For four and a half “very intense” days last April, Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp videotaped a succession of people having orgasms.

They were male, female, transgendered, black, white, Asian, Latina, biracial, straight, and gay. They ranged in age from 22 to 68. Some showed up alone at the appointed time and place–a dance studio in San Francisco equipped with an old bed and a “mess of towels”; others brought along a partner. They got off in a variety of ways: by their own hands or with the help of toys, from oral sex or all-out fucking. Some came fast, some took a long time.

Throughout all the quivering and convulsing, all the panting, grunting, and moaning, all the exclamations of oh god, oh yeah, more, and fuck, Hafferkamp and Beck trained their cameras on their subjects’ faces, shooting them exclusively from the neck up.

“It was exhausting,” says Beck, who controlled the overhead camera. “It took such a concentrated effort, because you’re with them and you don’t want to make any abrupt noise or camera movement that’s going to disrupt them or derail their train of thought.”

“One couple didn’t want to stop,” says Hafferkamp. “We finally turned off the cameras and went and had lunch.”

The result of their shoot, culled from 48 hours of tape, is the hour-long video Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy. It’s a strikingly intimate documentary–not just because the subjects were asked to keep their eyes open, but also because of the sounds from offscreen: the buzzing of vibrators, the wet slap of a generously applied lubricant.

Hafferkamp calls the video “antiporn.” The porn industry “is all about the genitals,” he says. “They’re always gigantic and male, or female and shaved.” By contrast, Orgasm! is all about the faces, capturing “the wide spectrum of human arousal,” Beck says. “If you’re watching porn for what that might be like, it’s pretty much fake all the time,” she says. “What you see isn’t what the reality is, so it seems valuable to show how different people respond, how men are different from women, what the cycle is, how it grows and it builds and then it plateaus and it goes up, down.”

Beck and Hafferkamp live in Edgewater. They’ve been working together since the mid-80s and have been a couple since 1990. For 12 years they edited and published the erotic journal Libido, which folded in 2000. They have PhDs in erotology, the study of the “material culture of sexuality,” from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. And they’re self-taught filmmakers who had three erotic videos “with a feminist angle” under their belts when their friend Joani Blank, the founder of Good Vibrations, suggested they work with her to redo a ten-minute short she’d shot at a sex party, filming people while they came.

It took some convincing. Beck and Hafferkamp didn’t think there’d be a market for a sex video with no nudity, but Blank was persistent and persuaded them to make it for “the greater good.”

The couple took on the project partly as an antidote to a “sexually stupid” society. “We’re a culture obsessed with sex,” says Beck, “but not in a way that’s celebratory or enlightened. Sex is usually pathologized rather than promoted as something that’s liberating or healthy.” The video also aims “to demystify a subject that is so incredibly loaded for so many people,” she says.

The subjects’ close-ups are mixed in with interviews in which they discuss, among other things, why they decided to make public something that’s usually so private. The reasons they give are as varied as the noises they make. One woman sees her participation as an opportunity to “karmically balance the lack of real female orgasm in mainstream adult video.” Another woman, wearing a Pussy Power T-shirt, embraced the idea because she’s “a huge exhibitionist.” A white-haired man says, “I’m too old to hold back, to go quiet, to be discreet, to be mild.” A self-described “sex-positive feminist fat girl” wants to put “positive images of fat people out there.”

Beck and Hafferkamp believed they had “something big” after they finished shooting. “People revealed themselves in ways we never would have expected,” Beck says. Subjects hugged them and showered them with gratitude. Some broke down in tears. “It was a very honoring, respectful place, and I think people picked up on that,” says Beck, who was especially moved by the man who proclaims in his postorgasm interview, “It’s like ten years of therapy rolled into one hour.”

The video was shot the week U.S. troops were storming Baghdad, and Iraq was clearly on the minds of its subjects. An elderly man confesses to having masturbated against the walls of Babylon some 50 years ago. A woman named Jennie complains about how our culture embraces violent images, yet is scandalized by sexual ones: “It just infuriates me that love becomes dirty, and murder and mayhem become acceptable and a reason to go wave the flag about.” She pauses, then adds, “I want someone to wave the flag about Jennie’s pussy. Whooooo!”

“It really put a new spin on the old ‘Make love, not war’ slogan,” says Beck.

Orgasm! The Faces of Ecstasy was screened at the Z Film Festival in January, and again last Saturday as part of an erotic art exhibit at Acme Art Works (where it’s playing again this Saturday, March 6). The video inspired nervous laughter at the Z fest, according to Beck and Hafferkamp, but at Acme it was a friendly over-30 crowd, and Beck knew about half of the 20 or so people in attendance.

The audience applauded loudly when the lights came on. “Bravo!” one man shouted.

Beck stood up in the back row, sipping champagne. She answered a few questions, then offered: “A lot of people ask us, ‘Were you turned on?’ And I think for both of us, the answer is absolutely not. We were so clear about wanting to capture this moment and making sure our f-stops were in the right place….Half the time we would have to ask, Did we do a woman or a man that time?…A friend would say, ‘Who was the cute babe that day?’ and we were trying to remember if there even was one. That’s how completely focused it was, which is really a testimony to just how boring we’ve become.”

The crowd laughed. “Thanks so much for being brave enough to come out and watch 22 people getting off,” Beck said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.