A QUEST TO UNDERSTAND LOVE, SEX & MARRIAGE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Recovering from a heartbreaking divorce, independent filmmaker and son-of-an-Italian-Prince Tao Ruspoli takes to the road to talk to his relatives, advice columnists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, artists, philosophers, sex workers, sex therapists, and ordinary couples about love, sex & monogamy in our culture. What he discovers about his very unconventional family, and about the history and psychology of love and marriage leads him to question the ideal of monogamy, and the traditional family values that go with it.
JULY 11, 2016, AURELIEN LEVITAN SAT DOWN AT THE VENICE HOME OF TAO RUSPOLI FOR AN EXCLUSIVE CONVERSATION WITH THE INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER AND PHOTOGRAPHER FOR DAMAGED / GOODS ZERO
Aurelien Levitan: Can you please tell us when you started working on MONOGAMISH?
Tao Ruspoli: I started making this film in the middle of 2011. I had just gotten a divorce in early 2011 and so I started out on my own making a film about my eccentric and amazing neighbor in Venice. She’s this blue-haired old woman named Roberta Hayes. She had these great insights about love, relationships and sex, and she was really funny and frank,talking about her pussy and she is like 75 years old. I thought that was incredible. She’s tattooed and just wild. I started chatting with her after my divorce to get some advice, when I realized that she would make a great short film. I made a 10-minute short about her and it did really well on YouTube and she started getting jobs like as a model and an actress. Kind of started this new career because of it.
Aurelien: What is the title of the short film?
Tao: The short is called "The Love Project: Episode 1" I had the idea of making a series of interviews with people about love, sex, and relationships. I did a couple of episodes of The Love Project and decided that it would make a good feature film. I had been reading Dan Savage’s advice column since college. He’s a really well known sex advice columnist in the United States. He started out kind of as a joke because his friend was starting a weekly paper - you know like the LA Weekly, but in Seattle – it’s called The Stranger and he suggested having an advice column to his friend, because everybody reads the advice columns. His friend said OK but you should write it. Dan Savage is gay and told his friend he didn’t know anything about straight people or straight sex. He says now “I did not even now where the clitoris was. I don’t know anything about woman at all.” But his friend, who was starting The Stranger, said we do it as a joke where you treat them, the straight readers, with as much ignorance and contempt as straight advice columnists treat gay people - like with traditional Dear Abbey, you know. When he started this it was called “Hey, Faggot.” At the time, it was the early 90s. When I started reading it I was a student at UC Berkley and he was just really funny, witty, sharp, insulting the readers in funny ways. Slowly the culture kind of moved towards him and now, with gay marriage and more liberalism around sex than there was 20 years ago, he kind of became more mainstream. He learned a lot about actual relationships in doing this and became the most famous sex advice columnist in America. He’s written books. He’s in the New YorkTimes. He’s been on Bill Maher. He coined this term “monogamish” as advice for how we should be and approach monogamy, how we should be a little more flexible. I wrote him saying I would like to make a film, I would like to interview you for it, I would like to call it Monogamish, and he didn’t answer. And I was really disappointed, but I decided to try to do it without him. So, I started researching and, at first, I became concerned it was a too flaky of a subject, love and relationships. It sounded kind of like wishy-washy after doing a film about Heidegger being in the world, my other documentary. It seemed a little too much mainstream, a little to wishy-washy. So I started to dig deep and realized it’s a really fascinating subject from historical, philosophical, psychological, anthropological, legal, and economic perspectives. Each of these ways of looking at marriage, and relationships, and monogamy gave me new insight into it. You could make a whole book on just the economics of marriage and relationships, the whole movie, you know. I started interviewing people like Christopher Ryan who wrote Sex at Dawn, which was the New York Times best seller about, sex before agriculture and civilization.
Aurelien: What came up next, how did you keep moving forward with the creative project?
Tao: Then I interviewed Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity, and Stefani Kuntz. I did a three-month trip in my RV looking for people to talk to. I went to a free love commune in Portugal. So, then I wrote again to Dan Savage. I wrote his agent saying I’d like to interview him for the movie, it's really happening now, I have some money etc. His agent wrote back saying he’s too busy and you are going to have to change the title because he’s trade marked the word “monogamish.” I changed the title to Monogamy and Its Discontents, which was after the Freud book Civilization and Its Discontents, which hints at the difference between our individual desires and the needs of society as that's what Freud is concerned with in Civilization and Its Discontents. Two years on, Christopher Ryan wrote to Dan Savage saying, “You really should be in this movie. Tao is a cool guy and the movie is good, I’ve seen an early cut of it.” Dan said ok, maybe. Another year on, Christopher Ryan wrote to him again saying, “Okay, I’ve seen latest cut. You need to be in this movie, not for Tao, for you, because everybody who has something important to say on this subject is in it and it would be really a shame for you to be left out of it.” So finally three years later he comes here for the interview; it became the backbone of the entire movie. It took another year for me to persuade him to let me call it Monogamish and another 6 months after that to get him to watch it and just yesterday I got an email from him saying he thinks the film is fantastic and that he’s so happy to be a part of it and everything like that. Four years later, that’s the story of the movie.
Aurelien: October 2015, MONOGAMISH premiered at the Rome Film Festival
Tao: We had great press in Italy and great reviews. In the movie, I talk to regular people, experts, and then I tell my own story of my divorce and how difficult that was, how I recovered from it by questioning the way we do things and trying something new. That’s it. It was nerve racking to watch something so personal in front of so many people, but the movie is funny too and there was a lot of great reaction, and laughter from the crowd. You know the movie deals with this, all this, in a kind of light hearted way, but at the same time it goes very deep on academic and intellectual level talking to lawyers and historian. So, I think it's a nice mixture of the personal and the universal and of the humorous as much as it more serious.
Aurelien: Is there a recurring theme that you are trying to explore in your films?
Tao: I went to UC Berkeley for the study philosophy. I love the idea of using film to seriously explore philosophical ideas. I try to do that in all my movies from being in the world, which explicitly deals with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. In my first feature film "FIX" there is a consistent underlying philosophical thesis that I am exploring.
What’s your damage?
Tao: I mean so many things we go through that are difficult at the time end up shaping us and teaching us. My divorce was very difficult and I turned that into something positive with this movie and definitely grew from it. My parents splitting up, I talk about this in the movie, was one of the most difficult times. My earliest memory and most painful is my parents breaking up, hearing them fighting and so that's why I thought this is a very serious issue; we all are shaped by it. Even if you decide never to have a relationship and live on your own in the cave you're still the product of your parents’ choices when it comes to monogamy and family structure and sex and all of this stuff makes who you are. It’s something that affects everybody. It was nice going from this kind of dismissive attitude and worrying about it being not serious enough to realizing it’s the most serious thing there is. How our families are structured. How our relationships are defined. How we draw our boundaries. It affects us, the people we love, our children, our parents;everyone is shaped and formed by these choices, which are not set in stone. Every culture thinks that theirs is the only way to do it. That theirs is the natural way of doing things, but then we realize what counts as a scientific explanation is usually just serving the dominant ideology of that moment. We see that through out history. Why should today be any different. So, we should always question these things.
Tao's next project is a new film adaptation of André Pieyre de Mandiargues book "La Motocyclette" (1963 - Gallimard)
You can follow Tao Ruspoli on Instagram at @taoruspoli and Monogamish at @monogamishmovie
NOVEMBER 6, 2017, DAMAGED / GOODS FOLLOWED UP WITH TAO RUSPOLI THE DAY OF THE US RELEASE OF MONOGAMISH
Damaged / Goods: What led you to originally pursue a career as a filmmaker and photographer?
Tao Ruspoli: Since I was about 13, I've been obsessed with documenting the world around me, first with still photography, and then soon after with video. It wasn't until I took a course at UC Berkeley called Existentialism in Literature and Film that I seriously considered turning my passion into a career, primarily because I realized I could explore deep philosophical issues in this way--that the combination of words, sounds and images could provide a mirror of what it means to be human, both as an individual and as a person living in this particular moment historically.
Damaged: What are your expectations for the @MonogamishMovie?
Tao: The film took many years to get right. Because it's also a personal story, it required me to grow as a person before I could pretend to come to any conclusions that might be useful to others. I still don't presume to tell other people what is right for them concerning monogamy or its alternatives. My hope is rather to give people tools to have a more nuanced, informed, and honest dialogue, and then decide what's best for them.
Damaged: Tell us how the making of @MonogamishMovie help you overcome your divorce?
Tao: I've always seen filmmaking as a form of therapy, insofar as it provides an opportunity to go very deeply into a subject, not purely in an academic context, but an emotional one as well. Also, the best artistic endeavors are the ones you cannot imagine not doing. I had to make this film as a way to work through what I (and so many others) had been through. 50% of marriages end in divorce, many others find themselves stuck in unhappy marriages. I set out to ask why marriage exists as an institution and why monogamy exists as an ideal. The answers surprised me very much, no matter how I looked at it: psychologically, historically, economically, legally, politically and personally.
Damaged: On November 5, an Ad you tried running of the film’s poster on Instagram was not approved. Why do you think that the Ad was rejected?
Tao: I was quite shocked when the ad was rejected... I decided to mix up the races in the photo (primarily because my pianist friend Torie, who features in the poster, has such beautiful hands.) My only thought was that either the idea of a third person tugging at the couple (what Esther Perel calls in the film "the shadow of the third.") or the idea of a black man and a white woman, or both, are just still so taboo. Either way, it made me think we'd gotten something right if we were able to strike a nerve like this.
Damaged: What is your take on the hyper sexualization of the female body in American culture?
Tao: As a feminist I understand how difficult it must be for women to manage being constantly seen as sex objects, especially in contexts where it just isn't appropriate. As a man, as a photographer, and as someone interested in pushing the boundaries of sexual practices, I'm sure I have been inadvertently guilty of perpetuating certain stereotypes. My only hope is that we who see ourselves as pioneers in the world of relationships and of consensual non-monogamy can continue to question the status quo and relax taboos and can do so in a way that resists patriarchal structures and in a way that's always maximally respectful. Polyamory, as it's envisioned in the film and by the luminaries in the field, can only be practiced against a backdrop of true equality, economically, politically and every other way. Once that's been achieved, then people can embody different roles, including as sexualized beings, and do so consciously and playfully and enjoy the profound experiences it can afford.
Damaged: Tell us about the #BombayBeachBiennale, the festival you founded in 2016 in the Salton Sea?
Tao: Stefan Askenazy, Lily Johnson and I co-founded The Bombay Beach Biennale as an almost dadaist experiment in using art, music and philosophy as a way to bring attention to a community around the Salton Sea which is going through catastrophic environmental and economic issues. More about it can be seen at bombaybeachbiennale.org
Damaged: How does music influence your work and who are you listening to at the moment?
Tao: I've had a deep passion for music and have played music most of my life. I played flamenco guitar for 20 years and recorded an album in 2005 with Mapleshade Records. Today I am experimenting with electronic music, going back to playing electric guitar for the first time since high school and listening to a broad variety of music. Very much enjoying Adam Freeland's project, The Acid, Roisin Murphy's album of Italian pop songs (Mi Senti,) plus tons of jazz, flamenco and classical music always.
What's your 2017 damage?
Tao: I'm trying to live a new type of relationship--open, honest, boundary pushing, while at the same time going deep--allowing true emotional intimacy outside the boundaries of the traditional monogamous relationship. It's not always easy, but my hope is that it allows for a new way of seeing ourselves and the world around us.