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Thursday, March 31, 2011

NAGISA OSHIMA'S "IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES": THE MOST UNSEXY SEX MOVIE EVER

On to Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses.”  The most unsexy movie filled with about 80 percent if not more of sex. I felt at the end like I’d watched cats mate for half an hour. But this odd effect I am still sensing is why I think there is something brilliant about this film with the simplicity of the coverage, the fearless close-ups, and exploration without frills of something this culture if completely obsessed by: fucking. And how ultimately, it had the complete reverse effect of titillation and arousal that most sex scenes attempt to evoke. (Well, at least for me. I find pornography boring, and feel neither disgust or arousal from it, so perhaps I am not a good example.)

This film essentially explored the obsession of a couple that does pretty much nothing but have sex with each other. It was like watching two heroin addicts shoot up in a tiny room while you are strapped to a chair in the corner, forced to watch them suffocate themselves, dominated by their addiction to the point where they do not eat, they do not bathe, and they rarely leave the room.  I think most directors would have injected their own moral and visual agenda quite heavy-handed into the treatment of this film, especially as it deals with the most sensitive subject in art: the depiction of sex.  But Oshima was so simple and light-handed with the visual treatment of the film, that the agenda, if there was one, was so transparent and fluid. Some might argue that the use of close-ups on body parts and the general focus on the female’s experience of orgasm make it less light-handed than I suggest, but I think Oshima was attempting to not hide or amplify certain things that pornography tends to do.  He captured scenes with straightforward still shots and close-ups. Bodies were as they were.  Sex, the large amounts of it, was just as it was.  The result of having such a transparent agenda, without the director telling us what to feel emotionally or physically, was the viewer was left to experience the sexuality of this film in a very personal manner.  We were each left to bring our own various sexual ideas and psychology to this film, and that is where I feel this story had a level of brilliance rarely seen with sex scenes or films where sex plays a huge role.

Too often, viewers are told to feel aroused by the sex they are watching in movies, experience reassurance of their masculinity or femininity, or watch their fantasies unfold with movie stars who look nothing like the person we sleep next to each night.  That is because movie sex, like movie life, is always bigger and grander than the real thing.  “In the Realm of the Senses” evoked something of the opposite reaction, something of disgust and amazement at the levels this couple went with their obsession. If one were to just walk in to the middle of the film, it could be arousing briefly, but sitting through the whole experience leaves a sense of emptiness and the sad reminder that beneath our well-constructed fa├žades of intelligence and politeness, we are fundamentally selfish animals driven by primitive impulses and the rewards of pleasure. It is our personal conflicts with this level of ourselves that gives the rise to all the fascinating and fruitful realities of obsessions, addictions, religion, and...well, art.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

SUCKLING THE TEAT OF "SUNNIER" SCRIPTS

Not too long ago, I read an article in Variety magazine about how “sunnier” scripts get the vote from the Academy.  Not that the granting of an Oscar actually is a reflection of the quality of the script or film, but how strange that such a “redeemed” American institution like the Academy does not understand its own prejudices and biases.  
            But I’m not writing to criticize the Academy or the politics behind it.  I am more interested in what this gesture reflects about the larger social perception of American film.  If films that receive such recognized awards like the Oscars are usually fare that makes an audience feel positive aspects like laughter or successful romantic escapades, then we are missing the inspection and recognition of other genres that explore the multiple other aspects of human emotion and experience. We are, in essence, extolling the idea that darker shades of reality really aren’t worth recognition and respect within cinema.
            “Big deal,” you might think. “We get enough violence and catastrophe in the daily news.” 
            Sure. We do, I agree.  But, the news is a different forum than film and has its own agenda driven by so many countless factors.  Film, on the other hand, at its best, explores all aspects of human nature, including all the crap that we don’t want to look at that journalism laps up like a hungry cat does with milk.
            Discussing the biases of most American film viewers with a friend, we both felt that American audiences don’t like to be uncomfortable.  As a culture on the whole, we try very hard to shield ourselves from the harsh realities of life that many other cultures generally have to deal with on a daily basis: hunger, government corruption and abuse of human rights, genocide, racial and religious violence, etc. etc.  We like our films to reassure us, protect us, make us relax, feel like life is going to be okay, that our children are going to turn out fine, and our marriages and relationships are going to be happy. 
            I wonder, however, what turning away from violence, sexual deviancy, racism, corruption, and all the other darker sides of ourselves does to us in the long run.  I firmly believe that by ignoring the “evil” aspects of our natures, we, in turn, only amplify these traits within our culture.  There is a lack of balance if the “good” American film scripts, by looking at the history of what the Academy prefers, are only works that reflect some Disney-fied perspective of the world. This continues to create the escapist approach to most of American entertainment, and pigeon-hole films into a rather stagnant arena where motive numero uno is to placate, calm, and soothe the audience.  It’s like feeding everyone one great big tit to suckle while tucking a blanky around our necks.  
            But the kids gotta grow up and be weaned from the breast or they just end up as adults who live in the basement of their parents’ houses. Chicks get kicked out of the nest or they’ll never be able to realize that they have wings and can fly. Okay, corny reference to birds and flight, but I think I’ve made my point.  Denial of what people do to each other and themselves at their worst does not prevent that which we fear from happening, it only increases its chances of occurring.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SOME THOUGHTS ON AUTEURS

What does it really mean to be an “auteur” filmmaker?  To be the singular artist that puts his or her stamp on their work?   I don’t really believe in the auteur theory entirely because it eliminates the participation of the others that must be involved in the process of creating a film.  But this idea aside, my collection of films is almost all comprised of work by “auteurs,” filmmakers who create films from their very unique views and experiences of the world.

I watched “Mister Lonely” a few years ago.  Harmony Korine has been one of my favorite filmmakers for a while, and this film to me is perhaps more human than his others have been.  Beyond weirdness for weirdness sake (which is legit reason to make films, but not always interesting to watch for 90 minutes), there were characters here searching for something, undergoing loss, change, hope, and the cyclical return to searching again for whatever they “lack” as people.  This film struck me for many reasons beyond the odd characters and the unusual imagery.  I was reminded again that my favorite filmmakers play with their own obsessions, let them filter into their stories as randomly unexplained as life is in itself, and this is what makes these filmmakers great and unique.

Great filmmakers have an honest and open dialogue with their own curiosities, the things that make them tick, images and characters that vibrate in them.  There is a passion in them that asks them to play with these obsessions and questions, examine dreams and personal magnetisms, despite how their curiosities fit into a story-formula, or how they resonate with an audience.  They are genuine in their curiosities.   They do not inherit the tastes of others, but find their own.  This is not to suggest they are unaffected by the influences of other artists, but they integrate their own idiosyncrasies with the art that resonates with them.

I wonder where these fascinations come from?  Why does Tim Burton repeatedly make the dark, quirky, highly stylized films he does?  Why does Mike Leigh take that same darkness but humanize it, place it in a contemporary gritty “real” England?  What is Korine’s interest in characters that seem to come from basements, or the circus, characters that have “socially unacceptable” identities?  Why does Jodorowsky dabble in the surreal and occult with such a raw disturbing power?

I feel the impressions and experiences they receive in childhood are partially the explanation for why auteur filmmakers make the style of work they do. But I think this is terribly limiting, and eventually as a creative resource, quickly exhausts itself.  If a narrow well of childhood memories and impressions is the only source for a filmmaker, I would think he or she has a fairly short career ahead, and perhaps this does explain why many artists do in fact have short careers.  They are only exploring the same psychological material over and over again. 

But I hate to think that we can’t still have the same powerful impressions as adults that we did as children.  As adults, it seems it takes a fucking tornado to make us become  “impressionable,” to alert our senses.  But I don’t think we need to witness murders or undergo divorces in order to become effected by life’s processes.  I understand it is harder to be as open as kids are once we are adults. As adults, we mostly live in such static habits and unexamined routines.  I often watch people driving in their cars, and really wonder how many of them are truly in their cars.  They are probably thinking about something from the past, or what needs to get done tomorrow or next month.  Adults never seem to really be open to the moment right before them.

But I refuse to let this be an excuse.  I think remaining impressionable and vulnerable is not a difficult task at all, but a practice that takes work and time, and an appreciation of its simplicity.  It is something we can do even in our daily responsibilities.  Here is a quick example.  I sit here at work.  I listen.  I hear a clock.  I taste the peppermint gum in my mouth.  I listen to the rhythm of a copier machine against the ticking of the clock.  My typing.  The cacophony of someone’s keys jangling.  A man’s voice.  I bite a taste bud.  Then my lip.  I feel one leg crossed over the other.  A tingling in my toes.  The earrings hanging from my earlobes.

Okay.  This is simple, and I’m probably not going to make a film about this moment.  But my point is that this simple practice of awareness leads us to becoming impressionable, and as a filmmaker, I want to keep filling the well of things I want to obsess about, write about, make characters about. 
Kids are sensual.  Aware.  Sucking in the world.  Watching.  Touching.  Playing.  Neither in the past nor in the future.  And if this is the state of mind we need to be in to gather the experiences that give us the obsessions that inform our work as artists, then we simply have to be more mindful about our daily lives.

Monday, March 28, 2011

THE BUDDHA SHOULD MAKE A MOVIE


    A while ago, I was studying Buddhist philosophy and practice, and beginning to explore some of the ideas of “impermanence.”  There is a very existential thread to a lot of the thinking here, the idea that there is not a single thing in our lives that will ever remain constant. Everything is always changing.
What does this have to do with filmmaking? Again, one of my preoccupations with storytelling through film has a lot to do with the unpredictable aspects of life and people. I enjoy watching and creating stories that bend typical expectations, and explore characters that don’t fit neatly into categories or stereotypes.
   We often watch movies for two contrasting reasons: we want to become part (safely) in a narrative in which we don’t know what’s going to happen next, but at the end of this ride, we want to be reassured by having our expectations of this film met, which usually means we want things to be nice and tidy. We want to know that the underdog will triumph, the earth will keep spinning on its axis, and love and goodness will prevail. One result of the expectations we come with as audience members is the way films can be classified into genres. (Or maybe, it can be argued, that our expectations are a result of the existence of film genres. It’s the classic “chicken-egg” idea.) We attend a love story, most of us expecting to explore the evolution of a relationship, expecting there will most likely be a fight or some disruption, but at the end, Boy WILL get Girl and the happy couple will be together ‘til death do they part. We go to action films expecting dramatic fight or chase sequences, explosions, and characters that magically defy gravity as they leap from rooftop to helicopter.  We watch horror films to sense our primal fear of the dangerous unknown, appearing to us in the dark in some non-human form. And the list goes on...
    There is certainly nothing wrong with watching a film and having expectations of the genre we have paid to watch. That is why it’s called “entertainment.”  Films are entertaining. Part of the psychology of entertainment, in my experience, is getting what we paid for, meaning, we go with expectations and anticipate they will be met. If you paid for front row tickets to “A Chorus Line” and ended up watching a clown juggle fish for an hour, you might soon find yourself angrily demanding your money back.
     But here is where I bring in the aspect of Buddhism.  Buddhism expresses the idea of constant change in life.  We may easily have a set of expectations for how our day, and even our lives, should go, but when expectations and reality don’t agree with one another, we tend to become grumpy.  Sadly, most of us fight reality our entire lives.
     Let’s expand this a bit. Art is fed by and reflects life in all it various shades, rhythms, confusions, and manifestations. Yet, as filmgoers, we feed ourselves a pretty bland diet of predictable film stories and characters, despite the fact that life doesn’t follow this model.  We are scared of real life in our movies. We gravitate towards escapist fare, vehicles of reassurance, distraction, and pacification.  Sure. There is nothing wrong with watching a film to have mental distance from our daily stresses, but our film palette must be challenged, expanded, to include a deeper look at what life and people are about. We don’t eat ice cream and Cheetos everyday after all. Sometimes, we have to try that fried grub worm despite how scary it looks.

      I state the obvious when I say that life is unpredictable and full of impermanent qualities. Film stories should not be exempt from this reality. This may mean the film cannot be classified into a genre. It may mean our main character suddenly does or says something that we never saw coming, just like people do in real life. It may mean that we do not know what the ending of the movie is going to be by watching the first fifteen minutes. It may mean that Boy does NOT get Girl and Girl ends up becoming a nun and Boy ends up selling popsicles for a living. I can’t remember who I heard this from or when, but I have a faint memory of someone telling me, “If you want to see a real horror film, open your eyes and take a look at real life.” Hmm...something to ponder.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

WRITING EVIL: THE NEED FOR THE “LIFERAFT” OF LIKEABLE CHARACTERS

I’ve long been fascinated with the darker sides of human nature, and disappointed to know that few commercially “successful” films share that fascination with me. Or if they do, they pass various shades of moral judgement that tend to support what most Westerners really want to believe in their hearts: Good will prevail, justice will be met, and hard work will be rewarded. We watch movies with certain sets of very ingrained expectations, which if not met, leave us feeling oddly empty. Good must prevail somewhere in the story. Bad guys and gals must be punished in some manner. But does this reflect reality? You’re dumb if I have to answer that question for you.
            Fascinated with the idea of giving an audience only a set of characters as dark and unpredictable as real live breathing human beings, I took it upon myself to adapt (very very loosely) Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” into a contemporary screenplay. I did so not only because I was tired of hearing how screenplays needed to have characters who face almost insurmountable problems, that the narrative must have a complete arc, that there should be a protagonist and an antagonist, and other various dogma of “write-by-the-rules-of-my-best-selling-Hollywood-screenplay-book!” If technology for filmmaking changes at such a rapid blinding rate, why does the core of the film, THE STORY, remain stuck in some stiff Grecian tomb?
            I was also equally tired of hearing people tell me, “Yeah, but I want a likeable character that makes active choices.” What about an unlikable character that is passive and gets all kids of shit dumped on him and he NEVER does anything about it but sit on his new Ikea couch and play Wii? Because we all know those types exist in the world and why should we exclude them from being scrutinized and emotionally mutilated on screen? And, as is quoted from Herbert Spence in the introduction of the Sacher-Masoch book: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” So...if we silly humans aren’t talking about and exploring all aspects of our crazy natures, all the fucked up shit we like to do to ourselves and each other, then where else are we going to talk about it if not in the films we make and watch? Avoiding our various neuroses in our arts does not make them go away, it only forces us into ignorance and judgement on others and ourselves.
            Back to the adaptation. It began simple. “Venus in Furs.”  A contemporary look at the Battle of the Sexes. Men generalizing about negative qualities in women. Women generalizing about negative qualities in men. Blah blah...As I wrote, I found myself delightfully disgusted with the characters, but unable to take my thoughts away from them and what little shits they all were. I loved to hate them. Then, as things progressed, I noticed something very interesting happening. I started to cling to one character as I continued to dislike the others. One character who, at the beginning, was the biggest shit there was, making some of the most sexist remarks I’d ever had a character say. I found that suddenly, I could not keep up the attempt to keep him unlikable.  I started to pity him, and hate those who were mean to him, even if he really deserved it. I felt sorry for him and his weird sexual perversion. At the end of the script, I had a character that had been so emotionally and physically abused, that I wanted to pick him up, hug him, give him some chamomile tea and tuck him into bed with a sweet good night kiss and some Vicks VapoRub.
            Essentially, I had failed.

beat his ass
I could not keep it up for this adaptation: the challenge to create and maintain completely unlikable characters. I wondered how it was that as a writer, I found myself gravitating towards one character whom I pushed to act more rationally and perhaps humanely than any of the others, despite my initial challenge to do the opposite. This says perhaps a lot about any number of things: how ingrained in our psyches are the structure and expectations of story telling? Do we have an innate need to identify and remain with at least one character? Why is it that "bad" or "evil" characters are more interesting to watch than good characters, even if we are rooting for the good guy to ultimately triumph? Perhaps we just need that reassurance that evil isn’t all around us, that even if that stinky robber-guy nabs your purse and runs, some piano is going to fall from the 10th story and land right on his head (but not your purse of course).
            I am not sure what my opinions are exactly on these ideas. I still want to revisit that challenge I had initially set out to do, but for this particular adaptation, it will have to wait.  And by the way, yes...I should read more Joseph Campbell and Rollo May. I know, I know.