Monday, February 18, 2008

Adam Hartzell on Passion & Power: the Technology of Orgasm


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Adam Hartzell sent me a review of a new documentary, one that he saw at a film festival and placed at #3 on his 2007 top ten list. It's opening next Friday at the Rafael Film Center and the Roxie, a booking whose timing has turned out to be unexpectedly topical, as Adam will explain. Take it away, Adam:
My special moment at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival was providing the rare Y chromosome in line along San Rafael's Fourth Street waiting to enter the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center and being approached by a curious older woman asking for which movie everyone was queued up. I smiled at this woman much my elder and said with a joyous lilt in my voice, "A movie about the history of the vibrator!" This is San Francisco, so she didn’t slap me. She said, "Oh?" with raised eyebrows and laughed slightly while walking away probably muttering in her head a modification of what I typed above (e.g., "Only in the Bay Area"). I’m sure she’s heard more shocking things during her time in Marin County than what I had just said.

The film we were queued up to see was one of my favorite films from last year, Passion & Power: the Technology of Orgasm by Bay Area filmmakers Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori. Based on the book The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria", the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction by scholar of domestic technologies Rachel P. Maines, PhD, Passion & Power is "A brief history of the relationship of one simple invention – the vibrator – to one complex human experience, the misunderstood female orgasm." And this lovely film will be returning to the the Bay Area starting February 22nd at the Rafael and the Roxie. I urge even the most sexually squeamish to give this wonderful documentary a trial for the "tasteful" way the issue is approached. Symbolic visuals of jellyfish and flowers and arias in place of the sights and sounds of real genitalia underscore the conversations with scholars and businesswoman interviewed throughout the film. (Although it still presents a contradiction since the film praises the work of Betty Dodson whose infamous display of the various "styles" of women's genitals at a consciousness event is highlighted in the film. If you’re praising Dodson's choice, wouldn't you want to follow her lead and let it all spread out in your documentary as well?)

The pleasures found in this film are definitely in the scholarly details, how Maines' needlework scholarship "kept being distracted by these goofy ads" in old copies of Good Housekeeping and Modern Priscilla (tagline – "The Magazine That Helps".) The beginning of the tale will take you back 2,500 years or so as it chronicles the social history of women's bodies and their place in the evolving myths throughout the ages. From this history lesson we revisit Victorian ideals that demanded the "social camouflage" of orgasms by labeling them 'hysterical paroxysms'. This medicalization allowed doctors to prescribe medical massage treatments. But these doctors eventually sought out a treatment with greater efficiency, seeking something de-skilled of the arduous work involved in helping their patients paroxysm hysterically, leading the way towards advanced vibrator technologies. Vibrators then find their place in the early 19th century revolutions of rural electrification, the transport of goods, and the very advertising that distracted Maines from her initial research. It wasn't until another revolutionary technology, moving pictures, that vibrators were packed up in metaphorical shoeboxes in the back of the proverbial closet. As they began to appear in stag films doctors and sanitariums (what we'd call a health spa now) didn't want to be associated with this re-branding of the vibrator's image.

With such a topic, humor is a necessary safety valve, and this is wonderfully provided by the expert timing of the performance artist Reno (some might just call her a comic, but we forget that comics are also performance artists) and the editing of visual underscoring by Slick and Omori. (Omori is also the Director of Photography of the film and appears ever so slightly in the mirror in the background of some of the interviews, where you can just make out her signature presence, her gorgeously striking, long, white hair.) This humor is needed even more as the film follows the unnecessary tragedy of the arrest of a vibrator saleswoman in Texas. To avoid weeping, one truly needs to laugh in the absurdity of the false justice applied in Texas and other states where dildo ownership is curtailed while gun ownership is promoted. Thankfully, since the completion of this film, that absurdity has been addressed. As a wonderful Valentine's Day present to true justice, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down the Texas law as a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th amendment, doing so on the 14th of February of this year. With Louisiana, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia having similar laws declared unconstitutional, Alabama remains the only state exhibiting a perverted nonsense of justice.

So whether your Valentine's Day came to fruition in the form of a satisfying or unsatisfying evening, I couldn’t recommend this film any more highly than to tell you how happy this film made me. I had a smile throughout and after the screening, none of which had to do with physical stimulation but everything to do with intellectual stimulation. This is a celebration of our bodies controlled by ourselves while the powers that desire to be seek to supersede that control from us. In the end, Passion & Power is the true feel-good movie of the year.
Thanks, Adam! Also of note on the Rafael's current calendar are an evening with Ray Harryhausen, a shared booking of new prints of the 400 Blows and a Summer With Monika the week of March 7-13, and a David Lean mini-retro March 21-27. And the Roxie is a venue for numerous film festivals, including the upcoming Noise Pop Film Festival and Irish Film Festival, and of course the currently-running IndieFest, which has added encore screenings for this Thursday, of Stuart Gordon's Stuck and a local shorts program including Jay Rosenblatt's absolute must-see take on the banality of evil, Human Remains. Both venues are on the long list of venues where one can watch the Oscars on a big screen with a room full of strangers next Sunday. Last year I tried the Roxie's Up the Academy and it was a hoot. Presumably Passion & Power will move to the Little Roxie during the Oscars. I'm excited to check it out!