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

Jezebel (2019)

I first heard of the new memoir drama Jezebel when the writer-director-star of the film, Numa Perrier, was interviewed on an episode of the Switchblade Sisters podcast this summer, discussing how the deeply personal project came to be. It’s near-impossible to resist the film’s premise as “a true story” wherein Perrier looks back to her teen years in the late 1990s, when her older sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work. The context & conflict of that premise is only made more intriguing by the fact that Perrier performs in the film herself as that older sister character, making the project as personal & intimate of an account as possible. What surprised me most about the film when it screened at the New Orleans Film Fest after months of anticipation was how sweet & delicate it was willing to be with its subject despite its creator’s obvious closeness to its emotionally raw context. Perrier doesn’t shy away from the exploitation or desperation that fueled her sex work as a cash-strapped, near-homeless teen, but she’s equally honest about the joy, power, and self-discovery that line of work opened up to her at the time, making for a strikingly complex picture of an authentic, lived experience.

Thematically, Jezebel falls somewhere between the poverty-line desperation of The Florida Project and the tense online sex work fantasy realms of Cam, but it’s not nearly as aggressive as either of those predecessors in terms of style or sensibility. Mostly, we follow the fictional Tiffany (who performs under the titular stage name Jezebel) as she ping-pongs between two suffocating, cramped locales: an extended-stay hotel room in Vegas and a nearby office space that’s been converted into an online pleasure dome. She has zero privacy in either her work or home life, where her “alone time” & her professional sex acts are quietly under surveillance by authority figures in just the other room. Understandably, a lot of the emotional drama is centered on her relationship with her older sister, who’s ultimately doing the best she can to equip the youngster with a self-sustaining skill (one the sister picked up herself over years of working dial-up hotlines). What’s more striking than that increasingly tense relationship, however, is Tiffany’s relationship with her own body & inner desires. The circumstances of how she got roped into sex work are far short of ideal, but she quickly comes to enjoy the freedom, power, confidence and expanding sexual passions the profession offers her – in a relatively low-stakes form of sexual labor she’s careful not to escalate. That conflict between desperation & autonomy rages throughout the movie, but it is mostly contained under a wryly humorous, surprisingly sweet surface.

While it’s nowhere near as deliberately horrifying as the chat sessions in Cam, Jezebel does a great job of distinguishing both the dangers & escapist fantasies inherent to working as a camgirl. The flood of unfiltered, hedonistic comments from anonymous men online are an overwhelming menace here, something Tiffany is especially vulnerable to as the only black girl working at her jobsite. There’s also just something horrific about how devastatingly young she looks as a 19-year-old babe in the woods who’s treating this incrementally risky line of work as a self-discovery playground. Watching her learn to wield power over her clients (one of them voiced by eternal sleazebucket Brett Gelman) or developing an internal sexual persona of her own, you can tell that working as a camgirl has overall been a genuine good in her life, but it’s impossible to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching a vulnerable child navigate potentially dangerous waters that are gradually rising above her head.

Perrier’s experience in the field is fascinating for the period-specific details of how early webcam lag, lack of audio, and chatroom etiquette informed the first wave of camgirl artistry (which mostly amounted to pantomimed sex acts instead of The Real Thing). Where Jezebel really shines, though, is in how the complexity of larger themes like familial politics, racial othering, financial power dynamics, and self-discovery are effortlessly, subtly weaved into a story that could have so easily been played for flashy shock value. Few things about this scenario are easy or fair, but Perrier finds plenty of room to convey a full inner life for her semi-fictional teenage surrogate, including touching bouts of joy, tenderness, and self-fulfillment despite the subject’s potential for pure exploitation and despair.

-Brandon Ledet

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

Stripped to Kill (1987)

In a career defined by inconsistences and exploitation of passing fads, the one constant to Roger Corman’s instincts as a producer is that the knows how to make money. He even proudly marketed his own autobiography on that conceit, titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. That’s why it’s so bizarre to hear Katt Shea recall in a recent interview with Blumhouse’s Shock Waves podcast how difficult it was to pitch her wildly successful debut feature to Roger Corman in the mid-1980s. If you boil Stripped to Kill down to its bare essentials, the film is basically just 15 (!!!) strip club routines, a few scenes of horrifically gruesome violence, and an extremely offensive twist ending that has aged about as well as a fart in a jar. It’s possible that Corman’s queasiness with the film’s #problematic conclusion was a smart instinct, and he should not have caved to Shea’s repeated, insistent pitches on the film. I doubt being politically correct ranks as highly in the producer’s mind as making enough money to fund his next picture, though, as evidenced by the existence of Stripped to Kill 2 and Katt Shea’s continued employment under his wing. Shea had a distinct, neon-soaked vision for a movie so sleazy it made Roger Corman afraid of making money; even if Stripped to Kill is so morally offensive that it should not exist, you still have to admire that accomplishment.

Two Los Angeles detectives stumble into an investigation of a serial killer who targets local strippers. Both detectives want to use this opportunity for a promotion to the homicide division, but only the woman of the pair has to strip for it. Undercover among strippers while her male coworkers cheer her on from the audience (to boost the appearance of her popularity), our heroine finds herself torn between staying focused on the investigation and losing herself to the unexpected pleasures of sexual exhibitionism. Her initial prime suspect for the stripper murders is far too obvious of a misdirect, meaning the real murderer is hiding in plain sight among the main characters. There isn’t much time for the audience to pick up on clues ourselves, though, as the film is (under$tandably) much more concerned with packing in as much sex & violence as it can manage in it brisk 88min runtime. There are brief glimpses of backstage stripper drama in the film that recall the backroom politics of sex work in flicks like Working Girls & Support the Girls, but they’re inevitably interrupted by flashier, more attention-grabbing indulgences: misogynist hyperviolence, leather fetish strip routines, explosions, etc. Even the opening credits of the film are accompanied by a full-length strip routine set to sub-Lou Reed beat poetry, just to squeeze in a little more bare flesh without wasting any time. It’s remarkably easy to lose track of the undercover cop’s hunt for a crazed killer among all this hedonism (a thread the cop loses herself as she comes to enjoy her new trade), which almost makes the unnecessary transphobic twist ending even more offensive, since the film makes very few narrative strides to justify it.

To be fair, Stripped to Kill is offensive long before the arrival of its killer reveal. The way it gawks at women both performing onstage and privately engaged in lesbian foreplay, then turns around to gawk at those same bodies being mutilated by a misogynist killer leans into the ickiest trappings of the sex thriller genre. The violence on display in this film is upsettingly brutal; women are strangled, tossed off bridges, raped, set aflame, and dragged behind giant commercial trucks. It has a shockingly gruesome mean streak for something that’s ostensibly meant to be sexually titillating (given the space it allows for more than a dozen strip routines, which often punctuate its kill scenes). There is something transgressively perverse about watching a young woman recreate this misogynist violence herself, especially in the case of Katt Shea believing in this project so passionately that she effectively bullied Roger Corman into greenlighting it. In its best moments, Stripped to Kill recalls the same 80s LA grime Jackie Kong exaggerated to a cartoonish degree in her cult classic horror comedy Blood Diner. Played straight here, the misogynist violence & sexual exploitation on display feel like a detailed time capsule of the era’s sleaziest sleaze – decorated perfectly with big hairsprayed mops of curls, high-wasted black lace lingerie, and intense washes of neon lighting. As shameless as they are, the sex & crime that defines most of Stripped to Kill are perfectly in tune with the hardboiled LA detectives & drug-addled street punks that populate its sleazy, greasy world. It’s just that sometimes that sleaze results in a badass moment (like women kicking an offending john to pulp in a back-alley act of vigilante stripper justice) and sometimes it results in poorly-aged cringe (the ill-considered twist).

It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether Stripped to Kill’s merits outweigh its faults. As its never-ending pileup of strip routines & grotesque murder scenes continually muscled out any room for genuine, legitimate drama, I found myself impressed by its wholehearted commitment to sleaze. Your own appreciation of that commitment will depend on your personal taste for unembarrassed, hyper-sexualized, politically careless trash. Thankfully, Roger Corman himself was won over by the film’s box office receipts despite his early reservations with Katt Shea’s pitch, and the young director was able to churn out a few better-respected titles under Corman brand – notably Poison Ivy, Dance of the Damned, and Streets. I’m looking forward to seeing how her keen sense of sleaze evolved in those pictures, but also a little weary of her instincts after the conclusion of this one.

-Brandon Ledet

The New Romantic (2018)

There was much discussion & hand-wringing about the death of the modern rom-com around the time that Obvious Child revived the genre in 2014 with a newfound emotional honesty & political bent. Since then, the traditional rom-com has made something of a lowkey comeback in films ranging in scale from small-budget Netflix streamers like Set It Up & To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to big studio political gambles like Love, Simon & Crazy Rich Asians. Few have directly wrestled with the formula & legacy of the traditional rom-com the way that Obvious Child did, however, choosing instead to participate in the rom-com ritual without self-aware critique (beyond a significant shift in representation politics). The New Romantic is not that kind of traditionalist rom-com; it openly interrogates & subverts the romantic escapism of its chosen genre in the way that Obvious Child did, just with a new political topic to drive its central conflict: sugar babies & sugar daddies. The New Romantic continually cites the Nora Ephron rom-com as a reference point (with specific titles like When Harry Met Sally & Sleepless in Seattle lengthily discussed in its script), but it undercuts any & all head-over-heels romance with aggressively Millennial, non-judgmental, transactional, blasé (and occasionally disastrous) sex work. There are plenty of rom-coms being produced in the modern era, but few feel this modern.

The End of the Fucking World’s Jessica Barden stars as an aspiring journalist college student, frustrated both by the debt her education is sinking her into and the uninspiring dating pool populated by her peers. She uses her sex advice column in the school newspaper to declare romance dead after a few unfulfilling Tinder dates, which leads to her column’s cancellation. With the encouragement of her roommate (Riverdale’s Hayley Law) and a new chance acquaintance (Camila Mendes, also from Riverdale), she decides to win her column back (and thus increase her chances for tuition scholarships) by venturing into bro-friendly, Vice style gonzo journalism in a new, uneasy life as a “sugar baby.” Entering a transactional relationship with a much older, much wealthier man, she begins having sex in exchange for lavish gifts (and professional opportunities). This opens the film to a “very zeitgeisty” conversation about sex work & the transactional nature of all romance. It also subverts the schmaltz of the traditional, Nora Ephron-style rom-com by depicting a developing “romance” that looks chivalrously orchestrated on the surface but is actually a business transaction with little-to-no emotional development. This is tricky thematic territory that’s been attempted before but, unlike in Pretty Woman, The New Romantic sticks to its guns in not allowing the temptation of genuine romance to overtake the transactional sex work dynamics of its premise. It remains honest about the separation between the two, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Politically speaking, this movie can play a little iffy, depending on how much weight you want to give this one sugar baby experience as a representation of all sugar baby/sugar daddy relationship dynamics everywhere. Our naïve, in-over-her-head, overly romantic protagonist is not fit for the business, and ultimately has a negative experience with her short life getting pampered by older men in exchange for sex. The movie never judges her for experimenting with sex work, however, letting the fault for her few disastrous sexual mishaps fall entirely on the shoulders of the shady older men involved. It also goes out of its way to offer a counterpoint in a fellow sugar baby character who wholeheartedly enjoys her transactional-sex lifestyle without apology. If you want a more politically aggressive take on this Millennial sex work subject matter, you’re much better off looking to Cam. Cam is also much more interested in the sex itself than The New Romantic, which is more tied up in romance & identity than anything resembling eroticism. The New Romantic has no qualms discussing the benefits nor the flaws of sugar babies & their financial supporters. Even its casting of the childlike Barden (who makes for an uncomfortably young 26) feels intentionally provocative, especially when she’s zipping around town in an adorable bike helmet. The movie is more about her character’s sugar baby experience than the sugar baby concept at large, however, no matter how “zeitgeisty” the subject is.

The New Romantic is uncomfortably honest about how its naïve, Nora Ephron-obsessed protagonist is not emotionally prepared for transactional sex work, but its tone as a deliberate Ephron descendent is still true to genre formula. The film is often super cute in the way most head-over-heels romances are, even if its subject matter comes off as largely cynical about the usefulness of modern romance. It’s a character-driven piece about a lovably open, vulnerable character in a modern world that’s unkind to vulnerability – allowing its politics & genre critiques to derive naturally from that conflict in a smart, endearing fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

Cam (2018)

I’m not sure how useful an endorsement for the technophobic camgirl thriller Cam will be coming from me, but I’ll gladly gush over the film anyway. Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, the movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory. Even if you’re not a trash-gobbling Luddite like myself who rushes out to see highly-questionable titles like #horror, Friend Request, and Selfie from Hell with unbridled glee, Cam in still very much worth your time as one of the more surprisingly thoughtful, horrifically tense genre films of the year. It’s an exceptionally well-constructed specimen of a still-burgeoning genre I’d love to see evolve further in its direction, a perfect example of how the Internet Age horror could (and should) mutate into a new, beautiful beast.

Madeline Brewer stars as an ambitious camgirl clawing her way up the rankings on her host site, Free Girls Live, by putting special care into the production values of her online strip sessions. The opening minutes of Cam borrow a page from Wes Craven’s Scream, delivering a tightly-constructed short film version of what an effective Unfriended-style camgirl horror movie might look like. After that five-minute horror show meets its natural, nightmarish conclusion, the narrative spirals out from there to detail how the camgirl’s attention-gabbing stripshow stunts put her at risk from anonymous online attackers. In a Body Double-mode De Palma plot matched by no other thriller this year (except maybe Double Lover) and no cyberthriller ever (except maybe Perfect Blue), our camgirl protagonist finds herself locked out of her Free Girls Live account and replaced by an exact, menacing replica of herself who has taken over her show (and, by extension, her digital tip money). The mystery of who or what this doppelganger is and the Kafkaesque battle to reclaim her online identity from it push Cam into the realm of the supernatural, but each of its threats & scares remain firmly rooted in the real-word concerns of online sex work. Much like how Assassination Nation exploited the horrors of private data leaks to expose America’s (already barely concealed) misogyny, Cam does the same with hacked accounts & the vulnerabilities of stripping for cash, whether online or in the flesh.

Co-written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, and with key sexualized scenes co-directed by Brewer herself, Cam seeks an authentic, collaborative depiction of the anxieties involved in online sex work. Being stalked by clients irl, suffering sex-shaming embarrassments from friends & family, being bombarded with abusive feedback (often in the form of low-grade .gifs) when all you’re offering is companionship & intimacy (for $$$): Cam covers a wide range of industry-specific anxieties that afford its thriller plot a very specific POV. Where that perspective really shines is in the protagonist’s up-font announcement of her don’ts & won’ts (recalling Melanie Griffith’s infamous monologue in Body Double): no public shows, no saying “I love you” to clients, no faked orgasms. Much of Cam’s horror is in watching her online doppelganger systematically violate each one of those ground rules without discretion, eroding the boundaries she had set for herself in the camgirl arena. This is not a cautionary tale about why you should not participate in online sex work, but it does play into anxieties & threats associated with the profession – both external ones form boundary-crossing clients and internal ones in watching those boundaries chip away.

As a cyberthriller about the Evil Internet, Cam excels as an exploitation of our fears of the digital Unknown just as well as any film I’ve ever seen—Unfriended included. The digital grain of the camgirl’s neon-pink broadcast set (a disturbing mixture of infantile stuffed-animals girls’ décor & professional kink gear) combines with an eerie assault of laptop-speaker message notifications to isolate our haunted protagonist in a physical chatroom that feels stuck between two realms – the online & the irl. It’s the most high-femme version of cyber-horror I’ve seen since Nerve (another thriller where an isolated young woman escalates the dangers of her online activity for money & attention), including even the Heathers-riffing vibe of Assassination Nation. Cam’s production design smartly toes the line between believable camgirl production values and a surreal, otherworldly realm where anything is possible. In this dreamy headspace, a hacked account feel like more than just a hacked account; it feels like someone reaching through the screen to steal an essential part of her being, like a digital curse in an Internet Age fairy tale. Part of the fun (and terror) of its central mystery is in knowing the possibilities are endless in that metaphysical realm, although with real-life ramifications echoed in the one we’re living in.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be as deeply smitten with Cam as I am. I’ve been known to praise lesser cyber-horrors like the Snapchat-hosted Blair Witch riff Sickhouse, while also complaining at length about more crowd-pleasing specimens like the cowardly cop-out Searching. The good news is that giving Cam a shot is relatively low-effort & low-risk; it’s a 90min watch acquired by Netflix from the festival circuit for online streaming perpetuity. The next time you’re looking for a lean, lewd, Luddite entertainment, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. In my mind, it’s clearly one of 2018’s most outstanding releases, regardless of my affinity for its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Sex Work and Lizzie Borden

My favorite image in the entirety of Lizzie Boden’s no-budget bomb-thrower Born in Flames, our current Movie of the Month, is the hands-on application of a condom. Casually included in one of the many montages set to Red Krayola’s titular anthem that repeats throughout the film, there’s something intensely provocative about that matter-of-fact condom application. Juxtaposed with a wide range of images depicting labor derisively considered “women’s work,” the hands-on work of applying a condom is (somewhat in dark humor) positioned as a burden often laid on women, no different than dental assistant labor, child care, call-center duty, or the factory work of shrink-wrapping raw chicken. Its contextless, matter-of-fact presentation leaves a lot of room for interpretation, though, dividing me & Alli on whether that image was being coded as domestic labor of professional sex work. Similarly, Born in Flames’s attitude toward sex work at large is open for interpretation, as it’s a narratively disjointed picture that relies in the strengths of ideas & images (like the contextless condom application) more than concrete explanations of intent. My personal interpretation of Born in Flames saw its attitude toward sex work as the only aspect of the film’s radical politics that did not age particularly well. In my view, the film advocates for the abolition of sex work as an industry, lumping it in with rape & gendered subjugation. Boomer & Alli both saw it differently, saying Born in Flames presents sex work as just any other kind of job (albeit one in desperate need of advocacy for workers’ rights), which would put it closer in line with modern political thinking on the subject, as opposed to the more hardline stances of feminism past. It could be that I was lumping individual characters’ negativity toward sex work in with Lizzie Borden’s own views; all sides of nearly every political issue are allowed to conflict onscreen in Born in Flames with equal weight. It’s tough to tell with just one picture as evidence, especially one this deliberately disjointed.

Thankfully, Lizzie Borden’s next feature film, Working Girls, delves further into this exact topic. Depicting a single workday in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls finds Lizzie Borden tackling the topic of sex work head-on and at feature length.  It even follows a much more straight-forward, linear narrative than Born in Flames, so much so that it could easily be adapted into a stage play. Weirdly, though, it never fully settled my mind on Borden’s political views of sex work as an industry, which is indicative of both her own internal ideological conflicts and the complex nature of the subject. ­­Louise Smith stars in Working Girls as an aspiring photographer with a live-in girlfriend (and daughter) who secretly pays her bills by working johns in a brothel/apartment that resembles a windowless version of the Seinfeld set. Over the course of the film she works a double shift, making money off a variety of men who visit the apartment by appointment and pay to spend time with her in rooms upstairs. As the title suggests, brothel work is depicted in the film as if it were any other kind of industry. The workers who comprise the operation are tasked to alternate personalities & functions, from receptionist to office girl to therapist to hostess to actor to lover to dominatrix to housecleaner, as the minute-to-minute demands of the job shift. The manual labor of condom application implied by that single image in Born in Flames is expanded to include used condom disposal, laundering of soiled towels, and the insertion of diaphragms. This matter-of-fact presentation of sex work in a functioning office context even comes with a demanding boss who takes credit for all their employees’ labor and changes the mood of the room depending on their emotional outbursts. Judging by its office environment hierarchies & work flows, Working Girls indeed reinforces the idea that Lizzie Borden views sex work as just being like any other profession. That would indicate Born in Flames’s views were much closer to modern radical politics than the prostitution abolitionist views of feminism past. That’s not all that’s going on in the film, however.

The function & method of sex work might be framed in the context of office culture mundanity in Working Girls, but the sex itself is a punishing, relentless nightmare that complicates that intellectual distancing. The disjointed landscapes of Art of Noise-style music & disembodied grunts mix with subtly grotesque expressions of masculine violence in a never-ending nightmare that resembles an early 80s slasher with condom-wrapped dicks instead of glistening kitchen knives. Consensual trading of cash for pleasure shifts into acts of rape within the span of a single phrase or physical gesture. The capitalist hierarchy & financial desperation that presses its boot on the neck of the workers with increasing intensity makes the cramped setting feel like an ongoing hostage crisis. Even the women eating junk food between customers is a stomach-churning display, an effect Borden plays for a sinisterly humorous tone. Working Girls is often darkly funny, but it is first & foremost dark, depicting even the most privileged corners of sex work as an inherently exploitative industry hinged on power, greed, and violence. Whether that criticism is aimed at sex work in particular or capitalism at large is up for interpretation (I assume it’s a healthy dose of both), as the brothel setting of Working Girls is essentially the entirety of capitalism in an apartment-sized microcosm. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film with this much sex play as aggressively unerotic as what’s on display here, resulting in what’s basically a horror film about the hour-to-hour mundanity of sex work (and, by extension, all labor under capitalism), a slow burn creep-out & a low-key political screed.

Where that leaves Borden’s political views on sex work at large is still as hazy as the contextless, provocative imagery of Born in Flames, but that’s honestly a large part of what makes her work so engaging. According to Borden herself, she made Working Girls after collaborating with the women who starred in & crewed Born in Flames, noticing that a large number of them were financially dependent on sex work to survive (and had fascinating stories to tell on the subject). That at least acknowledges that if Borden was politically opposed to sex work as an industry, it was a question of anti-oppressive ideals, not of denigrating individual people it employed. The shame is that we never had a chance to see her expand even further on the subject. Because of the studio influence that compromised her later work, Borden considers Born in Flames & Working Girls to be the only two titles that are truly hers as the principle artist at the helm. With more, better funded movies her world view may have had a chance to clarify, evolve, or self-conflict in a clearer political display, but instead she’s been effectively silenced by a lack of opportunity. Luckily, the two films she was able to compete without outside fuckery are both ideologically dense, provocative works of D.I.Y. political filmmaking, as well as essential documentation of a long-gone, grimy era in NYC history. I’m unsure of my interpretations of either film, something that’s made no better through repetition, but I’m also awestruck by the potency of her D.I.Y. matter of fact imagery. Isolated images of a condom application, a greasy cheeseburger, a pantied spanking, and an exploding World Trade Center miniature will haunt me forever in their political implications & daringness to provoke. In two no-budget films, Borden left me with more to think about & debate within myself than most directors achieve with entire catalogs of professionally financed, polished studio productions. That’s about as punk as you can get, no matter what your exact political stances may be or how they may age with time.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the D.I.Y. feminist screed Born in Flames, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its place in the No Wave movement.

-Brandon Ledet

Europe in the Raw (1963)

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threehalfstar

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By the time Russ Meyer made his fourth consecutive nudie cutie picture, the dull-yet-oddly-chaotic Wild Gals of the Naked West, his boredom with a genre he had inadvertently created was starting to show. What did not become boring to the tireless pervert, however, was large, naked breasts. As a result, Meyer’s fifth picture, Europe in the Raw, attempted to shift away from the “cutie” part of the nudie cutie format & moved the director’s work ever so closer to the much darker, stranger territory he would later revel in for decades. Unlike his later works, however, Europe in the Raw was far from unique in terms of genre. Part of what made Meyer’s debut, The Immoral Mr. Teas, such a wild, controversial success was that it for the first time combined moving pictures of naked girls with the mainstream comedy. Pre-Teas nudie films usually snuck past censors by treating their own sexual content derisively (when not vainly disguising  themselves as “documentaries” about nudist camps). An old sexploitation tactic was to get away with showing copious amounts of “depraved” behavior by demonizing the participants & punishing them for their transgressions (often pre-marital sex & the resulting back alley abortions) with a well-deserved death in the final act, in effect denouncing the very thing that made the picture fun & interesting in the first place. Europe in the Raw is hilariously guilty of this strategy.

In its opening narration Europe in the Raw boldly promises to be “undoubtedly the most unusual & intriguing documentary film every brought to the screen” that will expose “the stark realism of contemporary life in Europe.” Uh huh. What the film actually exposes is Russ Meyer’s Jingoistic/xenophobic thoughts on the sex trade in Europe (where he had learned his craft as a combat photographer during WWII) & deeply bizarre, self-contradictory relationship with women, whom he simultaneously worshipped & completely misunderstood. It’s fascinating stuff. Packing only short reels of film so they could pass as tourists, Russ & then-wife Eve traveled to a slew of major European cities to film this fiercely American diatribe: Paris, Stockholm, Hamburg, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc. The original plan was to film candid footage on a (loudly humming) camera conspicuously “concealed” in a briefcase with a comically visible window cut out to expose the lens. This was ill-advised. Meyer soon discovered that attempting to film sex workers without their knowledge was a dangerous, life-jeopardizing tactic & decided to instead fake a significant portion of the footage once he was back on American soil. What’s left is a lot of touristy photojournaling, obviously staged footage in which the “hidden” camera itself is filmed in multiple scenes, occasional glimpses of the actually-real, actually-dangerous candid footage Meyer managed to sneak in a couple scattered red light districts (including one terrifying sequence in which he is essentially chasing a leather-clad dominatrix down the street), and some beautiful documentation of European strippers doing their thing. To borrow a phrase from Dana Carvey’s Johnny Carson impersonation, it’s weird, wild stuff.

As with Meyer’s previous four pictures, nearly all of the audible dialogue in Europe in the Raw is provided by an offscreen narrator, in this case Vic Perrin (who would return for Meyer’s next picture & final nudie cutie Heavenly Bodies!). Perrin’s industrial film intonations are strange glimpses into Meyer’s self-contradictory thoughts on both women & Europe, two subjects on which he is far from qualified to comment upon. Meyer’s simultaneously straight-laced & perverted views on these two subjects feel uncomfortable as soon as the opening monologue, where he states that Europe is, like a woman, a “land of many moods […] On the surface it is usually cheerful & happy, but somewhere underneath this pleasant exterior lies cruelty & lust,” going on to describe the continent as “sometimes a virgin, sometimes a libertine.” This is the first true glimpse into the bitter, bizarre war of the sexes that would populate nearly all of Meyer’s future works, to an almost obsessive degree. Europe in the Raw is full of these strangely acidic, but openly salacious musings. In one passage, he describes Amsterdam as “the most prostitute-infested Dutch city” where women are “displayed like sides of beef in the windows of a chop house”, potrays one red light district as “a cesspool of cheap hotels, tawdry bars, and wanton women”, and says of another that “The street clamors with the sound & fury of unbridled passion & manufactured lust, peddled wholesale at outrageous prices.” Worst of all he claims that in these supposed moral cesspools every sexual aberration can be bought except for rape, because every woman walking the street was for undoubtedly for sale. What an vile, insane thought. As enjoyable & transgressive as Russ’ films could be, he was always eager to remind you that at heart he’s a hopelessly cruel misanthrope & a bully, a real piece of shit.

What’s so peculiar about Meyer’s vilification of “women of easy virtue” & his skewed view of a Europe where “exhibition is the rule rather than the exception”, of course, is that he himself is, in essence, a peddler of smut. It’d be much easier to believe Europe in the Raw‘s prudish dialogue if its writer/director hadn’t previously made a fortune selling pin-up photographs & inventing the nudie cutie, essentially establishing himself as a remarkably talented softcore pornographer. For instance, when the narrator half-heartedly scorns European beaches for being “infested with bevies of bikini busters,” the first things that comes to mind is “Bikini Busters!”, the openly-drooling, dubious history of the bikini segment in Meyer’s previous film Erotica. Part of what makes Meyer’s best work so fascinating is this absurd sense of self-contradiction, especially in his treatment of women. Despite the often misogynistic war of the sexes vibes that infect much of his work, Meyer has a God-given knack for making women look powerful on film, (Tura Satana’s turn as Varla in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! being the most infamous example). Although Meyer speaks ill of sex workers & burlesque dancers in Europe in the Raw, he also films them beautifully from drastically low angles that make them look gigantic & powerful. He had a way of verbally tearing women down in his films & in the press, but his obvious reverence for the gender permeates his visual work in an undeniable way and that bizarre dichotomy is noticeable for the first time in his career in Europe in the Raw.

With Europe in the Raw, you can feel the real Russ Meyer starting to show his true colors, hideous warts & all. Even so, he manages to incorporate some of the hokey humor from his previous nudie cutie work, like in an extended ping pong match staged at a (ridiculously fake) Dutch nudist camp, a gag where a chamber pot is emptied on a passing pedestrian, a scene where the Leaning Tower of Pisa rotates full circle like the hands of a clock, and (my personal favorite) an ungodly long sequence of German street signs that feature the words “Fart” & “Fahrt”. Speaking of the “Fart” sequence, finally coming into its own here is Meyer’s talent for blinding, rapid-fire editing. Flashes of European street signs, advertisements, food, bikes, toilets, neon lights, fine art and, of course, bare breasts overwhelm the viewer in a bewildering assault that would eventually reach a fever pitch in his 1970 picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Commercial vessels, automobiles, and steel architecture are also filmed in the same low, reverent angles the director films his burlesque dancers, establishing an aesthetic that what would eventually solidify itself as Russ Meyer’s America. All of the basic building blocks of Meyer’s ouevre are present for the first time in Europe in the Raw, right down to the lingering brutality of WWII. Meyer even once described the film (which he was evidently not too proud of, despite its obvious superiority to dreck like Eve & The Handyman and Wild Gals of the Naked West) simply as “Tits and War”. Honestly, if you had to boil the man’s entire career down to just two words, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Similarly, if you wanted to watch the majority of Meyer’s career without tuning in for the stinkers between the milestones, Europe in the Raw wouldn’t be a bad place to start either.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Lost Control (2015)

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twohalfstar

It’s difficult to tell exactly how much of my disinterest in She’s Lost Control has to do with my personal tastes, which lean towards excess over understatement, but there really isn’t much in this film for me to recommend. I didn’t exactly expect a bright, ecstatic affair from a drama about a sex worker ostensibly named after a Joy Division song, but She’s Lost Control still surprised me in just how lowkey & somber it could be from scene to scene. I didn’t particularly loathe the film at any point during its melancholy proceedings, but I didn’t engage with it much either.

As a sexual surrogate, the protagonist Ronah toes the line between therapy & sex work. She doesn’t have johns; she has patients. Early on in the film, when she proclaims “You pay me for my time but you can’t control how I feel” (in a speech she apparently delivers often), she’s already establishing that her clients are men towards which she has an incredibly vulnerable potential for emotional attachment. These are broken men with deep-seeded intimacy issues (such as a difficulty being undressed in front of a partner or a mental block when it comes to physical contact) that Ronah attempts to coax out of their well-guarded shells. Her vulnerability in these scenarios reaches a breaking point late in the film that feels simultaneously inevitable & brutally cruel.

There’s a lot of potential in these fragile, intimate moments, but first-time director Anja Marquardt does very little to tie their meanings into something more than “These things happen.” I’m sure that this was a deliberate choice & it’s one backed up by a similarly somber visual aesthetic, but I still found very few memorable moments in the final product, despite the great potential. Other folks more tuned-in to the gloomy, low-key indie drama as a genre might find something much more fulfilling here, but for me She’s Lost Control was essentially a gray wash of uncomfortable intimacy that signified little more than how cruel people can sometimes be when you make yourself vulnerable before them.

-Brandon Ledet