In 1986 Juliet Bashore made a genre-defying documentary about the a lesbian couple working in the porn industry in San Francisco. “Kamikaze Hearts” has since become a landmark of Queer Cinema and a restored version is being released for rental or purchase exclusively on Kino Now June 14. It will be available on all major VOD platforms beginning June 28.
The couple–who play themselves–are porn stars Sharon Mitchell and Tigr Mennett. Mitchell (who likes people to call her “Mitch”) did not look like most adult film stars of the 1980s. She was lanky, with small breasts, a large nose, a punk rock hairstyle and a New York accent and attitude that made her stand out amongst the LA “valley girls” with their breast implants and perms. Her girlfriend Tigr (perhaps a variation on Winnie-the-Pooh’s “Tigger”) has a blonde mullet and is not as flamboyant as her lover. Tigr’s also more invested in their relationship which seems unhealthy and likey to end soon.
They are both working on a porn feature based on Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Sharon is the star and Tigr is in the crew. Tigr is getting fed up with her girlfriend’s lateness to set, her blithe attitude about their bond and her drug use. Only a few members of the crew know that the film they are making will never be released. It’s a vehicle the documentary uses to recreate the gritty world of porn films in pre-gentrified late 1980s San Francisco.
In a 1987 interview with Jessica Link, Bashore struggled to define what kind of documentary “Kamikaze Hearts” was: “[it’s a]… psychodrama. It’s an enactment, or a catharsis for the participants… I just mean that it’s not dramatized and it’s not fictional, and that the camera is a given in the situation—that it’s ethnographic.” It’s now common for documentary makers to mix direct cinema with re-enactments and improvisation. The Italian film “The Palace (Unfinished)” is a recent example of this.
It’s interesting to compare this film with the just-released film “Pleasure,” also a female-directed depiction of porn film making. A lot has changed since 1986. The talent make a lot more money, the films are slicker and there are notable improvements in the treatment of the performers. (Although “Pleasure” includes scenes that demonstrate how abuse is still a possibility.)
Abuse was common in the ’80s porn scene. The producer of the ‘86 porn feature is such a sleazebag (Jerry Abrams, who reminds me here of the late character actor Allen Garfield) one female performer refuses to have sex if he is on the set. She later returns, begging to do the scene so she can pay her rent. While the film is a gritty expose of the misogyny, abuse of talent and drug use of adult film making then, the story is really about Tigr and Sharon’s love for each other. Most of the film’s 77 minutes depicts them arguing and making up endlessly, sometimes while shooting cocaine into their veins. If you’ve ever spent an evening with a raging alcoholic or junkie couple you’ll recognize the routine: co-dependent whining and repetition of the same complaints punctuated by unsatisfying apologies and affection. What saves the film from being as dull and silly as a bum fight video is Sharon’s colorful, magnetic performance. She is Brando to Tigr’s Kim Hunter.
And what a complicated bundle of contradictions Sharon is. “To be president and an actor, it must be a shot in the arm,” Mitchell says, explaining why Ronald Reagan is her idol. Mitchell took her name from Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell, which suggests a conservative leaning at odds with everything else about her. A former student at the Martha Graham Dance Studio, she performed in over 700 porn films and is a member of the AVN Hall of Fame. In 1996 a stalker raped and almost killed her; she quit drugs and got a degree in sexology. She later opened a clinic in Los Angeles devoted to STD tests for adult entertainers.
Tigr Mennett left the world of porn soon after the release of “Kamikaze Hearts” and not much is known about her life after that. Bashore has worked on many projects since but this blistering and poetic portrait of a doomed love affair remains her best.