Rightwing Film Geek

She’s [bleeping] Matt Damon … and his revenge

This is hi-larious … Jimmy Kimmel has been making Matt Damon jokes for years, not just on his current talk show, where there’s a running gag of Damon always being bumped for time, but also on THE MAN SHOW. Now, with help from Sarah Silverman (Jimmy’s post-wife-and-children Hollywood paramour … boooo), Matt gets his own back.

WARNING: Extremely comic-raunchy, but any cleaner and it wouldn’t work — the contrast between the raunch of the lyrics and the mostly chipper delivery and happy-clappy music is side-splitting. Though paradoxically (and this is someone who loved THE ARISTOCRATS talking), I think ABC’s constant bleeping over the f-word actually makes the song funnier by making the word more of a pure abstraction than something with a real referent.

The second part of the Silverman interview is here and some of the background can be gleaned here with Guillermo and here when Damon finally appears on the Kimmel show.

I think Kimmel and Silverman would make a great comedy team, like a postmodern Burns and Allen (the analogy is fairly precise — dry straight man and unwittingly brilliant ditz) if the right format for them could be found.

UPDATE: Jimmy responds and one-ups Sarah brilliantly (thanks Steve in the combox¹, and Mark before him). He’s [bleeping] Ben Affleck:

As Steve points out, it’s even funnier than Sarah’s video, in part (I say, at least) because it mocks the most fatuous exercise in pop-music history — well, the most fatuous one of 1985 anyway² — the “We Are the World” video. As Jimmy pointed out to the New York Times deadpan: “Every once in a while Hollywood rallies itself for a worthy cause. We saw that with the ‘We Are the World’ video, with ‘USA for Africa’ and after 9/11. This is just the next natural step in that progression.”

Indeed … that 1985 exercise in posturing feelgoodism couldn’t survive my first contact with PJ O’Rourke. Here is just a sample of the demolition job he does on it in “Give War a Chance,” proving that the song literally contains neither rhyme nor reason. Some of the detail in the mockery is Proustian in its memory for detail, e.g., having Huey Lewis “duet” with a long-haired blonde. And in an interview, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz hinted that “We Are the World” hatred runs deep in his blood too: “egos all checked at the door for the most part,” something that could not be less true of WAtW, though stated like an ad slogan, if it came from Baghdad Bob himself. To ape that video in service of essentially nothing — a comic lie in response to another comic lie in support of a made-up comic “feud” between two rich celebrities — demonstrates the purity of emptiness in the original.
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¹ BTW … if you think my #3 in this combox was serious … you don’t deserve to have your delusions shattered. So, to those deluded ones who think those words were seriously meant, I tell you in absolute sincerity that they were. I stand by every last one of them. And I confess to you, the deluded, that “Victor Morton” is simply a character that I created to cover up my real identity: Fred Phelps.
² Actually … wasn’t that the year of Live-Aid? OK … second most-fatuous exercise of 1985, at least.

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February 20, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nancy Cartwright’s penis

One of the scenes that almost made my list as best of the year below was the scene from THE SIMPSONS MOVIE of Bart skateboarding nude — on a dare from Homer, natch. But I said there that “Showing the 8-year-old’s willie was a mistake though,” which has drawn two dissents from uncharacteristically misguided folks, both Christians as it happens. (As I recall, they both commented similarly when I initially wrote about THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, though their comments were lost when I had my Blogspot Booboo.)

And to be honest, I did laugh at that moment. Donna and Adam are right … it’s a brilliantly timed gag, one that works exactly because for so long you get the Austin Powers/Borat “show everything else with some ludicrous groin-covering” gag. Then suddenly, for no more than a second or two, you get the exact reverse: The rest of the screen being blocked out and seeing ONLY Bart’s boyhood — just showing it wouldn’t be funny.

Then, the minute I stopped laughing, I really felt … well … pretty disgusted. And violated. Not because it was news to me that Bart would have a penis (I distinctly remember having one when I was his age too. Younger even.) Not because it made the scene potentially erotic or was anatomically realistic (Bart is a cartoon). And not because the scene be an objective violation of any child (for that selfsame reason).
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February 7, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 7 Comments

Apologia pro Ang Lee

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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9

On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”

The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek

Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.

… and from Entertainment Weekly:

In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”

And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).

There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.

Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.

akin.jpgLike THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.

Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.

brokeback3.jpgI had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”

I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.

anglee.jpgOn the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.

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The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.

Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.

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Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.

Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.

It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:

(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.

Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

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Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)

But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:

The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.

Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.

It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.

That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:

It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.

Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:

Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.

As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.

As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.

But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.

When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.

But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.

Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
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¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?

December 19, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2003 TOP 10 — Number 5

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IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)

Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music — a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable?

Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are … why are you still reading?

So … why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.

I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film’s world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former’s there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one.

irreversibleknife.jpgThere is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety — what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals — basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite — and completely pitiless — purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them.

irreversibleparty.jpg The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen — any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him — and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”

In one of George Will’s greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p–sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography’s effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography.

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Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.

Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point — which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good.

In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up — between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Rectum sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M club, Noe gives us a major achievement — a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.

irreversiblerectum.jpg

So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party — a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But … he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long — about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.

But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder.

irreversiblegarden.jpg

Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene — the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place — the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know¹ musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.
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¹ They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.

February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Reader input (and response)

A reader took exception to my reference to liberals as people who “see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.” The following exchange took place by private e-mail, reproduced here with permission from the author, who wished to be identified only as “the anonymous postmodern aesthete.” Anyway, here’s the two notes, his first.
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They see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.”

I expect more from you bud. The NEA? They have not mattered in over a decade and have so shied away from controversy it is repugnant. Coming off your brilliant SOUTH PARK defense, the attack on Ofili seems especially misinformed and knee-jerk.

hvm.jpgFirst confession, I have not seen the painting in question in person. That said, I have seen numerous gallery and museum shows including Ofili’s work and while he ain’t totally my cup of tea I have never, ever seen smeared shit. He uses dried elephant dung, which resembles dried mud really and it often serves as a connection to the earth, mounting the painting or as an adjunct of the canvas — hanging off it like a piece of crisp biology. The reproductions of the offending painting put it in that camp as far as I can see. The use of this material (elephant shit) never suggests disrespect in the way that a Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley using shit might — it is so safe, dry, scentless, and aesthetically sculpted as to move beyond filth into something new.

On top of all that Ofili is a Roman Catholic of African descent and a native of England — he is exploring his African roots in his work, linked here.

Pay no attention to the gallerists and curators in the piece, rather, focus on Ofili’s stance. His work is no more blasphemous in my opinion than that of SOUTH PARK in which Jesus is hosting a hippie cable access talk show — the new age Donahue.
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Although I had forgotten the detail about genital cutouts from porn magazines (which would have made my point better and the relationship of which to African nature cults is unclear), I actually did know “The Holy Virgin Mary” had dried elephant poo, rather than a piece of toilet paper one second after human use.

The problem is that shit is shit — and to shit on is a signifier of waste, contempt, the lowest animality. At least in Western society, and Ofili is not a Hottentot ignorant of our conventions and language and symbology, you don’t use it, even “to make people think” or whatever other cant the curators care to use, on whatever one considers holy. He may be exploring his African roots (Zimbabwe is a rather odd place for a Nigerian to do that, but let that go), but he’s doing it on Western nickels and in a Western public space.

If I saw the painting in real life and it’s as you describe it and how it looks in that article you hot-linked for me, I might not figure out that it was shit, taking it for mud and maybe I would get the metaphor or maybe not (it sounds at one and the same time obscure and ham-fisted).

You tell me to ignore the curators, but you really can’t. Truth be told, I think that’s the real cause of the fact I have zero interest in the contemporary art world. Were I to see “The Holy Virgin Mary” and take it for mud, there’d still be a panel next to it or a program guide *telling me* it was shit and extolling the work’s daring at epatering the bourgeoisie and “asking questions,” and the narrative of “Pretentious Blaspheming Artiste” then clicks in and I check out. Even if it may be wrong in a given case, it’s hard to deny that the art world and the culture crowd are asking for (literally) this kind of reaction.

ofili.jpgFurther, I’m not so sure Ofili stands so apart from the curators. Here’s the article’s nut quote:

“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say any more.”

Refusing to explain his work, reducing it to interpretation disagreement, and, this is the richest part, *You never know what’s gonna offend people.* Really?

At some point in the future, I’ll write a lengthy exigesis of the portrayal of Jesus in SOUTH PARK. Suffice it for now to say that he is one of the few characters in the show who does not manifest a caricatured to-the-nth-degree extreme form of one or more vices.

November 18, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment