Passion, Heels And Leather : The Fetish Films of Irving Klaw
Cinema as a spectator's art is approaching 100 years old. The medium itself is presently revealed as a voyeur's technique of pleasure. I personally never thought of cinema-going as a social activity. It is more of a refuge for the reminiscent daydreamer. The actual titillation of going to a movie theater is to situate yourself in a room full of strangers and anonymously admire what is happening on the big screen. Sex - whatever the disposition of the film as softcore or hardcore - as a rule has the same affect on me, in that I like to watch people doing things while I am at a distance.
Irving Klaw is a pin up photographer and stay-style filmmaker - and one time mentor of the one and only Bettie Page - who knows the assurance of contemplating from a safe and distant location. He also knows that theaters and peep shows are public institutions, where one can view their objects of desire alone - while at the same time - others in the theater are concentrating on the screen in isolated elation.
There is no other filmmaker whose images of bondage and S/M are as ravishing as one who first tastes the fruit of rapture. The sumptuous aspect is that the viewer feels they are one with the images. Watching an Irving Klaw film - I sense that I am recording the events on the film. There is this manufactured feeling that anyone can participate in the action.
The images we have on the screen are exquisite females tying other unblemished women up in a lighting that is lifeless, yet, the images themselves are full of life and gaiety. Lighting usually express mood and character, but in Klaw films their one only light source is present just to show the women such as Bettie Page and a few brave contemporaries augmenting their positions of bondage with leather outfits and specially designed harnesses.
These films are not dark in the poetic or spiritual nature. There is a light heartiness with these women in that their faces express pleasure. Bettie Page obviously loved the attention from the camera, which of course is a turn-on for the onlooker, and is why she was so enduringly popular. There is also an ironic attitude in the representation of women in their game-playing for Klaw. One has the impression that these women are enjoying their masquerade - the irrational attention of being possessed for a short duration, but knowing that they are really the ones in charge.
In this case our gaze is represented by the camera which never pans or show close-ups. By the position of the camera, the audience feel that they are attending the living room with these women. On account of the camera not moving, the viewers themselves are in bondage - forced to look through Klaw's eyes to see the action that is taking place. There are moments when the camera is on an angle, and for me this is the most mysterious element in his films. It is the only time where Klaw makes a subjective judgment concerning how we see these women. For a momentary second he acts like an artist and not a voyeur!
One of the dominant images in his work are women getting dressed. The camera shows that this is an enhanced ritual than a practical guide in putting clothes on. The classic uniforms of the sexual kitsch are featured: silk stockings, lingerie, garter belts, and perhaps the most sumptuous of all - exaggerated high heels! These shoes are the ultimate objects of eroticism and Klaw’s camera scrutinizes over these shoes as if they were Monet's lily paintings.
Yes, these fetishes are in the classic standard variety, but like the cliche saying "I love you," there is a warm pleasure that astounds the senses and represents a time when sex was not only a release, but treated as a cultured appreciation in addition to the physical pleasure. The films of Irving Klaw are aesthetic than erotic - it is not hard to imagine that our grandfathers and fathers would view these films in questionable surroundings. If not viewed in a kinetoscope, then the 8mm prints were shown in stag parties. As for myself, this breed of landscape is exotic territory and it only exists as a fantasy land in my head.
By far the biggest star in Irving Klaw's films is an icon, but in reality a mystery by the name of Bettie Page. Personally I do not want to know anything about Ms. Page. She exists only as an object in the films - and she is a brilliant subject. Bettie Page and the other damsels in the film had no past and no future - there is only the present, and present exists only while watching the film.
The beauty of these films is that the whole world is contained in the frame of the camera. The outside world does not exist. The only certainty we have is a group of women performing various "bondage" poses for us the audience, who feel removed from the surface world.
Irving Klaw is a filmmaker who is more comfortable taking pictures than making cinema. His films are non-cinema. There is no grammar or language of cinema in his films. The camera refuses to do close-ups or put up with narration, but these fantasies could be juxtaposed to the films of the Lumiere Brothers in that they are "non-narrative" stories. What we have in place of narration are film "portraits" of what we the male clientele thinks - not need - of women.
Similar to a child playing with a match that caused a forest fire, Klaw assembled his personalized portraits of these models - not knowing what questions would arise between the cinema and the spectator. How does one in the audience react to the image of women beautifully tying other women up in a blissfulness that is totally non-defying? Is this real life? No!
The beauty of cinema is that it never touches life. It is a projection of what we think is "life". The passion is the image and the image is the passion and therefore the complexity of Irving Klaw. His films superimpose our desire to the forefront, with no extractions from the outside world. There are no windows or men in his films.
There is a purity in his work that can be connected to the films of Robert Bresson. I think of "Pickpocket" or "Un Condamne a Mort S'Est Echappe" where there is enormous concern in the characters' approach to their subject (pick pocketing and escaping) correlating the women' total concentration in tying or spanking another model.
These films are not only focused on women, but also the Klaw-designed mechanical tools used for sensual rapture. Klaw seems to be captivated by the routine of the models with their instruments of torture and pleasure. His films capture the solidarity between gadget and human being. The bondage gears in a sense become the extra partner in the love making.
I find Irving Klaw's films moving in its expression of desire, time and beauty. The films are similar to an undated love poem - there is this eerie timeless quality with the pursuit for passion. In romantic works of art, desire and beauty does not exist in the idea of time - therefore time stands still while cherishing a pair of high-heel shoes.