conversations with a sex worker

katerina sakkas: john winter’s black & white & sex

Michelle Vergara Moore, Black & White & Sex

Michelle Vergara Moore, Black & White & Sex

A WOMAN IN A BLONDE WIG WALKS INTO A CIRCLE OF LIGHTS AND CAMERAS. SHE STANDS, A RABBIT IN THE HEADLIGHTS, ISOLATED AND AT SOME DISTANCE FROM THE SHADOWY DOCUMENTARY FILM CREW WHO FOCUS ON HER. A DIRECTOR/INTERVIEWER SITS AT THE EDGE OF THE CIRCLE, HIS IDENTITY OBSCURED FROM THE VIEWER. IT’S A THEATRICAL BEGINNING TO BLACK & WHITE & SEX, THE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT OF PRODUCER JOHN WINTER (RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, DOING TIME FOR PATSY CLINE), AN AMBITIOUS EXPLORATION OF THE NATURE OF SEX WORK, SEX, WOMEN AND MEN.

Winter examines these themes through a dialogue between two characters: Angie, a sex worker (a role shared by Katherine Hicks, Anya Beyersdorf, Valerie Bader, Roxane Wilson, Michelle Vergara Moore, Dina Panozzo, Saskia Burmeister and Maia Thomas) and her nameless, faceless interviewer (Matthew Holmes). Initially, the mood between these two is tense, as Angie bats back the director’s simplistic questions in a way that confronts him and sets in motion the film’s aim of demonstrating that there’s nothing black and white about sex work (and, by extension, sex itself).

The director is clearly meant to represent us, specifically a middle class liberal audience with certain well-meaning preconceptions about prostitution. Angie’s job, of course, is to confound this audience’s expectations, playing provocateur to the interviewer’s devil’s advocate. It makes for an attention grabbing, if rather hectoring first act. It’s when the discussion progresses to more general matters sexual, with some grandiose statements about the nature of men and women, that things become problematic.

The director now seems to stand for a certain kind of emasculated manhood, while Angie becomes a spokeswoman for earthy female sexuality: “Women are pleasure and pain,” she declares, effectively pulling women into a world of sensation that cannot be understood by their drily cerebral male counterparts. It’s a hazy viewpoint that sits awkwardly with an earlier statement that she has a science degree (a revelation greeted by the interviewer with sniggering surprise).

Angie is mercurial, prone to evading the truth with elliptical statements. As a character she rather brings to mind the lyrics of that Billy Joel standard, “…she only reveals what she wants you to see/ She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me.” The interviewer compares her with a butterfly: “You’re here, you’re there, you’re everywhere,” and later on a chameleon—“I never know who I’m going to get.”

There’s an element of fantasy to Angie perhaps in keeping with her line of work, which is, after all, about fulfilling fantasy, if only one as basic as the client believing she’s “getting off on it.” Winter creates a mystique around his many-faced “unattainable” call girl, even while seeming to want to demystify her chosen career. He fights stereotypes (the “hooker with a heart of gold”; the victimised prostitute) with other stereotypes (the majority of Angie’s personae).

On the whole, Black & White & Sex is best viewed as a symbolic exercise, with the various Angies representing different sexual archetypes—mature woman, dominatrix, ingenue, earth goddess—though these tend to blend into one another. In this way, we can accept the incident where Angie-as-dominatrix forces the interviewer to strip naked and masturbate as the ice breaker it’s meant to be, as opposed to a rather nasty piece of sexual humiliation. Like Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), to which it bears a formal resemblance, the film is less an attempt at realism than a free-form exploration of its director’s attitudes and thoughts; a weighing-up of experience and opinions couched within the film-within-a-film format. It’s not a mockumentary, though it might appear to be at first glance.

At times, the film’s lack of realism deprives it of a rawness that would seem more in keeping with the subject matter: there’s a theatrical wordiness to these characters and their exchanges that makes them less believable as people than as mouthpieces for various arguments. This is ultimately a film about talking about sex. The character of the interviewer suffers particularly as a result of this treatment, making it difficult to share his revelatory journey. Nonetheless, Winter and his actresses are successful in their creation of a feisty, multi-faceted uber-whore. It’s in the larger questions about women, men and sex that the film’s purpose becomes lost.

Black & White & Sex premiered at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, appeared in the Brisbane and Rotterdam International Film Festivals. Australian theatrical release March 22.

Black & White & Sex, director John Winter, cinematographer Nicola Daley, editor Adrian Rostirolla, music Caitlin Yeo, sound: Tony Vaccher, John Dennison, Craig Butters, costume designer, Yvonne Moxham, producers Melissa Beauford, John Winter, 2011

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 19

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012