September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.
In this statement, which also contains his famous ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.
Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.
Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.
So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.
On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.
Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative, and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.
The horror…: “Torso” aka “I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale” or “Bodies bear traces of carnal violence”
April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
If there exists a club wherein sexually frustrated straight men curl up in the corners of rooms and angrily decry all those ‘bitches’ who won’t put out, “Torso” would be the initiation film shown to each new recruit. This is not to say that the male makers of this 1973 giallo film, director Sergio Martino being chief amongst them, would themselves be members of this club, but that woefully misguided male-centric sexual frustration is nonetheless the fuel on which this movie and its central killer run; that and the leering gaze which would go hand-in-hand with the rage of the entitled male who can’t get laid nearly as easily as he believes he should. Now, it would be a gross oversight to think that this sense of frustration makes “Torso” unique. The great majority of slasher films post-“Psycho” are similarly sexually-charged and many of the best and worst entries in the subgenre involve a man emptying his vast reserves of wrath on the female gender, whether consciously or not, only, in “Torso” the killer explicitly verbalises this sense of frustration and the kind of illogical misogyny that goes with it; the kind that finds a guy calling a girl a slut because she’s not interested in sleeping with him. This pre-climactic moment of reiterating one’s motivation – as though to fend off the creeping sense that zero logic therein resides – is deeply ridiculous from a simple narrative perspective and deeply cheap from a psychological standpoint, but it at the same time highlights the senselessness of his crimes by showing the disparity that exists between the nature of the childhood ‘trauma’ that haunts him into becoming a murderer and the nature of the butchering by which he is presumably attempting to restore some sort of cosmic gender justice. The fact that his campaign of terror is terminated by the reckless valour of another leering male – albeit a non-malicious leerer – crowns the picture with a very paternalistic cherry. This being said, the film seems to demonise the very sexualising, womanising gaze that it itself assumes by portraying most of its male characters as horny and lewd and with sex on the brain. The camera almost seems to say, ‘mmm, yeah, look at that sexy ass, see how it moves…I’m sure you creeps out there would love to tear those shorts right off.’ How hypocritical. Within the first ten minutes, several men, by way of their apparent desire to absolutely devour the women around them, are posited as potential suspects. The only men who don’t come across as a little dirty in the mind are the police and the professor whose lecture opens the film proper.
It’s Perugia in the early seventies; summer is in swing and the university is buzzing with students, which means that sex and drugs abound. Someone has begun killing people, mainly students, and the focus of the violence seems to be on the female victims, on their breasts and their eyes both of which tend to be mutilated. Initially it seems that the film will follow an Argento-esque procedural/investigative narrative mode, but “Torso” is far more lurid than that, quickly losing interest in law enforcement and instead becoming enamoured of a group of sexed-up young students and their adventures while dropping in on the gloved killer whenever a kill is around the corner, always forewarned by a slow (and genuinely creepy) keyboard motif. The opening two and a half minutes waste no time whatsoever in positioning the film firmly within the realm of tits and ass exploitation, only a little classier that its grungy American counterparts. To be honest, these luridly staged images of threesomes that may or may not be depictions of a porno shoot or a decadent sex party or both – while recalled in the film’s final sequence – have no real narrative place. Yes, some of the eventual victims are seen in this opening credits sequence, but the where the killer actually fits into all this is fairly unclear. Admittedly, this is not the kind of film that is interested in having its plausibility challenged or proved. One can simply assume – after the fact – that it takes place from the killer’s point of view and let it rest there. In any case this brand of giddy expressionistic abandon confirms, at the very least, that this film “Torso” will provide the visual swagger, the directorial peacocking by which Italian giallos and their direct predecessors stand apart from other forms of slasher flick.
Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and other mid-2000s horror pictures and a name partner in what could be called the ‘Tarantino-Rodriguez-Roth grindhouse geek-out club’, considers “Torso” to be a masterpiece, not that his word means particularly much, though it means enough that someone should heed his recommendation, see the film and write about it. In favour of Roth’s ‘masterpiece’ assertion, towards the end of the film, is a fifteen/twenty minute stretch of near-peerless filmmaking that is bound to excite any filmgoer who appreciates assuredly visual storytelling. The sequence in which Jane, disabled by a sprained ankle, wakes from her sleep to find herself locked in a large country villa and surrounded by three dead friends is probably worthy of praise similar to the kind heaped upon the opening ten minutes of “There Will Be Blood” or the celebrated heist in “Rififi.” Admittedly, these two examples are far more powerful than anything Martino manages to achieve in “Torso”, but within the film itself, the sequence is a standout block of cinema, partly because of its technical execution but also because this type of movie often seems more invested in providing scares and blood splatter than it is in sustaining tension. On this note, the film’s first murder already hints at the fact that suspense is as important to this director as payoff. The patience, the timing and the way in which Martino’s framing in this sequence seems to withhold and conceal visual information, Suzy Kendall’s refreshing, breath-holding portrayal of the rare character in a horror film who actually has intelligent instincts, and the relative absence of the relatively bombastic score, all these add up to produce what is arguably the scariest sequence in a film that doesn’t ever feel quite as sordid or gruesome let alone as frightening as either title would suggest.
December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.
The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.
But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.
So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.
October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
Albert Brooks’ 1981 directorial effort might appear to be, on first viewing, about a man called Robert who can’t seem to make up his damn mind about a woman called Mary: about whether he wants to keep seeing her or whether he thinks they are just too damn incompatible to keep seeing each other. But on further analysis, that is to say ten to fifteen minutes spent thinking about the movie two to three days after having seen it for the first time, it becomes clear that Robert, embodied by writer-director Brooks, is in two minds from the very get-go, and that each one is pretty well made up, the only problem being that they are in stark opposition. In fact, the very foundation for much of the comedy in this film is Robert’s rapid oscillations between these two minds, or rather, the multiple minds he seems to be in with regards to most things in life. So fleetingly does he flit from one to the other, they might as well be simultaneous, which is precisely the crux of his state of crisis. Within single statements, single sentences, Robert repeatedly, dizzyingly contradicts and undercuts himself with an almost confessional naturalism on the part of Brooks, and the character portrait that results is one not of an individual who can’t make a decision per se, but one who can’t choose which decision to stick with, because if there’s one thing that Robert can do it’s to have an opinion or a take or multiple takes on something. It may very well be that having two contradictory minds shields him from having to pick a side and own up to any one decision, which is to say that Robert is highly insecure. This is precisely what makes him such a captivating on-screen presence, his contradictory nature that is, not necessarily his insecurity. In addition to Brooks’ expressively non-expressive face – and a pleasant one at that – the character of Robert doesn’t come across as hand-wringing and ineffectual but rather as very actively rash and self-absorbed. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing someone to love, it may be somewhat possible to simultaneously want and not want a person, but it’s probably a little harder to have them and not have them. At some point a choice is required.
What truly makes “Modern Romance” uniquely captivating, though, is that Mary – while not as obviously neurotic and excruciatingly needy as Robert – is deeply complicit in their yo-yoing pendulum of a love affair, perhaps because she is helplessly drawn to him, or perhaps because she is just as helplessly confused and in two minds as he is. Which leads directly to a key question, the question being: is ‘Modern Romance’ mostly a film about a man and his peculiar assortment of insecurities, is it about a couple and their inherent attraction to each other despite how terrible they might very well be for one another, or – as the title would suggest – is it a film about sex, love and commitment in (at the time) contemporary USA, the key word being ‘contemporary’? The truth is that Brooks’ picture is a bit of all three, but maybe in varying doses at different points along its runtime. On the strength of Robert’s pungency and nervy charisma as the film’s key protagonist and the fact that a viewer simply cannot escape his mindscape due to the fact that the film seems to continually adopt or at least imply his point-of-view and state of mind, ‘Modern Romance’ is something of a character study, though not a particularly incisive one. If the aim of a character study is to analyse and understand the inner workings of a character, the film is not emphatically successful as one if at all. Yet the insistence on Robert’s repetitive, one-note mode of thought and his apparent lack of insight is a clear move to exploit his neuroticism for comedic effect, which implies that the objective is not necessarily to understand why he is the way he is, but how the way he is influences the choices he make, in particular those pertaining to romance. Then there is the idea of the film being a kind of peek into the romantic life of a heterosexual couple in 1980s LA. Whether or not one considers Mary and Robert as being representative of an average mid to upper-middle class white couple on an archetypal level, or as being a couple representative only of themselves and as real as any that one would meet at a party or people-watch in a park, ‘Modern Romance’ is probably digested most easily as a love story with acerbic undertones: boy dumps girl, boy fears he has made a terrible mistake, boy bulldozes his way back into girl’s life. In this mode, it is a terrific piece of entertainment with a unique enough bent to ensure that audiences inundated with one lacklustre romantic tale after another will find themselves a little shook up.
Then there is the third approach one can take with this film, which is to view it as part of a wider movement in post-50s cinema which couldn’t help but obsess over the existential crisis facing ‘modernised’ mankind, at least in the West. As was the case with European films of the late fifties and sixties that examined the psychic pain individuals are burdened with when a society adopts new mores and values without necessarily retiring older, perhaps even contradictory modes of living and thinking, a handful of pictures from the New Hollywood era similarly dealt with the relative failure of the counterculture as not just a movement but as a wider cultural sea change; not simply its inability to completely debunk and replace traditional values that it considered oppressive and non-progressive, but the way in which even those who whole-heartedly embraced “free love” and the like were unable to successfully put these values into practice without drowning in angst and jealousy. This of course makes ‘Modern Romance’ sound a great deal headier that it actually is when the truth is that it is more in keeping with the works of Paul Mazursky al-a ‘ Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ which is not to suggest that either film is exactly fluff.
What happens when a society decides to offer a greater degree of choice to the individual, a society which has up to that point dictated the ways in which men and women are to ordinarily relate with one another, how love and sex are to operate, and how permanent ‘permanent’ is? Where a man was once expected to find a decent woman to call his wife – and vice versa, get married, procreate and stick with her till he or she died, modernity arrived along with the slogan that ‘God is dead’ and the assertion that each individual is a sovereign, sentient entity with the right to choose and the responsibility for their own fate. For many, this is a liberating idea which it very well should be, on paper at least, but for just as many – perhaps the very same many – this new approach brings with it a burden that sees many of these many retreating, ironically, to the comfort of prescribed thoughts and lifestyles (not to say that the counterculture itself wasn’t highly prescribed, though the drugs certainly weren’t.) Why exactly Robert Cole is so insecure – as mentioned already – doesn’t appear to be the central concern of ‘Modern Romance,’ but rather, how being granted – by modern Western society – the relative freedom to choose what shape and form his love life will take causes him more pain than it does pleasure. For someone as insecure as Robert, and for that matter Mary, there is perhaps nothing as confusing and terrifying as feeling the need to commit (whether as a result of traditional inculcation, fear of loneliness or personal belief) whilst being offered the choice of being utterly non-committal in favour of ‘free love’ (which one might opt for due to indiscipline, fear of commitment, sex addiction or personal belief.) Maybe in an earlier time or in a different culture more suspicious or less tolerant of transitory romantic practices, Robert would simply be forced to marry Mary, stay married and become quietly resentful. Does ‘Modern Romance’ seem to be suggesting that some modern folk just aren’t modern enough to pursue sex and romance without guilt and/or the feeling that love isn’t real until drawn up and signed, but not traditional enough to make it last in a traditional sense? Whatever it’s suggesting, it obviously finds it funny; painfully funny.
June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
By Janus Qillemaning
March 17, 2014
A healthy pinch of trepidation would diffuse through anybody’s body as they coasted up the driveway of the sprawling home of a moneyed old bachelor with a taste for the grotesque; a tiny voice warning of dark things to come would not be unwarranted either.
It’s not an unimaginably long driveway, but every metre of it is a metre by which you can clearly sense yourself deviating further and further from the comforting arms of what the average person would call “normal.” It is untarred and ever so winding – the driveway – and is lined by (probably) gum trees that may or may not be dying or already dead. All that is certain is that they are leafless and a little scoliotic. The car is trailed by a parade of unsettled dust for a half kilometre or so and when I bring it to a halt outside a squat but broad house we – the car and I and the settling dust behind us – are met by the unassuming gaze of a lean old man in a fitting jumper and jeans: ‘I eased up on wearing black when Jobs’s get-up became iconic, so now I wear greys and tans and even patterned ones when I’m feeling a bit silly. But you can’t beat black on top and denim down below.’
Alan Saville is the kind of guy whose impressive wealth was probably acquired so modestly and legitimately that it could not be expressed in more extravagant a way than its being used to accrue a large collection of useless oddities. A retired small-business owner and a long-time “amateur” shares investor (an activity from which he has certainly not retired), Alan spends much of his free time sourcing, bidding for, paying for, and collecting objects that fascinate him as much as they repulse most. Not yet a tourist attraction – which Alan assures me it will never become – his expansive single storey abode which sits nestled on a 50 acre property named “Goorman’s Hive” located somewhere between inner Sydney and the Blue Mountains houses what must surely be one of the largest private collections of stuff this side of the equator.
‘It probably began with me collecting my own teeth,’ Alan tells me as we briefly sit to a black coffee for me and a green tea for him. ‘Now you can imagine how young I would have been when I started doing this, maybe four or five. There was no method to it initially, no reason, but I would just keep the teeth wrapped up in a tissue or in one of my father’s handkerchiefs for whatever reason, and then one day I sourced a jar my mother had washed and de-labelled for general use – it was an ex jam jar if I recall correctly – and I put the teeth in it, and by this time I had three or four less teeth in my mouth and enough in the jar to make a decent rattling sound. But I can vaguely remember the moment I realised that this hobby was more than something I just did to pass the time. We had family over one weekend and an older cousin of mine discovered the jar with its tiny white contents lying somewhere around the house and he vomited all over his shoes and my folks weren’t too pleased with me and my aunt and uncle weren’t too pleased with my cousin soiling his shoes or with the jar and its contents even though they didn’t say anything about it, but I remember looking at the tooth jar and getting a new kind of kick out of it. The value of it suddenly skyrocketed in my eyes, I was kind of proud of it, about what it could do to someone. Kudos to my parents for letting me keep the jar despite the obvious ickiness of it, but I completely understand why they put their collective foot down when I announced that I would branch out into collecting my siblings’ teeth as well. That was probably a bit much on my part.’
‘Some would say that what you’re doing is still a bit much,’ I offer, playing the role of hell’s advocate.
‘A bit much for who though?’ he responds with well hidden irritation. ‘You know, I think this may be the reason why I still do it; or at least one of the reasons I still collect all these blatant offenses to good taste. Bit childish, no?’
I refrain from commenting, using a mouthful of hot coffee as an excuse.
Over the years Alan has managed to amass a grotesquery of objects including everything from real shrunken heads and deformed foetuses, to authentic (he claims) nooses and injecting apparatus used for state-sanctioned executions carried out within the last half century. He even has a screening room for snuff films and other audio-visual material which would be best left undescribed. His latest acquisition, and the reason for which I ventured out to Mr Saville’s property, is Swordsman’s Glory, the contraption which has been described as a sex arcade game by its inventors but which caused one hell of a stir when it was successfully sold to an underground Sydney sex club after reputedly being rejected when pitched to Sexpo. It’s the contraption that was labelled the “rapist trainer” by some fervent detractors, which is probably the moniker that sufficiently raised Mr Saville’s interest in it: ‘humanity’s potential for darkness and depravity has always fascinated me, as well as anything that seems to trouble people deeply or take an axe to social norms. I don’t necessarily consider myself a dark person, just a curious one.’
‘With a few dollars to my name, yes.’
We enter a fairly spacious but musty room with high ceilings and a decidedly warehouse feel. Suffice to say, my neck hairs are quite erect.
‘This is the room where I keep objects I haven’t quite found a place for. It’s like a quarantine zone. Some of these things have been here for months.’
His eyes and attention are briefly drawn to a book bound in what seems to be rough pig-skin but which Alan informs me is cured human hide. The topic of the book seems to be cartography-oriented and by a layman’s guess the pages probably date back a century or two if not more. I’m assured by Alan that this and other such books would have been – at the time – fairly legal (if in bad taste) in that the skins would have been respectfully peeled from corpses belonging to universities which offered classes in anatomy and dissection and which had their own printing press. Alan decides to hold onto the book as he leads me to the item of the hour, Swordsman’s Glory.
It turns out that the little warehouse-cum-shed which houses the thing I have come to see contains, mixed in with all the weirdness, items as mundane as those that clutter the garages of the militantly non-eccentric. Boxes of…
“– oh, those just contain old kitchenware, pots, pans, plates…unusable really if only because I’m sure whatever you cook with them would taste of dust and cardboard and age however much you scrubbed.”
Many of the boxes it turns out contain his children’s old toys, which he retains for sentimental reasons. The fact that he has adult children and ex-wives works to unprickle my skin a great deal, and Alan Saville begins to come across as more of a charming hoarder than a twisted fetishist, the kind of assertion of mutual exclusivity one should always be careful not to make. Surrounded by these boxes, perhaps perversely, is an object hardly bigger than a pinball machine. What catches the eye first and foremost is the life-sized replica of a female’s body from the waist down as though it were a mannequin sawn in half; and, like a mannequin, little attention has been paid to detail and realism apart from size and general anthropometry. The hips are flexed to ninety degrees and so are the knees; it’s the position the lower half of one’s body is in when on all fours, the butt protruding somewhat and the knees hovering a good foot and a half off the floor. A medium-sized screen sits at the far end of the machine, presumably to display high scores and the like. Across one side of the contraption’s body is the title Swordsman’s Glory, scrawled in a disappointingly juvenile font similar to that in which titles like “Tekken” and “Mortal Kombat” are written. After we’ve both silently assessed the item for a good minute or two, Alan proceeds to explain its workings.
‘It’s a deviously assured piece of design if you think about it. Our lady’s bottom half actually turns on its horizontal axis like so –’
Alan grabs the calves – which he informs me are mostly plastic not fibreglass – and swivels the model 180 degrees such that its knees are up in the air and its – for want of a better word – gash sits out and in the open, not quite flapping in the breeze; to call it a vagina would be frankly insulting to vaginas. It’s also clear that little attention to detail has been paid to the intricacies of the vulva. One can only hope that gifting the poor mannequin with a clitoris at the very least was a consideration on the parts of the clearly male inventors.
‘What’s more extraordinary,’ Alan says with measured excitement, ‘is how the hips can be abducted, splayed open, up to thirty degrees,’ which he demonstrates for me with utmost care while kissing the model’s groin with his.
I can only assume that my disgust is already beginning to show because Alan decides to lament the fact that ingenuity of this sort could be put to such chauvinistic use. He says this while straddling the mannequin which now has its legs open wide, in waiting for a cock to be thrust inside it.
So what does the screen look like?
‘Well…I unfortunately don’t have a power point around here…so I can’t plug it in and show you what it looks like. But I have seen it and I wouldn’t call it the Swordsman’s strongest feature. I mean, it has the usual high scores and all that, but while a player is…playing…the screen has a point-of-view depiction of a woman’s face and the player has a choice of six or so ladies to choose from before they start the game. It’s live action actually, not animated, which is quite impressive because as far as I understand the responses of the virtual sex partner are directly related to how good or how poor a lover the player is.’
‘The guy,’ I say.
‘Pardon?’ he says.
‘You’ve been saying the player, but it seems to me that the player is always going to be male. Or were there any lesbian players?’
‘I don’t have any definite answers to that, but I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t or couldn’t have been lesbian players. I actually believe that cunnilingus is a mode of play. That’s all I know, but that’s a valid question.’
I can feel myself smile at this though I do not quite know why.
So why did he decide to spend $78000 on this thing?
Alan Saville stares for a moment before breaking into a laugh and playfully gesturing to the absurdity that is the Swordsman’s Glory as if to say “why the fuck would I not spend $78000 on this thing?’
Bernie Josiah Collins (or BJ) and Len Dolan do not seem to have been particularly stung by the furore, backlash or outright hate surrounding their creation.
As we sit down for coffee at a café half a minute’s walk from their temporary office/studio in Marrickville, BJ and Len are largely as one would expect them to appear, apart from the fact that they do not strike me as being dangerously undersexed men who guzzle down porn and are unable to converse somewhat naturally with women. They’re both approaching thirty and have receding hair lines to varying degrees but nonetheless have an air of early-twenties what with their mild fleet-mindedness. They’re also the kind of guys who absorb fashion trends without being overly aware of this and thus come across as unwittingly modish, which is probably a significant portion of males in inner west Sydney.
‘What did you think of it?’ Len asks.
I express my honest opinion and he does not seem too fazed. He simply says, ‘cool.’
‘Did you find it actively sexist though?’ BJ says, continuing the line of question that Len was perhaps to coy to press on with.
‘I generally ask the questions,’ I say with a smile, and so proceed to ask him if sexism must by needs be active in order for it to be unconscionable.
BJ consults his friend-partner with a glance and they both consider the question.
‘Well, no…’ begins BJ, ‘but I do think that active hate is a greater sin than passive hate.’
‘Like…can anti-Semites who sit quietly hating on Jews ever be comparable to Hitler and his goons? Sure, they’re terrible people too, but they don’t necessarily torture or kill, and maybe we need to accept that passive haters will always exist but that it’s kind of okay as long as they remain that way.’
Okay, but what about ideals? ‘Forget the practicalities,’ I say. ‘What about ideals and values and the upholding of these?’
Len pipes in after spending a minute cooling his coffee with his breath: ‘I totally disagree that Swordsman is sexist though. It says nothing about women, at least nothing that either of us intended for it so say; if it does, no one has properly explained to me what that is. Like…the game ranks guys based on how well they have sex…it’s guys competing to please the virtual woman better that other guys. I’d say that the game reduces men to objects just as much; it plays on the anxiety society places on us to be great lovers with large cocks.’
‘Just as much as what?’ I say.
The game reduces men to objects just as much as what?
‘Well…just as much as it may be perceived as reducing women to mannequins that are just expected to open their legs for men.’
So could the game be a social comment then?
BJ steps in: ‘Uh…I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I don’t believe that social comments have to intentionally come out of the mouths of people to be real and valid; they can be implied in inanimate objects without anyone meaning for this to be the case. Maybe that could be true for Swordsman.’
Len says, ‘sure, that’s true, but I just don’t appreciate the whole sexism uproar crap. The game could be seen as sexist to men or women, depending on who you are. Actually, I remember some guys complaining about how much it plays on the perception of male sexuality being mindless and the idea that guys approach sex like sport, flexing their sex muscles and ranking their exploits and all that.’
‘Yeah,’ says BJ. ‘And there were quite a few gay guys who called it homophobic too.’
‘Yeah,’ echoes Len.
‘Well, I didn’t say it was only misogynistic,’ I say, to be a nuisance.
BJ smiles into his coffee and Len is a little taken aback. BJ asks me if he can smoke and I bid him be my guest.
I comment on the fact that they’ve just tightened the noose around their invention during the last few minutes. BJ states that the thing is already well and truly hung. He seems the more philosophical of the two whereas Len appear somewhat more attached to Swordsman’s Glory, more sensitive and defensive. Is it purely personality-related, or does the Swordsman’s ultimate failure have a greater meaning for this particular member of the design duo?
I ask the pair about the machine’s conception. Who came up with the idea and so on and so forth.
As it turns out and as could be expected with such an invention, Collins and Dolan, both studying industrial design in one shape or another, were “shooting the shit” one day when one of them – they claim to have forgotten who it was though I suspect Len Dolan is the most likely candidate – narrated to the other his experiences playing an online game in which getting his avatar to have sex with the avatars of other online players was the ultimate aim and in which points were awarded for sexual prowess and skill and for Game, or at least the virtual iterations of these. What commenced as two male friends in their mid-twenties joking about the absurdities of such a game morphed into two friends joking about the absurdities of a game in which a player engaged in simulated sexual activity much as they would brandishing a fake pistol while playing ‘Time Crisis’ at an arcade or hopping into a simulated rally car a few games down and turning the steering wheel wildly. As they joked and kidded, the frat boys and the industrial mavericks within them merged and mutated into sleazy geniuses and they that very day left whoever’s room they happened to be in with plans to design and build what they believed to be the first ever coitus simulator that judged sexual performance in a competitive context.
‘We never expected this to be anything more than a pet project which would at the very least get us attention for our originality or innovation or whatever,’ Len explains. ‘The sex aspect was kind of secondary, secondary in the sense that it wasn’t something we envisioned people getting off on, you know? We’re not like…pornographers. Sex just happened to be a there and we never thought too much about it.’
‘You’ve got to understand,’ says BJ, ‘that we – well, at least I – didn’t really expect to get past the “we’re sort of thinking about making this random thing but it probably won’t happen” stage. I never ever saw myself, saw us, actually building this thing, but by the time we were in fact actually building it we had completely overlooked all the social aspects because we could hardly believe that we had gotten from the stage of just fucking around with ideas to actually trying to study the anatomy of the vagina and how its sensation is mapped and researching different materials and circuitry and all that –’
‘– and where all the cum goes,’ pipes in Len, at which they both stumble into fits of laughter; not brash and extroverted laughter but rather a more inward, half-swallowed kind.
The cum was in fact to be collected in large condom-like films of non-latex plastic which would have been worn by the mannequin like a brief, with a large vaginal pocket that would line the appropriate space. The coital diaper would be spat out by the machine once payment had been received after which the player would then dress the mannequin, assume a position – either missionary-based or doggy-style – and begin fucking, watching the screen intently for points awarded for criteria such as rhythm, stamina, clitoral and G-spot stimulation, and even size (for which there is an inbuilt handicap system.)
Bernie explains: ‘We actually bounced around the idea of the virtual vagina being like a real one in that it would be cleaned out by its own juices or whatever. We were trying to figure out how it could constantly wash itself out so that the players could just use their own condoms and feel confident that they weren’t significantly touching swords by proxy. You can probably tell that we didn’t expect that Swordsman’s Glory would ever be used. Anywhere. We made it for us really.’
There is a very pregnant pause after which Len begins to snigger. BJ smiles. ‘As a creative challenge for us, not to get our rocks off.’
Who came up with the name?
‘Well,’ says BJ, ‘we’ve never be that satisfied with the name, but we didn’t have anything better to call it so we just went with something obvious and a bit cheesy. The “glory” part is a bit of a play on glory holes…even though it’s more a fleshlight than a glory hole.’
And did they consider the utter impracticalities of such a game, aside from all the social implications?
‘We kind of did,’ says Len, ‘but maybe too late? Like, obviously the impracticalities and health issues and social bullshit was why Sexpo was like “uh, no we’re not having this abomination in our show.” And which is why only one underground, pretty dirty sex club was like, “sure, whatever, how much?”’
How much did the sex club, Marquis Descending, pay for ownership of Swordsman’s Glory?
They consult one another once again. $12 000…? Something in that ball park..? In all earnestness though, how could they not know?
By this point our brunches have arrived and been devoured and round two of coffee commences without any reservations.
‘How shocked were you by the uproar?’
This question hangs in the air for quite some time.
‘I was probably mostly confused by the fact that this thing we’d basically made for fun and which was sitting in some dark room in an underground sex club where people fuck goats for all we know was suddenly a thing,’ Len says; ‘a thing that people were getting upset about, like…how the fuck do you even know it exists? Did you just happen to run into it while you were wiping the goat cum from your mouth?’
BJ extends a gentle ‘dude’ to his friend and business partner. I smile. I’m correct in thinking that Len is a little more sensitive about the matter than is BJ.
‘Sorry, I don’t mean to be such a foul mouth.’
No, not at all. So what’s next for the duo?
They are currently in the process of starting up a design and development firm which they hope will be a frontrunner in all things design and innovation, at least in Sydney to begin with though with enough grease and sweat it will have a global reach at some point in the future. They both agree that Swordsman’s Glory is not worth disowning or relegating to their respective skeleton closets though they pray every day to every conceivable deity that it does not end up becoming their ultimate legacy.
‘I thought it was kind of funny. But let me be plain and honest with you: I run a club who’s “come one, come all” policy stops just short of permitting murder or child molestation. Everything goes here, man, as long as it’s in the dark, as long as all parties involved gain some measure of satisfaction, and as long as everybody walks out with the exact number of body parts that they expected to walk out with. So, to summarise: I thought it was funny and unique, I figured some of my clients would be into it which some of them were, and I had the money to waste, so I wasted it.’
Arianna M, as she likes to be known, is the personification of an out-of-body experience. Seeing her and hearing her are strangely disjunctive and I find myself wondering, how does this husky and commanding voice emanate from so petite and pretty an entity who at the same time dresses like a ballerina who quit the stage to become a mechanic while retaining the delicate makeup and nimble grace. Think about it.
Sitting in Arianna’s office, one would have zero idea that they were in the control room of a hard-core sex club that caters for all sexual predilections and tastes from simple swinging to BDSM and most flavours of fetishism however extreme. Bestiality is one of the few partialities not permissible at Marquis Descending because (a) human-animal relationships tend to have a significantly skewed power dynamic and (b) even if both parties consented to sexual activity i.e. the dog were wagging its tail or sporting a moist pink boner, reason a still holds. A shelf standing against one wall in Arianna’s office houses neatly stacked folders and books, and two of the other walls are adorned – one each – by two cheap-looking Degas prints. No framed smiley pictures of hubby and the kids sitting askew on the table though, so I can be assured somewhat that this is not a David Lynch movie, which is exactly why it probably is a David Lynch movie.
‘I haven’t had sex in a week,’ Arianna says to me from the other end of the desk, leaning forward across it.
Uh…why would she tell me this?
‘Just so you realise I’m not a sex fiend, that I don’t have semen and pussy juice coming out my ears. Not to blow my own horn but I’m kind of gorgeous – as you can see – and I know what I’m doing most of the time, but I have standards, and standards aren’t always easily met. Sometimes I have to go a week before my standards and criteria are even close to being satisfied.’
‘So how did you get into this?’ I ask.
‘Into what, running a sex club? You know, I always wonder, “how do people get into insulation, or piping?” You’re driving down the road and you see these trucks with piping hanging off the back and on the side of the truck it says “Speedy Piping or Hunter Insulation or Someone and Sons.” How do they get into that? Anyway, with me…I’ve always worshipped sex and I think it’s as vital a part of a healthy, happy life as is twenty-one percent oxygen and regular bowels, and like a doctor or nurse who is there when you need pain relief or antibiotics or an enema, I’m here when you need to get off or feel sexy or feel good about yourself. I’m no less important than your cardiologist and I’m definitely more important than your shrink. As for why I actually decided to open this place? No idea. I just felt like it. Sorry.’
Arianna surprisingly goes on to ask me if she answered my question which she clearly knows she did not on account of the apology she offered a few seconds earlier.
‘So,’ I say, ‘tell me more about Swordsman’s Glory and how it landed up here.’
‘I get a lot of unsolicited shit from lots of people, you see, amateur pornstars and people who want to do exotic dances and whatever they think it is that we provide here. We’re not a strip club, and we’re not VideoSleazy. But when these two guys emailed me about this machine they’d made, I took a bit more notice. Firstly, it was novel — I’d never seen or heard of such a thing; secondly, they sent me a pretty long and detailed email which was a far cry from all the poorly written ones that say “here’s me and me niece fucking, hope you like, here’s me bank details, money please.” So we met up and they showed me the Swordsman and explained how it worked.’
‘And what did you think about it?’
‘I thought they were fucking insane and kind of creepy for even thinking to make such a thing, but brilliant at the same time. Look, sex is strongly subconscious and as a result it often has a hilarious side, so to run a sex club you need to see the funny side of sex, to appreciate the humour inherent in it. Their machine made me laugh, which put it in good stead.’
‘Did customers enjoy it? Did they offer any feedback?’
‘The funny thing about the Swordsman is that it was more the kind of machine you would find in a sex gym, if such a thing existed. As far as I know the virtual vagina didn’t simulate secretions or contract and relax like the real thing does, so I don’t imagine it was the kind of toy that people would rush to in order to get their rocks off. It was really a technique enhancer, and I think the clients who gravitated to it used it as a way to hone their penile dexterity, or even their finger or tongue skills…to a limited extent of course, granted the virtual vagina was not super-detailed anatomically and whatnot. You know how there’s scoring and ranking –?’
‘– well I’m not aware that my clients actually embraced the competitive aspect of it. It was all about personal bests I guess.’
And the hygiene issue?
Arianna M shrugs.
‘Are you aware,’ I ask, ‘that some people nicknamed it the “rapist trainer?” Was that one of the reasons you decided to offload it?’
‘I’m not that beholden to public opinion; I run a sex club. The problem was more that the machine was now tainted and doomed to just sit in the corner collecting lint and dust like an artefact. I’m not an antique collector. It was going to get offloaded sooner or later after shit hit the fan.’
As for it being called the “rapist trainer…?
‘Rapist trainer…hmmm. I don’t think I really want to comment on that.’
Not even a little?
‘I think it was an effective but unfairly inflammatory term. I don’t know many rapists. In fact I don’t know anyone at all who has confessed to or been convicted of rape, but I’d imagine that rapists don’t really give a damn about pleasuring their victims, which is kind of what you score points for when you fuck the machine.’
But the machine does dehumanise women. You’re fucking a machine with a pixelated personality that has no sovereignty and no say with regards to the acts it is about to be subjected to.
‘Well, I don’t believe blow-up dolls create rapists. Look, without being overly aggressive, I must say that I really don’t appreciate being placed in the position of having to defend that stupid, juvenile and somewhat depraved invention. I bought it on a whim, a regrettable whim, that’s all. But I also hate people getting so sensitive about something so benign.’
Understood, and no aggression perceived, though her claim that Swordsman’s Glory is benign is contestable.
There were some parties who slammed the Swordsman for practically alienating straight women and gay men. Thoughts?
‘I figured it was meant to [alienate straight women and gay men]; in the same way that tampons alienate straight men and lesbians. That’s a joke.’ I guess I mustn’t have smiled appropriately.
‘But honestly,’ Arianna continues, ‘I didn’t think it was logical to expect a sex toy to cater for all genders and sexualities. When it comes to that level of versatility you’ll never beat the vibrator. So I figured it was worth the purchase. Plus, something about the fact that Sexpo found it too risqué made it irresistible.’
‘Did Sexpo say that they found it too risqué? I ask.
‘Knowing Sexpo, they probably did. I’m kidding, I love Sexpo. I go every year. I should have season passes.’
‘So who brought Swordsman to who’s attention exactly?’
The business owner in Arianna comes out, finally: ‘I won’t go too much into the details, but a former staff member took issue with the machine and escalated things by contacting the press when they felt that I wasn’t doing enough to…get rid of the thing for which I had just paid fifteen thousand big ones. But I don’t blame them, and no, I didn’t fire them, they decided to part ways with the sex industry. I’ll be the first and last to admit that Swordsman is a ridiculous creation, that it was a ridiculous move on my part to even think of buying it and putting it in my club. But I did turn one hell of a profit selling it to some weirdo, god bless him.’
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.