There’s a wonderfully bonkers Philip José Farmer novel in which Tarzan and Doc Savage, under different names, fight through the jungle with raging hard-ons that ejaculate every time an enemy is killed. The violence is scabrous, outlandish, always penetrative. Late in the book — it’s called A Feast Unknown, from 1969 — the pulp heroes, nude, face one another on a narrow bridge, their penises swollen like a duelist’s sword. As a Star Wars parody, it beats the hell out of Spaceballs.
“Beating the hell out” is the primary concern of our entertainment culture, where the Expendables, all swollen, veiny pulp heroes themselves, can slaughter dozens and still win a kid-friendly PG-13. But stick a banana in Stallone’s camo pants, and only HBO would dare show it. Farmer’s parody, like its contemporaneous Bonnie and Clyde, made excruciatingly specific the correspondence between brutality and carnality. Why, then, 45 years later, are the pleasures of rough sex still outré enough that it is being endorsed/defended by James Franco, who probably has “outré” on his business cards?
Franco is a producer of Christina Voros’s sprightly doc Kink, which goes where the punch-up-your-sex-life Fifty Shades books don’t: Out of the intimacy of committed partners and into the assembly-line production of BDSM pornography. Except the proprietors of Kink.com, the San Francisco–based porn empire, favor something like auteurist stroke videos, or at least as close as they can get with four hours of filming time.
The doc shows us the directors of Kink video gushing about their creative freedom, often on set, where we see them appraising the slapping/choking/machine fucking going on just outside our view. Early on, one stops a scene and calls over a model — Kink’s term — who is playing the role of the dom in a ropes-and-fists beat down. “If you’re afraid you’re going to hurt the sub, we’re going to have shit for content,” the director says. “He has a fucking safe word, all right? You don’t babysit him. I babysit him.”
Then he demonstrates the art of erotic punching, something like a pitching coach talking an ace through a splitter. Throughout this, the sub waits patiently, trussed and erect.
At its best, Kink plays like a workplace comedy. We see HR, where two young women schedule models for shoots, their chatter a giddily profane riff on what you would hear at any temp agency: “He’s been weird, lately,” one sniffs. “He’s being a vagina hog. He won’t get out.”
During a tour of the Kink building, the San Francisco Armory, we’re told that a restroom has been left just as it was in its National Guard heyday, except for the addition of some glory holes.
Of course, to enjoy this stuff, you need to be able to stomach the raw bleats and cries of those models. The film is never explicit, by which I mean you never see the tools (anatomical or mechanical) as they do their actual plowing, but you do see those parts, and you do see the gist of that plowing. But the shouts might shake you: They’re gasping, desperate, the sound of people driven to wail rather than of performers pretending to.
At least, that’s what Kink and Kink purport. Representatives of the company expound with great satisfaction on camera about the way Kink captures a “real response,” how they “don’t fake anything involving pain.” (Cut to a nipple-clamped woman being jackhammered by a dildo the size of a bowling pin.) Models interviewed for Kink attest to getting off, and Voros includes much talk of pain as the guide to “a sexual-euphoric place,” but there’s no way anyone can prove there’s no acting: Just like with lovers in real life, you have to take the orgasmic’s word for it.
The doc is often terrific fun. But it is a work of observation and advocacy rather than journalism. In one scene, Kink founder Peter Acworth assures us that the company will not create “anything that implies rape.” Later, we see a crew working on a scene in which three hooded dudes bust into a living room, throw a hood over a woman, and tear her clothes off. Even the model involved seems skeeved out by that one, so the director changes course, opting for a gentler, clearly consensual gang bang instead — albeit, one that ends with the model being chased by the dudes through a parking garage. Since the doc is haphazardly constructed, and since its creators aren’t interested in making distinctions, all this seems contradictory. It’s only in hindsight that the literal truth of what Acworth was saying becomes clear: The site will never imply that the performers were actually raped, and, yikes, who would ever think they would? This country still has an OSHA, after all.
Kink spends a lot of time celebrating the limit setting that is key to BDSM sex, so it’s frustrating that the filmmakers aren’t clear about the limits of Kink. (Many viewers will presume that Acworth is simply lying.) Still, some of the advocacy work here is powerful, especially when a Kink director offers this advice for anyone upset by what the site offers: “Just say to yourself, ‘This isn’t for me, but this is for someone.’ ”
More persuasive still is an offhand moment Voros’s cameras catch as a bunch of men and one female model head off for a scene. “Everybody saw ‘No face slapping,’ right?” the director asks. The men nod, and then they off they go, to beat the hell out of her, according to the rules she has set. Why is that perverse, while the Hollywood fantasy of spraying bullets at every fucker in the room isn’t? How about a Kickstarter to make Expendables 4 a Kink production, a sequel in which the original’s subtext is sweatily a-throb?
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