Saturday, 26 February 2011

Gender uncertainty and air space castration (Notes on Burlesque)

*** Warning: The following gives away sections of the film's ending. But to be honest, if you're watching Burlesque for narrative ingenuity you're likely to come away disappointed ***

The rather safe notion that burlesque dancing is sexy without being sexual is largely borne out in the intermittently entertaining Cher/Christina Aguilera diva musical, Burlesque. What is most interesting about the film is its almost complete denial of straight male libido. The film pushes the idea of women controlling their own sexuality to literal conclusions, to the point at which it hardly becomes sexual at all. The Burlesque Lounge that provides most of the film with its setting is notable for being an almost exclusively straight female/gay male area, where any whiff of male-female desire is summarily expunged. This isn’t a Strip Club, as the camp-as-Christmas doorman (Alan Cummings, who else?) makes clear; “The only Pole you’ll find in here is Natasha the shot girl.”

The will they/won’t they heterosexual coupling that provides the film its (limited) narrative interest is between Ali (Aguilera) and Jack (Cam Gigandet). Ali abandons her clearly delineated ‘dead-end’ life (Iowa, waitressing job, dead mother) for a new beginning in L.A. First port of call is Tess’ (Cher) sunset strip nightclub, where Jack, the bowler hat and eyeliner wearing barman, stands her a drink. Ali watches the dancers from the bar “Who does a girl have to flirt with to get from here to up there?” she asks. “Is this you flirting?” responds Jack. “With someone wearing more eyeliner then me..?"

From the first instance Jack’s gender identity is all over the shop. He and Ali form a bond and she accepts an invitation to crash at his place. It is only later, with the mention of a fiancée, that Ali realises Jack’s true predilections (although some doubt remains). As the film continues, Jack’s heterosexuality starts to reassert itself (a regressive flipside to the more exciting gender reversals in the Hawksian comedy) but the effect is to make him almost sex-neutral. The eventual love scene between the pair is played almost exclusively for laughs (and the shot of Jack’s rather sporting buttocks is the closest the film comes to prurience).

Whilst Jack’s heterosexuality is essentially neutered by his feminised appearance, the aberrant desires of the film’s other significant straight male, Marcus, are dealt with in more metaphorically  aggressive fashion. Marcus is a property developer with his sights set on both Ali (whom he attempts to procure with a pair of jewel encrusted shoes) and the Burlesque Lounge (which is more a matter for hard cash). At the films conclusion we learn that his deal for the club is motivated by a wish to build a towering condo block with the best view of sunset strip. Outside, L.A is littered with phalluses: Ali’s introduction to the city is illustrated by her glaring up at the numerous intimidating structures; inside it’s a different story (remember: No Poles*). When Ali learns that Marcus’ intention is to destroy the feminine lounge to erect a monument to manhood, she schemes to scupper his plans (and in so doing rejects his dangerous masculinity for the more dispassionate charms of Jack). Through some rather complicated dealings about construction rights and the purchasing of air space, Marcus is finally (and invisibly) castrated, and the club can continue.

But whilst the film can be seen as progressive for its reclamation of erotic dance from the grubby palms of the heterosexual male, this denial ultimately leads to sexless frustration. Amongst the dancers themselves any hint of liberated sexuality is scorned. The insult of choice here is “slut”, one mostly reserved for booze-prone Nikki, the former headline act who, it is inferred, had no qualms about opening her legs to get where she wanted. (Choice line from Cher to her ex-protégé: “I’ve held back your hair whilst you vomited everything up... except your memories.”) It’s no surprise then that the one real moment of unity among the girls comes when one of them gets married. Writer/director Steve Antin’s (who, a quick IMBD search tells me, played one of the rapists in The Accused) attempt to show Burlesque as a safe form of sexy results in a film unlikely to get a rise from anyone. It’s Showgirls for tweenies.

* A statement somewhat problematised when later on Ali dances with erm..a pole. 

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Boys in the Shower (Weird Science and Elephant)

It was Hitchcock, of course, who first identified the shower as a perversely contradictory site of security and vulnerability. The slasher film, in nod to the master, has made homage almost mandatory, and turned the location into one as iconographic as the saloon in the western. (A reasonably thorough look at shower scenes in the films of Brian De Palma is here.)

The other genre to buy wholesale into the shower scene has been the teen movie. In these films (and I’m thinking of John Hughes defined 80s period and beyond) the shower can be a site of both stimulation and dread; the twin poles represented by Porky’s and Carrie respectively. Plenty of savvy filmmakers have productively tapped into the crippling body neurosis that tends to mark our adolescent years by exploiting the fear of communal showing, but it is interesting to note how often initial sexual experiences (fantasised or otherwise) seem to take place in this unsanctified space.

In the opening scene of Hughes’ Weird Science, the two geeks, Gary and Wyatt, watch a female gymnastics class from the sidelines. “Do you know what I’d like to do?” asks Gary, almost rhetorically. “Shower with them” Wyatt responds breathlessly, letting the word roll about in his mouth and mix with his saliva. True to their word, when the two boys create their ideal submissive woman it is the first thing they make her do. The iconic scene of Kelly leBrock lathering her naked body as the boys look on ends with a visual punch line. As their creation exits we see the boys in their sodden pants and trainers, the inspective gaze of their computer generated offspring being too much to bear.

As the film continues so does the linking of showers and sex. Gary and Wyatt hole themselves up in the bathroom as a house party rages downstairs. When their twin desired objects, Deb and Hilly, enter the room, the boys again find refuge in their favourite spot. Later, when Deb and Hilly bump into Lisa she offers the less mature girls some advice: “If you get the chance... shower with them. I did. It’s a mindscrambler...ohhhh...hurts so good.”

In the teenage imagination, the shower is the first port of call for libidinal imaginings. The scenes of Gary and Wyatt in the shower together find an echo in Gus Van Sant’s far darker examination of adolescent frustration, Elephant. Here hormonal urges reach expression in a high school massacre, but not before Van Sant’s two outsiders, Alex and Eric, have had their own shower scene. Van Sant seems to prick at liberal consciousness by having his two killers kiss. The scene is knowingly and frustratingly ambiguous. Perhaps we should see the shower as the only space where the two feel safe enough to express homosexual feelings, or perhaps we should view the kiss merely as the only possible outlet for any physical connection, homosexual or otherwise: “I’ve never kissed anyone before. Have you?” asks Eric.

Whilst in Hughes’ film the shower is a site for lust and voyeurism, Van Sant sees it a place for sad, sexless sexuality. In his later film Paranoid Park, the young skateboarder guilty of a gruesome accidental killing finds the shower as the only place the vent his deep sense of remorse.

The scene ends with the boy (another Alex) slowly sinking to the floor much like Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s infamous scene (and Anne Heche in Van Sant’s own remake). She had paid the ultimate price for her transgression, but Alex can only wish for death.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Alan Rudolph and Moral Relativity (Notes on Equinox and Mortal Thoughts)

Habitually situated somewhere between farce and melodrama, Alan Rudolph’s eccentric comedies often take aim at sexual politics in a manner that can be provocative and unsettling. In the occasionally successful Equinox (available in its entirety on You Tube), Mathew Modine plays separated at birth twins Freddie and Henry: ambitious gangster and everyman mechanic, whose paths eventually cross in duly dramatic fashion. The film is puzzling even by Rudolph’s standards: full of blind alleys, non-sequiturs and other such dot dot dots. But the final picture that emerges is surprisingly troubling for what it does say, rather than for what it doesn’t.

The capital-T Theme (as signalled by the title) is the balance between light and dark, good and bad; the nice and the nasty. The film’s primary achievement however is in signalling each twins own personal moral equilibrium (their inner equinox, if you will) most successfully conveyed in Henry, the nice guy mechanic. At first we meet a character crippled by self consciousness, and seemingly petrified of women. His best friend attempts to get him to meet his sister, but Henry is reluctant to go. At home, Rosie (Marisia Tomai), an attractive but mouthy young prostitute neighbour begs him to look after her crying infant, and when she rewards him with a kiss he pretty much collapses in shock.

But as the film continues we start to know a different character. When Rosie returns and bestows him more than a kiss, Henry feels emboldened enough to violently confront her aggressive pimp. Rosie is of a classic Rudolph type – the melancholic woman who uses sex as self medication. “I like men. I like the feel of their bodies” she says, echoing similar comments by Eve in Choose Me. Henry’s new found aggression directly leads to Rosie’s death. At first he seems to acknowledge the consequences of his surprising behaviour, but rather than examining this guilt Rudolph chooses to switch focus to another odd-romance, now between Henry and his friend’s sister, Beverly.

Beverly (Lara Flynn Boyle) is an equally morose woman who medicates with wine rather than men. We first see her at home, reading Emily Dickinson out loud to herself and receiving silent phone calls from the frustrated Henry. They are finally brought together at a meal with Beverly’s brother. The unease between them is eventually explained as the residue of a previous sexual encounter.  “It was wonderful, Henry” she says, flatly. “I enjoyed it. Didn’t you?” Her face tells a different story. “I forced myself on you, Beverly” Henry confesses, but she wants to downplay the aggression. “You were forceful but you didn’t force yourself on me...entirely.” She looks wounded, but steadies herself. “We laughed, and we touched each other, and we made love. And I felt comfortable...sort of.” The encounter was a month ago, and in the meantime Henry hadn’t called (well, at least he hadn’t called and spoken) Beverly’s sense of rejection, and her own confusion at the events, has clearly led to some kind of depression. “Was I really that horrible?” she asks, turning what sounds like a sexual assault into a failure of her own making. Henry is similarly confused; scared of the sexual aggression that clouds his desire for Beverly. “There’s always this pushing and pulling inside of me. I don’t know what it is, it’s just there. I never know what to do, so I just don’t do anything.”

Strikingly, these two female characters both seem to will themselves into abusive relationships. Rosie shows no sign of wanting to ditch her pimp and Beverly is happy to view Henry’s Jekyll and Hyde routine as a mark of mischannelled affection. Like in Choose Me (where the three female characters all find themselves drawn to a mysterious, and possibly murderous homme fatale) Rudolph’s women are desperate romantics (self deluded or not) masochistically allowing themselves to be subjugated to male authority.

Rudolph’s previous film, Mortal Thoughts, concerns the killing of an abusive male, and two female victims who attempt to cover up the crime. In this film we get no Henry style mea culpa from the two dimensionally horrid James (Bruce Willis). Yet strangely this lack of hand wringing does not stop the film from entering into its own moral grey area. The story is structured around the police interrogation of Cynthia (Demi Moore), best friend of Joyce (Glenne Headly), James’ widow and chief suspect. In contrast to Equinox, this time we actually get to see the sexual assault, but Rudolph leaves it until near the end of the film. James is stabbed by his distressed prey, and eventually bleeds to death. His act of sexual violence is summarily punished, but any Thelma and Louise style justification is negated by a plot twist that appears to frame one of the women as a crafty manipulator, thus turning Willis’ misogynist ogre into some kind of victim.

Whilst both films are most likely minor works in the director’s canon, each is notable for this subversive approach to sexual aggression. Rudolph’s unexpected probing of the liberal consensus regarding non-consensual sex makes for uncomfortable viewing.