Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Comfort of Strangers (Part One)

A previous post on Mike Figgis' riff on a Joe Eszterhas concept: One Night Stand, has stirred a curiosity in other cinematic imaginings of such ultra-temporal love affairs. Of course a 'one night stand' in a mainstream movie is very rarely that; the dictates of classical narrative structure rarely allow for such necessarily unresolved encounters. Two notable recent films however, have broken with type by displaying the action for what it is. In Solitary Man (pictured), Michael Douglas plays a granddad womanizer on his way out (they went with a Neil Diamond reference for the title, but Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man would have been equally fitting) who at one point makes gentle pornography with a friend of his daughter, only to discard her in the morning. Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime (what is it with stealing song titles?) re-introduces the pederast dad from Happiness, who finds a haggard looking Charlotte Rampling in a hotel bar, has sex with her, and then takes money from her wallet. In these films, much as in life, the one night stand exists as shorthand for alienated loneliness and self loathing (other examples, off the top of my head, include Nashville, The Last Days of Disco and a number of John Cassavettes works). That said, could such 'quick fix' arrangements be seen as aping the film-going experience? As very immediate, short-term patches of vicarious experience, in place of more enduring pursuits like a novel or TV series, that might require a certain level of commitment?

In the films mentioned above, the one night stands (however important) cannot really be seen as inherently necessary plot points. In Figgis' One Night Stand, as in the two films I wish to now briefly discuss, the faux 'one night stands' serve as catalysts for further (sexual and non sexual) encounters.

Love with the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan 1963)

Love with the Proper Stranger, staring Steve McQueen as a jobbing musician and Natalie Wood as his one-off partner, is a rather unnerving mix of high tragedy and knock about comedy. Uneven to say the least, the film is a fascinating muddle. Anti-romantic, but still pretty damn sexy; at one moment chillingly graphic, the next warmly funny, the film's refusal to type is perhaps the reason for its relative obscurity today.

In this film the sex is back-story. Turning up at a vast casting session in hope of finding work, Rocky (McQueen) is confronted by Angie (Wood). He struggles to remember her face, let alone her name, but when she informs him that she's pregnant things quickly fall into place. Rocky finds the name of a doctor and tries to cobble together some cash to help pay off the backstreet abortionist and middle-man. Meanwhile Angie's interfering family try to set her up with an undesirably cack-handed suitor (Tom Bosley, later to be Mr C in Happy Days, making his big screen debut).

Angie's romanticism is mocked by her family, who see her dreams of film stars and happily-ever-after as fodder for abuse. But her present situation has made her more pragmatic. Holed up with Rocky in his parents furniture workshop (trophies of the domestic life the pair seek to avoid hang from the ceiling, accusingly) she finally discusses the "stupid experiment" of hooking-up with McQueen: "Oh boy how they build things up in the books and all the movies.. How the world comes to an end every time the flame of your lips touches mine...All I felt was just scared and disgusted with myself." It's a pretty damning indictment, and Rocky doesn't quite know what to say. Even as the inevitable romance gets underway, Angie's words remain as a corrective. The sex was cheap, wrong and, despite of any future associations, a wholly regrettable mistake.

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow 2007)

Knocked Up, Ben, a slovenly but almost endearing man-child with aspirations to the more acceptable end of the internet porn industry, meets and impregnates Alison, a career minded media-type. Alison is out a club with her sister to celebrate her recent promotion to an 'on camera' role at the E! Entertainment channel. Her married sister craves sexual acceptance from the body conscious youth that populate the club, but shows no real desire to takes things further than coy smiles and batted eyelids when men approach. Alison meets Ben, who does good bar banter, and he comes over to join their table. Eventually, the sister leaves, with Alison rejecting the option to join her.

One of the many problems with Knocked Up (a film I still like, for what it's worth) is its failure to address just why Alison sleeps with Ben. She doesn't appear to share the misplaced romanticism of LWTPS's Angie (no "flame of your lips" here). Yes, she gets drunk, but she appears relatively sober when she makes the decision to stay with Ben rather than leave with her sister (not that this is a green light for sex, but certainly an indication of attraction). Perhaps we should see it as an unconscious foresight, predicting her later feelings for Ben. Perhaps it's a manifestation of unspoken sibling rivalry (I can still pick men up, just like that). Maybe it's just good old fashioned loneliness. My preferred reading is that she has subconsciously realised that her career move to being 'on camera' means that she has opened herself up to mass-objectification (in an earlier scene the top brass at E! have made it quite clear that her physical appearance is paramount). She has, in effect, made herself 'available' to the male gaze (and especially the gaze of the socially malformed frat-boy community that Ben represents) and so all she is doing is cementing this in sweaty reality.

In these American films, the one night stands are corrected by pregnancy (rather than the more statistically probable S.T.D, as seen in The Last Days of Disco). Next up, I will look at a couple of European films, Claire Denis' Vendredi Soir and Jean Renoir's Partie de Campagne, that make their moral points in other ways...

For those interested Love with the Proper Stranger can be viewed here.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Knuckle Love: some notes on Punch Drunk Love

[This piece has been written for the Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon over at Jeremy Richley's marvellous Moon in the Gutter. If you haven't already done so, please go over and take a look.]

Barry Egan, having just found out that he will be unable to redeem the air miles he has collected in time to visit a girl he has just met in Hawaii, punches a map of the U.S that hangs on his office wall. He lays his hands out, stroking the keys on the adopted organ that sits on his desk. We briefly see the word L O V E crudely drawn into his knuckles, in what looks like a rudimentary homage to Robert Mitchum’s similar markings in The Night of the Hunter.

The provisional title for Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to the widely admired Magnolia was Punch Drunk Knuckle Love. Somewhere along the line the third word was dropped, in all likelihood due to its inelegant strangeness in what was already a very strange (but elegant) film.

Yet although knuckles were removed from the title, they remain a fundamental component of the finished work. Barry, despite being a business man, is very manually focused. His most significant actions are hand related: punching things, playing with his organ (pun intended). When Barry and Lena have their sex talk confessional his deepest desires are revealed thus: ”I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it”. Whereas Lena professes to crave more oral activity: “I want to chew your face off and scoop out your eyes and eat them, and chew them, and suck on them.” It is Barry’s hands that first get him into trouble. At home and lonely, he dials a sex chat line and gives his name as Jack (“Are you Jacking off yet, Jack?) At first he talks apprehensively with the girl, as he paces between his living room and kitchen, grasping his cordless phone. She tries her playfully seductive shtick “Do you like peaches, Jack? I’m a Georgia Peach”, before moving on to more direct imagery “I’m looking at my shaved pussy in the mirror”, but it is only when the subject changes to business that Barry succumbs to his onanistic drive, sitting down at his desk to perform the five knuckle shuffle.

I have often been struck by just how upright (or should that be uptight?) a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is. Boogie Nights, with all its porno-chic and genital flashing, is, at heart, a hymn to monogamous relationships and the family unit. In that film no transgression goes unpunished, and the same is the case with Punch Drunk Love. Barry’s moment of loveless self pleasure has severe consequences, and the resulting blackmail storyline serves as both a moral lesson and, perhaps, as a manifestation of Barry’s own guilt: “You thought you could be a pervert and not pay for it?”

Barry Egan is, I think it is fair to say, not very well developed sexually. Pointedly, his company manufactures toilet plungers (‘Fungers’) whereas his nemesis, Dean Trumbell, is a ‘mattress man’. Barry’s realm is the bathroom, whilst Dean’s is the bedroom. Perhaps we can choose to see this as evidence of Barry being marked by the anal stage of psychosexual development (which would probably account for the stockpiling of pudding).

Barry’s masturbation shame is contrasted by Dean’s revulsion at the very suggestion that he should do the same. The final showdown between Barry and Dean is instigated by Barry’s forceful suggestion that that Dean should “go fuck [himself]”. To Dean, this is evidently the highest possible insult, provoking something of an over exaggeration (“That wasn’t good. You’re dead.”) For Dean the act of fucking oneself is clearly the height of degradation. Indeed maybe we could see his whole criminal organization as structured around his punishing of the ‘perverted’ that masturbate to phone sex lines rather than pursuing their carnal interests in the sanctified space of the bed. Dean Trumbell is the Old Testament God, punishing Onan (Egan, Onan….hmmm) for spilling his seed. Perhaps.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Booze Vs. God (a response to Tony Rayns)

In October’s Sight and Sound, to accompany a touring season of films, Tony Rayns’ offers a much appreciated overview of the career of Hong Sangsoo. The article is both a good primer for those unfamiliar with the Korean filmmaker’s work, and an instructive analysis for those lucky and/or dedicated enough to have surveyed the oeuvre. In the last paragraph, Rayns takes issue with critics who habitually compare Hong’s work with that of Eric Rohmer’s. This is, in Rayns’ opinion, “lazy”.

Lazy critics compare Hong with the late Eric Rohmer, simply because both directors think a lot about methods of seduction and underlying sexual attitudes. But it is a false comparison, because Rohmer never surrendered his intellectual detachment and never put his own sensibilities at risk within his films.

Now, putting aside my suspicions that Rayns’ objection may be due to a less than appreciative view of Rohmer’s cinema as a whole (unforgivable, of course), I would still like to take issue with the dismissal. Accepted, the parallels between the two filmmakers could perhaps be overdone, and to view Hong as ‘the Asian Eric Rohmer’ is undoubtedly reductive. Both are very distinctive singular voices, but the reasons for the common association are not hard to spot. You only have to look at Rayns’ own bullet point description of Hong’s cinema as “smart, witty movies about likeable/fallible characters who screw up their relationships, drink too much and blurt out awkward and embarrassing truths” to see why people might choose to put the two side-by-side. Rayns’ concession that “both directors think a lot about methods of seduction and underlying sexual attitudes” only tells half of the story. We could add a preference for viewing their characters ‘on holiday’ and a continuing exploration of male anxieties in the face of sexually assured young women (not to mention the diary-like structure of Night and Day that so resembles many of Rohmer's works, and the recent inclusion of dream sequences, a tactic E.R used in Love in the Afternoon). There’s a lot more booze in Hong’s cinema, and a lot less God. But even the marathon drinking sessions that invariably crop up in Hong’s films could perhaps be seen as equivalents to Rohmer’s nightclub/party dancing scenes (in which developing relationships are put under the microscope) that became something of a signature in his later films.

The assertion that Rohmer “never surrendered his intellectual detachment and never put his own sensibilities at risk” seems bizarre to me. And if he is suggesting that the more overtly autobiographical nature of Hong’s work means that there is less distance between the filmmaker and his characters, I would point to Hong’s approach of using self consciously alienating tools such as fragmented or elliptical narratives (or, more recently, zooms) that have the effect of producing quasi scientific examinations of the doomed relationship in question.

Hong’s protagonists are generally filmmakers of a similar age to his own, whereas Rohmer chose to remain focused (mainly) on characters in their twenties (instead of going down the Woody Allen route of having his male characters age, while the romantic interest remains in suspended animation). But earlier on in his career Rohmer quite often presented characters with similar biographies to his own (My Night with Maud being the clearest example). As Hong’s career develops we will see which direction he takes.

Hong can be a lot tougher of the feckless males that populate his films, that much is sure. And the final impression we are left with is quite often far more bitter than Rohmer’s more forgiving denouements. But I don’t see why this should stop us from productively reading Hong’s films as critical responses to the Frenchman’s work, and in viewing the pair as one of the bickering almost-couples that they both like to prod.

Rayns concludes his article by offering what is, for him, a far more fitting comparison: that of David Bowie and his song ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’. I have to say I’m a big fan of such feely associative readings, and, in this spirit I would like to offer my own musical equivalent to Hong’s cinema: the 1981 Dead Kennedys single, 'Too Drunk to Fuck’.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

"Charlie is gay...I'm not gay" (notes on One Night Stand 1997)

To have suggested, back in 1995, that it would be Showgirls rather than Leaving Las Vegas receiving the full bells-and-whistles 15 year anniversary treatment, would have been opening yourself up to mirth, pity and possibly violence. Yet as Verhoeven’s film teeters towards respectability, Mike Figgis’s work is little discussed, and still in blu-ray limbo (well, it’s out in France, but you get my point). Ironic then, that it was the success of the former and the abject failure of the latter, that led to New Line Pictures offering Joe Eszterhas’s script, One Night Stand, (for which they had paid a reported $4 million) to Figgis with apparent carte-blanche to rework it as he pleased.

It’s hard to tell what remains of Eszterhas’s original script. Apart from some enjoyably over pronounced symbolism involving a leaking pen (“You’ve got a black heart” are Nastassja Kinski’s first words to Wesley Snipes) and the tried-and-tested device of having 'our hero' struggle with nicotine dependency. Equally, I don’t know how apocryphal stories are of a 64 page marathon mating session being the centre-point of the $4 million draft; but, much as I admire Figgis’s restraint, I can’t help but pine for what original director Adrian Lynne might have done with a more faithful translation. The titular sex in One Night Stand is a rather subdued affair, almost daft in its stillness, but the two leads are convincing enough to make you believe this furtive, hesitant lovemaking is the real deal.

The film begins as a knowing sexual satire, with ad-director Max (Snipes) addressing the camera, La Ronde style, as we join him on a trip to New York where the deed will be done, but before long the film will switch to a much darker tone. Contemporaneous reviews have identified the character of Charlie played by Robert Downey Jr as a Figgis addition. Charlie is Max’s dying best friend, the reason Max visits New York, and the link between the adulterous parties.

But how should we take this addition? The placing of an gay AIDs victim character to an otherwise breezy, knock-about straight narrative is a strange move, and, on the face of it, a rather brave one. Yet is it possible to come to other conclusions? Whilst the film seems to pride itself on its progressive liberalism (for starters the mixed race coupling of Snipes and Kinski, as rare in a Hollywood film now as it was 13 years ago) the plight Charlie might be seen to confuse this status, and negate any transgressive outcome (the apparent sanctioning of infidelity). It appears as if we are supposed to scoff when Charlie’s brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan) suggest that his promiscuous homosexual lifestyle made infection inevitable, “You don’t watch someone out playing in a minefield and not expect to hear an explosion, right?” but by placing the dying Charlie as the link between the cheating couple, the film is perhaps taking a similarly fatalistic attitude towards putting-it-about. Charlie’s death is the moral counter-weight that allows for Max and Karen’s unpunished sin.

The film could also be accused of being somewhat reactionary in its sexual politics. The controlled, wordless lovemaking of the Max/Karen union (shot mostly in restrained long and medium shots) is contrasted in the later sex scene between Max and his Chinese American wife (in mostly unforgiving close-up). Mimi (Ming-Na Wen) is a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it “circles, honey, circles...slower...harder” she briefs, as Max goes about his husbandly duties. When he tries to hush her moans as to not wake the children, her response is frank: “Fuck the kids, I’m coming!” How are we expected to react to this? Did Figgis (or Eszterhas?) include this to sway the audience back behind Max (his wife is a bit of an unhinged nympho, ergo it’s OK to cheat)? If so, this is surely a rather retrograde attitude towards female sexuality and servitude (Women: Know Your Limits!)By advocating the more chaste, submissive Karen over the forthright, horny Mimi the film could be accused of slipping into a rather conservative mindset.

The allure of the Catherine Tramell character in Basic Instinct was based on her perceived sexual dominance and ‘man-eater’ persona. ONS seems to play to the opposite fantasy: Max ‘saves’ Karen from an attempted mugging then (slowly) seduces her. This very unproblematic view of masculinity (saving the Princess, reaping the rewards) flies in the face of Eszterhas’ more exciting and dangerous tactic of having the male protagonist attempting (and failing?) to tame the unknowable, wild woman.

Of course Tramell’s flagrant bisexuality was another component of her sexual magnetism. In ONS sexuality is more clearly defined, but a slight question mark hangs over Max’s predilections. At one point he openly admits to kissing a man, but we are never sure whether this is just to provoke an irritating dinner party guest, or a honest confession (his wife seems surprised by the revelation).In his opening monologue Max is insistent on separating Charlie’s sexuality for his own (“Charlie is gay...I’m not gay...Charlie is gay”) and moments later Charlie mocks Max’s hetro lifestyle, referring to his wife as a ‘beard’. The previous best friends had a major falling out over ‘a work thing’ according to Max, but the film leaves room for us to speculate otherwise. It would be interesting to know if this ambiguity originated in Eszterhas’ or Figgis’ version of the script. If we take Max’s character to be bisexual, maybe the central switch is not Max choosing Karen over Mimi, but Karen choosing the sexually ambiguous Max over the more traditionally hetro Vernon...