Archive for the ‘porn’ category

We Are the Flesh

January 15, 2017

wearethefleshEvery so often you need a movie that’s so defiantly uningratiating (and often unpleasant) it seems to clear the air, like an especially intense thunderstorm, and demonstrate that art doesn’t always play nice. The surreal, sexually explicit Mexican art-house horror film We Are the Flesh unfolds in a cruel universe occupied most of the time by only three characters, bringing in other people only to feed them into the meat grinder (figuratively — or maybe literally; it’s that kind of film). It is steadfastly not for everyone, yet I feel it’s important to note such work; it is also heartfelt about the point it seems to be making about the soulless squalor of society — or at least the society it depicts, which may not have a lot to do with society as we know it. Art doesn’t always play fair, either.

Writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter sets up a scenario that sometimes feels like an Off-Off-Broadway play. It appears to be the days after apocalypse. A mysterious man named Mariano (Noé Hernández) lives alone in what seems to be an abandoned asylum, building things or taping up liquids into large drums or obtaining food through a tray in the wall. Two siblings, Fauna (Maria Evoli) and Lucio (Diego Gamaliel), break in to rob him. Instead, he dominates them and makes them have sex with each other — something they warm to after some (not much) initial resistance. During his onanistic oversight of these events, Mariano dies, but then is reborn through a slimy tunnel in the wall. The siblings, especially Fauna, seem altered by Mariano’s influence.

In a way, We Are the Flesh is a contemptuous fulfillment of what voyeuristic audiences claim to want from entertainment. It’s full of sex, drugs (a substance in an eye-dropper), and violence. But these things are presented in an aggressively weird, anti-audience manner; it gives you what you want in ways you didn’t want it. The movie isn’t completely devoted to Funny Games-style game-playing, though. On another level it seems quite sincere about its message of madness, and admirably committed to it. It has an addled purity, and the purity extends to its rigorous if sometimes chaotic use of cinema to express inexpressible states of emotion. The camera trembles, spins, lurches, zooms, and other times stays pristinely still or lingers. The color scheme begins with despairing grays, the shades of a corpse, but then the corpse gradually wakes up until blood flushes its skin with red.

The movie’s very context itself is untrustworthy: what’s real and what isn’t? There’s no baseline of sanity here — it begins on a savage and dimly intelligible note and keeps playing that note. Faced with nonsense, the brain seeks the solace of allegory. Everything comes to seem abstract, everyone a representation rather than a person. That’s also how a brain can shield itself from onscreen atrocities, and there are a lot of them as We Are the Flesh winds down. Maybe it’s best simply to say we’re getting life as seen through the filter of an outraged, terrified artist, a heightened, gory reality presided over by demons.

Is Mariano the devil? Or is he a construct to give the siblings license to sin — much like God and Satan? Noé Hernández plays him as a man delighted by each potential of perversity, each corruption of innocence, he happens to run across. Mariano doesn’t go out and recruit souls; he mostly stays holed up, and the souls come to him. Is Emiliano Rocha Minter saying that we hold our souls so cheaply we’ll simply offer them to Satan? Or, in this context, is Lucifer more of a chaotic-neutral agent, happily flouting hypocritical moral codes? We Are the Flesh could inspire evenings of fervent disputation and interpretation, but first there needs to be an audience for it, and for this? I’m not so sure. There was once a time, though.

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Maid-Droid

December 22, 2009

Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Maid-Droid mooshes a few things together. Half of it is the poignant story of an old man whose “maid-droid,” his loving servant since his childhood, sits motionlessly in a closet because her batteries ran out years ago. Half of it is about a rogue droid terrorizing the city by raping women. Somehow, Tomomatsu manages to fit slapstick, pathos, horror, sci-fi, romance, cynicism, and a good dollop of softcore porn into the film’s short running time.

The maid-droid, named Maria (Akiho Yoshizawa), has watched her master grow over the decades into a sad elderly man who yearns to see her alive again. She may still be sentient; he hears her voice in his head, which could be a delusion or a spiritual connection. He has never married and has had only one fleeting sexual partner; he loves Maria and wants only her, even though she’s a prototype and, unlike later models, unequipped to have intercourse with him. Even when given the choice to transfer Maria’s memory into a newer model that can have sex with him, he declines. That wouldn’t be the same; it wouldn’t truly be Maria.

This is all good, saddening stuff. Then the movie shifts into its second plot, wherein a female detective tries to track down a droid made up of cast-off robo-dogs that’s been raping women. The detective’s story is preceded by a longish section involving a scruffy guy shopping for a sex droid. On a talk show with two sarcastic women who denounce the use of sex droids by men, the scruffy guy goes ballistic and insists that women only want cruel rich men, that they don’t want nice guys. As if to refute his own point, he slaps and kicks the two women into submission.

Tomomatsu has some things to say about what the genders are looking for romantically and sexually. Why are there no male sex droids? Because, as in real life with “Real Girls” and blow-up dolls, there isn’t nearly as much of a demand for faux-male companionship as there is for faux-female things to masturbate into. (Then again, women only need a vibrator or a dildo, suggesting that when they’re feeling horny they just want dick; men seem to want to delude themselves into having the whole fake package.) The sex in Maid-Droid is mostly farcical, though there’s a fairly erotic scene in which Maria shows her master she can still pleasure him.

The movie certainly isn’t as brainless as it looks, and the connective tissue between the two stories boils down to three little words. I appreciated Tomomatsu’s effort to smuggle some thought and heart into what could’ve been merely live-action hentai. I was touched by Maria’s story, amused by the detective story, satisfied by their parallel conclusions. It’ll replace Blade Runner or Metropolis in nobody’s heart, of course, but it’s a good hour or so of diversion, again more artfully handled than it had to be. If you share many Japanese men’s taste for eager-to-please young women in maid outfits, so much the better, I suppose.

Shortbus

October 4, 2006

Of all the explicit exertions on display in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, perhaps the most naked is a scene between two women wearing towels. One is a sex therapist (“couples counselor,” she likes to correct), the other a surly dominatrix. The dominatrix, who calls herself Severin, is trying to be real with the sex therapist and disclose her real name. She can’t even say it; she has to write it on a scrap of paper. Yet she has no problem whipping the bare asses of men she doesn’t know. Of course not. One act requires her to be vulnerable, the other doesn’t.

Chockablock with sex acts hetero and homo, Shortbus isn’t really about sex. It’s about intimacy and honesty, and how those things thrive — or don’t — in post-9/11 New York. Mitchell, whose dazzling 2001 debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch dissected gender, approaches Shortbus as a Whartonesque inquiry into the mores and manners of the nonstop city. Its structure is episodic, its style grainy and indie, but underneath its shock-the-mundanes surface there’s the old universal story about finding one’s own path. Mitchell is shaping up to be the premier lateral inspirational artist, telling stories about working through personal demons without resorting to Hollywood tropes.

The central figure is Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee, who had a hilarious bit role in Hedwig), the aforementioned sex therapist. Sofia has a ferociously amorous sex life with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker), but she considers herself “pre-orgasmic” — she’s never had the Big O. (That she uses the term “pre-orgasmic” and not “anorgasmic” testifies to her — and the movie’s — essential guarded optimism.) While treating couple James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), who are considering an open relationship, Sofia learns of a sex club called Shortbus, presided over by Justin Bond playing his incomparable self. People young and old, fat and thin, gyrate in the backgrounds of shots, dressed up or undressed, sharing this space of acceptance. Sofia is terrified, but meets the aforementioned Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who flays her devoted slaves but yearns to be an artist.

Anyone renting Shortbus hoping for stroke material will be disappointed — it’s the most unerotic-by-design sexually explicit film since 1980’s Cafe Flesh. Like David Cronenberg in Crash, Mitchell uses the sex as a shorthand. Solo or with Rob, Sofia lunges at sex, straining to achieve the elusive orgasm. The morose James videotapes himself in various onanistic poses, then cries afterward. James and Jamie engage in a three-way with model Ceth (Jay Brennan), amusing themselves with the awkwardness of the positioning, at one point launching into a not-to-be-forgotten rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

There’s considerable wit in Mitchell’s doodling; he even proves adept at a bit of slapstick involving a vibrating egg. As in Hedwig, Mitchell attends seriously to the characters’ despair but is too much the entertainer to drown us in it. Once again, he sends us out happy with an upbeat number — “In the End” (“We all get it in the end”), accompanied by a random marching band. Shortbus flips through varying moods with overall success, fleshing out the characters who show flesh. Sofia seems mesmerized by a couple (credited as “Beautiful Couple”) who have free, happy sex — the woman keeps looking up at Sofia during coitus and offering her the warmest smile seen in movies in years. (The actress is Shanti Carson; look her up on IMDb and tell me I’m wrong.) That smile is Shortbus‘ defining image: Forget all this stuff and just enjoy it, honey.

Whenever possible, Mitchell avoids cliché; a stalker type (Peter Stickles) following James around just wants James and Jamie to stay together forever — he doesn’t want to insert himself into the fray. A retired mayor (Alan Mandell), who may or may not be a stand-in for Ed Koch, speaks gently but firmly for the need for forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. There’s a lot of self-help language bouncing around — Sofia is always “owning” her responses to things instead of just having them — but Mitchell’s point is that at some point language breaks down and the physical and the spiritual take over. I bet Shortbus would please a lot of the people who’d be afraid of its sexual openness. Don’t be afraid, Mitchell is saying; just dive in.

Baise-Moi

July 6, 2001

The hard-driving, explicitly sexual and violent Baise-Moi is built for confrontation and conversation — especially conversation, the sort of heated post-movie debate over whether it’s brilliant or trash. Baise-Moi might be described as a textbook “love it or hate it” film, but the problem is I didn’t love it or hate it, either. I watched it; I’ve not quite processed it yet, and I’m not sure the filmmakers intend it to be easily processed. I don’t feel a burning need to revisit it any time soon, and I’m neither sadistic nor perverse enough to invite anyone over to watch it. If you really want to know: I was not shocked, I was not moved, and by and large I was not impressed. Onward.

It’s been widely described as a porno Thelma & Louise meets Natural Born Killers, and that’s more or less on the money. Two women go around copulating and killing for no very good reason other than the sheer cinematic, nihilistic charge of it. The title has been translated, rather disingenuously, in America as Rape Me, but the more accurate rendering is Fuck Me. It occurs to me that an even better title might be Fuck You — it has a genuine punk-rock heart and soul, right down to the grubby digital-video look. It’s certainly the closest cinematic equivalent to a Bikini Kill album I’ve seen.

Manu (Raffaela Anderson) and Nadine (Karen Bach) are two shat-upon French women. Manu is raped early on (yes, you see it in detail), which doesn’t bother her much, because as a sometime porn actress she’s used to giving up her vagina and disconnecting whatever goes into it from any emotions whatsoever. Nadine is a prostitute with a druggie boyfriend who wants her to run an errand for him. After committing separate murders, the women meet by chance and go on a sex-and-violence-filled spree to the too-frequent accompaniment of really quite weak French heavy-metal music.

That’s it? They just kill and fuck and fuck and kill until the 77 minutes are up? There’s an occasional dialogue scene, but, yeah, pretty much.

Baise-Moi has no great affection for men, that’s for sure — chiefly because it stacks the deck by making sure just about every male we meet is abusive, or loathsome in some way. The worldview is familiar from such notorious films as I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 and, yes, Thelma & Louise. The women’s victims — and there are some female casualties as well — are by and large dehumanized or not even characterized, the better to preserve their status as target practice.

Anderson and Bach are porn actresses in real life (as was the film’s co-director, Coralie Trinh Thi), so they look comfortable enacting the movie’s numerous hardcore passages. Much (fake-looking) blood is also splattered; a man is stomped to death, another has a gun shoved where it’ll do him the least good and….Well, you get the idea. In what amounts to a climax, the women empty their guns inside some sort of orgy club. Most of the sex scenes, leading as they do almost unfailingly to painful mayhem, aren’t really the stuff of lubricant and pause buttons. So if you’re renting it for that…

What it all adds up to, perhaps, is a pedal-to-the-metal riff on two genres dear to many males: the action movie and the porn movie. Baise-Moi can be taken as a critique of the following: movies with gun-toting, mean, yet still somehow sympathetic and pliable babes; pornos in which women fuck anything that moves; movies in which men get to fuck and kill with few consequences; tasteful French art films; and those who have ever enjoyed any or all of the above.

Baise-Moi is intentionally rough. Also intentionally hollow and disaffected — the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid anything that might falsely gain our sympathy/empathy, and therefore fail to win any sympathy or empathy. As a result, the movie is a moral and emotional blank. The lead actresses are good, but then a subtitled Keanu Reeves might seem like a great actor to someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. Karen Bach squeezes out a tear or two near the end, but mostly neither she nor Anderson are required to express much besides malice, lust, malicious lust, or lustful malice. It’s too bad, because the actresses convey an authentic lived-in quality of experience. The filmmakers essentially just use them as found objects, the way Catherine Breillat used the Italian porn stud Rocco Siffredi in Romance.

The filmmaking is pointedly amateurish. It’s not the finest example of digital-video clarity you’ll ever see. Since digitally-shot movies can and often do look way better than this, one can only assume that the filmmakers meant it to look so grungy (it was shot on digital, then transferred to film, rather haphazardly from the looks of it). Daytime exteriors are decent, interiors are spotty, night scenes threaten to disappear into pepper-shaker graininess. The cinematography is predominantly a matter of pointing the camera at whatever’s happening, as close in as humanly possible. Perhaps you’re meant to experience the film as something Manu and Nadine themselves could’ve caught on the fly, or perhaps its smash-and-grab cinema-verite style is part of the film’s overall consciously unslick agenda. That conceit worked much better in 1993’s Man Bites Dog, wherein a camera crew followed a serial killer on his rounds, and which was a far more shocking (and funny) film.

Occasionally the movie pauses to critique itself. At one point Manu opines that they should think of better dialogue while they’re killing people. There’s also a rich guy the women rob, who tries to pin down some psychological reason for their anti-social actions. He gets summarily silenced. This could be either a critique of the film’s own disdain for Psych 101, or a confirmation of it.

I admire the idea of Baise-Moi. I’m with it as a snarly, pixillated, PMSing feedback shrill of female rage, except that there isn’t much rage involved — the women mainly kill (A) for money or (B) because they can. I found it watchable — sex and violence being inherently attention-grabbing — yet fundamentally uninvolving. I questioned whether the same narrative with the same incidents would’ve gotten the same buzz if it had been an American shot-on-video porn tape interspersed with cold bloodletting. To be sure, it crackles with more power than the other sexually explicit French drama to court recent controversy, the lethargic Romance, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Overall it’s a conversation piece, to be sure, but I don’t know that it’s going to be looked back on as any sort of corner-turning cinematic event, as some easily impressed critics have suggested. What you’re watching throughout is meaningless sex, which you can find in a thousand porn videos, and meaningless violence, which you can find in a thousand action movies. If you choose to impose meaning on all the rampant meaninglessness, you’re well on your way to becoming a French film critic.

Romance

October 8, 1999

431-romance-enOne wants to give the benefit of the doubt to an ambitious film like Catherine Breillat’s Romance, particularly if one wants to seem hip and liberated; but what is one to make of the film as a film? It cries out for interpretation, but then it doesn’t trust us to do it — the movie helpfully interprets itself at every turn. The miserable protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey), stuck in a sexless relationship with a dull male model (Sagamore Stévenin), mopes about numbly, delivering many Deep Thoughts (either aloud or in her head) about the metaphysics of sex, the allure of domination or anonymous fornication, and so on. How nice of Breillat to include the Cliff’s Notes for the movie within the movie itself.

Romance is bound to be praised for its bravery, its insistence on being a philosophical porn art-house film (though it’s not really pornographic — more on that later), but it’s little more than a glacially paced term paper on female sexuality, with none of the wit or perversity that directors like Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg (or, not to sound sexist, Mary Harron or Lynne Stopkewich) would have brought to it. At times, the movie plays like what might happen if Cronenberg decided to make a porn film (I mean a real porno, not Crash). The elegant photography by Yorgos Arvanitis, the cold-as-ice score by Raphaël Tidas and DJ Valentin — the style is definitely austere, distanced, clinical. Yet what feels rigorous and probing in Cronenberg comes across, in Breillat’s hands, as methodical and lumbering. The movie seems to have no curiosity about its characters, who exist only to represent one thing or another, or to prove one point or another. Breillat, we may feel, had this film in her head too long; by the time it got out, it had hardened into dogma.

Disgusted with her immovable boyfriend and with herself for being powerless to move him, Marie throws herself into a variety of joyless affairs. She declares her desire to become a mere “hole,” a receptacle for male lust. She meets a virile guy named Paolo (Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star) and takes him to bed, but her existential angst seems to rub off on him; at the first sign of his neediness, she’s quick to dump him. She moves on to her boss (François Berléand), a school principal (did I mention she’s a grammar-school teacher? shades of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), and the respectable-looking, gray-haired principal turns out to be a philosophical horndog who claims to have slept with 10,000 women. He also has quite the collection of bondage paraphernalia, only some of which he actually knows how to operate. They seem to make the perfect couple — they can have anguished BDSM sex and then dispassionately deconstruct it afterward. Ah, the French and their pillow talk. Somewhere in there, Marie also falls into an anonymous clinch with a man off the street (literally), who pleasures her orally and then flips her over for some rough rear entry. Her response to this, as he climaxes and scurries off like a bug, is “I’m not embarrassed, asshole!” Which, I suppose, can mean a woman has the real sexual power over a man even when she is being raped. I can’t imagine this film’s being a favorite of Andrea Dworkin.

Nor will it be a favorite of prurient guys (or women). Romance, like Crash, is too cold to generate much heat. But Crash was positing a sort of alternate universe in which the collision of metal was sexier than the merging of flesh, and probing the sexual imaginations of those who lived there. Romance locks us inside one unhappy, frustrated woman’s mind — could it be a high-toned version of Diary of a Mad Housewife? — and from the flat, declamatory tone of Marie’s pronouncements, we’re clearly meant to feel that her truths are universal truths. To her credit, Breillat does debunk a good deal of male bulling about female eroticism — the title is obviously ironic — and many women may connect with the spirit of some of Marie’s musings, if not their specifics.

But when it comes time to illustrate Marie’s loss of inhibitions, Breillat drops the ball. Romance is probably not half as explicit as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, at two points we do see the mouth of established actress Caroline Ducey make (brief) contact with a (limp) penis; we get a couple of vagina shots, which feel suspiciously like inserts, and a “money shot” during Marie’s fever-dream fantasy of a brothel in which only female crotches and legs are available to men. (As if that were all men wanted, when you strip away all the bullshit. It’s the old tired argument again.) We see why Rocco Siffredi is a successful porn star, too. But a lot of the sex here, while a good deal lengthier than you’d find in an R-rated film, is really no more revealing than anything you’d catch on late-night Cinemax. Much of it appears to be very skillfully simulated, not real. I mention all this only to caution those who’ve been waiting for a serious drama with hardcore sex. Keep waiting, or haul out your old copy of In the Realm of the Senses again.

One critic went so far as to compare Romance with Luis Buñuel’s erotic farce/masterpiece Belle de Jour, which is a little like comparing a dull Protestant minister’s sermon with a Lenny Bruce routine. Both films do show the character arc of a woman caught up in her own purple fantasies, except Breillat leaves out the purple. Her people are bleached robots in lockstep, and in case you didn’t get her point, she comes up with an ending that redefines “contrived,” involving a gas oven left on and a nick-of-time trip to the delivery room. Yep, once again Marie spreads her legs, becoming the “hole” she said she wanted to be, only this time the hole produces life instead of swallowing male insecurity. (The life it produces is male, too. Another man for Marie to coddle.) You can’t argue with a movie like Romance; it has its mind made up before it sits down to the table. Unless you’re French, or would like to seem French, there’s not much point to arguing about the movie, either. It is what it is, and it says what it says. It’s more tell than show.

Cafe Flesh

September 2, 1982

Café_FleshBoogie Nights would have you believe that porn peaked in the ’70s. And there were some good sexually explicit films in that decade — either unabashed porn (the Ingmar Bergman-influenced Devil in Miss Jones) or art films that showed everything (Nagisa Oshima’s notorious In the Realm of the Senses). But porn didn’t necessarily give up the ghost after Dec. 31, 1979.

For one thing, there’s still imaginative shot-on-video porn being produced today, by the likes of John Leslie, Paul Thomas (not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights), and Candida Royale. But possibly the last ambitious porn film — a porno that aspires to be more, and succeeds — came out in 1982, right on the cusp of the home-video revolution that made Dirk Diggler so unhappy. It played midnight shows at legitimate theaters and would make an ideal double bill with 1983’s Liquid Sky (a non-porn sci-fi black comedy).

Cafe Flesh, a post-nuclear New Wave porn feature, is short (80 minutes) but decidedly not sweet. The “Nuclear Kiss” has rendered 99% of the population unable to have sex — they’ve become Sex Negatives. The remaining one percent of Sex Positives are required by the government to perform public sex acts for the benefit (torment?) of the frustrated Sex Negatives. The movie is titled after a sex nightclub frequented by the Negatives and MC-ed by an obnoxious former stand-up comedian named Max Melodramatic (Andrew Nichols), clearly patterned on Joel Grey in Cabaret. “I get off on your need,” he taunts the Negatives.

The plot centers on a Sex Negative couple, Nick (Paul McGibboney) and Lana (Pia Snow, later the scream queen Michelle Bauer), who are addicted to the nightly shows at Cafe Flesh. Nick keeps trying to make love to Lana, but he gets violently sick. Lana fakes being ill — unbeknownst to Nick, she’s actually a Sex Positive who has stuck with him out of love. But she becomes increasingly lustful as the movie goes on; she knows she could join the Positives in their sex games if she wanted to, and she’s starting to want to.

If you’ve seen even a little porn, you know how rare it is for a sexually explicit film to bother with such things as a plot or even a premise, and when they do attempt a plot, it’s usually fast-forward-worthy. Cafe Flesh holds your interest throughout. It begins in a daringly abrasive way (Max jeering at the Cafe Flesh audience — and at us, too, as he grins right into the camera) and hooks us not with hardcore sex (though it has that, too) but with its ideas and conflicts. The script, by director Stephen Sayadian and writer Jerry Stahl (later the subject of the 1998 biopic Permanent Midnight), is tight, efficient, and often acridly witty. The acting is wooden (except for Andrew Nichols, doing a virtuoso asshole turn — he deserved to break out into major movies but didn’t), yet that fits the movie’s nihilistic New Wave mood.

What really recommends Cafe Flesh is its look. The stage shows are conceived as avant-garde theater, with its participants dressed as animals, secretaries, giant pencils. (Some of today’s more outré gonzo porn owes much to the kinky shenanigans in Cafe Flesh.) The cinematography, by Joseph Robertson, is stark and unsettling, shot mostly by available torch light. The sex itself (you were wondering when I was going to get to that?) is frigid and mechanized — David Cronenberg might have looked at this movie before making Crash. It’s so cold it’s hot — there’s no fake context for the scenes, as there is in most porn. It’s just there, and it has a queasy dead-zone fascination.

The movie’s most challenging aspect is its disgust for its own audience. If you rent it to see copulation, you’ll get that, but you’ll also get dissed. The hapless, zombie-like spectators in the club are stand-ins for the spectators in the movie theater (or living room). In short, it’s pomo porno. It gives you more and less than you expect. Cafe Flesh is good enough to make some of us regret the domination of porn by such cheerful hacks as Seymour Butts (and his bubbly, ready-for-whatever starlet Shane, the Sandra Bullock of porn).

The medium needs more artists like Stephen Sayadian, who tried to crack the mainstream with 1989’s Dr. Caligari. It didn’t work out, and by the early ’90s he had fallen back on routine sex videos like Party Doll a Go Go and Untamed Cowgirls of the Wild West — becoming, you could say, a real-life Jack Horner.4

Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography

June 11, 1982

The first I ever heard of the notorious Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography was Stephen Schiff’s scathing review of it in the excellent critical compendium Flesh and Blood. “A fuzzy-headed documentary,” he called it, excoriating it for being “an anti-porn jeremiad.” He was pretty much on the money. The film is useless as a serious inquiry into adult entertainment, but it’s invaluable as a snapshot of a place and time (early-’80s Canada) where a movie like this could be taken seriously. (It apparently continues to be shown in college seminars.) And it’s of obvious cult interest as a well-meaning anti-porn flick that shows copious amounts of the stuff it condemns. In form, and often in practice, it’s a lot like the roadshow quickies of the ’30s (Reefer Madness, Cocaine Fiends, etc.), which were at least entertainingly shameless about serving up bad behavior before administering the “moral.”

Documentarian Bonnie Sherr Klein (who later suffered a catastrophic stroke and wrote a book about it; her daughter Naomi is the author of the well-regarded leftist-anthem book No Logo) doesn’t exactly craft a seething hate letter to porn; she just gives a lot of time to the seethers (like Robin Morgan, a self-described “man hater”) and no screen time to any sensible, non-sleazy defenses of porn. It’s about as unbiased a film as a Michael Moore sucker-punch, only not nearly as funny (indeed, it’s pretty grim) or as biting. Even some of the more eloquent speakers here, like Susan Griffin or Kate Millett, seem to miss the point: The true sin of most garden-variety porn is not so much that it objectifies women as that it commodifies a sacred, intimate act. And let’s not pretend that male porn actors, chosen for their penis size and their ability to screw on command and ejaculate on cue, are any less objectified by the pitiless gaze of the camera.

Filmed between 1979 and 1981, Not a Love Story is by now hopelessly out of it; porn videos, for instance, were only just starting to emerge as an industry force — most of the film’s milieu is dedicated to peep shows, strip clubs, and porno shops — and the Internet and its role in porn weren’t even dreamt of. The movie’s central figure, the innocent-looking Linda Lee Tracey, starts out as an unapologetic stripper (she brings a sense of goofiness and fun to her work that the movie doesn’t quite know how to acknowledge) and ends up an anti-porn crusader literally shouting from a soapbox outside a peep show. If the movie were made today, Linda might start out as a webcam starlet — exhibitionism and voyeurism without risk or contact.

Klein takes Linda on a tour through the scuzzier outposts of the industry, and some of what we see is fairly gross and disturbing (grainy footage of a woman fellating a gun barrel, for example). But some of what we see is also relatively harmless and affectionate. Yet it’s all treated with the same alarmist doomsaying. Is the lustful male gaze really all that evil? What about the lustful female gaze? The movie doesn’t get into porn that women might enjoy (admittedly, there probably wasn’t as much of that around at the time as there is now), and steers completely clear of gay male porn and S&M porn with the female as dominatrix — two subgenres of erotica that blow Klein’s argument out of the water. Porn is set up as the straw man that incites rape, and there was a lot of that in the air back then: heavy metal caused suicide, Dungeons & Dragons warped kids’ minds, blah blah blah. Essentially we’re talking about fear of fantasy.

Funded by the National Film Board of Canada, Not a Love Story is a rare item for the non-scholar to find (I got my copy through interlibrary loan from Wisconsin!). Anyone interested in intellectual grapplings with porno and the representation of women in film should probably sit down with it at some point, whether one agrees with its thesis. But the clear-headed, non-agenda-oriented (that means not pro-porn, either) film about pornography has yet to be made — perhaps because porn speaks so loudly for itself.