COMES NATURALLY #59
Spectator Magazine - May 30, 1997
(c) David Steinberg
Kissed Kisses Where Crash Crashes; Erotic by Nature Seized by British Customs
Embracing Passion and Obsession: A Crash Course in Kissing
Of course I went to see Kissed the first night it came to town. The trailers for the film looked positively compelling, after all, and the issue -- the erotic component of death -- is pretty compelling in its own right, and deliciously forbidden to boot.
Let me tell you this film by novice director Lynne Stopkewitch, adapting a short story by Barbara Gowdy, is one fine piece of work. Forget Crash. This is a film by someone who truly understands and appreciates obsession, or at least a film by someone who understands and appreciates my kind of obsession. Or, better yet, a film by someone who feels this particular kind of obsession from the inside, since cognitive understanding probably has precious little to do with what's important about obsession anyway. And wouldn't you know it would be the women who dive into the obsession thing, leaving guilt and shame behind, rather than the guys.
I am definitely one of those "wrong" people that Greta Christina teasingly calls "nattering nabobs of negativity" -- I walked away from Crash feeling surprisingly unmoved, certainly erotically unstirred. If Crash is their statement, then as far as I'm concerned, director David Cronenberg (whose work I generally love) and writer J.G. Ballard just don't get it about obsession -- don't understand, don't feel the mystique, the magic, the swoon of what it means to be drawn off the ledge of the sensible world and go inside the cloud of the obsessive altered state. Or maybe their way of being obsessed just lives in another universe from mine. But Crash just left me cold.
It's not really that I didn't like Crash. I liked it well enough, I guess, in that Twin Peaks/David Lynch sort of way -- you know, the succession of fairly random surrealistic twists and turns that come out of nowhere, go nowhere, and in the end have almost nothing to say except that its cool to be quirky for the sake of being quirky. I gave up on David Lynch after Blue Velvet, where he sort of had it and lost it (what Blue Velvet had might have been thanks to Dennis Hopper as much as anything Lynch brought along). But after Blue Velvet, as far as I'm concerned, Lynch has never had anything to say. I mean, really, it isn't the 70's any more. Tripping out for the sake of tripping out is seriously old news, the post-modern thing has long been beaten to death except (or especially) for college undergraduates, Picasso's restructuring of the nature of reality happened a long time ago, and Andy Warhol, having performed his service for the evolution of perception, in the end got what he deserved. But I digress.
I didn't understand it when I was walking out of the theater, but the real problem I had with Crash is that it is an anti-obsessionist's film about obsession and I was wanting a film by someone who embraced obsession instead rather than someone who was afraid of it. Ballard admitted as much in an NPR interview with Terry Gross, much to Gross' surprise. Ballard is nervous to think that we have come to the point of welcoming all the perverts into society, of glorifying their deviance. He wants to go back to the days where the weirdoes were kept on the outskirts of town, kept where they couldn't hurt anybody. He may have something of the obsessive thing inside him, but he's too terrified of that part of himself to welcome its passionate nature. And so he has written a story that let's us see how cold sexual obsession can be -- how slimy, how sleazy, and not the fun kind of sleazy either.
So as much as Cronenberg may have tried to turn the thing around, in Crash we are left with all these soulless, empty-lived L.A. types tripping off into the land of the strange and exotic, but going there in the distinctly distanced, disconnected sort of way that reeks of lost souls wandering up blind alleys looking in vain for a home -- dry souls wandering forty years in the dessert, trying to find juice here, there, and everywhere, but coming up parched over and over again. Have you ever watched bored people at a bad s/m party paddle away at each other until the whole scene just peters itself away into exhaustion? It came, it was, it went -- pass the jam, and where do you go to find a good cup of coffee?
Obsession as a repetitive, futile attempt to compensate for some psychopathological, or perhaps existential, emptiness. Thank you very much, Dr. Freud, but get a grip. Obsessive passion is not necessarily some misguided attempt to deny and avoid the emptiness born of a loveless childhood or a culture that has lost its moorings. More likely it's the other way around: Emptiness of the soul is what's left when the obsessive power of primal passion gets vilified, denied, and suppressed.
There's an old joke: After 39.9 years in the dessert, Mrs. Moses decided to take matters in her own hands and asked for some directions. The Promised Land? Right over there. Make a left at the third sand dune. Which is to say that Kissed is another story entirely, a whole different take on obsession and on passion. Shut up already with the moralizing, guys, the women have something they want to say.
Seeing Kissed did not make me want to have sex with corpses, any more than Crash made me want to fuck in a crashed car, but it did make me want to have sex with Molly Parker's Sandra, while Sandra was in the altered state she entered while she was having sex with corpses. More precisely, watching Sandra transformed made me want to join her in that altered, coming home, state -- a state I associate most intimately with being sexual in one way or another, a state of mind I define as being sexually transformed, whether or not it has anything to do with genitals, with touching, or with physical sensation whatsoever -- which is why, for me, sex, the transformation, is quite separate from sex, the act.
What made watching Kissed so delightful for me was that I could feel that state of transformation and coming home in my body, watching Sandra go there as she danced and mounted her corpses, watching the way her face was transported, the way the feeling shivered through her, subtle yet rivetingly powerful. And I could identify with Sandra just as strongly when she tried to put what was, for her, the heart of the matter into words -- the place of rubbing intimately up against death, entering the quality of it, eroticizing the essence of it, because that is so clearly the right, the only appropriate thing to do with the hugeness and intimacy of it, the fear of it, the attraction, the fascination -- wanting to know what it is, wanting to feel it, to take it in, to be part of it, to be one with it, to be transformed by it. Crossing over, Sandra calls it, with most excellent and correct precision.
Critics from Greta Christina to the Chronicle's Ruthe Stein have said that Kissed, having moved into uncharted waters, doesn't seem to know where to go with its subject matter. I couldn't disagree more. Kissed delivers its perspective eloquently, if obliquely, speaking poetically (some would say vaguely) because there are some things that just cannot be adequately expressed in the flat prose of objective discourse. And the film is equally eloquent in conveying the maddening difficulty of trying to communicate transcendent experience to someone outside that experience. The cautious delicacy with which Sandra tries to be understood by her boyfriend, Matt, is piercingly moving, as is the respect with which Matt initially receives what she tells him, his good faith attempts to honor and understand what this is about for her, his various efforts to be part of her intimacy, and his ultimate failure to join her there except by extraordinary means.
Sandra is as soulful in her obsession as the various characters in Crash are soulless in theirs. She is grounded by the integrity of her passion and her willingness to embrace and celebrate it without shame or apology. Crash culminates in the damnation of being eternally incomplete, obsession inevitably returning to the emptiness from which it arises. "Maybe next time..." is its closing bit of dialogue, its watchword. In Kissed, the obsessive drive to reenact the driving experience comes not from its failure to deliver satisfaction, but from its success. Each act is its own completion -- a satisfying return home to the essential self, a connection to the primal erotic core, a confirmation of the possibility of being whole.
Erotic by Nature Declared "Indecent and Obscene"
I suppose it's been inevitable, but I must say I'm surprised that it's finally happened. A copy of my sweet, soft, sexy book, Erotic by Nature, on its innocent way to a man named Dugald McCullough in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has been seized by British customs as "indecent and obscene." Dugald has one month to protest the seizure or else his book will be forfeited to the musty back rooms of the British Empire where it will, I suppose, become part of the growing private preserve of customs officials looking for cheap thrills on their lunch breaks.
For nine years we have been shipping copies of Erotic by Nature -- a lush, hardcover, coffee table collection of decidedly artful erotic and sexual photography, short stories, drawings, and poems -- all over the U.S. and the world without any legal problems whatsoever. Individual copies have been sent to mail order purchasers in Britain before without any difficulty. We even have a small distributor in London that sells the book via mail order, copies that we ship to him(expensively) a few copies at a time, in small, unobtrusive packages, knowing that British customs is one of the most restrictive in the world (along with some other British Commonwealth nations, like Canada and New Zealand).
(The only restrictions we have encountered distributing the book have been with federal prisons, where we can't even send a flyer advertising Erotic by Nature because, as we have been curtly informed by the U.S. Department of Justice, "none of the funds made available [by Congress] to the Federal Bureau of Prisons may be used to distribute or make available [to a prisoner] information or material [that] is sexually explicit or features nudity." You wouldn't want your tax dollars used to enflame the sexual passions of federal lawbreakers, now, would you? Of course not.)
The irony of Erotic by Nature being seized as pornographic is that one of the book's main purposes has been precisely to offer sexually erotic material that is an alternative to commercial porn. As I state in the book's introduction,
"Because pornography has monopolized the sexual marketplace for so long, it has become easy to believe that direct and powerful sexual/erotic material is inherently pornographic. This book demonstrates that it is not. It demonstrates that erotic work can be sexy, powerful, and provocative without being stale, without manipulating men's and women's sexual frustrations and fears, without depicting sex as an arena for men's dominance over women, without denying the full erotic subjectivity of all human beings. This book offers an alternative to pornography, one that encourages us all to be fully erotic, fully sexual beings without alienating ourselves, our deepest human values, or the people with whom we are most intimately involved."
Poor Dugald McCullough! As it turns out, this is precisely the reason he ordered the book in the first place. "I have been outspoken against pornography," he writs in his email, informing me that the book has been seized, "and was attracted to your book because the publicity explicitly states that it honours men and women and manages to celebrate sexuality without being pornographic."
Dugald, you see, happens to be an active partisan in the British antiporn movement, much influenced by such guiding lights as American pornslayers Andrea Dworkin and John Stoltenberg. "If there's pornography for sale in a shop I happen to be in," Dugald proudly tells me, "and if I'm feeling up to it, I'll challenge sales staff and their managers to think about what they're selling." He has even conducted versions of Stoltenberg's horribly manipulative "men against pornography" workshops on a BBC television program that was broadcast nationwide.
(These are the workshops where men -- mostly heterosexual -- are tricked into putting themselves in awkwardly sexual poses in front of other men, while the men shout at them that they're not doing it right. This is Stoltenberg's warped idea of what it's like for women to be porn models or actresses. As the men scramble to cope with their embarrassment at thrusting their pelvises alluringly toward other men, they are encouraged to express how horrible they feel and to vent the anger, which really comes from being brutally manipulated by Stoltenberg, at the world's pornographers. A nasty, manipulative piece of emotional abuse if I ever saw one. The one time I participated in one of these workshops I was so angry I wanted to spit.)
"Is there a fight here which you will support?" Dugald asks. "Are there people in this country you advise me contacting in regard to this issue?"
Well, sure, I'm ready to help anybody who wants to fight state censorship, even people who campaign for that very censorship, and I have told Dugald as much. I couldn't resist adding, however, that "it is with some amusement that I see you suffering at the hands of the very sort of pornography suppression you probably support. It is as ironic as Andrea Dworkin having her work suppressed under the Canadian antiporn law passed with her encouragement. Unfortunately, whenever these issues are dealt with by state intervention and suppression it is people like ourselves -- whose sexualities are marginalized and therefore subject to easy attack -- who suffer the most."
[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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