Early in Monty Python's Meaning of Life, we get to see John Cleese naked. In the sketch, he's a lecturer at a posh English private school (or "public school," as the backwards Brits call it) teaching a lesson on sex education to a classroom of 11-year-olds. Rather than relying on a slide projector or a banana-n-condom combination, Cleese strips down, introduces the class to his female assistant, who also strips down, and he leads her to a king-sized canopied bed for a live demonstration of sexual intercourse.
It was one of the funniest and most controversial sketches to appear in a comedy show (and maybe that's why it took the British to produce it). But it was also one of the truest and most obvious. What kid hasn't sat through a sex ed lecture daydreaming of seeing exactly how the birds and bees flutter, or worse, imagined a "hands-on" lesson?
I'll raise my hand on that one. Last week I complained about how uncomfortable fictional films featuring real sex make me. Not to contradict myself... well, that's exactly what I'm going to do. When it comes to hardcore sex in documentary film, save me a seat, front and center. And could you pick me up some Good & Plentys?
Why are docs so different? That's hard to answer. For me, I think it has something to do with actors faking it and doc characters... they are real and fascinating. Real sex with real fetishists for whom exhibitionism is a real turn-on allows me to become a real voyeur, a real partner in the acts rather than just an entertain-me-entertain-me viewer.
And more than that, like Cleese's students, I'm eager to learn how to expand my...errr...horizons.
Here are four to check out on DVD. Watch with caution (and if you're with a partner, keep some protection handy):
Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (2000)
Back when I worked in a university's documentary film library, I demanded, despite the departmental raised eyebrows, that we order a copy of this doc. It follows a USC student of feminism as she experiments in the California porn scene and eventually partakes in what, at the time, was to be the greatest gangbang in history (documented fly-on-the-wall style in the warehouse where the 300 men were gathered and lubed-up; she only ended up coupling with about 70). It's a heartbreaker of a film, with Chong cutting her arm with knives to relieve the emotional conflict, crushing her mother in Singapore with news of her lasciviousness, and ultimately failing to establish the academic career she always envisioned. The sex is surprisingly un-graphic, considering the nature of the film, but it is there, real and empty and enlightening.
Cole Drumb recommended this cinematic masterpiece a few weeks ago, and I've got to second his emotions on all counts. Comedian, spoken-word artist, and cystic fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan allowed unprecedented access to his life as he escaped from the devastating physical torture of illness with the titillating physical torture of sadomasochism. And he does so with humor (see the clever "she has me by the balls" sketch Flanagan engineers to explain how his lover has complete control over his last will and testament). Again, this is a heartbreaker; by the end, you're as close to Flanagan as any sexual partner, and the cameraman films all the way up to his last deathbed moments.
As USA Today's Mike Clark notes, this documentary on the making of and influence of the porno Deep Throat only has 15 seconds of hard-core action, but really, the implications of sex can't not pervade every pop-culture moment.
They never said so, but I wouldn't be surprised if this show is the reason my parents cancelled HBO when I was growing up. Of course, Real Sex doesn't seem so original these days, when even the prudish major networks are covering sexual subcultures. But like MTV's Real World launched the reality TV genre, HBO set the tone for all subsequent sex docs. It's worth seeing what you can find available online, but Comstock Films' series of real-sex couples is one of the more tastefully conceived contemporaries of HBO's Real Sex.