Saturday, May 3, 2008

This Week's Movies

I managed to see three very different movies this week. Sometimes you want to turn off writer head. But it's not always possible.

Zombie Strippers is a great deal of fun. It's funny just how self-referential zombie movies have gotten. It's almost strange how they (sometimes) manage not to get real old real quick. Zombie Strippers is one of those movies. You'd think it had already been made -- but apparently not. Everything is a spoof -- right down to George Romero's anti-Bush throw-away lines and the dumb-as-shit paramilitaries and soul-less corporate scientists. Every amateur move is thoroughly dissected and played to comedic effect, right down to a recently dead stripper reading Nietzsche and announcing to herself in the mirror, "This makes SO much more sense now!"

You'd think that a zombie movie would be fairly easy to write. And you'd probably be wrong. Movies, high and low, commercial and art, all require the same basic things to be successful -- structure, character, action, genre. Playing to all those things effectively makes or breaks the experience for an audience. Simply being consistent and remembering the audience is most of the fight. And Zombie Strippers does a remarkable job here. There's a lot of work in that script, even if at times it's intending to look terrible. And for those of you who are not homosexual script consultants, there's also Jenna Jameson dancing on a pole for about half the movie.

Shortbus is a remarkable film. It's probably the most graphic movie I've ever seen -- maybe ever made. What's remarkable about it is that the sex is truly not pornographic. It's simply a story about sex and connection, and the point is clearly not arousal. The writer/director John Cameron Mitchell wrote about the piece:

"In the old days, when you couldn't show sex on film, directors like Hitchcock had metaphors for sex (trains going into tunnels, etc). When you can show more realistic sex, the sex itself can be a metaphor for other parts of the character's lives. The way people express themselves sexually can tell you a lot about who they are. Some people ask me, 'Couldn't you have told the same story without the explicitness?'. They don't ask whether I could've done Hedwig without the songs. Why not be allowed to use every paint in the paintbox?"

And I believe him. While your mouth hangs open through the opening, soon you're caught up in the characters and the sex does become a way of telling some genuinely moving tales.

The script and characters were largely a product of improvisation workshops with the actors. I've worked this way before and I like it, even if I'm not sure the end result is necessarily better than a more conventional approach. Stories reached by committee, even very creative committees, have definite limitations. So when I truly got caught up in the climaxes (if you'll pardon the pun..) of all the stories at the end, I was a bit surprised at myself. I'm thrilled when films that try something new succeed. Shortbus is definitely one of those.

I capped the week with some high art at the SF Museum of Modern Art. The Rape of the Sabine Women is the latest work from art goddess Eve Sussman. Sussman and her coterie The Rufus Corporation specialize in taking classic art and reworking it into post-modern inscrutability. The rape of the Sabine women is a founding myth of ancient Rome. Sussman has reset the stage to 1960's Greece, Tempelhof airport in Berlin, and a modern-day meat market in Athens. While there's a great deal of attention to detail in the visuals and the soundtrack by Jonathan Bepler (who also works with artist Matthew Barney on his films), you get the sense that Sussman can't quite complete a sentence. A half hour later, you get the sense that she doesn't *want* to complete a sentence. You'll watch a camera move through a meat market for twenty minutes. You'll travel about a classical sculpture gallery listening to people cough for another twenty minutes. You'll watch women in 60's dress sit on couches with G-men not saying a word for another twenty minutes. While you can attach meaning and interpretation to each visual, there just doesn't seem to be a sense of elegance or economy to any of it. There seems to be either a disregard of the audience, or perhaps even an attempt to set up a pretty nasty power dynamic here. In the end I couldn't see it as much more than the artist showing her power and prestige. And communicating clearly would work against that goal. If we understood her, she wouldn't be the presence she's asserting.


I'm going to watch Shortbus again just to get it out of my system.

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