Thursday, July 30, 2009

Polyamory in Newsweek

Hi everyone. I'm back, more or less! Just in time to see that polyamory is getting some love in Newsweek!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Vault - Shortbus

Shortbus (2006)
directed & written by John Cameron Mitchell
starring: Raphael Barker, Lindsay Beamish, Justin Bond, Jay Brannan, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Sook-Yin Lee, Peter Stickles

The Internet has made film images of sex so commonplace that in this decade several independent filmmakers have declared that they were going to take the next step -- bring real sex scenes into legitimate cinema. But every time a filmmaker claimed they were the one who had finally integrated sex into storytelling I was disappointed. In Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny the blowjob scene seemed like a tacked-on stunt to get people to see an otherwise banal movie, and the French film Baise-moi was an atrocious nightmare filled with violence and negative, self-destructive sex. Those films flirted with the barrier between porn and independent film. The film finally tore it down was John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus.

The film is set in a post-9/11 New York. It's ensemble cast is an attractive yet real-looking group in their twenties and thirties that represent most of the sexual spectrum: straight, gay, vanilla, kinky, monogamous, polyamorous, sex workers, voyeurs and genderqueers, all present and accounted for. The one constant in this rainbow of sexual diversity is that all of the characters are looking for something from sex that will complete them. To find it they converge on Shortbus, a idiosyncratic club in Brooklyn that celebrates art and sex by blurring the line between them. Based on the real-life Dumba (now defunct), Shortbus is the place to go for everything from pretentious film festivals to joyous orgies.

The central storyline -- Sofia, a sex therapist in her thirties, has never had an orgasm and is on a quest to get one -- is a bit of a cliché but that doesn't matter so much since this is a film one watches for the characters and atmosphere. The gays are up to more interesting hijinks. James, who is secretly depressed and suicidal, is trying to create a triad with Ceth so his boyfriend Jamie will have support after James dies; all the while they're being followed by Caleb, a voyeur. And Severin, a pro domme who is miserable because her need to control every situation keeps the whole world at arms length is tormented by an impish client as she tries to form a real friendship with Sofia. All this frustration and sexual energy builds up through the movie until it literally blows a fuse, metaphorically resulting in the 2003 New York blackout.

The movie is set up to give us a peak into the lives of these characters rather than to fully explore their background. A tantilizing hint is dropped that Sofia's unability to orgasm might be related to her strict Asian father, but the film doesn't pursue the matter. We also never find out why James is suicidal. His history as a young prostitute may have something to do with it but when he talks about those days it sounds like he was already depressed. The video he's shooting as an explanation/suicide note (which seems to be based on Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation) is full of interesting images but I wasn't able to glean any clues. The first time I viewed the film I felt John Cameron Mitchell's ensemble cast, who helped write the movie, had gotten lazy with their character work. On further viewings I realized the point wasn't to plumb the depths of these people but rather to meet them in passing as you might in the real world.

But this movie's greatest achievement is to integrate sex into storytelling in as just another human activity. It's difficult to de-emphasize the fact that the actors are actually performing sex acts on each other because it's such a novelty in movie making. John Cameron Mitchell manages it by keeping his sex scenes short and often playing them for humor: straight people trying unsatisfying sex in every position of the kama sutra, a gay man singing the national anthem into his partner's ass, a submissive ejaculating on a Jackson Pollack painting, etc. This film makes sex seem normal, ironically, by playing up the one aspect that is normally left out of porn or Hollywood sex scenes -- the fact that sex is frequently ridiculous as well as hot.

In other words, the sex in Shortbus is sex we recognize from our own lives, shown on screen for the first time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

EMERGENCY! I Need Your Help

I've been on vacation for the past few weeks and I wasn't going to post on this blog (I hope you have all been enjoying the book reviews I have pre-scheduled).

However, an emergency has come up and I desperately need your help. I'm asking anyone who is reading this to donate some money -- doesn't have to be a lot -- to a very worthy cause. Liz, a friend of mine, recently broke her leg falling down some stairs. It's a compound fracture. She's out of work and uninsured and she's going to need surgery. Her housemates in the Revolving Door Commune for Itinerant Artists have started an online fundraiser to pay for her medical and living expenses while she is recovering.

Please, please, PLEASE... visit the Revolving Door Commune blog and donate whatever you can afford. At the moment, I think they're matching whatever anyone donates so your money will go twice as far. The Commune is also going to have an in-person fundraiser in the next few weeks at The Albatross, a gay bar in Astoria (Queens, New York City) where Liz is a regular. It's located at 24th Avenue and 37th Street. Since I'm on vacation I won't be able to post again about that so keep checking the RDC blog or join the Facebook cause if you want to go. (You can probably meet me in person if you come.) And if you would like to do something in person a little more immediately, I will be at the Albatross tonight with the Commune-ists begging for money at the weekly karaoke night that Liz seldom ever misses.

After you have donated, comment on this post so I can send you a small thank you gift after I've returned from vacation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Vault - Secretary

Secretary (2002)
directed by Steven Shainberg
written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill
starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies

Before you see it you expect the clichés: leather, whips, corsets and high-heeled, knee-high boots. You won't see those things at any time in Secretary. What you will see in the film's hypnotic opening shot is Maggie Gyllanhaal slinking gracefully through the office in a normal, if slightly old fashion, skirt and blouse and -- oh, yes -- her wrists restrained at the ends of a positively dainty spreader bar linked to her leather collar.

Secretary is a romantic comedy about a dominant-submissive relationship that forms between the titular secretary, Lee Holliway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and her shy, sensitive lawyer boss, E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Miss Holliway and Mr. Grey's relationship doesn't involve much violence, aside from one fairly memorable spanking scene. What is on display in this movie is the care and attention to details necessary for one person to sweep another away in a healthy, loving power dynamic relationship.

I recently rewatched the movie with a group of friends, including one who had never seen it before and wasn't much for BDSM. This friend's discomfort was palpable all the way through the movie. Men and women alike, we have become feminists. We like our women empowered. That's why the paradox posed by Secretary fucks with our heads the way that it does. Should women be so empowered that they have the right to give up that power to a man they trust? If you think the answer is yes, you're probably in the minority, sadly enough. The beauty of Secretary is that it posed as a harmless little romance and put that question out there for a mainstream audience. It's also difficult to deny how hot it is to watch Lee and Mr. Grey's little pas de deux, so if you are one of those who think what they're seeing is wrong the filmmakers have pretty successfully implicated you in the crime they're staging.

The characters in this movie are probably the world's perfect dominant and perfect submissive, which is a credit to both the screenwriter and the actors who bring them to life. Lee comes from a dysfunctional family. She has developed a deep need to please those around her and the unfortunate tendency to punish herself with pain when she can't. In Mr. Grey she finds someone who will always appreciate her efforts to please him and who can change the punishment from a ritual of self-loathing to an erotic and pleasurable activity. Mr. Grey, meanwhile, is an intelligent man who is very anal about details and hates himself for using these two characteristics to imagine elaborate tortures to show his affection for the people he loves. In Lee he finds someone who enjoys his affections and really wants to know the side he has kept hidden from everyone.

If the ending is a little unrealistic -- Lee's public act of self-humiliation would probably ruin Mr. Grey's law practice in the conservative suburb they inhabit -- you can't blame a romantic comedy for concluding with melodrama. And don't make any mistake, this is definitely a romantic comedy, complete with the cliché of the woman in the wedding dress running to the one she actually loves in one final, desperate attempt to win his love. Except that in this movie her beloved orders her to stay perfectly still for three days and she ends up urinating in the wedding dress. That's not such a big difference, right?

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Stacks - SM 101

SM 101, 2nd ed.
by Jay Wiseman
Greenery Press, 1996

So, you like rough sex. You want to explore it but you have this nagging feeling that it could be... oh, I don't know, a little bit unsafe. Jay Wiseman to the rescue! In just over three hundred pages Wiseman gives you a basic rundown on the safe and responsible ways to incorporate pain and power exchange into your sex life.

The book is perfectly titled -- if your college had offered a freshman seminar in BDSM this is exactly what would be covered. After dispensing with the basics Wiseman touches on how to find partners, rope bondage, non-rope options for restraint, how and where hit a submissive to cause pain safely, different flagellation instruments (hands, floggers, paddles, crops, whips, canes and the like), how and where to use clamps, a whole plethora of sensation play, humiliation, how to train a submissive, how to have a BDSM relationship, and how to find the BDSM organization in your area or create one if it doesn't already exist.

All of this information is first rate. As a former paramedic Wiseman always errs on the side of safety. He believes (as most responsible S&M players do) that if what turns you on is particularly dangerous there is probably some way of at least simulating your kink safely. As a decent human being he advocated doing BDSM with respect for everyone involved. That means negotiating your scene in detail with your play partner ahead of time. Throughout his book Wiseman makes sure that his reader never forgets that even if the violence is real (though carefully controlled) the power inequality of BDSM is entirely pretend. Even if one person acts dominent and another acts submissive they are both equals who should never confuse the roles they play with reality.

The main criticism I've heard of SM 101 in kink circles is that Wiseman is just too cautious. I see why people say that. It was a little surprising to me that Wiseman introduces his intricate "silent alarm" technique (wherein if a third party isn't contacted by the submissive by a prearranged time the third party calls the cops) before even covering the idea of a safeword. At another time in the book Wiseman suggests that all responsible dominents should keep emergency lights and full size fire extinguishers in their playroom. Valid safety concerns, without a doubt, but most of us don't even have a playroom. For most of us, it's just our bedroom and we have a small stash of kinky stuff in the closet that we'll take out if a willing person happens to wonder in. Despite what Wiseman says, most people just steer clear of open flame and play the odds that there won't be a blackout. I don't think that's blatantly irresponsible. And a scene negotiation would take years if you really covered all the things he's suggesting be covered in detail. However the point of these parts of the book is more to instill a deep respect for safety than to require the reader to follow the instructions to the letter, so Wiseman's overzealousness is easily excused.

The one criticism I will add -- this book is badly in need of a third edition. Since 1996 the kink community has largely moved onto the Internet. This book's discussion of the kink community mainly focuses on alternative papers, bulletin boards in sex-positive stores, newsletters and getting a PO Box to protect your privacy. The only time Wiseman mentions the web is to suggest a couple of newsgroups (remember those? me neither) that might have information. An SM 101 that urges readers to take full advantage of online communities like Fet Life would be a much more helpful book for newbies who are looking to make a connection with the kink community, especially if they don't happen to live in New York or San Francisco.

Despite these problems I would absolutely recommend this book. Experienced players may learn a thing or two about safety. For beginners, this should be the first book they read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On Vacation... But Never Fear!

Hi Everyone.

I'm on vacation for the months of July and August and I'm cutting a lot of my ties to projects that I usually work on. That includes, unfortunately, this blog.

But never fear! I've been holding out on you!

You see, when I first started this blog last September one of the things I was most excited to do was review some books and movies that look at sex in a positive way. I've always liked this kind of material but it has always been a struggle for me to find it. Over the years, mostly through trial and error, I've found some good stuff. It's a work in progress but I've started to build a library and I wanted to review some of it (mostly positively) so the readers of this blog would know it was out there.

Alas, life intruded into this plan. More immediate things kept coming up and distracting me. Frankly, it's easier to post a link to a juicy piece of news or an interesting article than it is to write a book review, and I took the easy route.

Well, last May, when I realized I was going to be away for awhile I decided the perfect way to maintain the blog in the meantime was to review some of those long neglected books and movies and schedule the occasional automatic update. Maybe you will find something fun to read at the beach or in the hammock!

I hope everyone has a wonderful summer. Enjoy your summer reading. I'm going to enjoy mine!