Every once in a while I need for something or someone to remind me that my passion for cinema is in some way worth it, and that I’m not a weirdo for devoting so much time to it. I usually find it, and then I keep my exploration going. But that doesn’t mean no one would think I’m weird for doing it. I like weird. However flawed they may be, I tend to prefer movies that are told in an unconventional way, or that are more or less pressing on the boundaries of the expected and/or acceptable by using sex, violence, humor etc., as a means to provoke a reaction from the audience (I simplify). When successful, the thrill could be at least two-fold: One is to see how people around you react. It doesn’t matter if they are young or old, very many people are easily offended by such provocations, and they always seem to feel obliged to make clear why they are disgusted (if it’s an old person, they tend to say something like ‘Now it’s gone too far!’, and if it’s a young person it’s more like ‘Eww, that’s weird/gross/sick!)’. It’s always quite entertaining for those of us who don’t run screaming out of the cinema whenever people are being less than polite, or do something more than hold hands.
But the more important reason why I generally appreciate movies that dare to split its audience, is that at least it signals a will from the director to take some risks. Those risks might mean that half the audience end up loathing your movie, but if the other half had a great experience for that very reason, I’m sure the director would be more satisfied than the maker of a generally well-made movie that’s so conventional every single viewer ends up with exactly the same feeling of slightly disinterested comfort. Provocatively speaking, I’d rather see Larry Clark’s Ken Park twice, if that could erase from memory the small outbursts of intense boredom I felt when I saw A Beautiful Mind or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , even though the latter two probably are the ‘better’ movies in most aspects. The problem with Beautiful and BenjaBut are that they’re so mind-numbingly safe and predictable, whereas Ken Park seemingly don’t give a damn about the viewer’s expectations.
But because this is not supposed to be an article about my thirst for such provocative and risk-taking movies (it doesn’t have to be Larry Clark or Gregg Araki to feel sufficiently fresh and unconventional, think Burr Steer’s Igby Goes Down or simply the slightly claustrophobic middle-class dramas The Ice Storm and American Beauty), we’re going to leave this side of the argument to instead focus on the downside. The problem with using such a will to explore the boundaries of mainstream film-making and/or social norms to decide t what’s worth watching, is at least two-fold. The worst thing is that you can be fooled to watch even the most cynical drivel simply because the willingness to be cynical in itself qualify as unconventional, as is often the case with Destricted (2006), a compilation of short films we’ll return to in a moment.
The other reason why this can be a a bad way to choose what movies to see, or to judge their quality, is that the hunt for gold among all these often cynical and calculatedly provocative movies risk taking my time and attention away from great movies that express themselves more conventionally. No film poetics is flawless, and the problem with mine is that it doesn’t necessarily make room for all the movies that don’t fit into either the ‘provocative + risky = interesting‘ category (such different films – thematically and quality-wise – as Mysterious Skin (gay), Shortbus (sex), Imaginary Heroes (middle class cynicism), Human Traffic (drugs) etc.) or ‘well-played and safe = either predictable and boring, or good, but not good enough‘ (examples can be Cast Away, Atonement, The Hours etc.).
But isn’t this just a schematic way to summarize which types of movies I generally prefer, more than it actually influences what movies I watch? Yes and no. There are other factors that can play in (pop culture relevance, escapism, loyalty to a certain actor or director, etc), but that doesn’t mean my taste has not become more specific, and thus possibly less welcoming towards movies that don’t neatly fit that taste. It struck me when I spoke to a friend of mine about our common love for Billy Elliot, the recent classic about a guy who wants to quit boxing for ballet, that if it had been released today and I hadn’t known anything about it, I might have missed it, because its social realism make my alarm bells go off. That’s truly scary. It’s not that I never like social realism – quite the opposite, actually – but there’s something about that sub-genre’s how aura of importance that often keep me from seeing these films. I believe I know how they’ll be, and then I choose to feel bad about ignoring them over actually watching them on the merits. Then I wouldn’t have gotten to know that Billy Elliot actually is one of the best feel-good movies of this decade, or that there are always glimmers of hope even in Ken Loach’s movies, the best of whom are My Name is Joe (1998) and Land and Freedom (1995).
But to go back to the first point: The biggest problem about watching movies based on some vague sense of intellectual and visual courage, is all the movies that turn out to be simply calculated and cynical. Perhaps I should have realized from the premise of the short-film compilation Destricted (seven films from seven directors about sex and pornography) that it was an invitation to present completely de-eroticized misanthropy as some sort of artsy porn, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I never explicitly regret having watched a movie, but I’m still unsure what to make of most of the contributions in this film anthology.
The project is called Destricted, but based on the short films that came out of it, it could as easily have been named Six Degrees of Masturbation. In some form or another, all the directors seem to share a somewhat cynical view of human sexuality and human interaction in general, and many of the films can be read as meditations over how the disengaging nature of pornography threatens to make sex something mechanistic and emotion-less. Several of the films also try to say something about how the values and aesthetics of pornography seem to seep into popular conscience and culture. However, this doesn’t mean that you can detect some distinct core the project. The problem probably is not (mainly) that the films are of varying quality. It is that taken as a total, they are so pessimistic that at one point they stop feeling relevant. We’ll return to the project at large later, but first a word on Larry Clark’s film Impaled, the reason why I heard about it in the first place.
As some of you might know by now, I’m not a big fan of his films, but I always find them interesting, because he’s so uncompromising. Impaled struggles with the same problem, but that doesn’t mean it cannot say anything interesting about its subject(s). At the beginning, it seems like Clark is aiming for a quite literal interpretation of the project; to say something about sex and pornography in today’s world. He interviews a whole bunch of young guys about their experiences with and feelings about porn, and then goes on to ask them how they feel about their bodies. Their answers to these questions are both interesting, revealing and often funny in themselves, but they take on greater significance because of how Clark’s camera captures the guys’ insecurities. These moments, when I so intensely wanted him to take the camera away, are the most interesting in the entire project, but that’s partly why they are so problematic. I can’t help but feel that the visible insecurity means that the interviewees are not really sure what they are up to, which made me feel like Clark was taking advantage of it for the good of his movie. I’m not sure who these guys are, and it could of course be that they are semi-professionals made to seem like regular guys, but that doesn’t make Clark’s choice any less disturbing.
Still, the second part of the film make the first one seem almost conventional. It turns out Clark’s project is for one of the guys to have sex with a porn star on camera. This is where Clark finally and definitely crosses the line between art and pornography. I’m not against porn, and I wouldn’t even rule out that Clark’s motive with the film is to shine a light on how expectations and reality clash in the porn industry, but I will insist that his means are wrongheaded. As it is, the point of the several minutes long sex scene seems to have been the provocation itself. There are some scenes in which it’s just fine to leave everything for the viewer to decide what to make of it. This is not one of them. Clark should have made his responsibility and authority as the director clear, and I don’t think the film would have been any less interesting if he had.
Generally, for a compilation of films about sex and pornography, it’s remarkable how completely de-eroticized every contribution feels. No less than four of them, Marco Brambilla’s Sync, Gaspar Noe’s We Fuck Alone, Richard Prince’s House Call, and Sam Taylor-Wood’s Death Valley more or less explicitly tackles the question of how the aesthetics of porn affect us, but only Noe’s film manages to say something that feels even remotely relevant. Brambillo’s film simply is two-minute collage of cliched porn images, shown at lightning speed, so as to remind us of the impersonal and generic aspect of porn consumption. While that’s not exactly a bad idea, it’s doesn’t say something new, and cut off from any context apart from its place in a compilations of shorts, it functions more like a clubbing over the head than an invitation to think things through. House Call and Death Valley looks like they could have come from two different decades of porn, the first being an unpleasantly long sex reminiscent of the celluloid shames of porn cinema, and the latter simply a (more glossy) male masturbation scene. Since neither are provided with any context at all, they remain simply expressions of sex, on a level so basic or so abstract (depends on how you look at it) it borders on meaningless, and thus uninteresting.
The intension of Gaspar Noe’s film are no less clear, but at least it is a wholly cinematic work. Essentially, it’s a twenty-minute film about a man who masturbates using a plastic doll while watching porn. What makes it even remotely interesting, is the the disturbing mood set by the use of a strobe, and with a beating heart at the center of the soundtrack. Very, very far from ever being arousing, it’s first and foremost an utterly exhausting experience. It goes on for so long you inevitably get drawn in and out of it, because it’s impossible to keep your concentration on something that monotonous for so long, but it seems the emotional distance to what’s on screen is the essence of each of the the four films. I guess that’s the only way you could be detached enough to coldly assess them. It’s a pity then, that the films all feel so cold that that I barely made it to the end. Luckily, Noe’s film at least offers it’s name as a key. It’s all about loneliness.
If Noe’s film (together with Brambillo’s) is the one that feels most like a film, Marina Abramovic’s Balkan Erotic Epic feels exactly opposite. Considering the generally pessimistic and introverted tone of all the other films, I want to give it a hand for its somewhat more light-hearted and absurd take, but anyway it feels more like an amateurish video lecture than an actual film. By the time the anecdotes about sexual superstition in the Balkans ended, I had stopped caring about whether that was the point or not. Finally, there is Matthew Barney’s Hoist, an artsy and genuinely weird film about a man who seeks pleasure in rubbing himself against a giant mechanical device. Barney’s film proves that even though good films are often weird, what’s weird isn’t always good.
I still think the premise of Destricted was a good one, but as it turned out, the way the directors involved took on the challenge wasn’t all that interesting. Because I believe many movie experiences are ruined if you know to much about the movie beforehand, I’ll probably continue to make missteps like this one in my search for the right balance between something both courageous and humane. Let’s just hope that search doesn’t stand in the way all the movies that are better at being either than the ones who miserably fail at being both.