An artist friend who is now based in Bali chatted me up today in Facebook. "Have you seen Destricted?" he asked. I said no, and asked him what it was all about. "It's a series of short films by acclaimed directors from all over the world that explores the boundaries between art and pornography," he said. "You'd like it." I don't know why people immediately assume that about me -- because I'm as much a prude as the next guy. (Well, maybe not.) But I do know that I have a taste for the cinematically weird. Maybe that's it. But I swear not all the weird and the sexual are brilliant. I swoon, for example, over John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus  and Franc Roddam's "Liebestod" segment from Aria , and I find the daring of Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights  and Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses  poetic even in their brutality and frank depiction of sexuality. But I still have nightmares over Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo  and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible , two lurid films that may be important as pieces of cinema, but I can never bring myself to watch again.
So of course I had to see this omnibus film Destricted [2006 and ongoing], although I had my initial misgivings. The last time a team of directors did a project like this was in Eros , which compiled the efforts of Wong Kar-wai, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and Steven Soderbergh. Even with those masters of the screen, the film fell surprisingly flat, which convinced me that we are all just so frightened of the topic of sex to ever really feel artistic in its depiction, and comfortable about its cinematic possibilities. It is just so familiar and frightening at the same time that most filmmakers feel a need to debase/defuse its treatment, such as in the feminist brutalities of Catherine Breillat [Fat Girl, Romance, Sex is Comedy, Anatomy of Hell, among others] and the deadening third-world suffocation of Brillante Mendoza [Masahista and Pantasya]. When it is not debased, it only serves to obscure, as in Michael Winterbottom's incoherent 9 Songs  -- was that a concert film or a truthful recollection of a relationship in tatters? Only Bernardo Bertolucci, both in Last Tango in Paris  and in The Dreamers , seems to have the best pulse in the whole realm of sexual exploration. His best successor is, of course, Mitchell, whose Shortbus may be the loveliest and most heartwarming look at the ties that bind people, complete with graphic scenes of fornication.
So here comes Destricted. And of all the filmmakers that have contributed to this mess of a film (which include Marina Abramović, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince, and Sam Taylor-Wood), only Larry Clark seems to have succeeded in ever really putting out a frank exploration of sexuality that feels true, that does not feel silly or too experimental just for the sake of having really nothing to say. In Clark's Impaled, we are given a bare look, documentary-style, at the process of auditioning actors for a porn shoot -- and then gives us something more:  how our culture and our ideas of sexuality have largely been shaped (surprise, surprise) by the pornography that has surrounded us since we were aware that such a thing existed, and  how our fantasies are so often incongruent with the real-life debasements that actually people the flesh industry. In that, we also see the story of this young man named Daniel who goes from fantasy, to titillation, to discovery of the often grotesque stories behind people's motivations for getting into porn, to the shitty [both literal and metaphorical, you will find out why] outtakes that are often edited-out in a porn shoot for the sake of maintaining the fantasy. What a dramatic arc he goes through.
In the other films of the series, the filmmakers seem to mistake long shots and frenetic editing exercises and stretches of sound or silence as grand evocations of sexuality. They only resulted to efforts that teeter between the boring and the silly. And the lazy. Prince's House Call is the most problematic in that regard, and is immediately followed by Noé's We Fuck Alone (strobe lighting as metaphor for sexual deviance? forget it) and Taylor-Wood's Death Valley (the desert as metaphor for the futility of self-pleasure? forget it). Barney's Hoist at least pretends to be poetic in its examination of sexuality and natural carnality and their connection with the mechanical, and Abramovic's Balkan Erotic Tales at least shows humor and strangeness in its chronicle of Eastern European sexual customs.