I just read that the iconic erotic filmmaker Zalman King passed away at the age of 70. His best known theatricals were probably Wild Orchid and Two Moon Junction, but I think it was his salacious television series The Red Shoe Diaries that made me fall in love with him. I have never been shy about my love of 90s erotica. Mostly I liked the late night Shannon Tweed stuff because it was fun, but King took the genre to another level with the devastating pilot to Diaries, which starred a then unknown David Duchovny. The film resonated with me, and I found it both beautiful and tragic. A few years ago I wrote a review of it for anther blog, but I thought I'd repost it here today to celebrate King's wonderful work, which I think has been unfairly maligned.
RIP Zalman. I will miss you.
Red Shoe Diaries
Original Air Date: May 16th, 1992
I suppose when people look back on Zalman King's erotic Showtime Television series The Red Shoe Diaries, they think of sumptuous women in various tawdry situations. As I remember, it was pretty much erotica for women, with lots of pretty camera shots, fractured stories, heavily sexual dialog and lots and lots of nudity. This is the memory I held for the pilot as well. It could not have been farther from the truth.
Zalman King's most personal film The Red Shoe Diaries is more about love and loss than about getting laid. Bridgette Bako plays the beautiful and successful but emotionally turbulent Alex who falls for Jake (David Duchovny). Their few months together consist of sheer contentment. Both warriors in the work world, their home life is a complete opposite, offering tranquility and togetherness. Bridgette loves Jake but can't seem to love herself. As she writes in her diary, "I am an open book." This statement compels Alex to search out something disastrous yet all of her own. That's when she meets Tom (Billy Wirth). Construction worker and part-time shoe salesman (!), he expertly seduces Alex and invites her to his home the following night. Alex desperately tries to convince Jake to take her out of town but he's unaware of the disaster that lies before them and declines due to a business engagement. It is here that she begins a short but ill-fated affair with Tom. These simple rendezvous aren't enough to fill Tom's craving heart and Alex feels she has no choice but to escape them both.
Told mostly in flashback, The Red Shoe Diaries is both tragic and thoughtful. Viewed through a vaseline swiped lens, there is sheer beauty to be found in Alex's flowing skirts and red shoes. An achingly sad woman, Alex longs to do the right thing but feels unworthy of true love.
Trust me, as I write this, I can't actually believe I'm saying it. I know this is Zalman King and that his sex films are what help put Red Shoe Diaries on the map. I also know people tend to look at his films as erotic trash consisting of little more than a few breasts and a bit of beefcake, and that makes me sad. Even as a passing fan with only a mild appreciation of his other works (Wild Orchid 2 is good stuff though!), I fear not enough people will find themselves wanting to rent this haunting love story. Maybe I'm getting older and beginning to understand the undercurrents of sexuality better, but I'd also like to think The Red Shoe Diaries has aged like a fine red wine, not just the nostalgia of it. Lush and dark and always easy to swallow (insert dirty joke here!), I'm absolutely astonished that this film hasn't met with a better reception. It's a truly moving film, with an incredible soundtrack. There are some typical 90s erotica bits, like a moment in Alex's voice over when she declares "He made love like he worked on the street - tender as a jackhammer"(!) but this film expertly explores the dichotomy between sex and sexuality and successfully portrays the sadness in a life felt with little worth. The nudity is A+ as well. I would guess that there's maybe one minute of it total, but it belongs to natural women and they are lovely. There's even a sweaty basketball game between Wirth and Duchovny that kept me panting throughout. And yet, when I look back on it, all I think of is the hauntingly romantic scene towards the end when Jake lays next to Alex on the cold bathroom floor. It's these kind of images that great romances are built on.