Film review: "Liberty In Restraint" (2005)

arvan's picture

I attended the recent screening of Liberty in Restraint, a documentary about BDSM phtographer Noel Graydon directed by Michael Ney.  The film was shown at The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as part of the Sex+++ Documentary Film Series.  This week's guest moderator was a prominent member of Chicago's BDSM community, assisted by Lisa Junkin, Education Coordinator for the Hull House Museum itself.

Judging the film strictly upon its storytelling merit or message delivery (this is a documentary) I found the film to be unfocused.  There were plenty of interviews with Noel, his friends and people he has photographed.  There were scenes of BDSM being performed in dungeons, photo shoots and gallery openings.  There were the obligatory scenes of people walking around and making phone calls, etc.  In terms of sheer cinematic presentation, it was rather flat.  It is a low-budget documentary film and not Ken Burns' Baseball.  Even with that understood, direction, purpose and relevance are by-products of decision making and composition - not budget.  There is plenty here to work with, but the film just didn't seem to me like it knew where it wanted to go.  It may be that for those who are well-versed in BDSM culture and sensibilities, this film has a clear point.  But, I doubt it.
Now, through all that morass of editing mish-mosh, there was still plenty to see and think about.  Noel's journey into BDSM photography was interesting.  He first encountered it as a non-participant.  He then chose to enter into the role of BDSM participant in order to photograph it from that perspective.  He pointed out some cliches and mischaracterizations that many non-BDSM photographers present in their portrayals of the subject matter.  He described the portraits and the BDSM experience itself as light and free experiences.  He went on to do a nice run through of how different fabrics such as leather, rubber, latex, etc. have been employed by BDSM culture as well as how they play out in photography. 
The film spent a lot of time with Noel and his friends talking about his drug habits.  Honestly, I think it was a distraction.  The film didn't really sell me on how this was relevant and it opened up the conversation to whether or not BDSM is some sort of pathology like addiction.  Noel stated his belief that the Psychology of Sex and the Psychology of Addiction "met in BDSM"   That may be - for him, but that was not stated.  I found the introduction of that problem, which was not clearly resolved to be most unhelpful.   There is a real conversation to be had about BDSM as a personal experience on par with any other sex or body experience between consenting adults.  Dumping addiction into the conversation, as this film did and then not extracting it was a poor choice. 
Noel said something that really got me to think:
"Fetish is an abstraction of real life and the world around us.  So, fetish is everywhere"
I saw people using chains, needles, paddles, straps, clips, wires, rods...anything at all.  Then, I got a glimpse of what he meant by this statement.  I think he was saying that the thing (whip, clip, rock, etc.) is irrelevent.  What is important is that a person is choosing that thing in order to elicit a response within one's self.  This was driven home by a photograph of a woman lying on the shoreline, taken by Noel.  She was dressed in a sickly green-white latex, lying on the shoreline, among kelp, rocks and an industrial complex.  A human sensual experience played out among rot, industry and the cylcles of the ocean.  Sensing the world around us, as it is and as we choose to be or are. 
He said something later about "experiencing the unlikely as sexual or sexy".  I took that to mean that desire is the agent, the only real element of any importance in personal experience.  Once we have desire, we will find the means to deliver.  That may be missionary sex or needle play.  It's all really the same formula: internal desire culminated in a physical act until the desired effect is achieved.
The film concluded with scense of Noel as a stay-at-home dad, lamenting how fetish life and family life don't mesh.  I did note that even kids in Australia have NY Yankees baseball caps.  I was not shocked. 
After the film, the discussion was initially hijacked by some folks that may have been there to kill time.  Two long-winded men went into diatribes about addiction.  I suspected that they may have come from a local recovery house.  I also put some blame on the film for introducing the topic and not cleaning it up.  So, after about 20 minutes of hearing their addiction stories, we moved on.
A question was posed to the group as to whether or not there is a 'source' for everyone's sexuality.  The response was a torrent of opinions about what that source could be or should be or might be.  I think that question has a different answer for everyone.  The group response bore my theory out.  Some of it was couched in terms of physical values, cultural values or emotional values.
As I listened to the various descriptions for the source of sexuality, I thought that the brain is a swamp of chemical reactions.  We take in the world through our senses.  We sense pleasure and pain in our own individual ways and degrees.  We desire a chemical reaction - a kiss, a fuck, a lash, a bite, a needle, a drink, a cigarette...whatever, and we go about making it happen.  All we really do, all we are ever doing - is taking actions that will have a reaction in our brain chemistry.  Sex usually results in an orgasm response.  BDSM may produce orgasm, but it is also capable of delivering many other responses.  The brain desires the chemical response of its own choosing, whether that be orgasm or pain, or the cessation of pain or even numbness.  The exact sensation is not important.  What is central to this human experience, this by-product of consciousness - is desire.  We all know of desire.

2nd & 4th Tuesdays at 7PM

beginning January 27, 2009

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
800 South Halsted
All are welcome!
Hull-House Museum is wheelchair accessible. To request accessibility accommodations, please call the museum two weeks prior to the event.

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