Barbara Bell & Anna Lorentzon – Graphic Sexual Horror (2009)
The phrase “Graphic Sexual Horror” actually derives from the all-caps warning that would greet visitors at the threshold to the “Insex.Com” Web site during its heyday roughly a decade ago. But one can’t be blamed for thinking that the title pairs well with the somewhat sensationalistic marketing. The fact that this is a documentary is never concealed, but that doesn’t really diminish the lurid appeal – in fact, the promise that everything is real only adds to the titillation.
Of course that’s the same lure of realism that attracted some 35,000 subscribers to Brent “PD” Scott’s unique BDSM online community and interactive gallery. Shooting on stark sets sporting a rundown, industrial look and featuring a grim, deadpan aesthetic that gave some the impression that PD “really had captured the girls,” the Insex team specialized in creative live feed sessions that allowed customers to provide real-time input and feedback. The young models would frequently plead for mercy from all sorts of gnarly acts of sadism, but per S/M protocol there was always a “safe word” in reserve that they could invoke if things became too unbearable.
One might expect a doc covering such subject matter to be fairly predictable in its exploitational leanings. Yet by showing the motivations of each model to test her own psychological/physical limits–and PD’s tendency to manipulate such motivating factors – Graphic Sexual Horror begins to address all sorts of intriguing and totally unexpected questions. Is there such a thing as self-exploitation? And what’s to distinguish simple exhibitionism, and those who would leverage it for profit, from a legitimate, artistic, and maybe spiritual exploration of the body’s limits?
Fashioning a smart, well-edited chronicle of PD’s career, directors Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon consistently emphasize the consensual nature of Insex’s activities. Sometimes this is done via backstage footage of the shoots, sometimes through video waivers in which the models agree to a range of torments with the same air of cheerful professionalism a job interviewee might muster in consenting to make coffee once in a while. This same stance of calm detachment suffuses the doc as whole, and, again, is well at odds it with the DVD promo copy that promises “the terrifying dark history” of Insex. If you’re looking for an ominous soundtrack or other devices to pump up drama or salaciousness, you’ll be disappointed.
That said, parts of the film are a bit hard to watch, but those more familiar with the BDSM subculture might find Graphic Sexual Horror, if not tame, then at least closer to “standard” in terms of imagery. The onscreen blood and raised welts that appear in the context of breast torture, caning, and other punishments are certainly not for the squeamish, but the filmmakers are careful to position the audience as a clinical observer, not a “fan.” On an emotional level, the creepiest thing in the film is the subtle transformation of PD/Brent himself. He starts as a would-be iconoclast and niche aesthete thumbing his nose at mainstream academia and pornography… and ends up a morally-rudderless impresario wielding power over his models for personal pleasure. But maybe the most frightening thing of all is how the government shut down Insex by effectively applying pressure to banks under the guise of Patriot Act security measures.
In any case, it’s clear that this kind of cautionary tale can be applied to a range of media-making industries and personalities, and it’s these deeper themes of the film that really impress. Indeed, the entire subject/object, audience/participant dynamic is handled at a very high level without becoming too dryly intellectual. For example, the models know that they can use the safe word at any time, but they also don’t want to be seen as “wimping out” in front of a live viewership that also happens to be their fanbase. On the other hand, the presence of that being-streamed-to audience is the only thing that ultimately ensures their safety – paying customers as potential criminal witnesses.
To their credit, the filmmakers handle such issues with a light touch, as they do the entire “art vs. pornography” debate. In short, there’s plenty of food for thought here–one can see this title working really well in university-level courses on media, alt-culture, and gender/sexual politics – but Bell and Lorentzon don’t try to cram a message or ponderous “insights” down the audience’s throat. A tight focus is maintained on the actual models and Insex crew speaking honestly about their experiences, while completely absent are the usual “expert” talking heads holding forth on the meaning of those experiences.
By the same token, though, the insider perspective (both directors have worked either with or for PD) and narrow focus on firsthand testimony yields a vague sense of opportunities missed. I’m not contending that any doc would benefit from an injection of high-powered commentators, but in this case a couple of engaging outside voices providing occasional cultural context would have been welcome. It’s interesting, for example, that the height of Insex’s popularity overlaps with the rise of bondage and fetishistic torture in U.S. horror films – just a coincidence? And don’t forget that this was also the age of the caught-on-camera sexual humiliations at Abu Ghraib and U.S. debate over the “soft” tortures of Guantanamo. Again, maybe these specific historical and political items aren’t that relevant to the events and ideas presented in GSH, but the fact remains that while watching the film you’d never know that any of its compelling themes might intersect with the wider world. Which is too bad, because while this somewhat insular approach reflects the closed, marginalized community that is its subject matter, this sharp and thought-provoking doc deserves to reach an audience far wider than BDSM aficionados and those with a passing curiosity in them.