Kamikaze Hearts (1986)

Kamikaze Hearts is a film that has fascinated me since I first read about it in the venerable Cinema Sewer. Now that Kino Lorber has released a new 2K restoration of the film, this is the perfect time to dig in, watch it and learn as much as I can about it.

I’ve been just as intrigued by Ms. Sharon Mitchell and perhaps for a much longer time. During the late 90s and early 00s– yes, when you still had VHS tapes and not streaming — when bleach blondes and pneumatic implants were all the shelves had to offer, Mitchell would occasionally show up in films for brief moments and I’d want to know more about her. With short cropped hair and a non-silicone implanted body, she looked closer to normalcy while also having the kind of real punk look and attitude that doesn’t buy its shirts years later online.

There was no internet — only Adam Film World and Hustler rated movies on an erection scale — so i didn’t learn her full life until later, such as how she began her career as an off-Broadway actress and dancer before starring in some of the 70s roughest films, like Waterpower and The Violation of Claudia.

In 1996, a male stalker assaulted and nearly killed her, which led to her finally kicking heroin, becoming a certified addiction counselor and getting both an MA and a Ph.D. from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality all while working a series of odd jobs like catering, dogwalking, being a florist and as a maid.

Mitchell founded the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), an organization which provided information and innovated STD testing for all workers in adult entertainment. While a data breach ended that company, Mitchell did so much to make it a safer space.

A decade before that, she was one of the stars of this film. For years, I saw it regarded as a documentary on the relationship that Mitchell had with her co-star Tigr Mennett. The truth is a lot more complicated.

In the incredible oral history of this film conducted by the always astounding The Rialto Report — that will be referred to and used as reference throughout this article — George Csicsery (a documentarian and actor in the film) says, “Some people don’t believe it’s a fictional film and have categorized it as a documentary, while other people see it for what it is; a pure narrative film. But that begs a deeper question: Is anything a documentary? In many ways, I think that is either the genius or the downfall of Kamikaze Hearts.”

Director Juliet Bashore had come from Orange County to San Francisco with no small degree of culture shock. Here was art, punk rock and even adult film — which she was paid well for to work as production assistant. She said, “I’ve got to find a way to make art out of this.  I worked a few more of those gigs, telling myself I was “doing research” but frankly equally thrilled to be paid (and very well) in hard, cold (probably Mafia) cash.”

After meeting Tigr on a set, the two began to talk about the strangeness of the world of adult and decided to make a movie about it. And Tigr was in love — or had been in love or never fell out of love — with the woman she saw as its star: Mitchell.

Bashore was influenced by Spalding Grey — ironically, the Swimming to Cambodia author and raconteur performed in adult himself in the Zebedy Colt movie Farmer’s Daughters — and decided to make real life into art with some guardrails, saying “The whole film was completely storyboarded, leaving space within those boarded shots for improvisation. The final edit matches the original storyboard pretty much shot by shot — with the exception of a few additional scenes that were added later. But even these pick-ups were planned for.”

Keep in mind, this was years before movies were completely ad-libbed or even partially made with improvised moments. This Is Spinal Tap was made around the same time as this movie but that’s nearly all trained comedians. This was…more real.

The film starts with Tigr breathlessly telling us about Mitchell: “When I first met her I thought she was sleazy. She needed to make a living, she was fucking on camera – I thought she was just another dumb porno slut. But I was wrong.” And then we see Mitchell, movie star glamorous even on a porn budget — in the back of a cab on the way to the set, discussing Old Hollywood actors and how she feels like she could go mainstream (she was in Tootsie and The Deer Hunter).

Tigr goes on to explain how being in the orbit of a being like Mitchell led her down a path she didn’t expect. And this is why this movie feels so real — and not a quasi-documentary — because it obviously has real significance: I became different. I changed. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be streetwise. I wanted to know how to use a needle… Goddamn irresponsible, gorgeous, sleazy porno slut. And she has it. And I mean, she’s this woman from New York City, who’s Italian, and she’s hot, and she speaks street language, no one can fuck with her, right? And there was some sort of power that she had that a porno person doesn’t have.”

Much like how in pro wresting life imitates art imitates life, we soon see Mitchell on stage dancing, then kneeling nude and answering audience questions. When asked what her next film will be, she says, “Truth or Fiction. It is a surrealistic look at myself and my girlfriend and the way we look at the X-rated film business and our relationship with each other, and it’s very nice…I don’t know whether I’m more truth or more fiction.”

Again, like wrestling, porn is about using your body for money, but also engaging in whole cloth character reinvention. Don’t like that you’re a geek who got bullied all through school and have a fascination with the dark side of humanity? Wrestling can give you a corpse paint covered alter ego and make you way tougher as you fake it — literally — until you make it. In the same way, being nude on screen can create a psychic armor of transgressiveness that allows a star to become more than they are — at least for a time — and become an object of desire. And just like the sychronized violence that happens in the squared circle, fake emotions can become real anger, relationships behind the scenes can become storylines an people can become lost and forget who they ever really were.

Bashore claims that the entire movie was a gift from Tigr to Mitchell, an opportunity to allow her muse to show the world just how talented she could be. That said, it’s hard to say that it’s truly mainstream. In the final moments, in the midst of a breakup, Tigr and Mitchell shoot up coke — real coke in a fake scene — and the camera never breaks for a single moment as Mitchell holds up a needle and says, “This was my dick and I fucked her with my dick. And I waited for this relationship to mature. This is a movie within a movie within a movie. This is timeless.”

In the same way no documentary or narrative movie can show you everything behind the scenes, this feels at once totally false and unabashedly sincere. It exists on a dichotomy that runs through the entire movie like a fault line. And there are real adult figures here — director Charles Webb (Charles De Santos), photographer Vincent Fronczek and actor Jon Martin show up — and musicans like Jennifer Blowdryer and Fast Floyd and the Famous Firebirds appear.

After disappearing for two decades, Kamikaze Hearts was released again. But now, thanks to the world of streaming — and Kino Lorber — we can all decipher for ourselves what is true, what is made up and what is probably both. And none of our answers really need to be right.

Kamikaze Hearts is now available to rent on the Kino Now platform. It will be on all major VOD platforms including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play and Kino Now on June 28.

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