The Reeler


July 27, 2007

Candid Cameras

Annual Scanners video festival spotlights unflinching views of American sexuality

Split-screen sex: A still from A Certain Foolish Consistency, featured in this year's Scanners festival (Photo: Edin Vélez)

Americans are famously prurient. We prudishly freak out about sexual conduct while greedily poring over the details. This year’s line-up at Scanners, Lincoln Center’s annual video festival (opening tonight), grapples with our sex obsession in surprising ways.

Amid six shorts programs, an interactive video event and Armond White's regular evening of curated music videos, the festival’s two full-length offerings set the tone. The documentary, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm makes an implicitly political argument about the way women’s sexuality is viewed in America, while the narrative feature, A Certain Foolish Consistency employs explicit sex scenes to flesh out its highly abstract concept. Although very different in style and content, both films present a view of American sexuality in stark contrast to any misty love scene Hollywood has to offer.

It might seem that a film about the history of the vibrator would be full of gasp-worthy moments designed for racy promos. But not Passion and Power; the documentary by Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori is unfailingly thoughtful and thorough. “The hook is that it’s about the history of the vibrator, but it’s just about a lot more,” Omori said in an interview with The Reeler. “It’s about the rights of women and how women have been seen and manipulated by institutions, medicalized, so that’s a way of getting to how women’s sexuality has been all these years.”

While the interviews in the film (many of them with legendary sexologist and author Dr. Betty Dodson) establish a frank tone, the B-roll, most of it shot by Omori, deals primarily in metaphor. “We tried to take the clichés and reframe them or put another spin on them,” Omori said. “You know, like using flowers and things like that are kind of corny, overused, but somehow bring them back to their original meaning.” Lightning striking, flowers blooming and a jellyfish undulating its way underwater punctuate straightforward commentary on vibrators, masturbation and sex parties.

Another jellyfish receives a significant amount of screen-time in A Certain Foolish Consistency, although director Edin Vélez swore in an interview that his underwater wonders were for visual effect only, not intended as a sexual metaphor. And really, he doesn’t much need metaphor, as Consistency offers up plenty of explicit sex. The film’s loose narrative primarily attempts to capture the idea of human experience as an infinite number of “nows” occurring simultaneously. The story crowds around a day in the life of Molly, a deeply unhappy twentysomething struggling to end a relationship with her long-term boyfriend while flagrantly cheating on him. Molly's story in inextricably intertwined with New York; as she traverses the city a layered split-screen flashes a series of interactions and scenarios in step with, or in contrast to, her experience.

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Velez said he used sex to illustrate the concept because of its arresting and immediate presence, both on-screen and in life, and because of decades-long desire to incorporate sex into his work. “When Jesse Helms did this whole thing against the National Endowment for the Arts," Vélez recalled to The Reeler, "and they were looking at performers like Karen Finley and photographers like Mapplethorpe, and they were being attacked viciously because of their work dealing with sexuality, I was horrified. I remember at the time thinking, ‘I should do something that deals with sexuality as a reaction this attack.' But I couldn’t come up with anything.’”

Although Vélez recognized that making an laced with graphic content is not without commercial consequences, he remained convinced of the importance of Consistency's sexual element. “Every work that I’ve done has been broadcast on PBS, and most of it has premiered at the Museum of Modern Art," Vélez said. "My feeling was, 'This day and age is not so sexuality-friendly, and certainly not at PBS.' And I remember when I started to look at the rough cut, when I saw how these images had been put together, I thought to myself, 'OK, I’ve closed off a lot of the usual doors for distribution for this film.' But I felt it was they way that it had to go. In a lot of ways I wish I’d gone further.”

Wendy Slick looked beyond political control and emphasized her desire to add a new, more nuanced element to the way Americans talk about sex. “I think in some strange way we haven’t come as far as we think we’ve come,” she said. “It’s still uncomfortable for people to talk about this. What we’ve found it that this is culture is either ready for really, really lurid discussions about sex or really academic ones and this middle ground which we’re in, you know talking about it intelligently with some humor and historical background and context is a little threatening to people. And I think that’s rather shocking.”

Traditionally form, not content, has been the shocker at video festivals like Scanners, and while plenty of experimental videos are on the program this year, artists are pushing the boundaries with their subject matter far more than their editing software. Vélez summed up the dynamic nicely. “I feel that these are very retrograde times," he said, "and I feel that part of an artist’s role is to make a stand and take action in whatever odd ways we do.”

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