Monday, June 24, 2013

Three from the Vaults

By Lisabet Sarai

When you've been around as long as I have, you have to work hard not to repeat yourself.

Our topic for the next fortnight is movies - something of a relief from the relatively heavy issues we've been discussing over the past month. I've been blogging here at the Grip since 2009, and I've written a number of posts on this topic:

Furthermore, I have a list of my favorite movies on my website (, though it desperately needs to be updated.

Anyway, I thought that for this post, I'd take a trip back in time and talk about three memorable films that strongly influenced my sexuality.

Cabaret (1972)

I've seen this classic, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minelli and Michael York, at least three times, but the first was when I was in college. At the time I was painfully shy and socially inept, with little sexual experience. I was fascinated, nevertheless, by anything with an erotic theme.

In case you're not familiar with the story, Cabaret takes place in Weimar-era Berlin, famous for its decadence and hedonistic excess. American wild child Sally Bowles (Minelli) performs risqué song and dance routines in the seedy Kit Kat Club, sometimes accompanied by the disturbingly crude Emcee (Joel Grey). A bookish young Englishman, Brian Roberts (York), moves into Sally's boarding house and eventually the two become lovers. Sally befriends Maximilian, a rich playboy baron who whisks both her and Brian away to his lavish country estate where he showers them with luxury.

Although lively and funny, Cabaret is a serious movie about the ascent of the Nazis. It does not end happily. In later viewings, I tended to be more aware of the ominous backdrop of rising fascism and anti-Semitism. The first time I saw the film, though, I was mesmerized by the hints of Brian's bisexuality and the implication that Sally, Brian and Maximilian were involved in a carnal ménage. The movie is suggestive rather than explicit, which only heightened the emotional impact for me.

I had no knowledge about or experience with homoeroticism at that point. Sally and Brian have a quarrel, after Maximilian has tired of their company and left for Argentina.

Sally harps on Maximilian's generosity, his good looks, his wealth. Brian becomes increasingly impatient with her apparent obsession.

Brian: Oh, fuck Maximilian!

Sally: (after a pause, with a triumphant smile) I do.

Brian: (with quiet intensity) Well, so do I.

It's hard to convey, now, how thrilling I found this interchange. In fact it's a sign that the lovers' connection is unraveling, but that aspect was secondary to me at the time. I was overwhelmed by their bold admission of sexual transgression, especially the notion that Brian could have had both female and male sexual partners.

When I remember that scene now, eons later, I still get goosebumps.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

I didn't see this rock horror musical - written by Richard O'Brien, directed by Jim Sharman, and starring (among others) Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf - until 1976, when it achieved almost overnight fame as a midnight cult classic. A lot had changed in my life by then. I was in grad school and my first long term sexual relationship. Under the influence of my boyfriend and his cohorts (and maybe my own inner nature), I'd become less timid and a good deal more adventurous.

Someone in our circle told us about the movie and the outrageous crowd scenes that had come to accompany it. I saw it three nights in a row, as I recall, each time bringing additional friends to the cinematic party. However, the crazy interactions within the audience were not really what drew me to the film. No, once again it was the theme of polymorphously perverse sexuality, on a far grander scale than in Cabaret.

Just in case there's anyone who does not know the plot of RHPS, I'll summarize it here. Innocent, newly-engaged young couple Brad and Janet (Sarandon) are stranded by a flat tire and forced to seek assistance at the creepy mansion of Dr. Frankenfurter (Curry), a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”, who parades around in full make-up, corset, garters and high heels. “I'm not much of a man by the light of day,” he sings, “but by night I'm one hell of a lover.” And indeed he is, seducing both Brad and Janet. The latter also finds herself seeking physical solace with the creature the mad doctor has constructed in his lab, a handsome body builder named Rocky who Frankenfurter claims “is good for relieving my tension”. Things begin to fall apart, however, as the cross-dressing evil genius becomes jealous, with Frankenfurter compelling everyone involved to participate in a sexy floor show and then an orgy.

“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.
Swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh.
Erotic nightmares beyond any measure
And sensual daydreams to treasure forever.
Don't dream it, be it...”

Yes, I know it sounds silly now, but these lyrics spoke to me. Over the next few years, one might say that I adopted them as my personal anthem. I followed my fantasies, eager to make my dreams real.

RHPS doesn't end well either. Frankenfurter is overpowered by his servants, who tell him “his mission is a failure” and that he “lost out to extremes”. The creature is executed and the mansion is revealed to be a space ship, which blasts off taking the inhabitants back to the planet Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. Frank and Janet escape, but are, one suspects, irrevocably damaged.

Actually, I've been toying with the notion of writing an erotic story featuring Janet as a character, thirty five years later. Brad is terrified by the sensuality of Frankenfurter's world, but Janet embraces it (“It's a gas that Frankie's landed – his lust is so sincere”, she sings.) What would it be like to have one's “mind expanded”, as she puts it, through a night of intense sexual pleasure, and then to lose it all? I picture her as a cougar, seducing young men in an attempt to recapture the thrill of that night, but incapable of satisfaction with a human lover after experiencing the extraterrestrial mojo of both Frank and Rocky.

Unfortunately, I haven't got beyond this initial premise. All the ideas I've had so far have been either ridiculous or utterly depressing. I do identify with Janet, though, especially as I age and look back upon my out-of-this-world experiences as a young woman.

9½Weeks (1986)

I suspect that there's no reader of the Oh Get a Grip blog who has not at least heard of 9 ½ Weeks. This somewhat infamous erotic drama. directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, was panned by critics and received three Golden Raspberry nominations the year it was released, including Worst Actress and Worst Screenplay. Nevertheless, the film has a place in my personal erotic history, because it was the first time I'd seen a BDSM relationship played out on the screen.

As far as I can recall, I saw the movie not long after it had been released, and I believe I'd already read (with highly mixed feelings) Elizabeth McNeill's memoir of the same title, on which the film is based. I was only a few years married at this point, and my own experiences with D/s prior to my marriage were still fresh and almost painfully arousing. I must have dragged my husband to the movie too – we rarely engaged in separate recreation. I strongly suspect he hated it, but he endured it for my sake.

In a recent post on the ERWA blog (, I suggest that reading allows more room for the play of imagination, and thus provides a deeper and more satisfying experience than watching a film or video. While I believe this is true, actually seeing forbidden acts can be more exciting and disturbing than reading about them, especially before one becomes jaded. I had little patience with Kim Basinger's character, but I found Mickey Rourke compelling and plausible in his role of the dominant John Gray. (What is it about these Doms, that they all have the same surname?) He's not really all that physically attractive, which for me made him more real and more exciting. The fact that some of the trials he set for Elizabeth mirrored challenges from my own lost master only made the effects stronger.

I fantasized for weeks about the film, inserting myself into Basinger's place - and changing the ending. In both the book and the film, the relationship is portrayed as unhealthy and abusive. Eventually the submissive heroine manages to break away from the dominant's influence. The implication is that she has “escaped” back to a normal sexual existence. This interpretation really bothered me, perpetuating as it does the popular myth that people who engage in kinky sex are somehow sick or damaged, or that a vanilla relationship is intrinsically healthier.

Looking at the success of FSOG, it appears that this mistaken notion is still prevalent.

Zalman King co-produced 9 ½ Weeks. Perhaps if he had been more intimately involved, the film would have been a bigger success, both commercially and artistically. He's a master at portraying passion on the screen, as witnessed by such works as Wild Orchid, The Red Shoe Diaries, and Two Moon Junction.

But those titles will have to wait for another post.


  1. Yes, yes, yes on Cabaret. In addition to the movie, I've seen several live productions. Such characters, such exuberant debauchery! Talk about a musical that works!

  2. Hi, Daddy,

    But such darkness, too. Not that I really saw that, the first time around.

  3. Thanks for the reminder of 9 1/2 weeks, Lisabet, I may have to hunt it out and watch it all over again. I first saw it in my late teens, and then again not long after. It will be interesting to read between the lines of it now that I am older and see what subtleties I missed first time around.

    1. It's not really a great movie - but you might find your reactions now to be quite different.

      Writing this post made me realize how one's point of view changes over time. You can watch the same film multiple times, but it's never really the same. Even those three nights in a row that I saw RHPS - the first night I was astonished, the second night enchanted, the third... well to be honest, I don't remember!

  4. I just found a store near my house where u can buy old movies for cheap and even sell them back
    for another. I'm there today looking for a DVD copy of 9 1/2 weeks. Thx 4 sharing Lisabet!

    1. Hi, Mary,

      Wish I had that store around here! I want to watch the classics that JP talks about in his post.

  5. Loved all of those movies too - Cabaret and Chicago I think are probably my favorite musicals because of the controversial themes - Kander and Ebb were truly gifted.

    1. I liked Chicago, too. But then, I'll see anything with Catherine Zeta-Jones!

  6. I never knew Caberet was about this. I thought it as just a muical. Now I'm curious. The first time I saw Rocky Horror I didn't get it. I saw it last year again and I just loved it. The audicity of it, especially for that time. I love audacity. And of course my favorite moment, which I've watched over and over again on Youtube is "Let's Do the TIme Warp Again". What makes that song for me is actually the stodgy old Englishman who's narratng the story. When the music stops and he pulls down the dance chart, it's a masterpiece of comic timing. I just love it.


    1. Oh, Garce, you'd love Cabaret. It's very dark and twisted!

      As for RHPS, every time I see it I notice some new detail. I have the soundtrack on my mp3 player and listen to it when I exercise sometimes. I probably know most of the songs by heart.


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