29.5.19

Enter the Void

I saw this as part of the Kubrick season at the BFI – 2001 being a big influence on Gaspar Noé and this film in particular. I’m not sure whether Kubrick intended the stargate sequence to be used to enhance drug trips, but for Noé the link is natural. Enter the Void could be interpreted as one long drug trip, or a way to simulate such trips using the power of cinema.


It’s a mixed bag. The film is divided into three unequal (in every sense of the word) parts. The first is shot in disorientating POV – camera in first person, introducing us to the main characters and action of the story. The second has the camera hover over the shoulder of the protagonist (in third person, as it were) as we find out the backstory. The third section has the camera floating freely above the heads of the characters – becoming an omniscient narrator exploring the aftershocks of the story rippling out.

The first two parts are quite tightly controlled, with revelations coming thick and fast. However the third gets rather distended and tedious, and towards the end I just wanted Noé to get the film over with. The characters have given up their mysteries. Continuing to meander around them feels a bit surplus to requirements.



Noé says this isn’t a film about getting high, but I’m not sure his preferred interpretation (“the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience”) offers much to chew over. It may be his most successful film because while Oscar and Linda are both on screen their story is intriguing, and the way a tragic incident in their youth leads them to the dangerous cocktail of sex and drugs in the mean streets of Tokyo is all too relatable. The existential fears driving the film are ultimately less interesting than the impact of the loss of a family, and the desperate desire to find or create one again.

26.5.19

Foxy Brown

Originally planned as a sequel to Coffy, and like most sequels a less successful imitation of the original. The previous film's insinuations towards the rape-revenge genre are here made literal in a pretty gruesome way, although that episode is apparently less traumatic than the murder of a lover. At least in this film it's the man who gets fridged in order to provide the motivation for a female protagonist to seek vengeance, rather than the other way around. And although Foxy Brown is leered at, groped, harassed, slapped, punched and raped – the exploitative portrayal of which is a lot more problematic than in Coffy – she still gets to wreak her ruin upon the criminal underworld in a way that has inspired black and female audiences since. 


The film is fastidious on the distinction between justice and revenge, but ultimately allows that in the context of a corrupt judiciary sometimes you have to allow the two to (literally) bleed together. The best scene is when Foxy Brown teams up with a hooker to seduce a judge on the take, and proceeds to utterly humiliate him and destroy his career. It's very funny, and is one of the few times that Foxy relies on exposing the hypocrisy of the elite rather than just wantonly killing people. The former is just as satisfying as the latter. 

18.5.19

Coffy

A 1973 blacksploitation classic starring Pam Grier as a nurse who exacts bloody revenge on the pimps, pushers, police and politicians who ruined her sister's life. The film is almost puritanical about the forces of corruption that are destroying the fabric of society, with Coffy advocating righteous violent justice as the only solution. Her aspiring politician boyfriend takes a more liberal attitude – arguing than addiction and crime are the products of hopelessness and oppression. The way out is to win power for "our people", i.e. the black community, which would be persuasive apart from the fact that by the moment he makes this pitch he is revealed to be a soulless shyster who's only loyal to the almighty dollar.


Coffy isn't quite a rape-revenge film, but it gets close. The character's modus operandi is to pretend to be a strung-out prostitute and infiltrate the inner circles of the crime bosses. Sex is a male weakness, and Coffy wields it as a weapon as much as the pistols, shotguns and razors she becomes proficient with. She is teased for being a 'liberated woman' but is happy to adopt the guise of docility in order to achieve her ends or get out of sticky situations. Given that this is an exploitation movie, the audience is implicated in the lechery of the gullible gangsters. But they, and perhaps we, get punished for it – Coffy's final execution in her killing spree is achieved through a shotgun blast to the privates.

6.5.19

Viva

A pointed send-up of 1970s sexploitation films, but with the script so clunky and the acting so stilted it becomes uncanny. Biller uses the same effect for The Love Witch, and after seeing this earlier film I wonder whether she can direct in any other mode. The film is purposefully bad, so what would a good Anna Biller film look like? Or is she incapable of moving beyond pastiche?


Because actually not all of Viva is purposefully bad. Biller works so slowly because she approaches her films as an artist might – designing the sets, artwork and costumes, as well as writing, acting, editing and directing. The texture of the film is therefore spectacular, and the clothes are amazing. There is also a very well-executed climactic (and unsettling) sex scene which uses psychedelic animation and outrageous focus pulls to great effect. At its best Viva is like no other film.

Biller sets her sights on unpeeling the complexities of the sexual revolution, with a plot lifted from Buñuel's Belle De Jour but with the consequences of female sexual liberation a tad more equivocal. At one point one of the male characters looks straight at the camera and confesses that men have never and will never have it so good – able to take advantage of the permissive society without taking responsibility for it. During the film, Biller's character is frequently sexually harassed, and at one point violently raped, by the free spirits around her. One of her prospective paramours fulminates against "women's lib" for the fact that Biller hasn't slept with him yet. Eventually, he tires of waiting, drugs her at a party and sleeps with her – hardly enlightened behaviour.


The only partners that treat Biller decently are her husband and a female lover. She eventually tires of the predators around her, but when she decides to go back to her marriage she doesn't refer back to the awful sexual violence she experienced. Instead, she says she became frightened of her own desires, and how she'd taken them too far. It's a strange inversion of where the guilt should actually lie. But maybe the film is being ambiguous on this point, and we should take her explanation at face value. Perhaps these sexual experiences were part of the fabric of her fantasies.

Biller's project, after all, is to reinsert the female gaze back into the history of cinema. The violent rape is transparently horrific, but her portrayal of the second rape at the party is the film at it's most erotic, which is a disturbing tone to strike. The starting point for the character, however, is a marriage where the husband isn't around – that's why she strays. The film ends with the tables turned – Biller's character feels truly free once the husband's liberty is curtailed. But even then that freedom is equivocal, found in the theatre production of the man who raped her. Throughout the film, female desire is circumscribed or channelled by men who don't have women's bests interests at heart. It's a fantasy barred on all sides by a culture that remains overwhelmingly sexist.

5.5.19

Nowhere

Towards the end of the film the main character Dark muses about how his generation is doomed. The Doom Generation was Araki's previous film, but it serves as an appropriate title for Nowhere as well – there is this same nihilistic sense of a culture in decadent decline, where life is so devoid of meaning that death (whether through active suicide or the rush of dangerous sex and drugs) is accepted as an impending inevitability. It's a vibe – Araki is a stylist rather than a philosopher. The title Nowhere is a badge pinned at the start by a voiceover that's as bathetic as it is profound – Los Angeles is a nowhere place where everyone is lost.


The film's plot is therefore appropriately a void around which the fleeting lives of the characters swirl. The only structure provided is that it's a day-in-the-life of a bunch of teens that all want to go to a bacchanalian party in the evening – most of whom make it. But that's just an excuse to indulge Araki's unique visual sense, where the camera's perspective is warped by an (often comically outrageous) impressionism and surrealism. The final moment pushes this to an extreme – turning the AIDS metaphor in the Alien film very literal. The horror of the moment is turned into a big absurd joke. Araki may be suggesting that perhaps that's the only way to deal with the truly awful nature of life in contemporary America.