I really wanted to hate Christina Voros’s Kink, if only to write a diatribe against the James Franco industrial-complex. Produced by Franco, and released on the heels of his homage to queer underground subculture, Interior Leather Bar, Kink may have been directed by a female acolyte, but it still retains the mark of the Franco machine. Franco is never mentioned or present in the film but his presence is nevertheless palpable; like in Interior Leather, Franco is constructing himself as a 21st century PT Barnum/Andy Warhol, taking viewers on a tour of our culture’s current sexual oddities.
Kink takes us behind the scenes of a different kind of factory, the Armory. Located in the Mission District of San Francisco, it’s the base of operations for Kink.com, the largest distributor of BDSM fetish porn in the world. Rather than focusing on the more salacious aspects of kinky sexual acts, Voros and her team of videographers document the quotidian workdays of employees at Kink.com. This approach allows viewers to see that BDSM is created and practiced by a plethora of people, male, female, trans, gay, straight and everywhere in-between—giving the film a feminist stamp. However, this ethnographic approach to documentary film makes Kink more earnest than enticing and, surprisingly, a rather boring viewing experience.
Kink’s banality is purposeful. Voros’s modus operandi seems to be to stimulate the mind more than the crotch. Interviewing many employees and performers from the Armory, Vorus focuses on questions of power, domination, rape fantasies, consent, feminism, and liberation through pushing past one’s physical limits. BDSM practice in Kink comes across as risky business, perhaps more so for emotions than for the body.
It is this connection to emotions and intellect that allows Vorus to argue that BDSM is a more pure, creative, and revelatory form of X-rated filmmaking than other pornographic genres. At one point a production designer says that if the porn landscape writ large was like the high-school cafeteria, the jock table would be Vivid Video (the most popular and generic of blue entertainments) while Kink.com employees and performers would be the goth/punk kids: weird, quirky, cool, and creative.
These “goth kids” all grown up and working within the BDSM industry still see themselves as more “real” than their glossier porn counterparts. Part of this claim to authenticity is specific to kink as a sexual practice. Whereas more mainstream fare plays up the cinematic artifice of porn—complete with exaggerated moaning, close-ups of women and bottoms winking at the camera, and elaborately staged money shots—BDSM films rely on “reality.” Namely, that nothing is forced or faked, and that the submissives being videotaped might actually be at the brink of truly fracturing their body or their psyche. Kink.com performers are told by directors not to play to the camera, and not to fake anything—only if they are really responding can the “magic” of BDSM be captured on film. This magic often concerns seeing the submissive reach what Kink.com founder Peter Acworth calls “sub-space,” a euphoric, drug-like state that allows people to feel earth-shattering pleasure, all by breaking through their pain threshold in a safe setting. By highlighting the power of sexual submissiveness, Kink attempts to appear feminist and sex-positive.
Though release and sex positivity are large aspects of BDSM’s appeal, part of Kink’s boring, academic feel is a result of its desire to be more “arty” than erotic. Following in the footsteps of Warhol’s kitchen videos from the 1960’s, Kink doesn’t want to be about porn at all. In the film’s press notes, Voros states that her vision was to not film the action, but to film the people filming the action. This makes for a rather bland yet manic viewing experience: For every shot of a woman suspended upside down being ripped to shreds by a power drill with a dildo attachment, there is a longer scene of a queer female employee talking about feminism and sex positivity. For every shot of a man or woman hanging from ropes with their nipples clamped, there is an analogous scene in which set designers take us on an unmemorable trip through the sex dungeon set. For every shot of a woman spanking, fisting, and fucking a submissive male, there are three longer shots that stay focused on the porn director’s face as their eyes light up while their performers cry. And so on and so forth. Voros makes this directorial choice in order to seem auteurist, but the end result is more skeevy than artistic.
The skeevy nature of Kink’s filmic eye is not unlike the one present in Interior: Leather Bar, another Franco-produced “art-documentary” made at the actor’s insistence and on his dime. Even more so than Leather Bar, which was directed by a member of queer sex-positive culture, Travis Matthews, Kink suffers from seeming uninformed and voyeuristic.
When asked in the press notes about what qualifications/experiences she had with the BDSM community, Vorus admits to seeing a few Hustler magazines, viewing Boogie Nights once, and nada mas, since she didn’t want to go in with any preconceived notions about the community she was documenting. The camera in Kink is like Piper on Orange is the New Black, an audience intermediary that is more vanilla than its environment, an empty, relatable vessel through which “normal people” (i.e white, straight, monogamous, non-kinky people) can relate to socially abnormal sexual practices.
No matter the auteurist techniques or feminist flourishes Voros employs to humanize members of the BDSM community, Kink still stinks of the Franco factory. If it weren’t for the power of the Franco brand and its pretentious attempts at being deep, Kink would be just another piece of raunchy late-night cable fare on Skinemax or Showtime After Dark—and not even the kind that turns you on.