Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Dirty Story

Above: Jean-Noel Picq with Jean Eustache during the filming of A Dirty Story

Disclaimer: the film I write about here is unfortunately not readily available at your local video store or netflix queue—and for that, I apologize. I have heard that is available on video in the U.S. if you look hard and get lucky.

A Dirty Story (1977), by French post-new wave director Jean Eustache, is a 50 minute short film in two parts. I was able to see it, screened in the original format, at the Berkeley Film Archive. The BFA hosts an impressive calendar of screenings and film series, which you can peruse here:

The first part of A Dirty Story, shot in 35mm, presents an actor accounting his experience of finding a peephole into the ladies’ toilet of a café he frequents. The actor, Michael Lonsdale, recounts the story to a group of three women and one man, whose faces appear quite titillated and engaged by the tale. Later, their responses confirm this reaction.

Above: Michal Lonsdale

Michael explains that the hole is at floor level, and provides a direct line of sight to the ladies’ vaginas. He quickly becomes addicted to the hole, and spends hours upon hours in the café along with other addicts, taking turns looking at the women as they pee and shit. Through the course of this experience, he finds that he is repulsed by some vaginas and turned on by others. By looking at the women’s shoes, he matches the vaginas to their owners, and is surprised to find he is often attracted to the vaginas of ugly women, and repulsed by the vaginas of beautiful women. This comes as a kind of revelation to Michael; that all the conventional standards of beauty are trumped by the true indication of attraction. At no point does he describe what physical features he is attracted to—size, shape, color, coiffure, etc. Eventually, he becomes so obsessed by the hole that he decides to quit it, cold turkey.

The second half of the film is shot in 16mm, and presents a different man recounting the same story. The stories are almost identical—there are some small discrepancies in phrasing, but all the major and minor details are the same. The significant difference is that the second part is technically a documentary. The man telling the second dirty story, Jean-Noël Picq, is the man whom the story actually happened to. His audience is comprised of three different women and one different man, who find the story generally less scintillating but not entirely objectionable.

The premise of this film provides me with a hefty amount of critical fodder and I will try to be as organized as possible in my response. It seems to me that the three major notions at play are as follows.

1. Voyeurism and the pleasure and politics of seeing.
2. Eroticism, including everything that may fall under this umbrella, such as sexuality, sex (as in male and female) and sex (as in fucking).
3. Subjectivity and truth in story telling.

I must admit that I had to consciously withhold any objections to the story arising from on-the-spot feminist interpretation. It would have been foolish (and easy) to write A Dirty Story off as a misogynist fantasy, and I do believe that my understanding of the film is more profound as a result of this initial restraint. But since the film is primarily men talking about anonymous women’s vaginas, I would be remiss not to look at it through a feminist lens. Michael and Jean lament that the hole allowed them to see women’s vaginas in an immediate and direct fashion that is not replicated in normal life, even during consensual sex. They also remark that women do not expose themselves in public the way male flashers are want to whip their cock out on the subway train. In addition, they both describe a beautiful women with a disgusting vagina who catches on to the scheme, and becomes more ashamed and humiliated than she would have been had she been raped (their words, not mine).

In all of these remarks, there is the implicit condemnation of women for being unduly ashamed of their vaginas. The argument being, that the sex organs are ultimately responsible for true sexual attraction, and therefore should be made more accessible in order to determine sexual compatibility. However, there lies an inherent contradiction in criticizing women for being ashamed of their vaginas while also criticizing the vaginas themselves. In doing so, Michael and Jean play directly into the fears of many women—that their vaginas are ugly.

The counter argument (and maybe Eustache’s argument), is that because Jean and Michael do not provide a physical description that would objectively determine what makes a vagina ugly or beautiful, repulsive or attractive; subjective experience remains the only criterion. It would therefore be irrelevant to provide any physical criteria, which would inevitably change from subject to subject.

Secondly, I would like to take to task is the very notion of shame; as it is incomplete. In Jean and Michael’s comments about the woman who uncovers their ruse they circle around, but do not speak directly to, the other important factor at play: violation. Rape and voyeurism are two forms of sexual violation, and their comments suggest that this particular woman was better equipped to deal with rape, perhaps by a combination of her own personal experiences and her societal experiences. I find this idea utterly absurd. The differences between physical and visual violation are enormous, and it is foolish to create a hierarchy of the two experiences. Unlike physical violation, visual violation can go undetected by the violated, and it is a far different thing to discover having been violated then to experience the violation as it occurs.

Shifting gears, I would like to address the fictional versus the autobiographical account of the story. In the end, the two accounts are the same. The second rendition has closer ties to actual experience, but that one is real and one is fact and one is fiction ultimately bares no effect. All stories and all storytelling share the same relationship to experience whether or not they occurred to the person relaying the tale. Michael tells the dirty story, and it is untrue insofar as it does not apply to his own life. However, it is true insofar as it applies to Jean’s life. On a larger scale—a much larger scale, actually—on an infinite scale, one could argue that all stories have been the real experiences of someone, somewhere, and therefore, all stories are "true".

The “down the rabbit hole” motif of the story also points towards infinity as it relates to the subjective experience. The hole, which begins as a finite thing, opens up an infinite world. Michael/ Jean says that it seemed that the hole was created first, and then the door, and then the café around it. This, going from the specific to the general, is truly a poetic scenario. As if sin and temptation were created before man even existed; as if sex was created first, and then the body, and then the world around it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

I am in Oakland right now, and last night I went to see Vicky Christina Barcelona with my pals, John and Mary, at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater. The thing about speakeasy theaters is they serve beer, wine and food (including pizza, popcorn, sandwiches and veggie burgers). Tickets were five dollars and food was reasonably priced. Philly seriously needs one of these places.

We ordered a carafe of wine and settled in to watch Woody Allen’s latest flick. The wine proved to be a good choice, not only because the characters on screen drank lots of wine, but also because the alcohol helped the rough edges of the plot and dialogue go down a little bit easier. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were wonderful and delivered their lines naturally. While they both played stereotypically fiery Spaniards, they nevertheless created personas for themselves that went beyond what was written on the page.

I continue to be confused, however, why Scarlett Johansson is Woody Allen’s new muse. (He went from Diane Keaton to her?) She continually gives stiff, two-dimensional performances that are softened only by her full lips and womanly curves. In a strange twist, however, the most annoying person on screen was not Johansson, but her even more wooden co-star, Rebecca Hall, who played Vicky. She often spoke like she was reading a teleprompter scrolling lines she had never seen before.

Basically, the story was enjoyable, but not really insightful or funny. In the past, Woody Allen’s movies have said (or at least quoted) important ideas about human relationships, and I miss those little nuggets. Definitely, Vicky Christina should have been R rated to allow Allen to play up the main thing the movie has going for it: sexy people having sex with each other.

Woody Allen is at his best when he pays homage to his own neurosis and his own city. Unfortunately, he exhausted that topic (or at least his audience’s patience for it. Did you see Anything Else staring Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs?) I am glad he is still making movies and exploring new actors, cities, and genres, but this time he just wasn’t at his best. I will give him another chance though, and another one after that, because, com'on, he’s Woody Allen.

A Girl Cut in Two

A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol, the director of A Girl Cut in Two, is the master of bourgeois evil and mystery. The dark secrets and dirty habits harbored by the wealthy propel his plots calmly through their twists and turns.

A Girl Cut in Two stars Ludivine Sagnier, a woman whose depth as an actor has continued to be revealed since she starred in The Swimming Pool, and more recently in our generation’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a lovely musical about young love and sex, called Love Songs. Sagnier’s character, Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (translated as Gabrielle Snow), is an attractive weatherwoman who is ogled by all men she meets. She is first presented to us in close-up, with heavy make up, smiling a fake smile, and charming her television audience with news of sun and clouds. While her on -stage persona is not that of her real life, to the audience, she nonetheless exists in contrast to all who surround her. She is young, they are old. She is impulsive, they are calculating. She moves like water, they, like vodka from the freezer.

The central conflict is Gabrielle’s affair with the sexually liberated, bourgeoisie novelist, Charles Saint Denis, and her jealous, filthy rich suitor, Paul Andre Claude Gaudens. It is no coincidence that Gabrielle’s name evokes both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for she is the heroine in this modern day, dystopian fairy tale. Gaudens is the prince, seeking to sweep her off her feet and away to the family castle. Gabrielle is the reluctant princess; average in status but beautiful. Gaudens’ mother functions as the bad witch, and Gabrielle’s mother is the benevolent queen. All these conventions are turned upside-down in modern day. Princes are heirs to pharmaceutical fortunes instead of kingdoms, and they are perverted and jealous instead of noble and chivalrous. The virginal princess is everything but, actually eager to sleep with a married man, and occasionally, to do it in front of his friends. Furthermore, there is no archetype in the fairytale for Charles Saint Denis’ character, and because he has no place in the formula he spoils the happy ending before the story even starts. Needless to say, Gabrielle’s affair goes horribly wrong and then get worse, leaving the poor girl to pick up the pieces.

Through all of the insincerity and betrayals, the story remains interesting, but never crosses over into territory we haven’t seen before.

However, the final moments of the film are unlike any that proceed it, and I was left wondering whether the last scene was a gesture of brilliance or an inability to self edit. Eventually, I decided it didn’t matter. In his review of the new movie Blindness, A. O. Scott cited this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.” At Scott’s prompting, this got me wondering if all films are allegories because they necessarily speak in the picture-language.

In the last scene of the film, Gabrielle is her uncle’s lovely assistant in his magic act. During the performance, Gabrielle lies down on a table with a large circular saw overhead. What follows is nothing if not Coleridge’s definition of allegory: Gabrielle is literally cut in two. The abstract notion of being torn in opposite directions is translated into the picture-language.

I asked myself why Chabrol would make such a literal and obvious gesture. Here is a possible explanation. The allegory is complicated by the fact that when Gabrielle is cut in half, the bisection is a performance and an illusion. All good allegories should allow the reader or the audience to look at the thing the allegory represents with a new perspective. When the final scene is applied retroactively to the film, the title is revealed to be misleading. In order to be metaphorically “cut in two”, a person must be conflicted. At no point in the story is Gabrielle conflicted. When she wants Charles over Paul, she acts on it. When Charles makes himself unavailable, she settles for Paul, not because she is unsure of what she wants, but because she knows exactly what must be done. All the while she harbors feelings for Charles, saying definitively that he is “the only man she will ever love.” This is an expression of conviction, not conflict. She experiences no moral dilemma and no crisis of conscience. She is never tortured by the incongruity of her own desires, only the incongruity between hers and Charles’.

Ultimately, that Gabrielle is whole is no great revolution. Along the way, she has garnered some undeserved pity from the audience. Finally, she exists as she was first presented, on display. After the magic trick is over, Gabrielle stands alone on stage to bow to the audience. The credits role over a frozen image of her face, smiling proudly. Like Antoine Doinel’s face at the end of 400 Blows, the frame carries false significance. The audience searches for resolution because it the ultimate moment, but the ending is arbitrary. The story has another life outside of the picture, but the information stops here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Burn After Reading

Yesterday night I had the pleasure of seeing the Coen Brother’s new film, Burn After Reading. For uninteresting reasons, I haven’t made it out to the movies much lately, and this was a great film to choose for my return. Incidentally, the last film I saw in this particular theater was the Coen brothers’ previous film, No Country for Old Men. So much has changed since then, and I don’t mean the Coen brothers winning an Oscar. If I were asked to explain it in general terms, I would say that there is energy in the air that is caused by a depressed country, an overwrought media, and a hunger to uncover what is at the heart of this uncertain puddle we are standing in. Things have been dark and bloody for sometime, and now they seem to be about to tip into the realm of the absurd. Sarah Palin could be a breath away from leading out country. Need I say more? I bring it up because in a very special Coen brothers way, Burn After Reading is a reflection of this current mood.

The film operates much like a centrifuge: characters spin wildly around an empty center. Linda Litsky, played by Frances McDormand, is obsessed by “her surgeries”, a set of cosmetic procedures that will finally allow her to reinvent herself. Brad Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a bumbling, over-happy bimbo who does nothing by exercise and hydrate. George Clooney is a paranoid sex addict, Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich, is a drunk, angry, ex-CIA hack. Tilda Swinton is, to put it in the screenwriter’s terms, “a cold stuck up bitch.” Yet, somehow we like them, or at least like watching them. The utter stupidity and shamelessness of the film’s protagonists, Linda and Chad, is disguised as vulnerability and naivety. This is precisely why we like them. All of us vulnerable, naïve members of the audience only wish we could be so shameless about our own stupidity. We could continue to run around like chickens with our heads cut off and never have to realize it is our own damn fault.

It is pretty cute that the only dollar amount ever mentioned is the $40,000 that are missing from Osborne Cox’s checking account, thanks to his disgruntled wife. The cost of the cosmetic surgeries that motivate Linda to launch the ridiculous chain of unfortunate events that constitute the movie’s plot is never mentioned. Money is at the bottom of all the insanity, but amidst the attempted extortions and black mail no one ever mentions how much. (Compare this to No Country for Old Men, where the suitcase full of $2,,XXX,XXX,XXX was pretty much responsible to everything).

Chad and Linda desperately want to be part of something: the larger system of intelligence, international politics, adventure, whatever. The Coen brothers never doubt that the establishment exists, nor do they infer that it should be overthrown. Instead they reveal the vacuum of emptiness at its center. True, there is a system that encases this emptiness. Yes, someone is always watching. Yes, information is being recorded and reported. Yes, people everywhere are doing the jobs they were hired to do. But for what? No duh, for naught.
Against all expectations, the fact that there is not good reason for anything that is happening comes as a consistent relief. When the screen cuts to black, the emotion I feel is appreciation. I appreciate how much the film has made me laugh. I appreciate that the Coen brothers have a consistent yet evolving point of view. I appreciate that people in America are still making good movies, despite (or, maybe because of?) all those Palin supporters.