B-Movies Extended: Sex (and Our Favorite Directors)

What do a director's films say about their sex lives? After A Dangerous Method, we got to thinking about Tim Burton, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma and many more...

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

Earlier this week on The B-Movies Podcast, Bibbs, Witney and myself began rudely speculating about director David Cronenberg’s persona, private sexual proclivities, specifically calling attention to his habit of featuring characters and relationships in his films that are distinguished by pronounced sadomasochistic tendencies. Everyone, of course, loves medical bondage, car crash sex, and watching Debbie Harry put cigarettes out on her boobs, but the real reason the subject was so exciting for us was because of the way it recontextualized the filmmaker’s entire body of work – not just films, or parts of films, that deal directly with sexuality, but the whole network of themes that defines Cronenberg’s oeuvre – specifically, his fixation on the primal linkage between the intensely vulnerable human body, and the equally mutable and imperfect human mind.

Viewing art through the lens of what we already know about the people creating it has become pretty par for the course in our culture, whether you’re debating with your friends about which rappers are hardcore enough to be taken seriously, or writing a term paper for school on the various ways Quentin Crisp’s creative trajectory was influenced by his sexual orientation. Sexuality is a particularly potent subject because it’s the single facet of an individual’s personality that is both deeply personal, and automatically political – plus, in some circles, open and frank discussion of sex is still considered taboo. Most people who aren’t weird or crazy think about sex every single day, and it’s difficult to deny the impact it inevitably has on an individual’s personal development and worldview.

Whether or not Cronenberg is actually into whips and chains (or maybe just light spanking and handcuffs), imagining what deep, hidden drives might have shaped or inspired him is a natural and defensible consequence of being deeply engaged with his work, and since his new film, A Dangerous Method, deals with the early history of psychoanalysis (and our personal integrity has already been thoroughly sullied anyway), we figured we’d subject a few more of our favorite filmmakers to the same ignoble treatment and analyze their films to figure out what gets them hot in the bedroom.

 

RUSS MEYER

At first glance, Meyer seems cut-and-dried to the point of being unworthy of mention. Renowned worldwide as an early pioneer of the American softcore sex epic, Meyer’s filmography includes such glittering and immoral gems as Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens,Mudhoney, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Initially written off as a cheap pornographer, Meyer eventually became recognized during the final years of his life for the daring and bombastic auteur that he was, and his work is now discussed as much for its bizarrely singular visual aesthetic and jaw-dropping, rapid-fire montage editing as for its staggering quantity of heaving, naked breasts. No one is denying that Meyer had a boob fetish, but while the aggressive, freewheeling delivery of his films might suggest a hedonistic sexual extrovert, Meyer’s wide-eyed glorification of female sexual empowerment (and his characteristic low, low, low angles, orchestrated to lovingly maximize his female stars’ curves) point more compellingly toward a devoted and groveling submissive personality. In films like Faster, Pussycat, for example, which amplified the petite Tura Satana into a swaggering, sexually ferocious Amazon, Meyer built an entire, languid narrative around a cast of buxom, lawless females stalking around a barren desert and wantonly abusing, manipulating, and murdering every hapless male they come across. Satana, with her skintight black slacks and motorcycle boots, and her smoldering vindictive scowl, has become an enduring icon of the BDSM community thanks to her role in the film.

Ruthless, sexually conniving bitches are often the focus of Meyer’s movies – Erica Gavin’s character in Vixen, for example, or Raven de la Croix’s in Up! – and though they might occasionally be subject to routine, token comeuppance, their brash dismissal of conventional sexual ethics and social decorum is clearly what we’re meant to find so alluring to begin with. We doubt Meyer was ever an eager recipient of hardcore pain or sexual humiliation, but we’re guessing he at least popped a stiffy once or twice while giving some pretty lady a foot massage.

 

RALPH BAKSHI

Another apparent cheap shot, Bakshi is a groundbreaking experimental animator best known for directing the X-rated cinematic adaptation of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat in 1972. He is also responsible for the Tarantino favorites Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, as well as the rotoscoped Frank Frazetta homage Fire and Ice. Bakshi has gotten a lot of s**t from censorship organizations for his frank depictions of mid-century life in the American ghetto, particularly for his carnivalesque approach to race hatred and gang violence. Coonskin, a scathing indictment of Black oppression in the United States since the Civil War, was ironically pulled from theatres shortly after its premier when studio executives received hysterical complaints, not from African American groups, but from outraged white liberals. It was later sheepishly retitled Streetfight and granted a sober, quiet VHS release, but has yet to see the light of DVD or Blu-Ray despite its landmark cult status. (Wu-Tang Clan has apparently claimed it’s their favorite film.)

Bakshi has a tendency to romanticize loose women in his films, and even though he’s gotten some guff for openly mocking Second Wave Feminism in Fritz, and pulling such wacky stunts in Coonskin as using a voluptuous, flag-clad beauty queen with a gun in her vagina to represent a fickle American government, the most earnest sexual wish fulfillment fantasies in his films generally revolve around loud, socially aggressive, and unapologetically promiscuous female badasses casually falling into bed with nebbishy, bumbling nerds – sword-weilding, giggly bombshell Eleanor in Wizards, for example, or s**t-talking bartender Carol in Bakshi’s semi-autobiographical HeavyTraffic.

Unlike Meyer, we’re guessing Bakshi is probably a huge slut in real life, but it’s forgivable, because we’re sure most of the ladies he runs around with are unapologetically slutty too, which makes it kind of adorable. We’re pretty positive Bakshi has had group sex at least a handful of times in his life, and he probably loves being cuckolded, especially when he gets to watch, and possibly videotape.

 

DARIO ARGENTO

Argento is the probably the only filmmaker working today who has produced a sizeable body of mesmerizing, brilliant work, but who I would also be kind of scared to share an apartment with. Argento has admitted in interviews that he has a deep, pathological fascination with watching beautiful women be sliced to ribbons, and to be fair, he’s often done a lovely job aesthetically with his filmic depictions of same. His operatic 1977 horror film Suspiria still makes regular appearances on Top 10 lists, thanks in part to its arresting cinematography and disorienting Psychotronic soundtrack, and his gritty early giallo films, like Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, are some of the most quintessential, and heavily-referenced examples of the genre.

Argento genuinely strikes me as a person with deep-seated inner demons that he has been forced to confront through his art, which may explain his prolific output, as well as his inconsistent performance as a director – many of his films are awe-inspiring paragons of heart-wrenching, beautiful psychodrama, while others are simply meandering, grumpy, and impenetrable.  From our careful observations of mainstream Japanese culture, we know that there are lots of people out there who like to get off thinking about women getting raped by tentacle monsters, or dismembered and used to upholster office furniture, and if that sort of thing is Argento’s bag, then we’re completely fine with that, as long as he’s making movies about it and not actually doing it. He seems resolutely invested in the cinematic medium as a ritualized outlet for his sexual fixations, and we think that’s probably kind of healthy and cool, actually. (God forbid he ever suffer a creative dry spell, though.)

We do kind of wish he’d stop casting his adult daughter, though. Asia Argento is great, but it’s still a little creepy.
 

NEXT: Witney Seibold has some interesting theories about what Werner Herzog, Tim Burton and Lars Von Trier are up to when they're not making movies…


 

FROM THE DESK OF WITNEY SEIBOLD:
 

The latest installment of B-Movies Extended is intended to follow episode #43 of CraveOnline's very B-Movies Podcast, an episode jam-packed with intelligent and well-thought-out reviews, no small amount of guillotine-sharp witty banter, and a depth philosophical insight unseen on Earth since Socrates drank that hemlock a few years ago. Also knob jokes.

On this last episode, I, William, and our special guest Devon Ashby not only talked about Sybil Danning's breasts, but also, in our discussion of David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method, postulated on Cronenberg's own sexual fetishes, proposing that the man – and this is only intuiting through the content of his films, which feature sex in car crashes, and a lot of prosthetic vaginas – is like a dom a in the bedroom. Cronenberg, more than most directors, is laser-focused on the mechanical ins-and-outs of the physical sex act, but usually explores said mechanics without showing any actual conventional sex on screen. This is the man who, after all, put a large vaginal aperture in James Woods' abdomen, and had him fetishistically whip a TV set in his 1983 classic Videodrome. If you haven't seen Videodrome, you need to immediately.

And while sex is often on Cronenberg's mind, and questions of his own sexual habits easily leap to mind when watching his movies, the questions we raised in this week's episode inspired us to, in the most playful possible fashion, think of the sexual habits of other famous film directors based solely on their films. If the sex lives of models, actors and other celebrities can be enough to run an entire billion-dollar tabloid industry, why not also postulate on the bedroom dealings of some more thoughtful filmmaking artisans?

This article is purely speculative, and is the result of a group of goof-addled minds. It is not meant to directly reflect on the actual character of any of the people herein, positively or negatively. It is not based on any semblance of fact. These are not rumors we heard, nor is it even hearsay. This is all entirely made up. And it was done, I might add, out of a pure affection for the people in question.

 

WERNER HERZOG

Werner Herzog is the German filmmaker behind such classics as Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Stroszek (1977), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). His more recent films include Rescue Dawn (2006), and the oddball remake-cum-sequel Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009). All of his fiction films seem to trace the stories of extreme personalities that border on madness. His leading men either have huge ambitions that are easily destroyed in the face of nature, or men whose fantasy lives (and madness) tend to bleed into their real lives. He also tends to skew toward true-life details, usually filing in dangerous natural places that cannot be simulated; in Fizcarraldo, the story of a mad opera love in the Amazon who decides to drag a whole ship over a hill, Herzog had to actually drag a real ship over a real hill. Herzog has also made many legitimate documentary films, often dealing with similar subject matter. For Herzog, the line between documentary and fiction can be traipsed over on a whim.

Herzog would be drawn toward an extreme kind of woman. One who had done some jail time, or perhaps had even spent some time in a mental institution. Not dangerous necessarily, but not entirely safe either. She'd be a talker. He'd want to have sex outdoors in a dangerous location. Near the light of a forest fire, or during a hurricane. Maybe on the rim of a volcano. He would be careful to please his partner, but would not succumb to cries of passion. Then, when they were done, he would hastily redress, scoop up his partner over his shoulder, and flee on foot to safety. He would calmly thank her for the experience.

 

TIM BURTON

Tim Burton is a monster movie fanatic who, perhaps along with Bauhaus, pretty much founded the Goth movement. The Goth tendency to dress in Edwardian funereal ware, read old Edward Gorey books, and brood under black mesh was seen as early as 1988 in his Beetlejuice. His films are well known, whether they're high-concept Oscar bait (Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Big Fish), crowd-pleasing reinventions (Alice in Wonderland, Batman), or high-profile failures (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). His best films are typically the ones he had the most creative input in making (Edward Scissorhands is often cited, alongside Ed Wood, to be his best). His films, while sometimes rated “R,” have a playful, childlike fable quality to them, as they are full of fantasy monsters or set design that look like creative children's drawings. Most every teenager of a certain stripe has gone through a Tim Burton phase.

Tim Burton's famous girlfriends tend to belie his type. He likes haggard-looking, classically dressed Goth girls with mussed hair and eye makeup. Women who look like they went to a fancy dress ball the night before, and slept in their fancy gown. I picture his bedroom to be a black-and-white-striped, velvet-lined chamber with a specially lit bed, a lot of multicolored candles. The bed is round, and is definitely a canopy bed. Really old carnival music will play in the background, very quietly. Burton will do a lot of necking and heavy petting, but he wouldn't undress all the way. He'll definitely insist that his partner leave on her striped stockings. There'd be a lot of cuddling and many very intense stares. He'd want to stroke your hair. Afterwards, he'd watch some of his personal 35mm prints of obscure cartoon shows. Then he'd lend you his Morrissey CDs, which he wouldn't care if he got back. He keeps his Morrissey CDs in a purloined milk crate. The next time he would call, he would ask if you had listened to them yet.

 

LARS VON TRIER

Lars Von Trier is the Danish director behind the recent Cannes hit Melancholia, which is currently in theaters in select cities. Von Trier is truly an enfant terrible of the filmmaking world, usually making films that are directly confrontational to the audience. In the mid 1990s, he came up with a new filmmaking system called Dogme, which was intended to put aesthetic purity back into film; and he created an elaborate list of rules that had to be stringently followed. Most of his films tend to be about the breakdown of human kindness, and the prevalence of sheer despair in the world. His Dancer in the Dark (2000) is a quirky, Björk-starring musical wherein a woman chooses to die rather than expose the man who robbed her. His Dogville (2003) shows what happens when straightforward ideas of Christian charity are put into practice, and the disastrous results; there is more than one act of rape. His Antichrist (2009) is one of the most depressing movies I have seen, fully dissecting ideas of madness and despair, punctuated by extreme sexual violence. In addition to making forthright films, he's also himself an in-your-face personality who does little to defend his films eloquently, preferring to start arguments or make half-baked comments about Adolf Hitler. He has been accused of misogyny, although I think such accusations aren't founded.

Lars Von Trier would not, as many believe, abuse his partner. Von Trier has actually started a high-end pornography company which is run entirely by, and is intended for, women. Not to get into too many gory details or stray into pornographic mechanics, but Von Trier would likely have, shall we say, many different loving and stimulating sexual accoutrements in his bedroom. When approaching his partners, he would make physical promises that he would most certainly make good on. He would make it seem as if his partners had passed a test, and were lucky to have bedded him. After the encounter, he would give out business cards to various shops around the world where such devices can be ordered, and he'd have lively conversations about his interests. If his partner ever brought up his movies, he'd blush a little, and try to change the subject. If pressed he'd share stories of some of his exploits, not bragging about the good ones, and relating details about the bad ones with an appealing embarrassed aplomb.
 

NEXT: Bibbs finds a new excuse to bemoan the lack of female directors in the film industry, and ponders the subtexts of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Roger Corman…


 

FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:


We have a weird topic this week, and between guns in vaginas and sex on volcanoes I feel like the good stuff has probably already been covered. I also feel like we’ve adequately disclaimed that we know nothing about these directors’ sex lives, but are only extrapolating based on the kinds of preoccupations we notice in their bodies of work. Are we good? Good.

The film industry is, sadly, centered on males. They’re usually the target audience of film studios, which are mostly run by men, and of filmmakers who, more often than not, are also men. The popular belief is that men are more focused on sex than their female counterparts, and while strictly speaking that’s not entirely true, it does seem that way sometimes. So we’ve focused on the male psyche so far in this installment of B-Movies Extended, and are continuing to do so, if only because I haven’t seen enough Kathryn Bigelow movies to say much about them, and Nora Ephron seems so focused on familiar and innocent mating ritual tropes that sex seems like it would be entirely unappealing to her. And while I suppose I appreciate Nancy Meyers’ interest in autumnal sexuality from Something’s Gotta Give, the film’s dramatic structure (the story ends halfway through the film and just keeps going) was so abominable to me that I choose not to think on it further.

So here then are three more men, damn it. I think they’re interesting folks, however, and I would very much like to read a tell-all about their personal lives.

 

ALFRED HITCHCOCK

I seem to reference Alfred Hitchcock a lot in my writings. It’s because he’s awesome, obviously. Calling him an auteur, if we’re allowing that such a thing can exist, seems fair. He may not have written any of his own films but he clearly gravitated towards material that interested him on a personal level. Hitchcock, who worked almost entirely during the fabled Production Code, was a consistently subversive sort. At a time when industry standards dicated that on-screen kisses were limited to three seconds in duration (oh yes, they were), he pushed the boundary as far as it could go in Notorious, in a drawn-out sequence which found Ingrid Bergman hanging on Cary Grant for several minutes, kissing so consistently the intimacy of a non-stop make out session comes across anyway.

Hitchcock also had a thing for blondes. Most of his more sensualized female characters, from Janet Leigh’s various states of nudity in Psycho to Eva Marie Saint’s irrepressible flirtations in North by Northwest (punctuated by shots of a train driving through a tunnel, which wasn’t so much of a cliché back then), were pretty damned blonde. Hitchcock seemed to explore his own obsessions with his leading ladies in Vertigo, which many critics regard as his most personal film. I think that’s a fair assessment. In that film, James Stewart is a private investigator hired to watch the sultry Kim Novak, falls in love with her from afar, and after her suicide finds a brunette (also played by Novak) and begins an elaborate process of turning her into his blonde ideal. You could argue that Hitchcock did something similar with many of his leading ladies, at least for the duration of his films.

So he had a bit of a fetish, it seemed. And I think that his insistence on pushing the boundaries of social propriety, as evidenced in his constant duels with the Hayes Code, implies a certain mentality that sex is best left behind mostly closed doors. Many of his most dastardly villains hide their seediness underneath a veneer of propriety, like the meek mama’s boy Norman Bates or the erudite and lightly disfigured Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) from The 39 Steps. But once he’s behind closed doors, watch out: Hitchcock’s films demonstrated a barely restrained sexual kink that probably made him a master in the sack as well as the director’s chair.

 

BRIAN DE PALMA

Basically he’s like Hitchcock, but kinkier, and usually not as good. That’s how people describe Brian De Palma’s films, and it’s tempting to apply that same sentiment to his sexuality, which unlike Hitchcock was completely unleashed in many of his classic, highly fetishistic films, like Dressed to Kill and Body Double. De Palma is known as a master stylist, which often makes his films feel like exercises in style over substance, but they are definitely all of a piece, and offer an interesting window into his own, personal, obviously sexual life.

But beyond his many obvious homages to Hitchcock and flashy cinematography, De Palma has a distinctly voyeuristic slant to many of his movies. Obviously Body Double, about a man who becomes obsessed with watching his neighbor stripping through a telescope and cascades into the world of commoditized voyeurism by entering the pornographic industry, supports this thesis. The proto-reality TV series that opens his Sisters, which finds a man tempted to watch a woman getting naked in public and secretly filmed in a state of excited quandary, supports it as well. But even in Dressed to Kill, he films Angie Dickinson’s shower scene from a distance, with the actress looking longingly towards the camera, as if she wants to be watched in a state of arousal. The rest of the film follows a prostitute and a young man very closely as they try to break through the supposedly private confines of a therapist’s office and clientele.

And yeah, that’s pretty kinky. Nothing wrong with it necessarily, but pretty kinky. It’s easy to imagine Brian De Palma sitting in an easy jar with a decanter of bourbon, chain smoking while watching his hypothetical lovers take his direction, perhaps with what we shall delicately call “a supporting cast.” Or maybe he gets it all out of his system in his lurid film work. We may never know.

 

ROGER CORMAN

Another director who dealt heavily with Production Codes during his early directing career, Roger Corman nevertheless exploited horny teenagers the world over with tawdry exhibitions like Swamp Diamonds – about escaped, hot female convicts in short shorts who kidnap a virile male and search for their missing loot – and the exhaustingly titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, which found scantily clad, vaguely Norse women scouring the Seven Seas for their missing boyfriends. But, in his early work at least, he’s not very crass about it. Corman seems to really respect women. They figure prominently in many of his films as powerful, progressive figures who are confident in their sexuality and fully capable of defeating giant pickle monsters all on their own.

Beverly Garland, whom we’ve discussed in B-Movies Extended before, frequently benefitted from Corman’s treatment of his female characters. In The Gunslinger she became a female sheriff after the death of her husband, wearing the (admittedly tight) pants in town and quickly earning respect for her abilities, even as she engaged in a flirtatious but wisely objective relationship with John Ireland, who has come to town to kill her. Beverly Garland was more of a housewife in It Conquered the World, but was at least the voice of reason who betrayed her husband Lee Van Cleef (who, in her defense, had already betrayed the human race to Venusians) and took on the villainous pickle monster on her own. And then of course there’s those Viking Women, who went on a dangerous journey just to get their men back, but proved themselves mightier than their mates in the process. It wasn’t a competition: they’re sexual people and missed romance and surely the mating process, and were willing to fight to get their men back.

Roger Corman’s respect for women, I imagine, led to satisfying but evenhanded relationships with his own mates. I suspect he was on the hunt for powerful women who were willing to trade off regularly in the regular power struggle that is sexual intercourse. I picture Corman and his warrior women playfully wrestling on the living room table over minor relationship difficulties like taking out the trash or who should make dinner tonight. I also imagine that he’s better adjusted than many of the other director’s on this week’s extended, although I may never know for sure.

 

WHAT DO YOU THINK YOUR FAVORITE DIRECTOR’S FILMS SAY ABOUT THEM?