Review: 'Orgasm Inc.' Leads The Fight Against The Myth Of Female Sexual Dysfunction With Maturity

by Christopher Bell
February 10, 2011 4:11 AM
1 Comment
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Documentary filmmakers got a bone to pick nowadays, probably more than they ever have. Is it the lack of rough and tough journalists digging deep to reveal horrid truths involving corporations, government, and society? Or is it the ease that the digital age has brought us, allowing modern, pissed off man to obtain a half-decent camera sly enough to capture anything without seeming too suspicious? There's also the growing crop of outlets catered to the style (festivals, indie theater programs, internet streaming, etc.) plus the appealing excuse to document absolutely everything. Throw all these into a mixing bowl (along with a dash of ego for the director-as-a-host docs) and you've got your answer. Unfortunately even the best enlightening/exposé docs fail to hit the mainstream hard ("Food Inc." comes to mind), instead only pampering the holier-than-thou twits who can already recite all of the bullet-point facts included in the films. So what's the point? Hard to say, but frankly it's a bit defeating to make a rally-up flick and have it just give the faux-activists a topic to post on their Facebook walls for a fortnight. Thankfully there's more than a handful that do a little bit more, turning accepted opinion ass-up and starting a conversation everyone needs partake in. Elizabeth Canner's debut feature does just that - "Orgasm Inc." delves into the "disease" Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD), aiming the camera at the people (and pharmaceutical companies) making top dollar telling women they're abnormal.

Vivus, a company intent on developing a female version of Viagra, hired Canner to edit together a slew of erotic videos for patients testing their new drug. At first the director saw this as something humorous and possibly fun, but eventually she found herself surrounded by things that didn't add up. Aside from the awkwardly named business, she began to uncover various other methods meant to treat FSD, from the dangerous (vaginal surgery) to the "Star Trek" silly (a wire connected to the spine called the Orgasmatron), all costly and all very dangerous. What's even more troubling is how ineffective they are, with Vivus's test-run results displaying no difference between their drug and a placebo and the Orgasmatron working much less than the guaranteed 9/10 figure promised in the commercials. Of course, that doesn't stop them or anyone else from trying, marketing, and having others wave FSD around like a flag (The Berman sisters, now with their own show and clinic, were paid $75k to promote the disease-tag and also endorsed by Oprah). Hell, there's money to be made here and they're gonna make it.


But what would this exposé be without the fire-starters, without the antagonists of popular opinion? Many doctors appear in the film (some solo interview style, some crashing FDA hearings), debunking FSD and criticizing the industry's uncanny ability to take advantage of human beings for profit. Women interested in the quick-fix aren't completely innocent, and the MDs have plenty to say about what could possibly cause a person to lose sexual interest, things that have little to do with any sort of ailment. The filmmaker goes in close to one woman, who claims that her 50 hour work week and added housework/child care left her exhausted and irritable, and most importantly against intimacy of any kind. Canner is careful to avoid pinpointing an end-all-be-all reasoning for a woman's lack of sexual desire, instead she allows each interviewee to speak candidly and openly, suggesting inward honesty as opposed to drugging up.

Breaking away from the arguments, there's a short amount of time spent on modern sex-ed and a very interesting vibrator museum. The latter is eye-opening (old adverts encourage men to give their wives a vibrator to cure their manic behavior) while the former is sorely undeveloped- the director sits in on a class of girls discussing their horrific accounts of school-taught sex, but she never takes it a step further. Surely this is a big-time culprit as well, and many could argue that the elder Miss Biggley cutely dissuading them from sex is a cheap trick, only leaving them in the dark about their sexual organs and desires. Teen pregnancy numbers will tell you that it surely doesn't work, so why not give it to 'em straight with a more down-to-earth approach? This is quite a can of worms here, ripe for its own documentary (much like the rest of America's education system), but it could've offered an extra, sensible insight to the problem at hand.

Lamentably, Canner falls victim to what many pop-docs do, engaging with cutesy animated sequences and overloading with too-appropriate musical accompaniment. Here the CGI-cartoon is placed like a chapter header, detailing a race among the prospective prescription meds, fit with legs, running shoes, and an eye on the prize. Still, it feels too perky: though it was intended to charm and keep things lively, it feels (like they all do) forced, not to mention condescending - these Playstation FMVs aren't needed to hold our attention, your strike at companies taking advantage of women is doing just fine. The music isn't the biggest offender, but it seriously ruins one the picture's most heartfelt moments. On the operating table to receive the Orgasmatron, an older woman bemoans her lack of sexual desire so much that she would risk possible paralysis to have this handy device installed. She looks into the camera with the utmost honesty, saying "I'm in this to feel normal, I'm diseased…" which is tastelessly spoken over a piano tune that would even make Coldplay blush. What should be a piercing statement is instead hammed up, feeling more like a segment from a morning network show than an investigative documentary.

Some interesting tricks are brought to the table, specifically her use of television clips, which are shot as they're played back on a television set in a given room, be it bedroom or otherwise. Using TV clips isn't some new-age technique, in fact, now they almost seem a bit stale, stripped from their environment and only amounting to boring informational evidence. The way Canner employs them gives it a sense of life, portraying them the way they're actually seen by all - smart move given the subject of commercials telling people they're ill for a quick buck. It adds a sense of infiltration, these brief blips invading our homes to bully people into buying medication for problems that can be solved otherwise. Instead of serving as evidence to the point, it connects with the viewer, and there's something very personal about it.

Right when things seem to be coming to a close (Vivus closing contact and back to the drawing board + other outlets failing), Procter & Gamble show up, money already spent on marketing, sporting the first working drug (a patch) against FSD. Troops are rallied for the day of the FDA hearing, restoring a little hope in humanity, it's not just the anti-disease people who aren't impressed, the jury ain't either. Not really another win for the good guys, as a loss just leads to a new strategy, and that downtime only leads to another villain stepping up to the plate. Even though there's a triumphant, positive feeling while Canner shoots the fight and lays down the epilogue, she doesn't fall into an overly confident finale. This acknowledgment - that the third largest industry in the world is pretty much always going to find a way to make a penny off of people's health - doesn't seem overly pessimistic, negative, or cheesy, but a lot more realistic than most of these societal agenda driven docs tend to be. There's a welcome maturity in that, one that even the most seasoned doc vets should take note of. "Orgasm Inc." speaks up on something that too many accept as a closed case, and though it's not a perfect work, it barks and bites just like the best of them. [B]

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1 Comment

  • Michael | February 10, 2011 8:45 AMReply

    Another thoughtful, interesting review on a film that sounds equally thoughtful and interesting. As I've said before, I really do love that you guys pay attention to these films that might slip between the cracks with Cedar Rapids and The Eagle opening. It's a big part of why I have this Blog favorited. Added to Queue, excited to see it.

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