Won’t you be my pony boy?
Film festivals serve different purposes for different audiences. For distributors, they’re a chance to trawl for marketable product. Filmmakers and actors get a chance to hobnob with their peers, observe audiences observing their work, and with luck get it into wider release. Cinephiles go to discover new genres or directors or to test opinions about familiar ones. For marginalized communities, whether queer, ethnic, or kink, film festivals have a different appeal as a kind of communitarian “home movie.” They’re an important record, a reinforcement of value, a snapshot of where they are at that moment in history. Aesthetic achievement, “quality” so-called, though always welcome, is necessarily less important than celebration, exploration, and sheer visibility.
An event like New York’s CineKink Festival (October 21-24, 2004) is best viewed in these terms. This is not about brilliant cinema, or even marketable product. The shorts, features, and docs on view offer, with varying degrees of artistry, a window into the BDSM and associated communities. Despite this apparent insularity, fests like this are worthy of notice by anyone interested in alternative byways of culture and sexual expression. The fest, curated by Lisa Vandever, in fact bills itself as “the really alternative film festival,” an accurate moniker. This article looks at some of the low- and highlights this year.
Eric Marciano’s Alice in Footland is a 60-minute video devoted mainly to foot fetishism, with a sprinkling of bondage, hot wax, and a few other titillations thrown in. Riffing on the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice takes its heroine into a netherworld not of smiling cats and tardy rabbits but of stiletto heels and two-foot dildos. Porn/erotica is based on wish-fulfillment, and this Alice’s plaintive “I wish someone would be kind to my feet” is addressed by a variety of masked submissive men and accommodating women. “Anything goes here in footland,” says the Red Queen, though that’s not strictly true, as most of the action is centered on well-photographed toe-sucking and arch-licking. The film veers uncomfortably close to the old hetero model of porn, with the men mostly in jockstraps juxtaposed to choker close-ups of shaved beavers and a nagging sense that the hardcore dyke sequences, which make up most of the action, were made with straight audiences in mind. The silly costumes and masks, and aerobicized bodies straight out of Playboy, reinforce the notion that this is standard straight fetish porn dressed up as Dionysian erotica.
More ambitious is Edith Edit’s witty Dominatrix Waitrix, a techno sex fantasy in which a dom helps abused restaurant servers by replacing them for a day with what she calls “a machine vixen to guide them through their drudgery.” However, this “vixen” spends most of her time in sex play with the people she’s replacing, though she does scream “Now give me my fuckin’ tip!” a few times to startled diners. Dominatrix Waitrix has the look and feel of an elaborate performance piece, and in fact its stars — particularly lead Sache, a self-described “technoshaman psychonaut” — are known for their performances around Chicago. Unlike Alice in Footland, though, this one features convincing polymorphic perversity; it ends in a charming clusterfuck that includes all manner of erotic fun.
Less enticing is Alexander Henryk Wisniowski’s My Leather Jacket, a documentary profiling a wide variety of leather folk. Wisniowski was Mr. Ottawa-Hull Leather 2002, and he posed an identical set of questions to every participant, including such inanities as “What’s your most important piece of leather?” There’s little probing here, and the responses could be those in a Miss American pageant: “I want to feel that I’ve made a difference.” The rough photography and an interminable credit sequence with hand-scrawled names of what seems like every leatherperson in history make this a difficult watch. Some have said My Leather Jacket has value for its “oral histories,” but there isn’t enough insight here to support such claims.
Another disappointment is the feature Mango Kiss. Sassafras (!) and Lou are two dykes who make the trek to SanFrancisco to become performance artists and engage in some creative nonmonogamy in the robust dyke leather scene. Complications ensue when Sass becomes a reluctant dominatrix and Lou gets the hots for their neighbor Leslie. An early voiceover informs us, “This is a cautionary tale,” and the caution appears to be pretty conventional — monogamy is best, no matter how cute the neighbor girl is. There’s lots of SM play, but it’s mostly farcial and hard to believe despite all the chrome and leather accoutrements. Location shooting and a vivid color palette capture the visual charms of San Francisco, and the actors have their moments, but ultimately this film is too theatrical for its own good. In an epilogue, Lou tells us that “Sass and I went on to make a wonderfully self-indulgent performance piece,” — an unfortunately accurate description of Mango Kiss.
Much better is the Canadian feature Crossing. The title refers not to a life transition as might be expected, but to cross-dressing, the secret fantasy of otherwise straight, conventional Daniel. His father exacts a death-bed promise from Daniel to take over the family business, which is low-level gangsterism, and make it respectable. This is difficult for a man who spends much of his time dreaming of donning a garter belt and mascara. Daniel is attacked in an alley by a kind of “gender criminal” — a dyke with a huge scar on her face — who somehow divines his secret, force-feminizing him at gunpoint: “Say ‘I am Jennifer Kosinzski!'” Trying desperately to balance his “normal” existence with an involvement with a blackmailing prostitute and her unsavory friends, Daniel increasingly unravels. In perhaps the film’s most affecting scene, Daniel, still in makeup, talks unsparingly to the woman he thinks he loves, who is actually engineering his downfall, about the lure and terror of his fetish. Crossing is a complex but never confusing thriller with a twist. Solid performances, strong atmospherics, and a perverse streak that never panders make this fetish-fueled drama a striking entry in the neo-noir canon.
If the Web is any indicator — and it’s surely as good as any other — ponyplay is becoming ever more popular, though it still appears to be unknown, or at least unacknowledged, by the mainstream. Elizabeth Elson’s Born in a Barn is a model documentary on the subject, a respectful study that pays homage to the subculture without sugarcoating or sensationalizing it. The film works as both a primer for the uninitiated and a celebration for the participants. It looks at several couples and individuals at rest and play, perhaps most notably “Trigger,” a 40-something real estate agent who holds outdoor seminars for enthusiasts, in which he explains that “ponyplay can be foreplay but most do it for power exchange.” Scenes of Trigger, who’s robust but no Atlas, trotting around with women on his shoulders have a quirky sweetness. The varieties of roles, from handler to various “breeds” of ponies and horses, are discussed, as are the kinds of activities that occur in this world, which may or may not include sex. And the roles seem surprisingly fluid, with power exchanges often working both ways without the hard top/bottom dichotomy idealized in SM fantasy. Some players dream of living full-time in “ponyspace” — the film shows “human horse stalls” being built for this purpose — while others treat the whole thing as sexual theater, to be experienced episodically before returning to “real life.” The overriding feeling seems to be the urgent desire to be released from the complexities and disappointments of being human — “The needs of a horse are simple and basic,” says Trigger. The world could do worse than operate on this esoteric group’s “animal principles” of “honesty, loyalty, and trust,” as the dire events that followed this festival on November 2 show.