29 October, 2010

Don't Look Now (1973)

What makes Don't Look Now such an effective horror film is its coyness about letting the viewer realize he's watching a horror film.  I don't know how the movie was marketed in 1973, but I went into watching this film about a married couple coping with the recent drowning death of their daughter expecting a depressing family drama in the vein of Ordinary People only with some fantastical elements.  That it would be one of the most haunting films I've ever seen is something I couldn't have predicted until the final minutes, when Nicholas Roeg unveils the final details that rack the entire picture into intense focus.

Don't Look Now conveys the story of John and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), an educated, loving couple who live in Britain with a young son and daughter.  John is an artist and architect who meticulously restores deteriorating medieval churches, and though his job puts him in close contact with religious imagery and people, he is a firm atheist.  His wife likewise is a woman of few religious or spiritual convictions.  When their daughter drowns in a pond behind their home, they cope with the grief as well as could be hoped.  The death of a child is a strong precondition for divorce, but John and Laura maintain their love and sanity despite their underlying pangs of sorrow.  To help move on with their lives, they send their son to boarding school and take an extended working vacation to crumbling Venice, where John has been contracted to restore a cathedral.

Venice, however, is an old and musty city some sixteen hundred years old.  Its ancient mode of life and imposing stone buildings tower over the present, blending the centuries together.  War, plague, political intrigues, assassinations, and greed have given the city its share of ghosts, which stroll the dark, labyrinthine alleys and haunt the mildewy, stone-cobbled corridors.  Venice has steadily been sinking into the muddy foundations on which it is built for several centuries.  The city's doom is fated, and any life there is fleeting and unstable.  A thriving tourist business insures its economic survival, but when the tourist season ends, the city begins to resemble a ghost town in the truest sense.

So it isn't long before John and Laura encounter a haunting reminder of what they are trying to escape.  In a restaurant guest room, Laura encounters a blind woman (Hilary Mason) and her sister (Clelia Matania), two batty spinsters who arrest Laura with an impossible message from beyond the grave.  The blind woman cannot see the world, but she has been gifted with a second sight that enables her to see what no one else can, and what she sees is their dead daughter, happy, giggling, accompanying them on their vacation.  Don't be so depressed, the blind woman tells Laura.  Your daughter is very happy, and you should be too.  The details are impossibly accurate, and Laura is convinced by the woman's message.  She experiences an exuberant release knowing that life can be eternal.

But John is a skeptic, and he dismisses Laura's happy turn as a dangerous placebo effect and accuses the two women of being hustling charlatans.  His daughter is dead, he declares, and the only way to move on with life is to accept this fact in all its cold truth.  The disagreement leads to the harshest division between the couple as events in the film begin to spiral into dark directions.  John begins to doubt his wife's sanity as she delves deeper into supernatural and religious beliefs.  Has she lost her mind to grief?  Laura, meanwhile, mistrusts her husband for cynically denying what to her is so obvious.  And as this conflict escalates, a number of inexplicable dark premonitions--undeniably felt by John and supported by the predictions of the blind woman--manifest in unfortunate moments.  Are the two sisters up to no good?  Is John, Laura, or their son destined for death?

Don't Look Now is a tour-de-force of editing, which was done by Graeme Clifford, likely with strong direction by Nicolas Roeg.  Every scene elicits precisely the intended emotions.  A rather audacious sex scene early in the film, fluidly intercut with shots of the couple dressing for dinner, is simultaneously erotic, loving, and mournful.  A brief glimpse of the two sisters laughing confirms all of John's (and our) suspicions that they are up to devilish mischief.  The opening scene in which the daughter hits her head and drowns while the couple hang out in the living room and the son fixes his bike tire in the backyard is edited with such synchronicity as to make the death seem preordained.  Though the three separate fields of action seem suitably distinct at first, actions begin to overlap with a sinister momentum.  Motion in one direction by the wife, for example, mirrors motion by the daughter.  A tossed remote control becomes a falling baseball.  Eventually the three scenes become part of one inseparable action--the turning of the universe around its center--so that when John spills red ink on a slide he is studying, we know with certainty that the daughter has died.

This exquisite control is exercised not only within individual scenes but within the film as a whole.  The theme of the film is predestination and psychic premonition, and Roeg gives us a taste of these, working minor images into our subconscious so that when they reoccur later they seem to arise from the deepest stirrings of our collective unconscious.  When John watches from afar as police pull the half-naked body of a drowned woman from the canal, the unidentified corpse in its wet, white underwear bears an unsettling resemblance to something we once saw--Laura in her underwear in the bathroom prior to the sex scene.  The deja vu is palpable, as it must be for John, who immediately enters a whirlwind of anxiety wondering where his wife is at that particular moment.  Window panes, trickling water, the color red--as these motifs repeat with dizzying intensity, we surrender to the conviction that disaster is imminent and unavoidable.

Don't Look Now, based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca), is an unsettling masterpiece. 

Don't Look Now (1973)
d: Nicolas Roeg w: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
(Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie)
TSPDT?: #143

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Paranormal Activity is the pseudo-documentary account of a series of demonic hauntings visited upon a young couple in the fall of 2006.  In the style of The Blair Witch Project, all footage is captured by a consumer-brand hand-held camera operated by the two main characters, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, who play (versions of) themselves improvising dialogue according to an outline provided by Oren Peli, who made the bare bones horror film in his own home for just over ten thousand dollars.  A couple other characters--a psychic and a best friend--appear briefly, but the bulk of the short film revolves around the cohabitating duo's daytime arguments and nocturnal frights, all captured by the constantly running camera.

The back story in Paranormal Activity is delightfully brief and ambiguous:  in short, Katie has been visited periodically by a malevolent demon since she was eight years old.  The demon may have been responsible for burning down her childhood home, but what the demon is or wants is never fully clarified.  Now that Katie has moved in with her boyfriend, the being has reappeared with a resurgence of horrifying activity.  A friendly, matter-of-fact psychic (Mark Fredrichs) explains that the entity likely feeds off of negative energy, but this dangerous news only sets off an intense cycle for the couple, who conflict over how to approach the situation.  Katie, who has lived with the presence for over fifteen years and is not at all amused by it, would rather just ignore it, try to forget about it, and hope that it's influence eventually diminishes, which, according to the psychic, would likely be one of the safest paths to take.  Micah, however, who has just recently found out about the entity, is intrigued by its supernatural novelty and believes that he can proactively negotiate the situation with the inhuman being.  He brings paranormal technology and a Ouija board into the home trying to draw the presence out so that he can better understand it and be better prepared to deal with it.  Interacting with it, however, just makes it stronger, and there is no normal means of negotiating with a satanic ghost.  As the demon becomes stronger, much to Micah's fascination and Katie's dismay, their arguments intensify, the negative energy escalates, in turn making the demon scarier, which in turn makes them more afraid, hence increasing the negative energy further.  The ending cannot possibly be happy.

The key scenes in the film are the time-progressed, night vision episodes of their sleeping, episodes which feature some basic special effects and some eerie sounds but which deliver the most effective terror through simple yet abnormal imagery.  One night after a particularly ugly argument Katie sleepily rises from bed and stares at Micah.  The time counter advances and we watch her as she stares, unmoving, in the darkness for almost two hours at her sleeping lover before finally disappearing down the dark stairs.  The horror in Paranormal Activity is effective because it never distances itself from the viewer's own situation--there is no specific slasher who attacks in a particular neighborhood, no monster that haunts a particular locale, no far-fetched mythology to justify impossible occurrences.  Paranormal Activity instead focuses on unfamiliar sounds, small but unnatural happenings (like a door closing when it shouldn't be), a couple fighting, and a girlfriend standing and staring for hours in the middle of the night when she should be in bed asleep.  Everyone in the audience lives somewhere and everyone sleeps eventually, so it's easy to superimpose the frightening scenarios onto our own situations.  It's easy to take the horror to bed with us, wondering exactly what we would do if our lovers should suddenly decide to sleep in the backyard at 3:30 on a cold morning.

This short, unnerving film is chillingly effective because it doesn't work too hard to be scary, instead trusting the viewer to use his own imagination and worst instincts to fill in the scariest details.

Paranormal Activity (2009)
d/w: Oren Peli
(Katie Featherston, Micah Sloane)

28 October, 2010

Vingança (2008)

I have no objection to twists or surprises in movies.  Some of the most exhilarating moments in my movie watching history have accompanied the perfectly timed revelations of withheld secrets.  I won't spoil any endings (other than the one in the title of this blog), but there are moments when characters played by Chazz Palminteri and Bruce Willis discover previously unknown information that are consistently chilling with every viewing.  There is a moment in The Dark Knight when Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) learns a redemptive detail about her boyfriend Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that utterly transforms her (and our) opinion about his character.

The key to all of these spine-tingling discoveries is perfectly tuned perspective.  For the most part, we experience the events of a good film through the eyes of one (or perhaps a few) character(s).  Ensemble films--where we become intimate with the points-of-view of multiple characters--must try exponentially harder to engage us.  That's why so many ensemble films fail; it's not sufficient for a screenwriter to simply direct us into some minor character's mind.  The screenwriter (and director and actors) must be extremely skilled at creating each of these characters with such sincerity and believability that we are able to link our minds and hearts with each of them.  It's difficult enough to achieve this with one main protagonist.  Only a cinematic genius like Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, or Orson Welles should ever attempt it with several.

Yet too many sloppy and lazy writers and directors succumb to the shortcuts of multiple perspectives, using the difficult technique weakly and ineffectively.  Is your main character too underdeveloped and uninteresting to support a full-length screenplay?  Well, then why not flesh out the remaining fifty minutes with half a dozen other underdeveloped characters and call it "a nonlinear thrill ride in the vein of Pulp Fiction"!  Having trouble getting the viewers to know a piece of information that the main character can't yet know about?  Well, then slip into the point-of-view of a bit actor who hasn't even been on screen yet!  Is your story not interesting enough to sustain the audience's attention?  Well, then purposely withhold information so that you can keep them befuddled while they anxiously wait for a cheap surprise!

That last cheap tactic is the path that poor filmmakers take when all they want to accomplish is a twist.  It's the difference between an effective revelation and an enervating one, and its what Paulo Pons was banking on when he wrote and directed the 2008 Brazilian revenge thriller Vingança (Retribution or Revenge).  Opening shots of films are essential, and Vingança opens with a close-up of a nameless young boy who disappears a minute into the movie and is never mentioned again.  We move from his point-of-view into the perspective of a rape victim (Bárbara Borges) upon whom he has stumbled while fishing by a river on the Uruguayan border.  But this rape victim also mostly disappears from the film after a few minutes, for she is also not the main character.  We are then treated to a disorienting, rapid-fire succession of enigmatic scenes featuring three characters who are also not the main character--first a bit player talking on a cell phone who plays the brother-in-law to the protagonist and who is mostly an antagonist, then another bit character who is a friend to a supporting character and who basically has no purpose for even being in the film, and then the supporting actress (Branca Messina) who will be one of the main characters yet is still not our main, point-of-view character.  Finally, finally, after five misdirected attempts the only purpose of which is to "intrigue" (read: frustrate) the viewer, the film settles into the point-of-view of the main character, with whom the focus fairly reliably stays for the remainder of the movie.
Yet even though this is the person we are sharing our mind, eyesight, and experiences with, Paulo Pons is coy about letting us know who this bearded, troubled-looking young man is.  Is he the rapist?  Is he out to rape again?  That's what Pons wants us to think, and it's obvious that he wants us to think that, which makes it quite clear to the discerning viewer with half a brain cell that he must certainly not be the rapist.  By the time Pons finally deigns to inform us of what is exactly going on, we've already figured it out--Miguel (Erom Cordeiro) is the fiancee of the rape victim who has traveled to Rio de Janiero in order to ingratiate himself with the rapist's sister (Messina) and eventually get to the rapist (Márcio Kieling), whom he intends to castrate and murder.  Miguel looks brooding and troubled not because he is a rapist but because he is on a disturbing mission with which he has many qualms.  Our point-of-view character and several of the minor characters (the brother-in-law, for one) know all of the details of Miguel's identity, the identity of the rapist, and the plan for revenge.  The minor characters who don't know (like the rapist's sister, who quickly becomes something of a girlfriend to the sensitive Miguel) also more importantly do not know that they do not know something.  They have no idea that there's a mystery to be solved, so they're not trying to solve it.  So if half the characters have the mystery solved and the other half don't even know that there is a mystery, then why are we, the audience, the only people scratching our heads and trying to fit together all the pieces?

Because the mystery has been superficially thrust upon us by Paolo Pons.  This is the kind of cinematic chicanery that I hate most, lacking all narrative integrity and filmmaking talent.  Vingança barely supports itself while the mystery is still under wraps; by the time the truth is revealed, it has lost all its steam, which is why the sudden, providential ending (which doesn't bother to explain how certain characters got into unlocked apartments and how certain other characters even knew where these unlocked apartments were located) is constructed of such slapshod turns of off-camera events.

If there's anything positive to be said about this film it's the small performance by José de Abreu as the raging father of the raped girl.  The rest of the film, with its manipulative screenplay and its sensational cinematography (despair is conveyed through all the typical cliches--sped up camera, hectic score, blurry focus--ugh) is an utter disaster.

Vingança (2008)
d/w: Paulo Pons
(Erom Cordeiro, Branca Messina)

27 October, 2010

I Travel Because I Need To, I Come Back Because I Love You (2009)

I wonder in what order filmmakers Karim Ainouz and Marcelo Gomez compiled the art film Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (I Travel Because I Need To, I Come Back Because I Love You).  Did they film the images--grainy, lingering scenes filmed with a lonely handheld Super 8 and vibrant, colorful still photographs--first and then realize that few people would sit through their seventy-five minutes of interesting pictures unless there were the pretense of some story, some characters, and a bit of dialogue?  Or did they actually write the screenplay--the commonplace tale of a man trying to run away from a bad relationship, drowning his despair in work, alcohol, and meaningless sexual relationships--and then set out to film it?

For a number of reasons I'm inclined to believe the former.  First, because the images on screen often have little to do with the words being muttered by the monotonous, unseen narrator.  Second, because the arresting visuals have a serendipitous and documentary-like feel that don't seem as though they've been strained through the narrow holes of the movie's plot.  And third, because the filmmakers are far superior cinematographers than they are writers, and it seems unlikely that the visuals were filmed only to suit their writing vision and not vice versa.

The narrator (voiced by Irandhir Santos) is a dull and lifeless geologist who has recently been divorced by his botanist wife.  He leaves on a work assignment, ascending the mountains in northeastern Brazil in order to survey a route for a planned canal that will displace hundreds of rural inhabitants.  In the isolation of the mountain peaks, he longs for his wife, he sleeps with a dozen young prostitutes, he gets drunk and nearly crashes his car, and just in time for the ending he has some epiphany that sets him free and allows him to move forward with his life.  What is this sudden, transcendental epiphany?  The filmmakers don't bother explaining.  The whole plot is by-the-numbers, and in the end there is happiness, it seems, simply because the writers wanted a happy ending.  The internal monologue that forms the narration is delivered as though it is poetry, but it is composed entirely of platitudes and dull complaints.  Very rarely do the words evoke any genuine stirrings of life.  For the most part the narrator is a flat, gray canvas painted with a few broad strokes.

The images are often enticing--an aged woman trimming a bouquet of foam roses, a pig crossing a desolate road, a sunworn couple staring awkwardly at the camera before a wall covered in devotional pictures of Christ--but they hardly make up for the gut-wrenching mediocrity of the narration.  Throughout the film--particularly when he muses on how a young peasant girl's eyes look exactly like the honey eyes of his ex-wife--I found myself wishing I were rewatching Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983).  There was a film with a hodgepodge of captivating, alien imagery and a voice over narration to match.  The monologues in Sans Soleil begged to be memorized, recited, and studied.  The narration in Viajo porque preciso calls only for an exaggerated rolling of the eyes.

Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (2009)
d/w: Karim Ainouz, Marcelo Gomes
(Irandhir Santos)

Estômago: A Gastronomic Story (2008)

I was able to see some recent Brazilian movies at the fourth annual Brazilian Film Week sponsored by the Embassy of Brazil here in DC. Of the movies I was able to see, Estômago (A Gastronomic Story) was certainly the most skillful and provocative.

Estômago, the second film by director Marcos Jorge, is less a film about food than about power struggles, with food more often serving a tactical role and indeed sometimes taking on the strength and position of powerful weaponry. Nonato, the weak and fawning cook at the center of the story, has a natural and overwhelming talent for combining ingredients and a genuine fascination for how food can be used and modified, but his appreciation for the culinary arts never acquires the transcendent zeal depicted in, say, Ratatouille. Though there are two other, more experienced chefs in the film who guide Nonato on his path, neither of them display any virtuoso feats of kitchen wizardry nor any reverent belief in the transformative power of culinary art for culinary art's sake. Mr. Zulmira (Zeca Cenovicz), the owner of the greasy spoon where Nonato first learns to cook, sticks to the same tried and true recipes--unhealthy deep fried classics that will guarantee a steady stream of clients ready to offer up their grubby dollars. Zulmira, who has no skill of his own in the kitchen, uses his restaurant merely as a lifeboat on which to sail through the murky waters of reality. A cynical and controlling man, he teaches Nonato the rule of sink or swim.

He also doesn't pay the poor, young man any wages other than room and board, so when Nonato is offered a chance to work in the kitchen of Mr. Giovanni (Carlo Briani) and receive an actual paycheck, Nonato eagerly moves up. Mr. Giovanni runs Boccaccio, a fancy and expensive restaurant that serves "international cuisine" in a "friendly atmosphere." Giovanni is vastly more talented than Zulmira, but he is hardly a maestro. The most poetry he uses when teaching his art to Nonato is a smattering of trite metaphors comparing meat to women's behinds, but he most often compares food to money. Explaining that a simple switch to sophisticated gorgonzola cheese allows him to charge eight dollars for a traditional dessert that would usually be worth less than one, Giovanni exclaims, "That's art!" An artist spends a few dollars on paints and canvas and sells a painting for a million dollars. To Giovanni, much like Zulmira, this moneymaking motive is the central force behind all creation. We live to survive, and a true artist is able to survive more well off than others.

This conceit reaches its most literal level when Nonato lands in an overcrowded prison cell, where a violent and rigid hierarchy determines everything from when and how much one eats to where one sleeps. When Bujiú (Babu Santana), the psychopathic autocrat who occupies the top bunk and calls all the shots, learns that Nonato can transform their worm-infested prison rations into something not only edible but delicious, Nonato shrewdly uses his modest abilities to climb up the ranks of respect and power. Estômago wisely makes Nonato's ascent teetering and unsteady rather than straightforward, for not all tastes are equal and our stomachs often fall prey to prejudice. When Nonato tries too hard to impress the simpleminded Bujiú--by, say, bringing stinky, moldy, but delicious gorgonzola into the cell--his sophisticated pretentious results in fiery backlash. Food can be as political and controversial as religion.

The story of Nonato's prison sentence is overlapped with the story of his restaurant career, and editing by Luca Alverdi makes the two flow seamlessly, building upon each other and drawing out comparisons between the filthy rat race of life and the pecking order of prison. Whether locked in Zulmira's back room with the boss screaming through the ceiling, working in Giovanni's exquisite basement kitchen as Giovanni slaps the ass of Nonato's prostitute girlfriend, or sleeping on the floor of an ant-infested prison cell, Nonato's surroundings and his delicate position within them are always remarkably similar. Nonato finds solace in the company of Íria (Fabiula Nascimento), the headstrong and likable call girl with an eating obsession who becomes Nonato's girlfriend, but even their relationship is mired in power struggle. Nonato feeds Íria's insatiable belly--the quickest way to her heart-- with his sumptuous cooking, and she in turn feeds his unquenchable jealousy with her scandalous career.

The two stories come to an intriguing head at the same time, simultaneously revealing how Nonato landed in prison and how he eventually gained and asserted his power, but perhaps the film's four writers (Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, and Lusa Silvestre) are to blame for the ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Nonato acts and gains power moments before the end credits role, so we never actually see him in a position of power. How would he rule? Would the people beneath him suffer just as much as he has always suffered beneath others? Our general impression of Nonato throughout the film is a positive one, yet his final acts in the climax are shocking and demented and his attitude toward them is sinister. The plot of Estômago is structured well, and yet the denouement leaves too many important questions unanswered, as though the two hour film should continue for another hour. It is disappointing and unappetizing to leave the theater feeling as though two hours have been spent getting to know the mere revenge tale of a shrewd and calculating sociopath.

Nevertheless, the acting of the entire cast is top notch, particularly that of João Miguel as the pathetic but endearing Nonato and Nascimento as his rotund femme fatale, who frequently verges on becoming a stereotype yet always saves herself with just the right flash of her eyes. Jorge's direction hits all the right beats at just the right moments, and the cinematography by Toca Seabra--with its to-be-expected closeups of cutting boards and skillets--is surprisingly fresh and scintillating. His approach manages to make even a concoction of fried ants look delightful.

Though ultimately Estômago suffers from a slight dearth of meaning and heart, its execution is engaging and masterful. Marcos Jorge is a new director to pay attention to.

Estômago (2008)
d: Marcos Jorge w: Cláudia da Natividade, Fabrizio Donvito, Marcos Jorge, Lusa Silvestre
(João Miguel, Fabiula Nascimiento)

19 October, 2010

Catfish (2010)

My first major foray into the world wide web was on my fourteenth birthday in 1999 when my mom bought me a WebTV, a VCR-like device that used the home landline to stream a crude version of the Internet through the television. I was in eighth grade, fat, bespectacled, queer but confused, poor, unstylish, too smart for my own good, and utterly friendless. I sat at the loser table in the cafeteria. I imagine one of those tables could seat about thirty students, and all of the tables in the room were full except for ours, which sat only five other people besides myself--Roberto, also fat; Richard, also queer; Josh, also poor; Kenny, also unstylish; and Angelo, who by all means should have been cool yet sat at the table, I suppose, for reasons of self-hatred. I hated them all, and I hated myself for sitting with them. If I had been a little less fat, a little less poor, a little less gay, I figured, then I could have been cool and popular like I had been in elementary school. I could be living it up with friends, who would appreciate my humor and intelligence, rather than wallowing in our pool of bickering and self-loathing.

On the Internet, though, I didn't have to wear oversized polo shirts from Dollar General. I didn't have to be chubby and wear dorky glasses. I could be gay without anyone lashing out at me or avoiding me like the plague. I could even have a boyfriend if I wanted to, who would judge me for my wit, my humor, and my grammar rather than my bad haircut and embarrassing laugh. Anything I wanted to change, I could change. Anything I desired to be--say, a British film critic--I could be. Anything I wished to forget was nonexistent.

Even my age became malleable. In chatrooms few people would take me seriously as a fourteen-year-old, so to avoid the bullying I simply added a decade. I became Stephen the twenty-four-year-old, and to accommodate the increase I invented an occupation, a partner, a whole ten-year history of working and schooling and lovemaking and adventuring, all so that people wouldn't dismiss me for being a teenager. It was still the same old me making the jokes, imparting the wisdom, and chatting it up; only the vehicle was slightly modified.

By 2000 I had met a woman named Margaret in a chatroom about movies. She lived in Queens, New York, and she ran a catering business. She was twenty-five. Her sense of humor and her personality meshed perfectly with mine, and soon I migrated from chatrooms to instant messaging. We would talk for hours on end about everything going on in our minds and our lives. Sometimes we would chat until the sun was rising. In tenth grade she was my best friend and one of my only friends, and she thought I was the same age as her. I hated lying to her, but more than that I feared the repercussions that would come from telling the truth. Would she despise me? Knowing that our friendship had been, to an extent, a charade, would that make her sad or angry? I needed a friend desperately, someone I could talk to about being gay, someone I could talk to period, and I didn't want to jeopardize that.

But in the end my conscience won out. I get major qualms from being dishonest, and I could no longer stomach inventing details about my days at work at the furniture store when I had never had a job in my life. I disappeared completely. I stopped using the messenger. I ceased going to chatrooms. I stopped responding to her emails. And in the long run I made friends who were my own age, real people in the real world who actually knew who I was, some of them completely. I found a boyfriend, I found a real life best friend, I got an actual job and went on actual adventures. A couple years later, happy in my new life, I contacted her by email, confessing the truth, attaching photographs, and apologizing for my disappearance. Her response was short and thankful, and it was the last I ever heard from her.

When Friendster became big, and then Myspace, and finally Facebook, I always searched for her in hope of rekindling some more honest, more fulfilling friendship. We had chatted for some untold hundreds of hours--on the Internet and over the phone--and had shared an infinite number of jokes, hopes, and fears. I thought about her often, and I thought we should still be friends. But, surprisingly, she had no profiles on any of those sites--not even blank ones.

And in all that time, in nearly a decade, it never once occurred to me to ask some rather blaring questions about my friend and to stand back and think about what I had done to her. Margaret was a twenty-five year old woman who had a job and an adult life; how was she able to spend twelve hours a day goofing off with me on the Internet, chatting from seven p.m. to seven a.m. with little interruption? I didn't have any responsibilities on a July morning when school was out, but didn't she have a life to run, work to do, errands to perform, real friends to see?

Early this year I googled her name and found an article that a friend of hers had written for a British health website. The article detailed the psychological problems that Margaret had had since her mother died when Margaret was a teenager, problems she had hinted at to me only rarely. It detailed an obsession with comfort eating that had caused Margaret to grow to over seven hundred pounds, leaving her disabled and housebound. She didn't have a job, and she didn't run errands. And of all the "real friends" that I figured adults were supposed to have, it turns out I was one of the only ones. The article detailed long hours spent on the Internet: "'It's too hard for me to get out,' she admitted. 'It's the only way I can talk to friends.'" And then, on September 25, 2003, she died at age 27 after spending an entire night hunched over her keyboard. I could never find her on Facebook because she had died before it was invented.

I had lied to Margaret about my age and my insecurities, and she had concealed from me her disability and her own insecurities. We loved each other and needed each other, but our hatred of ourselves had kept us forever divided. It had never occurred to me, selfish as I was, that by removing myself from her life, I was removing a large part of her social life, taking away from her one of her only confidants. If I had trusted her and had faith that our friendship could have overcome my failings, then perhaps she could have trusted me. It's ridiculous for me to think that I killed her, and yet I wonder what small benefits could have come from a little honesty, compassion, and heart-to-heart.

The Internet doesn't allow for much of that. The Internet offers wish fulfillment and easy fantasies, comfort and isolation. You can find what you want to find--even if you're a cannibalism fetishist or a Jewish antisemite--and you can be what you want to be. If you see something you don't like or that doesn't interest you, you can click away from it in an instant--or sound off endlessly with no fear of repercussion, no need for fact-checking or self-disclosure, and without having to listen to any rebuttals. The Internet, the cold screen we stare at for hours each day, the treatment for our ailments--be they stress, depression, insomnia, or anxiety--the answers to all our questions, the solutions to all our problems, the source of all our financial, occupational, and social hopes and dreams, our entertainer, our great distractor, our confidant, our guru--the Internet has promised us something that heretofore has never been possible in the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution: that we can survive and prosper without the outside world and without each other.

This is ostensibly a review of Catfish, the controversial documentary by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and yet I've written ten paragraphs without apparently saying anything about the film. Nevertheless, I feel I've already said almost everything I need to say about this heart-wrenching, insightful, and poignant movie. Catfish is best experienced, I think, without too much prior information about its subject. Documenting the burgeoning relationship on Facebook between the filmmaker's brother Yaniv "Niv" Schulman in New York City and Megan Faccio, a beautiful young woman in rural Michigan, Catfish slyly deconstructs our relationship with the Internet and its world of empty possibilities. Using imagery from Google Maps and web pages, closeups of cell phones and digital cameras and GPS devices, and sound from voice mails, the film unravels the conceits of the Information Age. The screens we stare at don't always offer us a glimpse of reality. The quagmire of data at our fingertips can both elucidate and obfuscate.

By its tearful conclusion, Catfish is nothing short of a heartbreaking examination of the American Dream as it exists at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our hopes and fantasies no longer lie at the end of the seven seas, out in the wild west, or in the outer reaches of the cosmos. We have drowned our futures in the murky chaos of the digital world, where satisfaction is never tangible and rarely yields anything we can truly embrace.

Catfish is one of the best films, if not the very best film, of 2010.

Catfish (2010)
d: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
(Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Angela Pierce)

The Cremaster Cycle and De Lama Lamina

It's very difficult for me to make a conscious decision to not finish something I've started. A book, a plate of food, a movie. I like to see things through, otherwise how can I make an honest assessment of what I've experienced? And if I'm not planning to make an honest assessment of my experiences, then why did I bother in the first place? To give up on a book or movie halfway through is to willingly label all the time I did invest as wasted time. There's nothing I can do with what I gained from that time other than to say, "Well, I tried to read that book, but I just wasn't enjoying it and couldn't get through it." I can't say, "Yes, I read that book, but it was absolutely horrible" because how can I be certain that it was absolutely horrible? Sometimes endings surprise. Sometimes seemingly mediocre films have powerful endings (Lost in Translation, for example); same with books (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court comes to mind). If I had given up on Connecticut Yankee just two chapters before its final page, my opinion of it would be vastly different.

In short, I value completion. I almost compulsively need it. I've watched godawful films and then quickly, triumphantly, angrily walked away the instant the end credits began to roll.

Which is exactly what can be said of my experience with Matthew Barney's De Lama Lamina, a short, quasi-documentary film which is appended to one of the installments of his famed and praised Cremaster Cycle, which is currently touring select theaters throughout the country in a rare event.

The publicity information for Landmark Theaters describes De Lama Lamina as a documentary chronicle of artist Matthew Barney's experience at a Brazilian carnival. Barney gathered three musicians, including Arto Lindsay, who toured the streets of Salvador, Brazil, one night with a hundred-member marching drum band, entertaining the festive, costumed onlookers. The drum band invited Barney for the collaboration, perhaps expecting a lively depiction of the sensual, musical event which is so central to Brazilian culture and community.

That's what the publicity material described. What De Lama Lamina is, however, is a nude, beaked man with a coconut in his asshole humping his erect penis against a clay-covered parade float drive shaft while a dead monkey shits on him. What De Lama Lamina is, in other words, is Matthew Barney's offensive, pretentious attempt to crash a party. Yes, there is a live band and there are festive onlookers and hundreds of marching drummers, but poorly shot images of the actual carnival are intercut with closeups of Barney's float making its way like an unwelcome guest through the carnival. The massive float depicts a giant, ancient-looking but artificial tree, and through its limbs crawls a frizzy-haired, bare footed "artist," a woman mimicking concentration who moves with too much deliberation, performing actions within the tree that not only have no purpose but also lack any symbolic reason. One envisions this woman's painfully slow, meaningless actions as Matthew Barney's "gift" to the primitive Brazilians--"You're content with your sweaty dancing and your drum banging, but reflect upon THIS for a moment. This is real art. This is real culture. I give this to you!"

I searched footage of the spectators to see if I could find anyone who was engaged in watching and trying to understand this woman's performance, but I saw not one person who had any interest in watching Barney's paltry offering. They watched the drummers, they watched the band, and they watched each other, but the performance art had no meaning for them, and justly so. How wrong of Barney to assume that we, a North American audience, would have any interest in seeing what the South Americans rejected. Yet instead of focusing on the drummers or the partygoers, the most interesting part of this pitiful spectacle, we get long, tedious shots of the woman stretching her arms, splaying her fingers, removing white rods and hanging them from ropes to carabiners.

He further isolates himself from the proceedings by matching footage of the festivities with footage of the creature hidden in the undercarriage of his float, a beautiful, nude, muscular black man with a beaklike prosthetic on his face who cradles a filthy, dead monkey in his arms. Meanwhile, the black people around the float gather. The beakman rubs vaseline and clay on the spinning, pumping motor drive shaft of the float as his flaccid, uncircumcised penis grows tumescent. The musicians play their instruments. The beakman eagerly humps his now erect penis against the wet clay. The drummers carry a beat. The dead monkey ejaculates shit all over the nude man, who erotically rubs the wet feces into his abdomen and genitalia. Close-up of a happy, dancing Brazilian. What is Barney trying to say?

The editing yields an overwhelmingly racist result. Imagine crosscutting footage of suffragettes at a rally with video of a coop full of squawking hens, Jewish people at a temple with cockroaches on a trash heap, or black people in college with apes in a laboratory. Barney forces viewers to think of the Brazilian carnival and the participants in it as filthy and animalistic. Yes, Carnival is sexual, and sure, sex is primitive, but Barney's presentation assumes that he can distance himself from these vulgarities and that he and his viewers are somehow superior to it.

When the show was over, I found myself racing to the exit. De Lama Lamina was the final installment of three films. Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 5 offered very little to enjoy, and I swore to myself that I would not bother to see the other three films of the cycle. Ten dollars and two and a half hours was enough to waste on Barney's offensive pretensions.

But then I read a review promising that the installment I had seen was the worst of the three showings, and that the other two showings (Cremaster 1 and 2 were one showing, and Cremaster 3, at three hours long, was another) were markedly better. I abandoned my vow. The next day I saw Cremaster 1 and 2. Twenty dollars and four and a half hours in, I found my compulsion to finish things barking at me. I had to see Cremaster 3, the last of the five films completed and supposedly the best in the series, the quintessence of Matthew Barney's style. Would I, after gambling so much of my money and my life and receiving absolutely nothing in return, throw down another ten dollars and another three hours on the possibility that Cremaster 3 might blow me away?

No. I'm a completist, but I'm not a masochist.

Matthew Barney is a sculptor, photographer, performance artist, and "filmmaker." He is one of the most praised artists in America right now. New York Times Magazine called him "the most important American artist of his generation" in 1999. The Guggenheim Museum gave him the first Hugo Boss Prize, worth $100,000, in 1996. From 1994 to 2002 he created the Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films that The Guardian called "one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema." Made out of sequence (4, 1, 5, 2, 3), these films were released on only twenty five-disc DVD sets, which were in themselves works of art. In 2007, one disc containing only the hour-long Cremaster 2 sold for over half a million dollars. Only a half-hour installment of Cremaster 3 was ever released commercially (retitled The Order), and the rest of the films will never be released for widespread public consumption. Short of visiting museum installations and catching the occasional national tour, seeing this "masterpiece" is a rare event.

The cremaster is the muscle responsible for contracting the scrotum and testicles in response to cold, fear, or arousal. The Cremaster Cycle is allegedly about the period of sexual division in the early stages of embryonic development, the period when the developing human becomes either a male or a female (or something else along the spectrum, though this possibility, as far as I can tell, is ignored by Barney). Images of ascension and descension, of testicles and gonadal globules, of geometric shapes with vaguely biological connotations, of sexuality both androgynous and nonerotic abound, always elusive and obscure but never enigmatic. I think that's a key point. In surrealism and avant garde and even in mainstream art, there should be a certain enigma attached to the imagery. The viewer should feel a tension in wanting to understand what certain symbols are about, what certain actions mean. The viewer, rather than being a mere spectator, should become a participant with a suspense-driven motivation to figure out the full ramifications of what is going on. This never happened to me while watching the four and a half hours that I saw of the Cremaster Cycle. Strange characters do a lot of unusual things against bizarre backdrops, yet rather than titillating the proceedings are tedious. One can go on Wikipedia or any number of reviews and websites and read in-depth explications of the symbolism Barney employs, but these explanations are exhausting rather than illuminating. Barney's obscure meanings are impossible to intuit, and there's never any clear reason why these complicated, scientific details hold any importance for the artist. Gametes, zygotes, sexual differentiation--why should we care, really? One could argue that these biological events are essential to humanity, that even if we don't remember the period of androgyny prior to sexual differentiation it's still contained within the essential, unconscious memories of our very being. Yet Barney never argues this. He never makes any attempt to connect to the viewer, to create human-like characters, to convey any sort of recognizable emotion. Instead we get bees crawling out of erect penises, grotesque fairies in fleshy fat suits, and women dancing in elliptical formations on a blue football field. The sets (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Budapest Opera House, a frozen lake in Utah) are amazing--though Barney didn't build the sets--and some of the visuals are interesting, but the acting (if it can indeed be called acting) is dreadful (former Bond girl Ursula Andress as a lovelorn queen is a notable exception in Cremaster 5), the soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler is largely unstirring, and the overall effect is one of mental inoculation. There is never any clear plot and rarely any dialogue, forcing the viewer to instead focus on the extremely repetitive nature of the visual display, which is rife with continuity errors and poor editing. Barney offers very little to stir the mind and engage the viewer.

Once I was a sperm and an egg, two gametes, male and female, who fused into one single-celled zygote, which through mitosis grew into a multi-celled embryo--a tiny version of me that for eight weeks was neither a man or a woman but simply a tiny human. This is a spectacular phenomenon deserving of artistic representation and rife with profound symbolic implications, yet reading an article about human development in a science magazine would prove much more fascinating, beautiful, and thought-provoking than trudging through Matthew Barney's seven and a half hour epic of pretentious self indulgence and irritating obscurity.

The Cremaster Cycle
d/w: Matthew Barney
(Matthew Barney, Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer)
Cremaster 1 (1995): 2/10
Cremaster 2 (1999): 4/10
Cremaster 4 (1994): 3/10
Cremaster 5 (1997): 5/10

De Lama Lamina (2002)
d: Matthew Barney