(Off-Ramp contributor Ray Greene is in Sundance, filing daily dispatches on the film festival. Warning: there is sexually graphic description in this entry. )
James Franco has played both Allen Ginsberg and James Dean -- rather well, in both cases. But if Franco's experimental cinematic side projects are any indication, the rebel he's closest to in the deepest recesses of his dark little soul is very different from the two he's played onscreen. His heart, or rather his DSLR camera, is really with pop art provocateur Andy Warhol -- another artist who leveraged his celebrity to create an unconventional cinema all his own.
Like Warhol, Franco seems less interested in creating films per se than he is in using the medium to engineer "happenings" in front of the lens that have their own weight and implications. And like Warhol, Franco seems obsessed in part with celebrity as a kind of found object. A mainstream star, his work as a director and producer frequently (but not exclusively) seems to ask this question in the margins: What is this bauble called "stardom"? And what is it good for exactly?
For one thing, it's good for launching offbeat projects with a variable success rate -- a trait on ample display this year at Sundance in Franco's two premieres here as a producer, both of which explore sexual transgression, or rather the cinematic idea of transgressive sex. Directed by Christina Voros, "Kink" is an intriguing but ultimately somewhat tiring documentary about the fetish filmmaking industry. The much more layered and intriguing "Interior: Leather Bar" offers a genre-defying blend of narrative, documentary and experimental approaches, and is co-directed by Franco himself.
Of the two films, "Kink" is by far the more conventional, save for the subject matter, which Voros (and perhaps Franco) assumes will shock most viewers. With the exception of a single follow-up interview, every frame of "Kink" appears to have been shot within the confines of Kink.com, professional home to the creators and maintainers of the most popular fetish website in the world. Housed inside the massive old National Guard armory in San Francisco, Kink.com is the industry leader in BDSM cinema -- that's "Bondage Domination Sadism and Masochism" to you and me.
Voros wisely shoots "Kink" in a verite style that is as unerotic as possible. Unless you're a fetishist yourself, do not expect to be titillated by what you find at Kink.com, which Voros depicts as a typical and perhaps more than usually cheerful business environment, where the daily product just happens to be movies about men and women being bound, gagged, and raped by machines.
"Kink's" thesis is contained in Voros' two best scenes, which bracket her movie. In her opening, we meet entrepreneur Peter Acworth, Kink.com's founder and owner. As he takes us on a tour of the empire he's so obviously proud of, his congenial British-accented guidebook chatter is suddenly interrupted by agonized screaming, echoing from afar through the cold blue armory halls. Acworth seems genuinely confused about how to proceed. "Oh, ah, I guess they're shooting? Should we take a look? Although... I'm not sure if you're allowed to film there..."
By "Kink's" end, after Voros has perhaps too subtly suggested there may be larger implications to BDSM cinema, we are watching a bound actress cry real tears in a tight close-up that suddenly goes to black while the voices of the technicians around her ready the next shot. "Just another day at the office," both scenes seem to say. "Or is it?"
Unfortunately, the main body of Voros' film is taken up by interviews of the Kink.com filmmakers and crew members, intercut with behind-the-scenes footage of Kink.com video shoots. "Kink's" interviewees are uniformly articulate, which is a fascinating insight itself initially. But to a woman and man, they all say very, very similar things about the work they do, and their cumulative screen impact becomes numbing over time.
Kink.com's eager filmmakers also seem a bit deluded about their creative output. They claim they don't "objectify" the human body. They insist what they make is "not pornography." They assert their work is not about "rape and abuse." Well, if creating a commercially available erotic vignette in which a woman or man is tied up, suspended in mid-air, and then anally penetrated by an industrial machine wearing a dildo is not pornography, there is no useful definition for the word -- and that is not a moral judgment but a semantic one. And if staging scenarios in which women are attacked by mask-wearing gangs of muscular men and then forcibly taken against their will is not grounding an oeuvre in rape and abuse, we may need a new vocabulary there too.
Next: Travis Matthews and James Franco reimagine Friedkin and Pacino's controversial gay noir "Cruising" in "Interior. Leather Bar."