“A Labor of Love” (1976)
In the early 1970s, with the emergence of Porno Chic as a passport for the average moviegoer to casually experience that which heretofore had been the patron territory of the vaunted “raincoat crowd”, there was briefly an earnest question presented as to whether the “legitimate” commercial cinema might ever find occasion to meld with the newly prolific mirror industry whose efforts at dramatic replication were defined by the necessity of baring all and Just how would “legitimate” thespians surrender to those performance demands consistent with those whose chosen trade is centered on sexual acts?
Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman’s “A Labor of Love” is not an X-rated film per se, but a documentary about the making of one, or more exactly, the effort of a group of fledgling independent filmmakers in their efforts to produce one: “The Last Affair”, a low-budget independent which had the merciful virtue, by all evidence, of a rapid expiration date and path to instant obscurity save for any source of interest generated by this documentary.
That in its conception “The Last Affair” was not planned as an “adult” feature, but rather as a prerequisite demand of its financial backers and that it was so easily adaptable into a porn film, should give some indication as to the pliably lurid nature of the material even at the incipient stage. Ostensibly a drama about a woman desperate to have a child despite her husband’s sterility, the story of “The Last Affair” takes a bizarre turn when instead of consulting the normal courses of either adoption or third party reproduction, the wife employs the services of a house of male prostitution for the required zygotic progenitor. As it turns out, this decidedly uncommon approach to motherhood is directly the result of “Affair” director/writer Henri Charbakshi’s lifelong fascination with prostitutes; a creative fixation which will color his filmmaking effort with a discomforting air of depravity regardless of how many times a performer is prodded to work with the promise of the film they’re making is akin with the artistic traditions of Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut.
In documenting the progress of the filming of “The Last Affair”, the focus is primarily on the sex scenes; the planning (which is tentative and haphazard at best), the execution and most importantly, the psychological aftermath of crossing the boundary from acting to contractually mandated acts of physical intimacy. Unsurprisingly, there is an initial expression of bravura on the part of the participants (both in front of and behind the camera) which almost uniformly dissolves when the demand to perform sexual acts with virtual strangers in front of the camera crew exposes the raw nerve of nervous hesitancy (none of the cast or crew are experienced in this realm of filmmaking), which invariably results in panic induced impotence, feelings of regret and bitter eruptions of somewhat belated self-empowering aggressiveness.
Perhaps this post-coital trauma is never more explicitly demonstrated than after a prolonged filming of a scene of cunnilingus (also, coincidentally, the one sequence which is sufficiently graphic to qualify as meeting the standards of pornography) between a mature actor (Len Oswald) and a young woman a fraction of his age (Amber Anders), a scene that becomes all the more uncomfortable when Oswald improvises dialogue identifying his character as the girl’s “daddy” as a seductive come-on. Following the scene’s shooting, Osward expresses a regret, not only for his extemporaneous contribution, but for participating in the scene at all; his resolute change of heart obviously coming from a deep source in which he despairingly concedes he has abruptly abandoned his moral character- and in the process seriously damaged a “professional” colleague -for no reason other than to unquestioningly follow a series of inexact, rambling directions in the service of an inessential enterprise. For her part, young Anders appears traumatized into numbness, merely asking that the documentary camera which has abetted in previously intruding on her most intimate anatomy be stopped from further intrusion on her humanity.
After one of her own sex scenes, the most explicit portions of which she had the presence of mind to request the documentary camera leave the room, lead actress Deborah Dan flatly addresses the process of being the subject of filmed sex as “emasculating” to the men, “defemenizing” to the women; a general acknowledgement of a feeling of degraded objectivism shared by all of the principles. participation in the film. Her method of mentally preparing to perform the film’s sex scenes by “turning my mind off” and remembering “the fact that I am a professional actress, which I have been for a week and a half” speaks to the perceived dehumanization of her job and to the glaring flaw of the film, which is the absence of any background information imparted in regard to both cast and crew. Just what was the experience level (if any) of the participants (except for a uniform inexperience in porn) professionally and how was the cast assembled? For an actress to confess a complete shutdown in the service of delivering a performance seems ironically contrary to the intentions of the craft.
The provocative nature of the film’s focus might lead one to think that the film is typical of exposé documentaries which purport to critically enlighten about the sex trade, yet result in a gratuitous wallowing in the very material the film pretends to regard with the false sniffing of disdain. To the credit of Flaxman and Goldman, there is little sense that they have approached their task with anything but appropriate discretion and an open mind; allowing the material to bravely speak with an unaffected clarity rare in films touching on pornography. However, in a development stranger than fiction, a brief coda reveals that once the shooting of “The Last Affair” was completed, producer intrusion again changed the course of the film, with reshoots and the complete removal of all explicit sexual material. Some might call this comic irony.
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years” (2016)
Just when you think that the documentary coverage of The Beatles had reached the saturation point, along comes Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years” which fails to add anything new worthy factual revelations to the already voluminous coverage of The Fab Four, but what it achieves, and it does so excitingly well, at least in the first half of the film, is to recreate the frenzied sensation that was that was known as Beatlemania- surprisingly sweet in nature, and this is he only film to openly rely on this phenomenon as its driving engine since 1978’s delightful “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” -generated by a particular quartet from Liverpool. However, in doing so, Howard disappointingly squanders opportunities he himself creates by effectively accounting for only one half of his subject’s potential.
That the scale of this innocent enthusiasm is repeatedly referenced as historic, and that the unchecked energies of the extraordinary numbers of fanatical fans compressed into unnaturally confined areas led to incidents of unintended destruction and injury was a sign that something new and impactful on a grand scale was afoot; it was if all of those hysterical premonitions from 1950’s morality soapboxes concerning the lure of the “devil music” (despite the fact that much of that consternation was prejudicially based upon rock and roll being an evolutionary offspring of black centric rhythm and blues) had come to fruition of an epic scale. However, what minimizes the film is its complacency in giving a first-hand accounting of this very frenzy surrounding The Beatles’ concert tours from the perspective of those most closely associated with those spontaneous eruptions of individual emotional delirium, which when multiplied by millions, created a game changing cultural phenomenon: the fans themselves. There are a number of newly filmed recollections from celebrity admirers such as Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg (who provides the most heartfelt moments in the film), but in limiting the bulk of the reminiscences to well known personalities, Howard fails to follow through on the greater story he is tackling: the everyday teens who comprised the vast bulk of The Beatles‘ fandom. Surely it would have been possible with a minimum of detective work to track down some of the excited youths who appear in the concert footage, and absent this first-hand reminiscence, Howard misses the opportunity to plumb extra dimensions from the perpetually overlooked partner in the Beatlemania phenomenon.
Without this additional documentary layer, the film emerges as yet another in a long line of Beatles career narratives, albeit one that is slickly constructed, with a visual aesthetic so sleek it would appear aerodynamically designed: its hard to imagine factual points of any gravitas attaching to the movie’s surface. (There is much fanciful graphic work that is simply included as irrelevant window dressing simply to make the film look busy; for instance: what significance is added by having cigarettes animated so that they actually curl smoke in still photos?)
Limiting first-hand testimonials from “civilian” parties is especially diminishing to narrative continuity in the film’s second half where a Beatles backlash erupts- due to a now-infamous casual comment from John Lennon -including boycotts and record burnings in Deep South states; areas where earlier The Beatles were certain to have ruffled many authoritative feathers with refusals to play concert dates unless the attendees were allowed to be segregated; this in racially troubled regions where forced racial segregation was the norm and bigotry motivated violence not an uncommon occurrence. Had Howard bothered to establish a wider historical context, it is possible that much of the anti-Beatles backlash could have attributable as calculated retributive comeuppance for exercising their earlier resistance to local policies promoting racial discord, but the film simply runs past these events without any measurable investigation. Again, even a cursory reference point anchored with first-hand fan testimonials might have provided a more intimately personal perspective providing an explanatory rationale for the events, without which the wrenching shift from idolatry to hostility comes as a slap in the face emanating from a vacuum.
The Imagine Entertainment partnership of Howard and Brian Grazer is no stranger to the documentary presentation of cultural touchstones given a trivializing reexamination, with Grazer’s own toothless production reconsidering the Sexual Revolution bellwether “Deep Throat” in the extensive but empty “Inside Deep Throat” as a precursor to this latest documentary brochure pretending novelistic stature.
“Elle s’appelle Sabine” (2007)
Ideally the documentary form should present an objective point of view. How then to judge a film which by the very nature of the film maker’s intimate relationship with the subject guarantees the intrusion of emotional subjectivity that might very well alter the foundation of, not only the conclusions of the film, but the very techniques employed by which such predetermined ends are reached? In such a case, are facts sufficiently colored by such a prejudicial perspective on the part of the film maker, that it might render the film’s deductions capable of question?
French actress Sandrine Bonnaire has chosen as the subject of her directorial debut a portrait of her younger autistic sister Sabine, who despite demonstrating remarkable proficiency in music and an enthusiasm for literature, athletic activity and travel (she loves America), is spirited away to a hospital at the age of 28, where in the five year period comprising her institutionalization, she undergoes a monstrous transformation rendering her barely able to function and in a semiconscious state. The tragedy blatantly illustrated in the film is in the stark counterpoint between the pre and post institutionalized Sabine in manner, behavior and appearance. To say that the contrasts are shocking does not do the crimes of negligence against this young woman justice; a point that is made repeatedly over and again with an unerring sense of shock value by the clearly rankled film maker.
However, in her methodology and the kneejerk sympathetic response these horrid juxtapositions are designed to elicit, certain questions arise which extend beyond the scope of this frustratingly narrow blame game. “Elle s’appelle Sabine” unfolds with an unmistakable radical self-interest built into every frame, which while leaving the central scandal of the piece unaffected, avoids relevant details of Sabine’s immediate pre-hospital background, information which is curiously glossed over but is entirely relevant in providing the fullest understanding of the conditions by which her administered violation was allowed to take place. The extreme emotional pitch at which the director unashamedly manipulates the material is designed to command outrage, and rightly so. But, in cultivating such powerful empathetic demands on the audience, Bonnaire has an obligation to give clarity to the context in which her editorial assertions find their basis.
The failure of the film to do so makes it something of a wasted opportunity and while it strongly suggests a tragedy extending beyond that of the unfortunate Sabine– the additional sense of victimization felt by exasperated family members to whom the ultimate responsibility lays for institutionalizing a daughter or sister -this aspect of familial liability is only fleetingly addressed in an interview between director Bonnaire and a mother of one of Sabine’s fellow home residents Oliver, who is repeatedly questioned about “guilt”; perhaps the most revealing portion of the film, laying bare one of the primary reasons for its own existence. If indeed, the film is partially intended as an act of catharsis, then the absence of the critical material regarding the decision to initially place Sabine in the destructive institution is doubly dishonest, exposing a continued stubbornness on the part of a sister, whose own efforts at seeking a path to absolution obscure any honest investigation of a system which would allow such inattention to the wellbeing of its charges to occur, and presumably continue to occur unabated. (In moments such as this, one can’t help but wonder just which Bonnaire sister this film is truly about?) However, investigation is not the issue, for if the hospital is to be placed as the sole bearer of accusation, it is in the abstract since no specific names or places are given. This causes the film to emerge, despite its capacity to move, as a rather toothless tool of indictment, especially when the problems encountered are systemic to their medical system. And even if such a dangerous level of laxity exists in French health care (and there’s no doubt that diagnostic and medical incompetence were rampant in this case), then why did it take five years to withdraw her from such obvious abuses? Just what were the circumstances? And why did no one seem to notice? Or care until it was too late?
Unfortunately, the film is mute on these imperative points, and thus never demonstrates the courage to acknowledge what the film is really about: the warehousing of inconvenient people. Clearly in Sabine’s case, this course was entirely unnecessary and preventable, until the intervention of her own family. A film committed to absolute transparency in the exploration of its themes, regardless of the personal discomfort, would prominently address the question of what to do with a chronically problem family member when they intrude upon your own life? There is no doubt there is an anger behind the camera, but is it outwardly or inwardly directed? One suspects the story cannot be fully told without sister Sandrine’s own self-reproaching testimony, which is never forthcoming. To differing degrees, the film reveals a permanent damage done to both sisters. In the concluding narration, Bonnaire speculates as to whether, “one day, will I ever be able to take another trip with my little sister?” These are the last spoken words in a film whose narration has, up to this point, been delivered with a remoteness more attuned to the clinical study of a medical exhibit rather than a beloved sibling; in the final moments, finally quietly expressing the inconsolable pain of loss.
The film ends with Sabine watching films of her former self, to which she initially erupts into a sorrowful wail of remembrance; a moment which mimics the earlier initial shock the audience experiences in seeing her transformation. In this moment, Sabine becomes the witness to her own horrific decline. It is a heartbreaking spectacle, unforgettable in its implications, and demanding of some very hard answers.
The collision of artistically celebrated photographic sensibilities and the illusion of the pornographic fantasy image is intended to be explored in what is meant to be a sympathetic exposure of the “real” women behind the painted masquerade of the virtually anonymous physionomic cloning of the modern female sexual fantasy girl in Deborah Anderson’s “Aroused”, a film which purportedly intends to strip away the rancid veneer of the intentionally crafted falsification of the adult female porn performer as an indistinguishable living sex doll in which the assortment of working orifices is of paramount commercial consideration. That this denial and limitation of the adult actress’ identity as anything but an object leading to masturbatory release would appear- in any rational discussion -to automatically lead to a sincere attempt at the humanization in its subject portraitures- the sixteen adult film actresses chosen for Anderson’s photographic reinvention -might also lead to some stark and important revelations concerning a number of questions which Anderson herself poses near the beginning of the film: Why are porn stars looked down upon by the very society which uses their “debasement” for its own sexual pleasure, and- perhaps even more importantly -why and how has sex become (in media and culture-at-large) the ultimate power tool, determining both desirability and commercial worth? Naturally such questions ask more about the society outside the realm of the sex worker than directly of the pornographic ethic, but any substantive discussion of the subject must include an unflinching exploration of the hypocritical symbiotic relationship between public sex worker and the silent consumer class..
This film strains dexperately to be taken seriously and regarded as profound, if not eye-opening, yet- despite the quotations peppered throughout the film by likes of Anaïs Nin, Marlene Dietrich and Erica Jong, all of whom say more in the briefest phrase than Anderson manages in her entire film -one cannot help but think this is an attempt at a thesis paper by someone doodling at the primer level. It begins with a meaningless, extended sequence of several of the women being driven through palm lined streets of mansions and privilege, casting longing glances at what?…. a world in which they will never belong? Is this a symbolic editorial condemnation of the facade of decency behind which the consumers of the sex trade anonymously hide as the secret objects of their fantasies pass by unnoticed and rootless? Or is this simply a stylish affectation without any more substance than a randomly inserted musical video? One thing is for certain: at a paltry running time of 69 minutes (an ironically magical number which seems to characterize so many of these documentaries on porn), there is little time to waste on such wasteful stylistic affectations to which the film will again and again descend into; continuously substituting banal graphic design as one gets the uneasy sensation of the film becoming a public exhibition of Anderson exposing her own empty narcissistic celebrity-fed aesthetic, reveling in the thought of getting down and dirty with purveyors of a “taboo” world to which it is evident she feels will automatically imbue her most ordinary of photographic visions (her resultant photo session, what one can gather of it amid the truly incompetent, obscuring montages, resembles nothing more artistically insightful than a session with a mall boudoir photographer) with the grit and truth of a genuine artist.
If Hollywood is a Dream Factory, the San Fernando Valley- in which the majority of the adult industry finds its nest -is the land of a harsher, more severe illusionary taskmaster; one to whom the submission of personal identity to the cosmetically transformative whims of generic sex partner; the removal of identity in favor of a manufactured persona which subsumes the personality of the porn performer. In a film which purports to reveal the “real woman” inside the porn star, there are despairingly few statements made by any of the “actresses” which include personal ambitions, dreams or relationships which are not directly tethered to the process of paid sexual performance. The only genuine insights of the industry and the women engaged in it come from adult industry agent Fran Amidor, whose sensible observations and apparently sincere nurturing nature makes her a positively reinforcing Fagin to a world of girls to whom promiscuity and exhibitionism trumps far-sightedness or common sense. For the most part, although Anderson extracts from the women the complete laundry list of overly familiar “usual suspect” excuses for entering the sex trade- distant or absent fathers, childhood disorientation from excessive military moves, broken homes, feelings of excessive domestic discipline -though none of the subjects actually cites any of these as a reason for a barely legal dive into the pornographic wading pool (quick cash for sex seems to be the most agreed upon rallying point of motivation, which leads, in a direction never once questioned by the surprisingly intuitively timid director, as a career choice inadvisedly ill-considered as indistinguishable from the field of prostitution by many of the sixteen), instead of Ms. Amidor’s learned assessment that the industry is continuously fortified by an endless stream of disposable, promiscuous, immature girls who sadly, but insatiably, crave attention.
Interestingly, the more the subjects speak, the more defensive and bitter the tone, with non-porn individuals angrily referred to as “civilians” (Misty Stone is particularly heated in her chastisement and ultimately anti-social posture), as if non-participation in the field were a badge of dishonor. This defensive posture, which obviously masks much deeper and (possibly) truer feelings- the “reality” of the women that is supposedly Anderson’s subject -as well as anxieties and reversible effects of such a provocative early career choice, is ungraciously glossed over and unexplored, amid a bizarre series of shots during which the actresses (by this time, not only heavily lacquered to the industry standards which seem intent on transforming women into indistinguishable sex mannequins; a truly voluntary form of objectification) are fractured into random piecemeal images of anatomical curves, buttocks, breasts and pieces of cosmetically enhanced facial features;the disassembling of the actresses into separated feminine parts, Anderson’s approach to penetrate the “real” woman within seems entirely confounded by traveling the surface of the female form; a barrier which inhibits further psychological probing (any, actually), revealing the alarmingly trite limitations of her artistic imagination. In essence, Anderson’s path to reversing her perception of porn’s objectification of these women (despite the fact that their own testimony refutes such personally disparaging classification) is to simply sexually objectify them with her own signatory style.
The colossal failure of “Aroused”, as anything more than a mercenary commercial for Deborah Anderson’s photo book, is evident once it reveals its actual lack of editorial ambition. Simply by an opportunity for normal discourse, the porn actresses express thoughts which cry for illumination, yet the novice director seems contented with the simple act of assembling her models for her own pinup photographic session. Just how this addresses the more provocative issues she teases with in the film’s opening, nor how this bridges the perception gap between the porn image and reality is certainly beyond anything which the film gives a second’s attention. Even more of a lost oppostunity is any discussion given to the bridging of the pornographic and the artistically erotic, a subject one might imagine would spark the interest of this self-professed celebrity photographer. (Only a fleeting quote by former porn star and publisher Gloria Leonard witttily addresses this very subject.)
For the performers to act socially abused by a shaming “civilian” public is rather disingenuous for members of a cultural industry whose efforts to conceal their true identities rivals that of the Witness Protection Program. If, as is generally asserted by the sixteen, that their chosen careers are merely an extension of their own sex lives recorded for their own profitability (presuming there is a vast audience willing to pay for such purely exhibitionist product without a hint of further artistic intention, though shadows of economically crushing piracy issues are briefly raised), why the added pretense of personal obscurity? If there is no shame in what they do, why the concealment? Porn seems to be a truly schizophrenic universe of self-denial: an industry of arrogant exhibitionism which craves the security of obscurity; an insoluble cultural contradiction. (In many way, the porn industry’s parroting of the “legitimate” film world seems an extension of the mocking mimickry which characterized the Superstar rostering of the Warhol Factory. Could it be that porn is the gaudy apothesis of Warhol’s prophetic comment on short-lived fame?)
Deborah Anderon’s “Aroused” is a strangely timid, unsatisfying film; a self-congratulatory exercise in grandstanding that pretends to champion a segment of publically pilloried womanhood, but merely celebrates, with stunningly inflated conceit (considering the available lack of artistic evidence), the director’s actual favored subject (as made bracingly clear in the final moments of the film): herself.