Film: Pornography of Power

Still from Pinochet Porn.


ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1970, PepsiCo president Donald Kendall made two urgent phone calls to the company’s former lawyer, President Richard Nixon. Kendall was alarmed about the results of the recent presidential elections in Chile, where Salvador Allende had become the first unabashed Marxist to be democratically elected in a Latin American country. Much was at stake for American corporations, which since the Kennedy administration had maintained a presence and fostered influence in Chile by investing in about 85 percent of the country’s industries. A few days later, with Kendall’s help, national security adviser Henry Kissinger met with Agustín Edwards, the owner of PepsiCo’s Chilean bottling operation and publisher of Chile’s leading newspaper, El Mercurio, which did everything it could to undermine the new president. 1

Media manipulation was part of the CIA’s plan to instigate a coup. While the junta led by General Augusto Pinochet decided on its own to rebel, it did so with the tacit approval of the United States. 2 The missiles used to bomb La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, on September 11, 1973, were allegedly secured by the US Defense Intelligence Agency. 3

Using a rifle given to him by Fidel Castro, Allende committed suicide that day in La Moneda, right after delivering a final radio address. Dramatic footage of the palace’s stone facade crumbling amid smoke and flame appears early in Ellen Cantor’s film Pinochet Porn, providing the sociopolitical backdrop for the work. Filmed in Super 8mm, Pinochet Porn is undoubtedly the defining achievement of Cantor’s career. A fixture on the Lower East Side scene, Cantor (1961–2013) is just now receiving wider attention for her diaristic drawings and videos that appropriate cinematic sources—from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carrie to The Sound of Music and Disney cartoons. By splicing, montaging, and superimposing this found footage in her videos, she combined genres in ways both intensely personal and more broadly critical of the topology of “types” put forward by popular culture: the nuclear family, hysterical females, and other personifications of gender and class conventions. 

All of this came to a head with Pinochet Porn, a labor of love Cantor worked on consistently for eight years until her death from lung cancer in 2013, at the age of fifty-one. While Cantor had already edited most of the film—along with her coeditors, artists John Brattin and Jay Kinney—the process had to be completed posthumously according to her directives. Finally finished over the summer, Pinochet Porn premieres at the Museum of Modern Art on October 31, the culmination of an extensive multi-venue retrospective of Cantor’s work that opened at 80WSE Gallery, Foxy Productions, and Participant Inc last month.

Pinochet Porn originated as a series of eighty-two drawings called Circus Lives from Hell (2004), which use
thin pencil lines and collage to portray the fantastical, intertwined lives of five children growing up under the Pinochet regime or indirectly affected by it: Manuelo, Paloma, Jaimi, Guillermo, and Cantor herself. Their stories are loosely based on the biographies of real friends and acquaintances of the artist. The drawings were first shown, in 2008, at New York nonprofit Participant Inc, where Cantor and Participant director Lia Gangitano decided to project animated versions of some of them onto the gallery wall. 

One of these drawings opens each of the five chapters of Pinochet Porn. The chapters are loosely connected over the film’s two-hour run time, and portray the characters falling in and out of love, doing drugs, partying, traveling, getting married, and otherwise living their lives. Fiction and history are liberally conflated by means of found footage interspersed throughout. The film was shot in fits and starts around New York City (with one sequence filmed in Cantor’s London flat), with the help of a close-knit group of collaborators, including Gangitano—who plays Pinochet’s (fictional) twin daughters, Paloma and Pipa—and a rotating cast of artists and art workers from the Lower East Side. 

Cantor called the film a “soap opera,” though that hardly does it justice. It doesn’t just detail the characters’ lives and preoccupations. It offers a psychoanalytic reading of sexuality and desire that gets to the heart of how interpersonal power is leveraged institutionally—by sovereign nations, the market, the media. If anything, Pinochet Porn foregrounds the everyday fascism of our relationships to others, and the fact that love—that aspirational, cinematic ideal—is such a tempestuous, hard-to-pin-down thing.

The beginning of the film is devoted to Manuelo. After being abandoned by his mother and father (as Cantor notes in the voiceover), Manuelo starts wearing a clown costume and eating nothing but M&Ms. The film jumps ahead in time to show Manuelo, played by actor and filmmaker Patrick Blumer, as a young man now enlightened by Osho, the Indian “sex guru” (played, in the buff, by artist Cerith Wyn Evans). In a long, lively simulated orgy set in a rollicking ashram, a coterie of emancipated types dote on the good-looking Manuelo, now largely unclothed.[pq]Pinochet Porn foregrounds the everyday fascism of our relationships to others.[/pq]They dance and loll around, feeding each other grapes and doing other ridiculously stereotypical “free love” things. Shot dazzlingly by Chris Hughes, Derek Jarman’s director of photography, the scene offers rich coloring, vibrant textures, tasteful nudity, and frequent improvisation among gender-bending subjects, and resembles a cross between Jarman’s Super 8 works and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963). 

The one scene with actual sex in it is about Pinochet subjugating his maid. While it explores the dark, violent, and disruptive potential of sexual desire, its kitschy, tongue-in-cheek staging offers some hilarious comical reprieve. The scene begins in black-and-white, dubbed with the speech that Pinochet delivered on the day of the coup. Jim Fletcher, a professional actor who works mostly in experimental downtown theater, plays Pinochet in an official-looking military getup with shiny star-shaped medals. Cantor rented the costume, customizing it to resemble certain South American military uniforms (modeled in turn after those of Nazi officers). The role of the maid is played by Cantor in a kinky servant’s outfit, complete with a sheer thong that she lets slip to her knees. 

The pairing of Cantor and Fletcher was something of an accident. Most of the artists involved were squeamish about having sex on camera. Cantor found Fletcher at the last minute. He was willing to do things “real or fake.” Cantor asked him to recruit a woman to play opposite him as the maid, but he couldn’t, so she did it herself. 

In the scene, Pinochet fingers the maid, then inserts a wooden spoon into her vagina, tasting her as if she were a bowl of soup.[pq]Cantor reminds us that pornography is about power—the fantasy of having power and using it to subjugate.[/pq]He calls her a slut, and intones breathily: “I will teach you how to be subordinate.” Servicing him, either bent over or on her knees, the maid continues to dust as if her life depended on it, though calling her actions dusting is generous. The feather duster barely moves, shoved in the corner of the counter while she’s slumped over getting spanked, her arm outstretched awkwardly. Continuing to “clean” against all odds, she steals the scene. The comical exaggeration of stereotypical gender roles—the woman who cleans, the man who fucks her for his own pleasure while not at war—tidily illustrates the unequal power dynamics between men and women, governments and citizens, capital and consumer. By folding it all into one scene, Cantor foregrounds the intrinsic interconnections among these relationships. She reminds us that pornography is about power—the fantasy of having power and using it to subjugate. 


DURING PINOCHET’S seventeen-year dictatorship, at least 2,279 leftists and other dissidents were killed, and about 28,000 were tortured. 4 This occurred with the blessing and funding of corporations—an acute grievance for Cantor. Pepsi figures prominently in Pinochet Porn, most notably in another powerful scene, in which a first-person voiceover recounts the experiences of Luz de las Nieves Ayress, who worked underground to resist Pinochet while a graduate student in Santiago. She was arrested and tortured repeatedly over the course of four years, first at the National Soccer Stadium, which had been turned into a holding pen with torture chambers, then later at detention camps, where she was the guinea pig for experiments in gauging just how far torture could go shy of murder. 5 The nauseating testimony is read aloud in full, and Cantor juxtaposes it with a montage of Pepsi lifestyle ads. Young, attractive white couples enjoy leisurely sports: jet skiing over azure waters, biking in the desert, swimming in a pool. A young man’s athletic frame is silhouetted as he swings from a rope over a lake in slow motion. All these scenes are intercut with refreshing pauses for Pepsi, its logo cradled in ice. There’s something redolent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) in these commercials’ blatant fetishism of athletic bodies and sport. We might be conditioned to think this propaganda isn’t fascist, but Cantor persuades us that it is. While appropriation artists have critiqued corporate culture and advertising incisively since the 1980s, it’s hard to think of an indictment more pointed and damning than Cantor’s. 

Pinochet Porn finds fascism in all areas of personal life. Cantor was raised in Detroit, and the city makes a long, bittersweet cameo in the second chapter of the film. In a voiceover, Cantor talks about playing with childhood friends and encountering anti-Semitism (Cantor was Jewish and her family’s rabbi was murdered in his own synagogue). 6 The city’s notorious institutionalized racism is portrayed through news footage of armored tanks rolling through the city’s streets on July 24, 1967, during one of the worst race riots in American history. Fifteen hundred National Guardsman were called in to control widespread looting and fires that destroyed nearly seven hundred buildings citywide and accelerated white flight to the suburbs. 7 These tensions were simmering while Cantor was growing up; the blissful obliviousness of a small-town-style parade seen in this sequence feels ominous. So does the absurd footage of the Pontiac Unicycle Club, its men riding down a street on exaggeratedly heightened seatposts. Cantor herself joined a unicycle club, and the inclusion of the latter clip is a bit of goofy autobiographical recollection.

Heartfelt and vulnerable, Pinochet Porn is as much about Cantor as it is about the institutionalized inequities that involve and affect everyone. In the film’s last chapter, Cantor cries in her apartment at the news of a former flame’s engagement, then kisses and makes love to Guillermo, “a magic boy [who] came from a land far away. He had the power to transform the world around him,” as she notes in voiceover. A musician, he was able to play rock-and-roll music in Chile despite Pinochet’s ban on the genre (interestingly, only pop songs and disco were sanctioned by the dictator). As we see blurry shots of sexual trysts with close-ups of flowers encircled by pollinating bees, Cantor repeats the matter-of-fact admission that “we made love for fourteen days and fourteen nights, it was amazing,” as if it were a mantra. Maybe it was, and maybe it should be, as a small means to resist untold horrors—the Pinochet regime, race riots, the September 11 attacks on New York (which makes a brief appearance in the film), and so on—that seem to appear and recur with the inevitability of clockwork. Where else would one want to escape to but the throes of love?



“Ellen Cantor: Are You Ready for Love?,” at 80WSE Gallery, New York, through Nov. 12, 2016; “Ellen Cantor,” at Foxy Production, New York, through Oct. 23, 2016; “Ellen Cantor, Lovely Girl’s Emotions,” at Participant Inc, New York, through Oct. 30, 2016.


David Everitt Howe is a New York–based critic and curator and an editor at BOMB magazine.