Mad Scenes

By Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the misogynistic Victorian view that women, the "weaker sex," were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly, the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness, exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary appears in a classic gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and Streaming). The mad lead character/anti-hero Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Hand in Hand Films' Drive (1974)

 

Arachne (played by legendary director Christopher Rage, here billed as Mary Jim Sstunning, in a script written by Rage) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”


She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: THE FOLSOM STREET FAIR

By Josh Eliot

 

The Folsom Street South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco was the gritty contrast to the famed Castro District, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. When the Castro had its annual Street Fair, the crowd was eclectic, including men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Dancing, and sometimes flashing, drag queens, street performers, snake charmers, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and country & western groups who would suddenly break into a square dance in the middle of the street, forcing the crowd to separate. There were Dunk-A-Hunk booths, face and body painting, numerous food tents and the Gay Men’s Chorus staking claim to the plaza in front of Hibernia Bank to belt out some show tunes.

 

Castro Street Fair, 1980s

Castro Street Fair, 1980s

 

You would see large groups of partygoers hanging out the windows of their flats and overcrowding the fire escapes and overhangs on the apartment buildings above Star Pharmacy, Valley Pride Market and Market Liquors. The bars, of course, were packed to the brim with large crowds surrounding the doors. The Main Stage was on Market Street and the corner of Castro and featured performances by artists like Sylvester, comedians like Ellen DeGeneres and Danny Williams as well as local and somewhat well-known bands. The whole event was just slightly over the top and refreshingly not overly political.

The Folsom Street Fair, by contrast, was a full-on South of Market “sexperience.” Some would call it sleazy, others would say it was the ultimate middle finger to society. It was a bit of both. If you’ve read Will Seagers' last two blogs, Diving Into SoMA/Folsom: Hamburger Mary's and Long Live the Stud!, you’ve already got a first hand account of some hot spots in the neighborhood. Spanning the blocks on Folsom from 8th to 13th streets and splintering off between Howard and Harrison streets, there was quite a large area for bad behavior to take place. To say that Folsom street really brought the grit is a major under-statement. I think the first rule of thumb we learned was don’t even think about showing up without putting on a cock ring, because you would definitely not be in the majority. You would always expect to see bare asses in chaps, tits galore, random whipping displays, hoods, ball gags, leather jockstraps, and chains, but a street fair wouldn’t go by without some shocking outfit or action that you never saw coming!

 

Folsom Street Fair

Folsom Street Fair

 

Whereas the Castro fairgoers would separate to let the square dancers dance, the Folsom fairgoers would crowd in and form an impenetrable circle to shield the circle jerk or blow job that spontaneously started happening in the middle of the road, keeping out anyone who was looking to stop it. I don’t know if all that happens these days but it was very commonplace in the 1980s. I remember going into one bar and seeing someone squatting on top of a cigarette machine while getting rimmed. Dore Alley sat smack dab in the middle of the street fair map and surprisingly it looked much different in the light. Dore Alley and close by Ringold Alley were notorious “last chance” cruise spots for bar patrons once they closed at 2am.

In 2014, Mike Skiff’s (videographer and director for Catalina Video under Mark Jensen) documentary Folsom Forever was released by Breaking Glass Pictures. I was so proud to see what he had accomplished after we all parted ways when Catalina Video was sold to Channel 1 Releasing in 2007. I recently viewed the movie on TUBI, the free streaming service, which documented the behind the scenes actions and adventures of the fair organizers and volunteers. The Folsom Street Fair organizers' self-proclaimed mission statement reads, in part, as follows:

“Folsom Street is committed to cultivating a safe, open and inclusive environment for kink, leather and alternative sexuality. We are dedicated to sexual liberation and the right to pleasure as a crucial part of the whole liberation movement. Folsom Street is an explicitly anti-racist organization and we are committed to decolonizing our practices.”

 

Folsom Forever poster and director, Mike Skiff

Folsom Forever poster and director, Mike Skiff

 

No Folsom Street Fair would be complete without the appearance and contributions of Mr. Markus. Marcus Hernandez, a longtime leather columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, was always front and center throughout the fair and on the Main Stage. Mr. Markus, through his column and international ventures, influenced the leather/BDSM subculture, its ethics, traditions and fundraising efforts. His smart and sarcastic column shone a light on the culture that had long been demonized and suppressed by mainstream gay and straight cultures, generating respect by showing that the leather community was among the most dedicated to their tribe. Even though he passed away in October of 2009 at the age of 77, his voice and message of pride for the LGBT and his beloved leather community reached far beyond San Francisco to like communities internationally. I remember seeing him several times at the International Mr. Leather Contest in Chicago when we shot it to release on DVD. It had been so many years since I heard his distinctive voice across the loud speaker and it brought me right back to those dirty, nasty, fabulous days that my roomies and I let our inhibitions fly at the Folsom Street Fair.

 

Mr. Markus and the Main Stage at Folsom

Mr. Markus and the Main Stage at Folsom

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Castro Theatre
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Midnight Sun
RSVP: 2 Weeks Working on a Gay Cruise Ship
VOYAGER of the Damned
I'M NOT A LESBIAN DIRECTOR

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Mad Scenes

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the Victorian view that women, the weaker sex, were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Source: https://icsfilm.org/essays/the- devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves, Source: http://graham-russell.blogspot.com/2018/10/reflections-on-autumn-leaves-1956.html

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George, Source: https://thelastdrivein.com/category/1960s/the-killing-of- sister-george-1960/

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly. the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary, appears in a retro gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and streaming). The mad Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

 

Arachne (Christopher Rage aka Mary Jim Sstunning) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

“I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”

She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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Rhythm

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

When I journeyed to New York for the first time in 1994 for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I ended up the night before the parade at a wild sex/play party with a hot leather BDSM top I had just met at a dance in the Armory. The location of the party was in some area of the East Village, I think. When I saw the purple and green walls and the coked up bouncer, my first thought was I was in some kind of Fellini movie.

And then I saw it: the orgy. I couldn’t even distinguish the faces, even characteristics of the individual bodies; the guys groping and pulling and grimacing seems liked one writhing body. I was both attracted and repelled. My new friend and I looked at each other curiously; we tried to mask our insecurities in thinking we were above such lowly, ordinary lusts. My friend would have wanted to separate that group, tie up some of the hot ones with the rope he was carrying; he would contain, tame, and dominate that energy, that fervid rhythm. Yes, there would be pleasure, but not equality. He would break any boundaries, and they would follow him, succumb to his power.

 

Orgy scenes from classic gay porn films

Orgy scenes from 10:30 P.M. Monday, Turned On!, The Goodjac Chronicles, and Closed Set

 

Elias Canetti in his profound study of crowd behavior Crowds and Power claims that humans’ instinctive drive to participate in the power of the crowd comes from something at one level simple, something we don’t always think about consciously, rhythm, but the rhythm of footsteps. He makes the observation that we walk on two legs, but the feet attached to the legs strike the ground. A person can only movie if they continue to make this action.

 

And, those “two feet never strike the ground with exactly the same force.” We are different yet the same, and when persons listen to and in some cases merge into the footsteps of others, including animals that naturally congregate in herds, he was drawn to do the same, feeling that power, that ”invincible unity.”

Canetti analyzes a description of the Haka dance of the New Zealand Maoris, originally a war dance, but now performed by rugby teams as both a warm-up team spirit exercise before the game, and, after the game, a victory dance.

 

Haka dance

Haka dance - Source: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/10/14/haka-rugby- world-cup_n_8290712.html

 

What’s interesting is in its original situation as the war dance, the performers were naked. And after much showing off of individual agility, including some form of “perpendicular jump,” the dance escalates to a paradoxically frenzied yet controlled unity of movement; Canetti writes, “it is as though each body was taken to pieces, not only the arms and legs, but also the fingers, toes, tongues, and eyes; and then all the tongues got together, and did exactly the same things at the same moment; all the toes and all the eyes become equal in one and the same enterprise.” They are separate bodies, but it looks as if it one body with many limbs and heads. They are dense, equal, one. Yet ultimately it is a performance, done in times when the culture as a whole encounters boundary moments such as welcoming visitors, funerals, and communal feasts.

The literal hunt for the herd eventually became various forms of the dance, a release of that primal energy that for a brief moment blurs cultural boundaries that deter the power of the crowd, displace and deflect the power away from persons onto computers.

Rather than initiating rhythm from what we heard and felt in those original footsteps, we now try to contain it by digitizing it. It is seen, but we can’t always see who is seeing. Everything becomes a performance, but that means nothing really is one in the new world of Zoom.

 

Group Zoom meeting

Group Zoom meeting - Source: https://www.timeout.com/things-to-do/best-things-to-do-at-home- stuck-inside-bored

 

I just can’t imagine a Zoom orgy, BDSM play party, or even Haka dance. The separate but apart dynamic implodes, and it’s not just because of the physical dimension obviously isn’t there; what’s lacking is that feeling of invincible unity based on rhythm and density. Imagining yourself as a participant of course can evoke that feeling, but it’s like an imitation of an imitation. And you are alone. Not even lonely in a crowd.

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Solo Sex

Posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

As many of us are currently spending a lengthy stint without sexual partners as we practice social distancing during this pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on eroticism that does not involve physical engagement between people.

Non-in-person sex work (via phone or the internet) and viewing pornography can play a huge part in helping folks through this necessary dry spell - though, of course, the coronavirus relief package explicitly excludes applicants who earn money from performances, services, or depictions “of a prurient sexual nature” from being eligible for loans. (There has been an increase in internet censorship and policing of consensual sex work and sexual materials under this administration done in the name of decreasing sex trafficking and exploitation. SESTA/FOSTA, which passed in March of 2018, directly led to the shut down of sites that enabled sex workers to operate more safely, porn companies and performers having their personal data deleted from their private drives, and the major social media platforms increasing their content restrictions and banning countless users. The currently-proposed EARN IT Act looks to extend internet surveillance under the same guise, further putting at risk sex workers and other marginalized groups who would likely be targeted and increasing the possibility of additional sexual content restrictions on social media platforms, as well as compromising the privacy of all internet-based communication and data.)

There are countless ways of sexually engaging with others through distance, many via technology - such as swapping nudes, dirty talk (see our recent blog discussing the Old Reliable audio collection), video chatting, sexting, video games, and even internet-controlled sex toys - through which each individual involved may be physically alone. And, of course, there is also a wide array in the realm of sexuality in which the inspiration for excitement doesn’t necessarily come from another person at all: object fetishism, autoeroticism, and more. A plethora of imaginal and tactile erotic experiences can be explored while physically by one’s self.

One fascinating cinematic look at solo sex and object fetishism exists in Czech artist Jan Švankmajer’s 1996 film Conspirators of Pleasure, which follows several characters’ independent fetishistic rituals. One man builds a masturbation machine with many motorized hands attached to televisions, which he operates during broadcasts of a lusted-after news anchor. Another man creates homemade sex toys - rolling pins covered in materials of different tactile natures like tacks and fur - which Švankmajer live-action animates rolling all over the man’s body. A couple of neighbors create effigies of each other, which they violently torture.

 

Stills from Conspirators of Pleasure
Images from Conspirators of Pleasure

 

In some of these scenarios, the object of desire is a person represented by the masturbation object, while in some, the contraption and/or tactile materials seem to be the objects of desire, themselves. But in each scenario, the rituals are performed in isolation.

Though best known as an animator/filmmaker, Švankmajer works in a wide array of mediums, including poetry and sculpture, and uses all to grapple with tactilism. From 1972 until 1979, he was banned from directing films by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, who considered his films subversive. During this span, Švankmajer went into extensive exploration of the sense of touch and tactile art, including writing a book, Hmat a Imaginace (now translated and available in English as Touching and Imagining), “of which he produced five copies in 1983, all with ‘tactile’ covers. Featuring rabbit fur along the spine and a hand shape cut out of sandpaper on the front, these copies circulated as samizdat, that is works which were clandestinely produced and distributed to evade officially imposed censorship.” This book details Švankmajer’s Surrealist experiments with touch and tactile art and “is a kind of alchemist’s philosophical treatise.”

 

An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace
An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace

Švankmajer tactile poem and sculptures
A Švankmajer tactile poem and three tactile sculptures

 

Upon his return to filmmaking, he brought what he had learned about tactilism into the medium through content, concept, and technique, trying to create synesthetic experiences for viewers. “Film animation is just another alchemical aid to the performance of a magic ritual in which Švankmajer summons the immanent vitality that resides in the inert material... This capacity for metamorphosis extends to moving images… Švankmajer’s work explores the idea that both direct and indirect tactile experience is mediated by the ‘tactile’ imagination.”

The development of a new personal relationship to touch is described in Švankmajer’s poem “The magic ritual of tactile initiation,” featured in Touching and Imagining, which concludes:

Make the cold warm and the soft hard!
Make the loose compact!
Make the course slimy!
Make the hurtful pleasurable!
And vice-versa!
So that the eye will not perceive and give touch timely warning, constantly confuse his utilitarian habits of touch by disorientation, mystification and panic!
Bear in mind that our entire body is a unified erogenous zone!
Do not smooth down the crumpled sheets!
In winter kick off the bedclothes!
On hot summer nights crawl under a heavy quilt!
Do not scorn masturbation!
Do not have your old shoes re-soled!
Do not urinate before going to bed!
“Be repulsed by all objects yet touch them all!
Learn to love insects!
Tire yourself out!
Only when Touch is freed from its utilitarian context, not constantly forced into a self-conscious moment, will it reach the point where it transmutes the barrier of its identifying existence, and without being aware of it, becomes the language of the poet.


Eroticism is frequently a focus of Švankmajer’s work, as he observed that “if there does exist one aspect of human perception where Touch still has a position dominant over all others senses, it is in the field of eroticism.” The realm of pornography extensively explores “indirect tactile experience” and the sensations this depiction evokes in viewers, also striving to inspire corporeal responses.

Countless approaches to solo sex can be found in pornography. Object eroticism is certainly common, from fetish magazines eroticizing attire and materials such as leather and rubber, to the use of sex toys and such things as household items, balloons, and food as tools for self-pleasure.

 

Stills from Mansize & Food Sex
Stills Michael Zen's Mansize (top) and the Bijou Video compilation Food Sex (bottom)

 

The object in question’s sexual appeal may stem purely from the physical sensations it creates and one’s tactile relationship with it, or from a more symbolic place of connection or memory. And inanimate objects, themselves, can seem to carry inside them their own energetic life. As Švankmajer said, “a strong emotion leaves an indelible imprint on the objects touched.”

Erotic inspiration can be found in the natural world. Director Peter de Rome’s lovely short porn film, Green Thoughts (1971), features a man who becomes stimulated by the plants in a conservatory. Porn star and sex educator Annie Sprinkle has recently been spearheading an “ecosexual” movement, reframing nature as “your lover, not your mother” in an effort “to make the envirnomental movement more fun and diverse.”

 

Images from Green Thoughts
Images from Green Thoughts

 

Acts of self-pleasure may be performed not just as the result of the absence of a sexual partner, but because one’s own self or body or personal sexual technique are, themselves, the source of excitement. Many Bijou titles feature examples of this: enthusiastic solos, autofellatio practitioners, people jacking off to their own reflections, fantasies of self-fucking (brilliantly staged in Jaguar’s Grease Monkeys and in the short film Double Scorpio featured in Hand in Hand’s Private Collection), and intricate autosadism rituals (as in the Jason Steele segment of Big Bear Men and the sounding demonstration in another Private Collection short, Penetration).

 

Nick Rodgers seducing himself in Grease Monkeys
Nick Rodgers seducing & fucking himself in Grease Monkeys (1979)

Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); sounding film Penetration (right)
Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); the sounding film Penetration (right)

 

One of the true masters of inventive autoerotic practice in porn is “Sultan of Solo Sex” Scott Taylor. Taylor never performed a full partnered sex act in any of his films (the closest is perhaps in Surge Studio’s Strange Places, Strange Things, in which he and another man wildly enlarge and distort their cocks together with vacuum pumps), but he did many solo jack off sessions, as well as self-sucking and creative bodily play. In the Steve Scott masterpiece, Turned On! (1982), Taylor performs a remarkable display of dance and movement, in which he stuffs his own cock and balls up his ass. Al Parker stated, in a Manshots interview, “Even though Scott only has sex with himself, I think he is one of the most erotic people in this business, because you can’t pay somebody to be as crazy as Scott Taylor is in a movie.”

 

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor


Scott Taylor in Turned On!
Scott Taylor's performance in Turned On!

 

Another artist of self-fucking in classic porn is Chris Burns. Having well-earned the title “the Ultimate Bottom,” Burns certainly can take it from others, but just as aptly can dish it out upon himself. In Steve Scott’s Dangerous (1983), he exchanges dirty talk over the phone with Rick Faulkner (who beats off in a phone booth) while he shoves massive dildos up his ass. Jason Bleu’s fascinating S/M video, Black on Red (1987), takes us into the interior life of the submissive, as Burns literally bends over backwards to punish himself at the feet of and worship a mature dominant, who stands over him throughout the tape's runtime, nearly silent and umoving, like a remote God. Burns, here, performs nearly all of the actions upon himself, shoving more enormous toys (as well as enema tubing) up his ass, putting sounding rods in his dickhole, piercing his nipple, and shaving his pubic hair off with a straight razor.

 

Chris Burns in Black on Red
Chris Burns in Black on Red

 

Not requiring a partner to explore one’s own body and sexual interests can be a liberatory element of sexuality. Illustrations of this can be found in some of the feminist pornography of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which encouraged women to learn about their bodies and personal sexuality - for example, the classic 1992 instructional, How to Female Ejaculate, and the odes to self-pleasure in Annie Sprinkle’s Sluts and Goddesses: How To Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps. I’ve personally found developing solo kink practices to be useful and exciting. I taught myself how to do play piercing by practicing on my own body, with the help of online technique/safety tips and instructional video examples. This was a helpful way to learn (without risking fucking up an early attempt on someone else’s body), but maintaining this as a solo practice has also served as a way for me to engage with sadism and masochism on my own, without being reliant upon a partner for outlets.

Some porn makers depicted solo practices as a part of the exploration of various types of safer sexual expression during the AIDS crisis. Artist Michael Goodwin, whose late '80s Goodjac video series focused on handjobs and masturbation, brought creativity, playfulness, and enthusiasm to his documentation of solo sex.

 

Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles & Goodjac Too
Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles and Goodjac Too

 

And we can take eroticism outside of the tactile entirely. There’s the far-reaching imaginal realm of fantasy, which can draw eroticism from endless places. There are erotic responses to music and other audio, such as the visceral and abstract sound textures and vocal intimacy explored in ASMR videos, popularized over the past decade, which for many enthusiasts are not erotic, but can be for some. And there’s spiritual yearning, which can often take on an erotic coloration.

One may find eroticism with and without other people; erotic touch with and without other people; eroticism with and without touch. Perhaps we can use this time away from parntered sex to find ways to connect with our own erotic imaginations and to deepen our relationships with our own bodies, whether by nurturing their health (as a part of the project of collective health) or developing our solo sexual practices, whatever the tools and objects of erotic excitement may be.

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