Wednesday, February 9, 2011

ORGASM INC.--Liz Canner's smart doc about women, sex, drugs and marketing

I'm not sure how much of a journalist Liz Canner, the director/cinematog-rapher/co-editor of the documentary ORGASM INC. really is. Or for that matter how much of a filmmaker she is, either. There's a distinctly home-made, DIY quality about her film, not to mention a generous helping of what appears to be naïveté. Yet these are the very qualities, together with some solid information and interesting talking-head interviews, that in the end allow her movie to work as well as it does.

Ms Canner, shown at right, was present to introduce her film at the  press screening TrustMovies attended, and she made herself available for questions afterward. There is about her a very pleasant, chipper, positive attitude, along with a determined sense that -- where the intersection of women, sex, "science" and drug companies occurs -- something is very wrong.  At this point I'm going to give a little personal history: I'm a longtime user of Viagra who has been quite satisfied with that drug's ability to allow me an erection that worked a lot better than those I had (from a relatively early age) during the pre-V era. So, when I heard that the drug companies were trying to find a drug like this for women -- one that might help those who were having trouble achieving orgasm or another female sexual dysfunction (FSD) -- I was all for it. Why should women be deprived of something that we men had been given?

To begin with there is distinct difference between an erection and an orgasm, not to mention between the needs and desires of men and women. And though the filmmaker states that she did not go into her film with the idea of an exposé but instead wanted to make a film about the science of female pleasure, she ended up with much more of the former. In fact, the "science" of female sexual pleasure seems something less than scientific. How Canner came to this realization began when, during her filming, she was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that would use these videos in developing the firm's orgasm cream for women. What an opportunity! She accepted the job and also received permission to film her employers for her own documentary. Then the surprises and the questions began.

In this short 78-minute movie, we meet everyone from women with sexual fulfillment problems to "scientists" and "doctors" (and, yes, those quotation marks are deliberate) working on everything from those orgasm creams and drugs that will open the doors to sexual-pleasure to one fellow, above, developing his "Orgasmatron" (electrodes inserted into the spine of a woman that are push-button activated). If this last one sounds a bit nitwit, well, it is, yet that good doctor does seem to believe fully in his own work and grows more than a little depressed when it fails to ring the bell.

We also meet doctors who shill for the drug companies -- the attempt of which to enter the world of female sex-enhancer drugs is depicted, above, as a race. You've seen these people on Oprah and on our "news" programs that, more and more often of late, lard us with PR rather than real news. And in one of the film's more twisted, can-you-top-this? moments, we learn about "Designer Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation" surgery to help gals of all ages feel younger and tighter between their legs. Some of these sexual "aids" are merely unnecessary, if not fraudulent, but don't cost an arm and a leg (or a vagina). Others can be permanently damaging to women and horrendously expensive. In one of the most surprising moments, as Canner speaks to a female spokesperson for this vaginal surgery, she gets the woman to admit her doubts about this procedure, and even to muse that she should, perhaps, find another job!

In addition to the medical and scientific personal, we encounter some people who have women's best interests at heart. Spokesperson Leonore Tiefer -- an author, educator, therapist, researcher and activist -- shows how to counter the large drug companies and even a behemoth like Proctor & Gamble, when the latter tries to push its new testosterone patch for women, Intrinsa, for approval by the FDA. (The FDA comes off, if not smelling like a rose, at least doing its job for a change.) There's a collector of "vintage" vibrators (below), who fills us in on a little history of the women-sex-and-hysteria combo and another woman whom, I believe, owns a sex shop and shows up at pharmaceutical conventions simply to try to educate the doctors in attendance (one of which, at least, she definitely reaches) about the true sexual needs of women.

Through it all, Ms Canner's bright, cheery persona buoys us up, making what she is explaining all that much more surprising. And depressing. Yet her movie is not. She has a light touch and doesn't tub-thump her agenda to death. Her film is fun, entertaining and thought-provoking. It has certainly changed my view regarding the  "medicalization" of women's sexuality, which now seems to me neither as easy nor as safe as I once imagined.

From First Run Features, Orgasm Inc. opens Friday, February 11, here in New York City at the Quad Cinema and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center and will expand to further cities across the country in the weeks to come.  For further playdates, click here.

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