Bright Lights Film Journal

A Tired Bag of Tricks: Nick Broomfield’s <em>Fetishes</em>

Literal commodity fetishism in the far fringes of New York’s S&M scene

In the mid-’70s, I spent some time in Los Angeles in the hetero s&m subculture. My best friend was a straight woman who got sick of being an insurance claims adjuster and made a radical career switch at 21 to professional dominatrix. She had met some people in the scene who told her she could make a lot of money with minimal outlay of time and energy or personal compromise. She hired me as a sort of protector who’d lurk in the next room while she did her sessions, in case one of the tricks “turned,” as she said. Being 6’2″, black, and an immediately impressive personality, she was popular on the circuit, and I listened attentively to the crack of her whip on the flesh of an ever-expanding army of men. Later we’d have a good working-class laugh over who her clients were – mostly white lawyers, doctors, bankers, a department store owner, and others of the moneyed classes.

Her friends became my friends, and most of them were in the scene as either paying submissives or paid dominants. At first the fantasies were intriguing and egalitarian – from Big Bad Wolf/Little Red Riding Hood scenarios to adult babies to “roman showers” (don’t ask), there was something for every taste. But there was also something depressing about it – I’d always thought the lure of the fetish was pleasure, but most of what I saw had a joyless, mechanical quality as blows were dutifully meted out, grimly endured, and paid for. Unlike the gay  S&M scene, which seemed to grow out of a natural dynamic without the need for guilt-drenched secrecy or a furtive monetary payoff, this was true commodity fetishism, with the dominants play-acting a role that usually had little to do with their real feelings or lives, and the submissives experiencing a kind of resentful relief.

So it was with special interest that I watched Nick Broomfield’s Fetishes. This documentary, made for HBO but probably too hot for many of its markets, is an inside look at Pandora’s Box, a Manhattan club that caters exclusively to wealthy submissives. The operator is Mistress Raven, an ex-Long Island housewife, who allowed Broomfield to shoot two months’ worth of interviews and intimate footage of groveling tricks and commanding dominatrixes. Raven says she’s too “burned out” to do sessions herself, but employs a coterie of female sadists who appear in the multiple masks required in the business – stern teacher, aggravated mommy, abusive nurse, blackmailing schoolgirl, Ilsa-like Nazi guard.

The tricks bring an imaginative assortment of fetishes to Pandora’s. A black man plays out a plantation fantasy with heavy racial abuse. A man with “genocidal” tendencies works out his anxieties by being ridden like a pony through one of Pandora’s many chambers and having his head shoved in a toilet. A Jewish doctor requests a Nazi scenario. But not every session goes smoothly, and occasionally a trick indeed “turns.” As a result of a screening error that invokes the wrath of Mistress Natasha, a hunky middle-aged guy in boxers suddenly bolts when he realizes he’s involved not with a female wrestler who will let him easily pin her but with a dominant trying to “abuse” him.

Besides their fantasies, and more important for Raven and Pandora’s, the tricks bring money, and plenty of it. Sessions start at $1,000 per, but as Mistress Catherine says, her “good tricks” will give her $2,000 to $4,000 if she asks. The film opens with amusingly archaic footage of Betty Page, in garter belt and bullet bra, engaging in mock-spankings with some of her gal pals. This innocent fakery is supposed to contrast with the literal darkness and authenticity of Pandora’s, but in fact it highlights a deeper similarity. Pandora’s is, in its way, as phony as Betty Page’s spanking; there’s something disingenuous about the women’s refusal to acknowledge what really drives this business and their involvement in it: money. These sexual psychodramas are ultimately no more interesting than any other business transaction in a society where everything must have a monetary value attached. The submissives are more forthcoming but don’t tell us much that hasn’t been heard before by anyone who’s been listening.

The women expound on the dynamics of  S&M and their personal passion for it, but scenes of these “mistresses” cruising the Internet looking for dates, or moaning that they haven’t “been with a man” in months, tell a far more conventional story. They’re actors but can’t admit – or don’t know – it. Mistress Natasha says “I get so energetic when I do this,” but her interplay with the submissives shows more boredom than anything else. Mistress Catherine’s claim of having ten “serious” slaves is undercut in a wistful conversation about her ex-husband and her ability to have a “normal” relationship.

As usual, the truth comes from those with the least power in the dynamic, in this case a true submissive who bares her soul in a way none of the dominants do. Maria is a rarity at Pandora’s, a female masochist who comes to get abused. She works by day as a “professional submissive” to men, a trait she views as an advantage. “I’ve used this asset to pay my bills,” she says with refreshing candor. “It’s a wonderful way to make a living.”

Broomfield’s films seem to work in direct proportion to his own engagement with the material. When the stories are real and even riveting, as in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, the effect is powerful indeed. With Fetishes, the  S&M subculture seems too foreign to him to elicit any more insight than one might find on The Jerry Springer Show. The final scene of the mistresses comically chasing him through the dungeons confirms this.