Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)

The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.

That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.

I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.

You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #87 of The Swampflix Podcast: Knife+Heart (2019) & Fictional Porno

Welcome to Episode #87 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-seventh episode, we discuss provocative cinema set in the seedy underworld of the porno industry. Brandon makes James watch the queer giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019) for the first time, then they discuss two more fictional films about the production of pornography: Hardcore (1979) & The Misandrists (2018). Enjoy, ya buncha pervs!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Knife+Heart (2019)

Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies-set giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?

It’s 1979, Paris. Anne (Vanessa Paradis) makes “blue movies,” better known as gay pornography, along with her best friend Archie (Nicolas Maury), cameraman François (Bertrand Mandico) and her lover of ten years, Loïs (Kate Moran), although that relationship has recently come to an end. Tragedy strikes when one of her actors, the insatiable “Karl” (Bastien Waultier), is stabbed to death by a man in a terrifying full face mask after a night out cruising. As a result, Anne is interviewed by Inspector Morcini (Yann Collette); back in the studio, she retitles their current production to Homocidal and recreates this interaction with Archie in her place and heroin addict Thierry (Félix Maritaud, of BPM and Sauvage) and José (Noé Hernández) in the roles of the police. Anne recruits a new actor, Nans (Khaled Alouach), who is noted for his twin-like resemblance (not his twink-like resemblance, although that could also apply) to a former star of hers named Fouad, which is fortunate; after Thierry is also murdered, most of the actors fear returning to set. In her personal life, Anne spends her days drinking straight from the bottle of whisky that she keeps on herself at all times and stalking Loïs around nightclubs when she isn’t too drunk to move. After a third murder, Anne traces the clues to a forest that, according to folklore, is used for faith healing via grackle—as with most gialli, it only makes marginally more sense in context—where she finds a small cemetery and the grave of Guy (Jonathan Genet), and the answer to the identity and motivations of the killer.

The only negative thing that I can say about Knife+Heart is that the fact that it now exists means that I may now never finish my own giallo script (titled Profundo Giallo, naturally, because I am a NERD), which features many of the same narrative beats, although for the sake of future copyrights I should note that Gonzalez and I were both drawing from the same well of archetypical giallo ideas. Still, it may end up being difficult to prove that we independently came to the idea of having a queer character (Loïs here, Oliver in PG) whose relationship with a primary protagonist ended poorly discover a vital clue while reviewing grainy footage. Really, we’re just both putting the same twist on the standard giallo trope that I call “Obscured Clues,” which was the most frequently recurring narrative element in Argento’s Canon; that is, a character witnesses something that they do not initially realize is a clue and then struggle to recall its importance.

Knife+Heart is a neon saturated fever dream, and yet it holds together in a way that is truly astonishing and thoughtful, considering that multiple people get stabbed to death by a knife hidden inside of a makeshift phallus. It’s surely no coincidence that the film is set in 1979, on the eve of what we would come to know as the AIDS epidemic; the establishment of the era, represented by the police department and their dismissive treatment of the killings of Anne’s actors, is largely unconcerned with a series of tragedies that befall society’s “undesirables.” This is made more manifest by the way that the pretty young things are killed: in cruising bars and by-the-hour hotels, in alleys with needles in their arms, etc. I could honestly live the rest of my life in happiness without ever seeing another AIDS allegory film, but this one manages to weave subtlety into this tapestry, which makes for a better narrative overall. That this can happen in a movie that also features an actor campily full-on humping a typewriter in one of Homocidal’s scenes speaks to a strong directorial vision.

Anne is no doubt destined to be a divisive character; in his review for MovieJawn, Anthony Glassman writes that Paradis’s character “metamorphoses from a drunken psychopath into a driven and caring mother figure,” and although I was fully within Anne’s headspace, horrible person though she is at times, I can’t really disagree. Repeatedly, we see that she is incapable of accepting that her relationship with Loïs has come to an end, and we realize that this love is far from healthy, given both Anne’s obsession and Loïs’s inconsistency as she verbally spurns Anne over and over again while also leading her on and admitting that she still loves her. That this leads Anne to stalk Loïs around a nightclub saturated with over-the-top radiant lighting and finally confront (and assault) her makes Anne despicable but no less sympathetic. The film almost dares you to try and hate Anne, but if you’ve a queer person who has ever had your heart broken to the point that you drink yourself into a stupor on a nightly basis and wake up in strange places, then you understand every drive that Anne has, even if her actions are occasionally unforgivable.

This is best epitomized in one of the most underrated scenes in the film (I’ve seen no mention of it in any other reviews that I have read), in which Anne attends an art performance at a lesbian bar where the two participants are a woman in lingerie and another woman in a bear suit. The human character begs for the bear’s love, and the bear attempts to refuse, claiming that to love the woman is to destroy her, but the woman doesn’t care. To love is to be devoured; to love is to devour. As the bear demonstrates its love for the woman, its claws leaving theatrical trails of stage blood all over her body, the woman begs for this destruction, demands to be completely destroyed, and the bear can do nothing but oblige, its love is so all-consuming that neither of them can stop. It’s so fucking powerful and real. To love is to die; love is to kill. Love is to consume and be consumed until there is nothing left but char and ash and fragments that say to every passerby: “A fire was here, and it destroyed all that it touched, but in those moments of destruction, each thing touched was brighter than the sun.”

I could go on and on about this movie for about 10,000 more words, but not without spoiling anything (the Golden Mouth is a delight!). This is a delightfully and unabashedly queer movie, and the world has never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Variety (1983)

The No Wave cinema movement arrived almost out of necessity & survival. The New York City financial slump of the late 70s & early 80s made for cheap living that encouraged a flourishing punk scene, brimming with drugged-out artsy types who had to find productive creative outlets for their pent-up energy, lest they die of drug overdoses. Early No Wave productions are dirt-cheap DIY pictures captured by snotty, over-confident punks who had no idea what they were doing with the camera, but boldly did it anyway. As the city’s financial rut softened and the cinematic novices gained hands-on experience, however, the scene grew up and effectively disappeared. Those who continued to make movies graduated from No Wave DIY experiments to legitimate productions: Jim Jarmusch went from Permanent Vacation to Down by Law; Susan Seidelman went from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan; Lizzie Borden went from Born in Flames to the Showtime equivalent of Skinemax. Bette Gordon’s 1983 erotic drama Variety arrived midway into that dual transition. It’s slightly more polished than the grimy, rough-around-the-edges punk provocations of early No Wave. It’s also a far cry from a properly funded Hollywood picture, still feeling like a haphazard predecessor to the soon-to-tome indie cinema boom defined by names like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and (surprise!) Jarmusch. Variety is a post-No Wave, pre-Indie 90s microbudget art project, a cultural landmark with no clear contextual home. That same caught-between-two-worlds unease is also reflective of its protagonist’s mental state and the state of the city she lives in.

Variety stars Sandy McLeod as a sexually timid woman who, in a moment of financial desperation, lands a job working the ticket both at a NYC porno theater. Everyone around her seems confused about her decision to take the job. Friends are curious about her stories concerning the daily tasks & customer base at the theater, but are also visibly uncomfortable with her growing interest in pornography. Her patrons & coworkers leer at her through the ticket booth. They reach for what little flesh they can touch through the money hole as she hustles $2 tickets for pictures with titles like Beyond Shame, Purely Physical, and Nothing to Hide. Even she seems unsure what she’s doing there, nervously pacing in the theater’s lobby on her smoke breaks while obscene porno sounds blare in the background, until finally she works up the nerve to peek at the projections inside. She initially intends to keep herself separate from the prurient films beyond the ticket booth, treating her job as if it were no different from any other service industry gig. That compartmentalization proves to be impossible as she becomes increasingly fascinated with both the pornography and its customers. In particular, she becomes fixated on a sharply dressed mobster who frequents her theater, compulsively tailing him around the city in a conspicuous way that puts her in danger. There isn’t much of a narrative drive to Variety beyond its initial premise of a grimy porno theater seducing a “normal” young woman outside the safety of her social circle (and socially enforced sexual repression). She leaves that social familiarity to experience a grimy era of NYC at the tail end of its porno boom, a strange time when it felt like porn might eventually go legit and appeal to a wide, mainstream audience.

As an isolated document of a grimy 80s NYC, Variety isn’t exactly invaluable. The film does go out of its way to document street-side ads for pornos and the internal spaces of dirty magazine shops & arcades. However, that’s work that’s been much more thoroughly executed by more recent, academic outlets like The Rialto Report. Variety’s post-No Wave depiction of a young woman being lured into the fringes of sex work is also outshone by the similar territory covered in Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls. The difference there is that Working Girls is much less delicate about depicting the implied sex of its setting, whereas Variety only includes light softcore imagery in its porno theater projections. That timidity is also reflective of Variety’s engagement with its feminist themes, which mostly simmer in the background while the main narrative concerns itself with an inner-psyche character study. The strongest Variety’s feminist philosophy & pornographic mind comes through is in a couple scenes where the protagonist slips into long, unbroken erotic-fiction monologues recounting the “plots” of the films her theater is screening. Meanwhile, her friends uncomfortably ignore her newfound interest, frustratedly busying themselves with pinball & Chinese food as if they can’t hear her. There’s also a fantastic break with reality where she mentally projects her own internal fantasies onto the porno theater’s silver screen, imaginatively transforming herself into a vamp worthy of the dirty magazines she’s started reading. Variety is less a document of a long-gone grimy NYC than it is a character study set in that porno-soaked playground, tracking how the sex work subculture that bloomed in its era spilled over into the psyches & behavior of mainstream women curious about, but cautious of the pleasure to be found within.

While Variety might not be a one of a kind, invaluable depiction of NYC, it is an invaluable snapshot of late-No Wave filmmaking’s transformation & dissipation. Photographer Nan Goldin’s presence in the film as a side-character bartender (among other pleasant-surprise presences Luis Guzman & Cookie Mueller) is particularly illustrative of the film’s late-No Wave textures. The photographs Goldin took on-set are stunningly gorgeous, but the actual quality of the film proper has the faded, warm hues of a vintage dirty Polaroid. It doesn’t quite look as amateur as the deliberately shoddy outsider art of No Wave’s humble beginnings, but Nan Godlin’s photographs are still demonstrative of how different the film looks from a properly funded, formalistically crafted production. Variety is a No Wave film in transition about a woman in transition as a sexual being thanks to NYC’s own sexual culture-transition that would soon be snuffed out by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s. That prevents it from being an extreme example of its time or movement, but it does afford the film a very peculiar, ethereal quality of its own all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

The Misandrists (2018)

Queer punk prankster Bruce LaBruce’s latest work is a little too cheeky & misshapen to stand out as my favorite movie of the year but it is the most John Watersiest film I’ve seen all year, which, close enough. Although he has been making films long enough to have been lumped in with the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s (a descriptor he rejects in favor of association with the “queercore” punk scene), LaBruce still traffics in transgressive, microbudget outsider art that recalls John Waters’s trashy protopunk beginnings in the early 1970s. The Misandrists has clear thematic & aesthetic vision and a distinct political voice, but its commanding ethos is still aggressively amateur & D.I.Y. Its burn-it-all-down gender & sexual politics are sincerely revolutionary but are also filtered through a thick layer of over-the-top-camp. You might be justified in assuming The Misandrists was a film school debut from a young, angry upstart with a still-fresh appetite for shock humor & pornography, but it’s got the clear vision & tonal control of an artist who’s been honing their craft for decades – like John Waters at his best.

Set “somewhere in Ger(wo)many” in an alternate timeline 1999 (near the release of Waters’s similarly militant Cecil B. Demented) The Misandrists establishes a femmetopia comprised of man-hating revolutionaries who train to violently overthrow the Patriarchy. The women’s testosterone-free environment is disrupted by three types of intruders before their pornography-funded political revolution is fully launched: a male anti-capitalist revolutionary harbored under the noses of their leadership, pig cops searching for that persona non grata, and the trans & non-binary comrades already in their midst despite their cis-femmes-only recruitment policy. There are abundant red flags early in the film that suggest it subscribes to grotesque TERF ideology, but that outdated lack of intersectionality & inclusivity becomes its exact political target if you allow it time to get there. It affords characters air time to voice repugnant trans-exclusionary ideals, but when one of its most disruptive outsiders declares “It’s time to reconcile your revolutionary beliefs with your sexual politics,” the sentiment rings genuine in a way few of its radical extremist bon mots do.

For the stretch of The Misandrists that does voice rad-fem, TERFy ideology, it does so only to indulge in over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exaggerations of what feminism looks like in an exploitation cinema context. The femme “comrades” of the film form a “separatist commune” disguised as a convent of nuns-in-training. They’re actually training as “an army of lovers” looking to establish a self-sustaining lesbian society free of men, whom they consider “repulsive,” “despicable,” “contaminating,” and “the cops of the world.” Their political ideology playfully crosses the line into religious dogma, as they form a new femme version of Christianity around “The Mother, The Daughter, and The Holy Cunt.” Terms like “(wo)manual,” “herstory,” and “womansplain” roll off the tongue as if they were commonly spoken phrases instead of humorous perversions of idioms. As the title suggests, The Misandrists presents an exaggerated version of what shithead men imagine when they hear the word “feminism”: militant man-haters & lesbians gearing up to steal power from all men everywhere in a violent overthrow. When depicted so crassly & without nuance, that imaginary version of feminism is a hilarious, over-the-top cartoon. It’s also, unsurprisingly, badass.

What’s most distinctive about The Misandrists is how LaBruce finds ways to express his true, genuine ideology through pornography while still allowing rad-fem caricatures to voice the politics he’s openly mocking. Two femme comrades watch masc gay porn for “research,” voicing violent disgust for the very sexual acts LaBruce is infamous for including in his art. The film itself often crosses the line from militant feminism-spoofing exploitation cinema into full-on lesbian porno, leering at girls making out while a tender pop song dryly intones “Down, down, down with the Patriarchy.” A transgressive, queer filmmaker, LaBruce goes out of his way to make sure this display is not straight-guy masturbation fodder. He not only plays extensive clips of hardcore gay pornography in an early scene, he also includes graphic footage of a real-life gender reassignment surgery and disrupts the straight eroticism of the lesbian sex scenes with perverse kinky defilements of food (including the filthiest use of eggs that I’ve ever seen in any film, including Tampopo). When a character proclaims, “Pornography is an act of insurrection against the dominating order,” it feels like one of the few moments when LaBruce is expressing a genuine political thought, as opposed to an over-the-top cartoon caricature of feminism. Of course he believes pornography could be a useful tool for funding a queer revolution – he’s already been using it that way for decades.

If you’re looking for a shocking, over-the-top slice of campy schlock, 2018 isn’t likely to offer a much more perfect specimen than The Misandrists. That might be the only way in which the film is “perfect,” as it deliberately traffics in imperfections & insincerities to prove a larger political point and to stay true to LaBruce’s D.I.Y. queercore sensibilities. Every year I ask myself which calendar release I would most want to watch with John Waters, The Pope of Filth, and I imagine this sarcastic, pornographic, politically angry act of feminist camp would tickle him like no other 2018 release I’ve seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

Tickled (2016)

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Foolishly, I expected that a documentary on “competitive endurance tickling” wouldn’t be much more than an amusing fluff piece, a sort of thin story about a string of online outlets that sell tickling-themed softcore porn under the flimsy guise of “athletic” competition. The Kiwi documentarian David Farrier seemed to have similar expectations when he initially prodded at the subject himself. Farrier’s career as a journalist is mostly relegated to “human interest” stories, something he calls “pop culture reporting.” He’s the guy you’d see on local news broadcasts interviewing personalities like “The Donkey Lady” or a toad farmer or maybe the subjects of the similarly-minded doc Finders Keepers. The narrative Farrier presents is that he initially didn’t know much about the world of modern tickling erotica and genuinely treated the topic as he would any of his other human interest stories until he discovered the abusive bullies behind the bulk of the websites’ production & decided to dig deeper. The facts of when, exactly, Farrier (along with his co-director Dylan Reeve) knew what he was getting into & the bizarre, terrifying world that his inquiry would uncover are questionable, especially considering the early dramatic re-enactments necessary to make the story feel linear. However, the investigation does prove to be a fascinating, worthwhile portrait of human cruelty in an increasingly bizarre modern age and the resulting documentary, Tickled, develops into a much darker & more unsettling experience than what you’d likely expect from the story of “competitive endurance tickling.”

Tickled splits its time between the pop culture reporting of competitive tickling as an erotic entertainment David Farrier initially pitches & an investigative look at the bullies who produce the overwhelming majority of it. Tickling porn, as the movie presents it, is a light form of homosexual BDSM play where young “athletes” (mostly white male beefcake) restrain each other with leather cuffs and, you know, get to tickling. This lighthearted snapshot of a seemingly innocuous fetish plays mostly like an episode of HBO Real Sex, except narrated with a New Zealander accent. Farrier & Reeve make a point to not only follow the history of tickle porn’s online presence (a journey that brings up some man-I-feel-old flashbacks like AIM & RealPlayer), but also to profile a couple tickle porn producers who aren’t total creeps. In the film’s most euphoric moment a tickle-happy pornographer straps a hairy young lad to a workout bench & goes to town with various tickle tools (feathers, feather dusters, electric tooth brushes, etc.) and the film decelerates to a slow motion crawl to amplify the scene’s complete, otherworldly ecstasy. These indulgences help Tickled distinguish itself from prudish kink shaming & also contrast what healthy, honest BDSM looks like vs. the evils Farrier eventually uncovers. When the “pop culture reporter” attempts to interview the largest tickle porn conglomerate about their unusual business in the film’s investigative half, he’s met with an incongruously aggressive response peppered heavily with homophobic slurs & threats of costly lawsuits. The abrasive nature of these attacks only deepens Farrier’s interest and a lot of the movie’s inquiry is wrapped up in trying to discover & expose exactly who’s behind them.

One of the only problems I have with Tickled is the sleazy journalism tactics Farrier uses to uncover his target/subject’s evil deeds. A paparazzi-style assault on the world of tickle porn isn’t exactly what I’d ideally want out of a film like this, but by the time the depths of cruelty perpetrated by the shadowy figures behind “competitive endurance tickling” are exposed, I found myself rooting for Farrier succeed, despite his questionable tactics. Athletic tickling pornographers (or at least their head honcho) use a lot of the same financially & emotionally abusive tactics laid out in the Scientology documentary Going Clear and by the end Tickled plays like a convincing indictment calling for them to be shut down & jailed for their crimes. Young men (typically MMA guys, body builders, actors, amateur athletes), sometimes underage, agree to appear in supposedly private tickle videos for much-needed cash. If they complain when this erotica is made public, they’re exposed to their families, employers, and the internet at large for being “homosexual pornographers” in an aggressive, public attack on their reputations. As Farrier puts it, “This tickling empire is way bigger than we imagined,” and the vast amount of heartless, predatory money that ropes these young men into a fetish porn ring they never agreed to be a part of is fascinatingly bottomless & terrifyingly abusive. Tickled can, of course, be amusing at times due to the bizarre nature of its subject, but it’s mostly a conspiracy theorist dive into a cruel empire that gets off on its own lies & bullying, executed through rapacious wealth & internet-age catfishing. As much as I initially bristled at Farrier’s journalism style, I do think he found a story worth telling & a modern monster worth exposing. Tickled is an infectious call to arms that by the end will have you screaming for the entire tickle porn empire to be torn down & set on fire.

-Brandon Ledet

Pandora Peaks (2001)

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In the two decades between Russ Meyer’s last proper theatrical release, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and his straight-to-video swan song, Pandora Peaks, the once-on-top-of-the-world pervert auteur suffered a long line of never-completed projects. He mostly attempted to continue his thread of warped, post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls retreads of his former glory days that started with Supervixens. This included the never-realized The Jaws of Lorna; The Jaws of Vixen; Blixen, Vixen, and Harry; Mondo Topless, Too; Up the Valley of the Beyond; and Kill, Kill, Pussycat! Faster!. Even more intriguing were the announced anthology projects Hotsa, Hotsa & the reportedly 17 hour in length The Breast of Russ Meyer. Worse yet was the nearly-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?, with a Roger Ebert screenplay ready to go. Dejected by the endless assault of false starts, Meyer had pretty much resigned himself to retiring from filmmaking altogether & focusing on his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast (which actually did see the light of day). It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to the money-making possibilities of the home video market that he decided to return to his home behind the camera.

Pandora Peaks is a home video advertisement for its eponymous stripper/porn star. A supposed “documentary on Pandora at the peak of her popularity, the film plays like an episode of HBO’s Real Sex or a Playboy TV exclusive. Narrated by Meyer himself, Pandora Peaks resurrects the rapid-fire montage & non sequitur background chatter of the feverish go-go dancing nightmare Mondo Topless, but distinctly lacks that film’s white hot passion. You can also find traces of his home movie tourism in Europe in the Raw in sequences featuring a Hungarian stripper named Tundi (whose “interview” dialogue is provided by Meyer vet Uschi Digard), but again the film lacks any of the paranoid jingoism that made that “documentary” special. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole going-through-the-motions affair is that he director continuously references the glory days of past works in the film, particularly the successes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As clips from better Meyer times & shots of Pandora doing her thing at old shoot locations roll in, it’s apparent that the director is in an exhausted, retrospective mood, clearly disinterested in making earnest art out of what ultimately feels like a DVD extra.

There are some residual Meyer charms lurking in Pandora Peaks, mostly in the way the innocuous narration mixes harshly with the supposedly titilating imagery to crate a disorienting effect. As Pandora herself tells fond childhood stories about her enormous breasts & her over-active libido, Meyer blandly intones passages from his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast. His anecdotes about how his boob fetish saved him from a dull life toiling away in a battery factor & why he loves to go fishing with his old war buddies are oddly sober & level-headed, far from the unfocused ramblings of the madman vision in his previous two pictures: Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. The best effect the film has is in its way of lulling the viewer in to a dulled, hypnotic state, one occasionally interrupted by slide whistle & sqeaking toy sound effects. In its worst moments, though, it’s an entirely dismissable home video of a nightmarish Dallas strip club on a field trip. Even excusing his diminished enthusiasm, Meyer’s aesthetic didn’t translate well to the modern, plastic era. The plastic Walkmans & modern street signs of Pandora Peaks have nothing on the old world radios & hand-painted advertisements of Mondo Topless, Similarly, the director’s love of gigantic breasts had reached its crescendo in its final picture, with Pandora trying to pass off her HHH-sized busom as a natural phenomenon, fooling no one.

If Meyer hadn’t already entered the arena of self-parody critics had been accusing him of since Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Pandora Peaks pretty much solidified the transition. It’s a little disappointing that his career ended with such an empty exercise instead of a more ambitious project like Who Killed Bambi? or The Breast of Russ Meyer, but there are honestly worse possible fates. At least Pandora Peaks is far from the morally reprehensible depths of Blacksnake or Motorpsycho!, except maybe in a couple isolated moments of casual homophobia. The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which the auteur & eternal perv is yearning in some way to make sense of his own career, reaching back to past glory & repeatedly cutting to a mosaic representation of his own face as if frustratingly gazing into a mirror & asking what will become of his legacy. 15 years after Pandora Peaks & 11 years after Meyer’s death the answer to that question is still ambiguously hanging in the air. He’s a tough artist to pigeonhole, a complicated brute of a man that defies you to defend everything he’s said & done in its entirety. And yet he’s made some of the most vibrant, idiosyncratic films the world has ever seen. The question is what are we to do with the mess he’s left behind? It’s been fun picking through the pieces of the wreckage, but I doubt I have any significant answer to that conundrum now that I’ve made it through to the other side. I doubt I ever will.

-Brandon Ledet

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

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twohalfstar

When I reviewed the movie Kink, a fluff piece documentary about the BDSM porn site Kink.com, I faulted the film for being stubbornly one-sided. Kink presented such a positive, non-critical view of its subject that it played a lot more like a long-form advertisement than a proper documentary. The Rashida Jones-produced amateur porn documentary Hot Girls Wanted unfortunately repeats Kink’s cinematic sins, except from the other side of the fence. The entire movie plays like an 80min version of the “Shame! Shame! Shame!” scene that recently aired on Game of Thrones, offering a wholly negative view of amateur pornography as an industry. Granted, it certainly found a lot of grotesque, incisive business practices to publicly shame here, but it also suggests that there are people who have had positive experiences in the industry without exploring those threads of thought. It’s a deliberately one-sided issue documentary meant to influence the viewer’s opinions on the subject at hand instead of objectively presenting the facts. Like with a lot of films in that vein, Hot Girls Wanted is surprisingly affecting, admirable even, but not exactly an example of exceptional film-making.

Hot Girls Wanted is at least smart about keeping its subject concise. Instead of tackling the porn industry as a whole, it follows a group of six female roommates in Miami, FL who have been recruited to shoot amateur pornography. The girls are all white, recent high school graduates who enter the industry as a way of getting away from their controlled home lives. They’re recruited into the lifestyle by a 23 year old scumbag who purposefully manipulates young women through Craigslist ads into becoming “adult models”. The reason the industry has such a strong foothold in Miami is because California recently passed a law requiring all pornography shoots to include condoms. Once in Miami, these girls are convinced to have unprotected sex on camera for sizeable (but far from long-lasting) sums of money until they’re replaced by the next crop of fresh faces (usually less than a year down the line). The films’s strongest moments is when it allows the girls to speak for themselves.

It’s when Hot Girls Wanted strays from telling these six girls’ stories to attempt to make larger points about the culture that supports their decisions to enter porn that it fumbles the ball. Blaming influences like celebrity sex tapes, the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and music videos from the likes of Nicki Minaj & Miley Cyrus is kind of a cheap pot shot that has little to do with the task at hand. In just the first few minutes of the film, it’s slyly suggested that selfies are a gateway drug to making amateur pornography and if I had rolled my eyes any harder I would’ve gone permanently blind. The goal of Hot Girls Wanted is extremely admirable. The negative creeps the film exposes are hauntingly predatory and their unsuspecting teen prey are more or less children that don’t know exactly what they’re getting into until it’s too late. It’s only when the film wavers a little from telling specific stories to trying to make a larger point about modern culture as a whole that it loses me completely.

Hot Girls Wanted also has a tendency to present a wholly negative view of the amateur porn industry and pursues only the avenues that support its viewpoint. For example, late in the film it’s suggested that some of the subjects have had positive experiences creating & distributing pornography on their own through webcam technology. It seems to me that that’s the kind of thing you might want to follow up on if you want to tell a complete story, instead of taking time to mock the Kardashians or the art of the selfie.  It’s completely understandable why Hot Girls Wanted would want to stick to the supporting evidence, since its entire goal is to change minds about an industry it believes to be exclusively poisonous. It’s just that as a film, this one-sided approach is just about as exciting as when Kink went in the exact opposite direction: a little, but not very.

-Brandon Ledet

Kink (2014)

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twohalfstar

There’s a crippling sense of pointlessness at the heart of Kink, a recent documentary about the BDSM pornography company Kink.com. It’s not just that anyone who would be inclined to watch the film in the first place is already likely to be on board with its “kink porn is not unhealthy” message; it’s also that the film plays more like a long form advertisement than a proper documentary. Kink is more akin to an infomercial, a DVD extra, or a decade-late episode of HBO’s Real Sex than it is to a fully invested exploration of the subject at hand. By focusing on a single production company’s output & ethos, it feels less like a document of where kink porn is today and more like an aggressive PR assertion of where Kink.com is today, which is not necessarily as worthwhile of a subject.

As practicing sadists, Kink.com is obviously very much worried about coming across as “axe wielding maniacs”, so much of the run time is softening that image. Actors are shown expressing “pain” & then practicing the expression of “pain” off-camera. There are a lot of looming hard-ons bouncing around the set, but they’re slapped & tickled in an irreverent manner that says “We’re having fun here, y’all! I swear! So much fun!” The producers try to pose the company as a sort of mom & pop operation that started in a college dorm room (every young perv’s dream) and somehow blossomed into a successful business. But not too successful, though. They want you to know that in comparison to other porn giants, they’re the small-time outsiders, saying “If pornography was high school, we would be the goth table. We’d be the art kids.” All of this aggressive PR is supposed to make the company’s scary flogging, spanking, and out-of-control fuck machines more palatable to a wider audience, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s winning anyone over who wasn’t already down with what it’s selling.

Preaching to the choir is not the only problem with Kink’s assertion that Kink.com’s brand of BDSM porn is a-okay. It also just doesn’t have much to say once it establishes that consensual BDSM play is healthy. That’s not to say the film is completely devoid of entertainment. If nothing else, it’s kind of cute in its matter-of-fact pre-coitus negotiations of what will & won’t go down. As I mentioned in my review of The Duke of Burgundy, the sub is firmly in charge in most BDSM scenarios, despite what most people would expect, so it’s amusing here to watch them call the shots before shooting scenes.  Even at a mere 80min, however, this message isn’t enough to carry the film and there’s a lot of redundant feet-dragging that sinks any good vibes it had cultivated along the way. The closest the film comes to challenging itself is in a brief questioning of how money muddles consent and (after its assertion that BDSM porn doesn’t promote rape) the filming of a home invasion scenario that is very much a distinct rape fantasy. Otherwise, it lets its subject off the hook. As a documentary, Kink is mostly harmless. I was a little bored with its repetition, a little cynical of its blatant advertising, and very much annoyed with the obnoxious, wailing orgasm moans that droned on & on & on, but its biggest fault is that it didn’t push itself harder, instead opting to cover one small facet of a truly fascinating topic that deserves a closer, more critical look.

Side note: When the end credits revealed that Kink was “Produced by James Franco” I thought to myself, “Of course it was.”

-Brandon Ledet