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When bondage was innocent

Two films inspire nostalgia for sexual discretion

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Gretchen Mol as 1950s pinup legend Bettie Page - PHOTO COURTESY OF PICTUREHOUSE

If there was a golden age in American life, it surely was the two decades between the wars--that is, the Second World War that ended in 1945 and the Vietnam War, which was fatefully escalated in 1965. The landmarks between those years are impressive: the elimination of polio, the eradication of the color line in baseball, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, and the invention of the Pill. The economy expanded at a rate that we'll probably never again see (real wages haven't gone up since the Nixon administration).

Not everything was rosy: Ask the victims of Joseph McCarthy or Southern lynch mobs. But those dark chapters only add to the aesthetic and historical inspiration that keeps filmmakers coming back to this golden era.

The cinematic textures vary. Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven recreated the look of Douglas Sirk's women's weepies. Good Night, and Good Luck mimicked the look of 1950s black and white television. And the new film The Notorious Bettie Page gets drunk on the saturated Kodachrome hues of the late 1950s and early '60s. The blue blue skies and green green grass of the color portions of Mary Harron's biopic of the 1950s underground pinup superstar serve as nostalgic sensory counterpoints to a dramatically inert film.

Harron has covered the New York cultural waterfront before: She depicted the New York Pop scene in I Shot Andy Warhol, and the cigars and cocaine scene in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. In those films, she had the benefit of plots and characters with singular motives. In The Notorious Bettie Page, however, she mostly has look and attitude, an off-the-shelf assumption of cool. The fault isn't Gretchen Mol's, who is appealing, blithe and sexy as the title character. Mol performs gamely in a variety of fetishwear--including her own bare skin.

The film's setup is conventional. We begin as Bettie sits outside a Senate hearing room, where she has been called to testify in an anti-smut investigation (headed by a senator played by David Strathairn of Good Night, and Good Luck). While she sits, she reads letters from her family and thinks back, back, through the years, beginning with her hardscrabble Nashville childhood, complete with church every Sunday and molestation at the hands of Daddy afterward. After teacher's college, a bad marriage and a gang rape, young Bettie boards a bus for New York City and the demimonde that awaits her there.

Bettie does the usual ambitious things, rustling up clerical work while taking acting lessons at the Actor's Studio. One modeling gig leads to another, and she discovers that she likes being a pinup model: She's no good as an actress, but in fetishwear and brandishing a whip, she's the mistress of her domain, in control of her sexuality and absolutely irresistible to a whole generation of porn-deprived men.

The story of a woman triumphing over her own objectification can make for a fascinating thesis or essay, but in this particular film it's not interesting. The script is a collection of expository dialogue that hits the historical marks ("Bettie, I'm going to send this picture to a new magazine called Playboy") without providing anything like a compelling story. Bettie has a pretentious actor-boyfriend during her New York years--he appears and disappears in the film whenever a boyfriend foil is needed, but is otherwise inessential.

The most intriguing supporting characters are Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), a kindly, neurotic pair of sibling smut peddlers who might as well be selling orthopedic shoes as pictures of Bettie in leather boots. Other quirky characters come and go, including a nervous man who pays handsomely for stag reels of female bondage scenes, who in straight life is a powerful lawyer who lives with his mother.

What's frustrating about The Notorious Bettie Page is its inability to find a story in a woman who may not be all that interesting away from her self-representations. Instead of finding that story (or making it up if necessary), the film leans heavily on luxuriating in the moods and textures of the era, recreating the innocent age of the 1950s, with Patsy Cline and Artie Shaw playing on the soundtrack.

The aesthetic appeal of the post-war era is limitless--James Ellroy has forged a brilliant set of novels by dramatizing violence and corruption against the backdrop of dime smut magazines, Dick Contino records and the suburban expansion of Los Angeles into Orange County. Ellroy clearly loves the pulp thrills of that era--recreated on film by Curtis Hanson as L.A. Confidential--while recent films like Far From Heaven, Kinsey and Good Night, and Good Luck provide a sobering view of the costs of sexual and social repression. In the place of drama and strong argument, The Notorious Bettie Page settles for dynamite art direction.

The film is clearly nostalgic for the tame porn of the '50s, nudie pictures disguised as pictorials for health magazines, for example, or bondage pictures that were not so threatening. In dramatizing the end of that era's repression, the film implicitly draws a straight line to our present smut-saturated culture--with vulgar, charmless sex images just clicks away on our computers and televisions. A decade ago, The People vs. Larry Flynt celebrated the birth of our present porn-saturated era as a triumph of individual liberty. The Notorious Bettie Page leaves the impression that, with our liberation, we have lost a sense of decorum and a taste for suggestion.


Another result of our sexual liberation is I Am a Sex Addict, a comic personal account by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi of his two decades of prostitute fetishism. Zahedi is a longtime fringe filmmaker and journalist. This acolyte of Godard, among others, received good notices (and minimal audiences) for a film called In the Bathtub of the World, and he is a longtime acquaintance of Richard Linklater who appears in Linklater's Waking Life.

Where the dirty pictures of the '50s had aesthetic appeal, Zahedi's film is ugly video--sometimes unforgivably so, as when his images are over-exposed, leaving blinding hot spots in the frame. I Am a Sex Addict is relentlessly confessional. Zahedi reenacts his moments of sexual revelation and humiliations and the emotional damage wrought by his need for prostitutes. Zahedi is turned on when a prostitute says "Rape me," and later, he experiences incredible ecstasy by shouting "slut" and "whore" while forcing an Asian prostitute to gag on his penis.

Despite such disturbing vignettes, the film is often quite funny and smart, even if we want to keep Zahedi at arm's length. Still, only four or five people were in the weekend screening I attended, and two women bailed halfway through. In the place of the poetry of repression-era pornography that is implicitly celebrated in Bettie Page, I Am a Sex Addict is an example of our own times: sex as pixilated pathology.

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