Isabella Rossellini is strolling through one of her favorite places in the city, the New York Aquarium, when she begins reciting a poem she wrote called “Why Vagina.”
It’s not the sort of composition Eve Ensler would stage, but rather a Darwinian ode to the splendid variety of animal vaginas—and what Rossellini might do if her hand were on the evolutionary wheel:
“Sperm are cheap, eggs are precious,” she says in her heavily accented, slightly naughty voice. “Sperm come by the millions, but not eggs.
“…Different penises. All trying to get as close as possible to my eggs.
“I will develop a tunnel and it will be a labyrinth.
“It will be species-specific so I am not screwed by a bear…”
In the new edition of her short-film series “Green Porno” (on Sundance Channel.com), Rossellini performs the whole poem while surrounded by 22 paper penises, some as long as six feet. She also enacts, in beautifully bizarre costumes, anglerfish sex, barnacle sex, starfish sex, and limpet sex. As we walk, she tells me that a female sea horse doesn’t have a vagina at all, but “an organ that looks like a tube, and she rolls the egg inside the male, who has a little pouch, like a kangaroo.”
In the first edition of “Green Porno,” which was devoted to the birds-and-bees of bug and insect sex, she wondered at how fireflies “light up their ass” and explained that the dragonfly has a brush attached to his penis “because the males are so promiscuous that one likes to clean the other sperm out of the vagina before he puts his own sperm inside.”
“Oh! Shh!” Rossellini covers her mouth and points at a young boy nearby who is staring at a tank full of slow-moving sharks. She whispers: “I shouldn’t talk so loud about penises!”
Far safer to contemplate the wonders before us. “Oh, look at that!” She points to an otter, who’s bashing open a crab shell on a rock. “He’s using the rock as a tool. Until very recently, humans have said this is something that separates humans from animals—tools—but there he is!”
Rossellini grew up around animals in the Italian countryside with her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and father, Roberto Rossellini, whose very first film was actually a love triangle filmed through aquarium glass, starring two fish. “He loved to snorkel—and he was always fishing in Italy, off the coast of Amalfi,” she remembers. “And he imagined that a fish fell in love with a fishette and wanted to marry her, but there was an octopus in the hole where she was living, which is partially possible but also a little fantasy. He didn’t get all the behavior correct.” (To be fair, the octopus died mid-shoot, and he had to finish the film by manipulating it like a puppet.)
“Now I watch nature documentaries constantly,” says Rossellini, “but I’ve never seen whales mating on a documentary. Maybe they censored it? Perhaps a lot of documentaries are made for children and they do not want them to know about whale reproduction.”
Rossellini knows so much about reproduction that she even acts as a canine midwife, helping to birth and raise seeing-eye dogs. She trains the dogs at her house in Bellport, Long Island, which is where she spends most of her time these days, though she still has a place on the Upper West Side. “I think one of the reasons I can’t live in Manhattan anymore is always having to say no,” she says, as we ride the F train back to the city from Coney Island. “I can’t go to dinner with friends without fifteen people asking me to sign my name to this, give them money for that. But you can’t just sign up for every gala and then not show up. So I like to focus on what I know, and work with the Wildlife Conservancy.” She sighs. “Really, I think it’s why I might move out of Manhattan for good.”
Could she see herself doing more nonanimal acting soon? “My mother always said that there is very much work for a woman when she is very young and when she is very old,” says Rossellini, who’s 56. “I am getting close to that other end, so we’ll see.”
Until then, she plans to raise more dogs, direct more films, and reenact more animal sex. Though she draws the line at mammals.
“Mammals? You know how they do it,” she says, utterly uninterested, as the train rattles through Brooklyn. “They do it as we do it.”