Friday, September 25, 2015

Maladolescenza (Spielen wir Liebe) (1977)

Games Without Frontiers

written and directed by Pier Giuseppe Murgia
starring Lara Wendel, Eva Ionesco,
Martin Loeb

I must confess: careful considerations of aesthetic merit and my personal fascination with fringe cinema aside, my initial reaction to this notorious-beyond-notorious, banned-in-several-countries-and-still-considered-kiddie-porn-in-some treatise on S&M as the Yin and Yang of the mating dance wasn't exactly the reaction you'd have expected from a lapsed-Catholic libertine such as myself — a libertine who still harbors the belief that "respectable" cinema can incorporate explicit, and even unsimulated, sex into compelling essays on the human experience without qualifying as degenerate pornography; a libertine who holds that there's nothing inherently objectionable about the various instances of under-eighteen nudity that dot the history of Western cinema, and who openly laughs at the schoolmarmish harrumphing of misandrists who insist that a man's natural attraction to, say, a comely and sexually mature sixteen year-old girl would mark him as some sort of "child molester." Though I wasn't offended by anything Maladolescenza had to show me, my reaction was something akin to mild shock — shock that a film like this had ever seen release beyond being projected on the wall at some private party attended by jaded, decadent jet-setters. It was the reaction of a man whose immediate instinct would be to ward off unsavory assumptions about his character, should anyone burst into the room and catch me watching this thing. It's a reaction that speaks to a wholly legitimate, and increasingly warranted, concern over the sexualization of children that we've seen more and more of in the years since "free your mind, maaaan" and The Sexual Revolution™ took hold — a sexualization which represents the inevitable fallout from several decades of leftist soapboxing in favor of eradicating boundaries and taboos without any consideration of the long-term consequences of all that "freedom," and with little understanding of why society might have erected said boundaries in the first place.

After all, Maladolescenza ("Adolescent Malice" in the King's, "We Love Playing" in Der Kaiser's) illustrates its thesis via a sort of stunt casting effect: it puts a baby-faced trio of grade-schoolers through a series of thoroughly adult, and incredibly kinky, Lord of the Flies-inspired scenarios as a means of positing that twisted psychological games and the female predilection for aloof jerkboys who hopscotch back and forth between lovers'-lane solicitousness and the casual sadism of a budding Richard Ramirez are so unshakably central to our very nature that they're evident in even our interactions with each other as children. Conceptually, it's not far off from where Alan Parker was when his old-style gangster musical Bugsy Malone gave us tykes with tommy guns and fourteen year-old Jodie Foster as a parody of va-va-voom in a slinky moll's dress. Maladolescenza, though, takes a hard left from there into ethically indefensible Euro-sleaze art-porn via the rather arrantly detailed nudity of its mostly preteen actors in what I tend to doubt were fully simulated sex scenes. (This being Europe in the wild 'n' woolly Seventies and all.) Note that I said "arrantly detailed" — the underage nudity on display here, then, isn't of the "socially acceptable" variety, as in a scene of a parent giving his child a bath. It isn't the kind of child nudity one could justify as being necessary to a film's plot, as when David Cronenberg, in The Brood, gave us a father documenting the bruises on his daughter's naked body — bruises which point toward a climactic revelation about her mother. To my mind, it isn't even of a piece with the endless examples of European cinema's use of child nudity in furtherance of an objective, brazenly unsentimental — yet artful — portrait of childhood and all the burgeoning of sexual awareness that goes with it.

No, what director Pier Giuseppe Murgia feasts our eyes upon here are blatant, calculated eroticizations of pre-mature physical forms, as in his prelude to a sex scene featuring pedophile-pinup doll Eva Ionesco — who, by the time of Maladolescenza, had already appeared in Italian Playboy, had supposedly done a nude scene for the 1976 French softcore flick Spermula (it was cut out), and had been posing for her photographer mother in topless, lace-gloves-and-lipstick-type glamour shots since the age of five. (If Roxy Music made music for children, she'd have graced one of their album covers.) Rather than portray carnal exploration the way a precocious young girl might actually approach it, Murgia has her gyrate on all fours in the "doggystyle" position atop a satiny white duvet that suggests a mimicking of adult romance rituals — she tosses her mane of blond hair about, moves her little hips and ass around as if he'd prepared her for the role by showing her a bunch of Seka movies; and the kicker is that it isn't done for the delight of the young boy she's about to bed down with, it's done for ours. Her naked-as-the-proverbial-jaybird, way-underage patootie is pointed at us as she bends over, not at her "lover"; and, though Murgia keeps her audition for Roman Polanski's remake of Behind the Green Door confined to the distance of a wide shot, his camera nonetheless leaves no detail about her pint-sized anatomy to our imaginations: the surprising hairiness for an eleven year-old, a rather dilated-looking asshole that suggests a familiarity with acts unthinkable for a girl still figuring out training bras and pre-algebra. Likewise, Murgia spares us no anatomical acquaintance with the fledgling Miss Ionesco's co-stars — be it the head-on medium shot of Lara Wendel's still-developing anti-breasts as Martin Loeb's burgeoning dom Fabrizio seduces her character Laura inside a cave; be it the glimpse of Wendel's muff that Murgia makes sure to capture as Laura pulls up her panties after urinating by a river; be it the outline of her illegal clam through tighty-whiteys as Wendel assumes the endless parted-thigh, damsel-in-distress positions of fetishized female endangerment that he's choreographed her through; or be it the curious fact of Murgia's having chosen to open the film with Fabrizio sleeping naked, his not-yet-a-manhood on open display.

And my initial reaction to all this — however puritanically American it may seem to snail-eaters and Autobahn-riders — was that there's nothing so earth-rattling or aesthetically unprecedented in Murgia's "revelations" about human nature or the cruelty of which children are capable that it would warrant Maladolescenza having been so meticulously designed as a junior-high theater-class prelude to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and directed to make an audience of adults view children in such an unabashedly titillating fashion. Despite the half-hearted justification of the film as a "coming of age" piece, there's no way it was put together with an audience of kiddies in mind; its easy familiarity with sexual sadism, a male's Vertigo-like obsession with the image of the perfect female, and the give-and-take between fetishistic control freaks and their all-too-willing subjects is far too dependent upon being viewed and understood from within a knowing adult framework for it to work any other way — it's a fourth-year lecture in advanced psycho-sexual dynamics, not an introductory course. Rarely does Murgia even attempt to excuse his erotic scenarios and doctor's examinations of his actors' bodily development as being from the point-of-view of someone within the narrative. When we see Fabrizio naked at the start of the film, he's all alone (save for his trusty German Shepherd — and not even a pretentious Euro-perv is ridiculous enough to give us a dog's-eye view of things); when Fabrizio undresses Laura inside the cave and indulges his apparent jones for cunnilingus (he'll do it with Ionesco's character Silvia, as well), they're the only two present — thus, our perspective in these scenes is that of our own, of adult spectators encouraged by Murgia's X-rated staging to call to mind vivid recollections of our own sex lives, or of countless similar sex scenes using adult actors, and then plug in the bodies of eleven year-olds where that West Hollywood bartender girl you once doggy-styled in a women's restroom or your favorite spank fodder from an unrated Jess Franco film should be.

Murgia does toss in shots of Fabrizio watching from up high as Laura pisses near the river, or as she and Silvia engage in a fascinatingly near-sapphic bit of Persona-lite roleplay wherein Laura willingly attends to Silvia's preening before a mirror, brushing Silvia's blond mane like a servant girl under a spell, before the angle of Murgia's camera makes it appear as though Laura's own reflection has taken the place of Silvia's. But — Fabrizio's earlier eyeballing of Laura's panties aside — his appearance at the tail ends of these scenes feels like an afterthought, a fuck-it-why-not stab at adding voyeurism to the film's exhaustive list of kinks for completion's sake. The details dwelt upon by Murgia's choice of camera placement couldn't possibly represent Fabrizio's view from the distances he's at, anyway — such casual lapses in technique are echoed by the film's habitual nosedives into abject tastelessness, such as the kiddie bondage tutorial wherein Fabrizio ties Laura to the base of a tree and watches with the dispassion of a sociopath as a huge snake crawls all over her; between the ultra-gratuitous visibility of Wendel's panties beneath a conspicuously unbuttoned skirt and the incipient Euro-cuck impulse of having funkalicious Seventies porn music kick in at the exact moment the big, black, phallic snake slithers into frame, you're either laughing your ass off or wondering how in the hell the makers of this film ever escaped jail time. (Or, if you're like me: both of the above, plus wondering how many Jewish moneymen and distributors were likely behind this soft push of kiddie-fiddler chic via the brazen pornification of European children, regardless of however many Italian names the credits boast.)

All told, there's obviously no rational post-Seventies defense for this stuff any more than there is for the genuine bit of animal snuff (another Euro art-flick mainstay) that has Fabrizio and Silvia shooting Laura's pet bird full of arrows while she pouts over their wanton cruelty. Murgia treats us to the sight of the bird's eyeball bulging out as the final arrow pierces its tiny skull and all it adds up to is another moment of envelope-pushing checked off of the film's laundry list of transgressions from a "more innocent" era (as they tell us): an era when record shops kept the sleeves to Zep's Houses of the Holy and Blind Faith's debut on open display, an era when The Scorpions could plaster schoolgirl twat on the front of their Virgin Killer album and not see their careers ended; an era when a Coppertone suntan lotion commercial full of little-girl ass crack and a Rolling Stones lyric about seducing a fifteen year-old (thirteen, if you listen to the live version) were barely noticed bricks in the pop-cultural wall; an era when the fact that rock stars like Jimmy Page routinely availed themselves of sub-eighteen groupie flesh was the stuff of casual jokes and, thus, common knowledge; an era in which William Friedkin could use button-nosed Linda Blair as his crotch-stabbing instrument of sacrilege in The Exorcist, making it both his uneasy metaphor for a little girl's emergent sexuality and an across-the-board box-office smash; a pre-Disneyification-of-New-York era in which one could walk through Times Square and legally purchase child porn imported by major companies like Color Climax; an era in which "erotic" snaps of Eva Ionesco's naked young form could gain her a spread in a men's magazine and a walk-on in a Roman Polanski film while catapulting her mother to art-world notoriety. (Ionesco would go on to direct a film inspired by this phase of her life: My Little Princess, from 2011, with Isabelle Huppert as the mother.) Taken with a full accounting of the era in which it was created, then, Maladolescenza stands as either par for the shag-carpet-and-8-track-tape-era course or the point at which the allegedly naïve and innocent spirit of naked children as avatars of purity and unspoiled potential started curdling over into the lurid gaze of the trenchcoated old man hanging around school playgrounds even though he hadn't a son or a daughter to pick up.

When it comes to these divisive cinematic raspberries in the church lady's face of social mores, though, I go split-personality. There's my pragmatic side, which finds itself highly immune to the puerile shit-stirring and shallow épater-la-bourgeoisie grandstanding of self-styled guerrillas-with-cameras; and there's my voyeuristic, nothing-sacred-in-the-name-of-art side that cries "feed me!" in anticipation of the most ostensibly shocking, yet galvanizing, images I can find: Klan riders galloping to the rescue of civilization in Birth of a Nation's invention of the action-film climax, the breath-taking aestheticism of German unity in Triumph des Willens, live animals hacked open for your money's worth in Cannibal Holocaust. Maladolescenza sits squarely on the fence between these two impulses, a big hairy child-molester ball draped over each side. My good-citizen, planning-on-having-children-someday brain registers the supreme immorality of Murgia having endowed Ionesco with a specifically tailored miniature-blonde-vixen appeal — her ritualistic application of lipstick and eyeshadow, the baby sex-kitten dresses in which he outfits her, the exceedingly grown-up certainty of her pleasure in taunting Laura or her sexual confidence in pushing Fabrizio's head down toward her little crotch as if she'd done it with a hundred previous boy-toys just like him. (All the while, she resembles a porcelain angel figurine you might have seen on some old lady's dresser during the Victorian era: the same naughty-by-contrast look her mother devised for her photo shoots.) The effect is that of seeing a pair of middle school girls in "booty shorts," eyeliner and T-shirts so impossibly tight that they reveal the outlines of their training bras (not an uncommon sight in our age of spineless, largely matriarchal parenting): you register the visual signifiers of mature female sexuality and you feel the involuntary spark that attempts to set your arousal mechanisms whirring and humming before your brain recoils and reminds you that you shouldn't be having that reaction to a pair of juveniles, that this is the very reason why society traditionally frowned upon young girls being allowed to wear makeup or dress like whores in training.

And it's immediately — defensively — countered with an acknowledgment that my initial reaction, however sensible, was also the Pavlovian twitch of a self-policing seal trained to arf! disapprovingly at anyone prying the lid off of whatever sexual terrain modern society's deemed a no-go zone; to ignore, if not outright demonize, the notion that one's sexuality doesn't simply wait until one's eighteenth birthday to materialize out of nowhere. It's a reaction I reached for like a pair of comfy old slippers — and this, despite my own childhood memories of bedroom dry-hump quickies with the little redhead from across the street while we pretended to be watching Diff'rent Strokes; this, despite my memories of darting home from middle school to spend the hour I had until Mom got home Wild Bunch-gunning my pubescent DNA into wadded-up paper towels to the Ginger Lynn VHS tape that a buddy had loaned me from his dad's "secret" stash; this, despite my memories of engaging in bouts of show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine with the redhead that began with mutual puzzlement and worked their way up to tentative groping while we giggled our way through feigned disgust. (Little-boy me actually thought the redhead's looked weird; my only visual guideposts to female nether regions at that point were the triangular Buckwheat 'fros that late-night cable had shown me.)

Unless you're completely amoral, a film like Maladolescenza will absolutely put to the fire your sensibility as someone who prides himself on never feeling put off by a mere film; you'll search for ways to write it off as something that should never have seen the light of day. And these are unarguably healthy instincts — there's hardly anything that needs shepherding and guidance more than the sexual curiosity of children, lest it be soiled by portly middle-aged dating-market rejects who excel at convincing themselves that a nine year-old girl's greatest fantasy is to be slobbered on by a Viagra-stiffened Wilford Brimley look-alike; lest it be abused and perverted by those who'd place gratification of the real "love that dare not speak its name" above the molding of a child who still stands at the fork of his or her personal development and could go either way: well-adjusted adult or fucked-up freak paying rent to shrinks for couch space; future keeper of civilization's flame or one of its extinguishers. Still, my anything-goes side fights valiantly against such common sense. Why, it asks, should we indiscriminately balk at artistic depictions of the inherent sexual curiosities of children, other than to placate our socially-enforced sense of what's "right" and "wrong"? Obviously, this film has gained notoriety as appealing to the prurient interests of the Humbert Humbert set but, then, Brian de Palma's Scarface has been adopted, lock stock and barrel, as a how-to manual for success in the drug game by the gibbering, genocide-and-materialism-promoting women-in-disguise of the hip-hop crowd; Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's crystal-ball fever dream of beta-male explosion, inspired John Hinckley, Jr.'s obsession with a teenage Jodie Foster and his subsequent attempt on Ronald Reagan's life; A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers have likewise been accused of stoking copycat violence by aboriginal-IQ, shoulda-been-a-load-in-their-mother's-mouth types who look at the movies and see a guidebook of Really Fun Activities You Should Totally Try in Real Life! — should these films be banned as well?

It isn't a particularly skillfully made film but, to the justification of its contentious existence, Maladolescenza is at least semi-legitimate in laying bare the roots of the fundamental push-pull of male-female interaction. It's like a psychosexual re-fashioning of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small — a world where, in keeping with the template from William Golding, little ones' darkest impulses are given free reign to shine a light upon the ways of us grown-ups as events devolve into naked savagery, where there's no overarching moral authority but that which is established by the whims of the strongest and most dominant. Fabrizio leads Laura through the woods as they play his favorite game, King of the Forest: he, of course, is the "King" and Laura — so she thinks — is his "Queen." But Fabrizio constantly tests her loyalty to him through an increasingly cruel series of games: siccing his German Shepherd on her, tricking her so that she falls into a hole that he's covered with leaves, watching her squirm and shriek during the aforementioned bit with the snake, running hot and cold on her with words of devotion followed by dismissive taunts. In Laura's feeble pining for Fabrizio's approval — for the validation of a male she deems master of her environment — we see the female's impulse to melt before the alpha male, to qualify herself to him for the purpose of pulling his strength and resourcefulness down around her like a warm blanket, as a means of her own survival. It's why she yields her body to him after he gets her inside the cave and pretends that he doesn't know the way out so that they can spend the night there: Fabrizio's offered her the shield of his protection in a scary place and, in return, she attempts to secure future protection by giving up the greatest commodity a girl could ever offer: her virginity backed with the assumption of fidelity. Fabrizio is no provider type, though — he only ups the mind games afterward, and the film becomes a nifty demonstration of what happens when a girl fumbles with the fine china of her precious innocence (which is inevitable when it's left in her hands); it makes crystal clear the certainty that a girl whose heart is shattered by a cad early on will only be ruined for the lifetime's worth of second-placers who queue up in his wake.

Fabrizio displays the preternatural jerkboy game of a born heartbreaker — he keeps Laura dangling from a string with such expertise, one wants to send him out to school all those hopeless doughboys who shell out money for pick-up artist seminars and furiously scroll through "game" websites for the slightest clue as to how to entice a woman into awareness of their existence. But even the mighty must fall — Fabrizio goes from spider to fly as Silvia comes into the picture and rains her penchant for sadism and mental games down onto their little picnic of comparative innocence. She and Fabrizio band together to bedevil Laura, to literally and figuratively sling arrows at her, to belittle her, to taunt and tease and ostracize her until she breaks for no reason other than the sheer fun of it, and because Silvia must embody the female's inherent cruelty and sense of competition in regard to other women that German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer elucidated in his timeless clarification of distaff nature, On Women:
"...while a man will, as a rule, address others, even those inferior to himself, with a certain feeling of consideration and humanity, it is unbearable to see how proudly and disdainfully a lady of rank will, for the most part, behave towards one who is in a lower rank (not employed in her service) when she speaks to her. This may be because differences of rank are much more precarious with women than with [men], and consequently more quickly change their line of conduct and elevate them, or because while a hundred things must be weighed in [men's] case, there is only one to be weighed in theirs, namely, with which man they have found favour; and again, because of the one-sided nature of their vocation they stand in closer relationship to each other than men do; and so it is they try to render prominent the differences of rank."
The rank referred to by Schopenhauer is, in this case, the warm glow conferred upon Silvia by Fabrizio's clear preference for her over Laura; the status of better-than given to her by her ability to cast spells over boys that other girls can't manage. Murgia's direction of Lara Wendel seems to indicate that this treatment awakens something in Laura, some inner Dorothy Vallens-like masochist, especially as she stumbles upon them in flagrante delicto: instead of turning away from Silvia's verbal jabs and from the sight of Fabrizio giving to a much prettier girl what she'd thought was hers alone, Laura meekly relents to Fabrizio tugging at the dog collar he's placed around her by sitting down next to them as they carry on and then biting her lip as if she can barely contain what the erotic charge of voyeurism is doing to her. Jump ahead ten years and she's the black-eyed punching bag who just can't bring herself to leave her boyfriend, the girl who advertises her yen for anal, the dedicated mudshark, the fat girl who'll let guys do anything to her in bed and who takes a debauched pride in her tolerance for debasement: any number of desperate concessions made by lower-value women who'll do whatever they can to elevate their rank nearer to that of the pretty young things who've always taken instant validation for granted.

Echoing the ending of Lord of the Flies, in which Golding has the boys regress to sobbing helplessness in the face of adult authority, Murgia's children revert back to their true ages after a second night in the cave, as Silvia collapses into little-girl hysterics about needing to return home to her parents and Fabrizio stabs her to death in response to the threat that his favorite new toy might be forever taken away from him. The thing about Lord of the Flies, though, is that Golding calibrated his narrative to spring organically from the limitations of his protagonists' youth — the boys' mistaking the dead parachutist for a mythical beast, their hewing to a middle-schooler's sense of caste; it's not simply an adult slice of soft-porn retrofitted onto childhood as an excuse to get youngsters naked and have them do dirty, transgressive things. It's why Lord of the Flies works and Maladolescenza — once you've gotten over the kick of tracking this thing down and seeing what all the fuss was about — remains little more than leftoid envelope-pushing from a time when too large a slice of the population dismissed the red flags raised by aestheticization of naked kiddie flesh as repression's final cry as we flushed it down a cultural shit-bowl sold to us as an ivory throne; an outmoded impulse from our obsolete, black-and-white past.

The great liberal conceit, of course, is to free the oppressed, to loosen the shackles clamped around various groups' quality of life or personal expression. Yet, one may be tempted to ask when confronted with the liberties taken by a film like Maladolescenza: exactly how was little Eva Ionesco "liberated" by having been posed like a fuck-doll by her own mother or coached to shake her ass and spread her legs here for an audience of grown men? Exactly whose benefit is being considered via today's slow, soft push of sympathy for pedophiles — the only fruit ultimately borne by Silvia under that plush white comforter or by the sixth-grader who once beckoned the enlightened to give Blind Faith a spin?

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, August 10, 2015

To the Devil... A Daughter (1976)

The Scent of Lamb Chops

directed by Peter Sykes
starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee,
Nastassja Kinski, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott

The first you see of nutbag Werner Herzog muse Klaus Kinski's daughter Nastassja here, in her first major screen appearance at the minx's age of fourteen — enigmatic enough in her mannequin-like ways to have caught the attention of Roman Polanski, who'd be banging her within a year and would go on to cast her in his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles — is her in a nun's habit, staring off, comatose and a bit confused-looking; it's as if someone had waved a plate of French fries in front of a retarded kid.

It's an intriguing — for film historians and Nastassja fetishists — if not terribly auspicious performance. All that one associates with her from later films like Paul Schrader's hypnotic Cat People remake and James Toback's Exposed — the unplaceably-accented sultriness, the personification of the dark and mysterious Dorothy Vallens (from Blue Velvet) archetype, the sexual masochism shot through with the obliviousness of the natural beauty who can't help making a drooling obsessive out of every man she meets — it sits on the screen here, doughy and unshapen, her incipient conception of herself as an actress and as an international sex symbol. Kinski just sort of stakes out her space within the frame and stares at her co-stars as if she didn't understand English while intoning her lines with the dubbed-sounding hesitance of some vaguely Slavic sexpot who winds up naked with Laura Gemser in an Emanuelle flick — it's a vocal sound utterly unique to '70s Pan-Euro soft porn more so than post-Exorcist devil-possession movies. Its presence here softens things in a way you didn't expect — it conveys through the mouthpiece of an unseasoned teenage actress the innocence that needs to be at stake in the story of a heretical cult defying God and plotting to make her character the earthly representation of their dark lord on her eighteenth birthday. After all, our gape-eyed horror viewer's impulse demands our money's worth: a virginal white lamb that we can see defiled.

Director Peter Sykes, however, serves up sautéed lamb chops with Béarnaise butter that he yanks from under our noses just as we'd clutched our forks. We're cock-teased with hints of the genre vitiation of Nastassja's sweet young flesh that we came for — her Catherine is strapped down in an orgiastic cult ceremony as cult minions hold a giant inverted-crucifix statue of their lord Astaroth over her body and move it about in simulation of intercourse; during the tortuous labor of a woman bearing a child for the cult, Catherine writhes in agony while receiving telepathic signals of some sort, and her moans and thrashing (augmented by the peeks at her tighty-whities that she gives us between parted thighs) are identical to those of rabid carnal ecstasy. (Pain and ecstasy are, of course, intertwined for a girl losing her virginity; this interplay between opposing senses becomes, in a woman's lifelong attempts to recreate the dopamine hit of that first time ever, the cornerstone of the female arousal mechanism.)

With the exception of her brief strip-down at the film's climax, however, there's only a half-hearted utilizing of the fruits offered by Kinski the Lolita, actorly or otherwise; cock-teasing is all it remains. There's little hint of whatever might be going on in Catherine's head during the protracted battle for her soul; her purpose here is to be the football tossed back and forth between good and evil — Richard Widmark in grizzled-hero mode as John Verney, the occult novelist who's tasked with keeping Catherine from the cult's far-reaching tentacles, and Christopher Lee as the excommunicated priest who leads the cult, all brooding intensity and stentorian declarations like, "It is not heresy and I will not recant!" as he glowers at Christ on the cross as if our Lord owed him some gambling debts. We wonder: how is Catherine processing her destiny as the vessel for evil works by spirits unknown? How does her acceptance of this tie into her burgeoning sexuality and conception of herself as a young woman?

For that matter, how does she feel about her father (Denholm Elliott in sniveling-pansy mode), who buckled under intimidation from Lee's Father Michael Rayner and has, out of fear of repercussions, essentially handed his own daughter over to Satan? How does she feel about her mother who pledged her unborn child to the cult and offered up her own life in exchange for what one imagines was sold to her as eternal reward? Is Catherine's clear arousal under the spells cast by Rayner a function of demonic control or is it an unshackling of her inherent feminine attraction to debauchery, in keeping with Verney's assertion that the great majority of would-be Satanists are merely seeking a lofty, mystical-sounding reason to get naked and gratify their hedonistic urges? (I don't know much about the occult or Satanism — if it wasn't growled about over downtuned jackhammer riffs on an old Slayer or Morbid Angel CD that I listened to in high school, then I've got no clue. But then, I've never encountered any roadblocks to freely indulging my sadist's penchant for dominating and manhandling bad-girl Daddy-fetishists as young as Chris Hansen and the Feds will allow me, so I've no need for such mystical/mythical hocus-pocus.)

Sykes doesn't appear to know how to answer such questions, and if there was something in Dennis Wheatley's novel that elucidated these matters, then Sykes and his screenwriter didn't understand it or thought it irrelevant to the cinematic shocks they were crafting. Wheatley, in fact, viewed this take on his novel as nonsensical and obscene, and forbade Hammer from adapting any more of his works — was it perhaps a desire to please an unpleasable author whose name provided this film with much of its box-office draw that hobbled the filmmakers in their attempt to bring his thematic implications to their full, rancid blossoming? One salivates, imagining the blasphemous kink that strangers to the Christian tradition such as William Friedkin or that mind-fucking perv-daddy Polanski might have brought to the material — or, on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, any number of American filmmakers then working the horror-exploitation grindhouse circuit, filmmakers whose carny-barker commitment to telling a tale in the most whiz-bang, prurient manner allowed by the ratings board could only have enhanced what was pretty sensationalistic stuff to begin with.

As any thinking man will acknowledge, there's no greater horror — with all of its onerous long-term implications — than the tarnishing of fertility and innocence, the corruption of female flesh; thus, in a horror film centered around a young girl, one expects to see this concept carried through. In this particular horror, there's a kind of lump-throated eroticism — we're made silent conspirators in our moviegoer's desire to see bad things done to sweet little darlings. We cheer on the killers and monsters and demons from beyond, even as we recoil from them, because their dirty deeds not only give us our money's worth but provide us with the peek into unrestrained madness — the cathartic play-acting of our own worst impulses — that draws us to the horror genre in the first place. Hitchcock understood this; thus, he gave us that titillating peek at Marion Crane through Norman Bates' private peephole. William Friedkin understood this and gave us cherub-cheeked Linda Blair stab-fucking her twelve year-old muffin with a crucifix — porny sacrilege that upped The Exorcist's outrage factor as properly expected, while making us sweat at the sight of a film going places where only the sickest imaginations had dared previously. This transgression — this mirror held up to the onanistic cravings of the little demon inside us, one and all — is the sacred mission of the horror film, and any horror filmmaker who balks at the execution of his duty does a disservice to the genre and to its fans.

To the Devil is nearly torpedoed in its first inning by muffled sound (someone slams a car door or a guy gets shot, and it sounds as if someone had forced air through a wet paper bag) and fuzzy pacing — it takes awhile for it to kick in just who's who and what their relations to each other are. That's not to say that the film is completely without merit, though. It is rather interesting for horror buffs and Hammer completists; along with solid performances from a rather excellent cast, its allusions to something much deeper and revelatory in regard to the workings of a young girl's emergent will to unrestrained sexual power keep one glued to the screen, parsing the skeletal goings-on for clues to things that the filmmakers might have felt they were unable to come outright and say.

Cinematographer David Watkin — the Munkácsy behind Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle and its claustrophobic panoramas of the Jeanne Moreau character's private hell — pulls off no dazzling displays of fireworks here, but rather he impresses quietly via the heightening of the everyday, exemplifying that dry, overcast look that seemed to personify Britain on celluloid in the Straw Dogs '70s. Christopher Lee, of course, is — as always — Christopher Lee: he fluctuates effortlessly between the outward appearance of the learned English gentleman that he was in real life and a controlled madman who'll let nothing — not tears for the deceased, and certainly no one's fruitless appeals to mercy and propriety — get in the way of his doing the Devil's work. (And that, by the way, is a ringing endorsement.) He brings to one's mind thoughts of a courtly Bela Lugosi when torturing Catherine's father over the phone with apparitions of a coiled snake; in a flashback that explains the father's involvement with the cult by having him stumble onto his dead wife's body after she's given birth to Catherine, Lee's Father Rayner explains to him in no uncertain terms that he must do nothing to interfere with Catherine's destiny, and his resolute lack of any shred of human sympathy or understanding — "I will not have this sacrament profaned by any drunken tears!" — is so anti-heroic under the circumstances that it becomes positively heroic; the twelve year-old boy inside your head, still clutching a box of Goobers in the dark and rooting for the bad guy to get it, needs a villain worthy of his hatred: an evil fire-breathing dragon who's so diabolical and arrogant in its seeming invincibility that its inevitable toppling makes the hero's triumph all the sweeter.

Kinski has, in the autumn of her siren's years, expressed regret for having done so much nudity in her earlier films, insisting that she never felt secure about herself when baring beaver for Paul Schrader or for Peter Sykes here. This comes across in those performances, to a degree. Kinski's always maintained a kind of schoolgirl shyness behind her onscreen sexual image — no matter how nude she was or how coquettish she appeared to be, there was always a question mark behind it all, as if she were never quite sure, deep down inside, that she was really the enchanting goddess of unknown pleasures that men like her father and Roman Polanski kept telling her she was. She projects an enthralling uncertainty, a yearning to be validated by the viewer's gaze which, in the right role, often reads as a kind of humility that's very appealing in sex symbols; the very reason she was so effective. (Marilyn Monroe had it, as well.) Beauty combined with haughtiness is off-putting to all but a select niche of men who get off on dominatrices and that sort of thing; what translates to, and transfixes, the widest possible audience is said beauty neutralized by a kind of implied nod to chastity; a womanly submission to the gaze of the viewer. It's an acknowledgment of her equal role in the symbiosis of watcher and watched — hunter and target — at the heart of the male-female dance, which is to say, at the heart of the human dance, of life itself. Arousing us here despite the fat-wife nagging of our implacable Catholic-school consciences, Kinski hardly appears fourteen, particularly when stripped down to muff 'n bits. Blame it on the Devil if you like or, more appropriately, the God who created her: she seems one of those girls who's looked nineteen since she was born, the kind of preternaturally adventure-seeking jailbait kitten who's been getting men in trouble since the beginning of time.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Fan (Der Fan, a.k.a. Trance) (1982)

Bird Hunting

directed by Eckhardt Schmidt
starring Désirée Nosbusch, Bodo Steiger
Simone Brahmann, Jonas Vischer

Désirée Nosbusch was a mere sweet sixteen when she bared all in Der Fan as the cutest little cannibal ever spat forth from the land of Wagner and lederhosen. Despite it being in service of director Eckhardt Schmidt's obsessed-teen-groupie-turns-murderous plot, her nudity here is a paean to unspoiled beauty; Schmidt immortalizes his young lead actress at the peak of her feminine allure as indelibly as Elia Kazan committed to our collective memory the feral young Brando, or as wondrously as the photographs of Jock Sturges and David Hamilton aestheticized pubescent girls on the cusp of their own blossoming. There's never a moment in Schmidt's film where her Simone isn't naked in some way — he opens the film on her in extreme close-up, the most striking pair of bluish-gray eyes anyone's ever trained a camera on pleading with you not to break her little heart (we hear it pounding on the audio track), as she waits outside the post office to see if pop sensation R has responded to her latest fan letter. The mailman shakes his head and her eyes, framed by the face of a high-school Sylvia Kristel, comprise the sexiest wounded-pup breakdown threat you've ever seen. It's teenage heartbreak as S&M chic, recurring throughout Der Fan like the sex in an Emanuelle film. The "horror actress" tag doesn't fit — Nosbusch conjures up images of some model you'd find in a Helmut Newton coffee-table book, all remote goth sadness and European sophistication staring off bored as she lies naked across a grand piano in the middle of an abattoir.

As much as Nosbusch's jailbait tits and decidedly pre-Brazilian wax-era bush served as titillation points for the exploitation-horror market, they're just as connected to her performance as those eyes of hers or the beads of sweat that roll off her lip as she licks R's blood from an electric carving knife. Simone consummates — in her warped mind — the union between herself and R by sawing him apart with the knife after having driven the outstretched arm of a statuette through his brain. Her engorged, erect nipples as she ensures, piece by bloody piece, that he'll always belong to her offer unambiguous testament to her arousal — to how much the romanticism she perceives in their now-eternal "togetherness" punches buttons inside her crossed-wire stalker's brain that she couldn't possibly register any other way. Schmidt uses nubile girl-flesh — natural signifier of erotic pleasures, symbol of the promise offered by a woman's fertility — as a way to neutralize the horror in her acts and foreground our uneasy fascination with her conflation of eroticism and violence. Simone remains in the buff throughout the dismemberment because it's the film's true sex scene — Schmidt details the methodical cutting of R's limbs in grim mockery of the editing patterns of your standard movie-fuck setup; it's penetration of skin and bone and ejaculatory blood spray in a release of the tension he'd created earlier by denying us the focus on raw physicality we'd expected during R's seduction of her. For Simone, the willingness to murder the object of your desire is a declaration of how deeply your passions run. As with Asami in Takashi Miike's Audition (who she clearly influenced) and Sada Abe in Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (who clearly influenced her), she sees a mad beauty in all-consuming obsession; spiraling into realms undreamt of by most couples is just a higher level of devotion in a world that treats love as better suited to song lyrics than to realistic expectations.

Martin Scorsese's seminal Dantean fever dream Taxi Driver seems to have been a template here, only Simone's head is so swaddled in feminine reverie, she doesn't realize she's in hell. She stalks around town, an island unto herself, in her uniform of jean jacket and '80s Walkman headphones transmitting R's latest tape straight to her brain on instant replay. She declares her love for a man she's yet to meet via voice-over entries from her diary. She sits comatose at her desk in class while thinking about R; she hounds, then physically assaults, the mailman over her lack of a response from R; she makes a daily nuisance of herself down at the local post office, convinced that each day is going to be the day that R realizes she's the one for him and responds to her letter with his own declaration of unyielding love. She even wrestles with her own father when they watch R on TV and her father deems it crap. She imagines herself to be better than the groupies that she knows R sleeps with and then discards because they don't mean anything to him.

Simone slips back and forth between this reality and fantasies which see R bestowing upon her the personal spotlight she feels is her due, by sheer dint of the strength of her obsession with him. I pedestalize, therefore I am seems to be her driving motivation; there's got to be some way, she figures, for the universe to repay her for all the love and adoration she sends his way telepathically. Surely, this can't all be for nothing — her diary entries, her bedroom shrine to R constructed out of magazine clippings, the lack of friends or interaction with any boys her own age because she expends so much energy wet-dreaming about an unattainable image she knows only through the media she's consumed. She's heard his message to her in his latest single: a lyric, lip-synched directly to her TV screen over a dinky New Romantic synth-beat, about "that female moment" he's been waiting for — surely, R will validate her existence by making both their dreams come true.

Schmidt, of course, uses his B-movie cannibal narrative to indulge in the Great Postwar German Obsession — atoning for Der Führer — with sledgehammer touches such as the stylized SS logo on Simone's school bag and with a rather threadbare commingling of adoring masses who show up to, say, David Bowie concerts with the Sieg heil-ing throngs of Germans who pledged their allegiance to Hitler. The aim, as it always is with self-flagellating Germans seeking to earn their good-goy stamp of approval for Jewish-run media viability, is to critique unthinking adoration, to suggest that perhaps there's some flaw in the human character — definitely in the German one — that seems to well up from the subconscious of the people and offer hearts and minds on a platter to charismatic charlatans. What was true in 1938 Nuremberg, Schmidt is saying, is true in the West Germany of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: he superimposes R's pop-star publicity pout over a black-and-white sea of German arms in Nazi salute, then he gradually fades out the roar of a cheering Hitler crowd as one of R's songs swells on the audio track — the effect is that, for just a moment, it sounds as if they're cheering R. It's a connection that's been beaten into the ground fairly dependably ever since rock and pop seized control of the public imagination. (Even Bowie had infamously declared to Playboy, at the supposed height of his cocaine-paranoia period, that he'd have made "a bloody good Hitler" and that the dictator was "one of the first rock stars.") One can only take this to mean that Simone is intended as a nod to the brainwashed automatons who tacitly supported the Final Solution, and that the film's third-act veering into bodily disassembly and flesh-munching is merely, in director Schmidt's eyes, the D.A.F./Human League crowd's way of keeping up the traditions of their grandparents.

Schmidt precedes the shift of the film's final section with a brief stylistic interlude of Simone looking at us, moist in her childlike vulnerability, as she opens her mouth so that the camera — so that we — can move inside her. From this point, the film filters itself through her teen-girl delirium: Schmidt's focus directs itself to emphasize the details that a lovestruck girl would find important. R's seduction of her is exactly the swept-off-my-feet fantasy she daydreamed about in English class; rather than priapic "Stray Cat Blues" sketches of precocious underage pussy thunder-fucked into quiver-thighed submission, or sadistic acts of groupie abasement to make a girl show just how much of her self-respect she's willing to ditch for her favorite synth-popper, we get R gingerly unwrapping her and then handling her as if she were a precious vase he'd been bequeathed by his dear dead grandmother. We get him worshiping her supple teen flesh and that blessedly early-Eighties briar patch of muff, running his face ever so gently along her skin, intoxicated by its scent. We get R holding her body against his as if he wanted to pull her inside of him, a soft-porn folie à deux in celebration of the soul union they were destined for, despite fate's cruel campaign to Abelard-and-Heloise them into a lifetime of mutual loneliness and longing for what could have been.

Then, he gives her the polite but unmistakable post-coital groupie brush-off by making off to tend to some business and Simone literally screams like a child watching her father abandon her. R's committed the greatest sin conceivable in Simone's eyes: he's dared not to devote his life to reifying the dime-store romance novel in some teenage groupie's head; he's insisting upon his own needs, his own reality. The dream is shattered and, with it, what little of her sanity existed: she's just found out that she is, in fact, no different from any of the disposable R "band-aids" she'd set herself apart from. Mechanized gunshot sounds whooshed along to the minimalist beat that scored their consummation, as if to underline that R was signing his very death warrant by opening himself up to this crazed fan; a cheeky acknowledgment, post-John Lennon's murder, of the precarious balance between idolization and murderous envy — the need of the viciously ordinary to cut down a bird whose flight only reminds them of their own earthbound confinement — that all megastars walk with certain segments of their fan bases.

As Simone is a woman, there'll be no consequences for her, no late-night pangs of contrition; a junior-league slice of sugar-'n-spice is the last person anyone could picture sawing off a man's head and limbs, devouring him one mouth-wateringly sautéed body part at a time, and then grinding what's left of him — his bones — into a fine powder. (You watch her measured, wholly fastidious approach to disembowelment and you think, "Ah! There's that German precision at work.") Even as she returns home after God knows how long with a shaved head and neither explanation nor apology, her two lunacy enablers — parents-of-the-decade nominees, the both of them — are willing to shrug it off. She's gotten what she wanted: an eternal link to R via his seed growing inside of her and the furtherance of her delusion that he's forever hers. Simone claims that she'd have loved R even if he were poor and unknown but we know that could never be true — to female minds, it's fame and fame alone that marks a man as the worthiest possible mate due to the sex-god preselection and social proof on the widest possible scale that media enthronement affords him. Women, especially as we've untethered them from realistic appraisals of personal market value, grossly overestimate their own worth; to that cookie-cutter Facebook junkie ringing up cans of Vienna sausage at your local Walmart, there's no reason why a face on her television screen shouldn't pick her above all others, or why the universe shouldn't deliver to her lap a gift-wrapped realization of every rescued-from-reality Cinderella whimsy she's ever claimed as her princessly prerogative.

With Nosbusch as his model, Schmidt paints a mesmerizing tronie of adolescent not-quite-a-girl-but-not-yet-a-woman mystique. She appears a different age each time his camera fixes in on one of her pouty stares or dreamy-eyed glances or fits of pique. Schmidt gives us a scene where a businessman type gets into his car only to find that Simone is sleeping on the backseat. As she starts off, he wryly remarks that the least she could do is shut his door. She does so, brattily, but she actually seems playful for once — she seems to appreciate that this old guy isn't hounding her with questions, that he isn't threatening to tell someone about her or stop her from going her own merry way. For a beat or two, as she locks eyes with him, the invitatory spark of Nabokov's Lolita breaks across her face — it dies the second he grins back at her, as if she were abruptly reminded of her hypnotist's effect on men, a power she has yet to comprehend or grow comfortable with. She stands there, confused that she's come so close to letting someone in; she looks down in shame as if she'd cheated on R. In that instant, she regresses to a thirteen year-old who'd been scolded about her bad grades by a stepfather on whom she harbors a secret crush. Later, as she hovers over R, about to kiss him, she looks for all the world like a child ripping open a Christmas gift that she's hoping is the new doll she's been begging her parents for. It's a completely startling effect, one that comes naturally from both Nosbusch's tender age and her chameleon-like ability — the ability of all teenage girls, really — to intuit how young she should be in a given scenario and to project that flawlessly. She morphs before our eyes, makes us feel like dirty old men in sudden remembrance of just how budding and fawnlike Simone really is, and we're all the more aroused because of it.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Friday, July 31, 2015

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

Pandora's Box, Bikini-Waxed

directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus
starring "Stella May," "Lucy Tyler,"
"Brooklyn," and two whores named "Ava"

Sometimes, it's unwitting comedy that cuts the deepest — particularly as the chortles subside and the gaping stygian abyss you're left staring into mirrors the depth and circumference of a teen porn whore's hammercock-dilated asshole after back-to-back anal gangbang shoots. Don't laugh, chides the sober voice of that slo-mo realization looming like a thirsty Nosferatu over the recoiling damsel of your horrified mind: what you're looking at is a cultural self-indictment, a dispiriting gaze into a crystal ball that shows you brain-dead harlots as the flaming car wreck at the end of a road paved by an earlier generation's hopes and dreams; recipients of short-term cash and a lifetime's worth of regret as the vessels through which tomorrow's children — the very future of Western civilization — will absorb their values.

As I took in this Sundance Film Festival breakout about young girls "exploited" by the ever-booming online pornography racket, what I couldn't get out of my head, of all things, was that old shrink's bit about men having a "Madonna-whore complex" in regard to women. The complex nibbled mouse-like at the base of my mind as I watched Karly, 19, a.k.a. "Lucy Tyler," chirping blithely about her fear of committing herself to sex outside of porn, and then glowing like a new mom in the maternity ward over having done a "pop shot" with some manlet Dirk Diggler who told her she was his "favorite porn star." The complex grew hale, into the kernel of a fully-fledged thought, as I watched Michelle, 19, a.k.a. "Brooklyn Daniels," tell the camera about the extra hundred dollars she received for a Plan B pill after back-to-back "creampie" shoots, while treating the sixty dollars' change she got to keep after as a triumph akin to a Donald Trump real estate acquisition. The complex throbbed against the walls of my cranium as I watched Tressa, 19, a.k.a. "Stella May," relive the nuts and bolts of having had a golf ball-sized cyst on her fuck-worn labium drained. (Thankfully, she had the presence of mind to whip out her camera phone post-op, the better to give us the visual of her druggy-eyed agony.)

And as I watched Jade, 25 (and, thus, the "MILF" of the bunch), talk about her experience getting face-fucked for an ethnic-themed offshoot of the infamous Facial Abuse website, the complex effectively obliterated all other thought. The grimly uproarious highlight of the film — that unwitting comedy I mentioned earlier — is her being subjected to the Mexican-baiting insults of the Facial Abuse cameraman during her pre-fuck interview ritual. Then, directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus elucidate without blinking — damningly — just what else she's willing to go through for a fistful of fifties: rivulets of spit cascade down her mascara-smeared face as she's called a "puta"; a stiffened cock jabs the back of her throat in imitation of Norman Bates' butcher knife; she turns to the camera to inform her invisible audience of inveterate keyboard decorators that she's a "fucking whore" as instructed; she slurps her own vomit off the floor, unhesitatingly and, also, as instructed. (But, hey, at least she doesn't judge anyone for their tastes, as she's quick to remind us.)

Wikipedia explains the "Madonna-whore complex" as follows: 
First identified by Sigmund Freud, under the rubric of psychic impotence, this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes.
It also tells us:
In sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women's sexual expression, offering two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity.
In other words, it's the same old dysgenic Frankfurt School song and dance: pig-headed chauvinism and, of course, a failure to grasp female complexity lead to men shackling The Fairer Sex with the ball-and-chain of "oppressive" gender roles. Of course, the men of our collective past had a much stronger acquaintance with unsavory truths than their modern-day counterparts. Traditional Man often found himself unwilling to do with his rosy-cheeked wife — the mother of his children, after all — what he'd do with a prostitute or some trollop he'd picked up in a bar. Contrary to common "wisdom," however, this had nothing to do with him placing his wife on some "saintly Madonna" pedestal. No, what Traditional Man suspected was that the feminine grace of his "better half" was little more than the flimsiest of man-made parchments stretched over the mouth of a yawning psychological void — a parchment held in place by strongly enforced social codes that "limited women's sexual expression" by sheer necessity.

What he feared was that, underneath it all, his wife's essential nature was little different than that of the streetwalker or bar trollop. He recognized that women, like willful children, constantly sought to test boundaries they never had any stake in preserving; that they required the vigilance of an unwavering father figure — first, their actual fathers; later, their husbands — to keep a lid on their basest Eve-like inclinations for the sake of all involved. He knew that allowing his wife or daughter even a taste of the licentiousness and debasement she craved would, in time, spark a degeneration to her true unrefined state: an animal existence defined by craven hypergamous instincts, low impulse control, and a babe's preoccupation with short-term gratification. He knew that keeping this reined in was crucial to the maintenance of female fidelity and, thus, the ability of men to see women as wives and mothers; that it was absolutely essential to the propagation of the species, to the survival of his own cultural traditions, and to social cohesion as a whole.

Of course, post-Sexual Revolution™, post-the wholesale trashing of valuable social instincts like "slut-shaming," we've forgotten what our grandfathers took for granted. We've hardly a more lucid — a more dishearteningly "red-pill" — testament to this than our slowly-boiled-frog acclimation to the mainstreaming of porn as "just another" route to money-making and feminist self-expression. Take a gander at any of various sites like the ones our Hot Girls Wanted "stars" sell their long-term viability for; or, more to the point, browse the glut of sites boasting homemade submissions. Surf through the endless "selfies" and blowjob-in-a-parking-lot vids starring tomorrow's mothers from Anytown U.S.A. Watch as those "better halves" of the future drink piss, giggle through seminal face-squirtings in fitting rooms and public restroom stalls, sword-swallow over the cries of their unattended babies, and spread their razor-bumped gashes in macro close-up, not for the hundreds of dollars per video that "Stella May" and "Brooklyn" rake in, but for the fast-food validation of compliments and upvotes — the "how do you do?" of the social-media attention-whore era. Acquaint yourself with porn-for-recognition types like reality-TV single mom Farrah Abraham, who found the spotlight afforded her by MTV's Teen Mom series unbearably dim, so she figured making a "celebrity sex tape" with adult-video stud James Deen would brighten her profile. Make a list of pornified "I needed money for college!" Pollyannas and watch your paper run out: "Duke University Porn Star" Belle Knox, deposed Miss Teen Delaware Melissa King, ASU freshman and Backroom Casting Couch student ID-flasher Elizabeth Hawkenson, and numerous other randomettes shocked (I tell you, shocked) that the internet didn't keep their videotaped detours into Whoreville a secret.

Initially, Bauer and Gradus wanted to examine the porn-viewing habits of young men in college — undoubtedly, we'd have seen a finger-wagging jeremiad about "objectification" of women among today's youth. But what they discovered was the jizz-biz ubiquity of 18-to-21 year-old girls-next-door from strip-mall suburbias far and wide. Confronted with quite the rebuttal to the official narrative of women as beacons of chastity and common sense, the directors abandoned the original premise. Instead, they devoted their film to finding the culprit behind why a girl like Karly prefers sex with strangers for money since she imagines it to be magically free of the complications brought on by sex in relationships. ("Everyone's happy!" she says of the shoots.) The tone of the doc — in its calculated even-handedness, in its painstaking care not to show nudity or explicit sexual details — is every bit as solicitous over the well-being of girls it considers duped and naïve as producer Rashida Jones is when she expresses her doubts to interviewers that the "girls who are crying when they're being, you know, 'raped' on camera are always . . . acting and performing."

However, the culprit they unearth is none other than the girls' own greed and stupidity — their complete inability to think ahead or see beyond the pay from the next shoot. You watch Rachel, 18 and barely more than a week in the industry, crowing about the nine hundred dollars she just made for five hours of "work" and proclaiming that a-girl-gotta-do-what-a-girl-gotta-do-to-be-famous, and it's kindling for the raging fire in the pit of your gut that tells you women are such shameless, unthinking whores when left to their own devices — yes, even the "girls next door," even ones at the peak of their youthful ability to quicken pulses and land good-hearted men at the crest of their vitality and eagerness to love — that they'd rather make short-term cash for destroying their lives on camera than work an unglamorous job that offers neither fame nor attention. (The film throws in a clip of Belle Knox's CNN interview: her cretinous grin as Piers Morgan calls her "the most infamous student in America" says it all.)

You watch Tressa — the picture of average, a former cheerleader and pizzeria waitress who'd planned to go to Texas State University until she came across a Craigslist "modeling" ad — and your painfully logical male brain struggles to piece together how a girl goes from asking families "how was everything?" as she rings up their pepperoni-with-mushrooms for five to lying ass-up on a bed in cheap lingerie and sweet-talking a face on her laptop screen as the camera registers her uncleanliness by zeroing in on a box of douche in the corner. You take in this cringe-fest of diminished brain-cell count — Rachel "freestyling" about her cock-snorkeling to the beat of the miscreant hip-hop blather that's soundtracked many a Western girl's descent into craven self-annihilation; the girls' held-back-three-times-in-special-ed insistence that full-blown stardom is theirs for the taking; "Brooklyn's" moony-eyed declaration that, someday, rapper Drake is going to wife up her used-by-more-losers-than-a-Honda-Civic-at-Budget-Car-Rental stinkbox — and what's really funny is the sympathy for self-made trainwrecks that the filmmakers and Rashida Jones hoped to steer us toward.

Frankly — as Karly coos that she's treated like a "princess" by the fringe-dwellers who fill her Hot Pocket with their future-criminal DNA; as you note how gutter-skank plain these claimers of men's dollars are, even under troweled-on layers of greasy Missouri-stripper make-up that still can't hide their bad skin — you begin to hope that there's some stash of secret "fun time" videos with Uncle Bob that these family-disgracers "starred" in as little girls, or some hints of their acquaintance with Peru's most exportable delicacy that the filmmakers yanked out of the rough cut and shunted away. The part of you that still wants children someday, that still wants to believe in exceptions to the rule, makes you scour each frame for signs of some external factor — God, there has to be something — one could blame for these everyday girls' ninety-degree lurch into degradation that would have puzzled Caligula. But your gut tells you it ain't so; the lack of any such signs within the film tells you: it ain't so.

Next thing you know, you're in the downer second half of Boogie Nights: Rachel's coming to the world-shattering realization that "in the amateur porn world, you're just processed meat"; Karly's musing that it can't be good for you to have this much sex with a bunch of random guys as she prepares a douche — I sense a motif — at the kitchen sink. On his DVD commentary for that Altman-esque stoner's wander through the San Fernando Valley underbelly of the disco years, director Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned what he called the "'you know' girls": starlets he'd encounter on his visits to porn shoots who, when he'd ask what they thought or felt about what it was they were doing for a living, would mumble an "oh, you know..." that trailed away into a giggle or a staring-off into the distance. His prediction: that someday, all the pent-up rage behind those "you know"'s would come bursting forth in a paroxysm of long-simmering realization directed either at others, as in his Rollergirl character's roller-stomping of some college kid's head, or at themselves, as in a Shauna Grant/Savannah/Megan Leigh special right through the brainpan.

Sentiments identical to Anderson's haunt your head like an XTC chorus over the vacancies in these dimwits' eyes as they twirl their hair and utter banalities meant to disguise the reflection they cast every time they walk past a mirror: that of the inevitable shit-broke porn girl's slide into stripping and hooking; that of a future dark night of the soul spent clutching a crack pipe while making tearful calls home at F. Scott Fitzgerald's three o'clock in the morning; that of the one-time AVN Awards Best New Starlet nominee sucking black dicks for meth money in a ghetto motel room while pretending not to hear as D'Shawntray asks her "what up" with all those slash marks making latticework of the insides of her forearms. For girls imagining a sisterhood of the spunk-slurpers — some honor among skeeves — there's only the film's unflinching lesson in female nature: the crabs-in-a-barrel treachery of ostensible slut camaraderie, wherein vapid fuckholes try to numb the throb of having murdered their souls by puffing up each other's delusions of desirability, by nudging other girls down the same destructive path they've traveled.

And for girls imagining celebrity-enticing fuck-flick glamour? As a male performer tells us in the film, the staying power of industry cooter — like the low-quality skipjack it often resembles in both texture and smell after enduring the paid-fuck equivalent of six rounds with Mike Tyson — is blink-and-it's-no-longer-fresh: one to three months (worst case scenario, he says), a year tops. Riley — the former loser who became, in his words, "the shit" by putting up porn girls in his bare-walled Miami home and providing them with drive-thru nourishment (and probably dick) — frets about Tressa needing to shed pounds in order to fit the "teenybopper" look the biz sells, even though she isn't technically fat. "Brooklyn" describes her first shoot — getting "macked on" by some older "creeper" — as "kinda gross." Rachel works a teen-seduced-by-a-friend-of-the-family scene and sits there awaiting her call to perform in an "I FLA$H FOR CA$H" T-shirt, so doctor's-waiting-room glum and quiet that her "co-star" comments on it. Apparently, she's just come to that "processed meat" realization on the drive to the set — the depression on her face marks her as about ten shoots and twenty grams of nose candy away from one of those on-camera, life-didn't-pan-out-quite-the-way-I-thought porn-chick meltdowns relished by the same crowd that yanks its cranks to girls lapping the money shots of half a dozen men out of a doggie bowl or the Facial Abuse gag-and-vomit stuff.

Rachel complains later that there was nothing sexually arousing about the shoot, as if her personal enjoyment were the adult industry's raison d'être. "It's all about the guy getting off," she laments while squinting as if the light bulb that just clicked on in her head were too hot for the minuscule space it occupied and were beginning to sear her cranial walls. In her merciless self-assessment — the only such honesty we see in the film — she scripts the exit line for a whole subculture of predestined balcony-divers: "I'm dumb as hell and I need five hundred dollars and I'm just gonna get this random dude that I would never have sex with in real life..."

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At some point, Tressa stumbles upon the thoroughly Descartian presupposition that her parents might find out about her porn work. But it's an unconscious ratting-out of what her true intentions were all along — typically, for wenches of her perfidious bent, drifting into a policy of laissez-faire-with-the-derrière for all the world wide web to see was only either a cry for her family's attention or a "fuck you" shouted at them through the bullhorn of public prostitution. You wonder: exactly what kind of uncaring, distant father is she spiting by renting out to a rogues' gallery of pelvic battering rams the birth canal through which his grandchildren might make their entrance into the world? What kind of repressive, eternally disapproving harridan of a mother-from-Carrie is she distancing herself from by devolving into as much of her slatternly, come-one-come-all opposite as possible?

The film follows Tressa back to her hometown in the suburbs of Austin, Texas and what you find is a perfectly average pair of portly all-American support-givers: a mother who flips longingly through a yearbook filled with reminders of the small-town cheerleader her little girl used to be while sighing through all the interests — the now-lost opportunities — that she'd hoped Tressa would pursue; a nice-guy father who claims to be proud of Tressa no matter what (he has yet to find out about "Stella May") and who's clearly patterned his little chicken-fried snowflake after himself in sharing with her his love of the outdoors and in teaching her how to peel off buckshot and rock a mean pair of cowboy boots. One never doubts that her father's afflicted by the same side effect of the decades-long castration of Western men as most every other post-millennial dad, i.e. the wholly misguided compulsion to be more of a "friend" to his daughter than a disciplinarian, to not put his foot down too hard lest he limit that much-vaunted self-expression of hers and drive her to resentment and spread-eagle rebellion.

And yet — damned if ya do, dads, damned if ya don't — there Tressa is: spread-eagle for posterity via the era-spanning permanence of digital video with a resentment of her solidly middle-class, two-parent home that she can't even articulate. That's a middle-class, two-parent home from which she says she needed an escape. It's a middle-class, two-parent home that any fly-covered, malaria-hobbled Juanito from some brown-water shanty town on one of those late-night save-the-children commercials would give his malnutrition-deadened left arm for. We're talking a middle-class, two-parent home that represents a better start in life than half the kids right here in the U.S. of A have had, that represents one more parent than yours truly grew up with, for that matter. Whatever her father's mistakes, he and men like him have been the backbone of the world's greatest civilization since Thomas Jefferson got fitted for his first powdered wig — they're merely playing the hand they've been dealt in a game that they're only beginning to understand is now fundamentally rigged. Pamper your princess and give her lots of love and encouragement, they said, so he did. Don't undermine her with your views of how a woman should be, they said, so he didn't.

And how does Tressa thank him? She acknowledges the hurt that "Stella May" causes her family but brushes it aside as she refuses to let anything stand in the way of her yen to make money in as warped a fashion as possible. ("Nowadays, sex doesn't really mean anything," she'd informed us earlier.) She invites Bauer and Gradus' camera to push in tight on her mother's mortification as Mommy discusses her accidental introduction to terms like "BGB" (for "boy-girl-boy" shoots), or as Tressa offhandedly lies to her that the guys in porn don't come inside you even if it looks like they do. (Apparently, Mommy never figured out what "creampie" meant.) Tressa's mother tells her that she's gone from "positive to negative" and Tressa maintains that maddening "you know" of a non-reaction; she assures her mother, as if it were some genuine consolation, that they're tested regularly for STD's and her mother just shakes her head, silently asking her Lord Above what she's done to deserve this.

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Of course, it isn't long before one of the girls is comparing her "ordeal" to that of a rape victim — today's get-out-of-jail card for imbecilic Western whores seeking rescue from culpability via the Captain Save-A-Ho of our current mandate from on high, which holds that blaming a woman for the ill effects of her own life choices is tantamount to gassing her at the Dachau of some patriarchal fascism. It's like a virus in our national cupcake batter supply that's spread from girl to girl: Tressa blames her choices on her "sarcastic asshole" of an ex-boyfriend right before she casually mentions that she's now fucking his roommate; Rachel and others pout and sulk in their finest Veruca Salt imitations over the gall the jizz biz has not to have reconfigured itself into the fantasy of independent-grrrl empowerment that they expected it to be.

I suspect Bauer and Gradus were forthright about the exploited-angels theme they were going for; it materializes from their subjects' lips the exact second it begins to sink in that they've filed their lives away in the circular bin. Yet, the filmmakers contradict this premise with what their cameras capture, with the very factoids they serve up to us. We're assured that up to forty per cent of online pornography depicts violence against women and that graphic girl-"abuse" banner ads appear on many mainstream porn sites — "We're more places than McDonald's," says Jade — and yet, somehow, we're expected to buy the idea that our prick-dazed little Twinkies in stripper heels hadn't an inkling of how sleazy the industry would be. With just a couple of clicks, on the kind of smartphone you'll find glued to the hands of every girl in America, Rachel and Jade watch Belle Knox purring that she's a "feminist" who loves to see the misery in starlets' eyes as they're manhandled, then they watch her get strangled like a chicken in the hands of a farmer who's just had an argument with his wife — and yet, our coequals in intellectual ability and solid decision-making put on their best womanly about-faces to whine that, somehow, aspiring Sasha Greys don't know what they're getting themselves into.

What it adds up to is yet another crystal-clear exemplifying of women's follow-the-leader-even-if-it's-off-a-fucking-cliff imperative. Like some kid who tries out a figure-four leglock on his little brother because he saw his favorite wrestler do it on TV, a bunch of apples-of-someone's-eye — poster girls for what the old folks called "monkey see, monkey do" — decide to imitate strip-club-in-the-hood rejects they've seen getting skewered by convict dick on They dive headlong into it against the urging of all common sense and then wonder why their tongue-cleaning of men's exit hatches, or why a wizard sleeve packed with more swimmers than the beach in August, doesn't lead to some lavish life of Cristal in the jacuzzi and platinum-selling rapper husbands that not even the promotional puffery surrounding the porn biz has ever promised.

Of course, there's never any paying of piper bills for our Tressas because, no matter how close their debauchery's brought them to scraping hell's rooftop, there's always the cushion of beta supplicators — those chicken-hearted appeasers unlatching the gate for the stampede of our lipsticked barbarians — ready to lay themselves down and break their fall. Observe Tressa's consequence sponge of a boyfriend — he of the doormat's constitution that lets her tell him when to shave his beard, he of the clumsily rehearsed rationalizations that his walking sperm bank is merely a "hustler" and a go-getter, he of the guilelessness that has him sit next to his baby doll and tell the camera how he'd only fucked previous girls but, with his little porn star, he makes looove. And observe the respect that she shows him in response: she marks her ninety-day industry sell-by date by slipping into bondage work and lecturing him that he's going to have to be okay with her getting tied up and strangled for money for the next few years. Even Tressa's mom takes him in as if he were some unidentifiable insect that she'd spied crawling out of the bathtub drain: she asks him point-blank how he can date someone like her daughter.

Buyer's remorse casts a pall over the lovefest — he bitterly recounts his humiliation at a party they've attended because every guy there, he imagines, has likely jerked off to his future ex getting "punish-fucked for money." He nearly summons the scrotal mass to tell her the truth about herself — please tell me there's still some difference between me and a common hooker, she begs — but, luckily for Tressa, the call of the white knight is far stronger, apparently, than the need for self-respect or the drive not to stick one's dick in a petri dish of bacteria. Staring down the specter of life without the validation of a girl who can't do any better than him, he retreats back into his cuck-boy safe zone: "You're not a prostitute to me..."

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The loudest, heartiest laughter, of course, tends to be that which corroborates the maxim, "We laugh, that we may not cry." So it is with the guffaws men use to deflect the sobering realizations thrust upon them by web porn's wiping away of empowerment-narrative make-up from the crone's face of true female "liberation." Moms-of-the-year exhibiting fellatio artistry in full view of their childrenthis, Freud, is your "women's sexual expression" sans limitations. The by-now routine, and utterly nonchalant, porn-girl admissions to rutting on camera behind the backs of their boyfriends and fiancesthis is your "girl next door" without fear of social shaming or repercussions. Starlet Mia Malkova's mother accompanies her to a "blowjob audition" shoot and watches with laser-like focus and obvious arousal as her pride 'n' joy strips down and swallows the mini-me's of a man she just met — this is your civilization on fire as you titter and snort and five-finger-Mary your way through sights our ancestors could never have countenanced.

White girls whose smiles in a corner Starbucks would leave your mind abuzz with possibility, now anally defiled by "Mandingos" who appear as if they'd just gotten out of the big house, and it looks as if the world's longest turd has slipped out of her ass, changed its mind mid-way, and then keeps trying to go back in — this is your marriageable young women flinging their God-given worth and fertility, the very bloodline of your people, onto the raging bonfire we've made of every adherence to structure and order, of every bow to tribe and tradition that gave meaning to human existence. The unmistakable rapture on the face of a girl so adorably tiny, so inexpungibly button-cute, that it kills something inside of you to see her swan-dive into a glory hole-gangbang setup with the altered consciousness of a shaman in a trance — this, men, is your woman unfettered: the smirking whore beneath the mask of the Madonna. It's enough to make men from Santa Monica to Putin's St. Petersburg ascend to rooftops and shout unto the heavens: Back! Back, thou strumpets! Back to thy kitchen-shaped cages, thou eternal strangers to honor and self-respect, thou unknowing tools of satanic intent! Back to cowering in ecstasy under the boots and whips of thy fathers and husbands, thou destroyers of beauty, thou looseners of civilization's bonds, thou depraved niggers of womanly impudence!

A perfectly attractive girl flushing her sexuality and her life down the drain — a girl who, in a sane world, would be in a college classroom poring over James Joyce or practicing for her ballet recital — is the most depressing certainty the world has to offer. It's like watching someone knife a Vermeer or bash a puppy in the face with a mallet, like hearing some boob on his cell phone in the middle of Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2 — it's a flagrant disregard for God's handiwork, an offense to the very existence of small perfections, a demolition for demolition's sake of something meant to bring just a pinch more joy and serenity into this slaughterhouse for hope and optimism we call a world.

Weak or nonexistent fathering is to blame — the culprit behind the culprit, if you will — but therein lies your fundamental difference between the sexes. A man without a father in his life still has a fairly good chance of accomplishing something, of eluding the downward slope of self-abasement and horrifyingly stupid decisions in the name of money he'd just blow on a Scarface mountain of pixie dust, anyway. Conversely, a woman without a father is, instantaneously and without question, on a rocket-fueled collision course with the grimiest moral dumpster in her vicinity, without even the possibility of any other path or perhaps a divergence into something a mite less spirit-depleting. It's as if something just clicks within her little monkey hindbrain — something dark and unknowable, some primitive suicidal urge. It's as if not immediately spreading one's legs and fucking the biggest scumbag one can find the second one is of legal age were anathema to the female brain; as if ruin myself in the wildest, most spectacular manner imaginable! were programmed as the psychological go-to for every girl starved of a trice's worth of notice. That "Madonna-whore" isn't the hobgoblin of puny male minds, it's the head and the mouth, respectively, of the river of Western female progression.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .