Saturday, 18 February 2012

Is it just me or are the MILFs getting younger? (Timberlake x 2)

Mother, Wife, Daughter. In Time (Niccol 2011)
Watching a pair of recent Justin Timberlake films brought to mind Philip Larkin’s poem On Being 26:

I feared these present years,
   The middle twenties,
When deftness disappears,
And each event is
Freighted with a source-encrusting doubt,
   And turned to drought.

I thought: this pristine drive
   Is sure to flag
At twenty-four or -five;
And now the slag
Of burnt-out childhood proves that I was right.
   What caught alight

Quickly consumed in me,
   As I foresaw.
Talent, felicity—
These things withdraw,
And are succeeded by a dingier crop
   That come to stop;

I’d imagine these sentiments might have wrung true for Andrew Niccol. After selling the screenplay for The Truman Show for something around $1 million before he was 30, his directorial debut Gattaca garnered little more than a film maudit cache and subsequent projects Simone and Lord of War have done little to increase his reputation.

His latest, In Time, quite neatly illustrates the post-adolescent despair fingered by Larkin. It is the future, and now, for reasons the filmmakers seem reluctant to explain, 25 is your limit. After that you’re on the clock - 365 days to be traded or spent before it’s lights out. And so we have a Hollywood film in which looking over 25 is a psychical impossibility, rather than the normal sad inconvenience.

Like another recent Thanatos themed crowd pleaser, 50/50, In Time probes into the narcissistic morbid fantasy world of pretty, pain free death. Neatly, the film speaks to the mummy complex in both the Bazinain and the Pound-shop Freud sense. Not only do we have a tidy example of what Bazin called the ”object freed from the conditions of time”, we also have on our hands (with Timberlake’s mother being played by Oliva Wilde, 27, quadrupling the reverse mother-son age gap of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in North by Northwest) a rather nice oedipal drama.

Or maybe we would, but she snuffs it at the end of Act 1.

However, Niccol does go on to look at the practicalities of inter-generational love making in a world without aging. When Timberlake spots a prospective partner (Amanda Seyfried), his adversary (Vincent Kartheiser) verbalises the crisis: “Confusing times. Is she my mother, my sister, my daughter? You hoping she’s not my wife. Things used to be simpler once, so I’m told.” She is revealed as his daughter, but quite what difference it would make if she was his mother or sister isn’t really questioned. When Milfs (or for that matter Gilfs) are on a level psychical playing field, surely experience would count for something, no?

The subject of Milfs crops up again in the dirty hook-up comedy, Friends with Benefits. In this film aging is real, and a real problem. Timberlake’s father (Richard Jenkins, 64) has dementia which manifests itself in a dislike for trousers. Timberlake’s acute embarrassment at his pant-dropping dad is mirrored in his fuck-buddy’s equally troublesome mother. Mila Kunis’ mother (Patrica Clarkson, 52) may have all her marbles, but her free-spirited sexuality is a cause for concern for her erotically pragmatic daughter. She stores her number in Timberlake’s phone under Milf, and wastes little time in feeling up his SexyFront.

Clarkson’s sexuality is messy, complicated fun. Whereas for all the transgressive talk of the younger pair, sex for them is merely a transaction, a form of pain relief comparable to visiting the chiropractor. If in Niccol’s film time is currency, in Benefits it’s genital fluid that sustains the economy.

All this makes Timberlake’s recent support for the Real Men Don’t Buy Girls campaign all the stranger. Benefits is all about eliminating the emotional cost of sexual relationships, a very mid/late twenties concern, and not one that seems to trouble the milfish older generation. The 70s bohemian grass, glue and a bit of what you fancy  sexuality, has given way to a more rigid, compartmentalised, iPhone to-do-list version of free love.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, as a recent academic study (Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions, Baumeister and Vohs 2011) showed:

A heterosexual community can be analyzed as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. [...] The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple's decisions may be influenced by market conditions. Economic principles suggest that the price of sex will depend on supply and demand, competition among sellers, variations in product, collusion among sellers, and other factors.

It's the economy, stupid.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Drinking/Fucking/Fighting (notes on Haywire and Shame)

In the opening scene of Stephen Soderberg’s Haywire, Mallory (Gina Carano) is joined at her window diner booth by Aaron (Channing Tatum). Off screen, a waitress asks for his order. “You don’t have beer?” “No, I wish.”

Soon we flashback from icy, sober Upstate New York, to the warmer, boozier world of Barcelona. Mallory and Aaron are agents for hire, involved in a plot too complicated to fathom, let alone recount. As Mallory dispatches various unlucky adversaries she never seems far away from a bottle of wine (red, white, still, sparkling; this girl isn’t encumbered by any restrictive poison fetish like her dullard prototype, Bond). In Haywire, characters chug it back like extras in a Hong Sang Soo movie. Perhaps Soderberg was aware of Carano’s party history when casting, but whatever the reason the film is no doubt enlivened by having it’s characters refreshingly refreshed. And as we all know, getting beaten up doesn’t hurt half as much when you’re a bit pissed.


Later, in Dublin, she is set up on a fake date with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an Irishman happy to ditch the pints of the black stuff when the situation demands it. Peter Bradshaw wagged how the best way to enjoy Haywire was to imagine that Fassbender is still playing his character from Shame, but I’d have it the other way around.

The scene in which Mallory and Paul go at it in a hotel bedroom (see clip) is livelier, more guttural, and, dammit, sexier than anything in Steve McQueen’s flat film. Haywire is, thankfully, shameless in depicting people getting their kicks. And Carano is right in her likening of fighting to sex:  "If you think about it, it's a very real interaction between two human beings, and it's like an energy. You have a real energy, and I have an energy, an energy that nobody else is going to share."

Perhaps it’s this very real interaction that’s missing from Shame. Talking about sex addiction in Sight and Sound Fassbender noted that “it’s not all a terrible affliction. There are definitely moments of fun, and that’s why it’s such a powerful drug.” But where are these moments? Watching Fassbender smothered between the thighs of Carano tells us more about human sexuality than the parade of monotonous humpings in Shame.


Also, in Haywire nobody wears a really annoying scarf.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Wroclaw New Horizons Film Festival Notes #1

As a statement of intent, choosing Asghar Farhadi's A Separation and Nuri Bilge Celan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia as its twin opening night films, Wroclaw’s New Horizons film festival (formally known as Era after its late sponsor) made clear its commitment to cinematic sobriety. Farhadi's he-said she-said tale of domestic strife, weighed against Ceylan’s grim police procedural; and Farhadi's claustrophobic domestic and public spaces was happily countered by Ceylan’s almost agoraphobic look at the Turkish countryside at dawn. In Once Upon a Time... four characters trawl secluded spots in search of a body: the police chief, a distinguished prosecutor (whose resemblance to Clark Gable does not unnoted), a young divorced doctor and the supposed murderer himself. They drive by night, winding around the hilly landscape of the western, Asian tip of Turkey, bickering amongst themselves until the body is eventually found, hogtied, and the deconstruction of the crime can begin.

Whilst reminiscent at times of Kiarostami (in the long shots of the convoy making its way through the landscape and a momentous shot of an apple rolling down a hill) and the bleak, deterministic comedies coming out of Romania (The Death of Mr Laserescu, Police, Adjective), this is very clearly a Ceylan film, with this favoured theme of romantic guilt again at the fore. For me, it’s his best since Usak.

In one of the many sidebars, Jasper Sharp presents a selection of Japanese Pink films to illustrate his book (published in translation for the festival). With a more wide ranging and contemporary scope than the Wild Japan season he took to the BFI a couple of years ago, this series takes us up to the present day. Blue Film Woman, an early classic of the genre, presents a pretty typical indecent proposal narrative: a downtrodden stock broker forced to sell his wife to his sleazy debtor, an act that leads to her sudden death and his incapacity. It’s left up to his teenage daughter to pay off the debt, which she goes about in an all too predictable way. For a film that plays patriarchal rape for laughs, there is a surprising amount of subtlety to be found within, such as the scenes of the daughter greeting her clients with the same hellos, light music, slow dance, and then... From 1999, No Love Juice: Rustling in the Bed seems far less political in intent, and, whilst evidently more explicit than its predecessors, comes close to being understated. A 28 year old business woman fears being left on the shelf after being dumped by her partner of 6 years. Old before her time, she gets an erotic recharge in the form of a twenty year old art students she meets on the last train home. It’s too late to eat, and too cold to be alone, she reasons, to they stay together. The pair plunge into a sweaty affair, talk earnestly about life and so on.You could almost call it Rohmeresque (but with analingus).

Also seen: Tender Son: Frankenstein Project has been around for a while but I finally caught up with it here. It starts interestingly enough, with a director fresh from a theatrical production of The Count of Monte Christo embarking on auditions for a new (unnamed) film. After one audition goes horribly wrong, the film settles into a less opportune pattern of mounting deaths in the cold Hungarian landscape. You Are Here, the feature debut of artist Danial Cockburn plays in the International Competition: it’s a slightly too pleased with itself metaphysical puzzle film (is there any other kind?) enlivened by the odd decent joke. And Volcano, in which a mopey ex-fisherman finds that life might be worth living after all..

...more to follow (laptop battery pending)

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Notes on Fassbinder's Jail Bait (1973)

Wildwechsel (Jail bait AKA Wild Game) is the only Fassbinder film I can think of that focuses on youth; a look at the time before his fated characters’ faces have become puffy with booze and pills, and before the string of heartbreaks have left them condemned to cycles of destruction. It opens, however, not on the teenage couple that become its centre, but on the girl’s parents. It’s early in the morning and father wants them to go back to bed. Mother looks herself over in the mirror, counting the wrinkles. “Chubby women like me stay younger longer” she rationalises, but her mind is more on the lottery numbers…

Their daughter, Hannie, is still in bed. She is 14, but has the body of someone years older. As the film progresses she will become involved with Franz, a slaughterhouse worker 5 years her senior, who first will be jailed for statutory rape, and later get her pregnant. Hannie and Franz’s relationship is like an embryo of some other, more famous, Fassbinder romances: psychical, sado-masochistic, dependant and doomed.

Eva Mattes, who had played Petra von Kant’s spurned daughter a couple of years earlier, gets her generational revenge here. A calculated cruelty hides behind her puppy-fat exterior, as she manipulates her lover into patricide by proxy. Fassbinder’s take on youth is complex and cynical. This isn’t a story of innocence lost or stolen, but of an inevitable decline. The loss of virginity is no big deal. "It had to happen, and now it happened. It doesn't matter." Hannie is one of Fassbinder’s typically compromised victims; perhaps the gulf in morals between this generation and the last isn't as vast as we would like. Her father pines for the years of National Socialism, but resents them for taking his youth. “We weren’t young, we were soldiers.”

Like always, the characters are trapped, forever standing in doorways they fail to exit, or pinned by down symbolic mise en scene (replacement prison-bars are everywhere, except in the scenes of Franz in custody, where he seems strangely free.) 

The film is little seen today, perhaps because of the still troubling subject matter (Breillat would mine similar territory with 36 Fillette and À ma sœur!, yet Fassbinder’s film remains uncomfortable viewing); but more likely because of legal issues surrounding the film (Franz Xaver Kroetz, author of play on which it was based, branded the film version pornographic and has had some success in getting the film suppressed.) It is as yet unavailable on DVD, but the far from pristine bootleg (see screengrabs) is still well worth a look. 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Moi, un chav (notes on Transfiction, The Only Way is Essex and Fade Street)

Among the well meaning documentaries at the recent London Sex Workers Film Festival (yeah, really), was Transfiction, an hour long video from 2007 by academic Johannes Sjöberg. Taking his cue directly from Jean Rouch, Sjöberg’s work was an explicit experiment in ‘ethno-fiction’ - a blend of ethnography and filmic storytelling - perhaps the most famous example of which being Rouch’s Moi, un Noir (1958). In that film the filmmaker directed his participants to act out fictionalised versions of their own lives. In his opening voice over Rouch explains his encounter with these young immigrants from Niger, now living in Treichville, Ivory Coast.

I proposed to make a movie about them in which they would play their own roles, in which they would be able to say and do everything.  This is how we improvised this film.  One of them, Eddie Constantine, was so faithful to his character, US federal agent Lemmie Caution, that he was sentenced to three months in prison while we were still shooting the film.  For another, Edward G. Robinson, the film became a mirror in which he discovered who he was, the army veteran of Indochina, chased way by his father because he had lost the war.  He is the hero of the film.

Rouch’s hybrid form possibly finds its ideal subject in the participants of Sjöberg’s work. The two central figures are Fabia, playing a transsexual hairdresser, and Bibi, a transgendered sex worker, both working in Sao Paulo. By inviting these marginal figures to explore their own lives in a fictional context, Sjöberg can at once examine the abject social situation of the sex worker population, and the fantasy worlds of such hetrogeneous figures.

The subjects in Moi un Noir and Transfiction exist at the fringes. By fictionalising their own lives, Rouch and Sjöberg allow their subjects a psychological freedom that a traditional documentary would not allow. This reflexive approach lets its subject re-address past experiences through improvisation. The aim is to convey reality through fiction, and to produce collaborative representations of groups normally hidden from our screens.

Such a playfully-rigorous ethnographic approach finds a popular expression in contemporary television, in the equally maligned and celebrated genre of staged-reality shows (beginning, perhaps, with the US series The Hills), of which ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex is a notable example.

Many have placed Essex’s success (including beating such middlebrow opposition as Downtown Abby to an audience award BAFTA) down to its camp celebration of celebrity obsessed culture, in which the participants (mostly rejects from other, less-reflexive, ‘reality’ shows like Big Brother) enact their fantasy of living their lives in the limelight (or the pages of Heat magazine). The programme is often seen as a figurehead of all that is wrong with the once great state of British television, and its pandering to the tastes of the fake-tanned and vajazzled, to the detriment of serious drama. As the Guardian put it it’s  the programme people sneer about at dinner parties without having seen it”.

Whilst in terms of production value alone, Essex is a world away from Rouch, its implied political intent is perhaps not all that dissimilar. The ‘characters’ in Essex are marginalised inasmuch as they are ‘rejects’: both literally (from other ‘reality’ representations) and in terms of their class-background. The ‘chav’ culture from which they (mostly proudly) hail cannot be said to be lacking representation in popular culture, but at least Essex allows the participants some say in the outcome (although exactly how much is difficult to say.)

Another interesting example of the staged-reality genre is RTE’s Fade Street, which dramatises the ‘real’ lives of Dublin’s monied elite and the low drama world of glamour publishing and events management. What makes Fade Street so strangely watchable, (and possibly of ethnographic worth) is the ever so dim realisation in eyes of the participants that they are part of a dying culture. The background of the Celtic tiger’s humbling crash infects Fade St. almost via osmosis. There is something quite compelling about watching characters bravely attempting to block out the economic gloom that surrounds them. And whilst these figures (with names like Vogue and Cici) could hardly be called marginal, there precarious existence perhaps (perhaps) aligns them with the heroes of Rouch’s fictions.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Sad Mums (Notes on Nenette and Mildred Pierce)

In Nicolas Philibert’s recent formalist nature doc, Nenette, we watch a 40 year old female orangutan slump in the limited but roomy confines the monkey house at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Exotiques Zoo. The camera gazes at her, and sometimes at her cell mate, in a series of mostly statics close and mid shots. Off screen we hear the voices of visitors and keepers: joking, questioning, ruminating, or perhaps just projecting their own hang-ups onto Nenette’s all-too-human condition.  Is she depressed? Lonely? Content to live out her days eating the occasional yogurt and watching the world go by? Occasionally we see her audience reflected in the perspex, but the voices are never identified.

Like the subject of Phillipe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s somewhat similar Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Nenette is perhaps a little past her prime, but still a ‘Galactico’ of sorts in her own arena. (Or maybe even like Lola Montes, wheeled in to face a curious crowd eager to glimpse the wanton history etched into her face.)

The off screen commentators discuss her dietary habits, sexual history, digestion, but Nenette remains placid: as poker-faced as Zidane or Warhol’s Empire State Building. (Interestingly, the original conception behind Empire involved various unseen voices, including Jonas Mekas and Gerald Malanga, but the finished film was kept silent.)

Nenette is confined with her eldest child, Tubo, having been ‘retired’ from her reproductive function some years earlier. She has worked her way three ‘husbands’ we’re told, the latter two shipped in from across the continent. Now, rather humiliatingly, she is fed a birth control pill (laced into her yogurt) to prevent any incestuous offspring.

Her condition, a single mother at 40, imprisoned with her kin and looked upon with affectionate pity, reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes’ brilliant 5 part drama for HBO (I must admit that proximity of viewing is likely the chief reason behind the comparison). Over a leisurely 5 plus hours we see Mildred stoically struggle with her own abject position (a divorced woman in 1930s America), tried by a resentful daughter, but occasionally relieved by second-wind sexuality.

Mildred’s trajectory from housewife to waitress to business celebrity and finally to bit-part support to her celebrated offspring, is perhaps similar to that of Nenette’s. We hear about her period in the limelight - as star attraction - before being pushed aside for her more camera friendly infants. It seems this might be a particularly maternal condition. In his book Miracles of Life, J.G Ballad observes similar:

“As a father who collected his children from school, I spent a great deal of time by the school gates and soon recognised the fierce maternal tension that made adolescence a hell for many of my daughters’ friends. Some mothers simply could not cope with the growing evidence that their daughters were younger, more womanly and more sexually attractive than they were.”

Philibert himself compares Nenette to another tragic heroine, Emma Bovary, who's own frustrations in love and parenthood made her an ideal site for the readers own projections: “Just as Flaubert declared, 'I am Madame Bovary!', so I could say, 'I am Nenette'. She is you. She is us.”

As one of the commentators half-seriously suggests, Nenette is a “kept woman”. In Haynes’ drama, the lead character can fight against this, but we see the effects as ultimately dangerous and sadly futile. Nenette may look pretty docile behind that barrier, but take away the perspex and you might see a very different character.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

A Slut with Mutant Lungs (further notes on Burlesque)

In an essay in the current issue of Film Comment (not available online) David Thomson discusses the Imperfect Union of face and voice in the Hollywood film. As a jump off point Thomson uses an interview with dancer Del Burnett in which he mentions working with Marilyn Monroe: “They always used her own voice. She had a very unique quality. I loved her voice, it went with her.” Thomson further rhapsodises about Monroe’s “little-girl breathiness...the imprint of her endangered innocence struggling with the factory system, the cruelty of men, and the implacability of scripts when she wanted to be spontaneous”, but notes that research suggests Marni Nixon would probably have provided some of the tougher notes for Marilyn... “even on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.

In Burlesque, novice ingénue Ali makes a radical proposition: rather than having the provocatively dressed girls lip sync to numbers, why don’t they sing? The plan is anathema to more conservative minded Nikki :“Who comes to the club to hear people sing?” she reasonably asks, before casting Ali as a “slut with mutant lungs”. (And being a slut is certainly not something we could easily accuse Ali of.)

The number the film uses to demonstrate this shift from pre-recording to actuality is, appropriately enough, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

So who’s right: Nikki or Ali? Is the voice important in this sphere of entertainment? In Showgirls Verhoeven goes so far as to minimise the musical track to make us more aware of the scuffing, shuffling feet on the stage. The mechanically sexual movements are key; the body not the voice. In Exotica, Atom Egoyan makes ironic use of a world weary Leonard Cohen to score the dance moves of his ‘schoolgirl’ stripper.

But it is a voice we associate with Monroe’s pink glove or Dietrich’s suspenders in The Blue Angel. In Burlesque it is Ali’s ability to sing that leads her to unseat Nikki as the establishment’s main attraction. Here the voice is given precedence over the body, and mutant lungs supplant Nikki’s more visceral charms.

This, of course, is all well and good. The only problem is Aguilera’s voice. It certainly is distinctive (although one could hardly call it breathy), but the more her voice takes charge the more the eroticism of the dance is sidelined. By the end of the film she is appearing in full gown, statically belting out forgettable songs to an audience who should be commended for not bottling her.

In Roland Barthes terminology, Aguilera is certainly more pheno-voice than geno-voice. The former is all about communication, expression; the latter more ineffable: a voluptuousness that addresses the listener indirectly. With the pheno-voice there may be plenty of passion but “nothing seduces, nothing sways us to jouissance.” For Barthes the point is where the voice comes from: the throat or the lungs. “The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!), swells but gets no erection; it is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented in the mask that significance explodes. Bringing not the soul but jouissance.”