Thursday, August 28, 2014

Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)

 

Posting this 2004 article partly because I refer to it in an upcoming piece about a Now-on-DVD erotic film, and because well erotic films need no excuse, really.

Different strokes

Steven Shainberg's Secretary, an adaptation of a short story by Mary Gaitskill, turns on a nice little premise: Lee Holloway, a neurotic young woman fresh out of the mental hospital (Maggie Gyllenhaal), comes home to her alcoholic, physically abusive father and battered mother. When things get rough, when Lee's mother gets knocked around a little or Lee feels especially depressed or frustrated, she hides in her bedroom where she has squirreled away (like a stash of dope) a sewing kit full of sharp instruments, one of her favorites being the lovely ceramic figure of a ballerina whose toes are sharpened to a point; with the smoothness that comes from long practice, she draws a bright line down her well-scarred upper thigh.

Later she lands the position of secretary to E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a control-freak lawyer seated in a vast office. Grey likes perfect spelling in all his correspondence and perfect professionalism in all his staff (mostly Lee, and a paralegal who seems to pop in once in a blue moon); he likes to vigorously redline Lee's typing mistakes with a thick marker and, at one point--when the mistake seemed particularly minor--likes to order Lee to bend over his desk reading her faulty letter while he smacks her buttocks with an open palm. Masochistic employee meets sadistic employer in isolated office environment: ingredients, apparently, for the perfect relationship.

It's a fantasy, of course; nowadays American businesses don't call their staff "secretaries," they call them "assistants;" "assistants" don't use manual typewriters and liquid paper (except maybe in public libraries, and even there it's a dying art) they use word processors and spell-check programs. Shainberg presents a fairly strange world--a Dario Argento torture chamber as conceived by Disney's production designers--presumably in the hope that the soft-focus would make this (mildly) twisted version of a romantic comedy easier to take.

That's basically my problem with the picture--that it's a tale of perverse love told wholesomely. The action isn't hardcore; it's barely softcore, just brief sessions of spanking, a few uncomfortable postures, maybe one or two glimpses of hardware. There's even this suggestion that what they're doing is therapeutic and ultimately helpful to Lee's self-image and sense of worth--as if S&M needed an uplifting message to make it more acceptable, a lifestyle choice like colonic irrigation or the Atkins diet. Lee's character is at rock-bottom, what with her history of mental instability and her troubled family--being tied down can only be a step up; Grey is so thoroughly entombed in his King Tutankhamen suite that punishing Lee is a breath of fresh air, a chance at cardio exercise. It's so laughable a sell--kinky sex for squares--that you end up believing none of it.

If anything saves the picture it's the performances. Spader in White Palace and sex, lies and videotape and  even Wolf (as rival to Jack Nicholson's semi-human monster) has always projected an intriguing presence, a yuppie yumminess with just a hint of corruption; his smoothly confident lawyer has a genuine relish for inflicting pain and (beyond that) just the faintest suggestion of guilt at relishing such pain. Gyllenhaal, all saucer-eyes and naughty-girl smile, is even more crucial--on her slender shoulders stands the picture's credibility, and she sells it better than it deserves. She conveys her earlier loneliness with directness and simplicity; when she discovers the pleasures of corporal punishment her wide-eyed sense of discovery is genuinely arousing, preventing you from laughing at all the awkward positions (in a picture that requires such delicate balance a chuckle is appropriate, a guffaw devastating).

Shainberg employs the kind of glossiness required for conventional erotic fantasy; he even has a visual and rhythmic crispness that suggests wit. Secretary is enjoyable for what it is: a fairly fresh twist on a tired genre, so tired even something halfway decent looks special.

When it comes to authentic S&M, though--well, there's American porn, preferably classic '70s (Japanese "pinku" is even better); there's Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ which, much as I loathe it artistically, does show an obsessive spirit. There's Jang Sun-Woo's Lies, which sketches a convincing portrait of an S&M relationship in the process of self-destructing (especially like the oddball humor--the lovers, for instance, scrounging through junk for pieces of wood to beat each other's behinds with).

Even us supposedly staid, sexually repressed Filipinos have done better work: Laurice Guillen and Raquel Villavicencio's Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983) is about a woman who changes persona with each man she beds, most memorably a semipsychotic sadist (I'd go so far as say it's my favorite of a limited and disreputable genre).

So: Passion for the hardcore crowd; Lies for the truthseekers; Init for the artistically imaginative. Secretary I'd say is strictly for the beginning masochist, something soft and tender and ultimately bland. Different strokes, folks. Different strokes.

First published in Businessworld, 9/24/04

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014) - a belated tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

In belated tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

Hamburg's most wanted

Reading Le Carre, it's striking to see how much value he puts into stillness and silence. His most dramatic scenes take place in the most muted of places, where noise is not only not present, but decidedly unwelcome (I'm thinking of Smiley holding the strings in the climax of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Alec Leamas being led away after the trial in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and belatedly realizing what's really going on). Silence for the Le Carre operative is a useful weapon--it draws out the target in an interrogation, forces him to fill the vacuum with noise of his own (hopefully and eventually testimony of actual significance), usually deflects notice or attention from others, leaving the agent free to do what needs doing. More, silence is the mark of the thinking man, the intelligent man. You can easily believe that a Le Carre hero (anti-hero, whatever) can slip past a James Bond or Jason Bourne, winkle out the morsel of information from a stubborn subject, vanish before either Bond or Bourne knew anything at all has happened.

Enter Gunther Bachmann, played with an almost Mandarin sense of mystery by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bachmann was a big deal once; he operated networks in Beirut which, thanks to American interference, were promptly rolled up; now he's haunting the streets of Hamburg, picking up detritus here, there, assembling bits of information into chains that--hopefully, hopefully--will lead to valuable intelligence. Someday. 

Have not read Le Carre's novel; hear from some critics that it's somewhat strident in its protests towards the United States' policy of extraordinary rendition, with its portrait of rude crude American intelligence agents, and its story of a one-time torture victim (based loosely on the experiences of Murnat Kurnaz) seeking asylum in the West. Strident or not, Anton Corbijn's adaptation of A Most Wanted Man is in my book anything but: like his previous The American, it's less a story than a study, not of the young refugee but of the gruff unshaven German espionage agent observing him, trying to suss out his role in the city's uneasy geopolitics (Le Carre's boorish Americans have been distilled into the figure of agent Martha Sullivan, played with sinister smoothness by Robin Wright).

George Clooney in The American was pretty much the whole show; here it's Hoffman, and good as Clooney was (an introverted knot of tension in an otherwise obscure film, with a rather cliche shootout climax) Hoffman holds your attention in a ruthless grip. He slouches, stares off into the distance, splashes whiskey in his coffee, smokes an endless chain of cigarettes (you could easily believe he'll die sooner of cancer than an assassin's bullet) and in a growl of a German-accented voice, declare that he's doing all this "to make the world a safer place." Corbijn keeps the camera not exactly zoomed in on him--Hoffman's constantly caught in long or medium shot, the director doesn't seem to believe much in closeups--but aware of him somehow, pointing him out as the single most dilapidated figure in an otherwise aseptically clean German city. 

And it wouldn't work--would be anotherh American, imploding with its own inwardness--if it wasn't for Le Carre's crackerjack script. With detail after patiently acquired detail, Bachmann shows us the emerging picture: of a wealthy man named Abdullah, possibly contributing to a charity secretly channeling funds to terrorist networks. As with Le Carre's best spies, Bachmann plays the long game--prefers the more distant, barely-seen objective over the more immediate goal--and the author works the same way, saving the revelations for last, increasing the tension incrementally, with every turn of the screw. Quite the achievement, I think, that the film's tensest moment is a man with a pen hovering over a piece of paper, trying to decide whether or not to sign. Sounds like the most humdrum of scenarios on paper; on the big screen you find yourself tearing up the theater seats' leather armrests with your fingernails.

The rest of it, what follows after--the capture, the quick flurry of guns and yelling agents and screeching vehicles--is almost like an anticlimax;  Bachmann seems aware of this too. He's most alive when he's seated and staring at a videoscreen watching a target pace her cell, or when he's peering past the crowd at a man haunting a street corner. The hunt is all, he seems to be saying to us without actually saying anything (in the book is what's reportedly called "Bachmann's Cantata," a long and angry summation of contemporary geopolitical history which Corbijn (wisely, I think) leaves out; Hoffman's Bachmann as opposed to Le Carre's is, I imagine, almost inarticulate in his secretiveness); all else is denouement, disappointment, despair. 

A powerful conclusion, but Corbijn arrives at it the way Bachmann--the way Le Carre himself--does: by patient accumulation of detail, by understatement and subtle contrast, by jacking up the tension twist by near-unbearable twist. Like his collaborators Corbijn plays the long game and touches his distant objective, somewhere in the barely-seen future.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucy (Luc Besson), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)


You got some 'splainin to do

You don't know the thrill the surname 'Besson' sends up my spine--that is till I realize the crucial 'r' is missing. 

Without said letter I know I'll get something--a step up from Michael Bay, not quite Paul W. S. Anderson, the French equivalent of a Philly 'steak wit and Whiz: not haute cuisine, but a fairly tasty handful of kitchen grease. 

So it goes with Lucy. The movie's all about awakening human potential in the mind, usually pegged at ten or fifteen percent, and what happens when we reach the upper nineties and beyond--a possibility that any neurologist will tell you is total fantasy; we do use 100% of our brains, only not all at once, or all the time (Mythbusters spent an episode with an MEG machine demonstrating this). Surprised Morgan Freeman lent his name to this enterprise, after hosting all those science shows on TV--afraid he's lost some scientific street cred with me.

So--thoroughly silly adventure based on totally false premise; what's left? Besson used to have style--in The Last Battle, or La Femme Nikita or Leon or even as late as The Fifth Element he showed some ability to stage and shoot an action sequence (just don't expect him to come up with plausible characters, or reasonably affecting drama). He works best with a huge dose of humor, with one character--almost always male--standing in for the director and often providing the ordinary schmo's POV, layered with fairly witty commentary (Jean Reno in Leon; Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element).

Oh, and the rocket launchers. Besson has got to have his rocket launchers--I think it's in his contract. Only time he had to do without far as I know was in The Messenger, and only possibly because he couldn't work them into a script set in 15th century France (he made do with catapults, lots of 'em).

Digital effects have rendered him lazy, I think. Used to be his action had pop, a kind of violent grace that depended on actual human agility and daring, instead of said agility (not to mention flames and shrapnel) being digitally added post-production. I watch Leon and La Femme Nikita with a kind of guilty giddy delight; the action here inspires no guilt or gid, only unmitigated contempt. And maybe more than a little discomfort at the rather virulent racist stereotypes on display, of sinister or rapacious Asian gangsters (to be fair Choi Min-sik--Park Chan Wook's favorite actor, far as I know--puts some grunt and savor to his role as Korean mob boss, for some unexplained reason operating in Taiwan).

In the end the victim (Scarlett Johansson--goofy at first, then increasingly less interesting) attains transcendence, but of a kind so digitally and emotionally uninspired you want to blank out and disappear as well. Besson's intentions are more than noble--he seems to admonish us, amidst the gasoline flames and mayhem, to rise above ourselves, to seize this moment in our short lives and live life fully. The man should listen to his own words; he seems to be bouncing after the next step in cinematic evolution with impotent awkwardness, flapping helplessly at his goal on little dodo wings.  


Skin deep

Now Johannsson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin starts out the way she ends in Lucy, as a blank-faced nonhuman. Only in Under it's the start of a Kubrickian take on the vampire film, Glazer's best-effort attempt to adapt an unadaptable novel by Michel Faber (which I haven't read, for the record). 

The first half is really the better part; after an opening involving planetary alignments a la 2001 (sequence ending with a closeup of an eyeball that could as easily be Dullea's), the film follows a young woman's predatory practices as she lures men one by one into various apartments and houses, to end up in an eerie reflective pool (a dimensional door, I'm guessing, leading to the home planet of whatever intelligence is directing the lure). Unpleasant events follow, though they aren't half as unsettling as the cool distant manner in which Glazer witnesses them--with only the slightest of musical accompaniments (more a collection of sound effects really) and almost nary a close-up, Glazer adopts the uninvolved, unfeeling point of view of the alien intelligences he depicts. He has Johansson smiling and asking various menfolk to step in her van, and the friendly warmth with which she does this--the casual yet efficient way she immediately establishes that this or that passenger is friendless and unattached--is chilling. She's prolific and relentless, yet never quite so obvious that she alarms her targets (on the other hand most of them are so intent in getting in her pants it's like a running gag--she can't herd them in fast enough).

This distant tone is most successful--and most horrifying--in one particular scene, where the lure (don't feel right calling her an actual 'woman') visits a beach and starts talking to a tourist camping out in a tent. He interrupts their talk to rush to the water and rescue a couple in peril from the oncoming waves. She walks to the water past the couple's child shrieking in the sand, and the point hits home: this figure with the gorgeous lips and come-hither sway isn't human. She can successfully imitate form and manner to the point of seducing practically anyone with balls but it's all clearly a mask, to assume or drop at any moment, at her convenience. 

Later she develops a conscience, the film a more conventional narrative, and some of the chill is lost--for the better or not is debatable (don't think so, myself). The ending (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) feels forced--would a man intending to assault an alien, on realizing its true nature, be so violently aggressive? I say he'd keep running. Glazer does come up with a creepily affecting scene, where the lure meets a man with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson)--in an interview Pearson tells of how he helped Johansson come up with the right things to say and do to seduce him, and you can't help but develop a sense of uneasy dread as he responds to the come-on. 

Not perhaps a complete success, but especially with that quietly lurid first part Glazer proves himself a more ambitious and more capable (if more pretentious) filmmaker than Besson. If you must have your daily dose of the actress I recommend the latter--you come away with something not so easily scrubbed off, even with a scouring pad. I know; I tried. 

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