In the early 1990s, a group of culturally minded Haligonians ran Peggy's Queer Film & Video Festival, programming avant-garde artistic films at the now-defunct Wormwood's Theatre on Gottingen Street. Many of those films involved graphic sexual expression. And you know what? It wasn't a big deal.
Peggy's founder, internationally recognized writer and director Thom Fitzgerald, is the curator of this Pride Week's Reel Out Film Festival, now in its "Sloppy Sequel" second year. In some ways, Reel Out addresses Peggy's next-of-kin: the new generation—weaned on multiplex movie theatres that seduce with buttery pretzels and the bleep-bleeps of Dance Dance Revolution in their lobbies—as rep cinemas around North America face the wrecking ball.
"We were so accustomed to experimental work, we didn't even think about it. And not just in Halifax but all over North America," says Fitzgerald. "It wasn't a big deal to see Annie Sprinkle," the famous porn star/prostitute turned sexologist and artist, "inserting a rod into her transgendered partner's penis." But as Fitzgerald points out, a lack of suitable, consistent venues—Sprinkle simply doesn't fit in with films about pirates and robots—and an overall conservative shift in cinematic content, leaves little room for alternative programming anywhere.
Although he's obviously distressed by the general state of the commercial film industry, Fitzgerald seems optimistic about one thing: There are still creative Haligonians, who don't just want to see films that tickle sexual fantasies, they want to act and direct them, too. On Thursday night, Reel Out hosts Artfully Obscene, a night of homemade softcore and hardcore films at Bus Stop Theatre.
Homemade plus pornography. It's a show-stopper. Maybe right now you're imagining the hot guy across the street whose triceps bulge as he brings in the recycling bins, or the tattooed girl at your favourite sushi place who you're convinced brings you extra edamame. Maybe you don't want to think about what your neighbours do behind closed curtains. That's OK, too.
Fun Porn Fact #1: Realcore refers to amateur pornography that uses real people (not actors) without make-up, shot with wide angles, natural lighting and little editing. First found in the BDSM (bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism, masochism) scene in the 1980s and made mainstream by the internet and webcams, professional pornographers are now making "natural-looking" films to compete with their popular real realcore counterparts.
"I still blush talking about it, too. I didn't think that I would be talking to a journalist about porn," Fitzgerald says with a laugh. It's Friday afternoon and Halifax is aflutter with tall ships, White Stripes and Pride. Inside eMotion Pictures, Fitzgerald's production office and occasional gallery space, photos are being hung on the walls for the opening of Art: The Disposable Show, which features disposable-camera photography by Gus Van Sant, Harvey Fierstein, Alan Cumming, Bruce LaBruce, Deborah Harry, Todd Oldham and Los Angeles fetish photographer Rick Castro. These are from Fitzgerald's personal collection; he also contributed to this fundraiser for Mix, the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival.
Fitzgerald jokes about the origins of Artfully Obscene. "I don't know. Did I dream it?" But he says he knew there were a few wannabe porn stars in Halifax and he wanted to bring back the open and experimental spirit of Peggy's Festival. After putting out a call for people to make films for Artfully Obscene, including a Facebook group that attracted more than 80 members, he had received a handful of entries by the July 9 deadline. "I did receive a few phone calls about late submissions—I don't know what it says about this little town of ours." In addition to local content, there will be some winners from festivals in cities such as Toronto and New York. And there will be prizes, likely for Best Fetish, Best Costumes, Best Re-enactment and Best Original Score.
"Some are sexy, some are quite comedic," Fitzgerald says rather secretively, building an air of suspense about the evening's content. He says Artfully Obscene connects to Reel Out events at Bus Stop from previous nights: On Wednesday there was a showing of the documentary Bears, the fur flying as hirsute men duke it out for the International Mr. Bear contest. On Tuesday there was the film Triple X Selects—The Best Of Lezsploitation directed by Michelle Johnson, who edited lesbian scenes taken from made-for-straight-men movies from the 1960s and '70s into a fun, campy sex romp for women. "It wasn't pornography in the 1970s but it would be today, if it was shown on television," Fitzgerald says. "It's recontextualizing what was made for grandpa, what was considered straight porn."
And there's absolutely nothing shameful about watching all these films in a public place, with your friends, lovers and strangers. "It's a party atmosphere," Fitzgerald says. "Watch a dirty movie and have a beer. Laugh or make out if you want to."
Fun Porn Fact #2: Made in Secret: The Story of the East Van Porn Collective is a documentary wrapped in a fictional drama about a group of Vancouver friends who want to make a film about a non-existent anarcho-feminist porn collective and start a "homemade grassroots pervert revolution" of indie porn films. Then, they realize they are actually going to have to make porn (or do they?) and within the structure of the doc, they film the low-budget but sexy BikeSexual. The collective not only focuses on what the images are, but do the people in them have control over how they're represented? Are they equal partners, creatively and financially?
As one of the members of the East Van Porn Collective, Professor University (a pseudonym) would agree with Thom Fitzgerald's assessment about the joys of publicly celebrating sexual expression. From Vancouver he writes, "Watching a movie with an audience changes the movie and changes the audience in a way that sitting alone at a computer can't replace. Since our movie is as much about the collective experience as it is about porn, it feels appropriate to bring people together and have them experience it collectively." Still, the collective is surprised at how the public responded to their film. "We never thought we were making an "important' movie that people really needed to see. We actually never expected anyone except our immediate friends to see it. The fact that it has played in so many festivals and connected with so many people is quite a shock to us. Thrilling, but a shock."
He also acknowledges Fitzgerald's assessment of the puritanical nature of today's commercial film industry and adds, "The other part of the equation is that the porn industry has gone to the opposite extreme and focused so exclusively on sex that it has become utterly devoid of life. Somewhere in the middle is a huge, uncharted territory where really hot sex is a part of the drama of everyday life."
Fun Porn Fact #3: Dare to be Bare is one of the only commercially available, locally made porn films on record. Shot at the Radisson Suites in 2003, this gay porn uses pseudonyms and has a cast of "16 hot small-city guys in seven scenes."
It's not difficult to imagine drag queen April Showers transforming into celebutante Paris Hilton, with her slender frame, thin nose and sly, flirty look. As part of her drag persona, April Showers performs Miss Hilton's songs "Stars are Blind" and "Turn You On" (remember when she put out a CD?) and together with pal Nicole Richie, AKA Amanda Benzova, they pay tribute to The Simple Life. In honour of Hilton's incarceration for drunken driving, Showers wore an orange prison jumpsuit on stage one night. Toss in "That's hot," and there she is, in all her notorious, haughty glory.
But there was one famous Hilton scene that Showers really wanted to recreate: 1 Night in Paris, the 2004 explicit sex tape, made with ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon, that stealthily made its way into dark rooms and onto desktop computers around the world. Memorable for its use of a night camera, Hilton pausing to check her cellphone and the litany of parodies that followed, it's an impersonator's wet dream.
"I've wanted to recreate it for a long time. I had it in my head—it would be hilarious: Paris with a penis," laughs Showers, who is also the reigning Mz. Reflections, a title she'll relinquish at a ceremony she hosts at the club on August 5. Knowing her fantasy, Lee-Anne Poole, a personal friend and Reel Out co-ordinator, contacted Showers about the Artfully Obscene event. "It took me a couple of days—am I really ready to put this out there for everyone to see? Am I really ready for that? But I knew I wanted to, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and just do it."
In preparation, Showers says she watched bits and pieces of the video. "But you can only take so much of it." She already knew the Paris character, her look, her walk, her talk. But the biggest challenge proved to be finding a willing partner to play the lover character. Showers says, "It was very, very difficult to try and find someone. Halifax being as small as it is made a huge difference, too. A couple of people cancelled. People said they would in the bar, but they were drinking and partying and changed their minds the next day."
In the end, Showers found a willing companion, who's remaining anonymous. "We had to make it so you don't see anything but their penis. It's not a direct re-enactment of 1 Night in Paris, but there are pieces that you'll recognize. I'm also trying to add in the after jail part. It's a Paris Hilton sex tape: The new one."
While Showers says modestly that the making of the video was simple—"me doing some Paris impersonations and then penis sucking," the self-proclaimed exhibitionist laughs—there is a whopper of a twist in this tale. "Oh, I mixed it up a little bit because the story ends with him finding out that Paris has a penis and storming out, and ends up with me jerking off."
Although Showers has appeared on stage wearing nothing but a wig and a fake vagina and once re-enacted having an abortion, she admits to being nervous about crowd reaction on Thursday. "I like to do things that I'd like to see done. It just happens. I'm always pushing it, but not trying to, and the people say, "I can't believe I just saw that.' If they don't leave thinking, "What the hell is wrong with you?' I haven't done my job."
Fun Porn Fact #4: In June, C'LICK ME, the second international netporn festival, took place in Amsterdam. For one day, experts, academics, activists and other speakers mused on the following: "C'LICK ME is an event to investigate Internet pornography in a non-conventional way. We are looking forward to a queer event without any rigid queer correctness (as queer doesn't always mean good porn!). We want to re-think the society of the netporn spectacle: the digital zeitgeist that has given us a hypersexual body. What to do with our bodies and digital machines? Pornography has found its way into every nook and cranny of the Internet, but how can we still be queer radicals or body artists, private hedonists or fervent bloggers in this climate? Do we still need to have a sanctified space like an underground or a dungeon, when we produce desire with our floating networked bodies? Porn went porn-chic years ago. Today netporn goes into Myspace bedrooms and everyday "realcore'."
Guang Zhu is an international student from China studying media arts at NSCAD. She heard about the call for Artfully Obscene films and decided to quickly create a stop-motion animation piece, which she calls "A Night Song."
"I wanted to do something really simple, but about sexuality as well," she says. "Simple, cute and sexy. It's not a very serious piece. It comes from a different perspective, especially when you approach it with stop-motion."
Zhu explains that while her piece is not too personal—"If it was, I would not make it"—she is now inspired to work further with themes of sexuality. She says that feminism doesn't play a big role in her content either, but her cultural background does: "I'm from China, and Halifax needs more people from different places, with different perspectives, to be part of the local art scene."
Different perspectives. Different ways of floatin' the ol' boat. Really, Artfully Obscene is anyone and everyone's show.
"It's about turning the camera on yourself," says Fitzgerald. "You either want to be out in front of the camera or behind it. That's sexual expression."
Artfully Obscene, July 19 at Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen, 8pm and 10pm, $15 suggested donation, 19+ event. Watch for Amanda Showers at various drag shows, the parade and at Friday night’s Reel Out film and performance, Wigstock, at the Tall Ships Quay, 9pm, $10 suggested donation. The Disposable Show at eMotion Picture Gallery, 5182 Bishop, to August 11. www.halifaxpride.com
Sue Carter Flinn is special issues editor at The Coast, but she has no special issues when it comes to people expressing their true feelings.