On DVD: Indie Sex

IFC talks an otherwise hot subject to death

If voyeurism is the essence of the filmmaking bargain, the sex in film is perhaps the ultimate movie-going experience. It’s one thing to pay money to watch people on the screen in a darkened theater; it’s another entirely to watch them have sex – and, in one way or another, enjoy the experience.

This point and scores of others are driven home in the DVD release of the Independent Film Channel’s recent “Indie Sex” series, complete with bonus features and a lot – I mean, a lot – of talking. (That didn’t stop the series from being the most-watched in IFC history.)

In fact, much like during the act itself, listening to so much chatter about the history of sex in film and the importance of sex in film and the art of sex in film and the taboos of sex in film, it’s rather to go limp from the experience (so to speak). And without a focused narrative, it’s easy to come away smarter from the experience, but not necessarily fulfilled.

Maybe it’s the packaging, which features retro-burlesque and pin-up queen Dita Von Teese on the cover, all alabaster skin and living up to her last name. She’s hot, no question, and could gussy up a UPS shipment, but really, what’s the point? The same could be said for including her in the endless number of sources for the series. Hey, I like looking at a scantily clad sex object as much as the next guy, but does Dita Von Teese really represent “indie sex” in cinema?

Still further, just what exactly does the series mean by “indie sex,” when so much of the content includes motion pictures released by major studios? At no point is the suggestion about the specific impact of independent filmmaking presented as the focus of the work.

Not that there is a lack of points made, thanks to constant implicit references courtesy a “who’s who” and “who’s that?” of independent-minded film critics, from Salon.com’s Stephanie Zacharek (easily the best of the bunch) all the way down to twentysomething Village Voice critic (and IFC correspondent) Matt Singer. Attitude and ubiquity often supplant gravitas and perspective to the point that Indie Sex starts to feel like a really smart version of a VH1 gabfest. It takes someone like Zacharek to make finer points such as: “Audiences need to know that they’re not alone with their thoughts, and that’s the great thing about art.”

Which is not to say you can’t get a lot out of watching Indie Sex. There is plenty of history – from the very early (and surprising) use of sex at the advent of film through the Hays Code era to Jack Valenti and the MPAA through “porn chic” and the invasion of home video and all things Euro. It’s a bit of an information overload, but all that sourcing does leave behind unlimited opportunities to fill up one’s Netflix queue. (It makes a film geek embarrassed to never have seen Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, In the Realm of the Senses, Romance, 9 Songs or Devil in the Flesh.)

Helping along the narrative are some of the hipper indie-film directors around, including John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus), Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know) and Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), who looks like a grandma next to everyone else. Few of them look like they’re older than 45. (Although good old John Waters, who could do this shtick in his sleep by now, is on hand to talk trash one more time.) Mitchell, whose Shortbus is credited for being the widest-released film to date with unsimulated sex, makes the most prescient point of the DVD: “Something as natural as sex and as complicated as sex needs to be examined in film to reduce fear. I firmly believe sexual repression leads to bad things.”

Not surprisingly, the more uncomfortable it gets, the more interesting Indie Sex gets; latter installments “Extreme” and the director’s cut of “Taboos” offer more forward-thinking and contemporary examples of how filmmakers are taking an artful approach to more delicate subject matter. So we get more information on kinkier fare such as Steven Shainberg’s excellent 2002 film Secretary (which offered a humorous yet poignant take on S&M) and the career-long fetishism of David Cronenberg (from Dead Ringers to Crash). It’s also a chance for Catherine Breillat to hold court on the importance of breaking new ground in cinema, something the French routinely deserve credit for doing.

One of the funniest moments comes from a clip from Roman Polankski’s S&M send-off Bitter Moon, in which a dominant woman gets pissed off at her pig-mask-wearing slave after one of his responses to her commands: “You ruined it for me! How can I believe a pig that talks?!”

Indie Sex has huge gaps in reference and context, but that’s to be expected considering the subject matter. With a little more focus, maybe this series would get a better rise out of its audience. As is, it’s all really nice ... foreplay.

Indie Sex. IFC. Two discs. 199 minutes. Available Jan. 1, 2008.