AFTER A FEW DAYS of failed attempts to reach each other, Pendra the Sex Astrologer finally answers the phone when I call. She's stressed and under the weather during production week for her video, Playboy Bunny Revenge. I offer to call back when she's feeling better, but her week is booked solid, so I interview her on the spot. I have to bother her with tedious questions, because all I've been told by my editor is that she's making a musical/comedy/documentary/gay porno flick, and that I'm doing a story on it and sitting in on a night of filming.
I start by asking what the film is about, hoping for a synopsis, or at least an uncomplicated statement of purpose, but I soon realize that Pendra is not an easy person to pin down. She is skeptical of my position as a reporter (she later explains that she was once very adeptly "crucified" by a "sex-phobic" journalist disturbed by the explicit sexual content of her work), and she is cold and withholding throughout our initial conversation -- intelligent but erratic, and only reluctantly informative. I don't blame her, given the intimately explicit nature of her work and the sexually closeted nature of the U.S. and Canada, the countries in which she makes it. Pendra asks me if I watch pornography. I confess that I don't, and before I can tell her that I'm not anti-porn, she informs me that this could be a "detriment." I tell her not to worry, and though she defers, I know she thinks I'm a soft-core geek who's going to freak out like that other journalist. I should've told her to eat my ass and quit judging me, but I didn't.
What I manage to get out of our conversation is that she is a self-identified Freudian-Marxist making a deliberately subversive queer porn film, in which a band of disgruntled female sex-starlets kidnap boys and force them to make gay porn together. Pendra's goal is to legitimize porn for herself and for others because, though so much of pornography is representationally abusive to its subjects and particularly objectifying to women, Pendra loves pornography, viewing it as a real medium for artistic expression. She tells me she is "pro-porn and critical of it, not from an anti-sexual place, but as an artist." She refers to the artistic merit of the work of Bruce LaBruce, whom she admires for the way he plays queer as deviant, and with whom she identifies as an artist for, among other things, his own Freudian-Marxist undertones. Pendra says she is disappointed by the fact that "we never talk about [porn and sexuality], and that's why it can be so easily commodified." She believes that porn can both regulate and inhibit sexuality, if the porn being consumed is generic and unaware of itself, and when the majority of pornographers make films that are designed, formulaically, to sell.
She mentions a controversial scene from LaBruce's Skin Flick, in which a group of neo-Nazi skinheads break into the home of an interracial gay couple and rape the black man, repeatedly shouting the refrain, "Fuck the monkey." Pendra, who has interviewed LaBruce, informs me that he "had a very hard time with that scene." In Playboy Bunny Revenge, Pendra has chosen to invert it, shooting the same scene but making the victim white. In doing this, she is taking something she had a difficult time viewing, and moving it "to a different place" by inverting its implicit racial power structure.
Within a new context the scene will obviously play much differently. And in Pendra's film, my guess is that the scene will possess a sensitivity lacking from LaBruce's male-centered, nihilistic work.
For Pendra, re-making LaBruce's scene, and making pornography in general, is a means of self-exploration. "I like porn that makes me more comfortable with a segment of my psyche," she tells me, even when it's sometimes disturbing and violent. Sometimes violence turns her on. What she hopes to do is to take that attraction, invert it, re-examine it, and resolve whatever conflicts she may have with it, so that it can be understood and incorporated into a healthier, more evolved sexuality. She is "trying to provide pleasure in pornography in a different way," one that is liberating, both to her and the viewer. She shoots loosely, is organized but unscripted, and like a good Marxist, she lets the project be a cooperative effort, allowing for spontaneity, letting her actors have control.
One of the scenes I watch her shoot is a blowjob class given by "Queenie," a nervous drag queen who really should be given a script. Pendra shoots three takes of the scene, watching affectionately as Queenie falls embarrassingly back upon the shameless, self-promoting sexual bravado that legions of uninspired drag queens have been pulling since the advent of time. Pendra is smiling, and seems genuinely pleased.
This would be the Marxist approach to pornography. A Marxist pornographer wouldn't be seeking to control her actors, or to have total dominion over her project. She would view the film as a shared work, and the making of it as a genuine process to enjoy openly, libidinally, in a context of equality and mutual desire. And most importantly, she wouldn't be treating the video like a product. That's what makes Pendra's project unlike most of the pornography I've seen. She isn't commodifying her actors, looking for the optimum cum shot, or getting pissed off when her men are unable to achieve erections. Granted, she's harried, pushy, and domineering under her time constraints, but there is an ethic apparent in her conduct that isn't merely of the feminist-and-therefore-respectful variety. Like a true Marxist, she seems to want her actors to enjoy what they are doing -- to independently determine how far they are comfortable going, and to view themselves as invaluable to the project's completion. But regardless of Pendra's good intentions, I wonder how comfortable any actor who isn't completely jaded can be performing for porn, even in so positive a setting.
Prior to the shooting of the blowjob scene, I talk to one of the principal players, the live model upon whom Queenie demonstrates fellatio. He is "Shaun Sure Thing," a basketball player with a Chinese coach, whom he sucks off. (This is Pendra's effort to recontextualize Chinese men as "tops" in gay porn, as Asian men are generally stereotyped as submissive.) "Shaun" has already shot his scene, and I ask if it was a turn-on for him. He tells me that "it's not so much about being a turn-on, as it is about pushing [his own] sexual boundaries." This is his first experience in porn. He is sweet, nervous, and remarkably honest, telling me that one of his goals in doing Pendra's film is to "restructure [his] own body image" to come to terms with his sexuality in a different context.
I ask him two ugly questions. First, is he nervous about having people who know him see him performing sexually on video? I get a cool "No." The second question is uglier: Is he nervous about attaining an erection? "I'm totally worried," he tells me, with a look that makes me want to hug him. I am later informed by someone else that everyone on the set is "Viagra crazy." When it comes time for Queenie to blow Shaun, I'm wracked with worry for him, thinking, "I shouldn't be here; the poor thing is going to crack under all this pressure; why am I watching this?" I wince as Shaun gets called up onto Queenie's nasty makeshift instruction stage, in front of a bored mock audience, and is instructed to pull down his pants. Shaun sits in his skivvies while Queenie rubs his inner thighs and rambles on unsteadily, informing the audience that "suction is important."
Pendra gives direction, politely asking Shaun to take down his underpants. Shaun politely declines: "Not in front of all these people." "Okay, great," says Pendra, genuinely, though she must be thinking, there goes my fucking scene. Queenie, apparently not as kind as Pendra, is most indelicate after simulating oral sex above Shaun's flaccid penis: "Can't anyone get hard?" Shaun is mortified, but remains calm.
Next I interview Lola Rock'n'Rolla and her band Megababe. Lola is "lead bitch" in the four-woman, real-life, rock-parody band. It is these Megababes (a few babes are added to the actual band for the film) who are responsible for kidnapping the boys and forcing them to fornicate. Interviewing Lola just after my sweet conversation with Shaun serves as the perfect illustration of how Pendra is toying with gender-type, and subverting sexual power dynamics in Playboy Bunny Revenge. Megababe is about "pussy power," which, Lola informs me, will be the name of their next album, featuring Queenie on the cover eating a 12-egg omelet. I ask her why she's doing the movie, and I'm told that it's to embarrass her grandparents, get free Viagra, and to "get sucked off by as many queer boys as possible." I ask her if she likes porn. "Some," she says. "Not porn by men for men, that doesn't interest me -- especially when they have two women together sucking on a dildo. What's the point of that?"
Pendra calls Lola for a shoot. I laugh at her marvelous swagger and bravado, and as I watch her leave, I notice Shaun in the corner with Wayne Yung, a gay, Chinese Canadian video artist and the film's male lead. Shaun looks nervous, and both men are doing their best to get Shaun sufficiently "worked up" for these hungry female pornographers.
A week after shooting, I get a chance to speak with Wayne. In the film, Wayne's character is abducted, only to become a very willing ally of the Bunnies. As gay, Asian men are generally portrayed as submissive in mainstream gay porn, Pendra wanted Wayne's character to be sexually empowered. Representations of gay Asians in cinema concern Wayne, who felt "undesirable" growing up gay and Asian in Canada. "All weekend long I was playing sexy," he says, and that was empowering for him. He also sheds light upon the documentary aspect of the film, explaining that because everyone in the film is objectified to some extent, they are all given the opportunity to speak openly for themselves in the documentary interviews.
Everyone is given a voice in Pendra's movie. No one is mistreated (except, perhaps, flaccid fags); no one is taken advantage of; no one is spoken for without his or her full consent. Regardless of how this über-democratic process pans out, Playboy Bunny Revenge should be one of the more conscientious and provocative films of the coming year.