O F F T H E B E A T E N T R A C K:
Cléo Dubois’ The Pain Game

By William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

A few months ago I met a young mistress who had recently learned to flog, and was planning to make an educational video because she thought she saw a market niche. Her bottom, whom she told me was deeply masochistic, had just grimaced as if he hoped to trance out under the influence of the half-dozen clothespins that were presently holding his nipples to his chest.

I wondered if she and her boy understood that they were not ready to make a movie, that they had just begun a journey into a whole new world of erotic possibilities. And then I found myself confronted by several questions that sound different and yet are really the same: How do you explain SM to someone who knows nothing about it, but thinks he does? How do you explain its finer points to someone who knows a little, and thinks she knows enough? How do you explain its genuine subtleties to someone who knows only its coarser sides, and believes that’s all there is to it? How do you teach the unteachable?

When I came out in the 1980s some community elders were already bemoaning the loss of leathersex’s Good Old Days. Since then people have died and people have disappeared and several generations have passed in internet time, so I’m sure no one wants to hear me complain that the history of what was once a remarkable, tight-knit tribe that included some of the most noble, loving, intense people I ever met is fast-fading into a past that will not be recaptured.

Too bad, because it’s true: I am grousing, and the Good Old Days are gone forever. And whether you think that’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, it behooves you to know Some Thing of that history if only so you won’t be doomed to repeat it. Good or bad, there’s no sense making your life a rerun.

No rerun. In her new video release, Mistress Cléo Dubois does her completely original part to teach SM technique and SM passion in the context of SM history, and she is successful to a remarkable degree. It helps that I have experienced more than one two- or three-hour-long tantric whipping, but The Pain Game is simply the best SM video I’ve ever seen. It is not about dominance and submission, not about bondage, not about spanking as an art form all its own: The Pain Game is specifically about the generous gift and graceful receipt of intense physical sensation that has been thoughtfully negotiated, knowledgeably administered, and consciously embraced. It also raises another question: what does such an exchange signify?

In The Pain Game Mistress Cléo, one of the Bay Area’s half-dozen best-respected pro-doms and propietor of the Cléo Dubois Academy of SM Arts, negotiates and executes two SM scenes. In the first a male bottom called Brad takes sensation into his body, transforms it through the inspiration of tantric or Lamaze breathing into a kind of pure energy, and passes it back through respiration, as if through the ether, to Mistress Cléo. Because both Top and bottom are intelligent, sophisticated, skilled SM players, it is actually possible to see in this scene how SM can be a work of conscious spirituality without having to decipher a long, didactic lecture. When Brad asks for more of the whip or more of the nipple clamps the viewer can see: this is not a man in flight from pain, or from his history, or from his future; this is not a man "addicted" to pain, or a man who thinks so little of himself he has to find someone to hurt him: no. Whatever else his life might be about at other times, in the filmed moment of interaction with Mistress Cléo he is a deliberate conduit for libido, the life force of erotic energy: he is absolutely, transcendentally present: here. Now.

With Creed, her female bottom, the tools of Mistress Cléo’s trade are clothespins and needles, and it is possible to watch in Creed’s face the way apprehension becomes fear, fear becomes anticipation, anticipation becomes excitement, and excitement grows into an ecstasy that makes her look as if she has seen the face of god. Perhaps she has. Mistress Cléo keeps Creed’s mind dancing on the two dozen points of energy a white bird’s back full of feathered clothespins breed, then on the two dozen points of light that a bust full of needles make, and turns her girl as delicately as an eggshell puppet by a simple ribbon in the dance master’s hands.

The dance master, of course, is Cléo Dubois, who dominates her own video with the easy, graceful skill of someone who has really earned the right to call herself a Mistress.

When I was serving my term of learning SM basics, Sybil Holiday sent me home with Pain Suite and Journey Into Pain, two Jim Ed Thompson videos that stood out in my mind from the dozens of others I had seen because they did convey to me both what the players were doing and what they were getting out of it. For passion and technique, The Pain Game ranks right up there with those two videos, which were also real, with real players in real scenes. But Pain Suite and Journey Into Pain are not as sophisticated as The Pain Game, they did not have the next 20 years of history to draw on, and they did not have several specific features that enrich The Pain Game, some in form and some in content.

In form, I have never seen an SM video whose production values are as consistent, high, and well-thought-out as those in The Pain Game. The camera-work is smooth and completely professional: no pets stroll across the set, there are no sudden accidental shots of the cameraman’s hangnail, and there are no jerky pans. The camera doesn’t sit on its tripod like some freshman top waiting for someone to do something, it actually moves: it seeks the bottom’s face as Brad relaxes into pain and the moment; it searches out the pinched nipple compressed before his meaty chest; it follows the flat slap of the cat on his back, stays with the needle entering Creed’s flesh, and caresses the zipper tracks that purple up like Anne Rice prose in the fleshly scrolls that spring from two wings of clothespins and curve across her back like sound holes in a violin’s face. The lights are always warm enough to show if the actors’ skins perspire, but never so hot their dewdrops glare. Wherever the camera looks there is no hardware, just illumination. The score is exactly right for intimate one-on-one scenes, supporting the action and the journeys without intruding or demanding attention for itself.

More and more as the video proceeds, Cléo Dubois, not Mistress Cléo, answers content questions for an off-camera interviewer, and her answers flesh her out as a woman who has a complex history and a complex set of relationships with her life, her SM, and her communities of the living and the dead. Here I bow to my own prejudice: the people she names and the people whose pictures she displays were among the dearest and most valiant pioneers of a lifestyle that used to be the SM community, and persists now in tiny pockets off the beaten track. It is a way of being, not a set of things to do, that the young mistress I mentioned earlier thinks she understands but does not.

At least yet. In part, Cléo Dubois made The Pain Game be a memorial to those people and to their time, and so in part she made it be a video that may educate nubies with eyes to see. Then they, too, may learn what it is about this erotic practice and art form that has made it sacred, and that has enabled it to persist from one century to the next, from one millennium to another, celebrated and honored among those who know from paintings on the potsherds of one society to the videos of another.

Copyright © 2001 by William A. Henkin

THE PAIN GAME produced and directed by Cléo Dubois. (From The Cléo Dubois Academy, p.o. box 2345, Menlo Park, Ca. 54 minutes, color, $39.95 plus $6 s/h)