Berlinale Diary 4 – The Sex Tapes

Cherry dir. Stephen Elliott

The End of Puberty dir. Kimura Shoko

Mommy Is Coming dir. Cheryl Dunye

Berlin’s kinky demimonde is not a secret. Maybe that’s why Stephen Elliott’s new film, Cherry, premiered at the 2012 Berlinale. Perhaps this city of leather felt like familiar territory. Or perhaps Cherry traveled to Berlin because it was more welcoming than US film festivals that tend toward the politically-correct .

Think of a coming of age story that takes a pretty blonde adolescent through an abusive family, a manipulative boyfriend, and a rocky exodus north from Los Angeles and into the San Francisco porn industry, where she finds a community where needs are nurtured and dreams are fulfilled.

In Cherry, Porn Starlet Ashley Hinshaw Meets Cokehead Socialite James Franco on the Steps of the Porn Temple, the San Francisco Armory

If this isn’t a revelation, and a jolting act of revisionism, what is? Films about the adult film biz usually track the fall of young innocents through drugs and poverty into quasi-slavery, often into suicide. In Cherry, young Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) seems headed in that direction.  Her mother (Lili Taylor) is a drunk, and rich potential boyfriend James Franco is a coke fiend who can’t accept that Cherry (Angelina’s screen name) has progressed from cocktail waitress in a strip club where he met her to porn actress. Margaret (Heather Graham), who directs porn films in the San Francisco Armory, is attracted to Cherry and protects her. Under her wing, Cherry becomes a porn director. From lost soul to adult filmmaker.  It could happen to you.

A dream team cast in Cherry – James Franco, Lili Taylor, Heather Graham, Dev Patel – takes the film into Midnight Movie campiness, and Stephen Elliott, who has published seven novels, makes it easy to laugh by providing a Perils-of-Pauline shell for the melodrama. Please note – he’s not playing for laughs. In Cherry, he collaborated on the writing with porn actress Lorelei Lee – for authenticity, we can assume, although Elliott says he’s also a veteran of the adult industry. Lee also performs in Cherry. And the film is produced by, the porn consortium that operates out of the San Francisco Armory, where much of Cherry was shot.

Porn makes enough money in the private Video on Demand format to sustain itself handsomely – or is it lustily?  So why the self-congratulation in Cherry, and how did they bring in stars to give the film and the adult business credibility? It’s odd for a film that salutes porn not to be a porn film. But these are hard questions, and you’ll be seeing Cherry for the laughs, most of them unintentional.

If Cherry isn’t enough of a well-meaning oddity, try The End of Purity  (Koi ni itaru yamai) in the Berlinale’s Forum section, by the Japanese director Kimura Shoko. The setting is a high school, where Tsubara, the most ordinary of well-scrubbed adolescents in the throes of some extended experience of puberty, is obsessed with her biology teacher, Mr. Madoka.  The teacher seems determined to outdo any existing homage to Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, and he’s adept enough at it to keep you watching as he drools and twitches.  He vomits at the mention of sex. I’m not kidding, nor, it seems, is the director.

Daydreaming Leads to a Dilemma in The End of Puberty

The fun starts when we see pictures drawn in Tsubara’s notebooks of herself and Madoka, which are line drawings (with a childish fantasy that might have borrowed a few things from Paul Klee)  that show the two fused at the genitals – for eternity, if we believe the young girl’s ardor.

One of her aspirations is that student and teacher  exchange private parts – “The Genital Dialogues” ? – and they do, after a lunge below the belt from Tsubara while Madoka is correcting papers, and  the drama takes off.  You never heard of magic realism in an after-school-special? Here it is.

The conceit is strange and silly, but at least it could promise some inventive grotesquery. Not here. The End of Puberty is as wholesome as a Cub Scout meeting, with a fable’s pay-off message that there are some fantasies that you don’t try at home, or at school. Like Cherry, this is the stuff of Midnight Movies, where the joke is on anyone who takes the earnestly-told story too seriously.

Papi Coxxx Plays a Berlin Hotel Clerk Who Meets and Greets Her Girlfriend's Mother in the lesbian porn comedy "Mommy Is Coming" at the 2012 Berlinale

Yet there was real porn at the Berinale, in an improbable form.  It was Mommy Is Coming, the latest from Cheryl Dunye, a Berlinale veteran, who teaches at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. (Can a porn film help you get tenure? If it doesn’t work at CCA, it may work at the Berlinale, which has welcomed Dunye’s other non-porn films for years.)

Mommy Is Coming is a lesbian porn comedy, set in leathery Berlin (where else?), where Claudia (Papi Coxxx) and Dylan (Lil Harlow) are having love troubles, just as Dylan’s mother (Maggie Tapert) arrives in town, eager to find a man for some fun. Delivered to the hotel where Claudia (with the world’s cheapest stage moustache) works as Claude, Helen becomes part of a triangle that Dunye wraps around hard-core encounters in the Berlin underground – not the subway, although that would have been interesting.

In Mommy Is Coming, preposterous disguises and mistaken identities and corny jeux de mots (starting with the title) make for an ultra-lite script, even by porn standards, but stitched together with some wit. And there’s a crescendo that brings laughs and literalism to the term MF. Dunye has set out to have fun in a field where films take themselves far too seriously – just imagine how seriously Germans can take this stuff. The result is Warhol, John Waters, and Bruce LaBruce,  with Dunye herself playing the English-speaking Berlin taxi driver who conveys the characters here and there – a bit like the bespectacled Mookie neighborhood fixture whom Spike Lee created in Do the Right Thing, which he resurrected delivering pizzas in  his latest Red Hook Summer. A little goes a long way in the less than 70 minutes of Mommy Is Coming.  Be prepared, for better or worse, for the films that try to outdo it.

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