“Lazarus doesn’t pathologize the locked-in gaze, he lets us feel it.”
In a pornographic film, what’s gratuitous is not sex but complexity and involvement. An erotic film can confuse us with its seemingly intense interest in character and research, and its curiosity about social themes. For instance, the soft-core dramas Perfectly Legal (2002) and Voyeur Confessions (2001) have an intricate use of legalese and scientific terms; in particular, the latter explores the psychology of voyeurism in a way I’ve never seen. Both films were released by Indigo Entertainment, a company known for its unusually ambitious erotica, in which scriptwriting is less about maintaining a plausible “front” than developing a narrative. As one Indigo writer has said, “my standard for a good story has always been, ‘If you took out all the sex scenes, would you still have an interesting story here?’”1 These movies may be considered soft porn, but they show a more relaxed and forgiving “sensual world” than most studio films. The skin we see on network TV tends to be airbrushed, carefully screened of texture; by comparison, the gently marked bodies in Indigo look fleshy and real.
Among the more interesting players in this sector are Flower Edwards, a performer whose cheeky resilience suggests a young Mae West; Marklen Kennedy, a Ralph Bellamy-type stooge who can be dragged by the tie into any corner; and the classically elegant Kelli McCarty, who is generally cast as a dancer or bendy yoga teacher. There is also some wonderful acting to be found. Lauren Hays, the lead in Perfectly Legal, is as sensual and “touchy” an actress as Susan Sarandon. Hays is able to dramatize the transition into a sexual scene by slowing down her movements and seeming to turn inward — her gestures of self-attention compare with Sarandon’s in Atlantic City (1980). Best of all is Catalina Larranaga, who has given some of the most focused, committed performances in any recent film. Larranaga has been the star of several films for director Tom Lazarus, including Voyeur Confessions and House of Love (2000). These are unique investigations into prostitution and voyeurism, which look closely at exploitation while immersing us in its effects and pleasures. In each film, Lazarus makes the unusual choice of letting us feel the fantasy without sealing it off from real or emotional consequences. The conflicting aims of the films are the result of trying to “deal with odd, borderline sexual themes”2 : to combine the puzzling and the obsessive with the familiar sequences of erotica. Lazarus often places his subjects within a documentary frame; in both films, Larranaga is a film-maker who enters a world where women can only assert power through exhibitionism. As she becomes drawn into the lives of her subjects, her views are expanded but also disturbed. Her camera is a peep-hole, into which she peers anxiously, absorbing all she can before brooding over its implications. Thus all moments of titillation are set within this tense emotional context, literally threatened by darkness.
House of Love begins with the shot of a prostitute tottering out of a car; both her makeup and the expression on her face seem smudged as she limps, sneering, towards the camera of Melinda (Larranaga). It’s a scene from Melinda’s documentary on streetwalkers; after completing it, Melinda decides to take on the issue of high-price call girls. She argues that all prostitution is “filthy, degrading, sexually exploitative” work, and the film makes it clear this is not a feminist position to be toppled easily. However, at the mansion run by madam Darby (Kira Reed), there’s no sign of filth. The three prize girls are regally presented, almost as household deities: dressed in white, under a canopy, or coolly sunning themselves on the deck. Most often they recline on sofas or against pillars, and the whole place is elegantly turned out, with little parlors, spotless white beds, and rooms designed along specific themes. By contrast, all the males in the film squirm before the camera and have problems with eye contact: if there’s one thing these women can control, it’s how they’re looked at. Each prostitute has her signature style of movement; Darby selects them on the basis of star billing, so that the whole business is constructed like a studio system. A couple of the girls are extremely intelligent; they perform a complex analysis of clients’ personalities, turn-ons and responses — they’re critical of messy and sloppy or anxious men. Even though Pamela (Kelli McCarty) is contemptuous of her clients, she brings a certain amount of artistry to her work. In a flashback, she boldly seduces a rock musician by simply strolling backstage mid-concert. Leaning against a wall, she manages to hypnotize him by slowly and insolently presenting herself: not as an irresistible object, but just as a manifestation — a force of nature that happened to sail in. They embrace while he swoons: gratefully and almost submissively. It’s all very impressive, but occasionally the camera comes in close to look at her face: how does she feel doing this? How do any of the women feel, as they put on expressions of feigned innocence or involvement? The camera examines Darby as she defiantly claims pride in her work — although she doesn’t show obvious vulnerability, there’s at least a trace of uncertainty. Rosemary (Tracy Ryan) seems to have the least scruples about her position; Darby markets her as a pure creature, “all class and brains,” the woman men want to leave their wives for. Sunny (Susan Featherly) is a confused girl with a troubled smile, who professes to love all her johns.
However, the personality that interests us most is Melinda. Despite her sensitive line of questioning, her attitude towards the girls is problematic. She’s intimidated by the confidence of the prostitutes — we can hear her despairing tone of voice when they talk about their success at luring men; at other times, she appears too interested in delving into their experiences. Now and then, the camera suggests the eye of a client sizing up girls, but for the most part, it indicates Melinda’s standpoint. Her “objective” view is in fact an ambiguously cool and muted perspective — the silently disapproving observer who retreats when upset by findings, and is wounded despite claiming to be neutral. The distance she maintains from her subjects is complicated — as a result, the film’s scenes of seduction tend to be murky and brooding, reflecting her quiet but aroused gaze. Melinda squints uneasily through the viewfinder; at night, she reviews the footage with a troubled expression. When she sneaks into the mansion’s private viewing room, she witnesses a display of sex which shocks her — yet this “secret” scene has already been designed with the gaze in mind.
Melinda inhabits her workspace easily, in glasses and track pants; she creates a peaceful nook for herself, a Japanese-style environment with square tiles and light wood. (Larranaga is one of the few current actresses who is not constantly “on show,” unless the scene demands it — she has an introverted but sensual femininity, reminiscent of Geneviève Bujold.) While the subject of her research is often tawdry, Melinda can’t deny she is personally threatened by sex workers and their power over men. Not since Impulse (1990) has a film investigated the psychology of a woman who is simultaneously attracted and hurt by the idea of prostitution. Melinda is a professional woman, obsessed with the image of a world of submissive girls who successfully cater to men — potentially “her” men. When looking at prostitutes, it’s she who feels marginal and obscure in relation to them. They are all shiny glimpses and surfaces; she is merely an amorphous and nearly invisible identity — a dark, hidden presence behind the camera. We realize that prostitutes are not only a sore point but a regular preoccupation for Melinda when we discover her ex-husband Ethan (Jim Tin) frequently hired escorts, and their marriage broke up as a result. As an advisor on the film, Ethan also visits the mansion and ends up sleeping with Rosemary. Rosemary is a fascinatingly inscrutable figure, who doesn’t seem to “feel” much, but always comes out triumphant. Her seduction of Ethan is carefully managed; she attracts him by staging several ideal glimpses of herself, while preserving an aura of innocence throughout. Rosemary inspires love in her clients, and is merely gracious in return; while Pamela struggles to carve out an interior life, Rosemary seems to have no problem being pure all the way through. She’s almost like the character of Jacqueline in The Story of O, the model who stirs up passion while remaining carelessly aloof — and thus inspires fantasies of transference in other women. Like O, Melinda is saddened because her intelligence and lack of artifice are made irrelevant by a superb level of acting — which doesn’t even appear to be an act. Melinda is ashamed of her open-book life, and jealous of the mansion with its many rooms and the mysteries it encloses. She keeps her ex-husband around because of their shared ideas, but when both of the male crew succumb to the house’s women, she has to feel that her brand of intellectual, humanist feminism has lost.
Throughout the film Melinda tries to be honest, giving us a close analysis of her own thoughts. Speaking direct to camera, she films a series of journal entries, making resolutions as she speaks, then questioning and revising her point of view. However, one subject she doesn’t discuss is the intensity of her attachment. Melinda is unable to forget about sex — she can’t not be implicated in the drama of prostitution, and the cycle of seduction and betrayal. She can’t stop thinking about prostitutes and their reactions, but this is no delightful daydream, along the lines of Belle de Jour (1967). Depravity is not a luxurious fancy, but a real, wearying gaze which forms in the head and can’t be driven out. Aside from Rosemary (who has some qualms about giving up painting but little conflict otherwise), all the women struggle with being the objects of voyeurism; the sex workers are unable to detach themselves from the gaze. Pamela, though supremely effective at her job, is angry and clenched, while the most damaged is the ditzy and seemingly high Sunny, whose farewell to the camera is an unfocused “I love you” — a generic offer to all future clients, delivered in a dazed, Valley of the Dolls manner.
The film offers a couple of alternatives to the drama of being looked at. First, there’s a likeable, self-effacing male prostitute — a little lower-priced than the girls, but still a deluxe model. When she meets him, Melinda has a discreet, charmingly shy response; she turns all proper and girlish as he describes his skills in detail (she is later, experimentally, seduced by him.) Another unusual twist involves the issue of same-sex workers. When Melinda casually wonders if the mansion services gay clients, Darby hesitates strangely before answering, and the film treats her reaction as closeted and weird. As it turns out, Darby’s secret is that her long-term, devoted lover is a woman — and thus remains totally distinct from her work. Most of the prostitutes are artists, screenwriters and voracious readers, whose creative drive gets turned into something they’re not entirely satisfied with, but proud of, after a fashion.
This is one of the few films which looks at a dispassionate female observer as she enters a new milieu, and struggles to intellectualize it. Thanks to Larranaga’s extraordinary performance, we can feel the analyst probing “objectively” under the guise of research, while secretly being aroused by the threat of the illicit. As Melinda (right) says, when you “set out on a prescribed journey,” your reactions often get complicated — and how many films present themselves as the result of a woman’s enquiry? House of Love examines not only the relationships of prostitutes, but the emotional responses of people to the sex industry. As one prostitute advises, “Don’t be afraid of us pros, we keep your marriages together . . . just think, if it wasn’t us, who would it be?” There’s only a slight flaunt and provocation to this statement, but it intrigues us; the film is extremely interested in all kinds of closeted pleasure, which includes the bravado of prostitutes as well as the repressed curiosities of the public.
In the end, Melinda decides to leave her film unfinished — the feeling of addiction to a gaze, or an image, is not a problem that can be solved or limited. The movie closes on a broken note, as Melinda’s failed attempt at a relationship leaves her frustrated and disconnected. The final shot is a self-taping, in which Melinda walks away from the camera, leaving our gaze trained on an empty screen. This bleached, white-gray field is somewhat sterile-looking: it’s as if the gaze is being confronted with its own strained exposure, with only a blank square to fixate on.
Lazarus has said that he uses prostitution as a “metaphor for all closeted, denied, undiscussed and undealt with sexuality,”3 but it’s his next film, Voyeur Confessions, which makes explicit the link between porn and foreboding. This film is remarkable for the way it lets heaviness and dread creep into the erotic image; a dismal sex act is seen through bleary, “screened” eyes — much more so than in, say, Happiness (1998). An insidious mood is sustained from the beginning, when we enter a center for psychological research. It’s a quiet location: a Japanese-themed campus, with uniform buildings and pleasant grounds. Colleagues can stroll down a path, sit by the lake, or listen to the sounds of trickling waters; nevertheless we get the impression that the place is austere, with just a little ambience. Lisa (Larranaga) is putting together an ambitious treatise on sexual psychology. She has a “working definition” of voyeurism that she wants to test by filming interviews with self-confessed voyeurs; her arguments are not only exciting but seem to hold water. Once again Lazarus takes the device of the “unreliable narrator” in a fascinating direction. On one level, Lisa is conscious of her agenda in pursuing this project (“I guess I . . . want to find out why I’m so interested in doing it”), and sees the research as a way to explore her own uncertainties. Lisa is a more expansive character than Melinda in House of Love; she’s sensitive and generous, with a non-prurient interest in others’ vulnerabilities. She’s not merely a stitched-up person investigating sex; she’s a relaxed professional, with a balanced life outside of work, and a ticklish fascination with other people’s habits. However, much of our attention is given to Lisa as a viewer of voyeurism. In general she adopts a warm, humanizing voice, which her subjects find hard to resist; occasionally, she is visibly inhibited by descriptions of sex. If something is said which surprises or disturbs her, a slightly dorky expression crosses her face; when we see this “sensible” glance, we know we’re looking at an offended interviewer. What’s behind her subdued, professional reaction? What does it mean when she says nothing, or if she responds in a carefully even tone? In several scenes, the camera stays still, while her voice and presence retreat and seem to become silently judgmental. We can feel Lisa shifting when her voice grows uneasy, or trails off. Larranaga keeps showing us these subtly introverted responses: the slight tightening of an expression, the audible “pursing” of the voice.
However, as intensely as we look at Lisa, our gaze doesn’t compare to the fixation of the voyeurs. Lisa’s first subject is Dave (Jim Tin, right, again playing a hapless man prey to urges), whose voyeurism sabotages his intimacy with women. Like most of the interviewees, Dave is highly articulate and knows his predicament only too well. He acknowledges his over-fixation with images, and is able to convey the shabbiness of his excitement and arousal (the “primal” and “dirty” feelings) all too clearly. His dilemma is clearly verbalized: there is “so much time spent looking for voyeuristic opportunities . . . I don’t want to go through my whole life doing this.” While this interview takes place, a series of voyeuristic glimpses intrude upon the confession. During each narration, the film opens up a dark, distant window, to try and replicate the subject’s point of view. Lazarus manages to make these scenes seem like threatened images, which could be removed or discovered at any second; a guilty beat seems to accompany them. Most of them come with a layer of heavy, synthesized sound, which results in a David Lynch-like feeling of blurring or slowing, as the voyeur tries to lose himself in his vision. At the same time, the pornographic image is tilted directly towards us, for our delectation. So, as viewers, what are we to think? When we get drawn into these scenes, are we becoming absorbed into a particular style of looking? Doesn’t everyone feel like they are voyeurs, on some level? The movie depicts a too-intense gaze which locks the head, and divides it from the body, so that what’s happening behind closed lids is more accessible than the real. Lazarus features so many different gazes as part of the spectrum of voyeurism: from innocuous home videos, to semi-consensual looking, to the “cheeky” but unsettling phenomenon of upskirt voyeurism, to the compulsive, despairing gaze which disables relationships.
What helps is the script’s willingness to talk through these topics on any level. Even the most fanatical subject admits he appreciates the chance to open up his realm to intelligent discussion. After each interview, Lisa offers a lucid commentary on the issues at play (“They think in very specific images of sex, very visual,” “I was particularly impressed by the strength of his memories, he gets lost in them.”) The movie has a surprising degree of comfort with highly theoretical talk — in fact, Lisa urges her subjects to define and formalize their individual looking process. She encourages them to foreground the unreality, or transaction, of the experience, focusing on “bought images” or “staged” scenes. Her concerned, reflective face is effective in introducing ambiguity to the voyeur’s mindset, rather than totally remaking it (“Last time . . . I asked you to try to bring some intimacy, some humanity into your voyeurism, what did you come up with?”). Lisa is an accessible intellectual, unafraid of making basic points that we rarely see in movies (“I think that when a woman studies sex, men get threatened.”) We witness a range of responses to her project, from the jokey reaction of her dubious boyfriend, to admiring workmates (“I like your process”), to doubts within her own institution — the latter leads into the subject of marginality and not being taken seriously in academia. On several occasions, we see Lisa talking over issues with a tough-minded female colleague (itself an unusual gesture — there’s a level of professional camaraderie between women not regularly seen since the ’40s.) This colleague takes up the position of sceptic to Larranaga’s sensitive analyst, stressing the “moral or legal issues,” and advising her to “look at the behavior in the context of society.” In turn, Lisa describes the visual preferences of her own boyfriend, and stresses the normalcy of sexualized looking. There is a strong emphasis on Lisa as a thinker, whose theory is being developed based on clinical observations (“I like to isolate the sexual behavior, isolate the basic dynamic”); she is challenged by peers and constantly suspicious of her own motives. Her responses are being worked out as we watch her dictating notes, or reading aloud while typing.
Perhaps the most interesting subject is a psychotherapist, who is fully aware of the extent to which his libido is triggered by taboos, and can elegantly theorize his own situation. His aim is to have a “better understanding of this whole behavior I seem to be swept up in.” One of his formative episodes occurred as a teenager, when he witnessed his brother’s sex with a girlfriend, and was able to imagine that “she was making love to me at the same time Mark was making love to her.” In which case, what role did he inhabit? The actor or the acted-on? Both? In turns? Voyeurism involves not only a fixation but a complex process of identification. Another interviewee, Christopher (Kevin Bravo), is a website designer. An evocative narrator of his obsession, he has decided to give free rein to it — he rather brilliantly describes it as “giving blood to my fantasies.” By constructing an apartment block with secret peep-holes, he literally compartmentalizes his vision into windows, with college girls in one corner and lesbians in another: a kind of X-rated Rear Window (1954), that we never get to see. What these voyeurs have in common is that actual contact is difficult and finicky for them — too hard to stage. The only zipless sex in this film is observed from a safe distance.
If the men here are darkly compulsive, then the women at first seem trivial and flouncy. Unlike men who are sucked into a deep vortex of fascinating addiction, they initially seem to have an easy or indifferent relation to the gaze. One girl says she exposes herself out of physical vanity or boredom, but is fairly disinterested overall. However, as more female partners get interviewed, we find increasing confusion and hurt: wives and girlfriends whose poses and bodies have constantly been dislocated to resemble a stored image. This is a series of women dragged into exploration and replication of a scene which doesn’t involve them.4 One sequence shows Dave with a prostitute whose evident stiffness in mimicking a held image depresses him, along with her disinterest in tediously elaborate games. (It’s a much more convincing scene than the one in Carnal Knowledge, 1971, where Jack Nicholson is serviced and complemented by prostitute Rita Moreno.) Even Lisa is tensely affected by the discussion: there are shots of her edging into the camera and taking the subject’s place after he has left, trying to absorb the impact of revelations.
As one subject says of his fantasies, “Telling you about it makes me a little uncomfortable, but being there, seeing it, doing it . . . ” However, the point of being an obsessive voyeur is that there’s no “being there”: even as it plays, an image is already being enclosed and recollected. Memories are furtively socked away for later use: stored away as screen-like images. When a man walks towards his video camera to turn it off, it’s as if the eye is being switched off at the socket: a pale blue flash on black. For men who feel that the gaze has an “oppressive hold” on their lives, Lisa suggests incorporating voyeurism into a “healthy” relationship. Yet attempts to unseal the voyeuristic life are constantly intruded on by memorized images. One of the film’s themes is that, for many people, only secretive imagery is attractive: what Christopher calls “sneak-shooting” is a turn-on, and it doesn’t require any equipment, other than the eyes. These men feel prey to a certain way of looking (which may be familiar to most of us.) They look to grab as much detail as possible, so that they can save and pore over the vision afterwards. It’s almost like secret eating or smoking: having something to feed on or light up later. They want no physical contact, since it disrupts focus and the ability to absorb detail. They feel blocked by actual touch — it stops the visual stream from being activated. Nevertheless, the psychotherapist does make a stab at change. He identifies his central issue as: “Am I willing to put the energy into [my wife] that I put into being a voyeur?” At the end, he enjoys a staged experiment with his wife, where the elements of voyeurism are integrated into real sex: “the use of those visual techniques, the distance between us, framing the image as much as the reality . . . the mirrors, playing to the image.” He competently and provocatively analyzes his relationship with the gaze, realizing that the key factor is distance. As Lisa correctly sums up, what grips the voyeur is “secrecy . . . sex, all together.”
Voyeur Confessions has a core interest that some might regard as seamy — but even though a couple of the men embody swinger clichés, this movie is less about a subculture than a general commentary on looking. The film’s slightly cheesy signifier of arousal is a shot of billowing curtains at a window; this isn’t so much a symbol of sex, as the feeling that some sensation has quietly and inevitably entered the room — wherever you look, you can’t keep porn from grabbing at you and arresting you. Lisa herself embarks on voyeurism with all the self-consciousness of a person deciding to take up alcoholism, although whether she wants to experience the male gaze, or has a more direct relation with the visual field, is unclear. Cruising in her car to look for couples, she nearly gets caught when the police pull over. At that moment her windshield is smeared with red light, and she gets what every voyeur hates most: exposure, in an incriminating spotlight. Yet Lisa’s analysis of her impulses is useful to us, because of her perceptiveness. Since working on the project, she finds she can’t concentrate on an actual relationship; whenever she tries, “my mind was with my telescope.” What Lisa recommends to her subjects is a greater awareness of where the mind is being kept — and what objects are kept with it. Where is the mind when we look at things? Where is it lying — what does it live with? Is it engaged with the present moment, or is it looking to store an image? Lazarus examines the extent to which voyeurism affects all our lives, whether as a viewer, or as a woman considering where to place herself within the gaze.
Which is why these two films expose something which is elided in mainstream movies and TV. Unlike “serious” adult cinema (Carnal Knowledge or Kinsey, 2004), these movies are not prudishly removed from arousal: there’s no distance or difference between a sexual and non-sexual image. Lazarus doesn’t pathologize the locked-in gaze, he lets us feel it — the voyeuristic snapshots are part of a commercial stream of images. There’s an unaffected use of theoretical talk combined with porn imagery. And unlike high-production TV and blockbusters, Lazarus’ films don’t attempt to ignore what they see. A series like Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI is intensely voyeuristic, with its toned corpses and nubile sections of flesh, laid out on ice; the skin and the image are devoid of texture, and the pornographic implications are buried. In Voyeur Confessions(above), Lazarus deliberately used grainy stock and visibly pixilated images to suggest hidden footage. In addition, the skin in his films has a fairly raw, unprocessed texture — which might alarm those used to airbrushing. It’s an unfortunate fact that most bodies in porn appear imperfect compared to the deluxe Bruckheimer image. What is frustrating about so much of current cinema is that the camera pretends not to see what it does: instead of the long look, there are near-subliminal shots of bodies — a covert glance to which one ascribes one’s own intention. Ingeniously, directors of film, music videos and advertising are able to create the suggestion of a peeping Tom, by using sneaking and “incidental” glimpses of skin. However, because nothing is openly stated, any sexual allusions must be attributed to the observer’s guilty eye. It’s a careful mix of secrecy and sex. A recent Bruckheimer production, Déjà Vu (2006), starring the stalwart Denzel Washington, behaves as if it’s a straight action picture — yet even here sneak-shooting is a factor. In this film, scientists have invented a camera which takes 360 degree views of the past. This monumental device is used to solve a murder — but also to take some very exclusive skin shots. The camera, which turns out to have a highly interested lens, travels down the torso of a “pure” woman (that sense of invasion is important), which happens to be gleamingly poised, at the right angle. The only problem with these shots is that they are too short: rather than signaling their intent, they linger subtly and delicately, so that everything appears to be implied. But it’s enough to grab onto. By replicating the stolen, “hot” look of the voyeur, shots like these turn the spectator into more than a mere witness. On some level, the audience believes that they are not only looking: they are stimulating the scene to occur.
- Brian Marshall, “Leland Zaitz: Writer, Director of Development for Indigo Entertainment,” Softcore Reviews, January 13, 2003. [↩]
- Lazarus, who veers between writing for mainstream films (Stigmata, 1999) and soft-core, is one of the more fascinating figures I’ve come across: a former director of psychological student films, as well as a crusader against “anti-sex and anti-erotic” pornography, in favor of “believable and therefore, erotic” scenes. He deliberately chose porn as a “fertile canvas for intelligent, and relatable . . . human stories” rejected by studios. See Brian Marshall, “Tom Lazarus: Writer/Director/Producer,” Softcore Reviews, June 17, 2003. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Body Double (1984), De Palma’s pornographic take on Vertigo (1958), aimed for lethal comedy; Voyeur Confessions is a more affecting version of the same subject. It links the porn industry with a man’s attempts to duplicate an ideal sequence; it also demonstrates the consequences of an unrelieved focus on looking. [↩]