Friday, November 13, 2015

Travis Bickle Has A Posse: Backwards and Forwards in the Cinema of Spectacle

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

“There is a lot of sex in it (Salò), rather towards Sado-Masochism, which has a very specific function - that is to reduce the human body to a saleable commodity. It represents what power does to the human being, to the human body.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, on the set of SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM

“I didn’t intend for Bond to be likable. He’s a blunt instrument in the hands of the government. He’s got vices and few perceptible virtues.” (Ian Fleming)

“Camera got them images
Camera got them all
Nothing's shocking…”
(“Ted, Just Admit It”/Jane’s Addiction)

A louche American student cum film student. A hard-drinking, womanizing assassin. A former child star turned blasphemer of the celebrity industrial complex. All three of them different versions of that guy. And the eyes. The wide-open, always gazing, always consuming, always questing eyes of the audience.

Two of those eyes, of course, being mine. For my viewing week began late last Friday morning with a stereoscopic bout of mutual masturbation and ended with a high-def streaming close-up of a bearded guy intermittently grinning during the climax of a performance art act of cinematic onanism. What transpired in between this larger than life episode of sexy time and this ultimate act of Internet voyeurism says a lot about our search for spectacle in a culture both starved for and gorged on the concept.

And to think, all it took was Shia LaBeouf to pull all these concepts together for me. Or maybe all it took was the excuse of gazing at him gazing at himself as other gazed at both.

One year ago, I penned anextended essay for this literary journal in which I travelled through the career of Christopher Nolan (in the context of the release of Interstellar). A major focal point of that retrospective sprung from the concept that in the modern era, spectacle has lost much of its luster, and that Nolan’s films (particularly Interstellar) have sought to recapture what it feels like to stand in awe of something greater than ourselves. So one year later, it seems appropriate that spectacle is on my mind again after this week’s cinematic offerings. And that each of the works I viewed once again, like Nolan’s canon, entwined the concept of modern spectacle with the specter of the past.

If the Internet has dulled the frisson of modern spectacle (or at least democratized it so much as to achieve the same end), if the post-9/11 dream state that we all reside in has lessened the impact of the cinematic sturm und drang, then how indeed does an audience get its kicks when The Avengers saving the world from alien annihilation is merely the prelude to the next film? For half a decade, Hollywood has preached the good gospel of 3D as the saving grace of a spectacle-saturated populace. Remember all of those industry prognostications about how after multiple periods of past faddish flirtations, 3D was finally ready to claim its place as the next great revolution in cinematic storytelling? And now, five years later, how stale do those predictions seem? It’s a long way from the release of Avatar, which was trumpeted for its ground-breaking integration of 3D into the shooting process, albeit a process which dealt so heavily in the already artificial. Since then, the top-grossing 3D films have almost exclusively been pre-sold crowd-pleasers that would hovered near the top of the box office charts no matter what.

But 3D pornography! Now there’s a hook that was predicted as the true bull market for the concept since the beginning. Leave it to arch provocateur Gaspar Noe to delve into this realm with his newest film Love. Noe’s bad boy reputation makes stereoscopic nookie seem like the next logical move in a career already defined by transgression. The nihilistic brutality of I Stand Alone. The extended rape scene in Irreversible. The head-spinning, graphic hurdle into the netherworld of Enter the Void. All these moments offer a shorthand definition of an artist for a soundbite culture. But look back on these works and you can also see Noe the showman: the William Castle-inspired fright break at the climax of I Stand Alone, the single-shot scenes in the latter two films, the three-hour first-person POV in Void. Love flashes its ballyhoo roots in the opening credits, as a 3D warning to the audience about what they are about to see is eventually shown to be a direct homage to the same line from a poster for Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, one of the great excursions into three-dimensional erotic horror. And following that warning with an extended opening salvo in which doomed lovers Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra (Aomi Muyock) graphically bring each other to climax in a single, static shot seems to fulfill the wet dreams of those who saw the NSFW teaser posters and images.  

But Love proves to be so much more, and so much less, than titillation. On a meta-performative level, it’s a film that causes the audience itself to gauge their compliance in the summoning of these images. Despite the loosening of content restrictions in the digital age, it’s still considered to be somewhat taboo to see hardcore sex in a theatrical setting (the raincoat crowd has definitely moved online.) And yes, dear reader, I generally find graphic pornography to be pretty damn boring. So when the only other person to share the theater with me popped into the tiny screening room two minutes before Love sprang to life, we both immediately became part of the show. He turned out to be an innocuous presence (we exchanged a brief word when I had to retreat to the lobby to implore the theater staff to fix the projection), but like it or not, my level of self-awareness was still heightened throughout the showing. Which is natural when you’re sitting in a 50 seat room with one other stranger watching a 3D penis ejaculate straight into the camera.

In and of itself, Love is ultimately a meta-narrative examination of intimacy, or at least the perception of intimacy and what happens when it collides with reality. It’s telling that the no holds barred opening is immediately followed by scenes of domestic routine, as Murphy and Omi (Klara Kristin), the mother of his child, mechanically begin their day. And it’s here that Noe’s longtime DP Benoit Debie actually fulfills the promise of those aforementioned Hollywood insiders by using the 3D format as a genuine dramatic storytelling device, the tool of high spectacle bringing the concept down to a level most personal. Throughout the film, Debie frames Murphy in close-up at the foreground of a deep focus field of vision; such a tactic takes advantage of the often artificial multi-plane effect that 3D tends to lend to some images, as Murphy is often literally separated from other characters in the spatial realm.

And that makes total sense, as Murphy is most definitely that guy, in this case that film fanatic guy, the so very archetypical young male of the post-70s Golden Age of Hollywood era who lusts after the filmic icons of male isolation and emotional remove. Posters from Taxi Driver, M, and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom adorn the walls of his apartment, the latter positioned directly over his bed (directly adjacent to that Frankenstein poster.) At first blush, he can be a deeply off-putting protagonist, his dialogue a pastiche of dumbass clichés and cod-philosophical ramblings. Murphy makes much of identifying himself to others as an American, and it seems at times as if he’s absorbed a bit too much Travis Bickle into his system. But that all seems to be Noe’s point, for as Nick Carraway once noted “the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” It can often be easy to confuse inarticulateness with dramatic inertia, but in this empathy-impaired era that we live in, sometimes it’s only through attempting to identify with boring characters that we can reach a greater understanding of ourselves.

“But what about the sex?” you might say. “After all, that is a big part of the film, right?” Absolutely, and it further complicates Murphy’s worship of his cinematic antecedents. For as opposed to those isolated males, he is, in fact, the cocksman that they all aspire to be, grinding away with the molten hot Electra in all sorts of fantasy positions, culminating in their mutual admission of a three-way fantasy that introduces Omi to the proceedings. Again, the ghost of Travis Bickle is invoked: Omi is just on the edge of 17, the innocent looking blonde counterpart to Electra’s tawdry and exotic sexual veteran. But even though Travis deifies Jodie Foster’s Iris, his sexual fulfillment is expressed through his climactic whorehouse slaughter, not through physical union with her. Murphy fulfills that verboten fantasy (“I love Europe!” he exclaims when he discovers Omi’s age) in the extended tryst with Electra and her that, in many ways, forms the nexus point of the film.

Noe’s films are known for the extremes to which they go, but they’re all ultimately built on painful emotions, not sensory shock. Monica Belucci’s harrowing rape in Irreversible is truly devastating because of what the reverse chronology of the narrative finally tells us about her life before this event, the sexual assault thus forming a center from which the past and future spiral out of control (the film begins and ends with the camera whirling around.) The Murphy/Electra/Omi three-way ends up serving a similar purpose. True, it features just about every explicit sexual variation that you can imagine, but it’s also scored by Funkdelic’s “Maggot Brain”, the Eddie Hazel guitar lament supposedly inspired by George Clinton telling him to think of his mother’s death (Hazel, another man consumed by his solitary demons.) The politics of eroticism dictate such grand stimulation from the scene, but soundtrack laces the proceedings with the tragedy that we know is coming. It arrives in the next scene, when Murphy accidentally impregnates Omi during a weekend tryst while Electra is away, a scene that is scored by John Frusciante’s “Maggot Brain”-inspired “Before the Beginning”; this attempt to recapture the eroticism of the three-way can only approximate the original experience, both in real life and on the soundtrack. His search for that lost sexual spectacle is doomed to come up short. And as he laments partway through the film, he becomes more of a dick with a brain than an actual person, rampant sex becoming more dehumanizing than fulfilling.

That same sense of lost opportunities and frustrated spectacle is also on full display in the film I saw the following afternoon: Sam Mendes’s Spectre. After all, James Bond is the guy who Murphy longs to be, male isolation elevated to the status of uber-cool. In this society of the spectacle, the Daniel Craig Bond films have striven to hew closely to a gruff, post-9/11 realism, while also dealing in the larger than life thrills that are part and parcel of such a film. A huge part of the broad appeal of the Bond films has always been based in the escapism they provide, 007’s cool, ironic misogyny presented at a vicarious, safe remove. As time has passed, the series has delved into its own bit of meta-commentary on Bond’s tomcatting ways, especially in the wake of 2006’s Casino Royale. He might still bed the requisite 2-3 bombshells per film, but Daniel Craig is steadily confronted by questions about his relevance, sexual and otherwise. And what film series is more haunted by its own legacy than this one, each subsequent lead actor forever chasing after the unattainable template that Sean Connery established decades ago. What really marks the Craig Bond films as creations of this era is their underlying obsession with the past. Spectre looks to bring that obsession to the forefront with the introduction of Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld, a man who killed off his own past in order to serve as grand persecutor and perpetrator of Bond’s long-standing angst. Following an opening credits sequence in which the dead souls of the previous three Craig films shimmer across the screen, 007 is forced to deal once again with all that he has lost. Just as Murphy pines away for Electra (who has possibly/probably committed suicide after a descent back into her bad old ways), so too does Bond still hold the luminous Vesper Lynd as the ultimate One Who Got Away.

Like Love, Spectre opens with its own money shot, albeit a family-friendly one: a single take of rooftop intrigue that culminates in a Mexico City building collapsing, Bond upping the ante with a mid-air helicopter stunt. It might seem to be at a remove from Murphy and Electra’s opening scene, but sex and violence have always intermingled in the Bond series; his abandonment of a hotel tryst to pursue an assassination is its own version of erotic fulfillment. Indeed, the most passionate sex scene of the film is directly inspired by violence, as Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is finally turned on by Bond’s protracted throwdown on the train with Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Seydoux, of course, made her international mark in the erotic epic Blue is the Warmest Color…and Lucia Sciarra, who Bond seduces earlier in the film, is portrayed by Monica Belucci! For such a virtual cavalcade of screen sex symbols to live in a narrative that ultimately preaches the benefits of fidelity is an intriguing concept. For again Spectre and Love come together in their depictions of what fulfillment might mean. Just as both open with tableaus of overt stimulation, so too do both close with their protagonists in a state of romantic reconciliation, Bond driving off with Madeleine in his retooled Aston-Martin (the literal embodiment of his past housing the potential vehicle for a better future), Murphy realizing that only now that she is gone can he appreciate the love he held with Electra.

3D pornography and widescreen chases and explosions might define opposite ends of the politics of spectacle, but it was Shia LaBeouf’s embarking upon a reverse chronology marathon of his filmic career that provided the most fascinating viewing of my week. If you haven’t already perused the details, the former child star turned much-derided big budget action hero turned meta-prankster occupied the smallest screen at New York’s Angelika Film Center this past Tuesday at noon for a three day, non-stop screening of his career from end to beginning. The catch? Anyone was allowed to join him for free, while he live streamed himself watching all of the films. On the surface, this was the least spectacle-filled viewing of the week.

And yet, it proved to be an fascinating experience, even if I only experienced bits and pieces of it. Legions of YouTube celebrities and vloggers have threatened to turn webcam experiences into mundane simulacra of real life, but watching LaBeouf watch his own representative life running backwards, while the 7-8 audience members you could see in the frame watched the screen (and him), brought a life and an unpredictability to this extended art project. So much of LaBeouf’s portrayal involved a steely gaze at the screen that when he scratched his head, sighed, or laughed, the impact was like that of Bond’s Mexico City building collapsing. I knew what would (or wouldn’t) probably happen next, but hanging around to witness his level of commitment to what could be a massive act of self-effacement provided more satisfying spectacle than some of the more bombastic moments in Spectre. And much like Murphy and James Bond, Shia too was the man haunted by his past, his reactions growing notably more enthusiastic as his age regressed into childhood before his very eyes. His Andy Kaufman-esque stabs at performance art over the past few years have been met with derision, but the deeper truths he’s touched upon and the relentless deconstruction of his celebrity sheen have been fascinating. All too often, we only accept cultural challenges from those whom we’ve appointed as guardians of good taste, but when an actor who’s been widely mocked is the one doing the questioning, we’re forced to confront our definitions of good, bad, and everything in between.