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Issue #67: Pleasure and Pain 🍌
Pleasure + X
Friday the 13th in May is about as spooky as you would expect — and yet, we come before you in your inboxes (or through a link you clicked on social media; subscribe babyyy) with two shocks to your system, nonetheless.
First up, Cate on Pleasure and its ambitious exploration of the world of porn. Then Zosha on X, and why she walked out feeling so grumpy about it (despite ultimately liking it). Read on, yell about movies, and hug your black cats today!
Cate on Pleasure
Calling Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure a “feminist exploration of porn” is accurate. But the stunning debut feature, is much more than a simple parable about a young woman finding her way in the adult film industry. Instead, Thyberg — along with her star Sofia Kappel — creates a swirling tale of intoxication, agency and exploitation that focuses squarely on the desires of her protagonist.
Bella Cherry (Sofia Kappel) is brand new to Los Angeles, and fresh off the boat from her native Sweden in pursuit of a career in the adult film industry. But Bella doesn’t just want to work in porn. She wants to be the best. And her pursuit of that top spot leads her down a road that challenges her ideas about the calculus she must do to balance her career and her relationships.
Once you get past the tititlation of the story’s subject matter, it’s clear the film is at its core, a story about the business of porn. With a cast consistently almost entirely of real life adult film professionals — both agents and performers — Pleasure lends itself to a kind of authenticity rarely seen in stories about the industry. Here Thyberg hews to the oft-repeated disability rights policy slogan: “Nothing about us without us.” Her collaboration with the industry’s stakeholders allows her film to generate and display a cinematic empathy for a group of people often shunned and saddled with unearned stigma for the work they do and the services they provide. These people are just that. People. And their choice of profession is a choice, not a treatise on their emotional lives. Porn performers are clear-eyed about the exploitation rampant in their industry. But the insinuation that exploitation is unique to workplaces and sets where erections fly free is disingenous and inaccurate.
And the camera demands empathy for its star. Initially reticent to engage in anything too risqué, Bella quickly learns that her presumptive ascent to the top of the porn world will be stymied if she’s not willing to do rougher, more extreme scenes. This parlays into one of the film’s more overt themes. Namely, consent — who gives it, who rescinds it and who has the meaningful ability to do either. There are many scenes where Bella must sign “consent forms” indicating what her physical and emotional boundaries are. And all of the other people on the sets she works on (mostly men) are vocal about her ability to leave or withdraw consent at any time. But insidiously, they almost always undercut that reassurance by signalling that it would be preferable if she continued.
In one deeply upsetting scene, Bella is on set for a rough gang-bang scenario with two male performers and a male director. As they slap her in the face, spit on her, pull her hair and throw her against walls, the scene starts to feel uncomfortably like a real assault. When she first asks for a break, the men comfort and console her. They tell her she’s a star and she can keep going because she’s so strong. So she relents. But when she later hits her wall and tries to back out, they berate her to fucking with their money. The director tells her that if she quits, no one will get paid and everything she went through will have been for free. Bella goes through with the scene, but on the way home, she throws up in her car, sick from what felt on every level like an physical assault she nominally consented to. The experience is shot as a flashback — hard cocks and rough slaps aimed firmly at the camera in quick cuts and low angles. There’s no way to ignore how the experience has shaken her.
It’s one of the things that struck me most about the film. Porn sets, like regualr Hollywood film sets, are workplaces. And without the protections (usually) afforded in corporate office settings, performers are asked to be both physically and emotionally vulnerable in environments where they are often left unprotected and alone. Worse yet, complaining, objecting or enforcing your boundaries is the fastest way to guarantee that you’ll get yourself labelled “difficult” and blackballed from sets. Porn is not so difficult from Hollywood after all.
In Pleasure and in life, men hold the reins of power, and women are forced to orbit them, gaming the system to their advantage as much as they are able. For Bella, her intentions are clear. She wants to be the best. But as she sees in the end, there’s a price for succeeding within a system that exploits the youth and virility of its workers. And it just might be her own soul.
Zosha on X
I will cop to walking out of X grumpy. To spoil a thing that technically I’m sure trades could spoil for you, the “post-credit scene” is just a trailer for a prequel movie filmed concurrently alongside X, focused on the 1918 life of Pearl, the central creepy person in X. It’s the sort of stunt sequel that immediately made me sour for a whole week afterwards, against this and all over prequel/sequels that seek to explain out every single element of a thing until it’s done. But what pisses me off the most is how it promises to undercut what I’ve come a movie I’ve really come to appreciate in the days since I saw it.
X is set in 1979, and when we first drop into the narrative it’s post-bloodbath: A sheriff arrives at an isolated Texas house, meanders from one tarp-covered corpse to the next, struggling to make sense of the body count he’s seeing on an otherwise quiet, rustic farm. We pull back to a day or so prior, when a film crew descends on the farm, having rented out the spare house to (unbeknownst to the elderly renters) film a porn flick.
As writer/director Ti West winds the narrative back to our opening scene, he makes expert use of both strands of the story. Porn and horror are two of film theory’s “body genres,” what Linda Williams termed for genres that are designed to elicit a bodily response in the audience. While their thrills may vary, both are realized physically, and typically seen as sort of “low-brow” culture. And in X their relation isn’t just a link but an explicit one. West frequently draws the tropes of the two together, using one to comment on the other. The girl
we know we suspect to be our Final Girl, Maxine (Mia Goth) is the same one who has never done a porno before, but who (once she performs) the troupe agrees has that “X factor” that makes her special. Her status is at once a sort of sexualized first timer (as the Final Girl often is) and an explanation of her draw to the killer. Her first encounter with Pearl is a scene punctuated by the in-movie seduction scene being filmed across the field; her first brush with danger intercut with an out-of-sequence sex scene, as if to comfort us that we’re not to the real thing just yet.
When Maxine meets with Pearl over lemonade, Pearl is eager to impart that she used to be just like her: young, nubile, soft, and desirable. And while Pearl’s desperation to be acknowledged as such is palpable Maxine is simply wigged, and doubly so by the insinuation that there’s anything linking the two of them together. Of course there is; both are played by Goth (wearing heavy old person make-up as Pearl). It’s a clever bit of doubling on West’s part, as if to say that Maxine’s “it” factor is something that echoes through generations. What we make of it as it ages — both for the woman dubbed with “it” and those around her — says more about what you bring to your relationship to youth and beauty. But in this moment, on this farm, neither Maxine nor Pearl can really make sense of that.
Ultimately, what makes this dual casting feel so eloquent is how it says so much without saying anything at all. If Pearl is Maxine (on the level of casting and self-identification) we don’t need to know anything else about her; we can posit that despite their vast generational difference there’s a kinship that forces us all to think about how their relative positions change our reactions. As the night descends to madness and violence and sex become more intertwined, we as the audience are challenged to think of Pearl with the same empathy that we think of Maxine and her band of porn stars. We shouldn’t know any more about her than the things that link (or even just that she think links) her to this present-day Maxine.
But Ti West had to go and ruin that. If you’re reading this review for something akin to a recommendation then let me say: I do think X is worth your time, if you’re interested in slasher movies and can handle the prerequisite violence. But I don’t think it’s worth holding your bladder to stay to the end of the credits. And I’ll let you know if I end up seeing Pearl.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: Things aren’t so rosy at Netflix anymore, a Q&A with Ninja Thyberg, celebrities are finally learning to never tweet, pinkwashing Julia Childs, the pleasures of growing older on Grace and Frankie, the fast fashion of Shein, the demise of indie feminist media, and me back on PCHH to chat about Netflix’s Heartstopper.
ZOSHA: Put some respect on Channing Tatum’s name. Ranking the best Jurassic Park kills. What did medieval peasants actually know about work? Television has a showrunner crisis. Stop blaming Susan Sarandon for the Democratic party making its own problems. This wild story of a Grey’s Anatomy writer’s lies!! (I also wrote about X here.)
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