Tag Archives: sex

Ask Dr. Ruth

3 May

‘Ask Dr. Ruth’: Sex therapist of decades past has always had a lot going on – and still does

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Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was everywhere, including on her own radio show and frequent appearances with the likes of Howard Stern and Johnny Carson. The diminutive sex therapist (she’s 4-foot-7) was Dr. Phil and more, as Ryan White’s adoring but deep-delving documentary reveals.

“She was America’s sex therapist during the AIDS crisis,” one talking head inserts before a cut to footage of Westheimer taking a hot potato insinuation about that disease from an audience member; the eternally grandmotherly woman calmly urges no blame or accusation, but a coming together of minds to avert a wider public health crisis and find a cure.

Recollections from that time may have her rendered as something of a caricature, but White’s dial-back reveals a keen, caring soul, and ever quick-witted (even at 90, as this documentary was shooting). He goes all the way back to when Westheimer, a German Jew, was put on a train to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport program at the outbreak of World War II. Her parents perished in the Holocaust, and there’s a deeply heartfelt moment in the film as she looks them up at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It gives her pause, but the the stoic Westheimer stiffens a bit and remarks to the camera,“I will cry later when no one else is around. German Jews don’t cry in public.”

There’s some fun it the telling too, which includes a pleasant blend of animation and old black-and-white images in importing tales such as Westheimer’s first sexual experience – in a hayloft in Israel after the war (where she was to meet her parents) with the brother of a young man she was dating. And it’s revealed that Westheimer was a killer shot: She served as a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces. Yup, little Dr. Ruth could pick apart a titan with her finger as well as she could with her words.

Married three times and something of an enigma to her children and grandchildren, Westheimer remains in perpetual motion, always acting and moving as if her life and the world depended on it. In one scene she shows White’s camera crew just how fast she can skedaddle. Along with getting a deeper look into Westheimer’s alluring persona and career, not to mention the dark corners of her childhood, the thing you realize is the absolute infectiousness of her charm and her care and compassion for fellow human beings. Ryan captures her winning personality with caring deference, and we all win.

High Life

15 Apr

‘High Life’: Sending convicts to a black hole, occupied by pursuits only sometimes solitary

 

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Way up high, what’s that in the sky? Looks like a metal shipping container with rocket boosters glued on. A bit hokey indeed, but would you believe me if I told you “High Life” was the first English-language film from French auteur Claire Denis, and it’s a sci-fi adventure? Strange but true, though in fact there’s very little sci-fi-ish about the death-row deep-space mission that’s more about colliding personalities and strange sexual dances in dark places. Yes, in outer space no one can hear your orgasmic cries of ecstasy, but that’s mostly because they happen in a sealed box. (More on that later.)

The crew of that shipping container – the “7” – are all criminals (“scum, trash and refuse”), rocketing toward a black hole while radioing back to command their findings. Kind of. The one thing they do seem tasked with is the prospect of reproduction in outer space. The men must fill cups in a booth (it looks like a photo booth in a mall, but is not to be confused with the formerly mentioned “box”) and are given precious sleeping pills for their effort. The women are impregnated occasionally, but the birth of a child usually proves fatal for mother and infant. All this is orchestrated under the watchful and controlling eye of Dr. Dibs (the eternally eternal Juliette Binoche), who, in her tight nursing uniform, seems to be the closest thing to a commanding force aboard a ship with the feel of a basement boiler room or padded-cell dormitory. One crew member won’t share his seed, Monte (Robert Pattinson, who pleasingly keeps getting further away from his “Twilight” origins), and seems more in control of his own fate than others on the 7.

Given the lethality of childbirth and the fact that this is a crew of social marauders and murderers relegated to the deep, lawless abyss of space, what could go wrong? A primal carnage works its way through the 7 about midway through the film (as well as a realization that the narrative has been moving in time hops), with much of the violence meted out being raw retaliation, or the culmination of adamant disagreement. Folks aboard seem more interested in their two pounds of flesh and sleeping pills than any destination or technical issues that could imperil them. Of all the wacky internal violence, only one of the acts is sexual in nature – mostly because the 7 is equipped with a “fuck box,” a high-tech Shaker booth of sorts. We visit the Orgasmatron device only once, as our fair Dr. Dibs takes her turn. Inside there’s a well-endowed Sybian device, with trapeze handles to add you your bucking pleasure. Binoche, with a flowing, glorious mane of dark hair, is framed from her bare milky back, an image of Lady Godiva riding off into the dark night of endless pleasure.

Clearly Denis is operating under the creative influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s sci-fi classics, “Solaris” and “Stalker,” potent blends of psychological thriller and adventure into the unknown. There’s even the unmistakable image of a body floating in space eerily similar to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) suspended in the cold dark outside the hull of a rebel cruiser in “The Last Jedi.”  It’s hard to imagine Denis borrowing from such commercial fare, but there it is. Overall, the unthinkable mix is a jumbled delight. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” this could have been set in any confined locale – a sealed tier in a parking garage, a cabin atop a snowbound mountain, an ocean liner stranded at sea or even a ginormous freight elevator during a power outage – and the result would be the same. Denis is one of the most maverick female filmmakers out there, in good company with Kathryn Bigelow, Lynn Ramsey and Debra Granik, and adds her hard feminist fingerprint to “High Life” as she has in great films such as “Trouble Every Day,” “Beau Travail” and “White Noise.” Her latest adventure  isn’t quite on par with those films (you can still catch several at the Brattle Theater as part of “The Good Works of Claire Denis” series) but it is a riveting psychological odyssey from launch to climatic nadir.

Salo or 120 Days of Sodom

23 Oct

A scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom." (Zebra Photofest)

“120 Days of Sodom,” the rapacious weave of sexual excess and debauchery penned by Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s, didn’t receive a commercial publishing until the 20th century, mostly in part because of its perceived depraved pornographic content.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic rendering of de Sade’s carnal excursion gone gonzo some 200 years later has often been called the most reviled film of all time, not just because of its stark, graphic nature, but more so for its aloof dehumanized detachment. Still, much like de Sade, with such infamy credited to his name, Pasolini looms a major cultural icon bridging zeitgeists, ideologies and art forms.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” his final work, remains a hot topic of discussion, most recently rekindled after Criterion Collection’s reissue on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, and is also part of the Harvard Film Archive‘s ongoing “Furious and Furiouser” series about maverick filmmaking outside the studio system in the ’70s. The program, inspired by the anti-Hollywood ire of Sam Peckinpah, includes such eclectic and wide ranging works as Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably” and even “Saturday Night Fever.”

In a historical context, it’s ironic that “Salò” was Pasolini’s film. The film (and de Sade’s underlying work) pulls heavily from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” most notably the “Circle of S—” and “Circle of Blood” chapters that conclude the work. Leading up to those two fine portrayals of fecal feasting and slow homicidal executions (genital burning, sodomy to expiration, scalping and dismemberment) there’s a succession of bacchanal orgies where those subjugated to the whim of the ruling few, must entertain or provide services of sensual pleasuring, and should they balk or fail, the discipline is swift, cruel and even lethal.

Pasolini, a known homosexual and something of a libertine, didn’t live to see his film’s controversial ripple throughout the world (it was banned in many countries upon its initial release in 1975). He was murdered outside Rome, run over (repeatedly) by his own Alfa Romeo driven by a 17-year-old hustler who claimed Pasolini picked him up and made unwanted sexual advances (even with a confession there remains much conjecture as to the nature of events).

Given grim dithyrambs of debasement in “Salò,” the film’s being is ultimately more eerily prophetic than sadistically ironic. The great director Michelangelo Antonioni (“The Passenger” and “L’Avventura”), a contemporary countryman of Pasolini, remarked that the poet-turned-filmmaker, “was the victim of his own characters.”  Continue reading

The Overnight

2 Jul
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The Overnight is one of those on-the-clock, dark comedies driven by melodrama and sexually charged situations. You’ve been there before with Edward Zwick’s Chicago-based About Last Night and Martin Scorsese’s late-night SoHo carouse, After Hours. The Overnight jumps in as the indie, LA-staged version.

The backbone to writer-director Patrick Brice’s late-nigher however isn’t rom-com relationship hell or a data entry wonk’s midnight sojourn into madness, but 30-something ennui and the notion that the grass may be greener, juicier, and more inviting in the boudoir of someone else’s castle. Meet Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling), a pair of young urbanites recently transplanted to Silver Lake from Seattle. Alex still sports a grunge-style goatee and is a stay-at-home dad while Emily does something techie that fetches enough dinero to live in a nice, somewhat swank neighborhood. And nice is absolutely the perfect word, as Alex and Emily are boringly nice, socially awkward, and a bit stiff.  Continue reading

The Hunting Ground

14 Mar

‘The Hunting Ground’: Quest to defeat sex assault becomes more of an odyssey

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Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick again navigates the grim, dark terrain of sex offense, this time delving into the pervasive culture of rape on college campuses. The result in “The Hunting Ground” may be somewhat less effective than his sharp, Oscar-nominated depiction of sexual assault and the subsequent cover-ups within the military in “The Invisible War,” but no less poignant. The timing of the film couldn’t be more apt or ironic either, as trending frat house SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or “sexual assault expected” as the film has it) makes national headlines this week for its racist rites and gets tagged here for rampant drink, drug and bag tactics. It seems that where there’s smoke there’s fire.

031315i LeviathanThe film centers on two former assault victims, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, young women who through diligence and genuine concern for others become de facto activists and leverage Title IX to hold schools accountable. Their quest, while earnest and just, meanders at times. It’s here that Dick seems to have lost his way as well, but as the girls’ state-hopping odyssey continues onward he uses their quest to float the notion that nothing is being done at these universities because the presidents don’t want a scandal – any type of stain or negative publicity could mean the loss of funding and well-heeled applicants. “We don’t condone rape, but it never happens” seems to be the mantra from coast to coast, and god forbid if it’s a prized student athlete caught in the crosshairs.

Most moving is the testimony of Erica Kinsman, who alleged she was raped by Heisman-winning quarterback and certain NFL first-rounder Jameis Winston. The pain and anguish she endures as she’s pushed aside by authorities and administrators at Florida State is as palpable as it is frustrating. What’s telling is her composure and the deep-seeded support from her parents, who until then bled FSU red. Also picked out in the film are Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who refused comment.  Continue reading

Fifty Shades of Grey

15 Feb

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Orgy of insipidity humiliates everyone but intended victim

Through an act of fan-fiction gone amok, “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s tedious YA vampire-cum-romance series about restraint and crossing over, got spun into a worldwide must-read that transposed characters and tropes into the carnal taking of a fetish-driven business tycoon (some might call them vampires too), all the while butchering any sense of literary craft to an unconscionable degree. Sadly, I can attest that “Fifty Shades of Grey” the movie is better than the pages on which E.L. James swapped out fangs in favor of butt plugs – and all in time for Valentines Day.

021415i Fifty Shades of GreyMake no mistake, the insipid, light whipping of S&M porn that sparked a wildfire among soccer moms and other unlikely segments will rake it in big at the box office. And for those saying it’s a cheap misogynistic fantasy, keep in mind it’s written by a woman and directed by a woman. Yes, there’s tons of nudity, but erotic? No. “Nine 1/2 Weeks” lived in an equally campy and tawdry place when it came out in 1986, but there the stars, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger (actors recognized by the Academy over their careers), under the sweaty, pandering eye of Adrian Lyne, conjured up something titillating, even human, albeit inane – and there was far less nudity. Here director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who made the wonderful young John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy,” has leads Dakota Johnson (the offspring of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) and Irish actor Jamie Dornan (he doesn’t act, he just poses and looks good doing it) get naked as often as possible – but there’s little fire. Much of what goes on in the boudoir or Grey’s playroom (a BDSM antechamber) feels like a soft-core model shoot for a tier-two gentleman’s mag, and someone decided to let the camera roll and capture the tedium in between the postured highs.

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The Duke of Burgundy

31 Jan

‘The Duke of Burgundy’: Arthouse eros brings ’60s sheen to S&M, mind games

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Water sports, S&M and mind games abound in this lushly shot tale of lesbian role play, but all is not a titillating charade when it comes to the matters of the heart. “The Duke of Burgundy” takes place mostly within the cloistered confines of a Hungarian manse – a study, a kitchen, obviously “the bathroom,” the boudoir (the pair in bed shown provocatively only in reflective and refractive mirrors and metal objects) and a coffin in an anteroom – and the surrounding bucolic meadow where the lovers occasionally meander on their euro-styled bikes. Sure, there’s also the hall of academia, where Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) dishes her lepidopterology findings with her fellows, but mostly it’s a photo op for well-shined boots set to tedious scientific droning.

013015i The Duke of BurgundyThe dynamic between Cynthia and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is ever evolving. Initially Evelyn appears the part of a maid late for work on her first day. She’s obedient and demure in her duties, but under constant scrutiny and certain to make a mistake, and when she does she’s “punished” by being used as “a human toilet.” One might wince at such an act (it takes place offscreen, but the acute sound editing registers it profoundly in the viewer’s mind), but such are the games a pair in love play, and they go on to involve shining boots and being made to bake your own birthday cake without getting to eat it. Then there’s the time spent in that coffin-like chest – and through it all, Cynthia drinks plenty of water, ever ready to dispense her form of urinary discipline.   Continue reading