Lesbian Classic “Kamikaze Hearts” Asks Questions About Porn and Sex, Fiction and Reality

“I get paid to wait around between shots. I don’t get paid to act. I do that all the time.”

In the mid-80s, filmmaker Juliet Bashore began filming a documentary about real-life lesbian couple Sharon “Mitch” Mitchell and Tigr. Mitch was a seasoned porn performer, Tigr more of a novice and moving onto the production side. Bashore set out to capture their drug-fueled dynamic on the set of their new movie — Mitch the star, Tigr assisting.

This seems to be a gritty, authentic look at these individuals and the subculture in which they belong. But this movie wasn’t real. Mitch was a porn performer. She did meet Tigr doing a scene. They were in a relationship, and they did use drugs. But this movie, the movie they’re making, wasn’t real. This movie, the movie we’re watching, isn’t either.

But what is real? Even if the film they’re making is just for show, what’s not real about a group of people playing themselves, acting out their dynamics for a camera? How is that less real than the self-awareness subjects bring to a more straight-forward documentary?

Since its release in 1986, Juliet Bashore’s Kamikaze Hearts has been lauded (and criticized) for its unique approach to documentary, for its window into queer lives, and for the questions it asks about reality in sex, in porn, in love, in life. It’s recently been restored by Kino Lorber and screened earlier this week at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. Watching it today, it’s as much a time capsule as it is an urgent work for our present.

Tigr wasn’t just involved in the production of the fake film, but the film itself. She is credited as co-writer as well as star. And, in a way, the gaze is as much Tigr’s inside look as it is Bashore’s removed observation. Tigr is in love with Mitch and the camera is in love with her too. Mere minutes into the film, it’s hard not to share that love. With her short hair, leather jacket, and bounds of confidence, Mitch is the star she declares herself to be.

When Mitch and Tigr describe falling in love shooting their first sex scene, it’s easy to buy into the fantasy. At the very least, how could Tigr resist? Eroticism pulses through the scene, it pulses in their real lives together too. Later Tigr will note that Mitch fucks the same on camera as off and this quality that initially seems alluring — an inability to be fake — becomes something more upsetting — an inability to be real.

The contradictions in Kamikaze Hearts go beyond this question of fiction and reality. There’s also the porn culture of 1980s San Francisco that acts as both a space of free expression and a space for abuse. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes, we watch as the film within the film’s producer paws at a young actress, promising her TV commercials, while insisting she show him more skin. This man is playing himself and one has to wonder how this type of behavior would manifest if he wasn’t performing for the camera. How much worse could it be?

But the questions the film asks about pornography don’t stop at this tired argument of morality. The film’s conception calls into question the discomfort mainstream society feels toward porn that it doesn’t feel toward other media. Sex is not the only intimate act that’s recreated on-screen. Why are people shocked to see sex on-screen, but not fighting or loving or harassment or cinema? Why is it more raw to watch these women shoot up for the camera than it is to watch them break up? One might argue it’s because the sex is real, the shooting up is real. But maybe when the camera is present the sex is no longer real even when the acts are the same, maybe when the camera is present the shooting up isn’t real even when the drugs are felt. Or, maybe, it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s all real. When actors perform emotions for a camera, for an audience, maybe those emotions are as real as any other.

These questions may seem relegated to art films and over-intellectualized college courses. But the fact is these questions are being asked and explored on every reality TV show of the past two decades. Bashore and Tigr’s approach to this film was revolutionary, but now it would fit right in as The Real Gay Housewives of 1970s San Francisco.

It’s not until an hour into the film that this illusion starts to be clear. The performers mention Juliet by name and we see a clapper with Bashore listed as the director. It’s also around this time that the film gets the grittiest, that Mitch and Tigr’s relationship seems most raw.

Kamikaze Hearts isn’t a film that provides answers. But thirty-six years later, its questions still demand to be asked.


Kamikaze Hearts is available to stream on Kino Now.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 515 articles for us.

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