COMES NATURALLY #27
Spectator Magazine - November 11, 1994
(c) David Steinberg
Exit to Eden; Raffaelli's Non-Rabid Prosecutor; Tussling with Layne about Natural Born Killers
In case you haven't made the mistake of going to your local theatre to check out Exit to Eden, yes indeed, this film is fully as bad as every straight reviewer from Janet Maslin to Edward Guthmann is saying it is. S/m has entered the mainstream -- joined the ranks of household words right along with condom, vibrator, and anal sex -- to become fodder for the worst of jokes, which is what Exit to Eden is. The culture moguls stand ready to co-opt any and everything. Corporate sponsors will be easy to find for the revolution, as long as there are enough consumers watching it on tv. Someone put up good bucks to make this film because they believed that the curious would turn out to see anything smacking (sorry!) of s/m, the new kink on the block. Perhaps they were right.
Exit to Eden exploits every s/m stereotype and cliche' in the book, to the hilt. Prancing Barbie Doll dominatrices, the worst of all types of LA silliness on Club S/Med vacation. Worse than stupid, some of Exit to Eden is downright offensive. Take the main subplot, in which a cute, cocky, upstart of a young bottom (Paul Mercurio) easily substitutes his own sexual script for that of his dainty top (Dana Delany) by simply offering her what she has always really wanted anyway -- the chance to let go of the reins of control -- via a sensitive kiss and a little semi-attentive head.
The keep-'em-barefoot-and-pregnant message used to be that every ambitious career woman really wants nothing more than to be a loving wife and mother, once she gets her worldly oats sown and suffers a few hard knocks out there beyond the white picket fence. The Exit to Eden version is that there's nothing a dominatrix wants more than to be cuddled and taken care of once she gets past her adolescent rebellion against her unfeeling father and her neurotic need to express her insecurity by trying to be in control of everything in her life, particularly in sex. Scratch a woman, find a helpless little girl wannabe. Gag me with a spoon!
The weirdest part is that all this pastel whip and chain frou-frou somehow grows from the seed of an Anne Rice novel, which means that in the midst of pure unreality, unbelievable characters utter short discourses on the nature of surrender, power, and the pain/pleasure shuffle that actually have something to say. The juxtaposition of bits of serious meaning in this otherwise silly farce is enough to create feelings of sheer vertigo and the urge to rush for the vomit bag.
Giving up on the film after the first five minutes or so, I tried to imagine what all those Americans out there are going to take home from it. The let's-gawk-at-the-perverts crowd will, I suppose, take home a few belly laughs and confirmation of all their dismissive preconceptions. But what about those with the s/m-curious bug roaming loosely or strongly in their blood and nowhere to go but to kitsch movies to get some handle on what they feel? (Interested? Me? Nah. Just wanted to see Dana Delany....) Seems to me that they might just get a little tingle of confirmation here and there, something to keep the flame alive despite all the reductio ad absurdum.
The scene where Dana Delany has Paul Mercurio stand with his arms spread and his wrists tied above him, where she teases him by rubbing her naked body against him and then taps his butt a few times with her hairbrush, has just enough sexuality in it to suggest that there could be something to this situation if it were only done right.
Rosie O'Donnell, for all her ridiculing one-liners, also suggests the possibility of being interested in the underlying emotions of dominance and submission if they could be separated from all the stilted language and overblown fashion statements. The man assigned to be her slave (at the end of the film he turns out to be a corporate CEO -- a competent, decent man worthy of her pursuing a relationship with him on the outside) really does seem to understand about the pleasures of devoted, attentive service -- suggesting new possibilities to his mistress but never trying to circumvent her desires with his own. Eager-to-serve men in the audience might go home from this flick with a healthy little buzz.
Good modeling for female tops? Sorry: none. Iman has some decently haughty attitude, but never gets beyond the posturing. Dana Delany is (sigh) truly hopeless. For example, when Mercurio -- supposedly a slave -- makes a production of showing off his supposedly irresistible body, Delany correctly notes that his problem is that he thinks he deserves to be treated differently from everyone else. What does she do to teach him a lesson? She -- all together, class -- treats him as someone special. Send that girl over to Mistress Kat for some woman-to-woman talk on how to treat a pretentious submissive....
Actually, Rosie O'Donnell is not half bad as a fun-loving top, despite her pretended disinterest in all things kinky. She even looked good to me in her leather get-up, although I think we were supposed to think she looked ridiculous. The woman knows more about these things than she lets on, methinks.
Now there's a film: A woman (or girl) tries to be interested in straight sex, playing out all the regular girl roles and so forth, but ends up topping every guy she's with because she's so clear about who she is and what she wants while the guys are all young, confused, and unsure of themselves. She keeps having great times, but feels bad because she thinks she shouldn't enjoy that sort of thing. The guys, meanwhile, love giving her the control they don't really know how to assert anyway, but also feel bad that they enjoy being "emasculated" in this way. The film ends (1) happily when something comes along to convince everyone that what's important is not fulfilling preestablished roles but acknowledging who you are and going for it even if it's counter-conventional; or (2) tragically when someone discovers what's going on and shames or punishes our heroine and her boyfriends back into clonish obedience to the Way It Spozed to Be.
The film could be called The Natural. Oh, yeah, right, I remember. Robert Redford, baseball. Never mind, forget the whole thing.
Oh, one last thing. I definitely enjoyed watching Edward Guthmann (my most favorite Chronicle movie reviewer) actually apologize for not knowing more about s/m in order to be able to knowledgeably critique this film. "I'm no expert in S&M," Guthmann confesses, "but I gather its appeal is in the mystery of appearances, and the theatricality that comes from dressing up in leathers, surrendering to fantasy and playing well-defined roles that involve the exchange of power."
Is this a phase of cultural arrival, or what -- when not knowing the subtle nuances of s/m becomes an intellectual, not to mention psychosexual, failing?
Ron Raffaelli's Prosecutor
Photographer Ron Raffaelli has agreed to a plea bargain to conclude the legal case that at one time threatened him with conviction of felony sale and distribution of child pornography. Raffaelli has chosen to plead guilty to possession of child pornography rather than try to win a reversal of all charges in a lengthy and expensive appeals procedure.
As a result of his misdemeanor conviction, Raffaelli will pay a fine of $2000 over the next three years, and do 300 hours of community service. Ironically, his community service will be to produce photographs for the Delano Chamber of Commerce to use in promoting Delano to tourists.
"If I had the money to take the case to the higher courts," Raffaelli told me, "I could win this case." However, given almost certain conviction in Delano (Municipal) and Bakersfield (Superior) Courts, Raffaelli decided to take the plea bargain and get on with his life.
I called the Kern County District Attorney's Office to get their point of view on Raffaelli's case. I eventually got through to Terry Pelton, the DA who handled the case, once Pelton returned from what his message machine unselfconsciously described as a "well-deserved vacation."
Expecting to find a rabid, Bible-belting anti-porn crusader, I was surprised when Terry Pelton turned out to be a reasonable sort of guy -- a man who claimed to be a defender of the First Amendment and appreciative of Raffaelli's talent as a photographer, as well as being genuinely concerned about the use of children by adults to further their own sexual fortunes and agendas.
"He's a pretty good photographer," Pelton said of Raffaelli, long before I revealed to him that I had been Raffaelli's friend for years. "His photography is all high-quality stuff. He is very artistic. The quality of his workmanship is excellent." He paused before adding rather ruefully: "If only he could use his talent for good."
"[Raffaelli's] older, commercial work is all high quality," Pelton continued. "The work he did for rock stars [Raffaelli spent years photographing album covers for many top name rock groups of the 70's] was very creative, very quality-minded. As for his pornography -- well, there's only so many ways to have Tab A go into Slot B, but all of it was well photographed and a lot of it was very artistic."
High praise from the man who seemed determined to put Raffaelli away on a number of substantive and superfluous charges.
I asked Pelton how he felt about pornography in general. "Stuff with adults," he said immediately, "I couldn't care less. I don't have a problem with that. I'm not into this thing that it's exploiting women. Adults know what they're doing [when they agree to model for porn]. If there's a market for it, well it's a free enterprise country. I don't even like the word pornography; I'd rather call it sexually explicit material."
Pelton goes out of his way to tell me that, although he feels committed to enforcing laws prohibiting possession of child pornography, he holds no interest in putting Raffaelli out of the porn business entirely. He insists that his office returned as much of Raffaelli's photographic material to him as possible, partly because they want to see him make enough money to pay his fine.
"I have no interest in curtailing his First Amendment rights if his business is legitimate, and it is. I don't want anyone telling me what I can and can't read, except," he adds pointedly, "when it comes to the exploitation of children."
Pelton, who spent five years prosecuting local sexual assault cases, says that his only concern is the welfare of children and the emotional damage that can come to children when they are pressured into posing for child pornography. Even children who may not feel pressured at the time of their modeling may find themselves deeply affected emotionally by the experience years later, he says. When I asked him why possession of child pornography should be a crime he said that since it's not entirely possible to shut down child pornography at the production level, part of the battle had to be to take away the market for these materials.
Under California law, Pelton explained in detail, photographs of children are illegal if they show children engaged in sexual activity (including, he lists, "intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, anal-oral contact, masturbation, bestiality, sadism, masochism, penetration of the vagina or rectum by any object") or if they "exhibit the genitals for the purpose of arousing the viewer or show excretory functions in a lewd or lascivious manner, alone or with others of the same or the opposite sex."
I ask Pelton if any of Raffaelli's photographs show children engaged in sexual activity of this sort. Well, he hedges, not exactly. Indeed, he points out, most of Raffaelli's photographs were taken prior to passage of the current laws, laws that were passed in 1981, 1984, 1985, and 1987. (Raffaelli's nude photography of children was done in the 70's.) There were among Raffaelli's photos, he says, photos of a boy touching a woman's breast, of children touching each others' genitals, and of children in what he calls "provocative poses." (He mentions one photo of a girl bending over in front of a mirror with her "buttocks and vaginal area exposed.") Is he saying that a child touching a woman's breast, or bending over, is engaged in sexual activity? No, he admits, not exactly.
In fact, Pelton admits, he's not sure that any of Raffaelli's photos could be prosecuted as child pornography. Why charges were brought against Raffaelli for sale and distribution of these photographs was not clear.
The photos that were the heart of the charge for possession of child pornography, it turns out, were several Swedish magazines that Raffaelli owned with photos of "children under the age of 14 engaged in sexual conduct with adults and with each other."
Raffaelli had told me about these magazines earlier, magazines that he himself finds repulsive and that, he says, published several of his photos without his knowledge or permission. He was aware that owning the magazines was technically illegal, he tells me, but never imagined that they would actually get him in hot water. "I wanted to keep them," he explained, "as a record of where my photos had ended up."
Maybe Pelton was putting me on, taking the Constitution-protecting-DA line when confronted by an inquiring reporter, but I think he was essentially sincere. After a while I came off my objective persona and acknowledged that I had in fact known and worked with Raffaelli for some time and considered him an example of the kind of photographic work that offered an alternative to more abusive and offensive sexual depictions. I explained Raffaelli's artistic and ethical reputation in the porn business, how his stills and videos are considered art in a network where artfulness is all too rare. I read Raffaelli's statement about his work and about the importance of reclaiming a child-like innocence about our sexuality through unselfconscious erotic imagery. If the Kern County cops thought they had some kiddie-porn monster on their hands, I said, they were wrong.
Pelton was anxious to agree with me. "Look," he said, "if you're asking me do I think he was evil? No. Do I think he was abusing children? Probably not knowingly. I think he was caught up in the let-it-allhang -out attitude of the 60's. If he realized it was harmful [to the children] would he have done it? I don't think so."
From there we got into a discussion of the wide range of new erotic
publishing that is going on. I told him about Erotic by Nature (my own book of erotic and sexual photography and fiction) and about Libido magazine (for whom I was also writing an article about the Raffaelli case). I explained that many of us wanted to see a different sort of sexual photography from what was generally available through porn.
Pelton seemed genuinely interested. Was there any way he could get a copy of the article I was writing? he asked. I told him I'd get a copy of the Libido issue to him if he would give me his address.
He thought for a minute, then said, "You'd better send it to my home; the secretaries here might go crazy if it arrived in the mail." He gave me his home address, asking me to promise to keep it confidential. "There are a lot of people I don't want to have my home address," he explained. I appreciated his trust, his complexity, and what I took to be his honesty. It occurred to me that if he and Raffaelli had met under different circumstances, they probably would have liked each other.
Beyond Fish Tank Justice
I hope this isn't beating a dead horse, but I'm going to go one more round with Layne Winklebleck about Natural Born Killers.
What I get from Layne's commentary on my last column ("Fish Tank Justice," Spectator, October 21) is that Layne really doesn't like the thought that there is something we might learn from fictional characters like Mickey and Mallory Knox, or from some of their real life counterparts. Charlie Manson comes to mind.
"The question remains whether words of wisdom, integrity and soul come from 'the likes of Mickey and Mallory Knox.' Are there the likes of Mickey and Mallory Knox? That idea alone is scary enough without imagining that they might be trying to tell us something."
Now maybe I left myself open for criticism when I spoke of "the purity of psychic justice" in the film. I wasn't endorsing acting on the kneejerk urge to get even with the bad guys, as I tried to make clear.
But there is something emotionally pure about that very urge, and something important about acknowledging that we have that urge and that potential within us, all of us -- the do-gooders and the do-baders, the fiery and the mild-mannered, the indulgent and the repressed -- all the time. When someone goes off the violent deep end, why do we act as if those people are categorically different from the rest of us? They're not. To me, the tendency to think of those people as another species, as totally devoid of anything worth hearing and knowing about, is both hypocritical and dangerous.
My son, Dylan, made a powerful point to me recently, talking about gun control. "Almost everyone," he said, "has been so mad at someone at some time that if they had a loaded gun in their hand at that moment they might have actually killed them." The reason it's important not to have guns around is because we all have the seed of the killer within us. Given the right combination of circumstances, any of us could and would kill, no matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise.
What we can learn from Mickey and Mallory Knox is something about being honest about who we are and who we are not. Sure, there are people in this world that are ethically more admirable than others. But they don't tend to be the people who adopt a posture of moral superiority. The people who claim to be free of the urge to kill, to rape, or to victimize in some other way -- the people who have to struggle with the guilt of knowing that they are not the saints they are pretending to be -- these are the people who cause the most misery in this world.
Lenny Bruce had a commentary on this. It was about Jacqueline Kennedy's first reaction when John Kennedy got shot beside her in the Dallas motorcade. The myth that was broadcast around the world was that Jackie's first reaction was a self-effacing effort to protect her husband, but in slow motion the Magruder film shows that her first reaction was to try to get out of the line of fire, to take care of herself.
Why, Bruce asked his audiences at that time, do we need to invent people as saints who then make us feel morally inferior to them when we have natural self-protective reactions when someone is shooting at us? Thousands of Vietnam veterans (and veterans of other wars as well, you may be sure) suffer from the guilt born of such superhuman expectations.
We are all natural born killers. The question is what we do with the darker instincts and feelings we carry within us. One thing is certain: We're not going to be able to move these energies in positive ways if we're don't even admit they exist.
Natural Born Killers is not a film about "mindless, madcap mayhem" as Layne claims. It is a film about the roots of the violence we see all around us, and that violence is not mindless, madcap mayhem -- no matter how chaotic and random it sometimes feels, or how difficult it may be to see why it occurs or where it comes from.
Natural Born Killers suggests that there are many ingredients to the violent social soup we find ourselves in: sexual power games, gender power games, racial power games, parental power games, status power games, celebrity power games, authority power games, moral superiority power games -- to name a few.
And to all that, once again, I say Amen.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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