Wednesday, July 30, 2008

That Sexy Psychopath: Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange"

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Watching A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Lauren Wissot "begins to understand how cult leaders and serial killers could have so many females wanting to bed them."

That Sexy Psychopath: Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”

When I received the press release announcing The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series “Lindsay Anderson: Revolutionary Romantic” (running from 8/15-8/21) I thought, well, that should be a fascinating retro. But then I noticed that Anderson’s quintessential discovery Malcolm McDowell would also be on hand to premiere his and Mike Kaplan’s “Never Apologize: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson” and I thought, well, that should be…hot!

For over 20 years I’ve had a thing for McDowell – or, more precisely, the proudly nihilistic Alex he brought to life from the notorious Burgess book, if not as much so for Mick Travis, the embryonic Alex he created in Anderson’s classic trilogy. I first saw “A Clockwork Orange” around the age of ten (note to liberal academics attempting to enlighten their young offspring through art films – Kubrick? Not a good idea) and again later in high school. It was this teenage viewing of McDowell as the violent anarchist leader of a group of hoods, who is ultimately “rehabilitated” by an equally sadistic society, that stuck with me. So much so, that as all the other chicks in my small town dressed as Wonder Woman or Elvira or some similar character with adolescent sex appeal for Halloween, I anointed myself leader of my own band of droogs, eyelash and codpiece included. If you could overlook the raping and pillaging, Alex was one undeniably steamy paradox: a brilliant, sophisticated thug with precise lilting diction and a taste for Beethoven. And I wanted to be a – nonviolent – troublemaker outsmarting evil authority, too!

McDowell devoured his lead role with an animal intensity so enthralling as to inspire copycat crimes that caused Kubrick (upon receiving death threats) subsequently to pull his masterpiece from distribution in England. McDowell’s Alex was Mick Travis on psychopathic steroids, a lethal piece of rough trade annihilating his prey, a flesh-and-hot-blooded embodiment of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” (In fact, his stunning portrayal in the 1971 film gave visceral voice to what would culminate in the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” ethos.)

From the opening moment where Kubrick focuses his all-seeing lens in a close up of Alex’s penetrating gaze, and then slowly pulls back to reveal the futuristic (yet laced with the Swingin’ Sixties) Korova Milkbar with its “milk plus” pouring from the stone pussies of pornographic statues, McDowell’s Alex has you firmly in his grasp. For the next two hours he will take you along for the unapologetically conniving, scheming, brutalizing ride of ultraviolence and make you revel in the glory of his hedonistic hell. Yes, he’s the mastermind behind the agonizing rape at Home – but he does it whilst “Singin’ in the Rain,” with the glee of a child on a roller coaster. Kubrick shoots the scenes of the gang in the stolen car, flying along as if at an amusement park––which, of course, the world is to them. McDowell knows exactly where Alex’s powerful appeal lays: in his pathologically insatiable appetite, in his living life as one never-ending thirst to be quenched.

The scene in which Alex picks up two Lolitas in a music shop before taking them back to his flat for a bit of the old “in-out in-out,” that infamous fast motion ménage a trois set to the “William Tell Overture,” exemplifies his predatory MO. Dressed to the hilt like a dashing prince, Alex saunters through the joint like he owns it, stopping to inquire about an order he’d placed. His attention soon falls on the popsicle-sucking (“A bit cold and pointless, isn’t it, my lovely?”) jailbait pair who he promptly, shamelessly, places himself between, getting uncomfortably up close and personal while dispensing more witticisms like Pez candy. By the time he’s taken a slow taste of the brunette’s cold treat he’s taken vampire-like possession of the duo as well. The invitation to his pad to hear “angels’ trumpets and heaven’s trombones” is merely a formality. Alex is sexy because he’s cocky, fearless, and most importantly, intensely and unabashedly sexual.

Indeed, watching McDowell’s performance one begins to understand how cult leaders and serial killers could have so many females wanting to bed them. Bad boys with high I.Q.s and their own set of rules, rebels writ large, all belong to the seductive brotherhood of Alex. I’d venture to guess that Kubrick’s film would not have been nearly as controversial – nor horrorshow – had he cast a less charismatic lead. Then again I also would not be fantasizing about a now elderly gent who once rocked my young punk world.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Strange Duality: A Conversation with Philippe Petit and James Marsh

“I wish I’d known you were going to interview him—I’d love to learn if he’s still in touch with my friend Barbara Remington who had the albino skunk.” This was my original downtown bohemian pal Rose’s reaction when she found out I’d just spent twenty minutes at the offices of Magnolia Pictures doing a beat-the-clock interview with Philippe Petit, the only person to ever dance across a high-wire between the Twin Towers, and filmmaker James Marsh, who profiled the legendary Frenchman and his “artistic crime of the century” in his appropriately uplifting documentary “Man On Wire.” Though we discussed everything from spirituality to positive con artistry to “A Clockwork Orange,” the subject of living in Chelsea with an albino skunk never came up. (Sorry, Rose.) Here’s what did…

To read my interview visit The House.

Also, The House links my…emails?
The strange conversation continues at number one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hot in the City: Body Heat

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot watches BODY HEAT, a 40s-style noir sweating through the 80s.

Hot in the City: Body Heat

If there’s one film that epitomizes the power of environment over libido, it has to be Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut, the totally-80s noir “Body Heat,” which takes place during a Florida heat wave (does it get any hotter than that?) In fact the balmy weather is a character unto itself, so much so that Kasdan’s production designer Bill Kenney should have gotten top billing right along with the spectacularly sexy duo of William Hurt as smalltime lawyer Ned Racine and Kathleen Turner as the femme fatale Matty Walker, out to wield him as a weapon for murdering her wealthy husband. Never a moment goes by where the third character of heat and humidity isn’t enveloping the pair in a passionate ménage a trois.

And never does a fry-an-egg-on-the-pavement summer in NYC go by when I don’t wonder why one of our many outdoor screenings doesn’t showcase this perfectly paced, edge-of-your-seat engrossing film. It can’t be because of any racy sex scenes since Kasdan shoots rather chastely, with the camera cutting away before anything explicitly raunchy occurs. Instead he chooses a lot of close ups of Matty’s orgasm-chasing face, Ned’s hands squeezing her butt cheeks and parting her legs, a couple of gratuitous glimpses of Turner’s tits, but that’s about it. (Bunuel’s erotic classic “L’Age d’Or” with its toe fellatio scene at the end is way more pornographic than anything Kasdan puts onscreen.) What’s so palpably sizzling is nothing less than the chemistry between the equally matched (in talent and animal sexuality) Hurt and Turner who, even while bantering double entendres fully-clothed, create enough buzzing electricity to counter a blackout.

Kasdan announces his intentions straight from the start with a sultry saxophone score over the credits, which dissolve into a bonfire. Hurt’s Ned has just finished screwing a fuck buddy who complains that it’s so hot that she just stepped out of the shower and is sweating again. “Is it still burning?” she wants to know as Ned ignores her in favor of the view from the window, the flames greedily engulfing the property across the way. From the shiny foreheads to the shots of ubiquitous fans and air conditioners, everyone from Ned’s colleagues (including a delightfully nerdy Ted Danson) to Mickey Rourke’s petty criminal (what else would he play?) is literally feeling the heat, talking about it like it were a mother-in-law on her yearly visit round to drive you mad. When Ned and Matty first meet on that sweltering summer evening she asks him to buy her a “cherry” ice to cool off. Naturally Matty spills the cold treat right “over her heart,” and feigning the gentleman Ned immediately offers to get her something to wipe it up with. “You don’t want to lick it?” she taunts, startling him as he walks away. Of course, by the time he returns from the men’s room she’s disappeared into the heat of the night.

When Matty and Ned inevitably run into each other again at the local bar the conversation turns to the devilish blonde’s lamenting over her wind chimes not ringing, due to the hot air in lieu of cool breeze. She admits to not being especially bothered by the fact that her temperature always runs a couple degrees high – “around 100” – all the time. Matty’s eyes are coy, Ned’s hungry, but they both know that he’ll discreetly follow her home to check out those “wind chimes.” When they reach the dripping-in-riches mansion, Kasdan’s camera teases us with a shot of Matty’s knockout long legs extending from her tight red skirt as she slides out of her car. Like an original 40s noir dame she lives for the game itself, and after showing the hot and bothered lawyer her chimes she curtly kicks him out, locking the glass door.

As the disappointed Ned heads to his car, a fateful wind causes the chimes to start tinkling, intensifying his lust and soon he’s like a wolf on the prowl, trying to deduce a way in as Matty simply stares through the panes with a look of insatiable arousal that dares, “How far will you go to have me?” Like a dog on a leash Ned obeys her body language, breaks his way in with a chair. Fragile glass shattered, they make out like their immoral lives depend on it (in the shadow of yet another lazy ceiling fan, hovering in the upper left corner of the screen from a low angle shot), culminating in sex on the red-carpeted floor.

And from here on out the dangerous liaison takes a turn for the wet with Ned and Matty’s bodies shot slicked with sweat or relaxed together in an ice filled tub. The humid haze of fog that surrounds Ned as he stares longingly at Matty’s house, her husband’s car standing like a sentinel in the driveway, is forever near. But all this steamy screwing is just foreplay for the big “M” of murder, as Matty and Ned go over the devious plan naked and entwined upon a satin-sheeted bed. Once Ned does messily dispatch with the not-so-good hubby (Richard Crenna in a dazzling performance) with a slab of wood, he falls back exhausted, a trickle of sweat streaming down his neck like a drop of blood.

But it’s not until a scene after the ruthless lovers have been nearly caught (as a result of Matty’s greedily changing of the will) does it become apparent that the bedfellows of lust and murder have consummated their relationship. Lying naked on top of Ned, Matty begs for him to believe that she truly loves him, delivering her “I’m bad, I know I’m bad, I wouldn’t blame you if you left me” spiel, all the while slithering up his own unclothed torso. Matty has literally used sex – their screwing sessions dually serving as covert criminal meetings – to carry out homicide.

And since “orgasm” has been reached there is nowhere to go but down. As betrayal and deceit poisons the intercourse ends – as does the heat (Kasdan does a remarkable job of incrementally reducing the sweat on faces while increasing those breezes that rattle the wind chimes). Yet in the very last scene of Matty lounging on an exotic island, an unidentified man offers, “It is hot.” Her simple reply of “yes” as she adjusts her chic shades lets us know that her temperature is still running way above normal. And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit. On second thought perhaps a summertime outdoor screening/sex party would be more apropos.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Surreal Sex: L'Age d'Or

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Salvador Dali's erotic silent film

Surreal Sex: “L’Age d’Or”

Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibit “Dali: Painting and Film” (through 9/15/08), which features over 130 of the artist’s paintings and drawings, scenes and films brilliantly juxtaposed side by side, I feel I now understand Salvador Dali for the very first time. Though erotic Freudian imagery, sexed up amoebas and disembodied cocks, may be what draws one into the Surrealist’s paintings, it’s his use of lighting and perspective that keeps you coming back for more. For Dali never was a painter at heart, but a man possessed by a cinematographer’s eye. Within the limits of the flattened canvas Dali’s mind was able to create – see into the future – that which modern day CGI allows for the screen. In fact, both showman and visionary, this master of the bizarre does not even make sense outside of filmmaking! A piece of the puzzle is missing when his paintings are seen alone and static, not in conversation with Bunuel or Hitchcock (or even Cocteau). Viewing Dali’s artwork without a cinematic context is like trying to talk about (his friend and sometime collaborator) Warhol without mentioning The Factory.

So with this in mind let’s revisit Dali and Bunuel’s classic study in sexual frustration, the erotically surreal “L’Age d’Or”.

Like their earlier collaboration “Un Chien andalou” (featuring the infamous razor-to-the-eye sequence), “L’Age d’Or” is really a series of seemingly extemporaneous images, this time revolving around two lovers forever being frustrated in their carnal desire (an early example of Bunuel’s lifetime running gag of upright citizens unable to consummate their attempts at escaping the land of the bourgeoisie – be it dinner parties or sexual etiquette). Tellingly, we’re introduced to the well-heeled pair without the requisite back-story of romance and impending marriage, which at least would mitigate the sin of lust in the eyes of the Church and righteous society. Nope, the first glimpse we get is of the nattily attired male and prim female passionately pawing at one another, slithering and writhing like snakes in the dirt. That is, until the woman’s cries of ecstasy distract the nearby religious pilgrims trying to hold a solemn funeral (sex and death naturally intertwined) for deceased Majorcans, who rush to rip the heathens from each others’ arms. The look on the man’s face as he licks his lips, wild eyes still burning in close up as his lover is escorted away, resembles that of the seediest pervert, sharp suit in lieu of a trench coat though all is identical underneath.

But it’s Bunuel’s next cut to a medium shot of the brunette cutie waiting alone in a brightly lit room, unquenched desire radiating from her face, followed by the insertion of an image of hot lava undulating suggestively which is borderline blue. Title cards soon put things in proper historical perspective, letting us in on the joke that pious Rome was once decidedly pagan. But like in modern day Times Square, purification has its limits, and we see the still dirty, literally sand covered man (escorted by plainclothes officers no less!) as he stumbles along the street, unable to keep his horny gaze from the various billboards that come alive to tempt him with female fingers and luscious legs. His object of desire lying languidly on a couch sighs, her face a mask of arousal, before Bunuel’s camera jumps back to the man’s fantasizing eyes peering through the window like a peeping Tom. Bunuel and Dali emphatically understand that it’s the sexual push and pull of the shots, heightening the tension, the longing facial expressions and heaving body language, those physical signs of thwarted orgasm, that express the beating animal heart of mankind.

When the couple finally meet again it’s at a (typical Bunuel) ritzy party, polite bourgeoisie niceties, ritual socializing coming between them as they bite their lips, undress one another with their eyes from across a crowded room. When the man fed up with small talk slaps an elderly socialite in overreaction to a spilled cocktail his caveman brutality only makes the hot and bothered dame desire him all the more. (Proper behavior be damned when there’s steamy sex to be had!) Hiding behind a curtain he motions her to sneak off with him outside, the element of a secret liaison only escalating arousal. Though the back and forth of the pair frenetically devouring each other’s fingers, locking lips by a frigid statue while a concert plays nearby is more ludicrous than sexy, the scene that follows once the man has been called away is shockingly pornographic even today (nearly eight decades after the film’s scandalous release). The act being simulated is never in doubt as the woman teasingly licks, then voraciously sucks on that statue’s big toe with all the coyness of Paris Hilton on the red carpet. Though Bunuel had the balls to end “L’Age d’Or” by juxtaposing the Marquis de Sade with Jesus Christ (emerging from a “120 Days of Sodom” orgy) in the last scene, it’s this toe fellatio that stays with you, the erotic equivalent of a razor in the eye.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Sexy Tramp: Monsieur Verdoux and Charlie Chaplin as Stud

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot looks at the overlap between “Monsieur Verdoux” and the real-life, very grown-up Little Tramp.

The Sexy Tramp: “Monsieur Verdoux” and Charlie Chaplin as Stud

For weeks I’d been raving to anyone and everyone that the recent re-release of Chaplin’s controversial 1947 “Monsieur Verdoux,” in which the Tramp sheds moustache and cane to become a gold digging serial killer of wealthy widows, is one of the finest films of the year. So I wasn’t surprised when an actress/comedienne friend of mine on the west coast emailed to say she’d just rented and laugh-out-loud adored it. What did give me pause was her follow-up, “That scene where he woos the rich woman in the parlor at the beginning, and also the one where he’s in the flower shop ordering roses…is it wrong for me to have the hots for a clown? Chaplin is so fuckin’ sexy!”

My answer: not only is it not wrong, but Chaplin wouldn’t have been believable mesmerizing his prey in Monsieur Verdoux if he hadn’t finally allowed his natural sexual charisma to shine through. For his entire career up until then Chaplin had been masking his virility beneath a shabby overcoat like a drag queen packing away her package. Monsieur Verdoux is perhaps the closest character to the real, really-young-women loving, multiple wed Hollywood legend than any other role he ever undertook. Verdoux’s seducing and serial killing of old coots seems like a screen-friendly substitute for Chaplin’s real-life seduction and serial impregnation of teenage girls.

That Chaplin couldn’t keep his dick in his pants was slave to his insatiable libido, is part of the hedonistic fabric of Tinseltown lore. His indulgence in erotic escapades with the underage rivaled that of Mae West with her muscle boys. The difference was that Miss West was out and proud, always playing a version of her raunchy self, while Chaplin was a closeted pervert, one of the richest, most powerful men in the motion picture business, forever acting the hard knocked innocent. (It ain’t for nothing that director Richard Attenborough chose the equal parts talented and hunky Robert Downey Jr., a man every bit as uncomfortable with his sexuality as Chaplin, to portray the titular character in his 1992 tabloid biopic.)

Where Miss West had her knowing smirk, Monsieur Verdoux has that devilish twinkle in his eyes that acts as a magnet for the Prince Charming-vulnerable women. Patient, doting, seemingly obsessed with the widows’ wellbeing, Verdoux is the ultimate paternal ego feeder, not unlike Chaplin must have been to his little Lolitas. And because Verdoux has convinced himself that it’s all for the good of his invalid wife and young child at home, he’s a carefree companion, a guilt-free assassin. Through the lens of this HUAC era flick it’s easy to view Chaplin’s many marriages as attempted “legitimizations” of his girl fetish rather than symbols of true love, the most natural way for a deviant to exculpate himself.

And though the Tramp was chaste he certainly didn’t lack passion––Chaplin’s signature character was forever dreamy and lovesick, and ultimately as childlike as the jailbait Chaplin collected. There was Hetty Kelly who Chaplin fell for when she was just 15, soon followed by child actress Mildred Harris (at age 16), Lita Grey (also at age 16), then the old maids Georgia Hale (at age 19) and finally Oona O’Neill (at age 18). (And these are just the well known nubile virgins!) As predatory as Chaplin seems to have been, and setting aside the inevitable talk of daddy issues, these girls were swept up in the very sexual allure of Hollywood that Chaplin embodied, and helped invent. He was the Big Bad Wolf––the sexiest character in the storybook. While the Tramp may be a near eunuch, no doubt Sir Charles Chaplin would have been a larger-than-life lay.

Movie stars, like politicians, are media giants for a reason. Big charisma, massive talent and huge ambition – all prerequisites for stardom. Why should their erotic appetites be any smaller? Besides, it’s naïve to think one can separate the creative force from the sexual (after all, creative has its roots in “to create,” be it babies or blockbusters!) Chaplin’s lust for his art, an all-consuming fire, wasn’t put out when he called cut at the end of the day.

A new print of “Monsieur Verdoux” is currently making the rounds of rep houses, courtesy of The Film Desk. It opens in Seattle on Friday. It’s also available on DVD, in Volume 2 of “The Chaplin Collection.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Gunnin' for Trouble: Full Battle Rattle

Just when you thought the U.S. government couldn’t get any more bizarre, there’s co-directors Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s documentary Full Battle Rattle (military slang for a soldier suited up in full gear), billed as a “surreal look at modern war games in the Mojave Desert.” Basically what this means is that American taxpayer dollars are going to fund a billion dollar “virtual Iraq” for the purposes of urban warfare simulation or, as one talking head in camouflage simplifies, a huge reality TV show (giving the idea of the war “theater” a new twist). Even more surreal is the fact that the U.S. Army granted the filmmakers permission to live (and film!) inside the simulation for an entire, three week rotation, Gerber with the soldiers in training and Moss in the actual (fake) village of Medina Wasl, capturing both the Iraqi exile role-players and the American troops who take the parts of insurgents. Smartly the co-directors chose a straightforward approach – handheld on DV, no fancy camera or editing tricks required. This is a case of a fine melding of great story, fascinating footage and filmmakers who know enough to get out of the way, simply sticking themselves unobtrusively inside the giant game to record the unfolding of a nightmare struggling to become a dream.

“Full Battle Rattle” opens with the requisite vicious scenes of a chaotic war followed by a “cut.” While mangled mannequins are moved, an Iraqi woman in traditional clothing asks in perfect English, “Are we done?” (Mission accomplished?) But that’s low on the surreal totem pole compared to the best image in the film that follows, a long shot of an ice cream truck in the middle of the desert, the blare of a happy-go-lucky tune and a couple soldiers patiently lined up for treats in the sweltering heat. One middle aged man assigned the role of “deputy mayor” enthuses that he sometimes feels like he’s actually back home in Iraq, a discomfiting statement considering the Iraqis are given in-depth roles to play, not allowed to break character while the game is in motion, forced to deal with hideous back-stories filled with dead children and maimed relatives. And it is within this context that Gerber trains his lens on the Lieutenant Colonel, stoically ordering his troops to be “professional, polite and vigilant,” dangerously unaware that “I’m sorry for your loss, sir,” sounds an awful lot like a condescending slap in the face.

Throw into this volatile mix the Americans acting the roles of insurgents (“Is it Allakbar?” a soldier inquires, rehearsing a “Death to America!” rally while another advises an insurgent, “Make up a gibberish language. Focus on the saddest moment in your life. Think about when your dog died…That’s acting!”), crosscut with another soldier discussing character motivation with the deputy mayor (“Your son has been murdered – that’s all that’s on your mind!”) and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps concentrating on line readings and acting technique isn’t the best use of time for men facing battle in less than a month. The American “reporter” doing multiple takes for his “broadcast,” trying to get it just right, a mock Iraqi funeral complete with wailing women – “It gets real, they get lost in the scenario,” the soldier coordinating the simulation explains about the troops. But are they getting lost in the virtual reality or are they just getting lost? Ironically it’s the Iraqis forced to live with their painful, emotional backgrounds (both real and imagined) and high-level duties (imagined) who seem most committed to the simulated scenario. Mock news footage of the real Lt. Colonel offering trite statements to the fake journalist (followed by fake footage of real explosions) is no match for the gung-ho, truly invested Iraqi “police officer” who revels in his newfound sense of power (when not banging on doors to “root out insurgents” he works in a stockroom. Why the filmmakers were allowed access to this illegal immigrant on the U.S. government’s payroll is an unexplained mystery).

But it’s the mounting tension heightened by the gypsy-like, stringed score and the thoughtful commentary provided by a sergeant – and veteran of two tours in Iraq – assigned to play an insurgent that really makes “Full Battle Rattle” hit home. Sergeant Paul Greene, a bespectacled Philip Seymour Hoffman type, praises the benefits of going over to the other side (“makes you think like them”) while simultaneously admitting the thrill of blowing off steam without the heavy burden of morals or consequences. As an insurgent baddie he’s free to lash out without the weight of keeping volcanic emotions in check. He even honestly confesses to a prejudice against the Iraqi role-players for his first few days of simulation. As he speaks you realize he’s simply a mirror image of every young Iraqi man fighting for his country, falling into disillusionment and hatred as his life disintegrates before his eyes. (That the Army spends this much money on a war game that doesn’t mandate that every single soldier be assigned to step into an insurgent’s boots before deployment is nearly as unconscionable as its continuing to play Russian roulette with its troops’ lives.)

While the intricate, behind-the-scenes mechanics of orchestrating such an elaborate production – soldiers and civilians carry “cards” that alert the medics to their injuries (and how long the docs have to evacuate them before they die), the artificial limbs with wounds are based on real photos from the battlefield – is worthy of Ridley Scott, the reality outside the game is even more extraordinary. One Iraqi woman has parents still in Iraq – says she can hear the gunshots outside their home when she phones to give them the latest news (about her simulation of their real life!) While the illegal immigrant frets about his upcoming court case, fearing deportation to the real Iraq even as he lives in the virtual one, and an Iraqi woman studies for American citizenship inside the cramped quarters of Medina Wasl, the deputy mayor longs to see a free Iraq before he dies – and to finally become mayor (it’s been three years without a promotion after all!)

The war game is designed to start out neutral, “gray” but as soldiers make mistakes the environment becomes more hostile, less lethal when they get it right (and more absurd when they try to do right and get it wrong. Gerber cuts between three soldiers in heated discussion inside a Humvee, trying to figure out how much money they dispensed to the most recent victims of collateral damage. The back and forth bickering stops at “500,000 dines.” “Oh, damn,” states the surprised soldier who gave away the enormous sum, realizing that was all the funds they had). And just as in the real Iraq, easily avoidable missteps have dire consequences. Outside a barricade the deputy mayor patiently waits to meet with the Lt. Colonel about his murdered son – and waits and waits and waits, finally deciding he must “take care of it” himself. His disgust is both genuine and palpable as he storms back to his beat up car. (This in contrast to the soldier playing the insurgent who killed the son and knows his simulated death is near. “Oh, well, I’ll have a new character when I come back out here tomorrow, “ he tells Moss’ lens in an eerie parallel to notions of martyrdom and the afterlife. “I get the pick of the litter so I’ll just take another good one.”)

So when the deputy mayor without irony happily declares the “simulation injection” of a Sunni-Shia wedding (“Sunni, Shia, all religions working together!”), “unbelievable” you can’t help but think the worst is yet to come. And indeed, at a ground-breaking ceremony during reconstruction the insurgents attack, forcing the Lt. Colonel to hole up with the Iraqi leaders of Medina Wasl where he continues to robotically spew empty platitudes (“This is unfortunate my soldiers have to do this but together we will secure the town”) even as shots are fired, people “die” outside. The billows of sand, the mock blood seeping into the ground, “This town is fucking destroyed,” Sergeant Greene states with contempt as if in response. While the fake funeral the troops hold for comrades “KIA” (as their body tags read) is emotional, the practiced mourning ends with a soldier advising another yet again on technical matters, “Slow down when you read the 23rd Psalm.”

On the final day of the game the soldiers gather for the “withdrawal” phase only to learn that leaving the fake Iraq leads to a (one year) deployment to the real one. The camera cuts to the stiff-upper-lipped, downcast head of Sergeant Greene. Heartbroken and exasperated he soon gets on his phone to break the news to his wife that he’s been called up for a third time. All around him other soldiers join in the sad cell ritual. (The cruel irony that everyone still has to cheer, celebrate the joyous end to the simulation as the harsh brutality of real life creeps in is lessened with a final twist – the assassination of the mayor and the police chief.) Fortunately, Gerber and Moss kept their cameras rolling in a coda that follows the soldiers at home readying for leave, the Iraqi immigrant’s court hearing, the two Iraqi women who are best friends and the deputy mayor/liquor store clerk (his wife weeping when he shows the family his simulated assassination on the computer. “Why you crying?” he wonders. “I’m still here!”) As the troops say their goodbyes, the filmmakers focus on the wives holding themselves, their kids, crying, doors closing, a plane on the tarmac waiting in the dark. As we learn that 12 million will be spent to expand Medina Wasl into an Afghan village – and that five of the soldiers never came home – the words of the fake reporter haunt the mind. “Name an Islamic country that is a functioning democracy,” he’d asked a baffled soldier before quickly adding, “There isn’t one.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When Bobby Met Ariane: Maitresse

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Lauren Wissot unpacks an anti-sex scene from Barbet Schroeder's 1976 controversial film.

When Bobby Met Ariane: “Maitresse”

How often do you get Barbet Schroeder, Gerard Depardieu and Nestor Almendros together to shoot a film about a burglar who ends up falling in love with the dominatrix whose dungeon he’s unwittingly tried to rob? In a scene at the very beginning of Schroeder’s exquisitely paced, beautifully executed “Maitresse” the tone is brilliantly set for the relationship – and thus the film itself – through Almendros’ meticulously composed images. His camera captures Depardieu’s fair Olivier and his dark-haired partner-in-crime (whose bad idea it was to burglarize the “downstairs apartment”) in a hornet’s nest of their own making, caught in the act by Bulle Ogier’s “Maitresse” Ariane, and subsequently handcuffed to her radiator and guarded by a vicious Doberman named Texas.

But wait––if this doesn’t sound like a setup straight from the twisted mind of David Lynch I don’t know what does. Indeed, what’s most striking about the erotically charged scene that follows is how closely the psychological power dynamics of Schroeder’s Maitresse parallel the infamous “Bobby Peru seduces Lula” scene from “Wild at Heart.” In both cases no actual sex takes place. Instead there’s a steamy sadist/predator (Bobby Peru, Ariane) sinking his/her teeth into a piece of lost prey (Lula, Olivier). Both Lula and Olivier are turned on against their will, psychologically “raped,” so stunned at losing control that they’re not even fully aware of the situation they’re in, let alone how to escape it. The difference lies in the relationship between the characters. Lula is rendered helpless until Bobby releases her when he’s “gotta get going.” She’s just a toy for Bobby to kill time with in the afternoon, whereas Ariane plays for keeps – a spider whose web encompasses. Ariane takes over her “victims” wholly, completely and unapologetically. And like Bobby knowing enough to drop in on Lula unannounced – ensuring her defenses will be down – Ariane takes advantage of the element of surprise (burglars dropping in unannounced – how convenient!), wielding it like a stun gun before the attack.

For this very element of surprise that has caused Oliver and his criminal buddy’s undoing is what Ariane will use to take ownership of Olivier heart and mind. The petty thieves weren’t expecting the apartment to contain whips and chains and they most certainly weren’t anticipating a petite blonde pixie to wield a pair of cuffs like a beat cop. Ariane knows this – and uses it against Olivier who she immediately fancies, desires to control. (She reads him like Bobby can read Lula, recognizes his type from a mile away.) Unceremoniously she escorts a shaggy-haired client into the next room, soon returning to deftly release Olivier – from the radiator, his partner and soon-to-be-former life. She needs to borrow him for three minutes – at two hundred francs, she adds, like a madam to one of her working girls. There is no negotiating with the mistress – this is simply what he’ll do. Though Olivier radiates rough trade, thuggish in his black jacket and tight rugged jeans he’s so astonished as to be swept away, every bit as mind-fucked as Lula, reduced to an obedient schoolboy by Ariane’s unyielding command.

As if to emphasize this point Schroeder’s camera cuts to the heel of the mistress’ thigh-high boot pumping in and out of her makeup-wearing slave’s mouth like a stiletto dildo, a shot that runs in unbearable silence for a squeamishly long time. Ariane then uses her riding crop and the leash of the slave’s collar to keep him in line as she orders him onto his knees, a trannie slut wearing his own corset and form-fitting leather skirt. The frame is wide enough to encompass Olivier standing still off to the side, watching and waiting as if he’s stumbled into an otherworldly dream, the mistress and slave at her throne reflected in a mirror, performing for both the novice voyeur and us as much as for their own pleasure

Like Bobby, who has trapped Lula before ever laying a finger on her, Ariane has put an invisible collar around Olivier who immediately sleepwalks over when called. He stands directly in front of her as she rides her slave like a horse, controlling the submissive below and the one towering above with equal ease, an S&M ménage a trois. (Unlike Bobby she’s a professional; she can handle more than one sub at a time.) Without hesitation Ariane unzips Olivier’s jeans, stares him straight in the eye as she tells him to piss on the slut’s face, daring him to disobey (her own “Say it, say fuck me” moment) then, just to keep him off balance, abruptly forces his lips to hers for a deep kiss. Once again the element of surprise heightens the senses, turning the extraordinary into the erotic, Olivier’s head and cock – and bodily fluids! – at her mercy.

Once Olivier, as shaken as Lula even if he doesn’t burst into tears, returns to his unaware partner, the client sticks a wad of bills in his jeans pocket on his way out the door, putting an exclamation point on the fact that he’s become the mistress’ bitch as well. (Even Bobby Peru didn’t sink that low!) When Ariane returns to flaunt more pay in his face Olivier unconvincingly hesitates before taking it. (She never doubts that he will – for he’s a hustler just like she.) Still on automatic pilot Olivier sheepishly grabs the bills, only to use them to pay off his friend so he can get rid of him, take Ariane to dinner in an effort to turn the power dynamic right side up, to regain control. Ariane acquiesces like a cat toying with a mouse.

Once at the restaurant she wonders if his partner will tell, to which Olivier replies that he didn’t know what was going on. “What about you?” she asks rhetorically, knowing he hasn’t got a clue. Naïvely, Olivier inquires if she’d been afraid to go to dinner with him to which she purrs, “I’m not the cautious type,” basking in the accomplishment of turning him both on and out like a whore, her own personal beau de jour.