Recently I interviewed feminist porn filmmaker (the first of those three descriptors aren't quite right, you'll find if you read on, but for lack of a better phrase) Jennifer Lyon Bell for The Rumpus. Her films are smart and arty and try to break down that artificial divide between life and sex.
Jennifer Lyon Bell makes porn with a humanistic approach, designed to get viewers to identify with the characters, not just watch them. She combines the visual quality of art films with erotica. Her ethos is that the former could be sexier and the latter just plain better. Also, she doesn’t think porn should be for men or women (or that we differ much in how we respond to it).
Bell currently lives in Amsterdam and speaks at film festivals, porn festivals, and feminist porn festivals. Her life is full of the dualities of life, parenthood, marriage, career. She has a toddler and has been searching for preschools recently. Several years ago she set up her own production company, Blue Artichoke Films, to make and distribute the movies she wanted to see. Now she’s working on a series of three interlinked films and is just finishing a documentary in which she followed a woman embracing her submissive side around Amsterdam for three years. We spoke about film theory, porn, sex and ethics.
The Rumpus: How did you become a filmmaker?
Jennifer Lyon Bell: I’ve always wanted to make erotic films. I’d seen porn when I was younger and I had thought that it was really ridiculous and nowhere near as sexy as the fooling around my friends and I were doing. So when I was a teenager, I thought it would be neat to do something better. Only I went off to college, to Harvard, and it didn’t really occur to me that that was a legitimate career option. I was into sex-positive feminism, reading Susie Bright and Carole Queen, but I didn’t really consider that erotic film was something I could do. Instead I went into advertising and had a career there for ten years.
Rumpus: So what changed?
Bell: I moved to Europe with my boyfriend and thought it might be time. I’d talked about making erotic films to everyone, friends and family and strangers on the street. In Amsterdam I decided to get a masters in film theory just to study erotic film and come up with a template for why I believe film is sexy. Is it just a matter of showing body parts or is there more to it than that?
Rumpus: A few years ago the New York Times did an article I think in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section about someone trying to make porn films for women. It was all about the Prada shoes, like if you get the fashion aspirational enough, women will be turned on. But that did nothing to change porn or the tropes, say, of what is sexy, which is what you’re trying to do. We’re conditioned to see porn in a certain way and you’re trying to subvert what that is.
Bell: It’s true. We’ve created a separation between sex and the rest of life that’s unnatural, so I want make films that bridge the explicit sexuality in, let’s call it, porn with the artistic expression and emotions and plot lines you’d see in art films. It’s not just a way to make interesting film but is a metaphor for what’s compelling about sexuality. It’s part of life, so acting like it’s some kind of separate ghettoized experience that we need to hide and not discuss is silly.
Rumpus: How did grad school help? What did you do there?
Bell: Specifically I was thinking, does having character and narrative make you feel more erotically charged by a film and if so why? There I had a framework to understand why I believe making something sexy isn’t just about showing body parts, and I stumbled on cognitive film theory, which talks about why everyone – not just women but men and women – feel what they do when they look at the screen. I became interested in sympathy and empathy.
Rumpus: Do they relate to that weird truism you hear spouted off about women and erotic material, that women need character development and narrative and men need visual stimulation? Is that even true?
Bell: I don’t believe men and women are terribly different when it comes to looking at erotic materials and getting aroused. Culturally we act like women need to have a huge complicated story to feel connected to a sexual relationship, but I don’t think that’s true. Plenty of films that don’t have much character I find arousing. Still there’s a basic statement a film can make that enables you as a viewer to become much more engaged. Having sympathy and empathy means you get more turned on.
Rumpus: So, obviously we’re talking something more involved than just tits and dicks, say. More than just anonymous consumer porn.
Bell: Yeah, the statement a movie can make is that these are basically decent people. These are moral people, and that sounds funny to talk about morality when you’re talking porn, but for all kinds of film, porn included, being engaged with the story and its characters involves you in their choices and actions and how you ought to feel about them. One way of talking about it is it boils down to morality. Is what they’re doing good or not? And, when people are basically good, you feel bonded with them and you want to feel what they feel. Use that in an erotic move and we can really get into the action. You can create that bond in an erotic documentary with real people’s stories and personalities and showing what they’re actually like and that they’re basically good people. Or, you can do it with fictional characters. Watching them struggle with their morality makes it more interesting and enhances that erotic bond you have with them.
Rumpus: Which you’re doing now in a bondage documentary, right?
Bell: Yeah, it doesn’t have a title yet, but I’ve been following the main character Lotus around for three years. It’s the true-life coming-out story of a submissive discovering her BDSM side in Amsterdam. She approached me because she’d seen the other films and wanted me to film her life as she went through this. It took her a while to convince me. I didn’t think she was serious but was just being flattering. We just shot the final scene recently and she’s happy with how everything turned out.
Rumpus: How is stuff for Lotus now? What’s her life like?
Bell: It’s changed so much. She’s much more sure of herself. Before she questioned herself and wasn’t as happy in her love relationship. Now she’s in a satisfying one with a man who she’s been with for quite a while. That happened during the filming, and she’s had fantastic BDSM experiences that have made her more happy and has this boyfriend who loves and supports her. The movie’s message matches up with my personal belief in sexuality, which is that only when you feel safe enough to be honest with yourself, with what really turns you on and what you really want in your heart of hearts that you can live your life to the fullest.
Rumpus: As we’ve talked about morality and character that’s made me think of Russell Banks new novel Lost Memory Of Skin about a kid committed for a sex crime. Basically he’s a porn addict, and it’s beautiful, very sensitively written. Banks gives him humanity and depth. As you were talking about a moral sense, it made me think of the Kid (which is what he’s called in the book). He’d been a consumer of internet porn and there was no human aspect to it, just a consumption-addiction driven thing where he was inured to porn. In a way the book was about how and why he couldn’t be open to something slower and deeper and more emotionally driven. It was partly about the larger culture of how that happens, that deadening.
Bell: We contribute to a culture where the only ways of engaging are turned on or not turned on – orgasming or not orgasming, as if it’s binary. Being aroused can have a very different flavor based on what kind of film you’re watching or what kind of situation you’re in and they’re not all the same. Arousal is not all the same. Some people maybe want to have the option of a really quick, not very involved orgasm sometimes. That’s okay, but I think it’s on a broader psychological and philosophical level it’s important to say, there’s arousal that’s more fulfilling for you if you want to find it.
Rumpus: So how does that actually come into your movies?
Bell: My first film Headshot – it’s a remake of a classic Andy Warhol movie from 1964 – and in the original, Warhol detaches the viewer from the image by never letting you see who’s giving the blowjob. You get no sense of the relationship between the two people. And, it’s a silent movie, which also goes a long way towards distancing you. I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be cool to do the same thing and bring in the emotions that come from sound and from seeing the relationship. I remade it with a man and a woman, and you still never see the person who’s giving the blowjob but I tried to bring out his personality.
Rumpus: You get a really quick sense in it that he’s totally up for this, a bit charged by on-screen sex with someone he’s never met, but also that she is too.
Bell: When he and this woman meet each other, it doesn’t take long for you to understand what’s exciting to both of them in this situation, so you’re invested in their having a great time for a couple of minutes because that’s all it takes.
Rumpus: How did you find him? He seems so very dude, like kind of some ur notion of male up-for-it guy?
Bell: At the cast party for Matinee, one of the crew members said he’d like to be in a film for me, and I immediately thought of Headshot. He had no experience at all. He was just a regular guy who wanted to explore his sexuality on film, so when I had the idea he was the first person I called.
Rumpus: How did Matinee work?
Bell: It’s a story of a woman who works in sex shows in Amsterdam and is struggling with whether or not to actually have sex on stage with her partner in the show. It’s very much her, Mariah’s, story. I want people to be into her and invested in this boundary she decides to overcome. She doesn’t let him know what she’s decided to do, so when it comes to her making this move and having sex with him, you’re completely into it, and you want her to have a good time.
Rumpus: Your movie Skin Like Sun has no dialogue or story, so how do we invest in the characters there?
Bell: It was commissioned for a feminist porn festival, and I made it with Mureille Scherre, who’s also a DJ and lingerie designer. We wanted to bring to life the female character’s experience. One way we could do that was taking a lot of shots that represent how she feels in sex. Those are likely to be shots you won’t see in straight porn since it’s oriented towards men. We tried to take close-ups of when she’s touching his hair and ears and meld that all together so it feels like one continuous experience and you feel their relationship in a broader, closer way. The most important decision was to make it feel like real time. We wondered if it would make us feel closer as viewers to her experience.
Rumpus: The movie has a sweetness to it in all the touching and affection. Those are the telling details that make it clear they love each other. Somewhere I read that in looking at erotic images men are more likely to look at faces first, then genitals, which I thought was interesting and unexpected.
Bell: If you’re looking to understand how someone feels in a certain situation, the look on their face tells you a tremendous amount that can make you feel connected to that person. In traditional porn, men’s faces are largely absent. We see the woman’s face and body and genitals but we don’t see much of his body, and we definitely don’t see his face. But I want to. I miss it. In moments where characters go through a change where they get much more aroused I don’t want to be looking at their body parts but the reaction in their faces.
Rumpus: What movies inspire you?
Bell: Larry Clark’s films, hands down. He has a real feel for how complicated sex can be and that there are different kinds of arousal that being anxious or nervous and how those negative emotions can play in an erotic way. I really love how he has focused on that and made it the emotional centerpiece of his work, showing how sex is so much more than intercourse. He’s particularly interested in adolescents because at that age we don’t have words yet for everything we’re going through, and that makes it a really volatile and exciting time. I’m interested in those same phenomena for people of all ages. Sex is much more complicated and dynamic and electric than it looks on film. I also love Lars von Trier’s movies and how they show people pushing their own boundaries. I love the idea of incorporating that electricity of boundary pushing into my erotic filmmaking. I’d like to think everyone who’s worked on my films has a positive experience. I’ve never had anyone have a nervous breakdown like Bjork was reported to on his, but I respect that he’s not making a simple easy film. He’s throwing his whole self into making it and he expects his actors to do the same.
Rumpus: So how do you balance being married and having a kid, with making sexy movies? You don’t look or act like you have a dual life.
Bell: People always say to me, ‘You don’t look like someone who makes erotic films. I expected someone to be wearing a leather outfit or a vinyl bustier,’ but that taps into what I really want to be saying about sex. There aren’t sex people and non-sex people. Sex is part of everybody’s life and that you can be incredibly sexual and wear a flowered dress. Also making a film of any kind puts you in a vulnerable position. Well, I feel vulnerable making erotic movies because they have to be sexy to me. Each one is like saying this is what I personally find sexy. That’s scary for me even now.
Rumpus: Yeah, I was a stripper but don’t want to write about it in my fiction because I’m uncomfortable with people thinking that was/is/could be me. And, I don’t really like talking about my own sexuality partly because I have a hard enough time not judging myself for it. So, how have you gone beyond that?
Bell: I spend a lot of time managing my boundaries. I need to feel free and comfortable working with my actors and writing my scripts and doing the things that I need to do to make a movie that’s moving and exciting to me. I often spend months building up relationships with the actors. On set there are also all these fine gradations that I’ve learned to manage where someone says, well, how do you feel about – anal sex, say? Or, if someone says, how do you feel about sex doggie-style? I have to be careful to separate out my feelings about whether doggie-style sex makes sense in this film from how I feel about it in all erotic films and how I personally feel in my own bedroom. It’s a balancing act that can come down to a pronoun or else talking to fewer people at one time. Everyone on set has a different comfort level but I have to be able to talk about sex bluntly, and I have to respect my partner’s privacy too. Like, he may or may not want me talking about sex in a way that exposes him and his feelings.
Rumpus: Respecting a partner is one thing but you have a daughter? Wait, I didn’t mean that to sound like I’m shocked. At some point you’re going to have to have a discussion with her though.
Bell: I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to practice what I preach and raise a daughter who’s sex positive. I think I make the kind of films that I’m proud to stand behind. I think they say something good about sex and the way sex really is, and I hope to raise her with open and body-positive attitudes and to talk when the time is right about what I do and she’ll appreciate that.