Kamikaze Hearts in The Cleo Club

Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado)’s place of employ in Times Square, the Cleo Club, certainly has its sartorial splendour. As Magazine Machine writes, “Why can’t all strip clubs be like this one instead of a cheesy lucite heeled den of broken dreams? Boohoo.”

Pammy escaping from the Cleo Club

The Cleo Club is described on a photo slip in the Times Square press kit as a “sleazy nitery.” The publicists are being too kind; the club is a nefarious dive. First of all, despite its elegant ambiance, it is a strip joint in the pre-gentrified New York City. Secondly, its manager is Roberto. (Roberto is played by the late, great Miguel Piñero, actor, poet — he co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe — and playwright. Piñero’s play Short Eyes, which is prison slang for child molestor, was written while he was in Sing Sing Prison, and won an Obie and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright.) “Roberto” was last seen here, as Go-Go –> (Piñero in the film version of Short Eyes, for which he also wrote the screenplay. The film was directed in 1977 by Robert M. Young; two years later, Young would direct Trini Alvarado in Rich Kids.)

Finally, and most frighteningly, it is a place where poetry is written and recited openly:

The humanity! This is certainly no place for impressionable minors.

Well, maybe if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Hang on…

OK, I’m going to give up.
And watching Nicky (Robin Johnson) performing “Damn Dog” — apart from the other minors pictured above — is this woman…
Sharon Mitchell’s cameo in this scene is a fascinating one. Mitchell, best known for her performances in numerous pornographic films, is, according to LA Weekly “[k]nown among skin-flick fans for her wiry frame and New York City streetwise sexuality.” As Robin Johnson’s presence in Times Square represented for Allan Moyle a “downtown” vibe — which I take to mean edgy, unconventional, and just plain cool — Mitchell fulfilled a similar role in the world of cinematic porn. It’s as if she is there to testify to a fellow traveller. Mitchell also conjures the truly X-rated Times Square that could not be shown in such a film. Possibly, she is there to perve at Nicky / Robin in a raw and somewhat disconcerting manner (and as this is a brief cameo, to escape the eyes of the producers / censors). I’ve certainly seen that expression elsewhere in Mitchell’s filmic oeuvre

Although I have not seen all of Sharon Mitchell’s films, I feel confident in stating I have seen her best. Kamikaze Hearts, (dir. Juliet Bashore, 1986), described as “[u]ncompromisingly underground and fashionably feminist,” won Best Film at the Torino International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1990. In the article “Kamikaze Hearts of Gutter Punk Lesbians,” Robin Bougie writes “It’s a documentary, but […the…] film is

Tina Mennett and Sharon Mitchell in "Kamikaze Hearts" (1986)

harder to peg than simply that. This one-of-a-kind 16mm porn industry time capsule shifts nearly unnoticed between the real and unreal, as Mitchell and company become actors portraying themselves in reenactments of scenes leading up to and following the footage a

My favourite picture of Sharon Mitchell

documentary camera crew captured while behind the scenes of a cum-coated mid 80’s porn film.” Mitchell invokes this intersection and arbitrary boundary between narrative fiction and non-fiction when she tells the audience at a live show (in a venue not unlike the Cleo Club) that she has given the film the working title of “Truth or Fiction”; she says it is “a surrealistic look, I guess, at myself and my girlfriend and the way we look at the X-rated film business and our relationship with each other, and it’s very nice… I don’t know whether I’m more truth or more fiction.”

Sharon Mitchell and Tigr met while acting in "Sulka's Wedding" (1984)


For her part, Tigr (Tina Mennett) explicates her attraction to Mitchell, describing their meeting while filming a sex scene in Sulka’s Wedding (dir. Michael Striker, 1984): “She comes in: leather jacket, New York, bit of a punk. I immediately flashed to… too cool, what is a woman like this doing in a business like this? . . . I became different. I changed. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be streetwise. I wanted to know how to use a needle… Goddamn irresponsible, gorgeous, sleazy porno slut. And she has it. And I mean, she’s this woman from New York City, who’s Italian, and she’s hot, and she speaks street language, no can can fuck with her, right? And there was some sort of power that she had that a porno person doesn’t have.” In this way, the film is a fascinating exploration of (what is more overt in same-sex) desire, in which the desire to be like and the desire to have can become conflated. We see a similar movement in Times Square where Pammy’s desire to have the attributes of the powerful, streetwise Nicky are as strong as her desire for Nicky. It is not as obvious, but I would suggest that Nicky’s desire for Pammy is imbricated in her desire to be like her.
"Sulka's Wedding" scene as shown in "Kamikaze Hearts"

In his review of Kamikaze Hearts, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, “Alternately distressing, instructive, contestable, and fascinating. . . . Rarely has the alienation implicit in the porn business been so tellingly exposed, but in the process of exposing the film raises a few questions about its own tactics and complicity. And it isn’t only porn that gets deconstructed; the central relationship between Mitch and Tigr seems to have been figuratively and literally taken apart.”

Sharon Mitchell in "Sulka's Wedding" (from "Kamikaze Hearts")

Kamikaze Hearts works as a meditation on what it means to be “in love” with someone, at one point Tigr stating that their relationship was only ever a “porn relationship,” one of convenience to deter sleazebags and thereby offer protection in the porn world, at another asking a character: “You think I love her? Does she think I love her? I don’t know if I love her. I mean, I love this part of her, but it’s possible that we never actually were lovers. . . . Of course I love her. Of course I love her.”

Tigr in "Sulka's Wedding" (from "Kamikaze Hearts")

TimeOut‘s review of Kamikaze Hearts states, “The peg the film hangs on is the relationship between lithe, gorgeous porn star Sharon Mitchell and doggedly devoted Tigr, her lover and director; the viewer’s sympathy switches nervously back and forth between the two women. Mitch is a shameless camera-hog, rabbiting on about joy and fulfilment through porn; Tigr is superficially less flaky, but collapses dramatically in the harrowing last scene. There are moments of humour, and the glimpses of the porn movie set enthral; but the film belongs to the frighteningly blank Mitch, who has clearly been turned inside out and torn in the process. A tough cookie who’s also a figure of supreme availability, she embodies the contradictions explored in the film.” The concluding scene referred to by TimeOut is indeed devastating; I find the film endlessly fascinating, but every time I reach that scene, am again undone. It is similar in tone to the scenes in Times Square after Nicky finds Pammy with Johnny LaGuardia at the pier; she literally takes apart their home, destroying what is left of their life together, and after throwing herself in the river, enters the radio station… to come apart.

As with my post on Freeway II, I am not trying to draw a comparison that would do a disservice to both films, but instead to suggest that like Times Square, Kamikaze Hearts raises interesting questions about desire, power and identity. And with this brief cameo in the Cleo Club, Mitch and Tigr are connected to Nicky and Pammy, two of the great lesbian couples of the cinema.

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About DefeatedandGifted

If you have any comments, anecdotes or images regarding Times Square fandom, please email me at defgif@gmail.com
This entry was posted in Allan Moyle, Cultural Geography, Cultural Studies, Fandom, film theory / review, Lesbian Representation, Nicole "Nicky" Marotta, Pamela "Pammy" Pearl, Popular Culture, Queer Spectatorship, Robin Johnson, Times Square (1980) movie, Times Square (location), Trini Alvarado. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Kamikaze Hearts in The Cleo Club

  1. Deb Mac says:

    Well, you’ve certainly piqued my curiosity… ;-p

    • It’s a fascinating film. I love documentaries, especially those that self-consciously blend fictive elements. It can be difficult viewing, but absolutely one of my favourite films.

  2. Joseph Wegesa says:

    I have to look for that movie. I like Sharon Mitchel and what she has done for the adult industry by making sure the actors are protected and safe from STDs. One of Sharon’s best movies is probably her first – Joy about a young girl who is raped then turns the tables around and starts raping all kinds of men around town. Sharon looked very girlish in that one. I met her once in the early 90’s and she said she was working on a biography but was looking for a writer to help her out. I think she may have given up on that idea which is a shame as she may have interesting tales. I love that long neck of hers.
    Yeah, she looked like she was lusting after Nicky in that scene!

    • I’m sure Sharon Mitchell would have some fascinating stories to tell, and I’m also sure some people hope that book remains unwritten! Mitchell is certainly a fascinating figure, as is Tina Mennett (Tigr). Kamikaze Hearts is an amazing film, easily the best “behind-the-scenes” film on the porn industry that I have seen, despite — or perhaps because of — its recreated scenes. I definitely recommend it!

  3. Terrence Kell says:

    I’m 90% sure that the Cleo Club is one location of a ’77 porn film called Punk Rock which was re-packaged in the ’80s as Teenage Runaways. The scene in question features an early punk band called the Stilletoes(?) playing on stage while the audience openly engage in sexual activity.

    • Dear God in Heaven! I’ve often considered watching that film — and so ahead of “mainstream” (ie non-pornographic) film in the timing — but have never got around to it. And now, I must!
      Thanks so much for the heads up, Terrence. It would just be too perfect if the Cleo Club had appeared in Punk Rock!
      Also, how wonderful would it be to wander into a club like that today?

      • Terrence Kell says:

        I’ve just watched Desperately Seeking Susan for the first time since the ’80s and to my surprise that same club is featured in that movie also as ­The Magic Club, although the exterior shot of the club doesn’t match with Times Square. The lay-out of the bar looks similar as do some of the decorations. Most of that movie appears to reference some other movie from the ’80s, so I’m not suprised that this location was used. I’m surprised that Robin Johnson wasn’t used, even as a walk-on like in After Hours.

        In Montreal, where I live, there’s a Cleopatra(the original sign from the ’70s claims it’s a Unisex Disco!) close to the corner of St-Laurent boulevard and Ste Catherine St. This block used to be a fabled red light district and where some films like Montreal Main and Rabid( the porno theatre featured is right across the street from the Cleopatra and the scene scene feature

      • OK, I will definitely need to check out Desperately Seeking Susan again to see the club! Also, because I love hearing Madonna say, “Sure I do, Gar'” when she is stoned! I agree, a Robin Johnson cameo would have been lovely. Thank you for the response, Terrence.

      • Terrence Kell says:

        I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that there never was a CLEO CLUB but that this was maybe inspired by the CLEOPATRA in Montreal. Allan Moyle lived in Montreal in the ’70s and if you check google images for the Cleopatra, you get a sense of deja-vu, if you’ve seen Times Square. If you’ve seen PUNK ROCK, the same club in that movie has a sign on the interior which reads WICHITA EXPRESS. Porno movies from the ’70s weren’t known to spend movie on set dressing, so this may have been the name of the club used for the interiorsof the CLEO CLUB in TIMES SQUARE. But this is a theory…

  4. Terrence Kell says:

    Sorry about the interupted post. The scene features Marilyn Chambers. Sadly this block has largely been destroyed to make room for more commercial, safe activities for paying tourists.

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