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.


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