Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Your Deepest, Most Hidden Sexual Fantasies": Midnight Desires (1976)

One of my favourite things in life is queer media. When I refer to things as "queer" in everyday life, I often forget that many people associate this term exclusively with "gay," but since the 1980s initiation of "queer theory," the term has come to mean something more complex. When something is "queer" it means that gender/sexual norms are being subverted or undermined in some way; similarly, when used as a verb -- "to queer" -- it means taking what is ostensibly "straight" and exposing the instabilities of heterosexuality, masculinity, femininity, and other norms taken for granted as natural. In a way, queer theory took off where feminism was stumbling, and now they enjoy a healthy, complementary relationship.

With this in mind, it's no wonder that I enjoy queer moments so much, as I am a firm believer that gender and sexuality cannot be confined to categories. As a great thinker once said, "Gender is such a drag." The proliferation of sexual categories is testament to that -- no wonder many people now simply identify as queer, rather than having to figure out which of the potentially limiting identities they belong to. Furthermore, even if they do choose to align with a particular identity, society will often put them in either the gay or straight camp regardless of the individual's proclaimed sexuality. Society loves simplistic binaries. That's when "queer" becomes useful.

I remember a while back, a friend told me that Blonde Ambition is the gayest straight porn film ever made. Well, I hereby declare Shaun Costello's Midnight Desires to be the queerest. Not only that, it's striking in its framing and cinematography, and the format (fantasies that play out like vignettes) is a simple yet exciting way of exploring the sexual unconscious. And to top it all off, it's fantastic fun.

The premise is delightfully simple: two rich socialites, Wall Street stock analyst John (Eric Edwards) and his wife Amy (Jenny Baxter) have been invited to the Van Nostrands (Jamie Gillis as Martin; CJ Laing as Elaine). Amy believes Martin might be checking John out for Vice Presidency, but on the face of it they have simply been invited for "an evening of games." Martin appears to be insane, believing WWII is still going on, and to alleviate his depression at receiving news of Hitler's invasion of Poland, they decide to play a game of confessions. They will each share their "deepest, most hidden sexual fantasies," Elaine explains, and then vote on which is the best. The remainder of the film is each person's sexual fantasy explained, then depicted, and finally analyzed by the group before they move on to the next one.

After some initial nerves, they get into it, and Elaine elects to go first. Her fantasy involves being punished by hooded men for some form of guilt -- nothing specific, as she points out, but rather a general sense of guilt. "I feel I'm the alter," she explains, "I'm to be sacrificed." What ensues is a dark and eerily-shot ritual of humiliation and degradation at the hands of the anonymous, hooded men. She is whipped, then fucked in the stocks, verbally degrading herself throughout. What is interesting about the way the scene is shot is that Elaine is framed as the subject throughout the scene, both visually and aurally.

Lo and behold, my reading of the scene matches the rest of the group's analysis. Much like some feminist analyses of rape fantasies, Martin explains that while his wife's fantasy seems to be about being punished, in actuality this is not the case: "The men in your fantasy had no voices. You kept saying you were sacrificing yourself to their will. And, in fact, they had no will at all. They were doing exactly what you told them to do, following your orders. They were in fact your slaves." While it is left unstated, the further implication of the fantasy is that women experience guilt in connection to their sexuality because of the ways in which society heaps shame upon the sexually assertive woman. For this reason, rape fantasies serve as a guilt-free, controlled sexual encounter.

Next up is John, in one of my favourite sequences on film. "Make it a good one!" exclaims his wife, and he does! Initially, John's fantasy seems to be a run-of-the-mill transaction with a prostitute, but as John immediately makes clear, there is much more to it. After the transaction, John leaves the room and returns with a girlfriend, whereupon "a man in a tuxedo" appears, only it's "not really a man, but the prostitute." Throughout the remaining set-up, John refers to the woman as "he" and "him," as he describes the prostitute pulling a "giant dildo" from "his" pants. The fantasy scene that ensues is disorientating in its framing, almost dreamlike, as John fucks his girlfriend while sucking the prostitutes strap-on, and finally is anally penetrated at the same time as he is vaginally penetrating his girlfriend. This is one of those scenes I thought would never go the places I wanted it to, and did.

John's wife is very taken with her husband's fantasy (as I was), exclaiming, "I think that's incredibly sexy!" Meanwhile, Elaine and Martin are busy psychoanalyzing him, concluding that he has homosexual tendencies. "There's nothing wrong with being curious about having a thing with your own sex," Elaine contends. She's sure he's "quite heterosexual." Martin is impressed, noting that John "managed to have a homosexual experience without having any men present." In queer theory, this is called "homosociality," which I've mentioned a couple of times in the past. It refers to the male bonding that occurs in society through the bodies of women as a way of strengthening patriarchal systems, but also to engage in male-male intimacy while deflecting the homosexual threat. A woman's body typically functions as a tool in this process, but violence can also function in a similar way.

It's no coincidence, with this homosociality in mind, that Martin's fantasy begins with his embodiment of a boxer, Kid Kelly, and swiftly moves on to gang rape as a way of taking out his frustrations. Kid Kelly is asked by the mob to throw the fight he is preparing for. Angered, he grabs the mob boss's "bitch," Lola (Vanessa Del Rio), drags her into the locker room, and rapes her with a bunch of his buddies. The sequence where Martin/Kid Kelly is starting to lose it is intense: while the mob boss continues to talk at the Kid, his voice is silenced by a heady mixture of distorted sounds of punching while Kelly's face becomes increasingly hopeless, and shots of a bare-chested man punching a punch bag are edited in. It's an effective representation of a man's building frustration, and ends with him grabbing Lola and forcing her into the locker room, indicative of the relationship between masculine frustrations and the use of women's bodies as an outlet.

The gang rape that ensues is heavy on verbal communication and laughter between the men, who effectively communicate over and through Lola's body. There is also more literal male-male contact, as the scene involves cocks rubbing against each other, bodies in intimate proximity, and Kid Kelly rubbing another man's semen into Lola's face. What might have been figuratively homoerotic, is rendered literal, and the scene as a whole is suggestive of the connections between constructions of masculinity, homoeroticism, and sexual violence.

While I detected the homoerotics of Martin's fantasy, John theorizes that Lola represents Martin's mother in a classic Oedipal scenario: "Martin, you're a motherfucker!" John's wife, Amy, is the final player, and her fantasy is located in 18th century England. Amy is a "peasant girl" collecting water at the stream, when three men on horseback approach looking for lodgings. After telling them where the inn is, she runs away, but they all find themselves at the inn later that night where they get drunk and bawdy before all going for a romp in one of the upper rooms. It's a messy orgy, depicting the eroticized, fantasy class transgressions of elite Amy. The group realise that Amy's fantasy is different from the others: "it doesn't mean anything." Amy is so honest with herself, that her fantasy is just about having a good time, which according to the group means it must be the best fantasy of all. Personally, I think the way Amy is clearly "slumming" in her fantasy is more significant than the group allow, but it's certainly the least complex of the four -- a neat final chapter, and a fitting statement to close out the film.

The film closes with John and Amy departing, leaving Martin and Elaine laughing to themselves -- evidently, this evening of games they just executed is a regular occurrence for the Van Norstrands. Midnight Desires is mighty queer, but aside from the sexual dynamics it is also incredibly creative in its framing, angles, and colour palate, and I had great difficulty selecting just a few stills for this post. There are literally dozens of frames that so impressed me, I wanted to post them here. You'll just have to watch the film for yourselves. In terms of the sex scenes, this film does what I wish current porn would do: take risks. The vignettes are framed in a way that is haunting, while the film as a whole manages to maintain a mischievous, adventurous sense of humour that renders the experience simultaneously fun and intellectually provocative.

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