Synopsis: What does the face of human arousal look like? We asked adults in the San Francisco Bay Area to have orgasms for our cameras. We told them we would shoot only from the shoulders up, nothing explicit. Twenty-two people, aged 22-68, said yes. Some came alone, some with partners. This is a non-linear record of that experience, before, during and after.
eyelights: the boldness of the project. the participants’ various motivations.
eyesores: the quality of the production.
‘Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy’ is a low-budget documentary short that shows us the faces that people make whilst in the throes of passion. Produced by Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, and directed by Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp, it’s innovative enough that even Annie Sprinkle was impressed with it, wishing that she had thought of it first.
This film is fairly simple in nature: it consists of one-on-one interviews with its 22 participants (some of whom were couples) as well as footage of their faces as they masturbate to orgasm. There is NO nudity: the camera shoots all of the women and men in close-ups, from the shoulders up. The purpose: to show real arousal in a sex-positive context.
I picked up this DVD when Venus Envy, my local sex shop, was trimming their rental collection. A friend of mine had once sent me a link to a site that showed people having orgasms much in the same fashion, from the shoulders up. She told me it was the hottest thing she’d ever seen, and couldn’t stop watching. I didn’t have the bandwidth back then, sadly. But the idea stuck.
Honestly, I must admit that I found myself mildly embarrassed watching these strangers in their most intimate moments. Although I’d imagine that I’m not exactly the prudest of people, I was uncomfortable with watching them staring straight at the screen while pleasuring themselves. Perhaps the eye contact was too personal for me: I felt like I got caught stealing.
Of course, that just my thing. There’s nothing wrong with the filmmakers’ approach, which was to ask the participants to look at the camera, either above them or to their left. I guess it’s the intimate nature of that eye contact that was disquieting: I don’t know any of these people, and here they are, staring right at me, allowing me to look right into them.
Having said that, forgetting my own hangups for a moment, it’s a truly bold thing for these people to have done. I must admit that I’m quite impressed with the courage that must have been mustered up to be able to do this; this isn’t porn, it’s not a performance – these people made themselves as intimately available as anyone could to strangers. I don’t think I could ever do that.
The reasons why the participants, who range in age from early-20s to late-60s, chose to do this was quite varied: to face their fears, to see themselves, to karmically balance the scales, because they like to reveal secrets, because they’re too old to hold back, to make people face real sex/intimacy, as an act of sharing, and because it refocuses away from the genitals.
For some, it was just a question of wanting to be represented, as was the case of some of the African-Americans, gay, obese, older and transgender people featured here. They were making a point of it. For others, it was an act of exhibitionism: it turned them on (as was the case for Carol Queen, who coincidentally happens to be in all our recent documentaries).
For most of the participants, though, it was a political statement (although, for some, it was a personal one). Many discussed the fact that showing violence and murder is so permissible in our society, but love and sex isn’t – it’s frequently manufactured, censored or not simply not talked about. For them, it was a way to break down those barriers.
…even if takes 50 years for anyone to see the resulting video.
Some wished that some of the people they knew, including parents and family members, would see the completed film to break down their walls with respect to sex. One woman said that she would like all women to see it. One participant said that she would buy a beer to whoever bought this and watched it because, in her mind, they’d be really cool people. Dang… too bad I don’t drink.
Before they filmed, the participants were asked what they thought their faces looked like during an orgasm. They were even asked to reenact an orgasm beforehand. One of the women refused to on political grounds. Nice. I agree: This basically sets up the participants to perform during an act that should be entirely real, free, as un-selfconscious as possible.
Given that I have been intimate with only select few people, I was surprised by what I saw: there was a lot of explosive, dramatic stuff. But it could be sexy, too. I particularly loved seeing the colour in their faces, which relaxed, instantly becoming beautiful. There were smiles, relief, giggles, laughter, quivering lower lips, tongues dashing out, moaning, grunting, and the licking of fingers or palms.
All to the sounds of vibrators or lube.
The whole thing was edited together non-sequentially, with each participant blending into the next, shifting from one to the other as they grew closer to their own individual climaxes. The sound bled over, making it almost sound like they were doing this in tandem, even though each was shot separately, in a safe, controlled space by the filmmakers.
Afterwards, they were all shown footage of themselves and asked what they thought of the experience. Many said that it wasn’t what they expected, with some being surprised that they actually could do it. One guy said that, for him, it was 10 years fo therapy right there. Another said that she had never been so aware of the extremities of her body.
It was obviously quite the experience for them. And for myself. Frankly, I think that ‘Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy’, just like ‘Petals‘, ‘The O Tapes‘ and ‘Orgasm Inc.‘ should be requisite viewing. We need to deprogram the images that our sex-saturate media has imbedded in our culture – the performances that we now believe to be reality, that we assume we should emulate.
If anything could help us reconsider our sexual nature and make us more comfortable with who we are sexually, these faces can do it. By watching real people, give themselves real pleasure, it can normalize sexuality, help us internalize that it’s natural, it’s good, and there’s no restriction on who can and should be sexual. We are all sexual creatures – whether we are sexually active or not.
And there’s absolutely no shame in that. As one man once said: “Sex is natural, sex is good. Not everybody does it, but everybody should.”
Date of viewing: February 8, 2014