Monday, February 20, 2017

Thinking of Shannon

A couple days ago I found myself thinking of Shannon Tweed. The actress will turn 60 next month (March 10, to be more precise), which puts her in her late thirties when she was the undisputed queen of the Erotic Thriller in the mid-1990s. As such she was a frequent presence in my old VCR, and I can well remember how great it felt, when I was in college, to run one of her films once in a while to clear my head from all the crap one had to stuff there in order to graduate. Well, maybe that is not entirely true. After all, she always played the woman (one can not think of her as a girl) one imagined one day one would get. With her stunning body and next-door-girl good looks, Shannon Tweed had something of an earthly quality, some indefinable and appealing mix that made one relate to her. She seemed real, unlike main competitors Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard who could never quite discard their self-conscious aura of sex fantasy come to life. Moreover, whether playing the competent professional, be it sex-therapist or talk show host, or the well-to-do unoccupied rich wife, Tweed always managed to seem troubled, preoccupied, as if partaking with us the woes of real life. Although not a great thespian - no Glenn Close or Meryl Streep there, thank goodness - she was able to brand a definite home-video period as her own.

I guess what prompted this unexpected trip to the past was my recent reading of a few works on the genre, that left me somehow unsatisfied and wanting more; wanting something that would directly address the allure of the genre for the viewer. Instead I suffered through the pompous academic prose of Linda Williams' The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005), Nina K. Martin's curious hit-and-miss approach in Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller (2007), and the totally clueless essay "They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre" by Douglas Keesey, published in volume 56 of CineAction back in 2001. What they all had in common was best summarized by Aneta Karagiannidou in her not less clueless thesis Getting Away With It: The Erotic Thriller and Its Fantasies (2006): "Like Slavoj Žižek, 'I never feel guilty about enjoying films that are generally dismissed as trash'(...) Erotic thrillers are definite candidates for the trash category, so that writing a PhD thesis on such a contested genre was a great challenge. I realized early on that unless I were very careful about the way I handled my topic [my thesis] would be dismissed as lacking academic seriousness (...)".

Well, we all know what academic seriousness does to truth when we're dealing with the (post)modern social 'science' and humanities departments. However, with more or less seriousness, all these authors handled the Erotic Thriller with long pincers, as if afraid it could contaminate them, or, worse, as if they feared they would enjoy such trash. But the most frustrating of all, was that they all tackled the subject as if they were making some kind of ritual sacrifice to the irate gods of tastefulness. Why someone would choose to study a field of the arts for which they have no affinity is something I'll never understand, unless they're invested in some kind of cultural-political-ideological crusade - which I guess most of them are - intent on procrusteanly squeeze even the smallest drop of confirmation for their stick-legged intellectual elephants. But for me, personally, what was really, really, galling, was that I found almost no connection between the readings they were making and the films I had watched. Was my memory tricking me? So, I decided to go back to some of those films and jot down some viewing notes and, if I have the time, the will, and the discipline, I'll share those  notes with you, dear (and possibly non-existent) reader, under the heading The Erotic Thriller: Bodies in Motion.

And so it was I started thinking of Shannon Tweed, the epitome of the Erotic Thriller heroine. When I finished college and opened my own practice, I was sure I would someday meet my own Shannon Tweed. I was in my late teens and early twenties when she was reigning over the erotic thriller, and now that I'm entering my late forties, I feel that she is still the same alluring blonde professional in her early thirties and that she's still plagued by unfaithful husbands, killer voyeurs or sex-psychos, and in need of some help dealing with them. I still think of her every time my door opens, but I know the woman I was hoping to catch is now the woman I never got. Somehow, time, and life, have passed me by, leaving her still an earthly, tantalizingly close dream... but a dream nonetheless.   

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Unfathomable Workings of the Censorious Mind

The first time I heard of Cirio H. Santiago's STRYKER (1983) was through a whitewashed trailer on an old (although then new) VHS tape of THE HITCHIKER (1986). Sucker that I am for all things post-apocalyptical I immediately fell in love with that weird MAD MAX (1979) and MAD MAX II: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) derivative cash-in. Among the usual murder and mayhem on desolate landscapes that is usual in such pop-cultural artifacts, there was a fascinating scene of a full-bosomed chained beauty having her shirt ripped open by a pair of unmistakable villains. I swear I can still hear the paper-like screech of the garment being torn, background hiss from the mono tape included.

As soon as I could I tracked down a copy of the movie in my local rental shop and nested in the sofa to cozily enjoylife after the end of the world as we know it, Phillipino style. However... something was missing from the movie. Not the murder, nor the mayhem... No, all the violent shenanigans seemed to be there, but there was no sign of the eagerly expected shirt-ripping scene. Weirdest of all, the capture of the girl - Delha, played by Andrea Savio (although credited as Andria) - was there; as were some glimpses of her body hanging from the chains, with shirt clearly torn, being interrogated by Kardis's henchmen. But not the reason why it was so. Needless to say, it was true in all other copies I watched since then, be them VHS tapes from other labels, or .avi files found online. So much so that I began to doubt if I had ever really seen the blouse being ripped open, if I had really heard that forever remembered dry tearing sound.

For, as enticing as it is to glimpse such a scene in a trailer, the lack of context is galling. In the trailer she is just a well-endowed woman in chains. Sure, it's great eye candy and hot as hell, but the imagination hungers for more. When the time comes in the film proper, she is no longer an anonymous pair of breasts. She is Delha, a survivor, a warrior, a capable soldier, and the love interest of the film's titular hero.   

The contextual efect is much stronger, almost Christ-like (as her hanging from the chains with spread arms is unmistakenly intent to evoke), after we had seen her escape before by eviscerating one of the disposable henchmen that such villains as Kardis seem to have in unlimited numbers at their... welll... disposal. She's no longer just a sexy woman playing at soldiers, and to be so defeated, exposed, touched, begets an altogether different response from us, the viewers. For the censor, for whatever reason, to have cut the scenes of such unspeakable sexual violence, while retaining the run-of-the-mill punching, knifing, shooting and blasting, mainly among men, speaks volumes from where come so simplistic readings as those that take man-to-man combat as a substitute for hidden homoerotic desires.  
Now, thanks to Kino Lorber's recent Bluray edition of this cult favorite, I feel vindicated after almost thirty years of unbearable doubt (I exaggerate, of course, but I want you to feel my anger). Together with the missing footage of the blouse ripping, I found restored almost a full minute of cut footage that cast aside any doubt that Delha was (gang) raped after refusing to provide the information her torturers wanted her to... but that I'll leave for another post. For now, let us celebrate this historical moment, in all its bruised and battered glory.

And even in the silent, frozen beauty of the screencaps, I swear I can still hear that shirt tearing sound.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

GIRLS WITH GUNS: Phallic Women or New Pagan Goddesses?

 Long before cant-spewing, History-challenged, feminist wannabe reviewers would erupt into frothy rages over Rogue’s cleavage, the naked breasts of women were believed to be symbols of power. Of female power. They could not be challenged, diminished or polluted by the eyes of Man. They were revered. Associated with fertility and growth, they were sometimes appropriated by male divinities, as was the case with Hapi, the Egiptian Male God of the Nile. Responsible for the vital annual overflow of the river Nile, his torso was adorned in statuary with a pair of female breasts as a sign of fertility.

 The image above, of a Minoan (Crete) snake goddess, or snake priestess, of about 1600 b.C., distinguishes itself not only for the globular, shapely aggressive naked breasts, but for the snakes she’s holding in each hand. Usually considered to be communicators with the powers below the earth the snakes – obviously so in Western Culture, after the Judeo-Christian tradition – snakes are also clear phallic markers. The goddess (or priestess, as Art Historians seem not to reach a unanimous conclusion as to the true meaning of the statues), in its conjugation of exuberant breasts and control over symbolic phalluses, appears to be overly dominant, exuding power, confidence and determination, prefiguring in its ancient solemnity, not only the modern day superheroines, but the modern day action women as well. Female body and female power are not and need not be separate realms, something that has not yet been realized by infantile feminists that keep crying out not only for total de-eroticization of art (including its modern popular expression in comics and films), but for its de-sexualization by the erasure of representation of all secondary sexual characteristics. When sex is viewed as a threat, mental disturbance is not very far away.  

 The images of the Minoan Snake Goddesses are aggressively erotic, Dionysian in its exuberance, rich in its meaning, visionary in its power. Marked as truly feminine by the naked breasts, the priestess, the goddess, holds absolute control over the penis, its pagan power traversing History, Art and Culture unchallenged, until being embodied in the new pagan goddesses of Porn: 

In discussing the Minoan Snake Godesses in her book The History of the Breast, Marilyn Yalom writes “(…) the Cretan statues with their prominent breasts and snakes may also be saying: ‘Take care not to offend this priestess. She can just as easily dispense poison as milk!’. The snakes are therefore, not only symbolic phalluses, but also symbolic guns, capable of spewing death just like today’s handguns:

The Girls With Guns of today’s comics and films, are thus direct heirs of this ancient lineage. Capable of dispensing both poison and milk, death and pleasure, they are whole women, unafraid of Man, unapologetic of Sex. Feminist literature not rarely refer to them as phallic women, as if interlopers from another reign, intruders in the fortress of maleness from where they took the sleeping men’s guns, just as Lorena Bobbitt did in both a more literal and more symbolic way. But where Lorena’s absolute theft was a calculated act of media-savy and cowardice, the true Warrior Women know that the penis is not the weapon of their enemy, but as much their own. For they, and only they, control the snakes.

The snake and the breast are both undying signifiers of fertility, fecundity, passion and generation. They visibly externalize such attributes through the spewing of milky fluids. In ancient rituals of the Malabar, much as other generative divinities, the serpent is worshiped by women with libations of milk (see The Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion, by B.Z. Goldberg), and just as in almost every porn film the snakes ejaculate their visible pleasure all over the altar of women’s breasts. Simultaneously Pollution and Libation, man and woman meet in that melting moment of pleasure and desire. That explosive moment when the gun is discharged but not necessarily fired.

Porn actress Mya Diamond embodies and enacts this ancestral dynamic through which the snake became the penis became the gun, in a scene from Xavi Dominguez’s triple x-rated film SEX ANGELS 2 (2006), itself a sequel spoofing McG’s two-films update of the 70s TV series Charlie’s Angels. The film, in its basic plot ploy, parodies the first season episode “Target: Angels” (episode six), in which our heroines are being separately targeted for assassination by unknown parts.

Advised by our ersatz Charlie of the imminent threat, the three angels start sharing the recent attempts on their lives, usually after a fairly graphic sex scene. Through flashback, we learn that Mya was visiting a private wife swapping club in search of a good time, recalling to mind the female type of pre-code Hollywood defined by Molly Haskell in her pioneer study “From Reverence to Rape”, a type “conceived of as having sexual desire without being freaks, villains, or even necessarily Europeans (…). Women (…) entitled to initiate sexual encounters, to pursue men, even to embody certain “male” characteristics without being stigmatized as “unfeminine” or “predatory.

Once there, garbed in jewels and satiny red dress, she is accosted by two customers, with whom she proceeds to share the most vigorous and strenuous ménage à trois, making the screen sizzle with the most complete and vivid catalogue of sex acts one could expect from such a film. They fuck. Yes, they fuck her breasts, and they fuck her mouth, and they double-team her, and she consents to be doubly-penetrated. All the while she controls the action. We never doubt that she is the one commanding the puppets, the one at the wheel, even as she masturbates a penis while she is fellating the other, her hair captive of one of their hands.  In the end, they both ejaculate copiously over her breasts, her hands controlling the snakes as they spill their poison.

Unbeknownst to her, but – one suspects – not to the viewer, they are the assassins sent to terminate her. And, as soon as their orgasms are over, their penises deflating in pointed contrast to their trusty forty-fives, they point their guns at her, naked and feminine and covered in sperm.

And yet, with their primal lusts satiated, with no territorial quandary to resolve, the reasons for violence and aggression appear to have vanished. Only the iconoclast, fueled by the Sadean impulses of pollution and corruption, would desecrate the idol whose cult he has just observed. The victim – and how often anti-sex feminist rhetoric can think of the (hetero)sexually active woman in no other terms – has transcended herself in this sacred game, regaining the power of the Snake Goddess.

“I can’t kill her now”, one of them says. You could think that’s because she’s marked territory now, his semen like dog-piss on a lamppost. That because his lust is satisfied, so is his need for violence, for we all know that sex is violence, that sex is rape. But that is not so. He can’t kill her because she has the power over the weapons. The snakes have discharged their venom and are lying limp and flaccid as if in deep winter. Only she can bring life back to them.

And so, imperious, capricious, sublime, the Goddess regains the upper hand and shoots both of them with her own concealed weapons, their materialization looking for all purposes like an act of magic, for surely she couldn’t have hidden those two semiautomatics on her flimsy dress…

Despite marred by the overextended and mainly under-imaginative sex scenes so characteristic of recent porn, and not in the least aided by the paper-thin excuse of a plot, in this particular scene SEX ANGELS 2 accidentally (maybe not so much by accident as by design) dips in the subterranean pool of our cultural history and drinks deeply of the hidden undercurrents of sex, sex roles and sexual representations at the margins of popular entertainment. And what it brings back from the deep, is not objectifying or degrading for women, it is empowering and liberating. After all, it’s only the sex differences that make women, women. Even when they’re Goddesses.