Go into the most private sessions imaginable, within a deeply taboo world: sexual surrogacy.
Dir. Kirby Dick, 1986, 75 min
After a two week break for the attending of and recuperation from a film festival, the Docs of the Day are back! And I’ve returned to this regular feature with a very special film indeed: the debut feature from Kirby Dick. It’s fascinating how this film shows that, even from the very beginning, Dick was willing to go where very few other filmmakers dared to venture.
Private Practices follows Maureen Sullivan, a sexual surrogate. Sex surrogates are combination therapists/psychiatrists/psychologists/counselors who help people overcome their sexual problems through close sessions. Such work often entails extremely personal physical contact. It’s controversial work; some call it another form of prostitution. It was likely even more contentious when this film was made, just as the AIDS crisis set in. Sullivan references having to change her methods to adapt to this new threat, and making more rigorous use of protection in her methods. We generally don’t talk about sex in America, and things like AIDS are generally the result. Who knows how many people could do with a visit to a surrogate.
The doc focuses on Maureen’s interactions with two clients. Kipper is a twenty-five-year-old extra virgin, a man who’s had very little contact with women, sexual or platonic. John is a middle-aged man who has suffered feelings of inadequacy since his divorce. In their sessions, Sullivan runs through a series of exercises designed to gradually escalate in nearness. It begins with touching and talking about what they do and don’t like about their bodies, and culminates in stilted, practiced, but genuine intercourse.
This is one of the most intimate documentaries, hell, intimate movies period, that I’ve ever seen. The emotions on display are so private, embarrassing, and raw that more than once I felt more like an intruder than a viewer. Dick never makes you feel like a voyeur, though. His eye is non-judgmental and non-invasive. Despite the copious nudity and sexual content, Dick stays a respectful distance away, often using just one camera that moves very little. But the sheer vulnerability on display means that even that removal feels too close. And when the camera turns from silent observer to confessional, it gets even more harrowing. Sullivan lays bare her soul as well as her body, talking about how her work makes her feel, and how it’s changed how she feels.
This is a story about damage. Kipper is a closed-off soul. He’s trapped behind the walls he’s built up to shield his exposed sensitivity. John is still reeling from a deep cut in his life, and wondering about his worth as a companion as a result. And Maureen herself still nurses wounds from an troubled childhood. The hardest-to-watch scene in the movie doesn’t depict masturbation practice; it’s when Maureen and her brother confront their abusive father, who still refuses to grant her any kind of emotional validation. He can’t and won’t try to understand what she does.
I suspect many people might reflexively agree with him. Ours is a culture where we bury all our problems, and there’s still a stigma around just seeking psychological counseling. So combine that hang-up with our skittishness about sexuality, and the standard reaction to the idea of sexual surrogacy is revulsion. But this stuff works. We watch Kipper and John both go through positive transformations. They aren’t completely “fixed” by the end, but they’ve taken great steps towards healthier sexuality.
Private Practices isn’t an easy movie to watch, but Kirby Dick never makes anything easy for you. He wants to barge rudely through all our pretenses around sensitive topics. In many ways, he’s quite similar to Maureen: he strips bare (figuratively, rather than literally) the viewer to plainly confront how they’ve been conditioned to think about things. The doc is quite low-quality in production (there’s a recurring hum in the sound that drove me to distraction more than once), but its intellectual prowess more than makes up for it. Nearly thirty years later, Dick continues to be frank and fearless in his work, and it all started with this gem. It’s one of the best first films that no one talks about.