Bound but not gagged
Beating people into submission is just one of Nick Broomfield's methods of getting them to appear in his documentaries. But with `Fetishes', his latest film about the customers at an S&M parlour, his subjects were more than happy to be tied down. Interview by Jasper Rees
Wednesday 03 September 1997
You'd be told how the publication of the piece oscillated around the newspaper's schedule, how the interviewer took the Broomfieldian route of going easy on the research, and so had no idea the subject was currently making a film on Kurt Cobain. And then you'd hear how the directions to the interview room were misleading, precipitating in a comically undignified scramble up and down the staircase. How, when he was finally tracked down, the interviewee was eating a cooked breakfast with his 16-year-old son, Barney.
I ask Barney if he has seen Fetishes, Broomfield's latest work, which is set in an upmarket S&M parlour in Manhattan called Pandora's Box. Barney admits that he has, despite his father's best efforts to shield him from it. So have millions of other Americans. (Barney lives most of the year with his mother in Los Angeles.) The film was made for HBO and broadcast late one night when 14 per cent of the audience share tuned in to watch Broomfield interview men zipped into leather apparatuses that restrict respiration, men crawling around the floor on dog leads, men offering their mouths as ashtrays, and, in one extraordinary case, a man who gives his interview with his head down a toilet bowl that he has been ordered to lick clean.
Broomfield's compatriots will not for the moment be seeing the film in quite such numbers. It was screened at last year's Edinburgh Festival and London Film Festival, and is about to be shown at the ICA. Broomfield is confident that Channel 4 will brave the forces of moral protectionism to screen the film. But it takes a brave person to watch it, let alone broadcast it. Although the vast majority of clients filmed are male, it is the two sessions in which women indulge their sadomasochistic fantasies that have the most visceral sting. In one partly comic scene, a naked woman shrieks in an ecstasy of pain as she is flayed from behind by a dominatrix. In another, a woman is tied down and impaled through her thighs and breasts. "That," admits Broomfield, "was the one time I felt really awkward being there, because I felt there was such an intense relationship between her and the mistress on a sexual level."
Broomfield appears to throw himself through all his usual narrative hoops - incurring the wrath of his subjects, goofily trespassing into shot, making a feature of all the obstacles thrown in his way. And yet, on closer scrutiny, Fetishes looks like the least typical of all his documentaries. However disparate they appear to be, all his notable subjects - Baroness Thatcher, Eugene TerreBlanche, the Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss or the serial killer Aileen Wuarnos - have been powermongers, either in their own dreams or in the to-and-fro of reality. Mistress Raven, the spit of Morticia Addams who runs Pandora's Box, belongs in that category in one sense, but, unlike Broomfield's other subjects, she puts up no such resistance to being filmed. Far from it. "Pandora's was just starting," Broomfield explains, "so I think they wanted to put themselves on the map." It's rare for Broomfield to find himself participating in a Faustian promotional exchange. But from Mistress Raven's acquiescence those gates that Broomfield usually has to prise open with a personally formulated alloy of charm and armour-plated persistence parted before him, with the result that her clients - prominent lawyers, financiers and publishers with everything to lose from owning up to their fetish - went ahead anyway.
"It was a bit like using your chain of command in the army," he says. "If you got Mistress Raven to agree and the mistresses to agree, then the mistresses would get their clients to agree. For some of them it was such an important part of their lives that they all really wanted to talk about it too. You know when you have an incredible secret and a lot of guilt, in a strange way you also welcome the opportunity to talk about it."
Given that Broomfield's mission in Fetishes was to excavate the childhood fears that his subjects had contrived to eroticise, it seems appropriate to mine his own upbringing for clues. What turned the young Broomfield into a film-maker, absurdly clad in headphones and hands clamping a furry- headed boom microphone, whose signature intrusions into his own films are widely held to be evidence of extreme narcissism?
He is half Czech: his mother's parents left Prague following the German occupation in 1938. He dredges up an early memory of them, from "when I was about five or six. My grandfather used to make feather hats in Wardour Street [coincidentally, the HQ of the British film industry]. It was before the Street Offences Act and my grandmother used to take me for little walks to show me all the naughty women in the street, who I thought looked amazing." Hence, quite clearly, the obsession with prostitution. His father was a conscientious objector, as well as an atheist, but in the ambulance service during the war he met and was impressed by the abundance of Quakers who also refused to fight. He sent his son to a co-educational Quaker boarding school in Somerset. The 11-year-old Broomfield was obliged to attend largely silent Quaker meetings which he used to find "ridiculous: I used to want to fart". This is an early example of the film-maker itching to draw attention to himself in a buffoon-like manner.
Broomfield was expelled at 16 when he was discovered alone in the wrong dormitory with one of its occupants - "a beautiful girl called Josephine Jellyneck". Rather than seeking the limelight, this time he was under the bed, trying to avoid discovery. "I think the fantasy of the mistress who caught us was far stronger than the reality." His work subsequently finds him adopting a similar faux-naif stance, a trademark I-wasn't-doing- anything look on his face when he displeases his subjects.
His current project finds him delving into the psychopathology of the late Kurt Cobain. "Obviously he was a great musician and an amazing writer and so on and so on, so you want to get stuff in about his background and his childhood. And then there are all these theories that he was murdered. They are fascinating because Courtney's father is one of the main pushers of the theories. The nanny who was with them right up until the week before he killed himself summarised it the best. She said, `If he wasn't actually murdered, he was forced to murder himself.'" It sounds as if Broomfield is back on familiar ground, using denial of access and logistical hiccups as a way of deepening his portrait of the subject. "There were a lot of attempts to close me down while I was doing the film. Showtime pulled out of the deal because of pressure from MTV. Time Warner were terrified, and they had been courting me after Fetishes to do a film. They have such vested interests in preserving those show-business relationships that you ain't going to be making this film there."
The question everyone asks Broomfield about Fetishes is whether he put himself through a session. The mistresses do try to rope him up at the end of the film, but with farcical lack of success. "I couldn't think of anything worse than being tied up and beaten by Mistress Raven, frankly," he says. The closest he gets to sadomasochism is getting off on all the things that go wrong in his films, events that appear to thwart but actually embellish. And it is because of these embellishments that he's far better off making films about Hollywood than he would be making Hollywood films, which remains an unrealised ambition. Not even Broomfield could make movies out of his own failures to get movies off the ground.
There is a very Broomfield moment after the end of the interview. Barney is somewhere in the building, but can't be found. We track him down to the gents, behind the locked door of the cubicle. We do what you do when you're in the gents, and to fill the silence I comment that I hadn't put on a suit because I hadn't expected Broomfield to be wearing one. "Yeah," says Broomfield. "My son thinks I look really stupid in the films wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. Don't you, Barney?" Silence. Dad, who plainly will respect no one's privacy in pursuit of an answer, bangs on the cubicle door. He asks the question again, only louder. More silence. Then, "Do you guys mind if I take a crap?"
`Fetishes' screens at the ICA, London SW1, from Friday until 18 Sept (exc 12, 13, 14 Sept); booking: 0171-930 3647. Nick Broomfield will give a talk at the ICA on 10 Sept
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