Tuesday, September 30, 2008

pardon our dust

In the midst of making some design tweaks to this site, and (to a degree) rethinking its relationship to its parent blog, Raccoon. Things look a bit janked-up here at the moment, but tweaks in the forseeable future are likely to improve that state of affairs, and hopefully we'll end up with a better-looking blog at the end of it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

showgirls, by paul verhoeven

So going into this week's Film Club pick, Showgirls, I was theorizing that its director, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, might serve as an analogue to Humbert Humbert (from last week's pick, Lolita). Both Verhoeven and Humbert, it seemed to me, are Europeans who are deeply fascinated with America, specifically America's crass, impulsive, trashy, and shallow aspects—in essence, the aspects of America that are the most distinctly non-European.

If you're interested in those aspects of America, there are two places that might prove especially fascinating, and Showgirls not only calls out those places by name, but it bookends itself with them. Here's a still taken from the first shot of the film:

...and here's a still from the final shot of the film, which you can hopefully read at this resolution if you squint:

So. If you start to think about Showgirls as something that's a commentary on America rather than a cynical exercise in audience titillation, it begins to become more interesting. Although if you want to do this, it might behoove you to ask: what kind of commentary is it, exactly? Is it a satire? Is it a critique? Certainly there are elements of the film that suggest this. It works, at times, as a cataloging of American grotesquerie and tackiness:

And our protag, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), is definitely a Dolores-Haze-like bundle of raw impulses and poorly-thought-out gestures. (Sometimes it seems like every encounter in the entire film ends up with her either storming off in a rage or wreaking some kind of violence upon someone.) Inasmuch as she is functioning a stand-in for American values more largely, there's unmistakably some element of critique there. But Verhoeven's critical interest seems to circulate more around the relationship between entertainment (particularly entertainment that features the use of the body) and prostitution.

We can see this if we look at how much of the film's narrative energy is spent examining the rivalry between the naive and impulsive Nomi and a more seasoned and worldly-wise showgirl, Cristal (played by Gena Gershon). This rivalry, at least initially, hinges less upon professional jealousy and more upon a difference in world-view: Cristal sees the spectacular display of her own body at a high-end casino (the Stardust) and Nomi's topless dancing at a low-rent club (the Cheetah) as basically different points on the larger continuum of prostitution, whereas Nomi sees dancing as a more noble pursuit, categorically different. In the end, it turns out that Nomi doth protest too much, and the film expends a lot of narrative energy repeatedly complicating or violating the distinction between entertaining-through-one's-body and whoring.

Along these lines, it should not surprise us that the character who is perhaps the most effectively satirized in the film is the representative Serious Artist, James. James is a young black dancer who sees dance as a Legitimate Art Form (he trained with Alvin Ailey, we're told), and who naively wants to use Vegas as the forum in which to put on a personal, avant-garde dance piece. In the end, his piece does get its premiere, but ultimately it's little more than a dressed-up version of the same old bump-and-grind:

Thought of thusly, the avant-garde or personal elements in James's piece are essentially forms of inefficiency—noise in the channel, slowing down the transmission of what is important (and saleable), namely, erotic content. If Nomi is a whore who won't admit she's a whore, then James is a pimp who doesn't know he's a pimp, making him the least effective and most strongly ironized character in the entire film.

So, ultimately, the film is critiquing Vegas as a machine that turns people into commodities, and there is a sharply-pointed implication that LA, the city towards which the film gazes in its final moments, operates in precisely the same way. (It's not hard to imagine Verhoeven thinking of acting as simply another point on the "prostitution" continuum, and (it would follow) locating filmmaking as simply another point on the "pimping" continuum.) The film's reaction to this is not rage, but rather a nearly nihilistic resignation: the fools of the film, the ones being satirized, are James and Nomi, the ones who believe that they're not implicated in this sorry state of affairs. If everyone in Vegas and LA is either a pimp or a whore, the film seems to be saying, then the only wise thing to do is admit it and carry on.

If we recall the predictable trajectory of Verhoeven's own pre-Showgirls career, which starts off with him making small art-house films like The Fourth Man (1984) and ends up with him making big-budget Hollywood films like Basic Instinct and Total Recall, it becomes easy to think that maybe Verhoeven had come to think of himself as something of Hollywood' pimp at this point in his career—a line of thought which makes it easy to read Showgirls as a very public way of "admitting it and carrying on." "Admitting it" and "carrying on" might not be the two wisest things to do in the span of a single film, however: although the film is totally willing to give the audience the erotic content that they presumably crave, it asks, in return, that the audience acknowledge Verhoeven as a pimp, Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon as whores, and (it would follow) the audience themselves as willing johns. Many filmgoers understandably might feel discomfited by this bargain, which may go part of the way towards explaining why the film failed at the box office. (There are also other, more obvious reasons, of course, many of which have to do with Showgirls simply not being a very well-made film, but these have been discussed amply elsewhere and don't require recounting here.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

recent film stills

I just put around 15 film stills from Woman in the Dunes (1964) up at the LiveJournal film_stills community. It's a beautifully-composed movie; hope you check 'em out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

lolita, by stanley kubrick

And now a few words about the necrophile community.

If you look closely at any group of people who appear, at first glance, to be unified by creed, interest, or fetish, you will inevitably learn that there is some issue or point of order that divides members of that community. And, indeed, so it is with necrophiles. According to a necrophile FAQ that's circulating around out there, the issue that divides necrophiles above all others is the question of how, er, "recent" the remains should be, with some necrophiles preferring freshly deceased remains, and others preferring older, more skeletal remains. Apparently, the rift between these two groups is severe enough that it's devolved into name-calling, with members of the first group referring to members of the second group as "dust-fuckers."

This was all brought to my attention by my good friend A., who claimed that she was going to start using "dust-fuckers" as her new favorite put-down, because she could think of no phrase more pejorative than the one a necrophile would use to describe an even worse necrophile.

So how does all this relate to this week's Film Club pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962)? Well, as we've been going through our tour of cinematic sociopaths these past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how filmmakers build audience sympathy with twisted characters. Lolita, as you probably know, tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who spends nearly the entire film pursuing (and eventually consummating) a sexual relationship with Dolores "Lolita" Haze, a 14-year old girl (she's 12 in the novel). Pedophiles are probably even lower than serial killers in the big catalog of American Enemies, so how do you get the audience to swallow their distaste and accept one as the protagonist of a two-and-a-half-hour-long film?

By using the Dust-Fucker Principle, of course, and squaring him off against an even worse pedophile.

In the case of Lolita, that Even Worse Pedophile is Clare Quilty, played memorably by the great Peter Sellers. Quilty dabbles in a wide variety of perversions: he's a pedophile; he's an aspiring pornographer; he organizes orgies; he gets off on being slapped around by exotic-looking Judo practicioner Vivian Darkbloom; he hangs out with submissives who themselves get off by being used as furniture. ("I know one guy, looks just like a bookshelf," Quilty quips, early in the film.) By contrast, Humbert's own (blunderingly direct) focus on non-polymorphous fucking seems practically old-fashioned, nearly wholesome.

If we buy into the setup that the Dust-Fucker Principle provides for us, however, we fall into a typically Kubrickian moral trap: although the movie takes advantage of the parallels between pedophilia and standard-issue heteronormative romance to gloss over the former's more repulsive aspects, Humbert is still a monster, and an ultimately unrepentant one at that. In this way, Lolita fits with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's body of work, which almost to a film has a notoriously problematic relationship to the whole concept of a sympathetic protagonist to begin with. (Quick quiz: who is the protagonist in Dr. Strangelove? In Eyes Wide Shut? In A Clockwork Orange? In The Shining? How many of the characters you came up with are good or likeable people?)

So Kubrick joins Romero, perhaps, in Film Club's annals of misanthropic directors. The parallel is more apt than it might first appear: not only do both directors share a focus on monstrous beings, but each of them reach further, observing trenchantly that the society that the monsters inhabit itself fails to succeed in its bid for "non-monstrous" status. The end result is that their respective bodies of work end up depicting a social moral schema in total confusion, with the distinction between [amoral] figure and [moral] ground completely collapsed. Lolita illustrates this as well as any of Kubrick's films: take, for instance, Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother. She's the character who the film could most easily cast as a martyr, but she is instead presented as deeply predatory in her own right, forcing herself on Humbert sexually despite his marked disinterest:

This tendency towards violation is reflected in the film again and again, as many of the film's minor characters also engage in some form of inappropriate boundary-crossing—whether they solicit Humbert and Charlotte to participate in a round of "progressive" partner-swapping or simply cross the threshold of Humbert's home uninvited. In this way, even a concerned neighbor can become a Kubrickian grotestque:

Everyone who isn't a simpleton is a transgressor, in Lolita's moral universe, and the Dust-Fuckers in the bunch are simply the transgressors who have come more fully into bloom.

Pretty bleak stuff, and yet, the film's not without its sense of humor. Humbert is a representative of European high-mindedness, which makes him a great straight-man figure. It seems like Humbert spends half his screen-time trying to maintain his dignity in various humiliating situations that Kubrick and Nabokov have devised for him:

It was these reflections, on Humbert's Old World nature, that led me to think that Humbert might be so uncontrollably attracted to Lolita less because of her nubile winsomeness and more because she's a walking embodiment of ahistorical slangy New World crassitude. Note the way she eats junk food right out of the bag:

Anyway, anytime I get thinking about the European take on "ahistorical slangy New World crassitude," I start thinking about Paul Verhoeven's infamous Showgirls, which brings us to next week's pick. Brace yourself.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

the vanishing (spoorloos), by george sluizer

So, this week, Film Club continued our investigation into cinematic sociopaths by looking at George Sluizer's The Vanishing (the 1998 original).

The setup of The Vanishing is relatively simple: a Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, are on a roadtrip together...

They stop at a roadside service plaza and Saskia goes in for a Coke and a beer while Rex waits outside. Rex, waits, and waits, and waits... but Saskia never returns to the car.

Like Psycho, then, The Vanishing uses a woman's disappearance as an early turning point in its narrative, and it spends the later part of its narrative following the lover of that woman as he searches for her. Both films also spend large chunks of narrative time following the psychotic or sociopathic individual to blame for the woman's disappearance.

Unlike Psycho, however, which spends its time following Norman Bates in the aftermath of his murders, The Vanishing's narrative attention goes to the sociopathic individual, Raymond Lemorne, in advance of his act: we see a number of flashbacks which show him planning out the abduction, working out key details, revising and re-revising elements of it. Here, for instance, we see him rehearsing exactly how he might chloroform someone:

This is interesting because it presents an alternate view of the psychology of sociopathy. In Psycho, Norman Bates' psychology is driven completely by emotion and impulse— grief, jealousy, arousal, rage— emotions which clash inchoately until they find form in violent outburst. Raymond functions as the exact opposite: his actions are methodical, pre-meditated, and even (we learn) in line with an internal philosophy and morality which retains integrity even as it leads him to do evil things.

Watching a character work out a plan like this tends to generate a desire to see the plan play out, although we never quite identify with Raymond the way we did (momentarily, horrifyingly) with Norman (discussed in full last week). Part of the reason for this is that this film, unlike Psycho, has the investigating male, Rex, serve as a stable protagonist throughout the entire run-time. So the (potentially troubling) desire to see Raymond's plan come to fruition is neatly folded into Rex's more socially-acceptable desire to learn exactly what happened to Saskia.

This keeps us in a "safer" space, psychologically-speaking: having Rex as the point of audience identification allows us to maintain a comfortable distance from Raymond. However, Sluizer is a canny enough director to exploit this "safe" identification to great effect. Late in the proceedings, the narrative presents Rex (and, by extension, us) with something of a diabolical choice. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film, but suffice it to say that Rex is given the opportunity to learn what really transpired, although taking advantage of this opportunity will put him in the path of real danger; in fact, even at the outset of the decision it is almost certain that he will be killed, or possibly something worse (earlier on, Raymond casually makes mention that he doesn't consider killing someone to be the worst thing you can do to them).

Rex wants the knowledge of Saskia's fate, however horrible. He wants it badly enough that he's willing to risk self-annihilation. And in effect, we are presented with the exact same bargain: do we want to know what happened, enough to be willing to risk our protagonist / self-analogue? Even though we know it will be horrible? Only the most sensitive viewer could decline such a bargain. But why? What do we gain from taking in disturbing knowledge? Why would the film feel so emotionally disappointing were Rex to decide he had learned enough, and to walk away at the last second? In these final scenes, The Vanishing looks nakedly at the core offer that is at the root of horror / shock films from Psycho to Hostel II: I have something terrible to show you. Do you want to see it?

Next week: more sociopathic abduction narratives: we'll be watching Skunkcabbage's pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

recent film stills

So over the past few months I've been quietly participating in the film_stills community over at LiveJournal, largely posting stills from films that are visually interesting but which aren't Film Club picks, and which I don't plan to do formal write-ups for.

I just posted 21 screenshots from the recent American indie The Guatemalan Handshake (starring Will Oldham!); you can see them here.

I'm also pretty happy with my caps from the atmospheric French thriller Sombre.

You should be able to see these without being LiveJournal / film_stills members... maybe? And if you're interested in what I thought of these films, the best place to look is here...