Monday, May 9, 2011

Blue Artichoke Films: Cinematic Quality Porn

(This post, which was originally published online at Good Vibrations Magazine, is an excerpt from my forthcoming book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters.)

Jennifer Lyon Bell
Blue Artichoke Films in Amsterdam is making a name for itself by producing cinematic quality porn. US-born Jennifer Lyon Bell (1969) is the creative force behind its three films, which are of notable atmosphere and texture. Feeling that her own sexuality is not reflected in mainstream porn, Bell is using film languages and styles to re-vision pornographic films. In fact, her first film, a ten-minute short, doesn’t even show explicit sex; yet its sexiness rises up into the frame from what the viewer doesn’t actually see.

Headshot (2006) literally shows a man from his shoulders up – as he’s getting a blowjob. As Bell explains, the point with this film being to see how it can be erotic not so much because of what you see, but because of what you do not see.

We hear a woman enter through a door, and the man briefly speaks with her before she kneels down in front of him. We only catch a glimpse of the back of her head. Then there’s the sound of her sucking and pumping. But first and foremost the man’s face is in full view and speaks to the viewer: the shivering contractions of his features, the expression in his eyes, his breath, moans, sighs; how his face shuts and opens when he comes, his big charming smiles afterward, and the look of WoW! that he radiates. Headshot screened at the Cannes Films Short Corner (2006) and won the award for Best Short Erotic Film at the Atlanta Underground Film Festival (2009).

Pre-show rehearsal
Matinée (2009) is Bell’s first explicit sex film, presented as “a fresh look at what erotic film can be … [an] erotic film for people who like film.” It’s about Mariah and Daniel, two theater actors who perform the parts of lovers on stage: Lola and Tony in the play Two Days in Berlin. In the story, we learn that reviews of the play have critiqued their performance for lacking chemistry.

At the beginning of the film, Daniel suggests to Mariah that they improvise in a significant reunion scene to make it more natural. — A talent agent will be in the audience, meaning this could be a big break for either if the performance goes well. Mariah is skeptical at first, but later decides to give it a go – placing a condom in the pocket of the kimono that she will be wearing during this scene.

The camera scans the audience and establishes this viewing perspective. The set is stark with black curtains and only a bed with dark gray sheets in the middle of the stage.

We see “Lola” reading in bed. Then “Tony” enters. Neither fits a popularized ideal of beauty, but both are attractive in their anachronistic ways. She’s plumper, pale skin and blond dreadlocks gathered in a loose ponytail, a furrow between her eyebrows, some thin lines along her neck, full lips and eyes to sink into. He’s thin, short coarse dark hair, a distinct jaw, fine lines around his mouth and eyes, his gaze present. – I didn’t think you’d come, she says.

Daniel walks over to Mariah. She gets up to receive him, running her hands through his hair. After looking into his eyes for an extended moment, she kisses him and lightly glides her hand over his shoulder and back. They embrace. With a pleasure-filled smile, she kisses him more passionately. They pause to check in, each looking once again into the eyes of the other; he gives a subtle, knowing expression, then she guides his hand under her kimono onto her naked breast.

We see a close-up of the talent agent, and then another shot of the stage through the audience from her perspective. Mariah slides off her kimono and drops it on the bed.

Before continuing, both Mariah and Daniel cast glances out over the audience. At first he is following her lead, but soon they begin to take cues from each other. They touch and caress each other gently, and look intimately at each other. All this time, however, the intimacy of their experience is heightened by their exposure to watchful eyes; occasional shots show audience members being drawn into the scene through the invisible fourth wall, as the performance touches them in new ways.

Eventually she reaches for the condom, as improvising takes on new meaning.

Mariah takes a deep breath, and looks at him; will you do this with me? Daniel gives a questioning look, himself not sure; do you want to do this? She nods, with the hint of a smile on her lips. Each searches deeply into they eyes of the other.

As Mariah comes, she sighs out and her face contracts with ecstasy. We see a shot of the talent agent smiling to herself, pleased. Then with close-ups of bodies meshed, the two roll over together; the shivering contractions in his features as he comes, and a few last sighs of pleasure from her. They embrace, holding one another in a loving gaze.

– I don’t know what to say, “Lola” says (a line we recognize from their rehearsal). – Just say that I can stay, “Tony” replies. She kisses him softly. We see them on bed from the perspective of the talent agent one last time, as the stage lights dim and all goes black.

Matinée is a unique viewing experience, focusing on chemistry between the two characters, and with the sex filmed in near real time captured solely by the “real life sounds of sex.” As bookends the film features an effective original music score, but more noticeable during the sex scene is the resounding stillness of the theater through which the real sounds of each sensual touch truly add to the atmosphere of the film—as if the viewer can feel the tingle of this kind of sexuality. The narrative framework of it taking place in the theater in front of an audience is well integrated and adds to the overall texture of the picture, so that the filling of the theater space with these sounds helps to enliven the senses.  In whole, the film bears testimony to Bell’s commitment to delivering cinematic quality. Matinée won the awards for best short film at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (2009) and at CineKink NYC Film Festival (2009), and also received an Honorable Mention at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto (2009).

Skin. Like. Sun. (2009) is Bell’s third film, which she collaborated on with Murielle Scherre (1977) of La Fille D’O. The fifty-minute erotic experimental documentary music video portrays the sex of an actual couple, also filmed in near real time, and attempts to show how sex is perceived and experienced from the female perspective. It was made upon invitation by the Belgian feminist festival Stout(ste) Dromen [Your wild(est) dreams] in Antwerp, where it premiered in October 2009; and it premiered internationally in conjunction with CineKink NYC in February 2010. Skin. Like. Sun won the award for Best Direction at the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto (2010).

Skin. Like. Sun. (Des Jours Plus Belles Que La Nuit) - trailer from Jennifer Lyon Bell on Vimeo.
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