Friday, November 25, 2011

Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" (2011)

by James Hansen

There are many reasons to call Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In uncomfortable. Without going into major spoilers, the first could be the overall strangeness and darkness of the plot – Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a celebrated scientist, has found a way to create a new, perfect skin, particularly burn victims, which can withstand all cuts and burns. Inside his enormous, secluded home, he runs a lab testing experiments on a beautiful patient, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who lives in a locked room. She does yoga. Writing covers the walls. Soon, he is told to shut down the operation or else he face pressure from the scientific community. Obsessed, he retreats to his home to keep close watch over his patient as he finishes his project.

This may be strange enough, but it isn’t new for Almodovar whose stories have been decidedly zany and slightly deranged throughout his celebrated career. Ever the stylist, Almodovar’s has fallen into forms of self-parody throughout his 2000s film, employing sly winks to his own repertoire instead of using his plastic veneer and popping color palette to enhance his stories. In Skin, at first, it seems as if Almodovar may be back to his more productive ways. His hyper-modified world (glass doors, laboratories, contemporary domestic interiors, molecular modification) is benefited by the faux-glaze of Almodovar’s design. It echoes and deepens the space in which Skin’s narrative takes place. But. after a guy in a tiger outfit emerges for a rape scene that seems to be played for laughs, the expanding emotional tenor is completely upended and the stylistic balance abandoned for shock.

Moving midway through the film into a series of flashbacks to provide expository (and crucial) details of the scientist and his patient, Almodovar uses style as a means of revealing unexpected (not to mention unjustified) details while ignoring the turbulent physical and emotional complexities of Skin. There is a sense of pleasure in the swift melodramatic twists, but they aren’t fed through any kind of pathos. Almodovar piles on the shock without earning (or logically proposing) its moments or its catharsis. A stain is cast across Skin leaving Almodovar’s world in a state of confusion. Of course, melodrama pushes events to the nth degree, but, even as everything boils over, there is a reason for that boiling, an incident that caused the effect, and a justification for action. The Skin I Live In boils for the sake of boiling and its formula never coheres. The overall sense of emotional confusion isn’t a symptom of affective response, but rather of a filmmaker displaying his own uncertainty and discomfort in confronting the issues his film raises. This film is uncomfortable in its own skin – and it shows.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

On Naming and Animals: Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011)

by James Hansen

There’s something about this title, this name – Martha Marcy May Marlene. Of course, it is the name of a new movie out this week, written and directed by Sean Durkin. Within the film, it reflects the various states taken on by the lead character, most commonly known as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). These stages are temporally dislocated by the film’s non-linear structure creating a constant slippage of who is on screen (is this Martha or Marcy May?), which events are impacting what (it certainly isn’t so easy as to be unidirectional), and who follows whom (who comes where? who is going where? when did they get there?) Because, while the plot bounces between two levels, there is a critical third register which remains absent from the narrative. This missing element has something to do with Martha’s origin, with Marcy May’s emergence, with the calling of Marlene. There’s something about a name.

MMMM begins with an ending. After a dash through the woods, Marcy May escapes from a seemingly nice group of people. There are some strange signs – the women stand outside the dining room as the men eat – but, at the start, nothing seems that off-putting. (Like Martha's own experience with the group, MMMM slowly wades into its troubling world.) Still, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy is more than surprised to hear her voice. Quickly, Martha becomes hysterical and inconsolable. Confused and concerned, Lucy comes to the rescue. Whatever had happened before is over. But within this ending lies the potential for it to begin again, for it to violently reemerge, for it to appear like a mirage across a serene lake. For Martha, her new beginning follows this ending, while, at the same time, it is followed by the ending. The end is, then, not an end, and the start not a beginning. They are one in the same, despite personalized attempts to pull them apart. Like an alliterative series, there may be separate fragments, but they are bound together, they have a role, and they demand a chained circular cycle.

MMMM shows that the chain’s breaking is just another way of the cycle extending its reach, deepening its impact, and claiming new victims. Before long, Martha isn’t the only one damaged. Unable to remember details (or unwilling to share them) Martha cannot communicate her inner-torture to Lucy. Try as they might, Lucy and her husband lash out at Martha’s blank stares, indifference to life, and unwillingness to communicate. As MMMM develops, they perpetuate the same cycle as the one from which Martha ran away. Durkin perhaps overstates the case, reaching for unexpected (not to mention unbelievable) histrionics and building upon far too many trying-to-be-clever match cuts which come across as cutesy rather than instructive. Nonetheless, the message is clear, controlled, and effective. Once the cycle is instilled, it cannot be thought away. In all likelihood, it cannot be cut off, only extended further.

It starts so simply. It starts with a name. Martha arrives at her new home (How did she get here? Why did she come here? Only Martha knows.) She meets a group of men and women. The men hummmm songs while playing guitars. (Footnote: given what I go into later, it should be noted here that only Patrick sings songs with lyrics. He is the only one granted a voice. If, as we'll see, naming plays a large role here, then its dominance extends into larger concerns about language as a whole.) They work together in the garden. They all contribute. They are all assimilated into the group. At the start, Martha seems happy, but her role is uncertain. She meets Patrick (John Hawkes). In their first exchange, she introduces herself as Martha. With a sly smile, he responds, “You look like a Marcy May” and walks away. Following Derrida, God allows Adam, without his intervention, to name animals. Man, and man alone, is given the ability to name. First and foremost, this not only asserts man’s dominance over animals, but, indeed, the power and authority of man over all living things. This creates a dangerous position in which all living things are stripped of their subjectivity and treated as lifeless objects. Marcy May has been named. Marlene is the name which the women must answer when (literally) called. Patrick’s ability to name (and Martha’s inability to assert her own name, which came before Patrick but is obliterated by him) isn’t merely in the name of appearance (“You look like a Marcy May”); rather, this singular act of naming initiates his dominance over the secondary creatures in his Garden of Eden. Moreover, it is the first step which feeds into the systematized violence, rape, and murder which he commits, oversees, and directs throughout the course of MMMM.

It starts with the animal. Marcy May is in the woods learning to shoots guns. Shaking, her first shot flies astray. Patrick comes along and gives her a hand. Emphasizing a feeling of hate, fear, and anger, he tells her to channel those tensions through her body and into the trigger. Bullseye. But, after shooting the glass bottle, Patrick isn’t done. He asks her to shoot a cat. She refuses. He tells her it has cancer and is suffering terribly. She can’t. He gives her another option – shoot one of the men, Max. He’s worthless and doesn’t do his work. Max stutters and almost giggles until Patrick grabs her hand and raises the gun towards him. He freezes. Marcy May balks. Patrick pushes further. Death is a kind of nirvana. Max tries to walk away, but Patrick commands him to stop. He does, for a moment, until, fearfully convinced of Patrick’s threat, he walks toward Patrick and shoots the cat. “Why did you do that?” Patrick asks. “You said it had cancer.” “One of the cats had cancer. Zoe knew which one.” Max apologizes and runs away.

Marcy May is off the hook, but Patrick’s dominance is further entrenched. Marcy May refuses to shoot the cat or Max. To her, they are equally living beings. Max, on the other hand, is willing to kill the cat (and save himself.) It is, after all, just a cat. Known as “cat,” it doesn’t have the same subjectivity as Max. Though Max proves his misplaced dominance over the cat, Patrick affirms his authority over everything. Patrick is willing to kill the sick cat or Max. Both are under his control and both are weak. Not only weak, but he doesn’t know them and doesn’t take their death seriously. By ignoring mortality (“everyone just exists”), every creature in his house functions as an object to be dominated. In fact, Patrick extends this beyond just his house and into all the surrounding areas. His creatures, like a well-greased machine, break into houses and steal various items. When they are caught by a man, they cannot take any chances. Patrick’s group watches as the man is killed. Patrick appears less rattled by this than by the death of the cat. It creates a sort of breaking point for Marcy May and, still, Patrick chides her weakness to which Marcy May apologizes. It starts with making the animal an object for dominance. It starts with a name.

His world is in place. Its chains are locked. MMMM begins with Marcy May breaking from it. Yet the further she gets away from it, the larger the circle becomes. The deeper the cycle goes. Once in place, it subsumes everything around it. It ensures new beginnings are neither new nor beginnings. It follows everywhere and becomes its own following. It says “follow me” while it is simultaneously in front and behind. In the film’s brilliant final shot, Durkin locates the impossibility of resolution in the recognition of the film’s own resolve. Martha sits in the back of the car. The car has nearly been hit. “Some kind of maniac.” In a medium shot, we see her confused, slightly worried face and out of the rear windshield behind her. The car starts to move forward. Yet, here, what is behind her – a lurking SUV – does not recede in the distance. Instead, it gets closer as she remains static – moving in the car to some new destination, some new beginning, some answer, while also resolutely in the same place. The SUV approaches. It gets nearer and nearer, so close as to almost hit the car. There isn’t a wreck, but the wreck is obvious. This SUV, Patrick’s world, is following from behind, but it is inevitably what she is heading towards. Inescapable, it is already waiting at her next destination. It is there before her and following after. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but she know what’s coming with her – Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene. But who is following whom?

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" (2011)

by James Hansen

On first glance, it seems easy to pin Andrew Haigh’s Weekend onto the tired formula of romantic dramas – guy meets girl, eyes cross, sparks and sex, consequence/decision/fallout, doom or reconciliation. Of course, the most obvious “spin” here is that Weekend is distinctly gay. Russell (Tom Cullen) meets Glen (Chris New) at a gay club, they hook up, and so the relationship fall-in/fallout begins. (Make no mistake: many critics have attempted to dilute the film’s gayness in hopes of drawing in scared-straight audiences – a respectable attempt, I suppose, but a misguided one all the same. Yes, folks, this is a Gay movie.) But is this all Weekend has to offer?

If one looks only at the surface, then, perhaps, yes. The formula is evident throughout and becomes even more so as it nears the inevitable conclusion. But where Weekend’s unique power resides is in Haigh’s gaze toward what is neither on the surface nor under it, but the deeply embedded, unspoken tensions in between. This isn’t a space that can be determined by grand formulas, sweeping scale, or grandiose ideas. In fact, it isn’t a realm that can be defined, although it defines. It is where everything happens. It is modern experience. And its identity is found in the subtle minutiae that Haigh astutely observes: an indecisive stutter, the light touch of a hand, a glance through a window, the stirring of instant coffee, the shuffling of emoticons, the clenching of a jaw – in these perfunctory, banal moments, Weekend finds a world waiting, a relationship brewing, a person forming. Yet, oscillating in the unfixed gap between one and another, there is always a sun setting, a night ending, a train leaving.

Here, Weekend reveals itself through these moments, which open further onto its conceit, its “formula” – the weekend. For Russell and Glen, the weekend may indicate the completion of a work week, but it isn’t an end to anything. It is the time when, free from the constraints of labor (lest we be too Marxian), they are free to be themselves in whatever form they want to be. The weekend, then, isn’t an end or a beginning, but it is the very space between these formal constraints of identity (work/not work, hetero/homo, single/couple, union/marriage) – the very same area that Glen explores in his art – that Weekend lives in. On the weekend, there are no tenable solutions to problems. The fracture is too large. Filled with trepidation, the critical, unanswerable question is where to position oneself outside of the gap. Can unassailable romance still be an answer? Can that question even be seriously proposed? In his final moments with Russell, Glen finds no cure, but realizes the appropriate response to the weekend’s symptom. With a hug, a kiss, and, the tables turned, an indecisive stutter– “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” And on he goes.

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