“We’re All Pornographers Now”: Juliet Bashore on Her 2K-Restored Kamikaze Hearts
Any director whose bio includes being fired from “an animated children’s film for Miramax titled The Great North Pole Elf Strike for portraying Santa’s elves as gay” is my kind of filmmaker. And Juliet Bashore, of the aforementioned dismissal, also has the added distinction of being the force behind the prescient time capsule of the pre-gentrified San Francisco sex industry, Kamikaze Hearts (1986). That “fictionalized documentary” (“hybrid” was a term yet to be coined) depicted the doomed relationship between lovestruck Tigr (also a producer on the film) and the object of her adoration, gender fluid “(nonbinary” was likewise not yet coined) porn star Sharon Mitchell, aka “Mitch.”
It’s a film that certainly defied expectations back then — the period’s average mainstream movie contained hotter sex scenes — as well as now, with the riveting psychodrama’s upcoming rerelease in a 2K restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. So to learn all about the journey from underground to establishment, Filmmaker reached out to the unconventional film artist (and VR pioneer) a week before, via Kino Lorber, the doc’s nationwide rollout, starting with a May 13th NYC debut at BAM and May 20th in LA at Alamo Drafthouse.
Filmmaker: I was a bit surprised to learn you have no personal connection to the sex industry — you met Tigr while working a day job with a local film crew on a big budget porn parody. I know your original intent was to shoot a straightforward doc on the pornography biz, but what drew you to the topic in the first place? Was it the characters you met, like Tigr and Mitch? The disconnect between the unsexy behind the scenes work and the final product? Something else?
Bashore: The intent was never exactly to shoot a “straightforward” doc; it was always to do a film that felt really straight and controlled in the beginning, but that would then disintegrate into cinema verite by the end.
I was just out of film school (at UC Santa Cruz, where I was really influenced by Herzog and Robert Frank) and I was thinking very academically, very theoretically. Audiences still had a tendency to view documentaries as objectively “true,” and I wanted to play with that assumption. Start it out like a puff piece on the porn industry and then have it fall apart. So going into this my head was swirling with thoughts of Bertoldt Brecht, and the suspension of disbelief, and the gaze and the fourth wall and all that.
But I digress. My original inspiration was really wanting to recreate that gobsmacked feeling of uncanny astonishment when I realized I was working on a porno set. I didn’t know it was porn when I first took the job! I still remember Annette Haven bouncing out, radiant in her little pink track suit. It was so surreal; it seemed like a bizarre poor-man’s parallel universe of Hollywood, with all the quirky characters, right down to a mini “star system.” I was also really into punky outlaw culture and transgression, and had devoured the recent Semiotext(e) issue on polysexuality cover-to-cover, and I thought a film about the porn world would be the perfect cultural critique.
Then I met Tigr, who already had the fantasy of doing a film that would be a vehicle for her girlfriend Sharon Mitchell. She had the dream of “making an erotic film that showed the truth.” So the collaboration between me and Tigr just really hatched spontaneously. This was in the early ‘80’s, about the same time I think that Annie Sprinkle first coined the term “post-porn.” So these kinds of radical ideas were really in the air at that time.
Filmmaker: I think you actually had a crew that was unaware this was a (fictionalized) documentary about Tigr and Mitch.
Bashore: Yes, Tigr had gotten me permission from Charles Webb (aka “Carlos DeSantos,” the self-described “Marxist pornographer” who we see in the motel room scene) to film using his real porno set as the backdrop for the story. But just as we were ready to start shooting, Charles pulled the plug. So Tigr and my partner Heinz Legler pulled together a crew and talent, and landed the Mabuhay Gardens location.
I wrote a few pages of a supposed porno opera. For the fake movie scenes I deliberately put people together where I figured the outcome would be the most volatile or interesting, and then just let the doc crew film what happened. The fake porno crew mostly thought they were shooting second unit pick-ups for an actual movie. In the end most of it, at least key shots from each scene in the film, was storyboarded — even the “verite” stuff.
Filmmaker: I was quite surprised to read several critics at the time of the film’s initial release use words like “harrowing” and “distressing” to describe it. I’m honestly not sure why they felt that way. Sure, Tigr and Mitch are caught in a “toxic romance,” but so are a lot of straight, substance-abusing vanilla couples. And we actually see very few scenes involving sex or drugs. Were you surprised by any particular reactions back then, or now?
Bashore: Was I surprised by the reaction? That would be an understatement. I thought doing this film would at least help me get work! Instead it was like I was covered by a toxic sludge.
There was such a stigma around porn and pornographers in Hollywood; it was like a stench that could not be washed off. Not so much in Europe, but definitely in LA. Liberals were outraged by it because of the way the left looked at porn. (In fact, the original lefty DP quit on grounds it wasn’t didactic enough about women’s exploitation.) Mainstream lesbians were outraged by it because it did not toe the line on putting out a positive media image; even a lot of sex-positive lesbians (besides certain outlaw thinkers like writer Susie Bright, performance artists Annie Sprinkle and Shelly Mars, and programmers like Jenni Olson at Frameline) didn’t really embrace it. I think this third issue was because the three of us (me, Mitch, and Tigr) were all of a certain subset of the punk, post-hippie generation that was ultimately more androgynously/bi/polysexually identified. You feel that in the perspective of the film, the flavor of the film, and this polysexual identification was really not welcomed into mainstream lesbian culture. Tigr and I were both interested in playing with that. Remember, this was way before the days of LGBTQ. Back then there was only L and G. Anything B-ish or T-ish was not invited to the party. Women who also had sex with men were viewed as “weekend lesbians” and not to be trusted.
Also, the film was rarely viewed in the right context. It didn’t fit into the regular programming genres, so film festivals ran it as a straight doc. I would beg festivals to program it with the (narrative) feature films but they were like, “Nope, this is a documentary, sorry, can’t run a doc with the features.” I would say, “It’s not really a documentary,” and they would say, “Yes it is.” So audiences never saw it in the right context.
In addition, I think part of it was how the structure worked, how at first it feels like a “straight” doc that ultimately falls apart. That happened in a way that was understood differently at the time. The audience back then didn’t read the shift in artifice. I think this formal trope is what gave the extra sensation of gritty realness to the shooting up scene. As we descend from “puff piece documentary” into “cinema verite” the comfortable distance gets collapsed. At the time, it had a Battle of Algiers effect. Neo-neo-realism.
Filmmaker: Not only have you been exploring the junction of fiction and nonfiction since long before “hybrid docs” were a thing, but you’re also a pioneer in the realm of VR. So how does film intersect with other media formats for you?
Bashore: Completely. The exploration of the “uncanny valley” of VR is just a continuation of the formal ideas I explored in Kamikaze Hearts. At the intersection of parallel realities we find dystopic fictions.
Filmmaker: This film also really struck me as more relevant than ever given we’re in the social media age where everyone is playing to the camera 24/7. I was just reading a past interview you gave in which you said that pornography can’t operate without the “protective distance of the voyeur.” Neither can social media in a way. So do you see connections between the two, perhaps when it comes to depersonalization?
Bashore: It sure does seem to have caught on. Maybe credit for the first portrayal of this cultural phenomenon should go to Billy Wilder for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But, as you say, times have changed. Eric von Stroheim has been replaced by a Like button.
But seriously, I thought of the sleazy side of the porn world as a kind of biopsy of our narcissistic, media-driven culture, an obscene metaphor for Hollywood and the culture at large. The obsession with the gaze – and what that does to human beings. I guess maybe that suggests some truth, if what was once a metaphor has now metastasized and become commonplace. I hope it’s not totally predictive. As a friend of mine says, “We’re all pornographers now.”
Filmmaker: So have you been in touch with all the (still living) participants about the upcoming rerelease? How do folks feel about revisiting this porn biz time capsule?
Bashore: Yes, sadly, a huge number of people that were on this film are now dead. That includes porn producer Jerry Abrams, makeup artist David Clark, musician Fast Floyd, editor John Knoop, distributor Manfred Salzgeber, performers Jorge, Bobby Mac, Precious, and Sparky Vasque. And of course Carlos DeSantos, aka Charles Webb.
And now, 30 years later, there are still certain participants who want to have their roles downplayed for professional reasons. On the other hand, I have been in touch with people like author Jennifer Blowdryer, actor (and retired railroad engineer) Jon Martin, and of course the amazing Dr. Sharon Mitchell. Mitch is actually excited, and we interviewed her extensively for the upcoming Blu-ray DVD. Tigr, however, has entirely reinvented herself and (in her new incarnation and under a different name) “neither embraces nor abhors” her past.