Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya
Screened in September 2010 / Reviewed in October 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Directors: Jonathan Schell & Eric Liebman. Documentary about the romantic crisis of a Tantric sexual healer and the many women with whom he works. Interview subjects include Baba Dez, Maya Yonika, Kamala Devi, and Jaiya.
Twitter Capsule: Second half opens but shuts unsettling subplots; all along, though, a detailed, funny, unpredictable portrait of sex guru

Photo © 2010 Holding Space Productions
Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya is a good documentary about sex, but I liked it at least as much as a documentary about language, and even more than that as a rounded characterization of a figure both maddening and disarming, the tantric sex guru Baba Dez, who runs a sexual healing center in Sedona, Arizona, that the Christopher Guest troupe either has to drop in on (as observers, observers!) or would feel totally stymied by, because the movie they would make has in some ways been made without them. Baba Dez has had sex with between 1,000 and 2,000 women; the movie is never fully clear, and at one moment actively coy, about whether Dez ever has erotic experiences with other men. His way of being solicitous and compassionate in a frank, embodied way with the women who visit the clinic has a habit of culminating in Dez penetrating and getting off. But this is not an open-and-shut case of phallic exploitation that refuses to acknowledge itself as such or of erotic tenderness as therapeutic pedagogy. It's not even always true that he's out to climax. One of the moving scenes in the film concerns an overweight woman named Lynn who visits Dez for help in recapturing a sense of intimacy. She wants to recuperate her large body as something other than a fortress, a means of warding away bad memories and unwanted approaches. What we see of this encounter seems tenderly empathetic, and less "sexual" in a narrow sense than a lot else that transpires around the complex. Yes, you can lob the charge that one of the few women Dez holds, gently, instead of outright seducing is the hugely overweight woman, but his gestures and words in this scene seem exactly right. Sex Magic can be silly, eye-opening and eye-rolling, but it's never one-dimensional.

Moreover, I am not implying that the chaste consultations of Baba Dez are appealing to the viewer's sensibilities while the more carnal workouts aren't. One of the ways Sex Magic thrives as a documentary is that it isn't sensationalistic in the least, doesn't move in for envelope-pushing close-ups, and yet has found an environment in which a staff of male and female professionals (who utter such sentences as, "The thing is, I love working with premature ejaculators") caress, fondle, stimulate, stroke, penetrate, and masturbate as though this is as much a genus of "physical therapy" as re-learning how to flex your bum knee. Maybe more so. And maybe they're right. The Sedona center affords a rare glimpse of people having and talking about sex in a way that, in visual terms, is totally un-euphemistic. To see a woman achieve a vaginal orgasm who attests to never having had one before, and contentedly doing soin front of a camera that isn't cutting away or barreling in—a camera meant to record and not to leer—is quite something to see. So is watching a man being trained to escape the anxieties that tend to precepitate erectile dysfunction, or watching a woman touch a penis for the first time in her life when she isn't under any pressure to respond a certain way or to gratify anyone but herself, and she doesn't even have to do that. The thrill is not titillation, though Sex Magic has sexy moments. Directors Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman have made a film that feels unneurotically lucid about a topic that, for all sorts of reasons, is visually, thematically, and legally hard to confront in a way that's neither antiseptic nor lurid nor oblique.

Much more than sex, it's the talking about sex that makes this world so confounding and occasionally uproarious to an outsider of the tantric community, which I think is probably a lot of us. Very rarely does the film invite outright mockery at the subjects' expense, as when it cuts from disclosing that the Sedona center is tax-exempt as a nonprofit religious organization to a session of someone chanting a koan into someone else's ass. Meeting the parents of Baba Dez, the 50-year-old lover of thousands of women, reminded me of the anthropological bafflement that accompanied meeting Woody Allen's parents in Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues. Elderly Mom, earnestly but hilariously, says, "I don't know a lot about what he does, but I know he's helping people," while dad manifests a kind of glowering stupefaction on the adjacent cushion of the couch. (They also recall that when Dez was a child, "he was... he was always helping other kids.") People in the movie talk about sex in a way that very clearly to them feels like the most accurate, natural, constative language in the world, and yet it can only sound to many of us like ornately rhetorical, highly learned affectation: "We're co-creating and collaborating some in the morning" probably means they've been joined at the groin since before breakfast. Companionship and intimacy entail a "true desire for really being met as a being," leading toward this memorable testimony of a shamanistic lothario whose advances have been spurned: "I was open to the possibility of exploring the possibility of us perhaps being lovers and partners."

Circumlocution bleeds into language of deep, New Age mystification. A healer or self-described "dakini" named Jaiya describes herself by saying, "I'm a priestess, a manifestation of the divine feminine, and also I'm none of that." Dez goes to Hawaii on his own sojourn of erotic recovery, joined by two women named Natasha and Kamala. The former, not evidently a healer, is a nutso Russian natural-food devotée who rhapsodizes about eating unwashed grass pulled out of the ground (which she happily demonstrates), and whose vision of ecstasy seems to involve harvesting mangos straight from a tropical tree while wearing nothing a see-through plastic raincoat. Kamala, a practitioner of sexual healing based in San Diego, whose sessions often include husband Michael and one-year-old son Devin, is clearly in raptures about these weeks of bedroom and tidal-pool and waterfall sex with her good friend Dez. Meanwhile, they collaborate and co-create on a book called Sacred Sexual Healing: Tantra for Transformation and Sex Magic for Manifestation. Many a high-deconstructionist tome has sported a more welcoming title. One is at risk of feeling heartbroken that a woman capable of this million-dollar jewel of lucid reverse-discourse—"People are always blaming people for wanting their cake and eating it, too. Who the fuck would want a cake if you're not going to eat it?"—is otherwise sunk in a sludgy verbal pool about "manifesting" and "stepping into The More."

The titular notion of "sex magic" is itself tricky to parse as more than a highly laminated way to talk about erotic communication that so takes its time and makes you feel so good that happiness and even practical goals suddenly feel within reach. We tend to hear it occulted into a practice that literally makes things happen in the world, especially insofar as, hoping against hope, it rewires the cooled-off neurons of lovers who have left and are mourned. Robin, the non-orgasmic woman I alluded to earlier whom Dez rather boisterously "cures," continues to have sex with him for a long period while knowing he pines still for Maya Yonika, the woman, dakini, and perceived soul-mate who has left Dez but whom he still adores, and for whom he still regularly cries. His keynote speeches at tantric sex conferences, which I didn't even realize could be happening in any Marriott at any moment, increasingly digress into eulogies for their bond and transubstantiations of rejection into some alternate plane of greater-than-ever closeness. "Wanting her back" translates to "manifesting her" through hours-long and repeated rolls in the hay with Robin, among others. When Maya does actually re-establish contact, Robin may or may not feel like a knowingly used time-filler, quite literally a useful vessel, but seemingly, she doesn't. Either way, she weeps into camera about her happiness that Maya and Dez are back together, and that "I helped create that in sex magic!" One hardly knows whether to give her a hug, or find Cher to snap her out of it, in her inimitable way.

But, as impossible as it is not to have some fun with the lingo and blithe abandon and metadiscourse of the tantric crowd, Sex Magic doesn't present its subjects as foils for audience sniggering. From my position, there was something real and interesting about the ways in which the decoding of sexual drives seemed impossible to achieve not just in the absence of bodily candor but in the absence of a proportional overcoding of language: "speaking in tongues," in two senses. Especially once Dez has been left by Maya, who is still, at the movie's outset, his happy if much-younger and palpably remote companion, there are moments of great poignancy where he wrestles with the curlicues of his own lingua franca in an attempt to express yearning, or when he bursts into abrupt denotation—"I've been with too many women!" amid wracking sobs—and you wonder if his own peace of mind and his entire system of speaking, thinking, and talking are being shaken and shivered.

Something similar happens when Jaiya, for all of her infuriatingly self-serious mannerisms, takes the lead in a bold discussion that the film, to its discredit, tries to soft-pedal away. She is still, let's be clear, the Arsinée Khanjian lookalike whose theater of sexual healing involves her impersonating the divine feminine by bellowing "LET Me BrrrRRREEEATHE!" and "SSSTOP! SMMOTHERING MEEEE!!!!!" with an iron-diaphragm fury that just begs for a Parker Posey redo. Anyone who believes in gender archetypes that exceed the "bullying masculine" and the "wounded woman" may have a very hard time with Sex Magic and the categories its speakers keep reinstating, with no alternatives or critical distance forthcoming from the documentary, for better or worse. Despite her cartoonish and narrow qualities, quite evidently not perceived as such by her, Jaiya calls Dez on the fact that apparently "many" in the tantric community feel he is abusing his position with vulnerable women and distorting a sacred practice in order to score in bed with women who are too flattered, hurt, and confused to say no. They try to have a mediated summit about these accusations, and it's intriguing to see, essentially, two bilingual people have a tense standoff in a once-native tongue that has steadily migrated into its status as a second language.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya never does enough to explore the implications of these lightning-rod charges, and the overall view of the tantric community or even the day-to-day operations at the Sedona center ought to have been clearer and more detailed. Especially in the second half, we see too many characters making too many decisions whose implications aren't clear, especially with respect to other subjects we have met and would seem directly affected. But when the movie risks lapses like these, it's almost always in the service of preserving an impressively round characterization of Baba Dez that, without straining to be "investigative" or "hard-hitting," winds up evoking him in an array of contradictions that feel right. His blend of truths, self-delusions, pleasures, doubts, and mixed-up feelings still add up to someone who almost always looks happy, even cat-ate-the-canary blissful in his life spent largely naked and satiated. But he's not just a poseur, or a preening jerk, or a simple nut that the film exists to crack. His moments of self-awareness can be very bracing, and I don't think it's fair to imagine that he's only "self-aware" when he's standing outside the sex-magic lexicon. Things that need saying, or are at least interesting to hear, do emerge from that idiom, however peculiar.

If Dez's schtick is schtick, which isn't in every way clear, both he and many others obviously believe in it quite sincerely, and it doesn't protect them from a hornet's nest of feelings and thoughts that, as "free" and "open" as they are about sex, they still don't know what to do with. What they wind up calling this baffle of incapacitating bonds and attachments is "love," and Sex Magic is tactful and frankly honest enough not to imply that all the sex is bullshit compared to love, which is everything. This crowd has a lot more sex than the average jack or jill, feels a lot less guilty about it (though, notably, they talk of little else, so I wouldn't say they're "not hung up" on it), and doesn't seem to mind at all the presence of a camera, though they don't seem to play up to it, either. When Dez, Kamala, and Natasha go spelunking in a Hawaiian cave and find a natural lava formation that, God's truth, looks exactly like a four-foot basalt vagina, you believe that they really are shaken and stirred, not just sustaining some bizarre, facetious ruse. You still might giggle when they solemnly intone, "We're giving offerings to her clit." Seriously, are Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara and Sarah Silverman free any time soon? But sex is and isn't comedy. Sex Magic follows along pretty far with people who push erotic and rhetorical envelopes, easing tensions and testing patience in about equal measure, but it doesn't pose an "answer" about them by the end. If they're sometimes laughable, naïve, and self-indulgent, in the smugly aggrandizing but sincere words of Jaiya the dakini, they're also none of that. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Note how little I've said about form or technique, which isn't especially notable at the level of the shot, despite the film's able and sometimes beautiful manipulation of natural light. The editing, too, even if it's vague or leapfroggy or prone to avoidance at certain key moments, is in general an impressive exercise in sustaining a narrative and building a multi-faceted characterization from a sea of footage that must have been bewildering to know what to do with. So in some formal ways, as well as topical ones, I think Sex Magic sets an interesting example for other documentarians as well as for ways we think about sex. But that amounts to a proficient use of the form more than any real innovations with it, and probably lots of viewers will see little here besides a kooky human-interest story, which may or may not strike them as the height of frivolousness. I can understand that response, though I would also dare such viewers to name a documentary that has broached these issues of sex and of language and of self-perception over time in quite this way. Hard to rate VOR anywhere but right down the middle.

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