(The 9th annual DOC NYC ran November 8-15 in New York City. Lead Critic Chris Reed was there so stay tuned for his review and interviews…)
Who needs flesh and blood in a companion? Haven’t we all been tired, at times, of the way our partner’s own mind interferes in our desires? Would it not be better to have someone compliant and, well, blank, with whom to share our lives? That, in any case, is one of the upsides of choosing a life-size silicone doll as a mate. S/he’s always there, always ready for you, and never talks back. You can project all your hopes and dreams on her/him, and s/he’ll give you the same smile, no matter what. Now that’s what I call true love!
As Silicone Soul, the latest documentary from Melody Gilbert (The Summer Help), opens, we meet a man named John, in archival footage from 2009, as he weds his “wife” Jackie – a sex doll – on an old Jerry Springer Show. An otherwise healthy man, sweet and gentle, John has decided that real women are no longer what he wants after his ex-wife cheated on him multiple times. Flash-forward to the present, and at 54, John still lives with Jackie, content as can be. Her extremities may be frayed and her joints falling apart, but love her he still does, because why not? Most of the people in his community recognize his harmlessness, and bat not an eyelash when he takes Jackie to the zoo or to dinner at a restaurant. There are the occasional hecklers, but overall, John seems content.
He is not alone in this tale of synthetic romance. There’s also “Davecat,” who lives with two silicone partners, one his wife Sidore Kuroneko and the other their submissive lover Elena Vostrikova. He enjoys polyamory and prefers to engage in such a relationship with “Gynoids,” as he calls them, rather than “organic girlfriends” (another of his terms). After all, this way the wardrobe choices are all his own, and sex is invariably on his terms. Davecat seems more self-aware than John, able to wax eloquent on the ins and outs of his sexual proclivities, especially when director Gilbert pushes him for details on the cleanup process. He is proud of his lifestyle, but can still give a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge as he explains its mysteries.
We also meet Stacy Leigh, a New York-based artist who used to be on Wall Street but now crafts tableaux with her own bevy of silicone models (all female but for one male), occasionally mixing in some organic souls, as well, to make her photography even more unsettling. And then there’s “Ben” (not his real name), whose wife is stricken with cancer and has given him permission to pursue an affair, in order to meet his sexual needs, as long as the partner is synthetic. Finally, there are the good folks at Abyss Creations, makers of the prototypes that our main subjects purchase for upwards of $6000 (and more). Though they claim at one point that they would never add robotics to their product, the movie ends with just that development. Uncanny valley, here we come!
To each his/her own, and far be it for us to pass judgment on any of the people in this documentary for their life choices. Nevertheless, the reality of John’s, Davecat’s and Ben’s arrangements disturb. Seeing the quasi-lifelike, but designed-for-sex, dolls in their homes as they kiss, cuddle and more is sometimes nausea-inducing (for me). It’s also fascinating. I wish we had more subjects, in fact, than we do, to further explore the subculture and see how deep it goes. I also wish we more time with Leigh and her work, since she provides an additional layer of analysis of the dolls’ allure. The push-and-pull of repellant attraction – more surreal, even, than uncanny – is what makes Silicone Soul so mesmerizing, even if Gilbert stops just shy of saying something truly profound about the human condition. Still, she gets close enough, and if you can stomach the sight of skin on plastic, then watch on. The robotic dolls may one day replace us, after all…
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)