d. Michael Ninn; pr. Hector Castaneda; cast. Ona Zee, Steve Drake, Jonathan Morgan, Veronica Hart, Sunset Thomas, TT Boy, Cal Jammer [filmed on 35mm film]




Michael Ninn and the Birth of Contemporary Porno Chic

Michael Ninn was a former director for CNN when he started editing adult videos as a means of securing extra monies following a difficult divorce.

Working in the industry at the time of Andrew Blake’s increasingly glamorous and prettified adult visuals, Ninn persuaded the studio, Western Visuals, to finance his first film, Black Orchid, convincing them that he could do better than the glut of material around and do so in a manner comparable to Blake’s sophistication.  Blake’s influence was such that the company agreed to produce Ninn’s film on 35mm film as opposed to the standard video.  Ninn duly made Black Orchid, a very personal, ambitious and even ambivalent look at sexual fantasy.  It proved him a revolutionary stylist able to combine detailed plot, characterization and stylized erotica with languid, dreamlike scoring.  It was the visual aplomb of Black Orchid that brought Ninn to the attention of industry leader VCA, then the biggest hardcore producers in the USA, who offered him sponsorship and complete creative freedom.  From there, Ninn steadily built up a body of work, alongside his frequent producer, adult legend Jane Hamilton, which would change the face of the adult industry and birth an aesthetic movement termed “porno chic”.  Indeed, it is the distinctive, polished imagination in Ninn’s works which makes them truly cutting edge and all of his over-riding obsessions can be traced to Black Orchid.


Synopsis (contains spoilers)

Black Orchid, despite its rather detailed plot, is deliberately vague.  Ostensibly, the story concerns a rich man (Steve Drake) who has hired a mature, mysterious woman (the veteran performer Ona Zee) to try to find the elusive writer of a book, which has the title of the movie. 

Along her quest, Zee arranges for the chapters to be brought to life in first tableaux and then participatory fantasies arranged for Drake.  Zee relates the story in voice over, referring to Drake as the “the watcher, the dreamer” and it is clear that she has the sexual power in this film – to enable fantasy, both in the imagination and finally to will it into reality – she is the controlling muse here, feeding off the desires of men with a pornographic imagination.  The film’s first half is comprised of fantasies, generally revealed to Drake: idealized encounters, stylized and dreamlike.  There is a progression to the fantasies however, as first Drake is an observer and then gradually a participant as if he has willed or projected himself in what is an ambiguous mix of the real and the fantasy, with Ninn intent to break the barriers between them.  Drake is hooked and wants new material to be enacted in fantasies for him and so Zee sets out to find the author (Jonathan Morgan).  She finds him, seduces his imagination and leads him to Drake where Drake attempts to arrange an exclusivity deal.  On securing such, Drake then retreats back into his mixture of sexual fantasy and reality.


Stating Transgressionist Intent: Style, Sex, Religiosity and Psycho-Analytic Semiotics

Kept trancelike for its entire length, the film posits Zee as the female muse, perhaps even the idealized self in the sexual imagination – the source of fantasies.

Thus, although she is a literal character for Drake, she is almost allegorical for the writer figure, a projection of his own inner imaginative needs: his creative anima in a sense.  Yet in that she serves Drake, or at least appeases him, she is a deceptive figure and Drake in a line of descent from the sinister, Mephistophelian libertine figures that litter porn as a genre.  With Zee representing the sexual muse, she is almost an ideal feminine self for these male figures – the result of the obsession with the feminine “other” as the enabler of sexual fantasy and reality as the film deliberately blurs any distinction between the sexual imagination and sexual reality: or rather, that it is the self-reflexive nature of Black Orchid that the film itself comments on the function of porn as a genre to toy with such notions and purposefully destabilizes the viewer in relation to the film.  In that respect, the sense of Drake’s progression is allegorical: from watcher to participant to almost regressed into the power of his imagination to shape his sexual reality accordingly.  Like much of Ninn’s later work, Black Orchid emerges a testament to the addictive but almost psychologically metamorphotic power of a pornographic imagination.  Sex and transcendence are frequently symbiotic concepts in Ninn’s work.

The progress of the pornographic imagination is the force here, as it would be in Ninn’s later Dark Garden for instance. 

The imperative to seek out erotic fantasy is an obsession that can lead to identity dissolution, transgression and even narcissistic abandon.  Paradoxical in nature, it is life-enhancing and liberating but also soul-destroying and entrapping, hence the contrast between Drake and the tortured Morgan in terms of their respective emotional needs from sex.  In some of Zee’s voice-over thus, it emerges that she is a consuming force, feeding off of the male desires around her to construct interactive fantasies to entrap the desirers – the curse of the pornographic imagination for Ninn perhaps.  The intimation and attempt to control and harness this animus as a kind of sexual communion is the domain of porno art.  Thus, what is important here thematically is the film’s exploration of the kind of near psychic symbiosis between that imagination and its expression within the generic conventions of the porno movie itself.  In its exploration of role of the mysterious animus figure in this process of visualization and expression, Black Orchid is effectively the first self-reflexively mythographic porno movie, its studied MTV-like dreaminess adding to its status as myth.  Indeed, a process of sexual mythification is what Ninn foresees as the genre’s future and his subsequent works would become increasingly psycho-religious.


Set-piece and Number in Transgressive Sexually Explicit Discourse

The anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves the original aspect ratio of one of the rare porno movies actually shot on film.  The credits offer a montage of scenes, as is by now a standard trope for many adult films. 

Ninn favors darker tones and lurid colored filters, utilizing slow-motion and symmetrical compositions to startling effect.  Production and set design is always slick and convincingly varied, centred on interiors: it distinguishes between fantasy tableaux and more participatory fantasies and encourages the breaking of the spatial barriers between them.  All of the performers are at ease, and the use of male and female reaction shots underscores the unfolding power-play in gender fantasies – hence the symbolic use of the she-male in one such transgressive number.  Penetrations are almost mystical events and with slow dissolves and an emphasis on female faces in pleasure, the film maintains a languid eroticism, aided in that sense tremendously by the beautiful score by Dino Ninn.  At times, the film resembles the glossiness of MTV music video imagery as opposed to hardcore rawness.  The blurring of the real and the imagination is well achieved and sustained, with the object of desire attainable in the blur being the process of both liberation and addictive enslavement to such desires.  There is a mixture of condom and non-condom scenes and the film adores the female form in motion and reactive motion.


Trance, Passion & Yearning

In a film which is replete with layers of looking, down to the use of TV screens within the frame, much of the trance-like effect is sustained through the score. 

The Dolby Digital sound transfer makes good use out of its stereo soundscape to develop this score to the fullest.  The score itself resembles European trance-rock (as made popular by the band Enigma) and also captures a range of emotions from the broodingly melancholic to the sexually yearning and passionate.  Hypnotic moans, the traditional diegetic indicators of pleasure in the porn movie, are edited into the mix.  In this way, the sound design also bridges the imaginative and the real in its flowing combination of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds.  Much is made of Zee’s voice-over as the controlling factor – the anima of the sexual imagination here allowed free expression and reflection: the object and controller of passion.  Dialogue is always stylized and often psychologically telling, competently delivered by this cast, although the film’s more philosophical underpinnings are reserved for Zee’s voice-over, indicating hers as the film’s dominant perspective and even its audience filter.  Dominant instruments in the score, most notably the saxophone, at times relay added texture to scenes to often stunning effect.  In all, this is an admirable DVD transfer of a film very much about the synthesis of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, although the score does slow for the dialogue scenes.






UPDATED: July 28, 2011 8:50 PM