A Review of IFC’s “Indie Sex” Documentary Series

In the recent Hollywood comedy Knocked Up (2006), Seth Rogen's character and his friends are busy cobbling together a website that gives users the exact timecodes where actors and actresses get naked in movies, only to be crushed when they learn that a successful website with the very same business model already exists. Well, not entirely crushed; after all, half of the fun of their project was getting to watch the dirty bits again.

This week IFC premieres their four-part documentary series titled Indie Sex, which succeeds best as a similar guide to the pinkest bits of cinematic sin. Split into four groupings (“Censored!,” “Taboos,” “Teens” and “Extremes”), the doc overall feels scattered, repetitive and a bit lean, and might leave viewers scratching their heads over exactly what the aim of the piece was to begin with.

But in the end it's a handy guide to the naughtiest moments in the history of film, and on those merits alone might earn a pass from even the pickiest critics. It's also refreshing to see gay sex and sexuality included within the broader discussion of overall sexuality — rather than as its own unique entity or as an entirely “outsider” or “extreme” phenomenon — and we do get significant discussion of gay-interest films at several points in the series.

Gay viewers will find the series worth tuning into for two main reasons: the frequent use of gay filmmakers and critics in discussing the topics at hand, and the inclusion of gay films and gay sex scenes in the broader discussion. For the most part, episodes one (“Censored!”) and three (“Teens”) have the most gay-interest content, with the oddly similar episodes two and four (“Taboos” and “Extremes”) focusing on kink more than anything else.

Thankfully, for once gay sex isn't considered a perversion or a “taste” in this discussion, and it's not simply tossed on the pile of titillating shocks with all the garter belts and ball-gags like it sometimes is.

One point becomes clear early on: gay artists and critics have been at the forefront of pressing the issue of sex in the movies for a long time. In part one (“Censored!”), much of the discussion is dedicated to the legendary (straight) adult film Deep Throat (1972), which became the first crossover mainstream hardcore success. But it's interesting that our guide to the film is out filmmaker Fenton Bailey, whose documentary Inside Deep Throat (2005) encountered the same barriers to distribution that the original film had been thought to shatter decades earlier.

The prevalence of gay participants in the discussion, including gay film critic (and AfterElton.com contributor) Alonso Duralde and queer filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell, shows that even when the sex onscreen might not be gay, the efforts to preserve and to promote sexually frank and envelope-pushing films have often been made by gay people.

That's not to say that actual gay sex and sexuality don't get their due in Indie Sex, and indeed they do enter the conversation. In the first and overall most cohesive episode (“Censored!”), gay relationships enter the picture during the early 1970s, a fertile period for American films overall.

The time between gay playwright Edward Albee's groundbreaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the zeitgeist-squashing double-whammy of family-friendly blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) (which arguably cut off the adult American drama at the knees) is seen as the most artistically significant period in studio history, and it's no coincidence that gay-interest films like The Boys in the Band (1970), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) came out during that time.

“Censored!” also takes a few minutes to address the furor surrounding the release of William Friedkin's gay serial killer movie Cruising (1980), which was a significant event in the gay rights movement as well as a first for movies. Although responses to defamatory depictions are now commonplace, up until this point public outcry was generally limited to sexual content, not to how a group of persons were represented.

The episode ends with a discussion of gay director John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus (2006), often cited as the most sexually explicit American film ever made. “Censored!” makes a clear statement that depictions of gay relationships and gay sex are an important element in the movement toward the loosening of society's outdated and restrictive moral constraints.

While “Taboos” features a few gay filmmakers (Don Roos, John Waters) and discussion of a few gay films (Chuck & Buck [2000]), it feels a bit dated in its discussion and several of the topics addressed here (S&M, “kink”) come up again in the fourth segment, “Extremes.” Interestingly, it appears that “Taboos” was actually completed in 2001 and may have been retooled to fit into this series, which might explain the redundancies and dated feel of the discussion. In any case, it's one of the weaker episodes.

Perhaps surprisingly, the liveliest discussion of gay film takes place in the third episode, “Teens.” The discussion of the advent of the “teen movie” is pedestrian enough (moving from the beach movies to Porky's [1982] and beyond), but then a wildcard is introduced: sure, these naughty romps were made presumably so that boys could look at boobies, but what about boys who like other boys? Out musicians Billy Porter and Ari Gold are among those interviewed on the topic and they bring a fresh angle to the conversation.

Gold, for example, notes that the sex scene in The Terminator (1984) was nearly worn through in his family's VHS copy; but both he and his straight brothers were watching the same scene for entirely different reasons. Porter notes that he watched the teen sex comedies, but not for the chick factor; rather, he was hoping to catch a flash of muscle.

The conversation then moves on to discussion of movies made specifically for gay teens and about gay teens (But I'm a Cheerleader [1999], Edge of Seventeen [1998], Another Gay Movie [2006], etc.). Todd Stephens places his groundbreaking Edge of Seventeen within the greater context of teen movies, calling it a “gay John Hughes movie.” Similarly, he considers Another Gay Movie as following in the footsteps of American Pie (1999) (which itself emulated Porky's).

There is a significant amount of time dedicated to stressing the importance of showing gay teens struggling with their sexual beings right alongside their straight brethren, which is something that mainstream films have for the most part failed to do. The point is clearly made that gay teen movies are still strictly an indie phenomenon, which actually serves to highlight one of the main shortcomings of the film, overall.

The biggest problem with Indie Sex is … well, that it's not actually about indie sex.

While parts of the film focus on breakthrough indie films that challenged the dominant paradigms when it comes to representation of sex and sexuality in film (the Canadian necrophilia romance Kissed [1996], for example, or pansexual romp Shortbus), a great deal of time is spent talking about studio films, which by definition shouldn't even be on the slab here.

Had discussion of major films only been included to provide contrast to what was happening in indies, that would have been one thing. But studio films like 9 ½ Weeks (1986), Body of Evidence (1993), Basic Instinct (1992), Cruising (1980), and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) are discussed to the same extent as indie films like The Brown Bunny (2003), The Center of the World (2001) and Porky's (1982). So any significance of “indie sex” is lost entirely.

From a strictly queer perspective, the series — which is not focused on gay film, after all — is actually far more gay-inclusive than most documentaries on general cinema. But queer study or no, I can't see how the groundbreaking (and sexually censored) Boys Don't Cry (1999) — one of the most celebrated indie films of the last 10 years — didn't merit a single mention in the entire series, while studio films like The Lizzie McGuire Movie (2003) and Mean Girls (2004) are discussed.

The other major failing of the series is in its four-part structure. While the “Censored!” and “Teens” segments hold together fairly well because of their specific foci, the episodes on “Taboos” and “Extremes” are strikingly similar, as both tend to focus mostly on general “kink.” Touchy topics like incest and pedophilia also pop up in both discussions, and ultimately these episodes feel more like shopping lists of “out there” sexual tastes than anything else.

Overall, Indie Sex is a four-hour discussion of sex in film that suffers from a lack of focus (not being about indie sex more than studio film sex; featuring two too-similar episodes) but still presents a good deal of film history and commentary from filmmakers, critics and historians, many of them out gay men.

While it's refreshing to see discussion of gay sex and sexuality in film folded into a general discussion of sexual themes and images, in this case there's a lot here that's not terribly new to fans of indie films and a lot of topics covered that don't really fit into the discussion at hand. Those looking for more on gays in film and less 9 ½ Weeks might want to check out producer Lesli Klainberg's previous IFC effort, Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema (2006), or The Celluloid Closet (1995).

IFC Indie Sex airs August 1, 2, 3, & 4 at Midnight EST/PST.