Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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The Erotics of Film

I went to see Eros this afternoon -- Kim is watching it right now -- a triptych of short films that circle around the topic of sex like one of Henry James's most perverted sentences. That is, although there are immediate turn-ons in each of the three films, their trajectory takes them on an elliptical orbit through rings of mediation that reveal the extent to which those turn-ons won't turn on with a mere flick of the switch.

To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd like Eros that much. I don't usually read reviews of a film I might see in a theater, but had heard Kim wondering out loud whether it would be exposed as pretentious art-house fare. Still, the fact that she was dead-set on seeing it before it leaves The Loft swayed me. And, really, how likely is it that a cinematic experience involving directors Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni will be a total disappointment? At worst, I figured I was in for an Aria-like experience, where some segments shine and others are dull. As it turned out, though, I thoroughly enjoyed all three films. Although some reviewers gave it a big thumbs-down -- check out this Time Out review for a sense of how nasty they got -- I found it far more successful than most "anthology" films that bring a series of big-name directors together.

The Wong Kar Wai short "Hand" featured a classic -- and therefore ideologically suspect -- tale of a prostitute's rise and fall. But the specificity of the details and the desire they are deployed to represent prevent the tried-and-true tale from ever ringing false. And it's so beautiful to behold -- enough shots of people in mirrors to please even the hardest core Sirk junkie coupled with colors that looked like they'd been soaked in water for weeks -- that any objections to the story-as-story are subordinated to the pure cinematic pleasure of the film-as-art. In my case, the story was never an issue anyway. My intellectual ability to recognize the problematic formula of the story was blown away by the feelings the film inspired in me. I was deeply moved by the film for personal reasons and not-so-personal ones. Had I seen it together with Kim, I would have asked her whether she wanted to leave without seeing the other two. I suspect she would have said, "Yes."

Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" was laugh-out-loud funny at times without ever disrupting the eery dream-like state that it was seeking to depict. While it was hard to make the transition out of the emotional intensity of "Hand," I'm glad I was able to pull it off. I love to watch Robert Downey Jr. look manic on screen. And Alan Arkin has been a delight in almost every picture he's made. What makes the film truly memorable, though, is that it goes out of its way not to resolve the loose ends it dangles before our eyes. By the time it's over, the ability to distinguish between the story's dream world and its real world has been destroyed. Coupled with the absence of narrative closure, that confusion makes the film into a Moebius strip of desire. It doesn't hurt that this film is also beautiful, doing wonderful things with color without seeming too gimmicky.

The final short of the triptych, Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things" struck me as the most problematic of the three when I was in the theater. For one thing, it features not one but two beautiful Italian women who reveal, upon getting naked, that they have the healthy and therefore hot bodies that women had in films of Antonioni's heyday of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I'll admit to being more than a little bothered by the spectacle and actually stretched a few times so the people behind me would think I was bored when I was really anything but. Because the film has an allegorical aura -- everything feels vaguely ancient and otherworldly -- and the Italian seaside setting is astonishingly gorgeous, though, my feelings of guilt at being visually stimulated were offset by feelings of pride at my capacity to balance that sort of stimulation with the more aesthetically pure sort.

Once the film had reached its end, though, and I emerged from the theater's darkness into the hot, bright white of summery Tucson, I began to rethink my position on the Antonioni. Sure, it has all the elements of male fantasy, right down to the super-sexy Maserati convertible. But in the end, that male fantasy is revealed to be puny in relation to the power of women. It's no accident that the male character's last words come over a mobile phone, when he complains that it's snowing in Paris. It's not snowing on the beach in Italy. Nor is it an accident that his former partner Chloë is driving an SUV and not a sports car. At the conclusion, the two female leads exult in their bodies and their freedom in his absence in a way that reveals how incidental he has been in their bliss. I realize that, since this is an Antonioni film, we are dealing with a male fantasy of the female deconstruction of male fantasy. Still, that's a damned sight better than an uninterrogated male fantasy.

Taken together, these three films impress most of all as films. As this story on Antonioni's contribution indicates, he and his cinematographer expressly rejected digital technology in order to shoot on classic 35mm stock. I suspect that the same is true for Wong Kar Wai and Stephen Soderbergh. Even if aspects of the production process involved the use of digital technology -- it's hard to imagine one that doesn't in this day and age -- the overriding look and feel of Eros is resolutely anti-digital. In that respect, then, the mediation of desire that each director's short explores blurs into the mediation of the cinematic medium itself. The indirectness that they capture testifies to the power of film to excite us when the flesh alone will not. Although I would never claim that digital video is unable to stimulate in the same manner -- absolute assertions are too easy to take apart -- I did get the sense, watching Eros, that the body of celluloid and the way light passes through it is bound up with a specific type of eroticism that the DVD player or VCR can never fully simulate.

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