Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Blood in Tangier

Spectacles: Swinton/Hiddleston vs. Bowie/Denueve in The Hunger

«« Only Lovers Left Alive. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. At selected theaters.
Casting Tilda Swinton as a vampire is about as brave as making Fred Thompson play a Senator. In Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, she's exactly what we expect: silver-haired, with opalescent skin, she prowls the suqs of Tangier in perpetual slow motion, looking for the "good stuff" ("O" negative). Along with her long-distance paramour Adam (The Avenger's Tom Hiddleston), she's a latter-day romantic aesthete, more desperate for literature and antique clothes than blood. Hiddleston, meanwhile, is a sucker for vintage musical instruments. They wear their sunglasses at night.
          None of this is necessarily bad. Indeed, it was fine 31 years ago, when Tony Scott made the same movie and called it The Hunger. The connection between aestheticism and vampirism goes deep, mixed up with facile presumptions about drug-use and creativity usually made by people who are neither drug-users nor creative. Once we draw the line between vampires and sex, can the vampire-as-hipster be far behind?
          Jarmusch's work has always been about striking moods. Down by Law (1986) is arguably still his best, but this critic has a soft spot for his deliriously odd revisionist Western, Dead Man (1995). Having emerged about the same time as the Coen Brothers, he seemed to hail from the same school of deliberately awkward moments. Trouble is, where the Coens expanded their repertoire to include comedy, action, and even musicals, Jarmusch has kept his seat in the coffeehouse, nursing his coffee and cigarettes.
          In Lovers, he pretty clearly identifies with his vampire power couple—which stands to reason, given that he sports the same silver-hair-and-biker-boots look. Alas, hipster cool naturally entails hipster pretension: Swinton and Hiddleston scorn the mortals around them, calling them "zombies", bewailing the way they so "pollute" their blood as to make it unquaffable. How rude of them.
          Setting has always been important to Jarmusch's films, and this one is as full of clichés about them as it is about vampirism. Hiddleston lives in a vagely fortress-like pile on the outskirts of Detroit, from which he surveys a vista of delicious (and predictable) urban decay. Swinton prefers old-town Tangier, with its small bookstores and tea-and-hookah places and air of ripe illicitness. The days of unapologetic "orientalism" are supposed to be over, but Jarmusch didn't get the memo—in his Tangier, young lovers make out hot-and-heavy on public streets, which they most surely do NOT do in most Muslim cities. (Well, at least if they don't want a bunch of horny young men watching.)
          Swinton and Hiddleston are appealing players, and do the best they can to pump some blood into these threadbare choices. But it's a losing proposition. Jarmusch is a little late coming to the vampire craze, and not fashionably so.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Putting the "O" in Literature

Stoya knows good material in Hysterical Literature.

«««« Hysterical Literature. Directed by Clayton Cubitt. On YouTube.

“I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a hot-gushing, butt-cramping, gut hosing orgasm.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
          Over the past two years, photographer/filmmaker Clayton Cubitt has been posting a series of provocative black-and-white videos on YouTube. Each features a solitary woman sitting behind a table with a book. After introducing herself and the title, she proceeds to read until—anywhere from five to twelve minutes later—she has an orgasm. Then she repeats the title and author of the book, and the video ends. Cubitt punnishly calls the series Hysterical Literature.
          These women aren't acting. The climaxes are courtesy of an unseen participant, hidden under the table with a Hitachi Magic Wand—the so-called "Cadillac of personal massagers." Some of Cubitt's subjects are widely known, such as comedian Margaret Cho, adult film star Stoya, and burlesque performer Stormy Leather, but most aren't celebrities at all. With no point or purpose overtly expressed, it's hard to say whether Cubitt wants to say something about sex, literature, their intersection, or something else entirely. Whatever it's about, Hysterical Literature is compulsively watchable, drawing more than thirty million views to date.
          Like some of the best subversive art, the series' tight, predictable structure conceals surprising complexities. The viewer hangs around for the climax, but it exposed to far more than moaning along the way. The person under the table, unseen but most definitely present, might as well be the writer him- or herself, wielding a particularly evocative "pen".
          The books—chosen by the performers themselves—tend to be cluster on the literary side of the shelf, including works from Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, and Bret Easton Ellis. But they also include less familiar material, such as Supervert's Necrophilia Variations and John Ashbury's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Even when the book is a classic, the selection may or may not bear direct relation to the task at hand. The "therapeutic" torture scene in A Clockwork Orange, where the hero's body is forcibly conditioned to abhor violence, seems like a canny choice by "Amanda"; on the other hand, a dissertation on the music of Whitney Houston (in American Psycho) seems almost random—though quite fetching when Stormy Leather squeals at the part about the "great keyboard riff" on Houston's "How Will I Know".
          One question Cubitt doesn't seem to be interested in is "Is this pornography?" His subjects are, after all, fully clothed, and none of the sub rosa goings-on are seen. Aside from the buzz of the Magic Wand, which is only occasionally audible, one might think these women are hot and bothered about reading itself. It almost qualifies as a public service message. If this is pornography, then When Harry Met Sally should be filed in the XXX section too, just for Meg Ryan's thundering O in the Carnegie Deli.
          There's been no shortage of critical ink spilled on the nature and significance of the female orgasm. As Germaine Greer noted forty-four years ago in The Female Eunuch, it has "…become more and more of a mystery, at the same time as it has been exalted as a duty. Its actual nature has become a matter for metaphysical speculation." Women relishing their sexuality has always had ambiguous implications, depending on whether it is seen as something to celebrate or control. For men, women's capacity for multiple climaxes has been an object of awe, and a brass ring for them to strive for. As Greer argued, if conventional sex is something men perform and women judge, then the orgasm is the Perfect 10. So much more so, you'd think, if that 10 is earned—or seems to be earned—by words alone.
          Recently, science has peeled back some of the mystery. Brain scans of women in flagrante have shown activation in the hippocampus, cingulate cortex, striatum, hypothalamus, and cerebellum—areas associated with short-term memory, emotion, motivation, and movement. Fittingly, these are areas involved in the active appreciation of literature too. Movements in a story are mirrored by neurons in the reader; allusions in a literary text can trigger trains of personal memories that help make it a rich, immersive experience. Not surprisingly, the areas of the frontal cortex associated self-control go dark.
          But for my money the most apt comparison is not anatomical but spiritual. The orgasm has been long been called "a little death"— the closest mortals can get to the divine, or at least to the Grim Reaper. Not for nothing did the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini like to
Bernini's Blessed Ludovica Albertoni
evoke a sex-drenched union with God, as (for instance) in his obviously orgasmic funeral monument, Blessed
Ludovica Albertoni. Overt religiosity is currently not in good odor among the literary classes, but it is not unusual to approach literature itself with a kind of religious awe. In this sense, Hysterical Literature is not about sex, but about women engaged in the only intellectually respectable form of worship.
          Why women? For this, it's worth clicking on some of the male parodies of Cubitt's series. The point there is comedic, of course—in the briefest, "Isaac" gets only one minute and nine words into his selection from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The joke isn't only on these particular guys. This may be a straight male speaking, but the bookish, almost shy Stoya abruptly waxing beatific for art is—if not exactly a sacrament—a thing of beauty. Watching a man offer up his teaspoon of fluid? Not so much.
           However you care to read it, Cubitt's series is worth coming for.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Thin Skin

Alien honey-pot on wheels (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin.

««1/2  Under the Skin. Written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. At select theaters.

Why would alien beings come to earth, other than for anal probing? That's a good question, usually answered with something like "for our natural resources" (e.g. Independence Day, Pacific Rim) or because the aliens see us as a threat (The Day the Earth Stood Still) or simply because they're devoted butterfly collectors (E.T.). Give Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) credit for going in a unique direction in his low-and-slow thriller, Under the Skin.
          Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Skin is set in Scotland, where it rains and fogs so much the natives barely see the stars at all. In the environs of Glasgow, a seductive young woman (Scarlett Johannson) drives around in a van, trying to pick up solitary men. She's spooky, and she dresses like she stole her clothes from a dead runaway (which she did), but she often succeeds because, well, she looks like Scarlett Johannson. Once she lures her prey to a nondescript house, the men disappear in a manner that I won't spoil here.
          But what happens isn't really the point. Glazer—a filmmaker who made his name making music videos for the likes of Blur and Radiohead—is really after casting a visual spell. Underscoring his character's outsider perspective, every frame of Under the Skin is composed with a fussy precision that makes Scotland seem like an alien landscape. The Galwegian burr of most of the speaking characters is nearly incomprehensible, evoking a kind of otherworldly gibberish. Creative sound editing, and a truly terrific musical score by Mica Levi, key the film's hypnotic pace. For these reasons, Skin has been called a throwback to a former generation of atmospheric mind-benders like Picnic at Hanging Rock, 2001, Blow-Up, or the original Solaris. The word "Kubrickian" has been thrown around.
          I wouldn't go that far. While Hollywood has indeed abandoned adult atmosphere to cater to juvenile tastes, this kind of slow-boiler hasn't really gone away in the art house. Films like The Proposition, Meek's Cut-off, Enter the Void—and virtually everything Jim Jarmusch has made—still pop up regularly. Nor does Glazer's deliberateness really approach the rigor of Kubrick, which was really about constructing an intellectual vision as much as a creepy mood.
          Truth be told, after forty minutes of this, it becomes pretty clear that Skin is pretty thin stuff. We long for this alien to do more than wander about, wearing her human body like a stiff set of new clothes. Glazer is a talented—perhaps even visionary—filmmaker, but is there any doubt this film would never have been released if it didn't involve Scarlett Johannson picking up random men? (Apparently, at least some of these dudes really were just casual passersby, enticed by Glazer's crew as they filmed in Glasgow.)
          We get a big reveal in the end that settles much about this honey-pot's true nature, but precious little about its (her?) mission, intentions, or psychology. Do the aliens really believe human skin is the most noteworthy thing about life on planet Earth? Is it just a means to some other end? Unlike old masters of cinematic mystification like Antonioni and Tarkovsky, Glazer doesn't beguile us enough to forget those kinds of questions.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Red, Red Lobster

Life at sea in Leviathan.

««« Leviathan. Written and directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel. Available on Netflix.
The only thing our media tends to romanticize more than love is work. The face of Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, but Miller Time has launched ten thousand beer commercials. So we approach Leviathan---Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's experimental film about working life aboard a north Atlantic fishing boat—with a certain set of expectations.
          What this film actually offers lies in a different universe entirely. There is no narration, and no musical cues beyond what the fishermen themselves play on their radios. Eschewing conventional equipment, the filmmakers shoot with compact GoPro cameras, hanging them from the workers' jackets, suspending them from lines, dunking them underwater, dragging them through vats of dying fish. In addition to being cheap, these cameras can be turned to such versatile uses they provide almost a God's eye view of their subject—a cut-rate panopticon.
          The result is an overwhelmingly sensual experience. We hear the wind screaming through the chains, and a cacophony of clanging equipment. Hooded figures glower like malevolent monks in the gloom. The boat's scuppers paint the sea with fish blood, and gulls hover and dive for scraps. Fish, eyes bulging and gills yawning, hang on in some twilight state between life and death. As the GoPros flit in and around, the whole thing might be taken for an out-of-body experience for the "catch"—but just as well for the boat itself.
          Belching smoke and offal, the trawler comes off as some kind of death-dealing anti-Ark. Certainly, Leviathan paints a far different picture from typical commercial images of seafood, landing bloodless and breaded on plates at Red Lobster. Yet the filmmakers are not interested in anything so obvious as an exposé on industrial fishing. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel run a media lab at Harvard called the "Sensory Ethnography Lab", a name that consciously evokes an anthropological tradition of "participant observation". To do ethnography is to watch and listen, but not to judge—at least in theory. And indeed, along with the names of the fishermen, the ethnographers credit the other "informants" in their film, including Asterias vulgaris (a starfish), Callinectes sapidus (blue crab), and yes, even Fulmarus glacialis (a sea bird).
          Like many of its stars, the film seems a bit undercooked. Though evocative, the images are sometimes unreadable, which wastes time. Fishermen at work can be a chatty bunch, but the cameras in their faces here appear to have silenced them. But there's no question Leviathan is a powerful and unique experience.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Hard Rain

Russell Crowe is all wet in Noah.

«« Noah. Written by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. At area theaters.
Confronted with a un-ironic movie about Noah's Ark, it's tempting to be cast back into the role of a skeptical twelve year-old, forced to discuss Bible stories in Sunday school. The "discussions" usually didn't get far, because adolescent questions kept getting in the way ("Didn't anybody else before the Flood ever build a boat…any boat?"; "Why did God choose a worldwide flood to punish humanity? Why not a nice plague that killed all the people, but spared innocent plants and animals?"; "How can an omnipotent, omniscient deity ever get 'mad'? Did He make a mistake in creating a world full of humans with free will? And if He made a mistake, doesn't that mean He's fallible?"; etc. etc. etc.).
          The kindly response, of course, was that we should not read the story of the Flood as literal truth, but as a moral fable. But children's fables don't make promising material for serious movies—and director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Requiem for the Dream) is nothing if not serious. Thus we reach the paradox besetting Aronofky's Noah: the preposterous premise undercuts the tone, and the tone seems desperate to fly away from the premise.
          Aronofsky starts off by trying to defamiliarize the old story. Instead of bearded patriarchs dwelling in Israel in ye Olde Testament vestaments, he gives us something like The Road set outside of Reykjavik. (That's literally true—the film was shot in Iceland). Noah (Russell Crowe), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly) and family live on the run in a post-industrial hell-scape, pursued by the cannibalistic descendants of Cain. God doesn't speak to Noah directly—he sends him dreams, which Noah shamanistically interprets. Come time to build the Ark, he turns for help to "The Watchers", a Tolkeinesque race of a fallen angels clad in husks of volcanic rock.
          If this seems to you very far from the illustrations in your family Bible, you're not alone. The most vociferous opposition to Noah hasn't come from movie critics, but from Biblical literalists who don't remember the story mentioning stone demons and rocket-propelled grenades. (Fact check: Genesis 6 does say "There were giants in the earth in those days…")
          More to the point, this Noah is an environmentalist, enjoining his children to take from the earth "only what you need". The word "God" is barely uttered in the script by Aronofsky and Ari Handel; instead, they use the gender-neutral term "Creator". In short, the film wants to be spiritual, but not religious. Attuned as they are to "dog whistle" messages from right-wing politicians, fundamentalist Christians need only about three seconds to tell this Noah isn't meant for them.
          So whom is it for? It isn't for animal lovers, because aside from a few CGI sequences, caring for all the creatures of the earth barely figure in the story. Instead, Aronofsky and Handel want to conjure dramatic tension that isn't in the Bible. Noah, you see, is a dead-ender, looking forward to a world without any people in it at all. His adoptive daughter Ila (Emma Watson) isn't with that program, daring to conceive with Noah's son Shem (Douglas Booth). Will Noah get over his dream-destiny and let Hermione breed? Two hours in, it's hard to care much, because all other infants on earth—billions of them, presumably—have already met watery graves.
          Truth be told, this is an environmentalist's Noah, and there is a hard core of people within that movement who would not shed a tear if billions of humans on earth disappeared. It's a kind of misanthropy that does deserve examination, at the movies and elsewhere. But this, a fable that hardly withstands the adolescent laugh test, hardly seems the place.
© 2014 Nicholas NicastroHanH