by Rich Moreland, March 2015
A cool California night and Skin, a collared “slave,” sits in a lounge chair smoking a cigarette. Concern blankets her face; her situation is not playing by the rules. Wrapped in shawl, a girl named Katie approaches hesitatingly.
“Who are you?” Skin says.
Shy and defensive, Katie blurts out. “I haven’t done anything.”
“That’s not what I asked you!”
Katie is a voyeur and Skin is on to her surreptitious peeks in windows. “So you’re a little pervert, huh?”
Shamed by the stinging indictment, Katie sits for a moment. Her interest in Skin is piqued. The “slave” chats about repressed desires and how she let hers “out to play.” Otherwise “they would eat me alive,” she says, consuming her with shame, guilt, self-loathing, “things that made me hate myself.”
Katie suggests that some women take money for sex. Skin responds, “prostitutes charge, I don’t.”
The amazed girl asks if Skin is a slave “for free?”
A sly, wicked smile dances around Skin’s devilish eyes. “I can be whatever I need to be . . . for the right man.”
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll hurt you?”
Skin leans toward Katie. “He’s not the one in control, I am.”
Katie is taken aback and Skin moves on the opening.
“I’m just trying to help you be free to find happiness, be who you really are.”
With a feeble attempt at indignity, Katie retorts, “I know who I am.” Tightening her shawl around the body and soul she buries within her own brand of submission, Katie draws her knees against her chest.
“Not yet you don’t,” Skin proclaims and walks away. “Stay warm.”
* * *
The passage above is the scripted opening for a review I planned for B Skow’s film Control available at Girlfriends Films here.
At least that was the idea before I got immersed in a story so intriguing that I abandoned the review, preferring an analysis instead. So bear with me and read on.
* * *
When critics asked Henry James the meaning of his short novel, The Turn of Screw, he ducked the question by encouraging readers to interpret the story to their own satisfaction. In truth, James suggested that his tale of ghosts and demonic possession resides in the mind of the beholder.
B Skow’s Control is James revisited. It’s illusion and defied logic that is clever and disarming, a classic from a director who is quirky, imaginative, and full of fantastic distortions and implications.
I’ve interpreted this film, however inadequately, and encourage you to get see it for yourself. Bear in mind, there are elements in the story I’ve deliberately omitted to shorten this already too long account. You’ll probably find something I should have included. Not a problem, write a comment and let me know. You’re just as good at this as I am.
Control is the story of Alex (Scott Lyons) who has a “slave” (Skin Diamond) from whom he demands words of love. Next door, a withdrawn young woman named Katie (Claire Robbins) disapproves of her mother’s profession as an exotic dancer. Mom (Darla Crane) complicates matters by bringing men home for sex. Despite her moralistic disdain, Katie is a sexually repressed voyeur whose fantasies are enticed by her neighbors’ kinky relationship.
Eventually Skin convinces Katie to explore her own sexuality and join her in the pleasures of serving a master. Success occurs abetted by Katie’s deviant awakening with Alex’s creepy friend Martin (Kurt Lockwood). The sex is fantastic, Katie claims, though it is part of Alex’s revenge against Skin. In the end, Katie replaces Skin as Alex’s “alpha submissive” and they marry.
Simple enough? Not exactly.
Through the Looking Glass
The camera frames the story through the looking glass, so to speak. In the first sex scene between Alex and Skin, the filming is straight on with their reflections in the background. A later scene in which Darla comes home to find her daughter irritable and pouty, their conversation is shot in the mirror. Katie criticizes Darla’s sex worker profession, but in the end they exchange “I love yous,” an oddity considering the film’s final scene. After Darla’s sex scene with a boyfriend (Alec Knight), Katie decides to move out. Her packing is shot via a mirror. Mother and daughter are opposites in the mirror, Darla’s sexuality vanilla, Katie’s kinky, as we find out.
This is a story of reversals and illusions.
Windows in the film serve as portals into the soul. A favorite Skow technique is to preface a scene change with shots of three windows outside the house because relationships in the story focus on two trios: Alex, Skin, and Katie, then Alex, Katie, and Darla.
Skin initially encounters Katie via windows. Easy enough, Katie is a female Peeping Tom and Skin turns the tables on her. Then there is the kitchen door when Darla brings Alec home. It has three horizontal windows and the bottom one is open so Darla can reach in and enter the house. It’s a foreboding sign for the end of the film when Darla’s tables get violently spun around and escape is thwarted.
Fetish of Another Sort
Black and white dominate Control. In the opening scene, Alex and his African-American “slave” have sex in a white dominated room with black BDSM accouterments hanging everywhere. Red is mixed in to complement the scene in BDSM fashion. Incidentally, there are red and white flowers in full bloom that also appear in the film, precursors of orgasms that will center on Katie.
Keep in mind that metaphorically blood is part of the film’s inherent meaning and sets up a fetish of another sort.
The first sex scene is racial in its implications. To further that theme black coffee, diluted with white sugar and milk, illustrates the issues between Skin and Alex, who equates his “slave” with a “prize pony” he wins at the fair, diminishing her humanity. He clearly commodifies women. In her angry outburst near the film’s conclusion, Skin growls at him using the term “boy,” a racial epithet in reverse (remember the mirrors). Like a pony, she is kept in a shed.
In a fascinating touch, there is a small black and white dog running around outside visible through a window veiled with muslin. Later when Alex and Katie declare their “love” for each other, an old dog sleeps on the stoop beside a small Buddha. Alex once again references his new “prize pony.” Beside the dog is a worn out tennis ball that suddenly disappears—curious, but not without meaning. Well-used toys are often abandoned when their novelty fades.
The Brick Wall
Two scenes focus on an interior brick wall that appears to be the backside of a fireplace that visually blocks part of a raised living room behind it. In the first scene Skin is on hands and knees scrubbing the floor in the foreground; above her on the wall is a large Celtic or Irish Cross commonly found in graveyards, an image that appears elsewhere in the film. Made out of metal, likely a bronze alloy, it contains a heart-shaped imprint in its middle, unusual in these kinds of crosses.
Later when Skin is slave training Katie, they’re in front of the same wall. Comfortable furniture seals off the elevated room that had been open during Skin’s earlier scene. The arrangement forms a neat enclosed area and suggests an eerie sense of family, another motif in this film.
Most important, there are metaphorical walls throughout the story that seal characters off from each other. For example, Alex and Katie create barriers with their shared mutual resentments and irritations when it comes to sexual satisfaction. Voyeurism is Katie’s and isolation is Alex’s, with Skin’s free-flowing carnality the ultimate victim.
Marriage and Divorce?
Obsessed with Skin’s refusal to tell him that she loves him, Alex suspects that Skin plans to use Katie as a replacement slave. An exasperated Skin insists that the girl is a “gift” that will make him happy. In some BDSM circles, “alpha subs” can be predators, seeking new girls for their masters. At first that seems to be the case, but as always, illusion is at work.
A maudlin Alex whines a bit, reminding Skin about his ex-wife who didn’t know him. He wants Skin to love him and fulfill his needs. Alex later discovers that Katie is indeed a decoy, or so the viewer is led to believe. Here the plot is swept down into an eddy of mystery. Though Skin gives every indication she is playing a role she enjoys, her relationship with Alex is vague. This explains why some of their sex scenes are concealed by objects in the room, a rarity for a porn film.
In one scene, Skin’s head is below the edge of the table as she blows Alex and later their bodies are likewise partially hidden during sex. Using a mirror-like reversal, Katie later pulls the sheet over her face as Alex watches her perform on him.
Interestingly, Skin is portrayed as a scrub woman and maid, the black domestic. What is she erasing or trying to clean up? Could it be her history with Alex or a comment on the power imbalance of black-white relations, particularly sexual ones, in our cultural history. Or maybe it is something more ominous.
Finally there is the shocker, a glimpse of Skin, the career real estate agent, coming home after a long day. She kisses her husband, whose face is unseen but speaks with Alex’s voice, then goes into a bedroom to check on what may be a child. On the wall next to the door is a handmade poster with “Harmony” written in an adult’s hand using a child’s crayons. Is it a comment on the state of their marriage or the name of their child? Perhaps they have another slave? Is this a flashback? Are they divorced and playing an odd sexual game in real time?
It is possible, however, that Skin’s earlier remarks about her desires are revealed here. Perhaps she is still in the marriage with Alex, but they have moved it another level that satisfies her, but not him. In other words, she lets him “play” with his “prize pony” but he can never really tame it.
But what is she cleaning up with the scrubbing in front of the Celtic Cross? Maybe his past indiscretions or perhaps something else, because this narrative has a sinister underpinning.
Who is in Control?
The name of the film presents its greatest conundrum. Who is in control? On the surface, it seems Skin controls Alex, at least she thinks so, and Katie. Alex seeks control over everyone and Katie ends up controlling Skin, or at least she thinks so. Throw Darla in the mix and sorting things out gets more complicated. But from Skow’s perspective all of this is a ruse.
Control is about survival. One sex scene illustrates this point. Skin is in reverse cowgirl riding Alex, but it is not shown on camera. When his insistence that she announce her love gets out of hand, she bites a wooden serving spoon, gagging herself.
“Say it,” he demands again and again. She refuses.
Incidentally, another version of the Celtic Cross lords over this scene and Katie watches through the window, mesmerized by the sexual fantasy playing out before her. After an internal cum shot, Skin walks away, Katie departs . . . the Cross remains.
Who is Skin, really? Early in the film, Alex puts her in bondage and hauls her around in a trailer. Is it part of the BDSM game Skin orchestrates or another wall between them, this time metallic?
There is something missing, of course . . . and it’s about that nagging image of the Cross.
The Illusion Explained
In in the late 1960s-early 1970s, Northern California was terrorized by the Zodiac Killer, whose identification was the Celtic Cross. He murdered couples by gunshot or stabbing. Their ages ran from the late teens to late twenties. One supposed victim, a twenty-five year old woman named Donna Lass, disappeared in 1970, never to be heard from again, an unsolved cold case. Her facial features and closed cropped hair are remarkably similar to Katie’s forty-five years later.
In one Zodiac attack, a survivor of a stab wound said the killer was dressed in all black with a white symbol resembling the Celtic Cross. Black, white, and blood red, the opening scene of the film.
In a perverse note sent to local Bay Area newspapers, the killer revealed that he was collecting slaves for his rebirth in paradise, noting that killing was better than getting his “rocks off with a girl.” Apparently sexually frustrated, he used his version of control to express his anger. To say the least, the Zodiac Killer hangs around in crime history like a scary illusion, even today.
This, I believe, is the heart of Skow’s film. The pieces fall into place. The terrorizing physical presence of the “killer” is introduced when Alex’s friend, Martin, bursts into the house through open French windows. But he is only half the “killer”, the other part is Alex, the “killer’s” patronizing, devious mind. The image is brought together when Martin confesses to the girls, “I’m one of those sex offender dudes. But you don’t want to know what for.” No, but we get the picture.
Martin grabs Katie to degrade her in rape-like fashion. The perverse Katie is more than willing and later delightfully states it’s the best sex she’s ever had. But Martin’s thoughts are elsewhere. He says with a chill, “That knife is still on the table. I think I’ll go get it.”
Nobody can Control Anybody
After Alex marries Katie, Darla asks a fatal question, “Alex, what do you do?” Not good, because now Alex has a new little pervert to help him with his “job” collecting slaves. He is creating his Charles Manson-like “family.” Remember, there’s a bed in the shed and furniture neatly arranged in front of the Celtic Cross.
The film ends with a naked Darla in the slave shed poking her head out of a small, glassless window, no need for illusion now. Behind her is Katie and Alex restraining and choking her. We can only assume that Skin, whose bondage game of survival went awry, watches chained to the bed.
Once the Zodiac analysis is in place, the other oddities of the film come together. The hidden action in some of the sex scenes reminds the viewer of the killer’s sexual impotency and how the murder victims years ago wanted to hide their carnal escapades from public view. The word “Harmony” in crayon suggests the killer’s inner child cannot find peace.
The brick wall is what the police have had on their hands for decades and there are no windows to give them definitive answers. The years have passed and frisky dogs turn into old ones and sex crimes become cold cases difficult to decipher, like the partially hidden sex scenes in the film. Of course, it is all in the past and the tracks of crime are scrubbed away. Now everything is just a fading reflection.
In the final analysis, the killer’s perversity is his attempt to gain control over others and himself. But the viewer is reminded of Darla’s remark, “It’s just sex. Nobody can control anybody.” That is unless the ultimate exercise in dominance is death unresolved.
Skow thinks so and he shows it to us with a final image: a suspended angel, frozen in time, unable to ascend to paradise.
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