June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
July 26, 2015 § 1 Comment
Looking somehow – vaguely – like a less cartoonish, more handsome version of Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, divorced Manhattan film projectionist Lenny Sokol is an overgrown older brother to his two young sons Sage and Frey of whom he has custody for a feverish fortnight. Lenny, as embodied by writer-director and here actor Ronald Bronstein, doesn’t simply recall Kramer in the looks department; his heart and mind are as tightly sewn to his sleeve as is the case with television’s crown weirdo, and they are both – the two of them – mascots of irresponsibility, to an extent. In fact, Lenny could very well be an alternate-reality projection of Kramer had he (Kramer, that is) impregnated someone and landed the role of having to partially raise two children. So there is the unabashed expressiveness, which always makes for a sympathetic character however one feels about the expressive acts themselves, and there is the careless charm and general carelessness. But what really makes Lenny a protagonist for the ages is that he must walk a mean tightrope, if only for the span of the film’s two week duration, with adolescent abandon on one side of the fall and the rock-hard sidewalks of stodgy adulthood looming on the other. Perhaps walking is too generous a descriptor even; more like hanging from the rope one-handed, being blown by the pressures of life from one side to the next. This probably makes Daddy Longlegs sound a little melodramatic and it very well is: a melodrama of Lenny’s own concocting, and a great one at that.
Interestingly, in reviewing Bronstein’s directorial debut Frownland for Ozu’s World Movie Review, critic Dennis Schwartz claims that the 2007 no-budget feature trumps David Lynch’s Eraserhead in sheer “weirdness.” Whether or not this is a fair or even accurate assessment, there’s a curious semi-connection in there. Apart from the fact that Jack Nance’s character in Eraserhead, Henry Spencer, is an even earlier precursor of Kramer’s spastic, electrocuted look, Bronstein’s Lenny is – like Henry – a noticeably naked depiction of fatherhood not often seen in the cinema. Sure, Lenny loves being a dad to his boys and sure, there are [many] fathers in [many] movies, but few of them seem to grapple with their parental duties in a manner that has potent dramatic edge and hints of torture/disabling self-doubt. Either they drag their feet, coast along, lash out…or they have it down to an art with their compassionate newspaper-reading paternalism. Yes, in Daddy Longlegs, Lenny is the typical irresponsible, fun foil to his stauncher more ‘adult’ ex-wife Paige (played by gonzo artist Leah Singer, the two young boys’ actual mother), but he is not above yelling Sage and Frey back into bed or benignly drugging them in their sleep, for their own protection. His natural penchant for frivolity is offset by these pressured attempts at discipline and responsibility and, as the film reaches its uneasy conclusion, the fact that Lenny can’t quite find a pleasant middle ground between friend and father becomes clear even to his pre-adolescent boys. Of course, one could argue that the film is a gentle paean to single parenthood and its struggles; to those whose late-night shifts are tainted by the guilt and worry from having left young lieges alone at home. Or it could be a sobering reminder that children of divorce often walk their own tightrope not just between two modes of parenting but two vastly different – perhaps harmfully contradictory – approaches to existence. When Sage and Frey return to their mother’s home the overall image is one of well-mannered domesticity, plus they have a more gentrified father figure to boot in the form of their mother’s new husband. It’s difficult to predict whether they would benefit from their father’s chaos on a more regular basis. It’s probably less difficult to postulate that the presence of both in a more complimentary dynamic would be ideal.
For those out there – probably most, one would imagine – whose impression of the current standoff between digital video and film is that it is nothing more than an esoteric scuffle between tunnel-visioned obsessives, viewing a dirt cheap picture that was shot with 16mm stock should prove enlightening, even if only a pinch. Whereas it may be close to impossible for a casual non-geek to identify whether or not a decently budgeted film like Fincher’s Zodiac was shot on film or digitally, let alone outline the key differences in image quality between the two formats, the textural and tonal disparity between Daddy Longlegs and something shot on DSLR – or even a film like Once – is staggering and easy to notice. Apart from the buoyant colour palette and the smoothness of the transitions between light and shadow (dynamic range), there is a grainy, bleary-eyed nostalgia that 16mm lends this picture. From frame one, writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie make no secret of this movie’s roots in their own memories of and experiences with their father (and mother), but theirs nonetheless remains a film set in the now, in contemporary (as of 2008-9) New York City as opposed to a more obviously longing restaging of their childhood in the 1980s. But there is an unmistakable, unwashed timelessness to the parts of NYC in which the movie was shot, as though the very air let alone the buildings and sidewalks have barely aged over the decades. Without trying, Daddy Longlegs manages to evoke the kind of old-school off-the-cuff cinema to which it will undoubtedly be (and is currently being) compared. One can imagine that recreating a distinct period would be costly at any scale but, luckily, the Safdies seem to have been aiming for something more than mere throwback grassroots realism in the vein of Cassavettes (whose namesake prize the brothers happened to win at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards). For all its physical intimacy, its long-lens aesthetic with a generous supply of fearless close-ups, fumbling focus and overt naturalism, Daddy Longlegs separates itself from its indie contemporaries in its willingness to dance with the surreal and morbidly expressionistic, namely the mystifying but somehow right sitcom-like applause and battlefield noises that bookend the film’s soundtrack, and of course the giant mosquito that sucks the peace of mind right out of Lenny’s neck as he sleeps and presumably dreams. Whatever the more literal meaning of these may be, they make emotional sense in addition to ever-so-slightly distancing the film from the current fetishisation of “documentary” realism. But they also suggest that these filmmaking brothers are intent on doing more than just depicting their past and materialising their memories. Theirs is an act of interpretation and reckoning, and it is this which allows their picture to sway precariously above its peers, reaching for a little more than 16mm verisimilitude.
November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.
“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?
Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.
The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.
How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.
May 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is out and in the open, I feel that I have finally come to some conclusion, or at the very least some articulable opinion regarding the practice of putting sex on film. Tossing my mind back to the days when this project was just a rumour in the air about the Danish prankster making a movie starring Shia Lebouf and his member, one that would tread the line between “cinema” and “pornography” more perilously than he ever had before – because ‘The Idiots’ had definitely not attempted this – I am struck by how anticlimactic the whole three-and-a-half hours feels, anticlimactic in the sense that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is perhaps a lot tamer than the hullabaloo leading up to its release suggested it might be, not that hullabaloo is ever predictive of anything. But at the very least, the film in my opinion does not commit any transgressions greater than have been done in previous von Trier efforts. Assuming, also, that the claims made by the director’s production company Zentropa are true – the ones about digitally grafting movies star faces onto porn star bodies – then one could concievably argue with some degree of conviction that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is likely not his most ‘pornographic’ film, which in itself is a problematic claim on so many levels, semantic and otherwise.
‘The Idiots’, a 1998 Dogme 95 film (Dogme 95 being a movement that forbade – amongst other things – the use of effects), featured actual sex between individuals whose heads and genitals were of the same flesh and shared the same DNA. ‘Nymphomaniac’, as far as we’ve been told, does not. Does this then make it less pornographic than von Trier’s 1998 picture? Does ‘The Idiots’ as a film have sex more on the brain than his most recent opus? Well, firstly, I’d argue that ‘The Idiots’ simply has sex in it while ‘Nymphomaniac’ is generally more sex-centric, if only sex as seen through one or two particular points of view.
Thinking about ‘Nymphomaniac’ over the last two weeks has led me to settle on the opinion that it is a film that does not explore or portray sex and sexuality in a particularly interesting or challenging way, but one which, by virtue of its sprawl and ideological indiscipline, is nonetheless a great heaving bonfire around which sex on film can be discussed. Maybe not sex as a complex facet of humanity, but sex as an element of cinematic language. I don’t want to review ‘Nymphomaniac’. I don’t want to critique the various performances and myriad accents featuted in it, the digressional script, the use of multiple aspect ratios, or whether it deserves its two-volume release. I’m not quite that interested in debating whether Lars von Trier is a misogynist or a wannabe feminist, whether he has anything to say or is just eager to be heard, whether he is intentionally or unintentionally tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he loves or hates himself. Perhaps these are all meatier, juicier talking points, but I would like to take this opportunity to hash out some heretofore muddled thoughts and theories on filmic depictions of sex.
In my time as a young male raised in an epoch of sexual ubiquity, I have had my tiger’s share of media-assisted sexual gratification. I say assisted because some of my earliest autosexual experiences were facilitated by everything from women’s magazines tailored for conservative housewives and Avon catalogues, to kids’ shows hosted by finely-bosomed brunettes and even an admittedly sexually-charged scene from David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenz’. To further clarify, when I say autosexual I do not simply mean masturbation, but any situation in which I was sexually aroused in the presence of myself and no one else, an arousal which I to some degree enjoyed, encouraged, prolonged or actively sought out. Does the fact that I was sexually aroused when watching the host of Kideo (a South Africa kids’ TV show) or that I pleasured myself while paging through Avon brochures imply that that show or those brochures where pornographic or that they at least contained pornographic elements? Sure, they contained sexual elements, and if they did contain sexual elements but only unintentionally so – from the perspective of their creators – then were they necessarily pornography? I can assure you that the host of that show was no more sexually suggestive than a pretty Sunday school teacher, and that those Avon materials no more suggestive than an insurance ad adorned by a gorgeous, smiling face. Now, while the latter may intentionally capitalize on sexuality to sell both insurance and mascara, to say that Avon or AAMI intend on me flopping out my wiener and stroking it is highly cynical.
Conversely, there are sex scenes of varying graphicness that I have witnessed on television or on the silver screen or on my laptop which, despite oozing tits and ass aplenty, barely stir cyclops from his slumber if at all. Some of the above scenes were in films legally registered as triple-x adult material yet for all their sexual explicitness I could have been watching lions mating on Saturday daytime cable TV. In these cases was I or was I not in the presence of pornography? Whereas I was aroused by that which was perhaps not intended to arouse, the converse occurred with that which was certainly intended to arouse to some extent or at least mildly titillate which is, let’s be frank, what most sex scenes featuring attractive actors in ‘non-pornographic’ films are in some way expected to do. There is clearly a difference between something being pornography versus being pornographic. Perhaps pornography is created with intent whereas anything can possibly be rendered pornographic, even transiently so, by way of a patron’s response to its sexual potential. I wonder.
So having established the complexity of the concept of pornography, I would like to consider why – outside of the realm of audiovisual coital aids – sex is finding, has often found, and will likely continue to find its way onto screens.
It’s saying nothing really, to state that whatever is on the mind of society will somehow find its way into that society’s artistic firmament. If this is the case – which it surely is, considering how steeped in sexuality are our oldest surviving tales and myths – then it is no surprise that sex and film has a long albeit problematic relationship. Almost as far back as the advent of the cinematic medium, blue movies and stag films have existed. Sex is and has been on the mind of human society for millennia and there is really no point in questioning why it continues to be portrayed in art. The real question is what purpose sex serves in the context of film other than simply depicting an enduring part of human life or kowtowing to society’s obsession with it? If a filmmaker states, as many do, that they wish to depict human lives in as raw and truthful a way as possible without succumbing to the usual pressures to create drama and omit the everyday, then would it not be a little prudish of them to avoid capturing humans in the act of sex, whether real or staged? In fact, why should sex not be depicted? Surely it’s not in order to preserve some ideal of sex being an intimate and private affair that only the involved parties should have any right to experience, because if this was the case, a staggering proportion of dramatic art would be immediately rendered inappropriate and exploitative for having exposed and portrayed that which occurs behind one’s closed doors and behind one’s eyes. Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the abiding influence of religion and common morality on how sex is approached in various societies. And while the society that I am most familiar with – the predominantly Anglo-Saxon West – has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that traditionally considers sex to be a private and sacred (if not outright holy) act, in the secular here and now of 2014 when and where sexual explicitness and suggestiveness are commonplace in that there are increasingly commodified, it strikes me as particularly odd that the act of sex when transposed from its usual place under the duvet in a darkened bedroom onto a screen in a darkened theatre still seems to inspire discomfiture in so many people; well, at least from ratings boards and champions of moral “decency”.
It was only subsequent to the release in 2010 of Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’ (a film I like but am not overly fond of) that I felt I understood something of the way sex is handled by the secular west. Now, assuming that the MPAA and other such organisations base their decisions on their gauge of the prevailing public mindset, then it can be argued that sex is not what causes such communal blushing, but the context in which sex occurs; the same goes for violence. This is nothing new. It has been clear to me for some time that violence is considered most disturbing when its psychological implications are brought to the fore. This is what allowed for the popularization – no – normalization of the action movie bloodbath in which hordes can be slaughtered yet nary a gasp or groan can be heard coming from a theatre audience. Kids half-watch such things in the presence of their parents at home, and the clanging of swords and barrage of gunfire are no more alarming to any of them than would be mild interference on the car radio. Similarly, people sit and consume their dinners while watching the news which is often a string of decontextualized violence recited plainly, as should perhaps be the case with all news, the “plainly” part that is. The horror may register intellectually, but there is little if any emotional impact. I know people (who shall remain unnamed) for whom violence is a strong no-no, apart from when it appears on the news in which case it is simply information despite the fact that some parties were actually affected, traumatised, maimed, killed. Violence is palatable, entertaining even, when the significance of the act is bleached out. Countless shootings and stabbings and beatings seen in countless films have barely scratched my psyche, yet one single act of brief violence in a film like ‘Cache’ still affects me, because it should, if only by way of my imagining what would possibly lead an individual to inflict such a thing on themselves and on the onlooker who stands looking on; because this is what the film itself asks.
On that note, back to ‘Blue Valentine’, a film that was threatened with – and may have in fact received (if I remember correctly) – an NC-17 rating (one step below X-rated) largely on the grounds of a scene in which a balding character played by Ryan Gosling fellates a character played by Michelle Williams. There was a mild cyclone of controversy about the MPAA’s reaction to this scene and much was written about it which I did not read, which means that some or much of what I say may echo things previously written and said.
When I heard of the MPAA’s decision I could not remember seeing more than Gosling’s oblong bobbing head shielded by William’s left thigh and seeing the response on the great actress’ face in a performance which consisted of more than the usual mechanical oohs and ahs that seem to score most sex scenes. Hers was a portrayal of vulnerability, desire, relief, uncertainty, frustration, conflict…things usually sieved from mainstream depictions of sexual intercourse. Just as the man who slashed his throat midway through ‘Cache’ did so – I believe – as an expression of something he felt he could not express with words, so too was the sex scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ in which a man tries to rekindle the fire with his wife in a kitschy hotel room and in doing so simultaneously expresses his desire to dominate as well as his utter dependence on her. In these two movies, violence and sex were not just acts for the purpose of narrative propulsion or embellishment; they are acts of communication, whether or not they were successful or even warranted. Moreover, the scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ has no comic or cartoonish undertones to it, just plain sexual honesty; no quick montage of a million and one sex positions, and more importantly perhaps, the deglamourisation of two recognizable and lusted-after faces such that what is on screen is not the Sex Olympics of the Gods but the simple psychosexual yearnings of average humans. Needless to say, it is exactly this type of honesty that disturbs people. Perhaps sex (and violence), when treated with seriousness, has an uncanny ability to access deep recesses of unexplored emotion and subconscious rumination in viewers that many – by conditioning or by choice – refuse to confront until they are expressed through acts that are either pleasurable or confounding or regrettable or all three and more. Violence is, of course, always regrettable…says the pacifist in me.
The sex scenes in ‘Nymphomaniac’ are not so much sex scenes as they are brief flashes of Joe and her lovers in various sexual positions. On this front, the film is disappointingly akin to many of its contemporaries in its approach to sex. Does Lars von Trier have any idea why it might be interesting to depict Joe in the act of sex? One could argue that for Joe, sex isn’t much more than a series of sexual positions with countless partners in which case the director is vindicated in the approach he has chosen. But considering he opted to pepper the film with random and frankly timid shots of penetration and genital intimacy, perhaps he should have utilised this explicitness for unprecedented artistic effect. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous of me to suggest that the way in which a person interacts not only with their own body but with the bodies of others can provide as much information about their state of mind as a well scripted monologue or exchange; as much if not more. This alone would be a sufficiently strong justification for the inclusion of graphic penetrative sex in a film.
Anyone who believes that fellatio is simply the act of licking or sucking another person’s genitals like it is a bland ice cream or lollipop, and anyone who believes that there is no more nuance to the act than simple mechanical licking and sucking, is frankly kidding themselves. Just as the word “yes” can be uttered in various ways to express various things, so perhaps can an act of oral pleasuring. The most disappointing aspect of a film like Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Battle in Heaven’ is that the sex acts seem to be so aware of their “scandalousness” that they are content with simply being graphic, failing to be little more than plain depictions of sexual intercourse. Admittedly, there are clear attempts in ‘Battle in Heaven’ to utilise sex as an expression of inter- and intra- class/ethnic relations, and the fellatio scenes that bookend the film are perhaps the clearest of all. But even then, the act is so mechanical as to be comparable to the tentative first steps of someone who has only just learnt to do something new and somewhat terrifying. The blowjob that Hugh Jackman’s character receives in ‘Swordfish’ or the one that Captain David Aceveda is forced to give in FX’s great show ‘The Shield’ are almost more accomplished expressions of something in a way that the equivalent acts in Reygadas’ film are somehow not, and I say this as an admirer of Reygadas and his oeuvre. It seems that, as graphic penetrative sex is slowly finding its way into “non-pornographic” somewhat mainstream cinema, there is a self-consciousness that prevents the expression of anything more than giddy exhibitionism and rebellion. Perhaps, with time, once graphic sex becomes less of a taboo, actors, writers and directors will become less concerned with the fact that they’re pushing boundaries and more attuned to the psycho-emotional power and density of sexual activity. Until this becomes more prevalent, artists who use the suggestive power of sex rather than the explicit power of it will dominate in the way that the oft cited scene from Bergman’s ‘Persona’ has dominated this particular conversation since it was first seen in 1966.
By far the most effective moment of graphic sexuality in ‘Nymphomaniac’, the shot of a rising erection is more an expository device than anything, expository in the sense that the penis’s becoming erect tells us exactly what the man in question’s sexual predilection happens to be, which in turn has minor narrative implications. So, I suppose graphic sex can be used to advance plot, though in this circumstance plot would be a strong word. However, with regards to Joe’s dependence on sex, I must say that almost none of the sex scenes in which she features illustrate what exactly sex provides her. I could barely tell you whether Joe actually enjoys sex, or whether there is an element of emotional dependency or self-absorption. The only scenes in which an individual sex act is observed without von Trier’s camera quickly looking away with a blush are the S&M scenes. Joe’s self-loathing and desire for punishment are made a bit clearer, but self-loathing is almost the “go-to” emotional hang-up for sex addicts in fiction. Besides, graphic depictions of sadomasochism are not particularly subversive in 2013/2014 in which case von Trier once again comes across as mildly toothless. At the risk of sounding perverted, ‘Nymphomaniac’ does very little to make a case for the artistic validity of graphic sex in “non-pornographic” film by simply not going far enough. Believe it or not, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’s much hyped sex scenes, while not involving much penetrative action, can be said to at least provide a viewer the slightest insight into Adele’s deep desire for self-actualisation and emotional freedom. In ‘Stranger at the Lake,’ another fine film, writer-director Alain Guiraudie utilises sex more fearlessly and with more psychological heft than does von Trier in ‘Nymphomaniac’, partly by investing his sex scenes with as much time and patience as he does the scenes of dialogue. In that film, sex and speech have similar thematic and narrative weight.
If sex is a mode of communication – non-literary, intuitive communication – then cinema needs to develop a sexual language that can express more than just desire. When two sexy young things manically rip their clothes off and boink each other in your run-of-the-mill television show or movie, one thing that is generally understood, without fail, is that these two individuals want one another on some level; nothing wrong with this. But imagine all other forms of language – verbal and otherwise – were portrayed on screen with equal unsophistication. Imagine actors could only either smile or frown, or were only permitted to speak the words “yes” or “no” and nothing else; hyperbolic as this illustration might be, this is – to an extent – the level of sophistication with which sexuality seems to be used as an expressive modality in film: desire, desire, desire, desire, desire. Maybe domination once in a while. Okay, sure, but what else?
No doubt, if art reserves the right to depict certain aspects of the human experience, on what moral grounds can it be prevented from depicting all aspects of the human experience? Sure, some of these result in more unease when portrayed in art than do others, but perhaps this is because modes of communication like sex and violence are more honest than the average human’s use of verbal discourse, discomfortingly so; honest in that they are deeply visceral and relatively more resistant to social conditioning than our use of words, maybe because we were fucking and fighting long before we developed a form of meaningful oral language and, in the wake of our new-found rhetorical skills, relegated those two to the closet where they can continue to wield immense influence from where they lie in the darkness of our collective id. Wherever words seem to fail, a penis or a pistol is never too far off for better or for worse, so why turn our eyes away or throw coy little glances? As much as it would be nice if violence ceased being a language of its own, if we are to explore ourselves as a species at the current time, we cannot ignore its power and its prevalence, its true terrible power. The same goes for sex.