Look Ma, No Hands!

Movies as diverse as Cape Fear, Something Wild, The Rookie and Bull Durham make it clear we're living in the movies' golden age of bondage, so our trusty reporter put down his own handcuffs long enough to review the classics and create the Essential Home Video Bondage Library. You're welcome.

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About 35 minutes into the 1993 leather-and-latex, legal-eagle thriller Body of Evidence, iconoclastic attorney Willem Dafoe invites himself into the upscale houseboat where his latest client, the fetching nipple-clamp specialist Madonna Ciccone, currently resides. Shortly thereafter, Dafoe finds himself securely trussed by a belt from behind, and must look on in dismay as Madonna subjects him to a protracted torture session involving a candle, its dripping contents, a bottle of champagne, and his helpless, exposed torso and genitals.

Despite all this mayhem, the viewer feels no special sympathy for Dafoe. Having agreed to defend a cokehead gold digger last seen in bed with a bound homicide victim, Dafoe has now clearly abused the attorney-client relationship by allowing Madonna to drip candle wax all over his private parts, and deserves everything he gets. In this sense, the otherwise unwatchable Body of Evidence can be interpreted as a searing indictment of our putrescent judicial system, rotten to the core with unprincipled attorneys who not only permit their clients to bind them and, what's more, torture them with red-hot candle wax, but who subsequently eat their clients out in a public parking lot directly below the corridors of justice--in clear contravention of every ethical stricture known to the profession. Perry Mason, whatever his other faults, never ate out his clients in public parking lots. And neither did Clarence Darrow.

Bondage is much on the minds of moviemakers and the viewing public these days. The enormously popular Basic Instinct opens with a scene in which a bound man is ice-picked to death by the attractive but unpredictable Sharon Stone. The most repugnant scene in the spectacularly odious Cape Fear allows Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese to fuse bondage and cannibalism in a vignette that says a lot about the current mindset of the average American, but probably says even more about the current mind-set of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Bondage is also a central motif in the vastly underrated Annabella Sciorra vehicle Whispers in the Dark, in which the sprightly ingenue turns up bound and gagged in a skintight black dress, with pinioned black high heels in the air, in a memorable pose bound to adorn the walls of better prison cells, psychiatric units and filling stations everywhere for years to come.

Bondage completely dominates Pedro Almodovar's offbeat Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, in which a young locksmith, who has spent most of his life in mental institutions, attempts to win the hand of a junkie-turned-B-movie-star by tying her to a bed until she has gotten to know enough about his good points to agree to marriage. Bondage is also a central motif in one of Sean Young's many recent comeback attempts, Love Crimes, in which Sean plays a courageous district attorney who falls in love with a sadomasochistic fetishist and female abuser that she is simultaneously attempting to put away in the slammer. This is what they mean by the phrase forever young.

Can this explosion of bondage-related cinema be dismissed as a mere blip on the cultural radar screen, as an aberration that reflects nothing more than the lurid fantasies of a few degenerates such as Adrian Lyne, Madonna and whoever directed that Annabella Sciorra movie? No, for to dismiss all this sad celluloidal activity as a mere anomaly, a meaningless oddity that does not resonate beyond the borders of Hollywood, would force me to stop writing this essay right now, and that means that we'd never get to the really good jokes about Charlie Sheen and Liz Taylor. Since it has always been the assumption of this magazine that motion pictures reflect the deepest fears, aspirations and neuroses of the people who go see them, as well as those of the people who make them, we will proceed on the assumption that this avalanche of bondage movies is a subliminal expression of some dark secret that the American people are having trouble articulating. Though it should not come entirely as a surprise that America should go on a bondage jag in the age of Shannen Doherty.

To be perfectly honest, this whole S&M thing has been building for some time. Tying people up with lassos and whatnot has always been a staple of cowboy movies and private-eye flicks, but the idea of depicting sexually-oriented bondage in a graphic way did not really get going until Myra Breckinridge was released in 1970. This is the much-discussed-then, though largely-forgotten-now, film in which Raquel Welch, an appealing transsexual, straps down a young actor named Roger Herren and impales him with a dildo. Needless to say, America was so put off by the idea of a dildo-toting Welch (before Myra takes over from Myron, the Breckinridge character was played by the somewhat less muscular film critic Rex Reed) that it never allowed Herren to appear in another film, and banished Welch to James Coco and Burt Reynolds movies forever. Rex Reed, of course, went back to being Rex Reed, seeing that he was so good at it.

Bondage then went completely underground, and did not resurface in any meaningful way until 1980, when Al Pacino got trussed and spread-eagled in the incredibly depressing, ultra-homophobic thriller Cruising. This movie, produced by a man named Jerry, is basically one long, public-service announcement: Never, ever date a man dressed like Heinrich Himmler while the police are out looking for a guy dressed like Martin Borman who recently dismembered several other guys who look remarkably like you. And if you must date other men who dress like the lead singer from Judas Priest or Lou Reed on a bad night, always check their belts for carving knives before getting into bed. You can never be too careful.

In many ways, the last 13 years have been the golden age of cinema bondage, and this had a lot to do with Ronald Reagan. Look at it this way: in an era of unprecedented financial profligacy, many Americans secretly yearned for a return to a policy of fiscal restraint. This ineffable desire for clearly defined limits manifested itself in the recurring image of Clint Eastwood--an obvious Ronald Reagan metaphor--being tied up and forced to have sex with people like Sonia Braga, an exotic, gun-toting Latina who herself serves as a metaphor for Reagan's catastrophic meddling in Central American affairs (even though she and Raul Julia were actually cast as Germans in the film The Rookie). Moreover, the fact that Braga would turn on an overhead camera and make a videotape of herself screwing the tightly bound Eastwood/Reagan reflects the voyeuristic element of the 1980s and the idiotic yuppie desire to capture every event--a child's birth, a seven-year-old's first soccer game, your mentor's first blow job--on videotape. Thus, in Clint Eastwood's videotaped sadomasochistic adventures with Sonia Braga, one can detect such resonating '80s themes as the war on the Sandinistas, the explosion of the VCR industry, the rise of MTV, the passivity of Republican males in the face of a moral onslaught from disenfranchised women from south of the border, and, of course, the American public's burgeoning interest in being tied to an armchair and fucked by a woman brandishing a razor blade.

How Raul Julia fits into all of this is anybody's guess.

Not every bondage movie made since 1980 was as sinister and claustrophobic as Tightrope or The Rookie. The playful side of handcuff fetishism was on full display in Jonathan Demme's 1986 flick Something Wild, in which downtown party girl Melanie Griffith abducts municipal bond specialist Jeff Daniels, takes him to a seedy New Jersey hotel, handcuffs him to the bed and ravishes him. Yet even here, the Reagan Era message was never very far from the surface: if you yuppie schmucks would only forget about bonds for a while, and start thinking about bondage, we could all have a lot of fun together. At least until Ray Liotta shows up.

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