other end of the phone. Luckily for her, the gangsters hang out long enough after the hit to loudly & clearly discuss what hotel they’ll be hiding out in until the police investigation of the murder cools off. Armed with all the information she needs to track them down, the ad exec poses undercover as a burlesque dancer (go figure) at a nightclub near the Las Vegas hotel where her boyfriends’ killers will be staying. Easily seducing the men individually, she ceremonially slips knock-out pills into their wine glasses (after making a big show of it for the camera) and, once they’re dazed, smothers them to death with her cartoonishly large breasts. After fully enacting her revenge for her lover’s murder, she returns home from Vegas to encounter a Shyamalan-level plot twist on who was truly responsible for the initial crime. This revelation drives the story home to an ending befitting of a Shakespearean tragedy: bodies strewn about the stage, laying in pools of their own blood & the stench of betrayed trust. It’s all very silly.

Although Deadly Weapons is obviously remarkable for the novelty of its breasts-as-weapons premise, it’s worth noting that those kills don’t occur until over 50 minutes into the film’s 70min runtime. Worse yet, our killer burlesque dancer only dispenses of two mobsters this way – one per boob. Those two kills are highly entertaining as oddities, though, especially in the soundtrack that accompanies them. As the gangster meanies suffocate on Chesty Morgan’s plentiful tit flesh, a nightmarish cacophony of wailing guitars, animal roars, and grotesque, masculine grunts overpower the film’s audio. Meanwhile, Chesty Morgan herself looks nearly orgasmic in these moments, giving off the embarrassing cross-eyed, empty stare people usually save for sexual congress. What saves the film from tedium before these third act kills, however, is the fact that Morgan’s superhuman rack is a sight to behold even when it’s not being employed as a murder weapon. There’s nothing especially erotic about watching Morgan take a bubble bath or somehow squeeze herself into a t-shirt, but those simple tasks are oddly compelling as an audience due to her . . . unique proportions. Even in a scene when she’s just wistfully staring out a window, admiring a ring her boyfriend gifted her, her breasts fill almost the entire frame, suffocating any potential focus on anything else onscreen.

Psychedelia + Giant Breasts is certainly a formula that’s been exploited onscreen before; just think to Roger Ebert & Russ Meyer’s collaborative trashterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Deadly Weapons boasts neither the manic energy nor the absurdist dialogue of Dolls, though, and its own appeal as a vintage curiosity is based in something much more laidback & misshapen. Wishman’s erotica is never exactly erotic; her violence is never truly shocking. Her fetishistic focus on unerotic details like ashtrays, dime store pantyhose, plastic-covered couches, and pills hidden in cleavage are the visual equivalent of a cold shower for anyone potentially turned on by Chesty Morgan’s physique. The film’s bloodiest fit of violence, a multiple stab wound incident in a stairwell, is similarly undercut by a disorienting trip down multiple, identical flights of stairs and the fakest-looking (but apparently very real) mustache I’ve ever seen, sported by hardcore porn performer Harry Reems. It’d be easy to pick on Deadly Weapons for its blatant use of stock footage, its continuity errors during a poorly staged strangling, its awkward moments when cameramen are bumped into or set lights are mistakenly exposed, the nausea-inducing green & purple tints of its impressively shitty film transfers, etc. However, that kind of nitpicking entirely misses the basic appeal of the novelty of this Wishman-Morgan collaboration (a combo that would later reunite for Double Agent 73).

There’s a candid, proto-punk amateurism to Deadly Weapons that tops even its killer-tits premise in terms of basic ridiculousness. It’s rare that this grade of schlock is so inherently fascinating just in its basic existence, although plenty of films have certainly tried to pull off that very trick. Wishman is undeniably a filmmaker all of her own, a distinction that can either annoy or delight you depending on things like how interested you’d be to watch a film about a pair of killer breasts & how willing you’d be to settle for one kill per tit.

-Brandon Ledet

Viva (2007)

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One of the more intimidating aspects of discussing Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch was coming to terms with the fact that most of its reference points as a pastiche were way beyond my grasp, even as someone who regularly watches schlock. The Love Witch mined old modes of horror-themed erotica, pictures like The Velvet Vampire, for its distinct visual palette & absurdist humor, but repurposed the genre for modernized modes of feminist discourse. I loved the results of that experiment, but have to openly admit that my very basic, surface-level knowledge of the genre & era The Love Witch was evoking was puny in comparison to Biller’s encyclopedic command of the subject. It turns out her debut film, Viva, would be even further outside my grasp as a genre film tourist. Paying homage to the softcore smut of the early 1970s that rode in on the success of Deep Throat and the optimistic promises of The Sexual Revolution (the kinds of films you’d hear detailed on the excellent podcast The Rialto Report), Viva is operating on a whole other level of schlock I have little to no experience with. My limited knowledge of smut peddlers like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman don’t equip me with the full vocabulary necessary to discuss the ways Viva acts as a love letter to softcore smut past. The film feels very authoritative on the subject, though, and it achieves such a specific image & tone that I have to again put my trust in the fact that Biller knows exactly what she’s doing.

Viva often looks & feels like an early 70s magazine layout. Its bored housewives, swinger couples, and nudist camp vouyerism all read like a Letter to Penthouse, but its iconography is the stuff of that magazine’s advertisement: Scotch, lingerie, deviled eggs, jellos & dips. Emboldened by a newfound sexual freedom afforded to them by the commercial availability of the birth control pill, the Liberated women of Viva take charge of their sex lives by leaving behind the incessant sexual pressures of husbands, neighbors, and bosses to become high class sex workers & “models.” One friend turns to prostitution as a convenient means of making money and finds immediate fulfillment in a wealthy, older men who showers her with gifts: diamonds, horses, fur coats, etc. The other woman, Viva, has a much narrower path to satisfaction. Instead of money, she seeks a genuine emotional connection with a kind, sensitive man. No matter how many supposedly sensitive artist-types her pimp set her up with, though, the results are always the same. Men throw pouty fits whenever Viva doesn’t give them exactly what they want (casual sex) upfront and instead of waiting to meet her on her own terms, they manipulate, drug, and physically force her into copulation. It’s a fucked up plot for a campy genre throwback, but finding feminist themes in these old modes of schlocky smut seems to be Biller’s forte and the basic story structure of Viva feels true to roughies like Lorna, Another Day Another Man, and, I have to presume, the “mainstream” smut that followed in the 1970s.

If Viva has a central problem, it’s that it’s a little too faithful to the films it pays tribute to. At 120 minutes, with multiple extensive musical numbers, the film can often feel as tedious as its source material for once the initial turn-on wore off. It’s also disappointing that its modern feminist criticism wasn’t as fully pronounced in the dialogue & plotting as it was in its more outrageous follow-up. Biller threatens to steer away from genre traditions with some queer plotlines & rape culture criticism that bubble up naturally in Viva‘s era-evoking plot machinations, but imstead decides to follow the old guard and allow the story to play out exactly as it would have four decades ago. However, even though it feels slightly less brave in its willingness to shake up & modernize the formula, Viva is still an impressive feat for a debut feature. Much like with The Love Witch, Biller exudes auteurist control in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft – not only writing, directing, editing, and handling the set & costume design herself, but in this case also starring in the titular role. There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.

It’s exciting to know that Biller’s best work is likely still ahead of her, but her aesthetic’s beginnings in Viva are worthwhile enough on their own merit that it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t yet fully formed as a filmmaker at the time she made it. If nothing else, the film expresses an incredible knowledge & affection for the past of America’s mainstream erotica. It also helps that Viva can be riotously amusing in stray absurdist moments, never playing like a dry, academic exercise in genre pastiche.

-Brandon Ledet