Judge Daryl Loomis is taking appointments at his new clinic...just don't ask about his license.
Can I look into your eyes?
Sometime during the 1970s, when the sexual revolution was peaking, people of all stripes started feeling increasingly more comfortable talking about sex in general and their practices in particular. With this feeling of openness, however, a whole host of sexual dysfunctions also rose to the surface. Over the years, many of these issues have been dealt with through drugs and implements, but these only address the sexual act itself, not changing the way the individual feels about personal contact and love, which lead us naturally to arousal. For help with this, nothing beats good ol' therapy. When just talking about one's problems isn't enough, there is one more step: the sex surrogate. These exceptionally giving people have gone into a profession that helps people, in hands-on fashion, to bridge the gap between talking about their problems and acting on their feelings. Learning to look at somebody, to smile, to touch, and yes, to have sex that both is pleasurable and gives pleasure takes a certain amount of practice; practice that, because of comfort levels or psychological damage or whatever, just doesn't seem available to some people.
These people are the reason for the sex surrogate and, in 1983, while the practice was still young, though not in its infancy, filmmaker Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) contacted one such practitioner, Maureen Sullivan, a big name in sex surrogacy. Sullivan, with two of her new clients, agreed to have their sessions recorded, not to make some kind of psychotherapy porn, but to show the process of learning to love, inward and outward. With this in mind, Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate hits its mark absolutely, taking us through the beauty, pain, and sheer discomfort of people trying to work through those most private desires.
First, we meet Kipper, a virgin in his mid-twenties. He's a nice, bright, decent-looking guy who keeps himself in shape and goes to school. There's no outward reason why he shouldn't be able to find a date, except he is simply too shy to ask anybody out. Sullivan's job, however, is not to find out why he's like this; Kipper's therapist deals with this. Sullivan works on experience, helping him to understand and love his own body so that, in turn, he can understand and love others.
John, on the other hand, is 45 and is recently divorced. Though his sexual experience is relatively limited, he is in a much different situation than Kipper. The realization that his wife spent 20 years with him sexually unsatisfied shakes him to the core. This leads to self-doubt and self-deprecation until, ultimately, John has beaten himself up so much that he has no desire to get involved in a sexual relationship ever again.
In the middle sits Maureen Sullivan, whose work is marvelous. Over the length of the sessions, both clients display exceptional growth. By the end, they are more confident and appear genuinely happier. But what compels Sullivan to do this work? By her own admission, she is bad when she's in love and can't maintain a successful long term relationship of her own. We watch as she deals with her own therapist and, in the most uncomfortable scene in a film full of uncomfortable scenes, with her father, who spent Maureen's childhood beating on her mother. She gets results with her clients, true, but she is doing this as much for herself as for them. There is no aftermath; we cannot see how she progresses, but her conviction in what she does make me feel that this indeed does help.
Often, the sexual and emotional frankness of Private Practices makes it a hard film to watch. There is no explicit sex, but it may have been easier with it. Instead of simply giving us two people rutting, we see all the touching, all the talking, and all the intimacy that goes along with this kind of human contact—things that many people struggle with on a daily basis. This is much more personal than just hopping into the sack could ever be.
There have been many who claim that those involved in sex surrogacy are little more than whores. Let's be clear: Maureen Sullivan is not a prostitute. She doesn't turn tricks any more than a pharmacist filling prescriptions slings morphine to junkies. Most important, Sullivan's profession is about the whole of sexuality, not just the intercourse that, often, comes toward the end of a client's time with her, if at all. Kirby Dick makes these facts abundantly clear in his sensitive and personal film. No matter one's individual sexual experiences, Private Practices contains nuggets of truth for anyone. It sets a mirror up for the viewers to see their own inadequacies, and how they don't differ much from the individuals' onscreen, and their own beauty, the uniqueness of which should be embraced and celebrated.
Zeitgeist's release of Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate has some problems in both video and audio, but all of this comes from the source material. The picture is washed out and occasionally blurry. I wouldn't care so much, but the lack of clarity detracts from those awesome 1983 fashions. The mono sound is consistent but often tinny and lacking any dynamic whatsoever. Aside from a new interview with Sullivan in the case booklet, our only extra is a commentary with Dick and the producer of his current project. Dick is excellent at clarifying things and giving further back story on some of what he saw behind the scenes. His buddy's pretty irritating, though. He can't seem to get it out of his head that Sullivan is a prostitute and is generally giggly about the film, which is entirely out of place for a film as intimate as this.
Dick has made a career out of letting people tell their own stories, no matter how bizarre (see Sick). His knack for this kind of exploration is in full gear in this early documentary and, as both a study of an often maligned profession and a look at people baring the depths of their souls, Private Practices is an absolute success.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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