‘Skin City’ brings erotica film series to Detroit’s Outer Limits Lounge

click to enlarge Chesty Morgan in Double Agent 73. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Chesty Morgan in Double Agent 73.

“Fuck movies!” exclaims José, the horror film director lead in Iván Zulueta’s recently restored Arrebato. Though he states this abjectly more than from a place of wanting, it’s something that audiences throughout history have all but wanted to do. Arrebato’s just one of four movies screening as part of Skin City this month around just that theme, making for a series of pop-ups at Outer Limits Lounge — all focused on viewing onscreen erotica among a crowd.

While none of the films programmed, all by Josh Gardner’s Cinema Lamont, quite rise (or for some souls, fall) to the level of even softcore porn, seeing works plainly focused on sex and desire with an audience — now, when even seeing movies with an audience is becoming rare — is an act that retains a faint and welcome charge. When sex on screens is so available for free, it doesn’t sell as part of the current landscape of new-released narrative movies so often as it used to. As such, sex is rarely addressed with all its attendant problems and complications in a communal manner (and if it is, it’s usually “lesson-driven” in some fashion). By focusing entirely on retrospective works from 1973 up to 2006, Skin City highlights the potential for artistic gestures across these works to get at more than what’s explicitly shown or even grasped by their makers. Each work here is approached with a sense of questioning, an eagerness to surprise, and an interest and an appetite for the often beguiling forces of pleasure.

First up is Double Agent 73 (screening Feb. 3), a sexploitation spy thriller starring the it-must-be-said astonishingly busted Chesty Morgan. Unlike the rest of what’s here, this one’s as B-movie as it gets. Shot on raggedly expressive film stock in what must have been a rush (much onscreen’s left out of focus), the film finds vacationing spy Jane Tennay (Morgan) back to work hunting for a gang of heroin dealers. Recording each offing via a pressure-triggered camera implanted in her left breast, the device provides a narrative excuse for her to unveil and fondle her chest periodically.

The story is workmanlike — it, like Morgan, has the sighing air of a job — but Doris Wishman and her crew’s shooting and framing are more distinct, with canted angles and super-impositions jutting through the fog of an at-times hazy style. Transitions and especially a car chase scene are filmed with a reckless quality that the ease of digital shooting today seems to have smoothed the edges from; film stock was precious in a way images today just aren’t. Released in ’74, the scenes surrounding Jane’s work (in parks, by poolsides) bear a late-utopic, post-hippie staycationing aura distinct to the film’s own time. Yanking its lead from these more solitary spheres of peaceful pleasure for nothing but a job, the film suggests throughout that work and money corrupt the finest stuff of life. A curious artifact bouncing between the cavalierly personal and teeteringly workmanlike, it’s probably best taken as such.

Far more stately is Paul Morrissey’s castle-set Flesh for Frankenstein (screening Feb. 10), an Italian-produced 1974 riff off more than an adaptation of Shelley’s work. Starring a young Udo Kier as Baron von Frankenstein, who rails in disembodied consonants about his dreams of producing a new, somehow superior race of stitched-together corpse-men, his desires are fraught with contradiction. Dying to create a new Adam and Eve subservient to him, he’s both horny eugenicist and wannabe slave-driver, neglecting his sister-wife and children (unless I’m mistaken) and abusing his assistant in favor of his wild pet project. In working to construct a mating pair of obedient behemoths, he’s after a kind of vain immortality as fragile as his God complex.

The frailty of aspiration is for Flesh a central theme, with even the best-assembled leather-collared creatures physically strong as they are easily rent apart. As in James Whale’s Universal adaptations, a mix-up dooms the scientists’ efforts. Working of those guiding lights, Morrissey seems to derive a starker and less humble, self-effacing form of those films’ good-humored theatrical archness; as an associate of Warhol’s Factory, his work here is self-reflexive in that same, somewhat flatly affected sort of way. While that may sound limiting, Flesh meshes a range of unmooring qualities — its nearly hypnotized line readings, its lurid, raptly observed medical and gore effects, and its cloistered, incestuous world — to create a world that’s expansive as a space of heightened metaphor. Connecting sex to survival only to tie it with the risk of ripping oneself and others apart, the stakes laid out within it are as high and real as they come.

More suggestive still is Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato, or “Rapture” in translation (playing Feb. 17). A 1980 work as fascinated by film’s own surfaces as it is psychologically close, it follows a horror film director, José (Eusebio Poncela) who’s sent a film reel and some other objects which draw him and his sometime girlfriend Ana (an excellent Cecilia Roth), both heroin users, slowly closer to Pedro (Will More); a man he’s only met twice before. The movie unravels with the pair’s gradual and supernatural/subjective enmeshing, evoked through free-form editing that pulls from what seems a mix of archival-historical footage and a freshly homegrown, richly-colored set of frames and textures. More art-horror than erotica exactly, it fits into this series anyway for its sense of voyeuristic fetish, its engagement with the vagaries of desire and its complications, and a broadly directed erotic charge. Pitching attraction, identity, and emotional and artistic life as chaotically intertwined, Arrebato has a dampened-carpet, bedrugged, and largely housebound kind of energy that also places it historically adjacent to porn. With its cramped interiors, remote cabins, eerie dolls, and VHS textures, it bears as many fixtures of modern horror with it, too — while reflecting on dissolving selfhood amidst this wild stew. Broadly referential and precise in setting but ultimately timeless, it’s the work playing this series that feels best built to last.

Probably the most welcoming for many, though, will be John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (screening Feb. 24): a 2006 ensemble-driven work taking place across New York. Playing a bit like a briefer Magnolia or even Joe Swanberg’s Easy with its emotionally bald dialogue and propensity for cutting across intersecting stories, it’s intent on examining sex in terms of its apparent contradictions. When a dominatrix tells her sub sternly “this is real life,” she’s speaking to the film’s internal tensions: between ideas of sex as some escapist lark and its absolute gravity and centrality in most people’s lives.

Mitchell (who also directed Rabbit Hole and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) uses his cast and a weekend sex gathering (called Shortbus) to pry at all these notions. Bringing together a sex therapist with her own sex problems, a male-male couple weighing whether to open up their relationship, and an aloof, aforementioned dominatrix, the film finds its middle-class characters in the throes of problems that seem existentially larger than their sometimes too-cute main struggles. Unlike most of what’s here, though, Mitchell is devoted to depicting plenty of onscreen, kind-forward, unsimulated sex — and so makes space for a slew of romping montages dedicated to precisely that. The circumscribed rowdiness of these sequences can chafe at times against the of-the-era “character work” ones which abut them — but in a way, this contradiction becomes the film’s main subject. Whether deliberate in this or not, Shortbus gets at the stakes of commodifying and tightly framing erotics and the (here public) negotiations around them. When a host at Shortbus announces after tensions flare that “we’re gonna be processing in the next room,” a rigid script is being applied to sex, desire, and their emotional aftermath: qualities of life at best accepted as stubbornly rough-edged and chaotic.

More information is available at cinemalamont.com/skincity.

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