John Waters, whose films are merely leaves on the deciduous twig of his performing self, something he sheds seasonally in the general course of sap production, wonders out loud early in Indie Sex: Taboos, "What did voyeurs do before there was film?" A more interesting director, Atom Egoyan, agrees that voyeurism "is essential to the movie experience." And while Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch aren't interviewed on camera, their snippets leer on their behalf. Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape is more about looking than it is about doing. Lynch is a one-man case history of the peep-show aesthetic, from his student days when he liked to visit the Pittsburgh morgue and look at zippered body bags, unto Blue Velvet with Kyle MacLachlan in Isabella Rossellini's closet and Dennis Hopper's head.
Especially since Indie Sex: Taboos is intended to kick off a "Sin Cinema" festival on the Independent Film Channel, with July showings of Blue Velvet, Mira Nair's Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Don Roos's The Opposite of Sex, Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed, and David Cronenberg's Crash, there are worse excuses for a television program than gathering such oddballs as Waters, Egoyan, Roos, Allison Anders, and Miguel Arteta to bounce around their favorite fetishes, between generous dollops of frontal whatever, in the same chat room with film historian John Pierson, producer Robert Lantos, and critics Elvis Mitchell of the Times, coolly amused, and Jami Bernard of the Daily News, eager to please. Like all transgressive avant-gardes, they must be finding it harder and harder to stay ahead of the culture's perversity curve -- I mean, even Hollywood has caught up with drag, incest, and cannibalism -- but you'd never know it to listen to them.
They are grateful to foreign films like Jules et Jim, Breathless, I Am Curious (Yellow), and La Dolce Vita for bringing to the big screen parts of the human anatomy and psyche the Legion of Decency hadn't wanted us to see -- although Anders is also grateful to the Catholic Church for making taboo sex so exciting. Mitchell recalls thinking at Doris Day movies how nice it was that white people could afford two beds. Egoyan allows himself to rhapsodize about the pubic hair in Blowup. Waters says kind things about The Rocky Horror Picture Show even though it wouldn't have been imaginable without his very own Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos playing to the same stoned audiences. We get brief glimpses of Lynch's The Boy Scout in Black and Eraserhead before a more extended exploration of Blue Velvet, and still we've only seen the tip of the submerged Cronenberg, whose Crash is a kind of totem here.
On, then, to sadomasochism, power plays, pig masks, Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, Todd Solondz's Happiness, David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey, and Arteta's Chuck and Buck. (Too briefly, Mitchell is overheard saying something cogent about fetishism, violence, and a beast that consumes us whole, as he also reminds us that obsession does a lot of damage. Equally subversive is a Lisa Kudrow sound bite from The Opposite of Sex: "I'd rather have a back rub. It lasts longer and there are no fluids.") Even if you haven't seen Egoyan's Speaking Parts, Adjuster, or Exotica, the snippets clearly indicate that he's at least as worried about the solitude and alienation of an image-addicted and technology-fixated modern world as about finding new uses for old organs. From Exotica alone, it's also obvious where Britney Spears came from. (Sex and memory, Mitchell muses, off again on another track I wish we'd been able to follow.) Waters concludes by foreseeing "real penetration" in a Hollywood movie, after which the indie avant-garde will have to dream up new transgressions.
I don't mean to sigh. It's just that independent films -- even independent films by Lisa Ades and Lesli Klainberg, the director and producer of this one -- have been about so much more than kinky sex. I am sure Lynch was right: In the low suburban decade of the fifties, there was enough corrupt sexuality to rub off on all of us. But Blue Velvet also wallowed in its own castration anxiety, trapping us for two hours in a jukebox mind full of Roy Orbison, severed ears, and a kind of alchemical torturing of Isabella's body. Cronenberg's Crash likewise smacked its lips. To be unmoved by characters who, having hurt themselves in collisions, find each other's wounds so lascivious that they go bend fenders all over again doesn't necessarily mean you are in anal-retentive denial, or a philistine with sand in your crank case. Maybe you've just read Gravity's Rainbow. Or Oh What a Paradise It Seems, in which John Cheever "in a lonely fantasy of nomadism" imagined a world "where men and women communicated with one another mostly by signal lights, and where he proposed marriage because she turned on her parking lights an hour before dusk."
True-Hearted Vixens (july 17; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) on P.O.V. follows two young women, Jane Bolin and Kertia "Moochie" Lofton, to Minneapolis, where they play a truncated season of pro football for almost no money and even a certain amount of injury to their self-esteem. You will like them a lot more than the game and its sponsors.
The Roman Empire in the First Century (July 18 and 25; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) is a remarkably absorbing forced march from the assassination of Julius Caesar to the consolidation of Augustus to the despotism of Tiberius and Caligula to the reign of Claudius, the disaster of Nero, and the triumph of Trajan, with time out for Cleopatra, Ovid, Jesus, Seneca, and Vesuvius.
Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story (July 18; 9 to 11 p.m.; VH1) docudramatizes the story of the heavy-metal head-bangers from a spoon factory in depressed Sheffield to guts, glory, drugs, and rehab, and then back again to glory in spite of drummer Rick Savage's missing right arm.
The Breed (July 19; 10 to 11:45 p.m.; Starz!) stars former Highlander Adrian Paul as a good vampire teamed with a so-so government agent, Bokeem Woodbine, to find out if the bloodsuckers plot to waste the rest of us, or we contemplate a genocide on them, or both. Pulp schizoid fantasy with sexy moves by the inscrutable Bai Ling and a creepy Holocaust resonance.
48 Hours (July 20 and 27, August 3, 10, 17, and 24; 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS) moves into its new time period with a series on real mysteries in which true-crime writers join forces with CBS correspondents to have actual points of view on whether, say, Garrett Wilson murdered two of his own children and how come Scott Scurlock in a tree house could talk his friends into robbing eighteen banks in four years before they all got shot. Fascinating departure from the usual news-magazine form.
Indie Sex: Taboos
Thursday, July 19; 10 to 11 p.m.; Independent Film Channel