Thursday, January 13, 2011

Commitment

Once again, it's time to look at the ever harder to find line between sleaze and art. Unlike Pig or A Serbian Movie these two particular examples come loaded with baggage of their own. A Serbian Movie was known exclusively as "the movie with all the baby fucking" so it's not like people were exactly leaping over each other trying to defend it. The whole point is that it's indefensible; director Srdjan Spasojevic made sure of that. Pig has no reputation to speak of so there's still quite a bit to say if you cared enough to say anything; I suspect you won't. But what happens when the film in question comes swaddled in the comforting blanket of "Serious Art." The distinction becomes a little more difficult to make, at least to some people, but more than that it means that its detractors and supporters will be more or less evenly split. The reputations of both films preceded them and I'd read as many negative reviews as positive before I even looked into seeing either of them. And in both cases I had no interest in seeing them until I absolutely had to and nothing was going to stop me. Well, in the case of the first film, Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void, I knew pretty much exactly what was in store for me: a film redolent of, in Noé's own words, an acid trip. He was out to make the drug movie and while I usually don't have the patience for that brand of motherfuckery, especially because Noé's last film Irréversible was, in my friend Tucker's words "the most pretentious thing I've ever seen." But for whatever reason I felt like meeting him halfway so I found semi-favourable circumstances for such an outing. One night, feeling a huge amount of pain from a cold that had turned into something meaner, I had already taken at least benadryl when I decided that further steps had to be taken to take away the immense amount of pain I felt whenever I swallowed anything and so took two hydrocodone left over from when I had my wisdom teeth out. That and robitussin with codeine made that about as close to tripping as I'll ever get and probably the most favourable frame of mind that I'll ever be in to watch Enter The Void. And while it certainly made the visuals cooler, I can't say it made the movie any better.

Enter The Void
by Gaspar Noé
Oscar is a drug-dealer living in Tokyo. His only real contact with the world other than his costumers are his sister Linda, who he has a disturbingly close relationship with, and his best friend Alex, who's one of those insufferable hippies who loves talking about alternate realities and has his own bastardized form of eastern religion he lives by but mostly he reminds me of Andy Samberg in that one digital short where he keeps showing up in the houses of all of Ryan Philippe's family members. Then there's Victor, Oscar's connection. He has to meet Victor downtown at a club called The Void and as Alex has nothing better to do he walks the ten or twelve blocks with him and explains the plot of the movie: hey, did you know according to the Tibetan book of the dead, when you die your spirit wanders around looking after the people you knew and you'll relive old memories and just kinda float around until you find the physical form you next want to take? Hmm...no, I didn't know that. Anyway, Oscar walks upstairs into a police ambush set up by Victor. Oscar runs into the bathroom to ditch the pills he's got and makes the unforgivably dumb mistake of saying he's got a gun, which gets him shot through the door. So then he dies and his spirit wanders around looking after the people he knew and he relives old memories and just kinda floats around until he finds the physical form he next wants to take. Or two hours of light effects and triptastic visuals that are better orchestrated but not different enough from Laser Floyd to really be worth much in the cold light of day. And when we're not looking at lights and colours and music, we see the decisions and tragedies that led to Oscar's demise and how Linda and Alex deal with his death. Take out Noé's oversized visual ambition and you have a pretty dour and hateful love story leftover.

What's that saying about special effects being the most important thing in a bad movie? Enter The Void is a film that wouldn't exist without post-production, which puts it in questionable company. Thanks to a childish script, a teenagers conception of femininity, and the fact that no one cares about the plot, Enter The Void is, for better or worse, the Transformers of the art world. The visuals really are interesting, interesting enough to watch the movie, but they don't make up for everything done wrong; and frankly they weren't even all Noé's doing. He stole a good many of them from Glenn Jacobsen, albeit with permission, but a film that spends so much time treating colourful synapses like money shots ought to have done everything from scratch. But there's a lot of borrowed material here so I guess it's in keeping with the rest of the production. It begs saying that like Irréversible but more so, Enter The Void is "My God It's Full of Stars" the movie. There is so much fucking Stanley Kubrick in this movie it's overwhelming. In Noé's telling, there was no other film director (other than Robert Montgomery, whose Lady In The Lake he stole the POV cam device from) and so Enter The Void combines his austere compositions, isolating sexuality and flare for colours and presentational lighting into a film that doesn't deserve any of them.
The problem, as always, is that Noé was so entrenched in one aspect of his production that the script came out terrible. There is no one worth liking in this film and the more you know about them, the less you care. For instance when you learn that the reason Victor set Oscar up was because the hapless dealer was sleeping with his young friend's mom, you realize that the 23 year old who wrote the script didn't do any growing up before he became the 46 year old who's out promoting this movie. The script is the product of a series of trips earlier in his life that apparently he never revised. As someone with a stack of screenplays under my bed, I find it a little sad that the things that a drugged out wastrel thought exciting when he was younger are still dictating his multi-million dollar movies. Similarly the thing that drives Oscar is a relentless, creepy obsession with his sister that made me actively dislike the man whose soul we're trapped in. And then there's Noé's homophobia. Though it could have been swept under the rug in Irréversible because frankly everything in that movie is actively contemptible that you could mistake it for set-dressing. Taken with a key scene in Enter The Void, all earlier evidence is corroborated.

The last segment of the movie which I've taken to calling the Love Hotel segment is what takes subtlety and shoots it a hundred times in the head. We spin through the walls of a hotel watching people have sex while rays of what I hope isn't scent flows out of everyone's genitals. Among the faceless young naked we see all the major characters engaging in coitus that's supposed to hint at their fate. Among the many bodies we see Alex and Linda together finally having ordinary heterosexual sex which is supposed to be so beautiful that Noé felt he could end the movie with it. But before that we see Victor giving a Japanese businessman a blowjob as punishment for his treachery. Even at 4 in the morning, even on codeine and hydrocodone, even trying to give this baggy mess the benefit of the doubt, I couldn't abide by Noé's fratboy homophobia (with just a dash of racism thrown in for good measure). After putting up with two hours of needless stripping, sex, authorial masturbation and more nude Paz De La Huerta than I'd ever wanted to see, that was the final straw. But of course there was still one last prank up Noé's sleeve. Once we see Alex and Linda having sex the camera goes through her navel and into her vagina where we get a front row seat to Alex ejaculating. I don't know if I'd call that particularly artistic but I guess I can honestly say I'd never seen that before. Did I need to? No. Did it add anything other than cementing the notion that our director was kinda just out to do whatever thing seemed the most extreme? No. And the final creepy revelation that waits before the end credits just takes everything one step further than I cared to go with it.
The biggest problem with all this obscenity and overwrought psychedelics is that there was nothing behind it all. It was all (admittedly impressive) theatrics and no thesis. I'll go with your experiment if I think you've got something to say, but it better be pretty fucking good. Take for instance our next film. It couldn't any more nakedly an experiment but for whatever reason (maybe because I haven't seen anything else by its director so I'm not tired of his aesthetic) I actually enjoyed it even if the message is faint at best. What I liked most about it is that it answers a question that gets constantly sidestepped by the makers of the recent crop of slick horror movies. With The Devil's Rejects Rob Zombie went pretty far in trying to disguise itself as a 70s trash film. The rhythm of the dialogue was all wrong and the performances weren't right, but he came close. But as many films claim to want to delve into the psychology of serial killers and dissect the moments they emerged from. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning or any number of horror remakes are all given a chance to figure out what's behind the masks of modern horror icons. And largely they all fail. Trash Humpers goes a step further than I'd thought to and explains what the illegitimate children of Leatherface or Judd from Eaten Alive would get up to on their own. Or if you like, just what killers like Frank Zito or Eddie Quist did before they were the subject of their own movies.

Trash Humpers
by Harmony Korine
The plot is non-existent. Four overactive kids (two of them are played by Korine and his ridiculously cute wife Rachel) terrorize, albeit lazily, a suburb of Nashville in dollar store old-people masks. Their actions start out innocuous enough, mostly smashing condemned buildings and fucking every inanimate object in sight, thankfully with their pants on. They hire overweight prostitutes mostly just to play with them (they're kids, after all), they visit the many, many colourful characters that live on the fringes of polite society including two 40-something identical twin males joined by a stocking at the head, a guy with an electric guitar and some kind of out-of-shape beat poet among others. It all seems like it'll be more ponderous than a film this grimy should be; then we see the first body. When we see one of them on the floor with a bleeding corpse, it becomes clear that they're more than just misguided kids. But their actions aren't black and white. When they steal a baby out of its carriage like some kind of Grimm fairy tale, you hold your breath and I won't spoil what happens next.

Trash Humpers and Enter The Void make for an excellent double feature because of their commitment to their aesthetic. Just as Enter The Void is loaded with colourful genitalia and acid fantasies galore, Trash Humpers is a laundry list of grimy suburban nightmares; a painstaking recreation of horrifying home videos from the 90s. Shot on bad, warped VHS with those great in-camera titles, Korine makes his film feel like the kind of thing you'd find at a garage sale after the creepy guy who lived down the block died of an overdose. It's like the 90s-equivalent of a stag-reel and that's a pretty impressive feat. The performances, down to the awkward posture and repeated phrases and songs, the warped post-production and the depressing real-life locations are all gross and real enough that they blend into my (and I suspect many of my generation and just above it - anyone who was caught on the first generation of cassette-based home video recording, I suspect those folks who did the filming will find this less endearing) unconscious recollection of time passing and the inescapable feeling of wasting your life. I for one found myself remembering the time I was forced to watch home video footage of my first girlfriend in her basement. She, her mother and her younger brother seemed fascinated by their exhaustingly boring former selves; I couldn't wait to go home and fantasize about the other girl I had a crush on, wondering why I couldn't have charmed someone who would never make me watch evidence that time was passing and death was approaching like a trash truck at the end of the street. There is something inherently depressing about home movies and amateur filmmaking; more people shoot the things than get around to watching them (it helps that tape formats changed every other year and you'd be hard pressed to find a way to play your old footage today) and the idea of sitting around and watching the people you used to be is really a recipe for disaster. Korine definitely understands this and so makes sure to overload the film with the kind of embarrassing-to-eldritch personalities you'd find hosting neighborhood barbecues or birthday parties, only taken to their logical extreme. For this reason I was definitely on the lookout for the kind of last-ditch redemption set-piece he hints at with the ending. After all, there's nothing we want more than reminders that the people we once were (hair, fashion, mannerisms, murders) might break out of the lives they were trapped in yesterday, whether they planned it that way or not. Korine doesn't go so far as to suggest that these creeps are going to change, but maybe within their addled brains they have the capacity to recognize that what they're doing is wrong. Somewhere, once, they had families too and even if they grow up to stalk Haddonfield, Illinois there's the faintest possibility that they'll look in a mirror and remember they were once just as scared.
And that is really the best thing about Trash Humpers (the worst is its title); the universality of what might seem farfetched and unrealistic to some people. To me this barely qualifies as fiction. These kids are no different than the ones I grew up with; they were in my schools and in my neighborhood. I can think of quite a few of these kids, who, removed a step further from the terrible upbringings they were in the thick of, could and would end up like these the titular troublemakers. Take away parents, school and even the slightest respect for the law and give 'em facemasks and they could be practically anyone I graduated the sixth grade with. So, though Korine spends literally no time making us think about the flawed education system or the plague of bored/apathetic parents out there, the message is there all the same. I blamed the parents until roughly the first murder, at which point it became slightly harder to pinpoint one source of guilt. That's not fair, actually. I admit to being fascinated by the movie, too much to start thinking about it's sociological underpinnings until after the credits had warped by. While I was watching it, I was back in that basement, which I suspect is where a lot of this film's audience will go. Some basement or other, wishing that they had nothing in common with these faceless destructive kids. But even in that there's some redemption to be found. They may be killers and rootless freaks but they have each other. They may sing scary songs, but they sing them together. There is something there even if Korine doesn't offer any kind of commentary. I much prefer that to Gaspar Noé taking his point, lighting the fuse and stuffing it in my mouth. I don't want to watch either film again anytime soon, but Korine wins for making me think instead of demanding I do the same. He also wins because while Noé wrongly assumes you're exactly like him, Korine takes for granted that people will recognize human beings under all that make-up, regardless of what kind of childhood you had.

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