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On Tender Hooks
How can I describe Kate Shenton's doc On Tender Hooks? It's an incisive look into a little known sub-culture. It's an emotional exploration. It's shocking. It's funny. It's bloody. It's also fascinating.
The film is about human suspension. If you're not sure what that is, it's people who insert hooks into their flesh, and then attach ropes to the hooks and raise themselves into the air. Hence, they are suspended. There's a fairly well organized and mature community around suspension, and it's this that Shenton explores. She focuses on several suspension clubs, mostly in England, but also in Croatia and Norway. She films suspensions in gymnasium like environments, in the woods, in clubs, and much more.
The real key to On Tender Hooks is that Shenton herself is very transparent to the process. She only inserts herself into situations when necessary, and for the most part allows her subjects to speak for themselves. But at the same time, she's not distant. She became friends with many of the people she has filmed, and the movie exudes warmth. The most intriguing thing for many viewers might be how normal these folks who suspend themselves are. There is a lot of overlap between the tattoo and body modification sub-cultures and suspension. And despite the ubiquitous tattoos, ear gauges, strange piercings and other more extreme mods, these are folks who pay their mortgages, have child custody hassles, get married, divorced, think about beauty and love, and do all the mundane things that everyone else does.
And they are very serious about this. They have to be. There is pain, blood, and huge metal hooks that pierce your flesh. The focus on hygiene is obsessive, and the danger of injury is real. But many of them talk about the relaxation, bliss, emotional clarity and just plain joy they get from suspensions. One doesn't have to be particularly interested in the lifestyle to enjoy the film, just interested in people and how they order their lives. The subject matter, and the people, are fascinating. Shenton artfully presents her subjects, and never condescends or judges. She gets suspended herself, early in production but late in the film, and says in the commentary that it was essential for understanding what she was seeing. I for one am glad she did, because this film is seriously great. But make no mistake, this isn't a freak show display, even though not a few of these folks would stand out in a crowd. These are real people, and they're not being exploited here. They're talking passionately about what they love and sharing it with interested others. This is a really great documentary. Highly recommended.
The image is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks good, keeping in mind that it's shot almost exclusively with a handheld camera and available light, with some archival and phone footage thrown in.
Audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and sounds good. No subtitles are included and so the occasional heavy accents of the interviewees can make it difficult to absorb the dialogue at times, at least to my tin American ear.
There are a number of extras. The two short films, also directed by Shenton, are Pig and Gimp. These are narrative shorts, and definitely in the gonzo range. Quite different from the doc.
The commentary with Kate Shenton is excellent. She talks about what she wanted to do, how she got into the community, the relationships she developed, and much more. It's quite revealing. She talks about her conscious decision to eschew any titles or explanatory text. This initially annoyed me, since it made it difficult to know who was talking. But Shenton explained that she wanted On Tender Hooks to feel like "a really well filmed home movie", which she definitely achieves. The commentary adds considerably to the enjoyment of the film, so be sure to watch the film again with it turned on.
One of the best things about docs is that they can sometimes give us the opportunity for a little cultural tourism, a chance to peer into a society or sub-culture that we otherwise might not have any contact with. On Tender Hooks definitely does this, and in the process deeply humanizes people that many of us would dismiss as "those freaky people over there." It's a joy to watch, even if it does cause a few winces here and there, and at least one audible gasp from me. Check it out.