“Maybe it’s O.K. to not want to tell strangers your most intimate sexual desires,” Tanya Bezreh tells her video diary in Coming Out Spanko, a remarkable little (15-minute) visual poem that eschews cleverness for true honesty. Even as the director/star is alone talking to her camera/herself (yes, while later broadcasting to a whole audience of strangers), she makes us fully aware that this is a radical concept in the tell-all Internet age. “I think you can speak abstractly” (in a “sexual desires” group) she muses, coyly avoiding mentioning of the specific kink that has led her to create art from obsession.
Bezreh, a heartwarming and adorable brunette, easily could have been cloying and obnoxious. She prays on camera, yawns and rubs her eyes, mostly in close-up with chop-chop cuts, often with only half her face in the frame (which makes sense since she’s not really a “whole” person, her desire yet to be integrated into her being, still the “other”). Along with her unflinching honesty, her deep critical thinking and her humility are what save her from descending into YouTube narcissism. She’s on a quest for answers and doesn’t pretend to have any. “If all energy goes away from everything else, then what are you left with?” she asks, wondering if kinky obsessions lead people to pursue careers in porn.
Bezreh giggles with delight and embarrassment as a guy behind a screen with a “blue monster” drawn on it gives her an over-the-knee spanking. “When you stick your finger in a taboo, it refracts,” she notes, adding that a kink is not a “monolithic thing.” She prays that she can catch vulnerability on film, then gives thanks for the challenge. (And in doing so touches upon the spiritual aspect of BDSM.) When Bezreh finally gets what she wants sexually she can’t believe it’s so—strange. “To share any true voice inside your body is to have faith,” she tells her diary (and us).
“Will I only be able to date S&M people now?” Bezreh asks near the end of the film, admitting that she feels like she’s leaving this planet for the one “where S&M people live.” It’s a funny line—and a question grappled with by each and every one of us whose desire exists outside the mainstream.
I’m pleased to report that camp is no longer the bastion of gay men (if it ever was), and that the phallic-challenged can camp it up every bit as much as the fags. For proof look no further than Michelle Johnson’s Triple X Selects: The Best of Lezsploitation, a hilarious compilation of Sapphic scenes from over 20 films of the 60s and 70s (featuring Swedish wildcats, Euro vampires, Italian nuns—you get the twisted international picture). Johnson (a.k.a. DJ Triple X) announces her his(her?)torical intentions early with these words on the screen: “To be politically correct we’ll call it ’erotic cinema.’” (I’m always pleased to encounter artists who agree with my contention that “erotica” is simply a word invented by intellectuals to ease the guilt about getting off.) Hail Mary! Lesbian camp is not an oxymoron—dykes do have a sense of humor!
And all at the expense of the male directors, most notably Joe Sarno and Jesús Franco, who created these titillating odes to girl-on-girl action that Johnson remixed. Just listening to the many heavy German accents it’s hard to believe any red-blooded male watching could keep a straight face, let alone a hard-on. But at least in the 60s and 70s the porn starlets made the attempt at acting—which is why the films have aged like fine wine into camp classics. (Nowadays they don’t even bother, which is why porn sucks, pun intended.)
And Johnson, using a soundtrack of 70s-inspired music and a male “P.S.A. voiceover” to explain the “lesbian deviant,” has discovered some inspired doozies. One prison scene, featuring naked women exercising as fully clothed others play ball and race around like kindergarteners, looks like choreography at a nudist camp. Another prison flick, the sole from the 80s, can best be described as “Flashdance gone wild,” with predatory inmates parading around in see-through lingerie—and leg warmers and headbands! And then there’s that dildo strung up to a fishing line between two cells, females furtively trying to shimmy it back and forth between trysts. But my favorite jailhouse scene is one in which the sadistic warden, devouring an undressed ingénue with her eyes, approvingly declares, “I can see you’ve taken good care of yourself,” a precursor to Le Chiffre’s line to James Bond in Casino Royale (need I say any more about Daniel Craig’s James Bond as porn star?)
But if women behind bars isn’t your thing there’s always vampire lesbos—even undead hippie lesbos who emerge creakily from grandfather clocks at the anointed hour. Or how about Peter Woodcock’s Daughters of Lesbos, a B&W, beatnik homage to Godard with a hardboiled Raymond Chandler narrator who solemnly sets the tone over cool jazz? As the lead lesbian drives towards her latest conquest we’re darkly told, “She was always the aggressor—forever the butch.” Then there’s that solemn “public service announcement” voice again, this time hovering above a colorful scene of two women drinking and carousing bawdily. There’s a great comic beat before we hear, “Many lesbians as a rule are heavy drinkers.” With that in mind I toast Michelle Johnson and all the women she selected who “showed so much skin for so little money.”
Viva is an exquisitely designed, lush, 35mm epic mash note to classic 70s exploitation (written, directed, starring, edited, production designed, even animated!) by a one-woman powerhouse named Anna Biller. Ostensibly about a bored sheltered housewife named Barbi (played by Biller with perpetual cocked eyebrow and pouted lips) who transforms into “Viva” upon plunging headfirst into the sexual revolution, the film is equal parts homage and critique as Biller both honors that period through meticulous detail and comments on it with 20/20 hindsight.
But first the production itself—which is a dazzling feast for the eyes with every shade of every color of the rainbow seeming to pop up somewhere. From vintage “Playboy” magazines to chartreuse shag rugs, from checked polyester suits with open shirts to lion’s head medallions, from cologne and cocktails to green Jell-o, “Viva” is nothing less than a treasure chest of nostalgia! And adrift among the hyper-real wreck is Biller’s Barbi who, after her husband Rick leaves her at precisely the same moment her best friend Sheila splits up from her hubby Mark, embarks on an odyssey à la Terry Southern’s camp icon Candy (only with a female empowerment touch, as Barbi desperately attempts to explore her sexuality on her own terms). In other words, Barbi-turned-Viva serves as an unwitting magnet to all the sexual energy of the 70s—and both profit from and suffer as a result. (“There’s nothing I like more than being wet,” Barbi innocently announces early on as she takes a dip in would-be-swingers Sheila and Mark’s pool.)
But beneath all the hippies and hair, makeup and music lies a film bubbling with ridiculous humor and serious heart. After Barbi and Sheila (played by comic vixen Bridget Brno) dress up seductively, they take a trip to an adventurous part of town. As Barbi wonders what to do next the ever-resourceful Sheila points the way. “Let’s stand over there,” Sheila chirps, so they walk to a corner and wait. Of course only mere seconds elapse before a sweet older woman approaches and asks who they work for. When they tell her they’re recently unattached housewives she offers them a way to meet the men of their dreams—and even make money in the process! Cut to a scene of Barbi and Sheila in a red velvet parlor, dressed to the nines in melodramatic bordello outfits straight out of a western. In a rare moment of comprehension Barbi suddenly assesses the situation. “It means we’re going to be prostitutes,” she says wide-eyed. Sighing, Sheila adds, “I always wanted to be a prostitute.”
After deciding to become belles du jour for the sake of excitement (Barbi chooses “Viva” as her hooker name because it means, “To live!”) the two make their separate ways through the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll (or, rather, musical theater. At an audition for an all-nude musical revue the director yells, “Now the pollution number!”) At the “Health Valley Nudist Retreat” (where nudists gather to sing and water plants) Viva meets the hirsute and horny Elmer. When that doesn’t work out she models for the intensely bohemian artist Clyde but refuses to sleep with him. Fed up he finally goes to the kindly madam for advice. “Have you tried drugs?” she offers.
In short, Viva is as addictively campy as the film’s centerpiece costume ball/orgy is outrageous, with African drummers mixing with naked nymphos blending with Mae West wannabes (or rather, one Mae West wannabe—a cameo by Biller’s very own mom). After a sleazebag tells Viva that she turns him on she wearily retorts, “I turn you on, I turn everybody on.” Viva is great camp because it’s so over the top—pushes the envelope in all directions—while remaining dryly and wickedly deadpan. With great “bad” acting by a terrific cast, including Chad England as Rick and Jared Sanford as Mark, every line becomes a morsel of fun. At the end when Barbi (“Viva” no longer) and Sheila are done sowing their wild oats and, like their wayward husbands, have grown enough to return to the marriages stronger and wiser, Rick receives a gift from Mark. “What is it?” he asks, lounging by the pool in domestic repose (albeit with a broken leg). In that moment of male bonding Mark earnestly replies, “An antique wooden duck.” As the slimy theater producer Arthur puts it, “This is going to be the freshest thing since Liberace.” I couldn’t agree more. Viva is the ultimate post-millennial midnight movie.
My heartfelt congratulations to all three filmmakers, Tanya Bezreh who took home the Juried Festival Award’s Best Documentary Short for Coming Out Spanko, Michelle Johnson who garnered an Honorable Mention in the Audience Choice Awards category for Triple X Selects: The Best of Lezsploitation, and Anna Biller whose Viva scooped up the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature. These women expand and enlighten not just the notion of “kink,” but of filmmaking itself.