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Destricted is a compilation of eight short films that “explore the fine line where art and pornography intersect,” according to the press materials. The concept alone is intriguing, and the lineup of directors includes luminaries from the worlds of cinema, painting, photography, installation art, and more. Quality-wise, the results proved to be a mixed bag, although perhaps this was to be expected: compilations always are. And in this particular case, an additional factor applies. Just as everyone has different tastes in movies, everyone has different tastes in sex, so the fundamental truism behind any film review—what gets me going is likely to be different from what gets you going—is even more true than usual here. With that said, here’s my report, based on a single late-night viewing.
The shorts by Matthew Barney and the Brazilian artist Tunga have much in common. Both center on outlandish, pseudo-mystical conceits: Barney’s involves a sort of ecological superbeing called “Green Man” having sex with a enormous earth-moving machine; Tunga’s stars an attractive couple whose lovemaking incorporates both the scatological and the alchemical, as “the man’s penis becomes mineral and the journey of fulfillment becomes one of penetrating destruction and excremental rebirth” (the press materials again). Both films are boldly conceived and imaginatively designed. Alas, both struck me as plodding, frictionless, and cinematically inert.
For their contributions, the photographers Richard Prince and Santo D’Orazio repurpose vintage porn clips: Prince degrades the image quality and adds spooky sound effects to turn an encounter between a buxom nurse and her patient into something weird and unsettling; D’Orazio scratches out the eyes and genitals of his trio of nubile lesbian lovers in a playful riff on censorship and voyeurism. These found-footage exercises are almost determinedly slight and limited in their effects, but they’re enjoyable enough for their running times.
Two of Destricted‘s eight directors are women, both of them painters, and their pieces are vibrantly visual: Marilyn Minter’s extreme close-up of a sensual female mouth appearing to smear goo all over the camera lens with her lips and tongue is a candy-colored treat, even if it wears out its welcome before its seven-plus minutes are up; Cecily Brown’s under-three-minute stop-motion animation of a frisky couple fucking is paced just right.
Destricted‘s strongest entries are the ones by Gaspar Noé and Larry Clark—who are, it may be worth noting, the only full-time filmmakers in the bunch (although Clark is of course an accomplished photographer as well). They’re also the longest: Noé’s “We Fuck Alone” clocks in at 23 minutes, Clark’s “Impaled” at 38. “We Fuck Alone” alternates between short snippets of a girl masturbating in bed and extended scenes of a young man working himself into a frenzy as he watches porn and has increasingly strenuous relations with a blow-up doll. The film is a disturbing snapshot of male lust expressing itself as frustration and rage, of sexual longing and loneliness curdling into something sinister and hateful. As usual, Noé’s central aim is to shock, provoke, and disgust; as usual, the potential limitations of his approach (and his tendency toward self-indulgence) are redeemed by his undeniable directorial skill: “We Fuck Alone” is an ugly film about an ugly subject, but it’s also a thing of beauty, a strobe-light assault of color, sound, and creeping-dread camerawork.
“Impaled” begins with a series of interviews Clark conducts with men between the ages of 19 and 23—the supposedly jaded-and-desensitized generation, the Mommy-what-does-it-mean-the-President-got-a-blowjob generation, the all-the-porn-in-the-world-is-just-a-mouse-click-away generation. Clark asks them questions about how they discovered porn, how they discovered sex, and how porn has influenced their sexuality. After having them disrobe for the camera, he selects one of the young men to be the “star” of the next part of the film. Then interviewee turns interviewer: the young man interrogates several X-rated actresses about how they got into the business, what they think of it, how it affects their sex lives, and so on. In the concluding scene, the young man gets to try out one of his fantasies with the actress of his choosing.
For “Impaled” Clark abjures his proven brilliance at crafting arresting images and adopts the look of a porn video: boringly bright, flat, and even lighting; art direction that begins and ends with the question of whose house is available for shooting in; framing, camera movement, and editing so merely functional that they bear only minimal traces of a sentient intelligence at work. But this is only surface. “Impaled” isn’t porn, or isn’t only porn, because no matter how much or how little it turns you on, it will almost certainly, and by design, make you think as well. (About porn, mostly, but that’s still thinking.) This is especially true of the last scene, which is the most pornographic, but also the most thought-provoking: We can tell she’s faking it, but how would she act if she wasn’t? Is he “being himself,” or is he too performing for the camera a little bit? Or does “being himself” have no meaning if his idea of what sex looks like has been shaped by watching porn? How can any of us even conceive of sex apart from media representations of it? In contrast to the more self-consciously “artistic” of Destricted‘s weaker offerings, Clark’s video unabashedly partakes of a porn aesthetic, but it doesn’t stop there. “Impaled” may look like porn, but it feels like art.
— Nelson Kim