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...

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