Essay: Transfiguration

by Aimee Mullins .

My concept came from my response to the majority of today's imagery, in which some aspect of sexual 'deviance' is positioned to look just like a Victoria's Secret commercial. In my mind, eighteen year-old girls stroking themselves has nothing to do with real fetish - it's just beautiful imagery.

Transfiguration. While I was trying to imagine how the images and aesthetics in my film could be ‘explained,’ that’s the word that kept coming up: transfiguration. It’s defined as ‘a marked change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis’ or a ‘change that glorifies or exalts.’ Either way - as the title of my film, ‘Chrysalis’, infers – I believe that fetish is about achieving a psychological release through physical transformation. Fetish is not sex, nor is it exhibited in the standardized imagery of lust we see all around us – teenagers in lingerie and lipstick. Fetish is used to create that unique space wherein we tap our memory; we reach for the elusive moment we need to recreate so as to take ourselves away from reality into a glorious world of possibility.

My film takes a completely surrealist, poetic approach to the fetishist's stance. It conveys that euphoric, trancelike state experienced by someone exercising a fetish discipline. This could be set off by counting, checking, looking at, wearing, or touching strange objects or textures; anything can be a fetish. The use of masks, gloves, and candles – the number one lighting choice of many avid fetish practitioners – all ties into a broader united aspect of fetish, which centers on going though ritualistic procedures.

My concept came from my response to the majority of today's imagery, in which some aspect of sexual 'deviance' is positioned to look just like a Victoria's Secret commercial. In my mind, eighteen year-old girls stroking themselves has nothing to do with real fetish - it's just beautiful imagery. Fetish is usually about an object or a scenario - one that often involves something many of us might find frightening or even ugly - and only people with a lot of experience, years and years of training and initiation, can command the respect as a proper guide through the sensorial recreation of memory that is the foundation of fetish.  That’s why in my film I chose to feature Marti Domination.

Marti – who has been my friend for over a decade - played ‘Goodyear’ in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 1. She also spent ten years as a dancer in the NYC 'Jackie 60' fetish troupe ‘The House of Domination,’, performing in their annual Bettie Page Ball, as well as weekly themed events such as Molinier, Atomage, Sweet Gwendolyn, Venus in Furs, Satan in High Heels, Tura Satana, Psychopathia Sexualis, the list goes on.

Once Marti and I were having a conversation about acting, and we acknowledged how adding just one prop, one shoe, or one specific piece of clothing could transform you into a different person, and also be the physical catalyst for that same transformation in the mind.  This transformative ‘dress-up’ aspect of fetish struck Marti when making the film: ‘Although I feel it was completely by accident, bringing the top hat and the gown (instead of for example, my floor length leather hobble skirt) displayed the fashion preference of the dominant character: formal wear. The death imagery of the skeleton mask became even more pronounced when I realized the patent-coated Death character was igniting, bringing to life, the ‘fetishist’ character. Joan of Arc came to mind, being transfigured, being perfected as a saint by a fiery martyrdom. The death imagery is giving the film a metaphysical aspect not found in most fashion presentations. Unless Death is representing ‘timeless elegance!’ So while it is hard to ‘explain’ the film (as opposed to a film we might have made of someone lacing my corset, or of me parading up and down in patent leather Westwood spikes), the style and message of the film is the very essence of the fetish mindset. It doesn't ‘make sense’ and it is completely personal.’

We went into the mind of the fetishist, where ‘the boundary between dreams and reality flickers momentarily out of focus and allows a new perspective to take form.’ That's from the forward of one of my favorite tomes in my erotica collection, The Correct Sadist by Terence Sellers, who is something of a legendary New York character from her days as Mistress Angel Stern.  When conceptualizing my film, I sat with this book again and again and thought about my personal take on the idea of fetish as a device to access a certain memory wherein one attains a feeling of safety.  I called Marti, not only because she and I recently had a whole discussion about the interplay between fetish, ritual and memory, but also because I knew that she would have very definitive opinions on ‘Fashion Fetish’ and she would lend that atmosphere of collaboration that fuels me creatively.  She and I met at our local, four-seated champagne bar, and had the first of many conversations about our mutual response against the 'pretty,' and our desire to do something punk. We wanted to make a film the gritty way; with no budget and all aspects of production done with just our little gang of three people (we recruited Eric Treiber on day one).  Even with the addition of Paul Twinkle of Beaut for the musical score, the intimacy of a very small team lent itself to the environment of trust necessary to explore fetish properly.

We created our own lighting, using an LED strip in a clear plastic tube, which we wound round the end of my broom handle, continuously spinning it under the lens to help create the prism effect for the 'dreamy' vibe.  We also chose to use actual fetish fashion and not fashion houses that recreate the looks of small-shop bespoke fetish creatives.

I thought about the way Antonioni would often shoot looking ‘up’, and I liked the idea of exploring Marti as a landscape, topographically.  At the age of 52, she's incredible looking; I always imagine that she walked right off a Tennessee Williams set, an American Southern Gothic blonde with a body like a skyscraper and cheekbones sitting atop the hollows of her cheeks as if gargoyles could happily perch on them.  So I wanted to shoot her wrists, her clavicle, her mandible, moving the camera up her legs like she was both architecture and a possible geographical subject.  A lot of that footage didn't make it into the final film, except for moving up her body and around her torso when she's in the couture crystalline gown by Thomas Engel Hart, but the body-as-place feeling is still evident.

Marti is a performance artist from the old school, which means she can do some seriously transformative makeup.  She was very clear from the beginning that she wanted to do major lashes, and she ended up using four sets on each eye.  She gelled her hair back and then packed glitter down into it, so that it would catch the light. We also put an actual piece of a meteor there in the beginning, like she's cradling the world in her hands - her world. She takes control of her world by engaging the ritual.

Fetish honors the tactile, the relationship to material.  The entire amorphous vision you see in the beginning of our film was a slowed down movement on both the bespoke fetish patent boots - from Spyros of ‘The Little Shoe Box’ fame - and the patent leather trench coat, with the old, timeworn leather fetish gloves.  We also chose to capture the OCD element of counting and ‘checking,’ which is a crucial element in the fetish scene, hence the trance-like driving music that pulses us forward through most of the film. 

I found that some obsessive behaviors had crept into my personal film planning process. I kept a file going in my notes app for two months, with little quotes – such as Goethe's ‘we build the future by enlarging upon the past’ - snippets and ideas on shots (‘visceral, evocative, extreme mental states, almost delusion...trancelike repetition, cacophony of shininess!!’).  I also found again what I had underlined from my first reading of Sellers's book some years ago:

‘They put aside the 'reasonable' and for a moment in time create a ritual space in which the rules are written afresh....they may appear meaningless or absurd outside the special context, but within they are all....  What is clear is that by 'acting out' the participants create a highly charged and highly personal alter-identity, that is neither themselves nor not-themselves....  And in a sense, it is also an act of psychic hygiene that creates the space in which a true understanding of who we are can materialise.’

I loved the idea of the film itself being ‘an act of psychic hygiene’, and it continues to evoke a powerful feeling for me.  It leads me by the hand to have another look, and when I do, I still get freaked out by the skull mask, and I still find Marti so hauntingly and touchingly beautiful, and I am still transported by all of it.