the Emergency Almanac text / art double issue...winter 2003 / summer 2004
Regained, Paradise Lost:
Paradise Regained, Paradise Lost:
Notes from the Festival International de Cine Erótico de Barcelona.
Barcelona, Spain. It's Wednesday and I enter the red velvet curtained doors of La Farga de L'Hospitalet, a large expo center with an adjacent shopping mall and Imax theater. I am taking a break from reading the Czech author Milan Kundera's contemporary classic, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" which probes, among other things, the duality of body and soul. As I enter the foyer, the cement floor is rather cold, and my steps feel particularly heavy. Through the next door bearing a hot pink poster with a Warhol inspired silkscreen of a pinup girl that looks like she belongs on a sailor's bicep, a loud, dizzying techno beat drowns out all other noises. I feel "a heady, insuperable longing to fall," Kundera's definition of "vertigo." So with a light head and heavy feet, a pad of paper and a camera bag full of film, I press on through the door into a hardcore voyeur's paradise.
In Barcelona, the festival was heavily publicized and sought to attract a diverse segment of the population. Adeline Aránega, festival spokeswoman, said the festival sought to "inform consumers, entertain visitors, and to normalize the existence of erotica in society." Most articles focused on the anticipated appearance of Rocco Siffredi, the well-endowed, multi-lingual Italian porn star (nowhere to be seen at the festival) who recently made his popular screen debut in Catherine Breillat's Romance, the controversial mainstream "thinking" erotic film that challenged the conception of romance by combining existentialist philosophy with an unsatisfied teacher's lovemaking and her S&M episodes with the school headmaster. The movie's beautiful and provocative cinematography was ultimately tame, similar to the descriptive narrative passages in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which, as a side note, was made into a film by Philip Kaufman starring Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche). These images were in stark contrast to the brash collision of bodies in cotemporary straight porn. Ultimately there was something more internal in my concept of erotica that was hard to find at this year's festival.
All this talk of "romance" led me to believe that this event would indeed live up to its title, an erotic film festival. I'm thinking perhaps Fellini's Casanova, maybe Caligula, Last Tango in Paris, or the whole slew of Emmanuel movies that pre-adolescents watch on pay-TV while their parent's are sleeping. I had hoped to encounter exhibits something like the stunning black and white photography of prostitutes from the Barrio Chino in the 40's that can be found at Barcelona's Museo de Erotica. Instead, my first view past the second door was a King Kong size "blow up" (yes, a sly reference to Michelangelo Antonioni's classic film that could be classified as erotic, but not to be found anywhere near here) of a bleach blond lying submissively on her back in a Cleopatra pose, (Cleopatra occasionally bathed in semen to condition her complexion), or what's known in the porn-business as a "facial," or "money shot." Unlike the mystery in the background of the photographs in Blow Up, there is nothing beyond this picture.
This was the façade for Interselección S.L., one of the many adult film distributors. A tower of six 19' televisions played their films continually while some of the stars lounged on plastic chairs inside the booth smoking cigarettes and occasionally flashing their breasts for the onlookers. On each side of the exposition space inside of La Farga the larger film making groups had set up grand stages. The International Film Group, a loose confederation of producers like Sodomania, Buttman, Top Platinum Sex, Made in Spain, among others, had the largest stage area that included roped off areas stage right and left where actresses lounged in their neon evening wear and signed autographs. I went over to get a closer look at the models and maybe ask a few questions. In my "little boy" dreams, these women were happy and healthy looking, strong and self determined, an image I acquired from my fond memory of the brothels in wild west movies. My first notes were "tired women but no bags under their eyes in the movies." It's no big surprise that during the autograph signing I saw few heartfelt smiles. In my little boy dreams I wanted sincere enjoyment, "happy" sexstars that let me into their private first person "I" or "eye." I thought about Kundera again.
Kundera poses the question, "Isn't sex an internal representation of the same?" "Not at all," he says. What attracts men to erotic sexuality in general is a search for the small unimaginable part of the experience. How will these women behave while undressing? What do they say when made love to? How do her sighs sound and how does her face distort when she orgasms? "Between the approximation of the idea and the precision of reality there [is] a small gap of the unimaginable," Kundera says. We, (I intentionally include myself in all of this maleness), are searching for what is unique about the "I." This individual "I" can't be guessed at or calculated, it "must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered." Hence we are all here to see the unveiled, the uncovered, that we conquer with our gaze.
This all sounds fine and virulent, but there is a major problem. The obvious that we conveniently deny; lollipPop, Chiqui Martin, Misty Rain, Dolly Golden and others are not real. Indeed, they are objects, intentionally constructed objects with no past, as if they were one of Glover Inc.'s comics in booth 107 come to life. Kundera says our (men's) obsession is epic, "prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world." Since the epic womanizer has no subjective ideal of a woman, he is never disappointed. And indeed, this seems to be the prevailing attitude here, and little did I know, watching lolliPop spread for her fans and rub an autographed photo between her thighs, that the real spectacles had yet to begin.
In addition to the distributor booths, there was a number of live Internet sex cites that were digitally filming their models and streaming the video live to their websites. Computers were provided for curious onlookers to watch the show and "chat" about the performance. Idea Factory World had a booth encased in glass where a petite "true" redhead had an array of toys that she played with. A small digital camera set up in the corner recorded her every move and she would periodically check herself in the monitor to make sure she was centered, something the home internet viewing audience appreciated given their weekly fees that range from $10 to $100 a week. The mass of men near the glass was suffocating and the smell was akin to a horse stable. Cameras were everywhere, often aimed clumsily over baldheads trying to catch close-ups of the model's pierced "lips" and the 8" translucent dildo shoved up her ass. sexolive.com had a 6'x9'velvet carpet stage with a single black satin covered mattress where a bubbly brunet masturbated (admittedly looking rather sincere) with a Billy-club and occasionally copulated with a young goateed Spaniard. And all of this before noon.
"I believe the best thing is to notice the naturalness so then the visitors, both men and women, can come along and feel comfortable at the festival. In the end eroticism ought to be another option of entertainment, no better or no worse than the others," said Aránega. Naturalness is a common justification in the world of porn, but the industry neglects the fundamental fact that man, whether we like it or not, was kicked out of Eden and ever since has been trying to, in the words of Joni Mitchell's 1967 "Woodstock" anthem, "get back to the garden." In Kundera's novel, man's fascination with the behavior of animals is implored. Animals have no sense of shame, they lick their genitals, shit in public, and for the most part, we think nothing of it and are even entertained at times. "The answer is simple to me," Kundera asserts, "dogs were never expelled from Paradise. [They] know nothing about the duality of body and soul and [have] no concept of disgust."
Aránega admits that it's complicated to make a distinction between something erotic and something pornographic. I am convinced that it has to do with soul. I am reminded of a song that I heard quite often at the festival, which is also one of the number one club hits at the moment. The refrain is "You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals, so let's do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel," a suiting anthem for a festival that celebrates body and body, rather than body and soul. The festival attempted to try to regain this sense of a liberal paradise where sex and nudity are natural, and shameless. Or at least that is what the publicity of this event led one to believe. Inside was a different story.Day 2. At about one p.m. I walk through the doors (my vertigo has somewhat subsided) and immediately see a mass of journalists following a group of the adult film stars and one short blond, blue-eyed Catalan man in tight leather pants, high-heeled boots, and a baseball cap. We leave the floor of the expo center and walk down a long dark hall and enter a sort of conference room that is kept dark for sometime. Journalists are in dark corners talking on their cell phones. Finally the stars, decked out in hip-huggers and platform shoes, assemble in a group portrait pose behind "Conrad Son," the Catalan (www.conradson.com). I discover this is a press conference for the release of director Conrad Son's new rock and roll CD "Conrad Son and the Porno Band." Son had just directed the first Catalan porno movie, "Les Exxcursionistes Calentes" ("The Hot Hikers"). Quite a feat! And perhaps symbolic of the victory of the Catalan language over Castillo Spanish here in Catalonia.
Since the end of the Fascist Franco dictatorship in the mid-70's there has been an intense resurgence of the Catalan language and culture, which had been suppressed under the regime. Now, Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, is arguably the most liberal city in Spain, if not in all of Europe, and Conrad is proclaiming history. Catalan "culture" has cracked the porno market, with the help of popular sponsorship including a Catalonia cultural grant. The songs from the CD, which comprise the soundtrack from the movie, are all also in Catalan. The big hit that he performed on stage at the festival with his international cast of actresses from Holland, Russia, Hungary, and, of course Catalonia, was "Sexe en Catala" (www.sexencatala.com). The girls, most towering over Conrad, rubbed up and down his leather pants, went down on the band members, on each other, and on select "toys." The high point of the show for most was the free t-shirts that the girls christened a bit between their legs before throwing them out to the audience. The music (oh yes, I almost forgot there was music playing,) was something like watered down Motley Crue.
Undoubtedly, most of this porno culture seemed to be imported straight from Hollywood: the boob-jobs, the flashy colored skimpy dresses, gaudy earrings, pop-hard rock. I was hard-pressed to find anything erotic in the artistic sense, although most of the directors and performers I spoke with consistently referred to themselves as artists. And I began to think, "why weren't they?" What's the difference between this spectacle, and say, something like the spectacles created by the Viennese action group, a group of artists from Austria in the 60's who sought to expose conservatism and repression by countering it with that which everyone denies-- perversity.
The difference is that the porn industry needs a theory, some sort of well articulated manifesto. The criticism is already out there, but some one just has to find the right lens to read the industry through. Perhaps a bit of Kundera, but I am also reminded of the French theorist Julia Kristeva who writes extensively of the "abject," that which is neither object or subject, rather it is something in between that we constantly deny, or repress. She says, "shit and piss show me what I thrust aside in order to live." Here, among all of these raw bodies where nameless women had turned every opening of the body into a sexual organ, I existed in some state, some-other-in-between, perversely ecstatic, and abject.
Later on Friday night there was a good mix of curious couples. This was a nice counter to all of the pure testosterone that had been oozing from every pore of these young twenty-something Spaniards. Now, at 8p.m. couples were coming in, all dressed up in sexy attire (not a problem for Spaniards who have about the most sensual wardrobes in all of Europe, i.e., fishnet stockings, riding boots, silk scarves, low, low hip-huggers exposing their tongs, and tight translucent fabric, all worn with the utmost taste.) The new post-Franco urban Spaniards are known for their liberalness. There are a variety of pub liberales, which are spaces for intercambios de parejas, or swingers. But this type of liberal behavior is different than the festival. The intercambios aren't based on money or an industry. Rather, these people are consenting adults who get mutual satisfaction from the sexual encounter. Here at the festival amid the graphic posters and trademarks, it was difficult to deny that behind all of this fun-loving paradisiacal behavior was a purely financial motive. Even among a city as liberal as Barcelona, I think some of the exploits here surprised people.
I asked a young smartly dressed couple what they thought of the festival.
"It's dirty and we love it!" the girl said, "You can't take all of this seriously. It's just good fun."
They looked at everything as a performance art, which is the angle from which most people are able to digest the festival. O.K. I can try to buy that notion.
"But what about the people from the audience who go up on stage?" I asked the couple. "What do you think of them?"
"They're just guys who can't get any from the clubs." the man replied.
While some of the women took all of the exploits light-heartedly, others had their hands stiffly at their sides and pursed their lips when I tried to ask them questions. Friday night became a bit difficult for anyone to handle .
In the center of the exposition space was a motion picture screen with a stage directly in front. Rosanna Doll, an unnatural rubio came out to do a simple striptease and pass out some little tickets. The "tickets" were invitations to come up on stage and help her break the world sex record. Men then proceeded back stage where they removed their pants, put on a mask, and got in a line behind the stage. There were young well-fit men, some blond tourists, fat, middle aged men; Rosanna did not discriminate. She warmed up by walking along the edge of the stage, and then "crotch shooting" the audience, who she allowed to fondle her bare genitalia. Masses of hands were fighting to cop a feel as she rolled along the edge of the stage, never losing her smile. She kept the illusion perfectly.
As Rosanna continued with her vertiginous rolling, three other women brought out a large sheet of plastic and some trash baskets. They were dressed in Daisy-Dukes and halter- tops, and wore hip-packs stuffed with condoms. They were the "erection pit-crew." The men would come up three at a time and then the women would take a baby wipe, clean the "member," perform fellatio, and then put the condom on. Once an erect penis with a condom was ready, it would bob over to Rosanna who had moved to the center of the stage were three cameramen fought for angles that were projected onto the movie screen behind the stage. It was all very carnal and rather risky, but Rosanna never lost a smile, she was, however, having trouble finding volunteers.
Numerous live shows that incorporated members of the audience and, for the most part, condoms, occurred sporadically throughout the festival space, although there was a fair share of loaded semen shooting here and there. A young filmmaker from Los Angeles shooting for porn star "Misty Rain" said, "This is really wild, I haven't seen anything like this in the rest of Europe. We did a nude photo shoot right out front next to a police car this morning." While I was talking to him, a little midget dressed in a red devil suit complete with horns walked out onto stage while the 2001 theme was playing. A busty brown-eyed girl in a French maid outfit followed him. The filmmaker and I sat back to watch "The Holy One" stand erect with a pitchfork in hand while the sultry maid did a bit of cleaning, I hesitate to say vacuuming. But again, albeit rather kitsch and tacky, most performances followed a sort of fantastic theme that attempted to capture something theatrical.
Later, in the roped off VIP area, a director wanted to show off his actress and began to "make a scene" with her on one of the tables. First she went down on him, and then vice versa. Then the slow and deep copulation, specifically for the photographers who had a chance to really get up close and personal with no velvet rope or stage to hold them back. First a simple missionary entry, and then the most popular in the business, and perhaps the most anti-Eden behavior, rear entry. Slow sodomy for the cameras, with periodic pauses for those viewers who wanted to get more of a clinical perspective as the man withdrew to expose the elasticity of certain muscles. And then right to the mouth and all over her braces. After she stood on top of the table, hand on her hip and the other waving and blowing wet kisses, undoubtedly inspired by Marilyn Monroe, but with the least bit subtlety and little class.
this said, overall the festival was fascinating in small doses. There
is something to be said for taboo sub-culture. And perhaps this intellectualizing
only serves to mask the fact that I may have enjoyed some of the behaviors
I have been taught are demoralizing and serve to promote another behavior
stemming from "the fall," which is the subjugation of woman,
or as Kundera says, man's epic womanizing. I believe at any given time
in the galleries and art houses of Barcelona, or any Metropolitan area,
one can find truly tasteful, immaculately constructed works of erotica
that serve to stimulate the body and soul. To the benefit of the festival,
there were a couple of things that did enter the realm of erotica: the
ill-attended art exhibition of Andres Branki, which included an array
of phallic effigies and deep, moody color portraits of performers en
masque; the adult comics of the Panzar group from Russia, and the bondage
costuming of Otilio Shoshan, Joan Coll, and Doralba Picerno. And then
there was one truly fascinating erotic show put on Friday night by an
independent group of performance artists which included a base player
and four drummers playing for a group of silver painted modern dancers
who blew fire and performed harder than Rosanna Doll, who couldn't find
enough volunteers to help her break the record. Interestingly enough,
the performers, clad with crowns of thorns and fig leafs, seemed to
be enacting a primal representation of man's expulsion from the garden.
But as hard as we try, we still haven't found our way back.