Archive for the ‘film’ Category

‘Cough’ … Cock … Cure!

February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine’s Day. Speaking of love, I have a burning question! Would “Dora,” the subject of Freud’s famous case-study, have been better off if she sucked some cock?

I know I sure would.

Understanding Dora is crucial to understanding and, if you care to, condemning Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, 2001). The first thing all reviews and summaries of this film point out is that Huppert’s character, Erika Kohut, is a masochist. Wow! This is an astute observation based on some truly casuitical interpretation. Such fine analysis turns on subtle nuances like the scene in which Erika – a cutter – sits on the edge of the bathtub just before dinner, slicing into her vagina. Other possible self-cruelty is evidenced in her flagrantly spying on a couple having sex at a drive-in themed movie theater; writing her lover a letter in which she begs to be beaten and degraded; sticking the edge of a knife into her chest; quoting T.A. Adorno.

Erika teaches at the Conservatorium of Music in Vienna where she brow-beats students out of the false hopes they might cherish of becoming accomplished musicians. (Let me tell you, having lived with a cellist who gave up his music career to fix the screen-savers of investment bankers, there is no one out there less optimistic and supportive than a failed musician.) Kohut, herself, still dreams of success well into her middle-age, but only because she is driven by her controlling, live-in, mother (Annie Girardot).

Geez, mom, you bitch! Can I get a second alone with my boyfriend?!

Before she commences her affair with infatuated student, Walter Klemner,* Erika lives an entirely fantasy based sex life. In addition to spying on couples fucking, she “sneaks” out after work to the back room of a porn shop where she watches porn and sniffs cum stained tissues. Every attempt she’s ever made to embody her own sexual life has been crushed and frustrated underground by her over-bearing mother (they share a bed which leads to an utterly insane lesbian moment between them). One of the film’s first scenes shows Erika arriving home late, with the excuse that she was at a practice session that ran over. She and her mother quickly find themselves in a fist-fight that reveals the “slutty” new dress Kohut has stashed in her bag. Like a jealous lover, her mother also goes through Erika’s closet looking for revealing dresses to toss into the trash. While they are in bed together, Erika berates her mother over a destroyed dress, arguing that the cut was “classique.”

Awwww, mommy… you suck. I wuv you!

I’ve seen and loved all of Haneke’s movies despite the fact that they are tortuous and make me hate myself. While he definitely has a sadistic streak, this story is hysterically over the top even for him. I watched the movie once through, and then tried it again for ten minute spurts. I wanted to see if the plot could go ten minutes without some act of sheer hysteria, deep character ugliness, or unbelievable perversity. It couldn’t. Without constant repetition of these elements, the dvd would have burst into flame and taken me with it. I even started to keep a list of the insanity, but Haneke and Hupert successfully worked my nerves far past patient list-making. This movie reaches heights of obscenity that take me back to Sexy Beast (2000) with its long opening shot of an obese man in a speedo.

As far as I can tell, he seems to be trying to say *something* about the impossibility of trying to live your fantasies. Erika’s life begins to spiral out of control when she, apparently for the first time in her life, receives sexual attention from a man, young Walter. Instinctively fearing that Klemner’s romantic streak is just typical youthful infatuation that will quickly run its sexual course, leaving her alone once more, Erika over-compensates by doing her excruciating best to extend every single aspect of their affair. For example, when blowing him in the bathroom of the Conservatory, she refuses him a climax. Erika also berates Walter when he tries to finish himself off, announcing that if he touches himself one more time she will walk out the door ending it forever. She undermines the fundamental basis of the blow job, by refusing to allow him to even grasp and guide her head!

The most over the top moment is pretty easy to miss. It takes place shortly after the commencement of Erika and Walter’s affair when, during piano practice, Erika begins to cough repeatedly. Walter explains the cough to her — she is “uptight” — instructing her to relax. He is explicit that some fucking will cure her cough. To probably any trained academic, the reference here to Freud’s Dora is unmistakable. For most people, this would probably pass innocuously, but to me it came like a punch in the face.**

Adorno-quoting masochist

Dora was the name Freud put down in his case files for a young lady who, among her many problems, suffered a intestinal problems as well as a persistent cough that led to asthma attacks. Ever tactful, Freud suggested to her that her cough was choking something back, and never flinching from his own desire to speak, he suggested that perhaps that something was the desire to suck her dad off. I can’t imagine why Dora would terminate her treatment abruptly. Lacan would later argue — it’s complicated and it was years ago when I read this — but something like Dora couldn’t come to terms with desiring men because she never fully comprehended femininity. But then again, who does? I, sure as shit, don’t.

The coughing scene is pure Psychoanalytic ‘Sploitation, and it’s one of the more shocking things I’ve seen Haneke try. Sorry to spoil the movie, but sucking cock doesn’t get Erika anywhere. She gags and chokes, and I’m fairly certain from Walter’s shouts of pain and “you’re hurting me,” that she uses her teeth. On her list of things she wants Walter to do is for him to beat her, but when he tries it she crumples on the floor yelling “not my face!” Nothing is like she imagined it, and her attempts to realize her fantasies drive Walter to more quickly reveal his inner frat boy.

I recommend this movie. Isabelle Hupert was awesome, and having the actress who played the ideal Emma Bovary play Erika was casting genius. It really made me hate myself and tested the limits of my cinematic endurance. I will not say that I liked it. But really, was I supposed to?

*Classic youtube comment about a clip with Walter: ” he reminds me of the leadsinger of the goo goo dolls.” Gotta love youtube commenters.

** The cough is an addition of Haneke’s. It’s not part of the story of the novel.


Click Here to Find Me

January 27, 2008

You want to torture ZORA?
Send us your fantasy and we will make it real.


Olivier Assayas gets the spirit of the modern American teenager better than most when, in the epilogue of his film Demonlover, he depicts a teenage boy in a UCLA t-shirt using his father’s stolen credit card to dictate superhero latex fantasies on the Hellfire Club website (linked to from the fictitious ). Earlier we see Wonder Woman strapped to bed springs in the midst of her tortures, and this time it will be Storm. Wonder Woman and Storm are unsurprising symbols to find in this film – current long, circular, tortuous, and rarely levelheaded debates between socially conscious comics bloggers notwithstanding – as the pornutopic imagination that spawned Wonder Woman in the first place originally imagined her as a character in threat of constant bondage. Moreover, Storm started off as an African “Goddess,” but in a late eighties make-over by fan favorite perv, Chris Claremont, she came into her own as a leather-bound, mohawked, fetish figure (for more, see his magnum opus, Storm of the Arena — the comic run that definitively proved, for a few minutes, Fredric Wertham right). Strength brought low by a design flaw in character,* tragic hubris, blah blah blah, whatever.

“Wonder Woman” strapped to a bed prior to electro-torture.
The text flashing across the screen:
Click Here to Find Me

is a little more complicated than some story about either flawed will or indomitable wills. Comic properties are only glanced at here. More important are hard-core sex sites on the internet and pornographic animé. Assayas gets it right because his film is a thoughtful attempt to figure what exactly America, France, and Japan’s respective places are in a the global economy of fantasy. It’s a prescient movie which prefigured many of the debates that broke out in 2007 and 2008 over gendered representations in pop art, including uncannily assimilating recent discussions about anime, porn and hentai.
But back in 2002 when this film appeared at Cannes to be largely ignored or stared at blankly, the place of fantasy, free time, credit, pornography and exploitation hadn’t lined up yet in a way that would allow people to make sense of it. The response at the premier was tepid indifference. Reportedly, the movie was a beautiful thing about ugly events that reviewers did not find legible. This was not like when Assayas mined France’s film history by sampling from Les Vampires for Irma Vep (1996). None of the materials depicted in Demonlover is second nature to any one culture.

Elise Lipskey corporate sabotages herself
with many fug blouses in this film.

Demonlover is a thriller, featuring the corporate sabotage of Diane de Monx (Connie Neilsen) as she attempts to sour a three-way deal between French businessman Henri-Pierre Volf (Jean-Baptiste Malartre) and TokyoAnime, as well as potential American distributors at on behalf of her secret American bosses at Mangatronics. Diane drugs and ambushes her opponents and wars in-house with her assistant, Elise Lipsky (Chloe Sevigny) while flirting with Hervé Le Millinec (Charles Berling). Diane quickly finds herself in over her head as her place gets trashed, she ends up in a murderous cat-fight with Gina Gershon, is eventually raped and finds herself sent off to be tortured at a rape camp. Heavy stuff!

Is this movie sexist? It’s hard to judge that when you’re looking at how abstract concepts about gender materialize, and even harder when you’re looking at this process in a movie. In the tradition of Barbaralla, this is a French ‘sploitation movie. So, yeah, probably it is. Still, what’s interesting about this movie is as technology advances — as the global economy becomes increasingly interdependent such that no one nation produces, manages and disseminates at the same time — the gendered stereotype of the rape-ready female body persists. Sketch art, cartooning, etc are methods of essentializing relations between people, refining them as one would refine perfume so that, for example, gender relations translate fluidly between Japan’s TokyoAnime’s 3-D labs, to the French board room (why are French corporate offices so much more stylish than American ones?) and down to teenage American boys’ bedrooms, eventually landing in Mexico-based white slavery camps. The question of child porn comes up in the plot only in terms of liability.

The French demand guarantees that none of the animations they buy can be based on drawings using under-age models. When the Japanese object that their images are not of under-age girls, they are forced to explain that representations of pubic hair are illegal in Japan. The French find this difficult to believe, but aren’t motivated by ethical concerns. They make it quite clear that they want as little information as possible, only legal guarantees that would void the deal should allegations of under-age models ever be proved.

Elise unwinds with her PS2. Ditches blouse.

There is what one might call a ‘feminist’ thesis to the film, though a controversial one. Basically, it holds that at one end of the international division of labor, there sits a bored sado-masochistic American teenage consumer living off his parent’s credit. At the other end is an exploited, often tortured female body performing manual labor. That’s kind of an extension of the MacKinnon anti-porn position, for which I have quite a bit of sympathy even if I am ambivalent about some of its assumptions. In my opinion, where her argument falters is that she has a difficult time expressing exactly what a material harm might be outside of a simple tort.

Coda: Thanks to Joss Whedon, we can now enjoy…

You’ve come a long way baby. (Astonishing X-Men #23)

* Connie Nielsen on her character Diane: “C’est quelqu’un qui prend des choix auxquelles elle n’est vraiment pas prepare, ni emotionellement, ni physiquement. Elle n’a pas la force, au fait, de sa propre choix. Et, elle decouvre ca un peu tard.”

Waitress, or Macaroni & Cheese Pie

January 14, 2008

I once dated a guy so neurotically jealous that I couldn’t send an email without him sneaking up behind me with an uneasy smile to try and nab a glimpse of the content from over my shoulder. I used to provoke him by minimizing my screen when I heard the quiet patter of his sneaky little steps, even if I was doing something totally public-sphere like just reading The New York Times Online, which was entertaining except then I’d later have to deal with jealous little fits and crying jags. Since he was not only jealous but an IT guy, I wouldn’t have put it beyond him to have programmed in a keystroke capturing hack on the computer. Don’t believe me? Here’s how he introduced his first “I love you” statement: “I had a dream last night that you slept with another man. I dreamt that I found him and killed him.”

“Uh huh? I’m glad I survived. So, is that your way of saying that you want to be monogamous?”

“Yes… I think I’m falling in love with you.”

I couldn’t help channeling Postcards From the Edge, and answered, “When will you know for sure?”*

I’ve seen some jealous, needy, codependent sickos in the movies, but nothing compared to this guy. Then, last week, I slid Waitress into the DVD player and encountered Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Holy shit! The thing about visible male need is that it’s simultaneously captivating and disgusting getting a chance to see the hard, definite, phallic body liquefy before your very eyes. Sisto melts twice in the film. The first time, when he discovers that his wife, Jenna (Kerri Russell), is pregnant, he breaks down and makes her swear never to love the baby more than she loves him (she is required to repeat her oaths to him word for word). And the second time when this weasly, possessive, little narcissist discovers that she’s been hiding money around the house, which she intends to use to escape their marriage. There’s something a little too satisfying in watching Kerri Russell trapped with this guy since, as the title character on Felicity, she mind-fucked so many male characters that a kind of vengeful equilibrium has been achieved by this film.

Jenna works at Joe’s House of Pies (Joe is played by Andy Griffith), where she works with Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (played by the tragically deceased Adrienne Shelly who also wrote and directed the film). Jenna’s one gift in life is a talent for making amazing looking pies that correspond to whatever mood she feels on a given day (“I don’t want Earl’s baby pie”). It’s the most delicious looking sublimation I’ve ever seen on screen, and the cinematographer lavishes so much attention on the pie preparation that it breaks my heart that the film wasn’t released in Smell-O-Vision, especially when we get to “I can’t have no affair because it’s wrong and I don’t want Earl to kill me pie … hold the banana.”

Anyway, plot-blah-blah, Becky has a secret, Dawn has self-image issues but manages to find a husband, Andy Griffith is wise, ancient, crotchety, secretive, and Jenna falls in love with her OBGYN, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), eventually leaving her husband at the birth of the baby to go off on her own. For the length and breadth of the movie, Jenna is terrified at the prospect of motherhood, constantly facing visions of impending torture whenever she comes across one mother in particular with her brat of a son. I suppose I’d also find encounters like that intimidating, but the prospect of motherhood absolutely freaks Jenna out since she now perceives her life as completely ruined, stuck with Earl forever. Suspiciously, certain options are foreclosed to allow the plot to move along unimpeded, such as abortion which is shrugged off, as well as the possibility of just giving a bratty kid a benadryl so that the mom can go about her day — which is never broached.

I didn’t love this film as much as Dustin Rowles did, meaning this is one of the few occurrences when my opinion diverges from his. I think part of the problem is that Adrienne Shelly was channeling Hal Hartley (whose films I detest) in the script, so that the actors were often trying to say wise things to one another but aren’t actually playing wise people. Also, the characters’ little tics were a tad inhuman, like Dr. Pomatter who was making too much of an effort to play the dork. Finally, scenes were filmed claustrophobically, lending it a very American playhouse “Our Town” feeling. Everyone was so mid-western and the palette so mid-ranged — blond to light brunette (with few exceptions, such as Sisto) — that the cast began to combine into a dark blond colored mess, as if one was watching talking, walking, macaroni & cheese for two hours.
I think Cheryl Hines may have picked up on this and tried to make something of it in the DVD interview. She points out that for the film she had her hair colored and done up by her sister-in-law “since we wanted Becky to look like the kind of person whose hair was done up by her sister-in-law.” Hines is kind of a genius, and reportedly she’s been asked by Shelly’s husband to direct a script left behind when Shelly died. Since I felt that Hines was being held back in this film, and could have been more “on target” with her lines if she was simply allowed to do as usual and make them up as she goes along, I think a chance to direct the next movie will allow her to temper some of Shelly’s tendencies to cutesiness.

Re: cast interviews, someone also needs to warn Nathan Fillion that he has got to stop making such deeply sensitive comments about his films lest he risk being forever cast in Lifetime tee vee movie limbo. He played the nervous schmuck far too earnestly for this viewer’s taste. Fillion actually reminds me of an overenthusiastic barista from the nearby cafe, who always spends an extra ten minutes fussing over my cappuccino — making sure that every grain of coffee is perfectly ground and forms a perfect convex, and in the meantime tells me that by permitting him to use 2% milk I’m allowing him to practice his ‘art’ whereas the soy milk people don’t understand the ‘craft’ — but who then hands me the drink by thumping it down on the counter and shouting “16 oz cappuccino,” as if it’s at all appetizing or artful to know how much my fucking drink weighs! If you want to be a good actor, then just be a good actor and spare the audience the benefit of your deep insight.

What do I think of Waitress? I think it’s a fun time with faults that aren’t terribly alienating. I also think it’s sad that Adrienne Shelly was murdered. Not only was she adorable and talented, a new mother, but she would clearly have made some amazing films down the line. I also think that ‘Earl’ is an important cinematic creation, and though there are plenty of losers to choose from in the movies, few are creepy and familiar enough to start that spine tingling. If I hear from my spine at least once while watching a movie, then it’s worth recommending even with qualifications.

*He never actually had any reason to worry, even when I let him think he did. I loved that imbecile more than I think he was ever capable of understanding. What can I say? I’m a born codependent.

A Stalker Clings to Love With Both Hands

December 16, 2007

I’m a huge fan of self-conscious acting choices such as the scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry David casually cleans his glasses using a yamaka. Alternately, one of the lovely touches Sarah Silverman has added to her roles over the years takes place in her first appearance on the USA television comedy, Monk, as Marci Maven (yes, ass, I know Monk is not a very good show but I like it anyway). Newly obsessed with Adrian Monk as the world’s greatest detective, Marci abandons her previous fixation on actor who plays a tee vee detective in order to obsess over Mr. Monk. At midnight, she knocks on his door to let him know that she has created a website dedicated to celebrating his genius. The brilliant touch is that Marci uses both sets of knuckles while knocking. Her knocks come rapid fire as she hunches her shoulders and leans into the door; she is childish and animalistic. Even though it probably wasn’t, I like to imagine that this acting choice was an homage to the greatest stalker film of all time, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.

In the scene in question, Sandra Bernhard, playing Masha, marks her first intrusion into Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) life by assaulting him in his limo after he’s finished taping his show. Competing fans drag Jerry to safety and lock Bernhard in the limo as she screams “I’m not going to take… Jerry! No! No!” Both Bernhard’s hands pound at the window. Scorsese freeze frames as a flash photograph illuminates both Masha’s hands clutching the window, trapping the wild animal; fellow stalker, Rupert Pupkin played by Robert De Niro, peers inside the limo, past Masha towards the audience. Frank Sinatra’s obsessive “Rain or Shine” plays as the credits do a slow roll between Masha’s illuminated and outstretched hands.

While watching him demonstrate the beta-version of his online video chat/dating service, my friend (Sa)Adam and I were talking about the movie (or, rather, I was telling him about the movie). Over his web-cam, he condescended that women don’t stalk; stalkers are always men. I strongly objected. It was difficult for us to talk. We were using the video dating website he’s programming to chit chat. If I didn’t keep rating him above a “6” on a scale from 1-10 once a minute, he would be bumped from the screen. As succinctly as I could, I directed him to Bernhard’s performance in the movie. I explained that it could teach a person a lot about how differently people fantasize.

Take, for example, Rupert’s fantasies. They revolve entirely about performing his success in front of an audience. Every night he stages his triumph in front of a set of the Jerry Langford show, sometimes performing a monologue; other times acting out an interview and on-stage banter next to cardboard cut-outs of Jerry Lewis and Liza Minelli (cardboard Liza doesn’t fall off stage as easily as real life Liza). Since he believes in the American Dream where anyone can achieve success if they try hard enough, Rupert thinks that simply by wanting something badly enough he can actualize it. Given that his comedy is about his and his family’s inadequacies, his performance is a self-castration in front of a live studio audience.

Masha, on the other hand, comes off as one of Bernhard’s ‘performance art’ routines, totally unhinged and off-book. She’s the perfect actress to make this role her own, down to even the way she can seductively remove masking tape from Jerry Lewis’ lips, purse her own and blow him a kiss. I can believe that scriptwriter, Paul Zimmerman, did include the scene where Bernhard sings Billy Holiday’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” but it’s very it’s very difficult for me to believe that Bernhard’s monologue — delivered across a candlelit dinner with Lewis at the other end, confined by masking tape — came from anyone’s mind other than her own:

I feel completely impulsive tonight. Anything could happen. I have so much to tell you. I don’t know where to start. I want to tell you everything about myself. Everything you don’t know. Do you like these glasses? Crystal. Beautiful. I bought them just for you. I don’t know. There’s something about them that remind me of you. Just the simplicity. But if you don’t like them. If there’s even an inkling that you have a doubt in your mind [she hurls her glass behind her. It shatters]. You know, sometimes during the day I’ll be doing the simplest things. I’ll be taking a bath and I’d say to myself, I wonder if Jerry’s taking a bath right now? Then I’d just hope, you know, that you’re not drowning or something. I just get really worried about you, you know, like something terrible’s going to happen. Then I just have these daydreams like I’m out with you at the golf course driving your cart. Just driving around. ‘Need a putter, Jer?’ you know. ‘Need an iron?’ I don’t even know how to play golf. I played with my parents once. My dad. But, I love you. I’ve never told my parents that I love them. Of course, they never told me that they loved me either, which was fine with me. But I love you. Want some wine? No? Okay. I’m not in the mood to drink either, though. But I’m sure in the mood to be alone with you. Why don’t we just clear off the table. I was thinking, why don’t we go upstairs, but that’s so predictable. Let’s just take everything off the table and do it right here. Of course that would blow your mind, wouldn’t it? It would blow my mind. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never even had anyone over for dinner, let alone made love on the table. But somehow, I just want to do that. I just want to dance. Like, you know, put on some Shirelles. I wanna be black. [Laughs]. Wouldn’t that be insane? God, you know, I wish I was… You know what I wish I was tonight? I wish I was Tina Turner. Dancing to the room. Oooohhh Oooohhh [Laughs at herself].

Throughout the scene, Jerry sits silently, occasionally rolling his eyes. He never once laughs. Whereas Masha’s routine is outwardly similar to Rupert’s, he receives plenty of gratifying laughter which isn’t to say that he’s funnier. They both make reference to their abject family lives, however Masha doesn’t use comedy to only sadistically project hostility. The only clear thing about her routine is that she’s ambivalent; she’s of two minds about those she loves. Both Masha and Rupert have trapped their audience, but only Masha is explicit about it. Jerry is flat out told that he reminds her of her father; that even though she loves him, she fantasizes about him drowning or harm coming to him on a daily basis; that she’s willing to destroy prized possessions on the mere suspicion that what he’s thinking is that they’re tasteless. Jerry knows that this crazy bitch is auditioning and that in spite of her reverence for him, she also feels contempt. It makes her unpredictable and dangerous. In a way, she’s the true heir to his late-night spot as he also reveres the craft of comedy but feels contempt for his audience and his colleagues. That feeling, at least, is mutual. What makes her ‘edgy’ — edgier than either Jerry or Rupert — is that she integrates these mixed feelings into her routine. By doing so, she demonstrates that she understands Jerry’s own schtick inside and out.

Darian Leader, author of Why do Women Write More Letters Than They Post, takes up a psychoanalytic line that says women desire differently from men. Women, he argues, don’t have a cultural constant of Womanhood with which to identify, so they’re always trying to figure out how they’re supposed to act whereas it’s a lot clearer to men since you don’t exactly have to be a genius to get the basics of masculinity down (hint: start with a baseball cap). When they watch a couple pass by, women are not checking out either the woman or the man but rather how they interact. Leader defends the generalizing structure of his argument by saying that desire works along different axes of generalization:

‘I know you’ is probably the worst possible thing a man can say to a woman and the best possible thing a woman can say to a man. While most men like to be included in generalizations, many women don’t. This fact is well known to retailers: if you want to sell your coat to a man, you can tell him that everyone in the City or on Wall Street is wearing it, but if you want to sell it to a woman, it is better to say, on the contrary, that no one is wearing it… Even if men want to wear what everyone else in the City is wearing and women what no one else in the city is wearing, most men in fact end up failing to follow fashion while many women follow fashion but without necessarily wanting to.

Leader’s argument is based on Lacan’s logic tables that refer to sex and desire. Not-A this, Not-B that. They’re boring, but Leader has a way of making them accessible. In reference to the film, we can see that one of the extremely irritating things to Jerry about Masha (other than that he’s her prisoner) is that everything she says and does is meant to elicit audience participation. She’s a game-player. Nothing he says or does could possibly please her, so he remains stoic in the face of her hysteria. Her routine is all about toying with his perception of her, as if to say ‘You may think you know me, a spoiled Jewish princess, but I’m black inside’ or ‘I may love you, but see how I express it in torture.’ Every statement she makes is a question. Can he see the intricacies of her desire for him? Can he see how much bigger than his person — even his star power — this desire extends? Can he continually gauge their ever-shifting relation?

Even if he can’t, he’s suitably intimidated as you can see from this scene in the movie where Masha unsubtly follows him to his studio.

How Does the Bourgeoisie Masturbate?

December 9, 2007

At the point when I realized that Trouble Everyday had sat for two years in my Netflix queue in spot number 4, I knew I was having some kind of weird psychological conflict over seeing this movie. I love anything Claire Denis touches. She has this talent for finding beauty in the bitterly ugly. Usually, I rush out to theater to see her movies as soon as possible. When Beau Travail came out on DVD — her adaptation of Melville’s short story “Billy Budd” using the French foreign legion in Africa — I made sure to grab a copy immediately. In the case of Trouble Everyday, however, the problem, the reason for my resistance, was apparent from the start. Vincent Gallo! She used him in Nenette et Boni, but I naively must have believed that any smart director would have learned her lesson the first time through.

Denis used him again! Let it be recorded for posterity here and now that I find Vincent Gallo to be abhorrent. Performance Studies scholars (heh) make reference to the actor’s body when discussing certain meta-textual effects used by directors. A canny director will use an actor’s previous casting to winkingly comment upon his new role. Take Julie Benz in Dexter. Anyone who knew her as Darla, the vicious vampire in a cheerleading outfit, has a difficult time accepting the dewy innocence of her Rita at face value — and the show wisely takes advantage of this. In the case of rat-faced Vincent Gallo, however, the skeeviness of his body overrides any acting roles that he takes on. His gift is to annihilate any character he’s playing. The only way I can understand Claire Denis’ repeated use of him is in reference to his famous ugliness. Perhaps she considers it a directorial challenge to redeem the monster.

So, this weekend I succumbed and just watched the damn thing. It wouldn’t be the most tasteful thing in the world to describe this film as a feast for the eyes, but so it is. It’s beautiful despite Gallo, who fits inasmuch as his character is modeled on the classic mad scientist of Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde. The over-rendered bucolic backdrops, with yellow light illuminating branches we see slowly dripping with blood, cum, and other sex juices, could be used in a Silent Hill game. And the collaborative music from The Tindersticks (some of the scenes were purportedly written from the music), with whom Denis has worked several times before, gives the film sensuality.

Gallo plays a chemist, Shane, in Paris pretending to his wife that they are on a normal honeymoon while he searches for Dr Léo Semeneau (played by the creepy Alex Descas). Shane and Semeneau worked together in the past, in Africa, where Shane stole Semenau’s work. Both Shane and Semaneau’s wife, Coré (Béatrice Dalle), are afflicted with a disease that forces them to literally hunger for those after whom they lust.

In a film about cannibalism, then, casting Gallo is actually apt. Let’s just get the obvious out of the way. Usually, we associate cannibalism with primitive tribes. Of course, we know better. Cannibalism is one of capitalisms own fantasies; one that it projects outwards. Eating others is literally the most direct way of satisfying our selfish desires. Denis’ challenge is to make cannibalism sexy, which is one way to depict how selfishly we behave with our “partners” when we are having sex.

One of the best scenes in the movie shows Vincent Gallo fucking his wife (Tricia Vessey). When he reaches the verge of climax, he rushes to the bathroom to jerk off into the bathtub while his wife pounds on the locked door, screaming to be let in. Simultaneous orgasm is film and television’s biggest cliché. To this viewer, having seen Chloe Sevigny blow him in Brown Bunny, there is no question that we actually watch Gallo’s real jism arc across the bathroom in that scene. Gallo is a pervert, and Claire Denis is enabling him, but the point about sexual solitude is well-made. And when Tricia Vessey’s character begs Shane to “let me in” emotionally, the sympathetic feminist in me prays she gets some help quick. Her character is spared because they’re in love, which, as we all know, is the opposite of lust.

Once I overcame my casting prejudice, one thing tormented me about this movie and it left this viewer with an open question to ponder. I’ve never understood the whole thing with characters in art films masturbating while lying on their stomachs. I could see a lithe Meg Ryan doing it in Jane Campion’s In the Cut (the English Professor stalking film), but watching Vincent Gallo doing it for Claire Denis felt especially physically awkward. There are two downward facing masturbation scenes in this movie, which totally perplexed me. Given independent and foreign cinema’s fascination with masturbating towards the bed, does it logically follow that masturbating while lying on one’s back is bourgeois?

Right for Each Other for All the Wrong Reasons

November 4, 2007

For years, I couldn’t find any entry on the internet about Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi’s 1973 film, The Driver’s Seat that did not describe the film as “psychotic.” People felt that they had it sufficiently summed up in that one word, which also was one of the alternate titles given to the film at its release abroad. Occasionally it was noted for putting Liz Taylor onscreen across from Andy Warhol; this should have been hint enough that this movie is a queer’s casting wet dream. With its release on dvd there has been a call to re-evaluate it (on, but not much effort has been made.

“Who asked you for a stain resistant dress?”
A neo-surrealist effort, the film is an adaptation of Muriel Spark’s brilliant novel. Though I haven’t read it in over ten years, that book is one of the most vivid reading experiences of my life and I find the film to be a faithful rendition with the exception of some tweaks to the narrative structure.

Plot-wise it’s a story about Lise (Elizabeth Taylor), a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who leaves some unnamed Northern European country on a vacation to the South (clearly Italy), where she intends to meet up with her boyfriend.

Lise unwinds in her hotel room.

One misadventure after another leads Lise to encounter men whom she deems are not her “type.” Eventually, she catches up to a fellow who had caught her attention on the flight over to Italy, takes him to the woods and instructs him as to the method of her execution (death by stabbing). Spark probably meant this to be an indictment of the way in which modern urban loneliness makes a woman’s sexuality frigid and thereby turns her most positive social impulses against herself.

“Where are you going dressed like that, the circus?!”

But that’s such a cold, analytic, way to summarize the movie. Spark was well known for her Humanistic, “Catholic,” all-encompassing sense of humor and her campy plots (she deserved the Nobel Prize far more than that hack, Doris Lessing). The film maintains much of that sensibility, telling the story through a series of police interviews that flashback to the characters’ horror at encountering Lise. Lise is played as a tacky affront to the senses, whose social awkwardness transcends mere bad taste and becomes a divine madness — an aesthetic of tightly wound up female sexuality and lack of self-consciousness.

“This may look like a purse. But it’s actually a bomb! You’re all so suspicious. Suspicious!”

There is a method to Lise’s madness, such as when she stuffs her passport into the seat of a cab mentioning “this will keep it safe.” Liz Taylor plays the scene with frenzy followed by relief as if by packing away the sign of her identity, Lise has thrown off a weighty burden.

“When I diet, I diet. And when I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures.”

Right for each other for all the wrong reasons, is a sentiment whose smug self-satisfaction is on par with such expressions as “TMI” (read: ‘Too Much Information’) and “It is what it is” (read: ‘Fuck You’). But here, Lise and her “boyfriend” are so wrong each for each other, there is something beautifully right about it.

Pierre senses this about their dynamic when he first sees her on the flight. Her predatory nature has her sniffing him up and down. His panic is such that he stands up and forces his way down the aisle to another seat just as the plane is taking off. He thinks that pathological love is something that he can escape, not yet understanding that all true love is naturally pathological. Lise is smitten by the rejection: “He must be crazy. I wonder who he is?” she asks. “He must be nutty” she muses with apparent hunger.

Lise spots a “filthy, stale glass… dirty” in her hotel bathroom.

Not enough can be said about Elizabeth Taylor’s insane performance in this movie. As ever her delivery was virtuoso, but by 1973 one could see the wear and tear of age on her face. The over-ripeness of her appearance and wardrobe (as Lise says of her dress, “These are pure, natural, colors”) only enhances her amazing acting talent. One of the best trained actresses of her generation, she had been eclipsed by the legend of that blond bimbo, Marilyn Monroe. But this was a role into which she could sink her teeth, presenting Lise’s instability with subtle changes of expression such as the gamut of emotions that wash across her face when, out of the corner of her eye, she discovers an unwashed glass in the hotel bathroom.

Lise dirties her dress in a terrorist attack.

Someone with great taste has kindly uploaded scenes from the film onto youtube in three parts. If you can’t get your hands on the dvd or vhs of the film, I’ve linked to the videos below. I would love to hear what established fans of the movie think of it, and see the impression of newcomers to it. I watch this thing at least once a year and am never disappointed with its madness, and have not once thought that I have a comprehensive sense of what is going on in it.

Let me know what you think.

Cache, or The Eye of God is Hidden

November 1, 2007

In Cache, prominent book critic and pater familias, Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteil), comes home to find his wife in possession of a surveillance tape made of his street-front and home. Host of a literary discussion show, Georges is used to being on camera, however, he finds himself unsure of how to cope with the creepy video tapes that continue to appear. Minimalist inasmuch as they are videos of the front of his house that last for hours, they are sometimes delivered alongside unpleasant drawings of what appears to be a bloodied child; it becomes clear after a while that George’s stalker knows him. Very possibly, the stalker knows him better than his wife does.

As I first watched it, I strongly suspected their son of creating the tapes. 14 year olds are already proficient in video, and the badly made drawings could indicate someone with more skill at photoshop than in drawing by hand. Moreover, the video tapes and drawings rapidly expose the fissures and underlying hostility between Georges and wife, Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) — the kind of fissures a child would know better than anyone else. But the intimate problems of couples do tend to be universal, and the persecution complex infects a spouse more quickly than the person being stalked (they are threatened by what they cannot understand — a secretiveness that seems to be a judgment upon them). The film knows that that’s usually the one who goes to the police and urges the partner to report the violation. This, of course, is something Georges can’t handle — exposure of his secrets — caught in a spiral of paranoid bad conscience.

Over the course of the movie, another possible culprit enters into suspicion, namely, Majid — the son of the servants who worked for Georges’ parents when he was a child, and hitherto forgotten by Georges. Majid is the locus of his guilt/resentment. The servant couple disappeared back in the sixties during an Algerian protest of their treatment in the Republic. This is a moment that seemed to have vanished from the history books until recently: French soldiers cast hundreds of massacred Algerians into the Seine in 1961. Discovering that their servants were gone, and the son orphaned, Majid was to become Georges’ new brother.

Director Haneke refuses to lapse into “sociology” and does not soapbox about the historical event. Rather, his approach is more elliptical… more concerned with how the introduction of a new brother threatened Georges, who began to experience Majid in a hostile light, spreading lies about him to sour the adoption. A relationship that was supposed to be for life is pre-emptively truncated, forever haunting Majid, but only now remembered by Georges. One of the most primal moments in the movie is when Georges recalls a protesting Majid being stuffed into a car and driven away from their home. He tells his wife he can’t remember the details, but his memories are presented in the same clarity as the surveillance video of their home.

Using the landmarks in one of the video tapes, Georges tracks Majid to his current home, where Majid appears not to understand Georges’ accusations and slits his own throat in front of Georges. A video tape of the suicide is then sent to Georges’ home shortly thereafter, appearing to absolve Majid of responsibility.

The beauty of the film lies in the trio of steady-cams that record these scenes. In an age of hand-held cameras and action movie jump-cuts, there’s a courage to the stillness of these images. The stalker’s video is indistinguishable from the “mundane” live-action filming, leaving the viewer in a state of constant tension. The one exception to this is the shot of Majid slitting his throat in Georges’ presence where the hidden video camera shoots from a higher angle, as if it were a security camera, revealing more of the spurt and Georges’ stumbling powerlessness. The images’ distance increased distance make the moment more clinical and somehow impart a greater emotional impact, especially since they can be seen over and over.

You’d think this is a film about stalking when, in fact, the focus is on guilt and rejection. A wonderful interview with director Haneke at, entitled “Cowardly and Comfortable” highlights this. The interviewer states, “Georges will never reflect on his guilt. It also remains open if he’s wrong …” to which Haneke responds:

Georges should really question his whole way of life. But people never want to face up to that sort of thing. Not because it’d be so difficult in itself, but because the consequences are so severe. Although we know about other people’s wretchedness, it’s only in the rarest cases that we draw any consequences from it. This has what dramatic art has done since its origins. Just think of Oedipus. That’s not a bunch of laughs either.


The threat from outside brings one’s own guilt to the surface. Georges cannot cope with this.

I believe that’s how we function. There’s such a thing as a sort of emotional memory for evil deeds. When a Proustian Madeleine appears by coincidence, then it all re-emerges. And anyway, I can’t pretend I don’t come from this Judeo-Christian tradition. The issue of guilt is always in the air at such latitudes. Which is why I always come back to it. One of the thoughts which inspired the film was to confront someone with something that he’d done as a child. In cases like this we find it particularly comfortable to talk ourselves out of the problem.

I like this idea of talking oneself out of a problem. As the film winds down, Georges hides in his bed. He takes off all his clothes, shuts the curtains and tries to shut out the world. He has stolen from himself the only opportunity for closure and now must live with this aporia in his past, forever unresolvable. One can only imagine the hell he will have keeping it at arm’s length for the remainder of his life. As the credits run, we see a shot of Majid’s son and Georges’ socializing at school as a video camera records them from afar, mirroring the opening scene and hinting at a renewal of intimate violence.