Pop will eat itself

'Cannibalism' director Lizzie Borden feeds on her own extremities

October 23, 2021
By Matthew Wilder

Everything that might be said about it has been said, and no wonder: Whether it's a joke on Seinfeld or just a melancholy waste of young tissue, porn cinema is, above all, predictable. So when I heard the distress signals coming in about the work of 25-year-old Valley girl-cum-porn directrix Lizzie Borden, I was drawn in.

Onscreen barfing! chirped the liberal likes of Salon and Frontline on PBS. Blood and murder! Heads dunked in toilets! Horror and Satanic pentacles and...wait. Was that a rape? The party line on Borden (not to be confused with the feminist maker of Born in Flames--or the alleged murderess, or the death-metal band) was that she ripped open the envelope that porn's previous shock jock Max Hardcore had previously pushed. Her films, said Salon and Frontline, were clearly cries for help--bringing down other sex-industry ragamuffins in the process. Head-slamming and gang-banging and George Romero-esque buckets of blood--all this from a sweet girl who looks like a young Debi Mazar with soup bowl-sized implants? Isn't this awful? Shouldn't something be...done about this?

Borden and her partners at Extreme Associates in North Hollywood make their living grinding out $20,000 hardcore cheapies that, first and foremost, scream their bloody lungs out to be heard over the deafening marketplace din. Extreme makes the stuff that fills your local video store's behind-the-rubber-curtain racks: anthologies of wagging rumps for anal-aggressive types. Indeed, if a gaggle of Spearmint Rhino strippers and their wannabe Axl Rose boyfriends stayed up for five days snorting speed, trying on Halloween costumes, making a gory mess, and capturing it on video, the Extreme oeuvre would be the result.

The lasting fascination of Extreme pornos--what makes them the first notable movement in porn since the witty, movie-like cabaret acts of the Dark Brothers (New Wave Hookers)--is that there's a deeper subversion beneath the heavy-metal puffery. Borden's shock images--she's wont to place color Xeroxes of gunshot-blasted heads next to compelling sex scenes--have an adolescent swagger that quickly palls. Seemingly every oral-sex scene is prefaced by the catcher spitting on the pitcher's organs--a device that's almost Brechtian in its repugnance. Fat guys yelling, "Suck that cock for Satan!" have the wistful effect of a novel hairdo that fails to startle mom and dad. What's new isn't that Borden focuses deeply on humiliation and helplessness; it's that the viewer's point of identification varies uncontrollably between tormentor and tormented. Where Max Hardcore encourages us to lap up his victims' shock and discomfort (the punch line of a Max movie is the "I didn't sign on for this!" look in the eyes of one of his "actors"), Borden leaves us unsure of what we're supposed to be enjoying. And that's because she's unsure herself--which hardly makes her work less exciting or complicated.

If a work of subversive art is akin to a machine tearing itself apart--Jean Genet becoming the racists he tries to destroy in The Blacks, or Martin Scorsese miming the misogyny he critiques in Raging Bull--then Borden's movies constitute a minor breakdown at least. The self-contradiction of her film S.I.D.S. 2: The Rebirth begins with the titular anagram: "Sexually Intrusive Dysfunctional Society." Like Natural Born Killers, the movie whose style Borden tirelessly apes, S.I.D.S. lambastes a toxic patriarchal culture and peddles it at the same time. In the film, a pair of Westside yuppies snicker about buying a crack baby on the Internet; a redneck daddy teaches the facts of life to his son by breaking in young Sis; and a couple of meathead steroid cases torture young girls for a Salo- like eternity in a sealed-up warehouse. And yet all these horrors are presented both satirically and, believe it or not, with a kind of friendly, familial gusto: The victim's shrieks and the attackers' cries of aggression have the flimsy, worked-up quality of kids keening like banshees in a Halloween funhouse. Borden has clearly bellowed the old Broadway hack's injunction--"Louder! Faster! Funnier!"--and her cast complies. But even when they stay "in character," the performers give the impression of having thrown on the team hats of "Master" and "Slave"--if not altogether willingly.

Everything in Borden's movies seems designed to turn porno's standard p.o.v. on its head. In her movie Cannibalism: The Last Supper, the director swings the camera from her flesh-eating tormentors to their bug-eyed victims: Each is granted the same fetishizing gaze--and sometimes even the same amount of screen time. The result of all this is dizzying for the spectator: To exhume an old-school deconstruction phrase, the movies are unreadable. One senses the handiwork of a family-tormented soul working out some awfully dark issues--but clearly Borden hasn't decided whether she wants to identify with the aggressor or eroticize her helplessness. (The evidence of this is purely anecdotal: For all I know, Borden's parents are nice, caring people.) Despite the horror-movie obstacles she puts in the way of their aims, Borden's movies are erotic for one reason: The switch-flipping shift between top and bottom has an ineluctable, narcotic power. The films succeed by dint of the extremity of their identity crises.

Playwright Richard Foreman, speaking about the deeply sublimated sexual content of his work, said, "All we know is, there's this thing out there--and it wants more life." Lizzie Borden's primitive and largely mindless films represent a milestone in porn in that they want more death--and not just in the dopey, obvious way of Marilyn Manson. Seeming to respond to some urgent psychic trauma, they seek to dissolve the spectator in a Dionysic daisy chain where alphas and concubines switch masks in the dance. That the dreams of Sade and Bataille would come true in a brick warehouse in the Valley only attests to the quality that Borden's movies hide under a mountain of petulance and posturing: an unguarded, childlike sweetness.