Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friends Jason Sacks and Paul Brian McCoy found 2009's Mutantes (Punk Porn Feminism) directed by Virginie Despentes.
Daniel Elkin: In general, the tenets of Feminism in America have stated that pornography is dis-empowering and disenfranchising and, as Jason and I discussed a bit in our review of the documentary Inside Deep Throat, the movement has often sought to censor it.
But there is an element of Feminism that has another view of this argument. “Pro-Sex Feminism” sees pornography as a political tool. They espouse that a woman's body is her own and that pornography can be crafted in such a manner where women are not relegated to the position of the victim. It can be presented in such a way that serves as an expression of power. Pro-Sex Feminism is a philosophical and political vehicle for woman to explore the strength inherent in her sexuality, commodify it (to some extent), and give her ownership of her desires. The movement seeks to re-frame pornography as a creative activity that excites, constructs and deconstructs ideas of gender, power, politics and equality. The Post Porn movement (Punk Porn Feminism) is an off-shoot of this aspect of Feminism, and it takes these notions even further, celebrating and commenting on what can be considered “fringe” aspects of sex and sexuality, seeking to further elevate, explore and legitimize these practices in order to bring about a dialogue regarding cultural stereotypes, ethics, morality and desire.
Virginie Despentes' 2009 documentary, Mutantes (Punk Porn Feminism), is a film that seeks to provide a context for this movement, as well as allow those involved to explain the more subtle aspects of the philosophical underpinning of their creative acts. Despentes fills this film with interviews with practitioners such as B. Ruby Rich, Lydia Lunch, Annie Sprinkle, Catherine Breillat, Maria Beatty, Lynnee Breedlove, Norma Jean Almodovar, and other members of the post-porn movement. It also fills much of its running time with examples of each of these artists' work.
The film is graphic, confrontational, didactic, extreme and enlightening. By the end of its 90 minute run-time, though, I was left with some very mixed feelings about its value, its message, and its intent.
Jason Sacks: Elkin and McCoy, I was stuck with some mixed feelings while watching this film. I guess we’ll see as this essay proceeds whether you and I have the same mixed feelings or not.
More than anything, I felt incredibly happy that people are creating art of whatever sort that allows them to feel happy and release their inner artistic impulses. I love work that comes from the heart that represents an individualistic approach to any area of life, including the deep exploration of sexuality. If the artist finds great joy in exploring the more fetishistic sides of S&M or oil wrestling or of exploring the borderlines between male and female sexuality in ways that enlighten their lives and the lives of their viewers, brings them joy and freedom and helps to make the world a richer place, then more power to them.
I also liked how this film was deliberately confrontational. It starts with a clip from an S&M film, underlit and a bit strange and that sets the tone well for the movie. It makes no apologies for the approach it takes and the way that we’re asked to confront the material that’s presented to us; like all punk art, these films are all about expression without repression, the ability to skip the intervention of the existing paradigms by creating work that is direct, confrontational, uncompromising and personal. I thought this film really succeeded in making a case that the filmmakers presented in this movie are embodying the punk ethos in creating their films and embracing personal expression over comfort and conformity.
I lost interest in this film in two places.
First, I thought that the focus could have been tighter in the way that stories were organized. The film jumps around from person to person, topic to topic, without a clear story that came from the different juxtapositions. Rather than have Despentes lead me through the story she wanted to tell, she instead essentially told her story as several disparate storylines that to me never really came together. For me, she never made the connection between, for instance, Annie Sprinkle’s almost educational look at sex and sexuality (“grab a flashlight and look at my vulva!”) and Del La Grace Volcano’s confrontational approach to gender roles. There seemed to be an easy connection to make between those two topics, but Despentes never quite makes the point that would have been interesting to make.
Second, I thought that there were too many disparate elements included in this film. There’s a big concentration on the next generation of postpunk porn, but a lot of time is also spent on the inequalities of the sex worker industry and on the drive to decriminalize prostitution. That’s an interesting topic and it’s worth a film all by itself, but it detracted from this film to focus on that topic as well as so many other topics.
Paul, we haven’t heard yet from you, and you’re the one who recommended this movie to us. What’s your take on where this movie succeeded or failed?
Paul Brian McCoy: Well, I agree that it doesn't fully succeed. After another viewing I think the final segment, where Despentes looks at the European take on Post-Porn, is really the weakest and undercuts a lot of the work done in the earlier parts of the film. Essentially, the last twenty-five to thirty minutes of the film is a montage of film clips, performance art pieces and photography that really just reiterates the ideas and aesthetic leaps of everything that leads up to it.
It's like after an hour or so of movement, we suddenly start rehashing all that we've already seen, just with newer, younger, more European people taking part and talking about it all again.
However, I think there's a clear narrative line through the first three quarters of the film that, while lacking overt connections, can be seen as the development of a clear train of thought. The first segment detailing the role prostitution plays/ed in pro-sex feminism is fascinating and provides the core upon which the rest of the film's philosophical and artistic stands are built upon. The conflict between Pro-Sex Feminism and Abolitionist Feminism is what motivates the shift in discussion to mainstream pornography and the subversion of it into feminist porn.
The second section really dives into the production of pornography from a Pro-Sex Feminist perspective, looking at it academically as through the eighties the technologies of pornography changed. B. Ruby Rich's comment about how it's no longer about keeping porn out of your neighborhood, you can't keep it out of your house, was espec
ially on target. When accessibility is no longer mediated though a physical storefront, the intellectual and aesthetic questions about pornography become "What kind of pornography is it? Who's producing it? Who's consuming it? What is the target audience? What are the work conditions?"
The marketplace opens up to niche audiences and the gatekeepers have lost control of the product.
Which leads directly into the third segment, where Despentes talks with artists who are well out on the fringes, like Lynnee Breedlove of the punk band Tribe 8 or Del LaGrace Volcano with his transgender photography or Maria Beatty and Betony Vernon with their S&M Fetish film work and Sondra Goodwin and her love of wrestling.
Through all of this we can see the implementation of a freeing liberated feminism that doesn't define itself against masculinity but despite masculinity. I found Beatriz Preciado's discussion of how the term Queer was reclaimed and the introduction of the idea that feminism was explored in terms of performance or as masquerade especially insightful and inspiring. The idea that masculinity was being treated as a natural state with no discussion opens up a whole world of new areas for thought – particularly in relation to this Pro-Sex Feminist porn world that we're exposed to up to this point in the documentary.
Then it all kind of gets boring and repetitive. But that first hour or so is gold.
Elkin: I pretty much agree with both of you guys here, and I would only be reiterating what you've already said were I to talk about this film AS a film.
So let's talk a bit more about ideas, because this movie is full of them.
When discussing a documentary about pornography, it becomes hard not to wonder about cultural norms and sensibilities surrounding sex, especially in those cultures whose politics are tied up with the dominant religion – like in America or much of the Middle East. Why is sexuality such a wonk for these cultures? Why does it breed such visceral conflict?
It seems to me that the focus and drive of pretty much every relatively successful society revolves around two questions: 1) Will this make me live longer? 2) Will this get me laid?
Although, I guess, one could make the argument that this is really just one question.
Still, it is this second question where constituents of cultures with a religion-based morality end up in eternal internal conflict. There is a sex drive. There is this intellectual need to repress the desires of the body (I'm still not clear exactly why the body is so despised by religion, other than to maintain some level of power). The conflict between the two, I think, is why pornography exists. Were repression not a thing, then there would be no need to create an art form trying to liberate it from its chains, justify its existence or profit from its taboo.
So pornography, as with many art forms, is really a product of reaction. In this, it is already a political statement. The very production of pornography is a response to political issues. Making a political response to a political response, which is what the post-porn movement seems to be attempting, layers a further level of intellectualization on top of what is already an intellectual response to a basic and primal physical drive – which, it seems to me, divorces it further from the passion which spawned it in the first place.
Maybe I'm a prude. Maybe I'm not politically savvy enough. Maybe I'm emotionally naïve. But it seems to me that once you start using your sexuality to explore ideas of gender and power, you've kind of divorced yourself from the initial drive. When you begin to justify your emotional reactions through semantics and philosophy, you're working weird, and maybe in your intellectual desire for freedom, you end up caging yourself further with words.
Maybe Fred Durst is more in tune with the reality of our individual natures. After all, he freely admits he “did it all for the nookie”. See, consensual sexuality is about release and intimacy and allowing an individual to exist in a non-sense making capacity and not feel the fear inherent in that state. It is about touch and taste and smell – flow, breath, heat. Sex as a justification of ideas, though? Well, that strikes me as … well … pornographic.
McCoy: Sure, consensual sexuality should be about release and intimacy, but as you state, the production of pornography is a response to political issues. Although, I'd alter that supposition to say that pornography is a response to the social issues that are by extension political ones. And note that consensual sexuality takes on a very different purpose and meaning the instant performance enters into the picture and we really do have to start thinking about pornography in terms of who makes it and who watches it rather than just as the act itself.
The gatekeepers of accessibility are the forces being reacted to by the post-porn movement, as much as the societal norms that these filmmakers seem intent on subverting. The idea of using sexuality to explore ideas of gender and power, while not straying from just down and dirty sexual activity, is, I think, exactly what the producers of pornography should be doing. If you can get me horny and make me think at the same time that makes the horniness even better.
That's part of why the middle part of the film works so well for me while the conclusion falls short. As Lydia Lunch says, the problems with porn are the same as the problems with literature or music: 99 out of 100 examples are going to be terrible. The filmmakers who are able to actually intellectualize and discuss their sexuality are the filmmakers who succeed at avoiding semantic and philosophical traps. Most of the filmmakers in the final section of the film don't really seem to have much to say beyond expressing the desire to put things on film that get them off, things they couldn't find in available formats.
When the woman from Quimera Rosa says she "used a dildo before [she] knew what it meant" we've moved into something vaguely self-parodying rather than politically cutting edge. They'd be better served, as would most artists, to not talk about their art but let the art speak for itself.
If that's done, then Post-Porn becomes philosophically in-tune with every other indie movement that asserts its values against the mainstream, setting up independent means of production and distribution. And when the top voices in the movement start talking philosophy and politics, it's not just against the backdrop of dirty, dirty sex, but becomes the creation and establishing of a subversive Identity that refuses to shy away from sectioning sex off to the private bits, shoving it in your face, instead.
So to speak.
It's all about performance, audience, and means of production and distribution. The sex just makes it fun at the same time. It's sex not as a justification of ideas, but as the manifestation of ideas into the flesh.
Sacks: I gotta say, I agree with Paul’s beautifully stated sentiment here. What makes this movie, and the Post-Porn movement it presents, so interesting is the way that the movement integrates sexuality into the exploration of ideas. The movement is intriguing in part because it seems so empowering, so much about the rejection of the exhausted tropes that have become clichés to those who want something diff
erent. It’s a truly independent movement, an individualistic philosophy that brings a level of personal choice to an incredibly intimate act. And the Internet brings that movement up to the light, where those of a similar persuasion are given the opportunity to explore their honest and specific reactions to the work presented.
I didn’t find most of the Post-Porn content in this movie all that sexually exciting, but I’m sure that the Post-Porn pioneers don’t care at all about me. They’re creating material for themselves, presenting unique and creative content that comes from their heads and their hearts and their libidos. Creative people will always bring unique elements into their work, no matter what it is, and much of that will be tied up in art. Why should the new porn philosophy be different?
In this era when porn as easy to find as your bank statement or directions to the airport, when technology has become democratized and every quirk and twist of your personality can find kindred spirits on the Internet, it’s exciting to see that smart, interested, creative people are exploring their sexuality and sexual identities in ways that are tremendously specific to them. That’s the power of the Internet, and the major change in our lives that Annie Sprinkle and Lydia Lunch acknowledge in this film.
But the thing is, this kind of porn is always going to be a small percentage of what’s out there on the web. I assume that there’s a family of like-minded websites out there that present sexy wrestling films or consensual S&M films, or explorations of male and female gender identity in ways that aren’t exploitative, just as I’m sure there are plenty of sites where married couples share videos of themselves happily fucking the night away in ways that make them extremely happy. Neither one is necessarily superior to the other. I’m just happy that there’s a site out there for those who want to explore those unique fetishes without being exploited.
And I’m happy to watch a movie like Mutantes which shows that people can be extremely creative and intellectual and thoughtful about their own very specific worldviews. Isn’t that what Art is supposed to be all about?