Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Femina Potens’ ASKEW Film and Performance Festival

Last Thursday, I tried something different.  Bad Day at Black Rock was playing at the Castro that night.  I've long wanted to see the Spencer Tracy film but instead I chose to go to the YBCA that evening.  The YBCA was kicking off a three day festival titled Femina Potens’ ASKEW Film and Performance Festival.  The name doesn't really tell you much but the description of the Thursday night program is more titillating.

Oriana Small and Lorelei Lee present excerpts from their respective novels and memoirs presented in conjunction with silent short films composed of both moving and still images based on their individual experiences within the adult industry.

Chloe Camilla will present a live video performance.

Dylan Ryan performs a piece related to her experiences as a sex worker.

Hima B will be screening an excerpt from License to Pimp, her feature documentary about the dilemmas that strippers face when they must pay for the privilege to work in strip clubs where management violates their labor rights. Filming in San Francisco, the filmmaker, an ex-stripper, investigates the various factors that enable the strip clubs to pimp their workers and deny them basic rights that workers across America are guaranteed.

Cheryl Dunye presents Mommy is Coming. Set in the international creative melting pot that is Berlin, this raunchy romantic comedy of errors confronts the last lesbian taboo: Mommy. A take on screwball comedies and porn topped off with Dunye's ingenious form of storytelling.

The title of that night's program was "Intersections: LOVE:SEX:PORN:ART: Our Intimate Identity."  The series was curated by Madison Young of Femina Potens Art Gallery.


I wasn't too keen on the program except for Oriana Small's appearance.  I read about her book on YBCA Film/Video curator Joel Shepherd's blogShepherd named Small's Girlvert: A Porno Memoir, one of his "favorite films and film-related stuff from 2011."  I bought the book based on his recommendation and I can't say I enjoyed it but I did read it non-stop for a few days.  Small's (aka Ashley Blue) memoir is a candid if not self-serving account of her time as a porn actress.  Impressed with the book, I decided to see if Ms. Blue was as fascinating in person.

For the record, I'm not a fan of porn.  I did like S+M Hunter but that was Japanese porn or pinku eiga; a horse of a completely different color than US porn.  With its predictable scenes, rote pacing and slavish devotion the money shot, US made porn is about as sexy as oil change.  The Femina Potens' program looked to focus on "creative" women.  The presence of Small was enough to lean me towards YBCA but in the back of mind, I kept thinking about Black Rock.

The first item was License to Pimp, a documentary about strippers reacting to illegal labor practices.  What was screened was not the film but rather a glorified preview trailer.  It wasn't clear if the main labor violation was coercing prostitution or charging stage fees from the dancers.  It looked like an interesting film.  You can find out more about the film at its website.  All the footage from the preview was set in San Francisco.  I recognized Mitchell Brothers, Crazy Horse and Market Street Cinema.  Coincidentally, Crazy Horse and Market Street Cinema are located in venues which were constructed as legitimate movie houses.  Former SF District Attorney Terence Hallinan was also interviewed with the implication being he allowed labor abuse to occur because he had a cozy relationship with Mitchell Brothers.

Next Chloe Camilla, a former actress, gave essentially a spoken word performance.  Set to some music and personal photos, Camilla described the problems she encountered when her family discovered her chosen vocation.  Bubbly, intelligent and giddy in love (with a female director she met while working at, Camilla's exuberance was at odds with the scenes of bondage being projected behind her.  Camilla was not a plain vanilla porn star but rather a BDSM specialist which seemed to particularly pique her father.  Ultimately, Camilla gave up porn to reconcile with her family.  She referred to that as the "sad part" of her story.

On Camilla's website, there is an April 6 entry linking to a Kickstarter campaign for the film Public Sex, Private Lives.  The film is self-described as "An intimate look at the professional and private lives of porn performers Lorelei Lee..."  Ms. Lee (also an alumni of has appropriated the name of Marilyn Monroe's character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1956).  Without knowing it, I have been exposed to Ms. Lee's work.  She is a co-writer of About Cherry which I saw at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (it was just called Cherry back then).  As Ms. Lee mentioned, About Cherry will be playing at 7 PM and 9:30 PM at the Castro Theater on Friday, September 21.  I previously described [About] Cherry as a film "which I enjoyed but had some serious plot deficiencies or I just didn't click with."

Ms. Lee read passages from an unpublished novel while behind-the-scenes footage at played.  I found Ms. Lee to be stunningly attractive.  Her appearance was not what impressed me but rather her articulate thoughts.  She spoke with clear diction and obvious intelligence.  She was very composed.  Whereas Camilla seemed like a giddy teenager, guest curator Madison Young had a New Age feel and Oriana Small seemed almost shy, Ms. Lee commanded the stage with a sense of confidence and self-assuredness which most likely comes from her career in porn.  I couldn't picture the other women doing anything (even porn) but I could see Ms. Lee as a legitimate actress, businesswoman or heaven forbid, a politician.

With that said, I found the passage she read to be forgetful and the footage she shot to be unremarkable.  For all the talents I imbue her with, perhaps writing fiction is not Ms. Lee's strongest suit or at least, I have not encountered any works by her which impressed me as much as her prepared and extemporaneous remarks.  "Sultry" is a word that I would use to describe her speaking manner. 

After Ms. Lee, they screened another glorified trailer.  This time it was for Mommy is Coming.which is feature length film that screened at this year's Frameline.  An explicit sex farce, Mommy is Coming looks like an accidental love triangle between a bi-sexual, her girlfriend and her girlfriend's mother.  There is a scene in a taxi involving the couple which is doubly deviant for its use of a handgun.  The program said director Cheryl Dunye would be in attendance but it could have been star Papi Coxx who took the stage.

Porn actress Dylan Ryan next took the stage and performed what I would call agitprop.  Starting out by riffing on a recent syphilis scare in the Los Angeles porn community, Ryan described how she couldn't go to her favorite STD testing clinic because she was recognized by her favorite phlebotomist or perhaps because of snide comments the receptionist said in passing.  Regardless, Ryan then pantomimes her next blood testing experience.  A woman came on stage and silently drew blood from Ryan's arm.  The silence and her stares represented the contempt that Ryan felt from her actual phlebotomist.  After all was done, Ryan then fingerpainted the word "dirty" on an easel pad with her own blood.  It left me blah.  While watching it, I was drawn to how this exact performance could have resonated with gay audiences during the 1980s HIV/AIDS scare.

Finally, Oriana Small took the stage.  I've never seen an Ashley Blue performance so I wasn't sure what to expect.  In her book, she was quite open about her experiences.  I was expecting someone with more presence but Small was almost meek.  She read an excerpt from her book.  I don't think there was any video playing while she read.  When she finished, she stepped off stage and the lights lowered.  They projected a scene which I was familiar with from having read Girlvert.  In it, Ashley Blue is choked out as part of a pornographic film.  Small described in vivid detail the feelings she had during the incident.  While the footage was playing, Small must have prerecorded her narration which I assume was verbatim reading of that chapter from Girlvert.  Oddly, I found the scene more powerful when I read it initially without having the footage accompanying the words.


When it was all done, I'm not sure how I felt.  I would have liked to have seen more of  License to Pimp.  Oriana was vaguely bland for a porn actress.  Lorelei Lee was definitely the highlight of the evening but I left wondering if I have a female voice fetish.  If I had to do it over again, I would have gone to the Castro to see Bad Day in Black Rock.

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