(Peachfront’s Note: I haven’t seen this film, but I’ll be happy to hear what you think.)
Christina Voros’ 2013 documentary Kink was a very weird ride. Since I’ve taken the infamous San Francisco Armory Tour, much of the film took place in familiar spaces, so even though there were no porn shoots going on when I took the tour the film had a very personal feel.
Both on the tour and in the course of the film I got a strong sense that there were Certain Unspeakable Things which were elided. The most interesting things about both Kink and its acquisition of the Armory building were absent from the film. The funny story about how George Lucas got them the Armory was told to us on the tour but not the other one about how Peter Acworth saved the BDSM film industry.
The Armory story is so hilarious I can’t imagine why Voros didn’t feel it was worth a few minutes of screen time. On screen Acworth does allow that the building had been bought by this guy whose deal fell through so it ended up with the creditors, who wanted to sell it to another guy but that deal fell through. What isn’t said is that San Francisco is the NIMBY capitol of the observable universe and the zoning didn’t allow any commercial use for the building, and all attempts to amend the zoning were shot down by the Mission District neighbors. But long ago George Lucas was looking for a large empty space in which to blow up model spaceships for The Empire Strikes Back — cool enough that the zoning was amended to allow for the Armory to be used as a film studio. On the tour we were told that snigger California zoning law doesn’t distinguish between porn film studios and any other kind. Acworth was, as he does admit on camera, filming vids there a week after buying the place for cash.
The other thing one might expect to find in a documentary about Kink is how it saved its industry. Acworth was one of a number of people who made the interesting discovery in the late 1990’s that this new Internet thing was a way to bypass the de facto restrictions which were universally enforced by print porn publishers, who had to worry about their product being seized and legal action brought from every distant venue where magazines might be sold. On the web porn fans found a real wild West where nobody was able to enforce anything — until 2005, when the Feds began using the PATRIOT act to lean on the banks providing their credit card services with the ludicrous claim that porn was funding terrorism.
Acworth went to the banks which would still do business with him, warned them the letters were going to be coming, and asked what he had to do to give them confidence to push back. The result was a very elaborate set of guidelines mandating safe words, pre- and post-shoot interviews, requiring the shoot to stop immediately if the model starts crying, and several more pages of conditions. Now instead of limitations negotiated by publishers to limit physical book seizures, there were limitations negotiated with banks to give them some spine when the Feds came with bullshit letters about links to terrorism.
This is a fascinating development, not least because of the duplicity of the government in using the PATRIOT act in ways we were solidly promised it would never, ever be used when it was passed, but the only hint of it in Kink is a passing mention that they can’t do tentacle porn because “the billers consider it bestiality.” Acworth also complains that “the billers” are a moving target because they can and do change their minds about what’s OK.
But why what “the billers” care about is important is completely omitted, as is the fact that Kink is the largest BDSM porn producer nowadays largely because a lot of the other players in the market came to work for them so that they wouldn’t have to deal with “the billers” themselves.
So if so much interesting history isn’t in the documentary you might be wondering what is. For the most part it’s a “day in the life” montage of interviews and footage of the talent doing their jobs. But even this doesn’t go very deep; only a very brief interview with the metal fabricator hints at the extensive prop fab shops which support the studio. There is no mention of the amusing fact that they buy personal lubricant in 55 gallon drums (those drums being one of the cool stops on the tour).
There’s a lot of actors and directors being asked for their personal theories on BDSM, which turn out to be remarkably shallow for people who are the top professionals in their field, and there’s a lot of nuts and bolts of setting up and conducting a few shoots. The first half hour or so of the movie focuses entirely on some of the gay male site shoots, to the point one is wondering if the whole movie will be a sausage fest. But then, I guess when we’re solidly assured it’s not going to be all about exploited women, they bring in the female models and directors.
As a slice of life, it’s worth watching and has its funny moments. “OK, I’m going to show you the safe way to step on a penis,” one female director says sweetly as the male sub model visibly goes *BOGGLE*. Listening to the mostly female talent scouts discuss in very crude direct terms what various actors are willing to do is also pretty funny.
Throughout the movie one gets a refreshing sense of this very forthright and euphemism-free approach to even very extreme elements of sexuality — but only up to a point. We’re assured repeatedly that nobody wants to put anyone through an experience they wouldn’t want even if they weren’t getting paid. But of course they are getting paid, and one director does mention kind of sideways that money can create a problem evaluating consent. But the film soon switches to another who assures us that he won’t even go forward with a shoot if he doesn’t feel the model is getting off on the action.
What isn’t said is that Kink operates in a constant state of tension with the credit card banks, their Mission District neighbors, city and state zoning and porn regulations, and other factors which have to be soft-pedaled. I suppose any of those ongoing negotiations could be jeopardized if too much was said about them in public.
There is a striking contrast between this documentary and the 2009 Bell/Lorentzson Insex.com documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, which fearlessly explored both the deep history and problematic issues of their subject, such as the corrosive effect of money on the very idea of consent and the sketchy ways site founder Brent Scott pushed boundaries. Peter Acworth of Kink even appears talking very forthrightly about the underhanded misuse of the PATRIOT act to shut Insex down. But then, when GSH was made their subject was out of business and not involved in multiple ongoing negotiations with existentially dangerous powers.
While Kink is an interesting behind the scenes peek I learned more about how it got where it is from GSH, a film about one of their defunct competitors. Given its avoidance of hard site history Kink might have gone deeper into issues it does try to cover such as the models’ motivations and the essential nature of BDSM, but those are shallowly covered by sound bites caught in the idle moments of working porn shoots. Overall Kink is a worthwhile look into the workings of the studio and the working lives of the talent, but any arguments it thinks it’s making are unlikely to be understood by a viewer who isn’t already persuaded.
On the other hand, maybe Voros had another calculus in mind. After months of waiting for Netflix to decide to carry the film I finally bought a DVD so I could see Graphic Sexual Horror. Even though Kink is just as graphic in its inclusion of representative site content, I was able to watch it by putting it in my Netflix DVD queue and waiting for it to fall out in order. I suppose that’s a win. Personally, though, if I was trying to make an inoffensive film, I’d pick a different subject.