Monday, December 6, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Porn's Price & Naked Finns

Pornography — in its print, home video and online forms — has reached a level of cultural acceptance in the US that I couldn't have imagined when I was your typical sex-obsessed but guilt-plagued teenager. According to The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality & Relationships, a somewhat informative but woefully biased documentary just released on DVD November 30 from Cinema Libre Studio, the porn industry now brings in annual revenues of approximately $14 billion, with many major American corporations each getting a cut of the pie.

After some insightfully honest comments by several college students regarding their early exposure to porn, the film takes a one-sided, critical approach. Don't get me wrong: there is much to criticize and be concerned about in contemporary pornography both straight and gay, particularly a growing tendency toward violence. In many porn films today, according to The Price of Pleasure, the content has become "more extreme, more sensational." What the filmmakers (Chyng Sun, who is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Media Studies at New York University, and Miguel Picker) don't acknowledge, however, is that mainstream movies are also becoming more extreme in their depictions of violence (witness the Saw series, as just one example) and more sensational in approach (Saw, Final Destination and Piranha in 3D, no less!). Pornography remains, as it has always been, reflective of the times and larger cultural movements. Be warned, though: The Price of Pleasure contains graphic excerpts of the behavior it ultimately condemns.

Not being a "connoisseur" of porn, I was shocked not only by some of the more recent footage shown here but also by a few of the documentary's revelations and — to the filmmakers' credit — I'm the wiser for it. Most notable is mention of the fact that a prior ban on "virtual" child pornography (computer-generated depictions of adults having sex with children, some nauseating examples of which are included) was recently struck down by the US Supreme Court even as reports of child sexual abuse have mushroomed. Folks, it's a small step for some between creating or viewing virtual kiddie porn and actually engaging in it. Just ask some of my fellow priests.

Those interviewed in The Price of Pleasure who state they are for unfettered access to pornography (most of them at adult industry trade shows) don't come across as the sharpest tools in the shed. Nonetheless, Sun and Picker do a disservice to viewers by not including more commentary from veteran porn filmmakers or others working in the porn industry. Actress Jenna Jameson is briefly shown and vilified for having single-handedly "legitimized" porn. Many of the points made in The Price of Pleasure are unquestionably valid, but slo-mo shots of men ogling women accompanied by creepy music is hardly an academic approach.

By contrast, there is nothing pornographic about the acclaimed documentary Steam of Life despite a full-frontal abundance of naked men. An intimate depiction of male bonding set in Finland's saunas, it was one of five nominees for the Distinguished Feature of 2010 Award from the International Documentary Association.

Numerous topics of conversation are featured in the film, some of universal interest and some uniquely male. They include women (of course), witnessing childbirth, fatherhood, alcoholism/addiction, doing time (both in prison and in the military), marriage and family, friendship, Santa Claus (!), death and grief, and, as one of the doc's diverse subjects poetically puts it, "How manifold love can be." Most surprising of all is a man who talks about the bond he shares with an orphaned bear he adopted.

The saunas are both professional and makeshift, with some in abandoned cars, trailers and even phone booths. While some of the men's sharing could be termed routine or predictable (and possibly coached), there are astonishing moments of emotional intimacy recorded in Steam of Life. The subjects range from young and fit (including several children) to elderly and not in the best of health; no matter what the men's ages and conditions, directors Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen consistently capture a striking vitality in them. They even sing a haunting closing song together. Finally, the film boasts beautiful photography of Finnish landscapes.

As one subject remarks to another, "Sometimes it's good to talk about things." Viewers won't have to be convinced otherwise after watching Steam of Life.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Price of Pleasure: C-
Steam of Life: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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