Thursday, June 5, 2008

Criminals Minds vs. ZFX

This is one of three essays that have been inspired by the "Limelight" episode of Criminal Minds. None of the thoughts I've had about the episode are all that related to one another, so I thought I'd make up three short blog posts rather than a single long article.

Y'know, you never know just how much better commercial bondage imagery is until it comes butt-up against a mainstream bondage scene, as happened with a scene from the ZFX film "Art of Darkness" and the "Limelight" episode of Criminal Minds.

In both dramas, we have a scene where a damsel in distress is tied up against a metal frame and electrocuted for the sexual pleasure of their captor.

In "Limelight," Andrea Roth, the woman whose gag worked out so badly for her in this episode, is captured along with another woman by the bad guy, a serial killer who enjoys electrocuting his victims to death. They're both bound and dumped in the back of a van, with the unknown woman cleave gagged as well.

When next we see them, Andrea Roth is sitting on the floor, wearing the cleave gag that does her face so few favors, holding her hands behind her back as if tied there. The unknown actress has been stripped to her bra and panties and is tied at the wrists and ankles to a steel bedframe to which a sinister-looking electrical device has been attached. She's not gagged any more and looks the worse for it, in that she's one of your more ordinary looking professional actresses.

And of course the panties and bra is a television stand-in for nudity. They're asking us to believe that a psycho who has no problem with kidnapping and stripping women to their underwear would have a problem removing that underwear so he can "play" with them. I suppose there are a few psychos like that out there, because that's the nature of psychos, they come in all flavors. But I bet they're few and far between. I bet when most of them have their victim in hand, they do whatever they like, and if it's a sexual thing they like, they'll want her naked in most cases. Just stands to reason.

And it also just stands to reason that you can't show nudity on prime time TV. There are several routes around that, and one of them is to have undies stand in for nudity. That's clearly what's happening here. And sadly enough, this is one of the sexiest examples of underwear-as-substitute-for-nudity that I've seen on US television. I'll never forget when the defunct live-action TV series based on "Witchblade" had a scene where the Witchblade essentially binds and gags Sara Pezzini as she sleeps. It was then that we learned that this hottie New York cop based on the Top Cow comics sleeps in ... grannie panties. Not just non-thong cover-your-butt panties, but grannie panties which extend well down on the thighs and up almost to the navel on the waist. Grannie panties, ugh.

(Other options for handling nudity in a basic cable production include very poor lighting, blink-and-you-miss-it shots that reveal nothing while appearing to reveal much, careful placement of the body, concealing foliage, folds of cloth and what not, and blurring out the naughty bits. They're all kinda obvious, and have become accepted, just as we now "accept" the movie convention that women who've supposedly just been fucking like monkeys pull the sheet up over their breasts while they talk to the guy whose cock was just in them.)

Symbolically nude victim tied in place, the bad guy then turns on the juice and we get a lot of great reaction shots from Roth as she watches the other woman being electrocuted to death.

It's a pretty well worked out damsel in distress scene for television, but it still has its flaws and to demonstrate those flaws, let's look at the ZFX scene.

Here's the ZFX version of the scene. As you will note, the nudity is not symbolic in nature, although the dildo insertion is not shown on this blog. I mean, c'mon.

In the ZFX story, a woman played by Cindy McReedy goes to a female psychiatrist played by ZFX stalwart Chandra Sweet because all sorts of kinky bondage fantasies have been manifesting themselves in her dreams.

Psychiatrist Sweet is very supportive and understanding of her patient, looking at McReedy's drawings and asking her questions abut them and being very psychological. This being a ZFX film, you know this won't go on for long, and it doesn't -- in very short order, Sweet hypnotizes McReedy, then literally attacks her patient, binding and gagging her, then begins the process of molesting McReedy to wakefulness.

Things proceed along ZFXish lines from there, with Sweet relentlessly tormenting and molesting McReedy.

One of the torments involves McReedy being bound to an electrified metal frame. Here's one of the big differences right away: the patient is of course stark naked -- no undies as a stand-in for nudity here. And she's placed in a wide spreadeagle, and for good reason, because she had a dildo jammed up her pussy, that has wires coming out of it. Very ominous, very dramatic.

Also very dramatic, the victim's head was secured by a headband and chinstrap, and she was gagged with plastic tubing.

The ZFX damsel looked a LOT more like the victim of a psycho electroshock fiend than the Criminal Minds damsel. It was about a hundred times more dramatic in every respect than the Criminal Minds damsel.

But it didn't stop there. Instead of using a mysterious-looking black electrical thing, the ZFX guys had the crazed woman psychologist using a pair of jumper cables hooked up to an ordinary car battery. She even brushed the cables against each other to make them spark and show they were live before clamping them onto the metal frame. (The psycho does the same thing in Criminal Minds, making the wires spark so the audience "knows" they are carrying a lot of voltage.)

(Of course, a suspicious fellow like myself might assume the bedsprings in the Criminal Minds scene were extremely well grounded and thus presented no danger, or more likely that there was no juice in the wires when they were attached to the bed frame. And in the case of the ZFX film, one suspects that a stagehand on the other side of the jumper cables, which are unseen after the initial hooking up sequence, simply unhooked them from the battery before they were applied to the bed frame.)

The thing is, seeing the arcing between the clamps on the jumper cable hooked up to the auto battery lets viewers know on a visceral level that there is a lot of juice in them. And anyone who has ever jumped a car has a feel for that. Whereas the mysterious black box is, well, unknown as to how much juice it carries.

In Art of Darkness, when the clamps are put on the frame, McReedy starts shaking violently, rolling her eyes back in her head and drooling copiously. And by copiously, I mean unbelievably copiously, the drool was coming down her chin in sheets.

And being the cynical, suspicious reviewer that I am, I couldn't help but suspect that there might be some link between the fact that the gag consisted of rubber tubing and the fact that this damsel was drooling more than any other damsel in recorded history ever had. Like, that there was probably a hole in the rubber tubing that was in her mouth, and that some drool-like liquid -- possibly water -- was being pumped into the actress' mouth through the tubing, allowing her to "drool" so copiously simply by letting the liquid ooze out of her lips.

Despite the obvious stagecraft employed in the scene, it was a very powerful piece of imagery.

The ZFX filmmakers took full advantage of the relative freedom they had because they were making porn. It's not just that they didn't have to pay any attention to network standards people. It's not just that they didn't have to have to pay attention to any ratings standards to get distributed in theater chains. It's that they didn't have to pay any attention to common sense, good taste or the laws of physics.

So the ZFX guys put on their video with a glee that reminds one of the old B-movie horror movie producers. In fact, that's what the scene reminded me of more than anything -- a scene from some great grade z shlock horror film from the 50s, sort of "Death Circus of Dr. Feng Shi."

Of course, the total nudity and the closeup dildo insertion scene weren't something you'd ever see in a 50s horror film, but let's be truthful here -- you know they woulda if they coulda. Well, they guys at ZFX coulda.

The only real problem with the ZFX scene is that it went on for way too long. It's porn after all, and so the scene must last long enough for the guys who really like the electroshock to fully, um, enjoy it.

Torture generally and electroshock in particular don't do a thing for me, so I had an almost vanilla reaction to the scene -- once I'd taken in the bondage, I got tired of watching the woman shake, roll her eyes and drool copiously. Thirty seconds of it would have been more than enough for me.

That said, it was a MUCH more dramatic image, and a much more dramatic scene than the one in Criminal Minds. If the people who made Criminal Minds had the same kind of artistic license that the people who made Art of Darkness did, it's possible they would have done a better job than the ZFX guys ... except they would still have been bounded by their own sense of what is in good taste and what isn't. And when it comes to lurid melodrama (and believe me, Criminal Minds is every bit as into that as the guys at ZFX are) good taste is a limitation.


Anonymous said...

Oh WOW! the CWL types already got a petition going about the nudity as it is.

Cool as it be to see that type of Criminal Minds ep, it ain't going to happen huh?

Pat Powers said...

I'd love to see some actual nudity, too, but I agree it isn't likely to happen anytime soon, at least on broadcast network programming. Cable channels might do better. They can get away with a lot more in the way of nudity. If Spike had any balls, it would be leading the pack here, but they don't. I'd expect it sooner on the Lifetime Channel.

Even without actual nudity, a really skimpy thong would be a big improvement. E! Channel and the Travel Channel (in their Best Beaches special) have shown women in thongs that left them practically butt naked, so It Can Be Done.)

The Criminal Minds scene is about the skimpiest "underwear to substitute for nudity while in bondage" I've seen in a basic cable production. That's what I noticed first and most in the "Limelight" Criminal Minds episode. Then I started noticing all the other stuff.