Directed by Abramovic, Barney, Brambilla, Clark, Noe, Prince, and Taylor Wood. UK/USA. 2006.
Balkan erotic epic
Abamovic's opening gives the ominous sign that the film you are about to see is going to be indulgent, arrogant, nonsense. On the plus side the shock of the taboo-breaking plethora of graphic sexual images which pervade throughout the entire omnibus film, is at least fully evident here, which allows you to overcome and get used to this oddity by the time we reach any of the interesting segments. Abramovic's film is structured around her discussing different Balkan sexual customs and their significance, which half the time cut to what she's discussing and the other half to unassociated scenes. The problem with her dialogue exists in two capacities. Firstly her English is pretty poor which leads to a lack of clarity in some areas, and secondly her mythologizing often comes far too close to a exoticising of the Balkan culture. Also for no apparent reason while doing all of her speeches in the same room, she appears without glasses in her first dialogue, then with glasses in the rest. It would be very easy to presume she adopted the prior glasses state whilst shooting the film. One of the longest scenes, in which five men are standing in a line facing the camera, clothed in what I imagine to be some traditional Balkan costume, save for holes in the trousers where their penis' are exposed, is interesting only for the looks on the characters faces near the end of the static shot, where their eyes start shifting around the room nervously and slightly bemused, as if to say "why on earth are you filming us?!" Unfortunately this is a question that on earth no one in their right mind can find a plausible answer too. Sometimes it is the achievement of a great director to leave his or her audience in a state of great bewilderment at its close, leaving with hours and days to contemplate and marvel at potential meanings and implications. In this case of Abramovic here, both the audience and the cast are complicit in their denial that Abramovic is capable of this mastery.
Following from this, Brambilla manages to achieve in 2 minutes flat a movie which is infinitely more profound and effective than Abramovic's. Sync is an experimentation in rapid editing which splices together split-seconds of sex scenes from different movies, which develop in sync with a drum beat which accelerates and climaxes in conjunction with the images. A feat of technical mastery which works incredibly well and sustains your interest, meeting the essential criteria of a short film perfectly. An appreciation of the technical mastery of the film must acknowledge the amount of research that's gone into compiling this absurd amount of different sex scenes, and their arrangement within the text. The progression of the film is also inspired with these images not just appearing in any old way but linked together through a variety of similar details. For example sex scenes showing a recurring sexual position will then be followed by a different sexual position, then close-ups of a certain body part, then a different body part, then a change in camera distance and angle, etc... Formally speaking, the clever part of this almost constant transition - each position, etc. lasting for about 5 seconds screen time - is that the parts add up to a whole, with the feeling that the synchronization is not just between the quickly passing images, but also between the image and sound. You get the feeling that you are perhaps witnessing one act of sex through the sound, with the drumming taking you from the beginnings of sex to it's climax, which is being performed and given visual representation to through a multitude of different participants, whom are all experiencing nuances of the same elements of the sexual act, i.e. some feeling more pleasure or pain in each given image.
On a broader level you could also perhaps see the film as being a metaphorical entry into the mind of someone who is masturbating. It's as if in this mind you are cycling through, albeit very quickly, all of the sexual images someone has accumulated in their life of film watching and experiencing them all at once. Maybe even it could be the mind of someone not masturbating but having sex, and these images may be what are brought up in his/her mind while he/she is performing certain sexual acts which he or she has seen before in movies. This is a shot in the dark, though even if this is not the idea that Brambilla was attempting to convey, his movie offered a lot more interesting ideas than what Abramovic's film leaves in your memory.
Next up is perhaps the gem of the piece in Larry Clarke's contribution 'Impaled.' It's one of the longest segments though its one which you don't wish to end. The premise is that a selection of men responded to an advertisement to make a porn movie, and Clarke's here to interview them and allow one of them to have sex with a girl of his choice in this film. The segment begins with the interviewing of the guys, and becomes surprisingly revealing about the people who want to be in porn movies. The first thing that this segments got going for it just how funny some of the responses these guys come out with. A couple of them seem a little reserved, and defensive, though their responses can be equally hilarious, in particular one guy explaining that women who don't like porn stars are all jealous because they are overweight and not pretty, and that porn stars are the ones actually doing something with their lives, which automatically makes all other women ashamed of their inferiority! Right... But aside from the humorous side of these interviews, what's surprising is the openness which Clarke gets out of his characters, which more often than not makes these guys seem pretty likeable regardless of the fact that they're doing porn. There's an honesty to their answers on a topic which most people are very uptight on talking about which kind of warms you to these guys. They're not really ashamed of what they like and do, and most of the time there is really no need for them to be, with perhaps the exception of a few very bizarre sexual turn-ons and an ex-marines explanation that he couldn't have sex in Iraq because "the woman there smell bad and have all that stuff on" - an explanation that Clarke seems to be in total agreement with. The set-up of the film is Clark interviewing the guys and maybe two or three other cameraman and a small crew in the room. What emerges as a perhaps strange demand of Clarke's is that each interviewee has to take their close off during their interview and stand in front of the camera giving a close-up of their penis. I say that this is strange mainly because of the insistence of some critics of highlighting Clarke's obsession with young boys and girls, with what should probably be called extremists going as far as calling him a pedophile. That is not exactly what I'm trying to discuss Clarke as being here, but there seems to be little logical reasoning given the structure of the segment that all of the guys should have to strip naked, given that only one of them is going to have sex with a woman on camera at the end of the interview. If the purpose of this is for Clarke to personally inspect their penises as part of his criteria as to whom will be having sex, then I think he may be entering into difficult terrain. I give this as a possible explanation because of one particularly strange exchange between Clarke and one of the boys, in which while he is stripping he confesses to being a little insecure about his body because he "doesn't have a big dick," to which Clarke's reply of "oh your dick's fine" causes a visible uncomfortableness in the boy whose eyes shift around the room as it falls to a very unnerving silence. It's the naturalness with which Clarke spoke his words that gives you this strange feeling that he's accustomed to looking at boys penis' and this I found a little bit unsettling, but perhaps I'm reading too much into it.
That moment aside, Clarke's film continues to shine and his biggest stroke of luck with this improv approach was the one guy he selected to have sex with a porn star. The more we get to know him the less we seem sure of what we know. He seems very enigmatic in a sense though is completely open in his answer to every question, and seems totally unfazed when he starts talking to the porn stars. The interesting thing about him is that he never seems the least bit self-conscious about the fact that he is in a movie as he talks to these women, and has sex with one, as if there wasn't even a camera there. It is as though he has just naturally acquired all of the essential skills needed to be a great actor, while others struggle through years of education and training to get near to the effortless star presence which this guy exudes. The woman he chooses is the older woman, who appears as a rather shameless person, who for her sex seems to be all appearance and artifice, which can be seen while he has sex with her as she starts and stops her sex persona with the quickness of a light switch. Acting very erotic and sexual one minute, then all of a sudden stopping and realizing that some practical adjustment needs to be made the next, she seems to be a very inauthentic stereotypical porn star, who's cloaked in artifice. Amongst the other porn stars you hear some sad tales of their past which they have no desire to dwell on or elaborate on, but which offers you a glimpse into their mentality and a hint at the real reasons why they became porn stars, with one woman saying that her first sexual experience was when she was date-raped at 15. One of the principle points of interest in Clarke's film comes from the divide being brought down between porn's stars and fans. The fan gets to meet the star, and perform with her, as we the audience get the full circle in hearing the guy's views on porn, seeing the shallow mechanics of the industry, and also seeing what the porn stars really believe in an interview in which they do not appear merely in a form of self-promotion. The actual sex in this segment lasts for about 7 minutes, which is a fairly long time though is of interest for its unique approach to sex, as it is filmed as a documentary, yet with a porn star. This context is interesting because it takes away from her the opportunity to cut and take a break when something isn't working, the result of which is her looking slightly bemused at the cameraman on a number of occasions asking confused "are we still filming?". In other words asking do I have to stay in role? Do I have to keep up this carefully manicured image as all porn stars do? Or can I just be myself? Most interestingly of this woman is the fact that you start to become unsure if there actually is anything else to her beside her porn front, and a suspicion grows in watching her attentiveness of the cameras that what is lurking beneath her happy exterior is a world of denial and anger.
Sam Taylor-Wood's offering consists of a man alone in Death Valley, who walks away from the mountains towards the arid land in front of the camera. He undresses and masturbates accompanied to sparse acoustic atmospheric music for the complete 7 minutes running time of this segment. The relatively static image of the film brings with it a meditative mood which forces the spectator to search for possible meanings of the text. This task on behalf of the spectator is also one which is mirrored in the psyche of the protagonist of the film. As confronted with the monumental emptiness and stillness around, he is forced to remove himself from his position in order to sexually stimulate his mind, as we also occasionally abandon the generally monotonous act of him masturbating in searching for a broader 'meaning' or representation inherent in the film's construction. The awareness of this removal from the natural physical environment is perhaps the most insightful aspect the film offers. For the man masturbating, we must imagine he is thinking about his sexual experiences from his past or, in an even more physically removed and telling way, it is also very likely that he is thinking about scenes from porn films. Interesting as the glamorized world of pornography is something that is in total opposition to his current physical place in desert-land in the middle of nowhere.
Also of interest is the fact that there aren't even any women any near him (save perhaps for the director if you wish to be pragmatic). This reveals a sort of self-satisfaction, or sexual independence, within the man in the fact that he can function and gain a release sexually without having any need here for a sexual partner. What proves interesting here comes with analyzing his expressions, as since he can be said to be totally existing in his imagination, with this comes looks of very real agony on his face. This oneness with himself, and a perhaps imagined other, reveals itself to be a very physical, and at times almost torturous process in which by the end of the film, when he's finished masturbating, he looks almost despondent.
Richard Prince's entry is one of the most formally unusual, with its grainy out-of-focus shots. The opening sequence is of a woman applying some lotion to her breasts, and shows her bizarrely enough sneezing on a number of occasions. I call this bizarre as this isn't an activity which you would associate with porn and glamour. This contradiction is mirrored in the way she is applying the lotion to her breasts, it's as if this is also an involuntary natural routine, yet you wonder whether she is doing this for her own sexual enjoyment or for the audiences. To digress slightly this reminded me of the French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp's piece entitled 'Why not Sneeze Rose Selvay?'. It is the title that is most intriguing to this work, asking someone to do something which they themselves cannot do intentionally. This works as an interesting metaphor if looked at in terms of the sex act in pornography, as the line between personal gratification and a self-conscious image of eroticism combine. In reality sex is never the same as it appears in porn, however when a porn star is having sex on camera, everything which they do and feel isn't completely fake, for example when a man ejaculates in porn it is a result of the same emotional and physical feelings as occur in any man.
The next scene of the film reveals a 'doctor' examining a different woman. The doctor here assumes the role of the audience, the male voyeur, who is erotically examining the female patient. The idea of the male (doctor) being dominant in his role as sexual 'healer' over the woman (patient) is not a particularly interesting or fresh perspective in itself, however in the close-up shots we see when the 'doctor' and 'patient' start having sex, a bizarre tenderness emerges in their relationship to each other. This may be an effect of the unusual new-age soundtrack, which possibly misleads us to believe that these images contain within them alone this tenderness, or it may be a result of the speed with which the images are shown which much slower than normal rate, giving the feel of a (perhaps very artificial) poignancy to the film. If this is the case then the film still remains interesting for the way its effects and techniques bring out new associations and feelings towards the experience of pornography.
If beauty, genius and greatness existed solely in ones technical ability, then Mathew Barney would be an undoubted master of cinema.
An opening shot to his piece 'hoist' of a close-up of a black man's penis as it slowly becomes erect on a body covered in grime sets the tone immediately for what to expect. The ugliness-as-beauty concept of this image appears as interesting for one reason, in that it isolates the penis from the body of a recognizable man, as we see the penis before we see the man, and are left to wonder both what the man with the grimy body looks like, and also what is it that is turning him on. With the penis appearing separate of the body it appears to almost embody it's own emotions, looking startled at the end of the shot as it jumps up unannounced.
This cuts to a construction site, with numerous machines moving, and shaped, phallically. Bemusingly we see one of the faces of the workers here has been blurred out. The workers hoist a large vehicle into the air, most likely a metaphor for pornography working as a means to 'hoist' a mans penis into the air, in other words to give him an erection. Focus is then given to the pulsating gyrations of drills and tires of a machine manned by the protagonist. The man appears to be white, although his face is covered with make-up and plants, though this shot is followed by a close-up of a black man's penis ejaculating. This followed by the man in the machine, hand covered in semen, massaging a rotating white shape which resembles the wet clay of pottery making, which he precedes to rub his penis against. This shows him to be at one with the machine, and shows the element of sex being seen as a symbol of a powerful drive and necessity for creativity and creation. However this also reveals in him a desire for power and control over his sexual experience, a kind of auto-joy in his choosing of masturbation over sex. This works as an interesting allegory with pornography being something you experience through a television set, as this involves an interplay between man and machine. Something here barney insinuates as not being a joyous and fulfilling act, but rather a depraved routine, which comes from a rather passionate sense of anger and frustration.
We fuck alone
The title says it all. In spite of himself, or, more likely, intentionally, gasper Noe's now trademark visual camera style offers the film a double, or at times even a triple, removal from reality, which in a purposefully contradictory way gives his segment a very raw touch of reality. It is the excess of unreality which forces us to focus on the reality which underlies what is happening - a disturbingly effective approach. The opening warning - again now customary for noe - shows a wry sense of humor developing in his awareness of himself and his cinema. The strobing warning that the film contains strobing also works well as a neat tie-in to the contradictory element of the film I just mentioned. To elaborate, the film starts with a TV showing a porn film that fluctuates between black/white and color as the camera frames the TV screen, then becomes it. Entering into and out of the porn film we come out into two separate bedrooms. One with a young woman who masturbates in a room full of animals in paintings and toys. One of these she holds and rubs against herself while masturbating, eerily bringing out associations with bestiality with the innocence of these toys and pictures being traded for carnal primitive urges and desires. This is somewhat echoed in the other bedroom we enter as a 'gothish' youth masturbates with a blow-up doll in a room littered with debauched items and empty-statement posters. At one point he penetrates the mouth of the blow-up doll with his penis, and this becomes perhaps the most telling moment in the film. As we see this penetration through strobe lighting and a nauseatingly swirling camera, the speed at which the dolls face is moving tricks our vision to at times make it appear like its bulging eyes are revealing real terror and pain, and even more startling this disorientation of style somehow gives an allusion that this is an actual girl which this boy is penetrating. This is the point where the crux of the film becomes most painfully evident. The illusion that this boy and girl are having sex with the characters of the porn movie, through simulation of their actions and immersement in their images, reveals that the simulation of sex is not only occurring in them mentally but physically too with the use of sexual props. Yet their immersement in this porn film reality collapses on itself when we enter into the world of the porn movie and the exaggerated, distorted emotions portrayed by the characters within this film. The man having sex in the porn film is also looking very distant from the woman he is having sex with, and she is constantly doing put-ons for the camera. The point Noe is trying to make here, I believe, is that these people too are immersed in the unreality of sex, and of the aloneness of sex as it becomes some sort of bizarre performance in which each character is involved only for their own self-satisfaction in their own imagined world. The boy and girl in their bedrooms are mimicking a world which in itself is not real and distant. This shows a thematic concern which is quite dominant in Noe's work, which is the idea that with film/cinema there's always another level of construction and artifice behind that which we initially notice. This investment in imagery takes on a stranger and equally disturbing element when we see the boy putting a toy gun inside the dolls mouth as a means of erotic fulfillment. The idea of culture filling people's minds with women and guns, or sex and violence, becomes in a way scarily realized here. The boy is giving free rein to his imagination and in this imagination we see a longing for domination and control which is a bit unnerving. Though on the other side it is difficult to believe that this character would really do something like this to a real woman. His repressed ideas it could be argued are coming out in a safer, albeit very twisted, way. Neither of the two characters really look like dangerous twisted people though, especially the girl, who if she wasn't busy masturbating would probably appear very wholesome in her room.
Thus the title of the movie we fuck alone evidently brings with it multiple meanings. On the one hand these characters are alone in their room, alone in their imaginations, and obviously having sex with themselves alone - which allows them to be more open/kinky with what they're doing. Yet on another you can see the TV porn people as being similarly alone as their performing for the camera (audience) doesn't really allow them to connect and be together with them. Nor are they really having sex "together" in the movie as they are often looking at the camera, trying to present themselves to the audience - not their sexual partner - in the most erotic way possible. Without doubt one of the strongest contributions to omnibus, Noe continues to be daring and imaginative, as well as now seeming also to be a bit more in earnest with what he is trying to say. Maybe not as successful as Larry Clarke's effort, though this is definitely through no lack of talent, but through a great stroke of chance and luck Clarke's idea granted him.
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