Images from the television series Red Shoe Diaries, with descriptions from amazon.com for each episode.
Girl on a Bike. Will is smitten when he sees Jacqueline riding her bike but she's on her way somewhere...fast. He follows on his moped in a wild, twisting, passionate cat and mouse chase through the streets of Paris and straight into each other's hearts. Dir. Lydie Callier.
Night of Abandon. Isabelle gives an offering to Lemanja, the sea goddess, and the next thing she knows, it's Carnival and all that she had ever dreamed of comes true in one blissful night of wild abandon with a beautiful Brazilian man. Dir. Rene Manzer.
How I Met My Husband. Alice likes the idea of becoming a dominatrix, so she takes a class. During her training she meets Giuseppe and falls in love, but when she reveals her true identity, he is angry until he realizes he's in love too. Dir. Bernard Auroux.
by Peter Lehman
Peter Lehman’s interview with producer/writer/director Zalman King (1942-2012) provides new insight into the man and his work. Beginning in the 1980s, King helped establish a remarkably successful Hollywood cycle, the “erotic thriller.” In 1986 Nine ½ Weeks, on which King executive produced and was one of the writers, became a small sensation for depicting a professional woman (Kim Basinger) who has an intense brief affair with a rough masculine guy (Mickey Rourke). A flurry of similar films followed, including Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries, Lake Consequence, Two Moon Junction, and the extremely successful premium cable TV series, Red Shoe Diaries (51 episodes from 1992-1996), and Delta of Venus.
While not original (Nine ½ Weeks plays out a theme offered a decade earlier by Last Tango in Paris), Zalman King’s body of work arrived at a key moment in the Reagan era when the “Sex Wars” and “Culture Wars” was provoking a new way of thinking about women’s sexuality than the normative Second Wave feminist commonplaces. These films and the rise of cable TV softcore programming fit into a changing market and distribution niche, crossing over the narrative functions and appeal of Harlequin Romance novels (undergoing its own set of transformations with more explicit description and a wider range of characters, types, and situations). Low budget direct-to-video features, a clear cable niche for female-oriented erotic fantasy, and demographic changes created a different terrain, one that King and his collaborators fit into perfectly. Throughout this body of work a high class visual and cinematic style carefully concealed and revealed the underlying sexual imagery. Style not only created meaning, it provided the excuse for the underlying content. Porn vs. erotica? It’s in the lighting.
Remarkably, some talented media studies scholars were in hot pursuit of the phenomenon and three major studies appeared in a very short period of time. David Andrews wrote Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in its Contexts (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006). With original research into the industrial aspects of the cycle, Andrews highlights how softcore managed success by being a middlebrow genre. Linda Ruth Williams looked at the cycle from a larger perspective, seeing the erotic thriller emerging from Noir patterns of the femme fatale and good-bad girl in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005). Williams contrasts the big budget and star highlighted blockbusters such as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction with direct-to-video imitations often done by cross-over directors such as Gregory Dark who worked both the hardcore and softcore side of sexy cinema. Nina K. Martin’s Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007) continues the discussion by concentrating on the feminist tension between empowered and adventurous heroines and coopting social constraints on female heterosexuality.
In the United States sexuality remains a battlefield with whopping contradictions and crazy disparities. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, can actually say, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” U.S. Catholic bishops go on full offensive against the Obama healthcare insurance provision that employers must include contraception in plans and the annoying fact that Catholic religious women (nuns) are ignoring commands from on high while Catholic couples almost universally disregard the ban on contraception. And the Republican Party as a whole continues its war on women’s reproduction, wages, protections. At the same time, on the cultural front, the new TV season multiplies shows with gay parents and lovable queer characters, and the tawdry porn of 50 Shades of Gray keeps it on the best seller list. Desperate attempts to control with policy are undermined by actual behavior and choices by the rank and file. Kind of like parents and teens.
Within this framework Zalman King and his immediate associates occupied an interesting place, and there’s something to learn from their practice. Lehman’s interview touches on what King thought his own strategy and technique was, how he regarded male actors, negotiating the MPA classification system and adjusting to radically changed technologies. Zalman King remains fascinating as a creative person passing through a specific and rapidly changing time and place in the industry and changing social facts and ideas about sexuality.
[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Lehman, Andrews, and Martin as an editor; they are professional acquaintances and friends.]