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The Unobservant Voyeur

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Fetishes

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Nick Broomfield

By Bill Stamets

When a director like Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance in his own film, it's as a joke, a garnish. Even when Martin Scorsese plays a minor but symbolic character--aiming a spotlight (After Hours), a camera (The Age of Innocence), or a gun (Mean Streets)--it's still a pretty insignificant part of the film. But when directors of documentaries appear in their own films--typically as narrators, interviewers, or diarists--they assume a meatier role. First-person nonfiction directors usually employ their sensibilities as instruments of illumination, in concert with the paraphernalia of lenses, lights, and microphones.

Director Nick Broomfield is unfortunately a blunt instrument whose icky charm infuses his documentaries: under the guise of tell-all cinema verite, he includes the tackiest transactions and negotiations over the making of his films. In the 1995 Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam he often includes scenes in which subjects tell him how obnoxious, untrustworthy, and dumb he is. And of all the evidence that ends up onscreen--much of it offered by obnoxious, untrustworthy, and dumb subjects--the least equivocal supports the worst claims made about his character as a director. In that film, the 1988 Driving Me Crazy, and his latest documentary, Fetishes, his subjects also claim--though less often--that he's cute and charming. In Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam, he films himself paying former LA police chief Daryl Gates $2,500 for an interview in a hotel room.

In Fetishes Broomfield invades the demimonde of dominatrix Mistress Raven, who runs a pricey Manhattan parlor, Pandora's Box, catering to fetishists. Making a sideshow of his own obtuseness, he manages to miss the story. "You've not listened," an exasperated Mistress Raven tells Broomfield. Indeed, all sorts of niceties about "transfers of power" and "therapy" go right over his head; for masochists, for instance, it's not all about pain. But Broomfield just doesn't get it.

Fetishes simply peddles an unobservant voyeurism. Outsiders to the fetish scene may appreciate the expertly appointed sets at Pandora's Box, which include a shadowy medieval dungeon and an equally scary, gleamingly bright room evoking a medical clinic. However, Broomfield's tour remains painfully superficial. If the sexual subculture he visits is predicated on surfaces, that's not an insight he intends to convey. Consider his failed attempt to interview a submissive who's busy licking a toilet bowl: Broomfield turns to the camera and grimaces. The opportunistic, leering Fetishes never aims for any empathy or judgment, just this grossed-out grin.

Broomfield's previous documentary forays--into an English mental hospital, a California youth prison, a Nevada brothel, and marriage-counseling sessions--don't seem to have armed him with any detectable sensitivity. A film about women in a Georgia boot camp--Soldier Girls, which Broomfield made in 1981 with Joan Churchill--like Fetishes dwells on rites of humiliation, though they're less precious. Yet Soldier Girls similarly betrays no special take on the cruelty of drill sergeants or the pain endured by army recruits.

Nor has Broomfield cultivated any knack for more subtly insinuating himself into his films. Driving Me Crazy, a documentary about the making of the Broadway musical revue Body and Soul, begins with the show's backers negotiating with him over the scope of his assignment. "At this point I have severe reservations about the entire project," states Broomfield in a voice-over. "The only way I agree to stay on is if I can film everything, including our discussions about the kind of film we are making." He then films his meeting with a writer who proposes scripting a fictive writer within the Fame-like film as "a bridge between documentary and fiction." Broomfield laughs out loud and says on camera: "I didn't understand a word he said." Broomfield further embarrasses himself by filming his later talk on the phone with his producer, who's heard disturbing news from the cast: "They look at you with great suspicion," he says. Flashing an impish smirk at the camera, Broomfield replies: "Why's that?" And when a choreographer gripes that Broomfield's camera smacked her on the head during rehearsal, astonishingly he includes his childish defense: "Of course, she ran into the camera as much as the camera ran into her."

But for all the unseemly intrusions he makes into the affairs of his subjects, Broomfield comes away with scant material. Driving Me Crazy sheds no light on the creative process in staging a Broadway show. What sticks in the mind are Broomfield's peculiar asides about his tribulations hounding leads and wheedling access.

In Fetishes Broomfield never goes so far as to identify himself as a fetishist, but he pesters Mistress Raven for a session of his own nonetheless--so he can film from a customer's angle (Mistress Raven quips that inflicting real pain on Nick would be a pleasure). He ends the film with a bevy of giggling dominatrices tying him up with rope, as he laments in a voice-over: "And this is the closest I ever got to doing a session with Mistress Raven."

Ersatz access to actual sessions at Pandora's Box is achieved via a bluish video monitor showing the sped-up actions of mistresses and customers caught by the in-house security camera. But when Broomfield gets up close, he documents little more than the lackluster theatrical skills of Mistress Raven's employees. Broomfield's voice-over emphasizes the professional standing of the men who pay $1,000 per session, but his interviews with them about their erotic histories yield little insight.

Broomfield also interviews a few of the Pandora's Box mistresses in their homes, perhaps hoping to discover their off-duty personalities. But his line of questioning--"Do you hope to get married and have kids someday?"--makes Jerry Springer sound astute: we can fully identify with the exasperation Mistress Raven so obviously feels with Broomfield, the dim yet dogged interrogator. The apex of his at-home dominatrix interviews comes when a house pet retaliates against the invasion of its home: "Unfortunately, at this point, Spike the iguana bit the cameraman Christophe, and we left prematurely," says Broomfield in voice-over.

Fetishes devolves into a narcissistic exercise in humiliation for Broomfield, the impotent professional observer who may be fetishizing his camera and microphone instead of whips and stiletto heels. And it's tantalizing to imagine Broomfield's camera as a conscious accomplice in some of the psychosexually charged transactions he records in Fetishes. "I want you to lick the sweat out of my jacket while I talk to these gentlemen," a dominatrix instructs her naked, masked client as he crawls on all fours to his task. On another occasion Broomfield wraps up an interview when a dominatrix extinguishes her cigarette on her customer's tongue.

But despite Broomfield's insistence on access to the inner sanctum of Pandora's Box, he never has enough nerve or imagination to join in the role-playing. The only artists in evidence in Fetishes are Mistress Raven's customers, who come up with some highly imaginative, even ironic dramas. One man regularly requests that his mistress dress up in schoolgirl garb--and then she extorts from him up to $4,000 per session after threatening to expose his naughtiness. Broomfield doesn't film this scene, but one can imagine how his camera might heighten the naughtiness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fetishes film still.

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