Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Who Runs This Damn Place?": Anthony Spinelli's Sex World (1977).

Hi folks! I'm tackling a big one today--one of my favourite adult films and a classic by any standard, beautifully restored by Vinegar Syndrome and put out on DVD and Bluray: SexWorld (Dir. Anthony Spinelli, 1977). I've seen SexWorld a number of times but haven't put pen to paper regarding my thoughts on this complex, highly erotic masterpiece. For one thing, I had trouble articulating my thoughts on the racial aspects of the film. Thanks to two excellent books, Mireille Miller-Young's A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Duke UP, 2014) and Jennifer C. Nash's The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Duke UP, 2014), both of which have sections devoted to SexWorld, I have been able to work through and articulate my thoughts on the film more clearly. Race and gender are at the heart of SexWorld (and arguably all of American pornography). In particular, conflict--between sexes and races, as well as with and between our own desires--is the focus of the film. Based loosely on the 1973 film, Westworld, SexWorld takes place at a theme park where guests can live out their sexual fantasies. We are offered each of the principal players' back story complete with illustrative sex scene, their interview from which technicians ascertain the appropriate fantasy, and the sex scene in which the guest lives out the fantasy. These scenes are diverse not only in terms of the sexual script requested by the guest, but also in terms of the guest's expectations and fulfillment. Some of the guests receive an exact replica of the fantasy they desire; others have more ambiguous wants and the controllers must decide for the guest what they really need, sometimes to the initial reluctance of the guest.

Annette Haven as Dale.
There is a pattern, however: women, the film suggests, are more sexually literate and self-aware than men. The women also experience greater levels of shame and difficulty verbalizing their desires. However, they are clear in their own minds regarding what they want and need; they just have to overcome the obstacle of shame and embarrassment that women are raised to internalize. For example, Leslie Bovee plays Joan. Joan is married to Jerry (the wonderful Kent Hall), and from all appearances they have a healthy, passionate relationship. Indeed, unlike all the other back stories theirs shows two people deeply in love, happy, with an active and reciprocal sex life. However, something is amiss. It is clearly Joan who desires to visit SexWorld, leaving an ad out for Jerry to see. Rather than make this request directly, however, Joan passively prompts the idea and leaves Jerry to actually suggest it.

Joan (Leslie Bovee) explains her fantasy.
Likewise, in her interview at SexWorld Joan struggles painfully to articulate what she wants. The counselor assures her, "think of it, Joan, here--this weekend--you have a chance for your wildest dreams to come true, and no one will ever know." At this last part--"no one will ever know"--Joan looks up. The promise of discretion allows her to articulate her desire for her female neighbour, Marian (Abigail Clayton), though she is unable to look up during her explanation and keeps her eyes closed for the most part. During the fantasy, too, Joan must be encouraged and made to feel safe by the Marian bot. At one point Joan, seemingly ashamed of her sparse clothing, hurriedly says she will get changed. Marian stops her, reassuring her, "No, don't. I like what you're wearing." The film suggests sexual double standards and sexist hypocrisy lie at the root of such shame and embarrassment when Jerry, having already fulfilled his own fantasy, attempts to dissuade Joan of her own, pleading, "Joan, I don't want you to go." Joan retorts, "Was it good?" before leaving to embark on her own sexual adventure.

Ralph (Jack Wright) fulfills what he thinks is his fantasy.
Men are less self-aware, but more confident in articulating desires. Many men do get exactly what they ask for (Jerry being the clearest example), but there are two notable characters who must be coerced into realizing what they really want: Ralph and Roger (more on Roger later). Ralph (Jack Wright), an impotent, infantilized, emasculated man obsessed with his mother, desires to play the role of a cuckold, secretly watching his wife Milly (Kay Parker) play out her rape fantasy. He watches in distress, tears coming to his eyes.
Ralph is led away to experience what he really needs.
 An uninvited bot leads him away, telling him, "Don't torture yourself. They've only just begun. You can't change anything. Come with me." Ralph, refusing to look away, says, "But I can't. I--I have to stay." Eventually, Ralph allows himself to be led to a different room, where he tells the bot in a defeated tone, "I'm just wasting your time. I can't do it...myself. I...need help. Will you be my mama?" In a gesture that appears to restore Ralph's masculinity, the bot responds sharply, "Your mama is dead, Ralph. Do I look like your mama?" Ralph is able to achieve erection, and they fuck. When Ralph is reunited with Milly, he is playing the part of alpha male--the man "with balls" that Milly desired--and all is right.

Sex World bot comes to consciousness.
Women in general have sexual sovereignty. They are self-possessed and assured of what they need sexually; they also tend to have a dominant and controlling role and are invested with subjectivity on three different levels: the guests, the robots, and the controllers. In one eerie sequence, for example, the film complicates consent by offering a moment of ambiguous subjectivity to a robot. It is the only moment where a bot is shown awakening to consciousness at the command of the technicians. The subsequent fantasy sequence--Jerry's--is much more clearly a construct, controlled by technicians, than other sequences. Most notably, the technicians are shown adjusting the sequence after they recognize Jerry is becoming put off by the lack of attention paid to him, and that they're "losing him." The technicians alter the sequence, and the bots comically jump on Jerry and unbutton his pants in a manner reminiscent of the overly enthusiastic porn star hungry for cock. Moments such as this highlight the way the film exposes (male) fantasy constructs as predictable, repetitive, and sometimes in need of intervention.

The technicians analyze Roger (John Leslie).
Then there are the technicians and counselors themselves. Counselors interview the guests while the technicians observe via CCTV. Technicians then analyze the guest's desires and initiate the fantasy according to their conclusions. While there are male technicians, only the female technicians are shown discussing the guests and initiating the fantasies. The technicians do not simply replicate the guest's request; they analyze and construct the fantasy, sharing ideas and giving each other meaningful glances.

Women literally have their finger on the button.
As mentioned above, SexWorld has received a lot of attention in terms of race. Indeed, race factors into the resolution of sexual neurosis in three fantasy scenes: Dale (Annette Haven) gets over the trauma of a break up with her girlfriend by fucking a latino man; Roger (John Leslie) gets over his racism (as well as himself) by being coerced into sex with a black woman; Lisa (Sharon Thorpe) works through her abject loneliness and shame by indulging in her fantasy of Johnnie Keyes from Behind the Green Door.

Jill (Desiree West) seduces Roger (John Leslie).
"It just smells like ass. Go on, smell it."
The most provocative scene is that between two guests, Jill (Desiree West) and Roger (John Leslie). Roger is a racist, as well as being a cocky little prick. When the guests are riding the bus to SexWorld, Jill smiles and pouts at Roger, thoroughly unnerving him. Later, faced with Roger's particularly enigmatic desires, the technicians decide "it should be someone he hates." "He got turned off by that girl on the bus," one technician recalls. Smiling mischievously, the other technician initiates the fantasy. The subsequent scene is highly racialized, with shockingly racist dialogue. Jill--a guest and thus presumably living out her own fantasy of seducing a racist--performs a knowing, "hyperbolic racialized performance" (Nash 93). Assuming Jill is the help, Roger snaps, "Well, if you're gonna clean up, clean up!" Jill smirks, hand on hip, and drawls in affected dialect, "Clean your wet cock when we's done, sir." Realization dawning, Roger responds, "Oh no, you can't be my trick." "Surprise, honey!" Jill retorts.

Jill smiles at desperate Roger as she departs.
 Throughout the remaining sequence, Jill cajoles, coerces, and dominates, performing blackness in a way designed to unnerve and tantalize the racist Roger, ultimately captivating him. As Nash explains, "SexWorld thus illustrates that the racialized labor of converting Roger also serves as a tool for Jill's own arousal, with the trappings of hypersexual and hyperbolic blackness working as a vocabulary with which Jill can voice her own longings and pleasures" (93-94). Yet, Jill is the only SexWorld guest with no back story. This lack of story arguably reduces Jill's subjectivity. However, Spinelli and West foreground Jill's subjectivity through a combination of dynamic performance and carefully constructed shots of Jill's knowing facial expressions. The lack of a back story merely emphasizes the joke that we are all in on, but Roger is not. Indeed, at the very end of the film Roger is shown trying to bribe a SexWorld worker into letting him go through the park one more time ("this could be serious!"). Roger appears to think Jill is a bot, provided for his pleasure, and thus available for him to experience a second time. However, while he tries to bribe the worker, Jill can be seen in the distance leaving the park. As she gets on the bus, she turns and grins at Roger's desperation. This leaves me wondering, who exactly was the trick here?

Sharon Thorpe as Lisa playing "Cindy."
The other highly racialized scene is that between Lisa (the magnificent Sharon Thorpe, turning in a truly heartbreaking performance) and Johnnie Keyes, reprising his Green Door role. Lisa, like all of the women at SexWorld, knows exactly what she wants but her desires are tinged with shame and she struggles to articulate them. While she wants "somebody to like me, somebody to notice me, somebody to talk to me and be kind to me," Lisa requests a fictional, mute image to satisfy her: "Well, there's this film. Behind the Green Door. And there's a black man it it...all dressed in white. Except...down there. The crotch is...cut out, cut away. His...his...." At this point, the film shifts away and embarks on Lisa's fantasy. Lisa's fantasy is "culturally implemented" (thanks to my colleague, "U," for suggesting this phrase)--a reflection of societal baggage concerning race, gender, and sexuality. Lisa is a tortured soul and desperately lonely. She is also a woman living two lives: the socially awkward 9-5 worker of a dull job, and the XXX-rated theater goer/phone sex exhibitionist. Lisa's narrative deals in cinematic imagery specifically. She lives out her desires through performance, exhibition, and spectatorship. Her sexual desires are explicitly fantastical.

Johnnie Keyes as "Johnnie Keyes."
In her first scene--her back story--Lisa constructs her own image as that of a sexy blonde, putting on a wig, make up, and clothing to emulate and embody an ideal, cinematic male fantasy. Lisa role plays as "Cindy" (to my mind replicating Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (1977) right down to borrowing her name, though I haven't been able to confirm whether the dates line up). Performing this role, she calls a stranger and mutually masturbates with him to a shared orgasm. Immediately following orgasm, however, she reacts with horror, hanging up the phone, pulling off the wig, and sobbing. In her SexWorld fantasy, she requests another cinematic fantasy figure: Johnnie Keyes from Behind the Green Door. Keyes doesn't speak; he is, as Nash observes, "exclusively an instrument of pleasure" (103). He is a fictional, iconic image--one that represents the transgression of miscegenation taboos and who has become iconic as an object of lust for the transgressive and desirous white woman. Lisa has appropriated white male racialized iconography for her own sexual purposes, even daring to enter XXX movie houses and scouring "men's" magazines for numbers to call and mutually masturbate with strangers. In this way, Lisa represents the female appropriation of male spaces, imagery, and fantasy.

Black female technician calling the shots.
The final shot of the film is key to working through the film's navigation of race and gender. The film alludes ambiguously to the manager of SexWorld through guest queries and evasive responses from hosts. When Roger calls the front desk to complain about his jungle-themed room, for example, he angrily asks, "Whaddya mean there's no manager? [...] Who runs this damn place?" The last shot of the film appears to answer this question. After all of the guests have left, only the control room remains populated. The technicians are busily working, when suddenly they all freeze. They are robots--however, one technician is still moving. It is the black woman--the only woman of colour working the control room (third from the right, lit in orange). She removes her name tag, and exits the room. The entire theme park--the sexual fantasies--are being constructed and controlled by a woman of colour. Sex World is her creation...possibly her fantasy. Is the control room, where she interacts with co-workers of her own creation, her very own fantasy space? Are the guests' fantasies offered up for her own voyeuristic delight?

The final shot.
While the limited edition Blu is completely sold out, you can still get the DVD from Vinegar Syndrome which looks and sounds fantastic. Indeed, the stills in this article are taken from the DVD release and as you can see it looks beautiful. Needless to say, this film (particularly this release) has my highest recommendation. Sex World is quite simply one of the greatest adult films ever made, and one of the most erotically charged films in existence, period.


Christopher Maffei said...

Great post. Made me want to go ahead and buy the DVD. Have you posted anything about Lisa DeLeeuw or Candye Kane; those are two of my favorites...

Gore-Gore Girl said...

Thanks so much! I haven't posted anything about Candye Kane, but I have indeed posted about Lisa DeLeeuw. She is in so many classics. I wrote a lengthy piece about Garage Girls ( which you might enjoy.


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