Better Keep Your Wits About You

The alien integrated society where Korbin Dallas lives and loves is a total privacy-invaded State. His government forces him to undertake service or be marginalized. This is the identical arrangement placed upon Rick Deckard in “Blade Runner,” and also Sam Lowry in “Brazil.” Since their governments can’t inspire the protagonist to serve their interests, they leave them no other alternative.

The great prophetic science fiction writers of our times infiltrate our minds, with the help of movie machines, for our collective enlightenment. They are warning us about other kinds of machines that are invented to infiltrate our minds for the purpose of our collective enslavement.

It is sometimes best to dispel the oppressive overtones of serious subjects with a little humor before performing an autopsy on them with the tools of storytelling. Levity is the great gift of directors Charlie Chaplin and Terry Gilliam, and never more so than in their movies about man and the machine. With all the other titles in this series having been dramas, commenting on “Brazil” and “Modern Times” and “The Fifth Element” (1997) have brought welcome relief, sort of.

Luc Besson’s eleventh movie is an futuristic western adventure comedy with plenty of serious matters addressed. Korbin’s celestial hook-up begins in a cultural melting pot, divisively classed and pressed against the glass of heavy surveillance, suspended between aggressive, armed police and roving, ruthless gangs.

The lone wolf of tonight’s final frontier mystic chuckler is played by box office Buddha Bruce Willis. He falls for a sexy Supreme Being, Leeloo, a Manga-inspired orange crush Venus. Leeloo makes her entrance into the heart of space commando Korbin Dallas as a teenaged test tube Messiah in a state of the art genetic tech womb. From that cutting edge birth canal, twenty year old Mila Jovavich was rocketed into the universe of international movie stardom as well and “The Fifth Element” became the most financially successful French film of all time.

In contrast to the rest of the films in the series, one of the splendid enjoyments of watching “The Fifth Element” is how cute everything looks. Unlike the gloom that permeates the majority of the films in this series, the elemental character of Besson’s “Fifth” is imbued with candy gloss, glitter and pop.

Stewardesses on the ship to Flostun Paradise, wear cuddly shifts, topped in 1960’s inspired wigs and pillbox lids.  Each one of them is a bonafide babe. They act in such a mechanically pre-programmed manner sometimes, you wonder if they’re dolls.

The virtual and the real swap places multiple ways in “The Fifth Element.” Good guys are hard to tell from crooks. Korbin encounters shape-shifting desperadoes and ubiquitous police posses, prowling for outlaws. Everywhere there’s cops and hoods fighting for turf.

I have intentionally put off, until now, discussing “The Fifth Element” because of its sheer silliness. But its overstatements are appropriate for the futuristic, slapstick, twitching hybrid that it turns out to be.

At the mid-point and onward, the role of Ruby Rod flips the proceedings into hilarious camped-out excess, courtesy of the hysterical Chris Tucker. Playing the part of a high-strung, omnisexual MC, he flaunts a voracious but vapid vivacity on the media mainstream, diddling the chicks like a rooster, oozing with greed for the phony next thrill, treating his fawning public like they make him ill. With a hollow hairstyle that resembles a loofah, Tucker goes about seducing every boy and girl on the ship, cavorting in a fabulous wardrobe by Jean Paul Gautier. My laughter generally goes uncontrollable at this point. Ruby’s hollowness is only surpassed by his shallowness.

For this segment, one might regard “The Fifth Element” as trivial compared to others in this series. I consider it serious science fiction, like “Modern Times”, just the same and just as prophetic. Even though its tone is calculated for laughs the subject and it’s treatment comments sincerely on some existential dead ends we find ourselves in today in the name of progress.

Time and again, the warning from the prophets seems to be about how technology can be used either for destruction or service. It all depends on the motive of the operator. In placing this assumption at the core of the story, “The Fifth Element” is updating a message from Fritz Lange’s “Metropolis” (1927). “The mediator between the head and the hands is the heart.”  Fritz Lange later regretted his decision to flash this slogan both at the beginning and end of his story. He renounced the movie later as fairy tale oddly enough. It surprised me to find this out because I never thought of “Metropolis” as anything but a fairy tale. Ironic that, while Fritz Lange was evidently uncomfortable with it, what he achieved with that one fairy tale became a hallmark for every successive generation of prophetic film makers to follow.

His warnings are taken up again brilliantly in “District 9” (2009) which will surface this summer to round out this series on man and the machine, but we won’t conclude, either, without projecting “Metropolis” back up on screen once again.

With the marriage of motion pictures and telecomunications, we’ve stumbled upon a globally unifying storytelling device. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up. I call upon the filmmaker’s of the world to tell stories that make us want to be our best and to wish the best to our fellow human beings.

Enlightened storytellers from all walks of life and every culture with motion pictures have been delving into the deepest and most complex subjects imaginable for over a century. It appears that storytelling and cinema stand to contribute more, by far, toward the survival of the human race, than anyone would have guessed when it was invented.


Building a Better Venus – Creating Beauty in Our Own Image

From a certain angle, “The Skin I Live In” makes a fascinating time at the movies out of some au courant medical ethics issues. More importantly to my own fascination is the fact that one more master has held up the fable of “Beauty and Beast” before the eyes of a modern audience.

Re-imagening our fable in his characteristic, tawdry, telanovela fashion, if I were called upon to name Almodóvar’s 2012 masterpiece, it would be, “The Recently Widowed Super-Surgeon’s Revenge,” but thematically “The Skin I Live In” lovingly teases apart our obsession with human perfection and makes art out of the slick sciences that promote it.

Sr. Almodóvar imagines his story at the junction of where art and science are increasingly intertwined and how that phenomenon, coupled with the film medium itself it would seem, along with the characters in the story, all combine to reflect our current disposition towards gender. His characters also conveniently embody all the archetypes of the popular fable we have been discussing in the past three posts.

The fable “Beauty and the Beast” fits perfectly under the surface of this “Skin,” with an opening identical to the other three–the Beast eavesdrops on Beauty through a glass. From there on out,“The Skin I Live In” takes the notion of scrutiny, surveillance and invasion of privacy to outlandish lengths through the character of Robert, the super surgeon who uses every means at his disposal, from giant screens to microscopes to get to the bottom what makes Beauty immortal.

At home he sits in front of a monitor zooming in and out on his captive with the leer of a peeping tom. At work Robert busies himself in the operating theater with research, examinations and invasive procedures upon his unwitting model.

The story threads together a panorama of relevant scenarios involving the sculpture of skin, the culture of clothes, assorted aspects of gender identity that relate to flesh, fashion, hide, masks, mirrors, armor and genitals.

As far back as we look there exist stories of gods and mortals who suffer from such dire cases of unrequited love that they simply must sculpt an idol to their ideal and make love to it. Almodóvar assumes we are still caught up in this preoccupation in modern times.

In this case Robert’s ideal is a dead ringer for his wife. He just happens to be fashioning her out of a young man who Robert believes ruined his daughter’s life. In the most perversely artificial way imaginable, Robert’s revenge conveniently manages to keep his love for his wife alive as well.

Addressing the artist/model relationship from the previous posts, there is always a predicament for the model in having to share the attention of the master with the creation he is working on, “The Skin I Live In,” imagines a case of the model being literally transformed into his creation.

Gender hybrids in art interests me in the light of the fact that Leonardo and Michelangelo, among others, painted women’s heads as well as their organs on men’s bodies to communicate the Renaissance concept of God-given human perfection. Though this all sounds chauvinistic now, we cannot possibly judge the mentality behind such choices with accuracy from the cultural reference point of our times. Was this really blatant disregard for woman, or some desire to imbue her with man’s strength? In other words, if only you could take the best of men and combine it with the best of women, that would be perfection. But who knows if that’s what was intended or something else?

If you are an artist absorbed in the act of creating, you work at all hours, often in the middle of the night, imagining, observing, probing, shaping, and caressing. The work becomes like a lover with whom you gladly elude sleep. Robert’s falling in love and sleeping with his Vera would be nothing scandalous if it weren’t for the revenge plot which makes a twisted horror flick out of our familiar fairy tale.

Most, if not all, of Pedro Almodóvar’s films portray situations of abduction and victimization. He’s well known for trafficking in images of rape, incest and assorted taboo which I’ve always assumed relates to the director’s feeling like a female trapped in a male body.

Within the first forty minutes of “Skin,” we’ve been shown kidnapping, drug abuse, burglary, a flaming car wreck, rape, bloody murder and several shameless breaches of medical code. Vera’s story should be interesting to anyone that feels trapped in a male dominant paradigm. Almodóvar’s story should be interesting to all genders when it addresses anxiety generated within our rigidly enforced hierarchy’s dominant sexual codes, and Beauty’s story should be interesting to all humanity in any way it might articulate our frustration when we are confronted with any of life’s polarizing dilemmas.

Indeed, one could read endless comparisons into the dynamic between the super-surgeon and his subject, not the least one being the corporation vs. consumer relationship and perhaps that is what makes the horror of Vera’s situation so disturbing to us.

Irregardless of connotations, intended or otherwise, the quality of the film making is superb. His country’s illustrious fine arts heritage seems to have taught the director well. Visually speaking, the flourish with which some of the technological imagery is presented recalls the most poetic science sequences in cinema from Lange to Kubrick.

“The Skin I Live In” expresses an undeniable dedication to the goddess of beauty. The filmmaker’s deeper allegiance is made obvious for us, for example, by posting enormous reproductions of “Venus D’Urbino” by Titian, along side “Venus in a Mirror” by Rubens, in the upstairs grand hallway. Like those masters before him, this one lavishes loving attention even on the most obscure element in the piece, investing painstaking care in the way it contributes to the refinement and dimensionality of the finished product.

A meticulously matched soundtrack selection, for instance “Shades of Marble,” by Anders Trentemøller evokes, with strident strings, the violent occlusions of geological upheaval. Almodóvar repurposes it ingeniously to express the fragility and vulnerability of flesh to intrusion by the scalpel, or the violent will of rapist against victim while, at the same time, paying homage to the classic Greek sculptors that labored to encode our modern obsession with flawless beauty.

Beginning with this past June’s post, I have been discussing Bertolluci’s charming coming of age flick, “Stealing Beauty” from 1996. Along side it, I have compared Jacques Rivette’s artist/model drama “La Belle Noisseuse.” From 1991, and proven that all are re-workings of the Jean Cocteau’s venerated classic, “La Belle et la Bete,” from 1947.

This final variation is the most exotic extreme. Whereas, in “La Belle Noiseusse”, the role of Beauty was stripped down and exposed, by the rigors of the master’s process, to possess a kernel of the beast inside. The genius of Almodóvar turns the screw a notch deeper, forcing man to be changed into woman against his will, for the purposes of sexual slavery, effectively transforming the Beast into Beauty to let him feel what it’s like to be preyed on.

In the opening credits of “Stealing Beauty,” Bertolucci casts his audience as the Beast to achieve essentially the same thing. All three are cinematic stunts designed to place the Beast in all of us, in Beauty’s point of view in order to foster compassion and respect for her. All three are acts of homage to idealized feminine and an appeal for her welfare which is too often taken advantage of in real world scenarios. All the more reason why she must be defended in our make believe ones.

A Modernist Inversion of a Traditional Theme

In Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête”, Venus bears the fate of a poor house slave. Her wicked sisters have all the fun and she cleans up after them. Like some bird in a cage, Belle is too tame and domesticated, refusing to marry Avenant so she can stay behind and care for her father.

La Bête, on the other hand, represents our uncivilized self, having overwhelming temptations that we somehow just barely manage to contain and, in so doing, over time, manage to temper with the refinements of beauty and love. The fable reassures us that beauty melts even the most overpowering brutality and the tamed beast can be counted on to supply ample potency and instinct to make all of Beauty’s romantic dreams come true.

All this is made possible when La Bête submits to Belle. Even though he is holding her against her will, she manages to befriend him. Belle developes compassion for La Bête restless longing and then, in a final twist, the secret is revealed. A dashing Prince was trapped, by an evil spell, inside the body of la Bête. Suddenly a handsome young man, chins forward to claim Belle’s hand. By the grace of some wondrous power, they are joined in sacred bonds and swept up into the sky to fly to the Prince’s kingdom.

Like Bertolucci did in “Stealing Beauty,” the 1991 film “La Belle Noiseuse” by Jacques Rivette also uses the artist/model relationship to pay homage to Venus, reworking the “La Belle et la Bête” fable through a very different lens.

“La Belle Noiseuse” is another film that dispenses dear old, eternally young Venus into new human skin, this time by way of some ingenious thematic inversions. Here, in this version, not unlike the sculptor in “Stealing Beauty,” that lived in a villa in Tuscany, the virtuoso of our next version is a renowned painter who lives a quiet life in the French countryside. The investigation into which this artist plunges with his model is quite different than the father/daughter blueprint we were submitted to in “Stealing Beauty.” As a quintessential modernist would, Fernhoffer, the maistro of “La Belle Noiseusse,” has given himself the daunting task of de-idealizing Venus.

In the opening scene, we immediately find an inversion worth noting. Instead of Beauty being spied on by the Beast in the beginning of the affair, this time we eavesdrop on the beautiful Marianne as she is stalking a second floor balcony snapping candid pictures of a handsome young man in the courtyard below whom, it turns out, is actually her boyfriend. Note how prevalently the act of spying on Venus is positioned in the first acts of all these movies.

The entire opening sequence, it is soon revealed, is a game Marianne and Nicolas play for two tourists in the courtyard, who are supposedly the real eavesdroppers. So, for the astute film watcher this turns into a kind of running “who’s on first” joke, but the punch line is not trying to tell us that Europe is Beauty and tourists are the Beast. I doubt that, anyway.

In the transitional sequence between the previously described eavesdropping game and the first meeting with Fernhoeffer, at least a couple of important details should be mentioned. Marianne, the model-to-be, takes off her shoes on her way to the artist’s villa, unselfconsciously marking herself as a pilgrim. What kind of pilgrim? An art pilgrim? A truth pilgrim? If so, not a religious one, but in no way a tourist on holiday either.

A second precocious detail in this film comes when Liz, the artist’s devoted former model and presumed wife, remarks on a room in their villa that houses two chimeras. “You’ve found the Chimera Room, which is my favorite because it is completely unnecessary”–no doubt a comment on the way a model feels when she gets replaced by a younger one but also on what a fleeting creature she supposes to represent whenever she poses. In the end, the model herself is left behind. Only the artist’s portrait of her is considered.

As I’ve eluded to, the most prominent inversion in “La Belle Noiseusse” comes when Fernhoeffer tries to exorcize all the idealism out of beauty and expose the raw, unglamorous organism of his exceptionally lovely, intelligent and game accomplice. This requires, from both artist and model, three essential qualities; absolute trust, ruthless will, and physical stamina.

The scenes of artist and model working together start off like a master class in studio technique. There seems to be an emphasis on the scratchiness of the drawing instruments on the paper and canvas. The incessant noise, on the otherwise almost vacant soundtrack, can be off-putting at times, but this sound assists the image by emphasizing the mesmerizing intensity of the creative act. However, for this story to hold the attention of anyone but an art lover or aspiring painter, gradually, the model must become a fully participating collaborator, and then, in the end, after total surrender, be shocked at the outcome.

Their respective tasks look pretty overwhelming for them both at first. Her challenge is to devote herself completely to the expressed goal of the master. His has to do with seizing a lightening bolt that first struck him when he was in his prime–about which, now, he thinks himself long past.

There is much well conceived, well-defined character detail in “La Belle Noiseusse”. The masterpiece that is born at the climax manages to surprise everyone differently than everyone else including the audience. All of this requires brilliant storytelling, which is also what this movie is a master class in.

The model breaks through earlier on, but the master surprises himself only in the final brushstrokes and we can even sense that he’s exceeded his goal just as he steps back from the finished work. This is all made more significant when fulfillment turns out to be for him alone as his model appears distressingly shocked, exposed in some way with which she does not feel comfortable.

The master is detached enough from his ego that he can happily deny himself for her sake. The satisfaction of turning out a late career tour de force comes from the act of creation itself. We alone are allowed to revel in this old dog’s new trick with hiim while he sequesters away his magnum opus behind mortar and brick.

That, indeed, would seem like the ultimate surprise. Surely it is the masterstroke of storytelling in this story, but no, the ultimate transcendence is reserved for what the model saw when she took her first look at the work. Only once it is finished and she’s put her clothes back on, does it become clear what she laid on the line. We’ll never see the actual painting, but her reaction strikes the most raw, emotional chord in the film.

That canvas must have revealed something about hers that Marianne least expected. In the process it takes the blinders off her eyes about life, her future and lover Nicolas who is supposed to be some up-and-coming young stud on the modern painting scene.

In the end, having only seen a substitute for the masterpiece, Nicholas passes arrogant judgment on the maestro. Fernhoeffer, in rebuttal, says to Nicholas, “I hope you never change.” Nicholas must feel some sense of being bested or busted by that remark, but he’s perhaps too self-focused to get it before we do.

Marianne appears quietly philosophical about the experience of posing for a living legend. Her satisfaction consists in being a peer to the master, in how she overcame her own self-imposed limits to occasionally even surpassed the master’s commitment as she applied her body and soul to his intention.

Fundamental symmetry would be disturbed if the master’s neurosis were not on full display in these proceedings as well. This was never reflected with more unflattering candor than in the performance of model-turned-wife Liz played by Jane Birkin and how she seems to be almost entirely consumed in the master’s shadow.

The surprises, at the end, certainly resonates different ways with different viewers, but it is far from ambiguous to me that something positive has taken place. In fact, satisfaction ripples out in direct relation to the importance each character plays in the birth of the new work. Ferhoeffer gets his edge back. Marianne is shown some mysterious truth about herself. Liz receives her hero from a successful conquest. Nicolas leaves with a deluded notion of his superiority.

Even the art dealer, Balthazar, though hardly in possession of a masterpiece, wanders proudly away with what he was after, and we, the audience have indulged another couple hours in the company of Venus.

Being Venus in a Venus Crazed World

This is part 2 of a continuing investigation into a Cult of Venus that thrives today in modern movies.

I recommend, if you haven’t recently, or perhaps ever, take a look at “Stealing Beauty”(1996) and “La Belle et la Bête” (1946)–a double feature in which we compare a movie that is often ignored with one that is beloved by all.

We might as well resume with a film made by someone from the culture that gave Venus her name. Bernardo Bertolucci has been probing, adoring and obsessing over modern versions of her for over five decades. Take his movie, in which Liv Tyler plays a cosmopolitan virgin on the verge.

“Stealing Beauty” has been trivialized by some critics who fail to find real nourishment beneath its confectionary facade. To be sure, the picture looks like something a food writer might describe as pastel farmhouse over a bed of grapevine on terra cotta crust. Why the visual excess? Because “Stealing Beauty” is a fable. If you do not subscribe to this, you may be dismissed.

Anyone who paid keen attention would be able to guess, with the backdrop of idealized nature, archetypal sculpture and the way director and crew pump the painterly schema, “Stealing Beauty” automatically adopts an atmosphere of mythic escapades.

Young love never looked so yummy. It smacks sugar sweet indeed, but there is blood at the center of a good allegory and a hyper touch of it’s color is found in almost any composition in this film. Take Lucy’s last act skirt, or her father’s first act shirt–a photographic rapport that suggests their bond. The attention-getting hue calls to mind menstrual flow, birth blood and wedding night scarlet too, but especially the precious, stirring succulence that circulates the limbs of holy youth which fine art and the movies entice us to adore.

While we’re delving in to Bertolucci’s eye candy, let me point out that silk-draped portal off the barn that billows like some feverishly stoked kiln, which is echoed later by that campfire that permits just enough exposure in the obligatory scene.

Before the days of color cinematography there worked, in motion pictures, a fanatical servant of Orpheus. He too, like Bertolucci, was a poet before he became a filmmaker. He was born before cinema, but then perhaps we are speaking of the first poet of cinema too. They became one in the same in Msr. Jean Cocteau.

I cannot contain my suspicion that Bertolucci installed his curtain in the farmhouse to connect it with a fabulous opus on celluloid that the first poet took upon himself to frame. With his stolen one, Bertolucci often cheers Beauty on from the sidelines of that French master’s enchanted tale. He is also, coincidentally, restating for everyone or at least everyone paying attention, that this film is a fable like Cocteau’s inimitable “Beauty and the Beast,” better known as “La Belle et la Bête”.

If you’ve watched Cocteau’s masterpiece, you’ll never forget the sequence in which the character of Belle, played by the luminous Josette Day, arrives and enters Bête’s magic castle. Watch as she pushes in those massive doors and is snagged by the magnetism of her terrifying host. The halls are lit both-sides with regiments of disembodied arms, sprouted from walls instead of human ribs and each supports a glowing candelabra. One room is followed by another even more mysterious. The inner sanctum is decorated with a row of moonlit, floor-to-ceiling-draped windows.

The magnetism of La Bête grows so strong, by then, that something between the floor and Beauty’s feet conveys her to Him. The possessed castle inhales and sucks the diaphanous shades toward the swooning Belle. She comprehends only later that this is Bête in magic drapery drag, privately pawing her as she passes.

This brief passage is one of the most sumptuous in film history. It reveals not only the perverse pleasure that Bête takes in observing Belle without reserve, but takes in the ravishment of the senses that she experiences inside his enchanted in-breath before fear sets in.

First hints of dread come from a dressing room laid out for Belle. Objects in there whisper aloud, offering their service to her. With such animation in the world of things she is unfamiliar, or perhaps she comprehends, finally, that this castle has eyes to which she does not wish to be further exposed. So she runs but, naturally, all roads lead to La Bête. Suddenly, there he towers, with dashing, full-face beard, ivory fangs and diamond spangles. “Ue Allez Vous,” he bellows, blocking her way, and the trembling, exquisite, adorable and defenseless Belle instantly faints…

…meanwhile, back in our movie seats, ten bucks makes the goddess appear overhead, flick, flick, flick. Once more, radiant Venus descends to the world of men, flicka, flicka, flick…

The opening credits of “Stealing Beauty” play over a home made video. Here again we have a voyeur stalking a beautiful maiden from behind a magic glass. In his prying lens, Lucy is unsuspecting captive. Ironically, it is Bertolucci voice issuing from the secret admirer as he drops the tape of Lucy in the sky down to Lucy on the tracks. The video was recorded on the plane from America and then by train to Siena. It’s all we’ve had to look at so far. We’ve watched a lot of claustrophobic angles of Lucy sleeping, thinking, looking out the window, moving freely about the cabin, listening to music, sleeping some more. We get a cool glimpse of some drool dripping down her chin.

Why cool? Because this is Venus, adorable, immortal, woman-child, sex diva, war goddess. Though it should not be true of the audience, all of this is lost, of course, on luminous Lucy who embodies a ravishing ideal of lady luck with, delectably, zero awareness of our prying eyes.

Now would you just look at how that hand of hers sleeps so close to her blue jean-ed crotch. Is it meant to recall that infatuating pose painted by another celebrated high-priest of Her sect? He who is nearly five hundred or so years Bertolucci’s senior, and is known as Titian, a northerner like him, but from Venice instead of Parma. That Titian was a titan of Venus.

In case you never have, allow your gaze sufficient contact with the “Venus d’Urbino” to observe how gratified she is to lay naked in your presence. It is enough to make one doubt her virginity no? Edward Manet recaste that archetype a few centuries later, transforming Venus into Olympia, a haughty, prosperous, young whore (1864). Next up, Signore Bertolucci rigs his photo reel to ritually restore Venus’ virginity so he can steal it once more.

What is it about this little rite in which movie going mortals regularly love to partake? It is far from the first time that Venus has been around this block. That hottie and her posse are preserved in stone hewn from cultures that reach back to earth’s earliest inhabited zones.

Meanwhile, back to the future, Lucy’s awake again and looking out the window, descending to the land of men. She never acknowledges being watched by them though. You, I and the filmmakers are as graced as La Bete to peek into this pure maiden’s personal space.

Getting back to Bertolucci’s “Beauty”, is Venus really listening to those headphones? No, she’s asleep again. So we begin probing even closer, with the insistence of this mystery lens–much closer than we should. The filmmaker has gradually imposed on his audience a hip, ethical predicament, but it’s not our camera, so we can’t be blamed. Right? We are only watching.

Is that right, or wrong? We’ve just been going along. Now, we begin to ask ourselves if we should continue on when, suddenly, Venus is awakened by the mystery documentarian, advising her to un-dock now, having arrived at her destination.

Lucy grabs her grips and flits onto the platform stopping quick to fix a lace. “What are you doing?” she asks, staring down the lens for very the first time? “I was on the plane.” He whispers, just like Beauty’s dressing mirror in “La Belle et La Bête”. “This is for you.” The tape drops out the window. “Shit!” Lucy exclaims as fright breaks over her fetching forehead. Bingo, Bernardo, you just scored! That furled brow shows how it feels to be Venus in a Venus crazed world.

Because the maidenhead of a virgin is referred to as “her secret,” it makes sense that there is a secret at the core of this story. Is it the same mist that shrouds the sculptor when he wonders why Lucy’s stepfather wants him to sculpt her? “Why did he send her to me?” he confides to his fellow Irish ex-pat wife. “He’s never liked my work?”

I prefer to think the sculptor and Lucy’s step-father both understand why the step-father sent her from New York. I prefer to think that the sculptor’s wife, with whom he is speaking at this moment, does not know the reason and the sculptor is probing just to be certain.

There is also, most definitely, a beast at the core of this Beauty tale. It amounts to almost everyone else in the script. The whole world seems to be chasing this fox. The character of Richard presses most aggressively but, ever since the man with the video camera, each new character from the sculptor to the dying playwright is poaching after her. Every female in the script is getting off on Lucy in some way or other as well. Beastly nature–what can you do?

If I had a daughter, I’d encourage her to see this film as she approached adulthood, with the hope that it could provide a pertinent preview of the pleasures and pressures of becoming sexually active.

After the close call with a young seducer, it is a relief that the boy Lucy eventually connects with is not a slave to the sexual mores of his peers. Lucy’s salvation materializes in the form of the rake’s gentler cousin, a boy of the same age. Osvaldo is the only character in the story that hasn’t attempted to steal her beauty. His head of bucolic locks spells out “nature boy”, cinematically, and foreshadows the spherical canopy of a great tree suspended over Beauty’s sexual setting free.

This iconoclastic heist flick argues that all larcenies perpetrated on Venus are not equal. The sculptor has permission and his wife’s offense, for instance, is petty and meant to amuse when she outs the 19 year-old’s maidenhood. She and her family and friends all indulge in good-natured gossip out of sheer boredom.

Other predators in the upper age limit commit benign infractions as well, filling out this randy romance with spicy minor roles like a sleepwalking art dealer, played, most charmingly, by none other than our most beloved Beast player of all, the French matinee idol Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau’s erotic muse until death. Does anyone out there still dismiss the notion that this film is Bertolluci’s “La Belle et La Bête”?

Embracing a bountiful bouquet of wildflowers that she’s gathered from a classic Monet meadow nearby, Lucy finally asks the sculptor point-blank for the last piece of her puzzle. Where were you in August of 1975?” He takes a while to answer, “That must have been when I did your mother’s portrait.” With this line, the sculptor admits to Lucy her paternal claim. “That’s what I thought,” she replies to accept it. The sculptor levels his next line so that it’s meaning cannot be misunderstood. “It was one of the few times we (he and his wife) have ever been apart.” “Oh, I wouldn’t ask her,” she says, to assure she’s understood. “These are for you.” Lucy hands her father the bouquet, then dabs a tear. Whether it comes from a sense of profound connection or the lack thereof is only next made clear.

The master shows the finished work for which she modeled. It is pure essence. A massive tree trunk yields to sensuous curves in smooth, even grain, articulating immaculate skin on cheeks, forehead and chin. All this is presided over by inquisitive eyes of a curious, absorbent youth in soft, yellow pine. The sculptor confesses, in an earlier scene, his works are about himself. In this case it rings true at least a couple of ways.

Rather than dwell on his accomplishment, the sculpture praises Lucy for how lovely she turned out and she, in turn, looks proud as any branch could ever be for being immortalized by her secret trunk in the trunk of a real tree. To prevent hurt feelings with the sculptor’s wife, it is framed as cool to keep their truth concealed. On this she does agree, then father and daughter embrace, finally. Ironically then, the camera tracks away, in a wide radial around that great chunk of tree, finally showing some respect for Venus’s privacy.

This surprise plot detail attempts to define the unique bond of the artist and model. It points to a shared ambiguity, the secret to which each of them holds a key. I haven’t time to go into this subject here carefully but I will, in the next installment of this series on Venus, so stay tuned, please, if you will. Now, with Lucy’s daddy I.D.’d, we can get on with her inaugural foray.

Sweet surrender in the Siena hills under the verdant ball of an enormous tree. Earth pauses on the head of a pin for Venus and the Chosen One to get it on. Come spy with me on the pretty pilgrims perched above a vine-rowed rise, with the Tuscan sunset reflected in their eyes. Dappled cloudheads cradle rising stars. Campfire illuminates breeze-blown branch sighs, while down slip virgin panties from virgin buns and thighs. Nature Boy avails and proceeds to make love instead of screw. The coolest thing, besides the obvious, is next morning when Osvaldo confesses, “It was my first time too.

The Cult of Venus in Motion Pictures

For the duration of Spring and throughout the Summer we will focus our lens on what I have identified to be an ancient cult of Venus thriving in our culture and how its system of belief is spread and practiced through motion pictures. Venus and her predecessors are the most idolized archetypes in history.

Venus is archetypal, that is to say, built up over the ages in our grey-matter through progression of intelligence, meaning she is much older than the early Roman Emperor that named her. Venus embodies a Latin version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was, even earlier, appropriated from Mesopotamia. Time has washed away all but the outlines, but a vast majority of humans still revere and serve Venus.

Few of her modern adherents still connect with her illustrious lineage. Present day folk are less superstitious and more literal. She’s morphed from The Morning Star into The Ideal Babe, blown up twenty feet tall at the local movie theater. Like a projector with a screen, we superimpose Venus on the attractive female in the movies. Our imagination makes her into an actual person. In our mind, she’s perfect.

The camera worships her and this gratifies us. Can she actually ever really become flesh? Or will her ideal live on only as a biological driver in our brain?

If you were born in Rome six thousand years ago, Venus comes from the realm of the gods, but she does consent, on occasion, to consort with humans. Venus is a Diva–the reverse of the archetype of the Catholic Madonna (who came to Rome much later). That Mary starts out human, then turns into a demigod, an immaculate female who disdains sex with mortals and in return for that distinction, her womb is seeded by the Almighty.  She is turned to by her devotees for divine guidance, spiritual favors and all manner of indulgences.

In her peculiarly nature-driven way Venus motivates the development of the highest potential in humanity, as well, inspiring us to accomplish great deeds worthy of her favor. The history of humankind is loaded with heroic stories in which we sacrifice our brute nature in order to serve that ideal of beauty which Venus represents.

The first humans identified the proto-Venus with springtime, as a tribute to the awe-inspiring pageant of life and death in her fertility cycles. Her maidenhood has been closely associated with the butterfly for its subtlety and fleeting nature. Her fertility arouses unbridled passion and aggression.  While her nature may be fleeting, filmmakers work tirelessly to promote and preserve her image for the ages. Fates of the actually lived lives of sex-symbols and their adorers have flamed out endlessly like sparks in a bonfire, while a luminous starlet’s face that was lens-ed a hundred years ago is still capable of illuminating an audience with her charm and grace in the present day.

Through the movies, we pay our respects to her exquisite face and features. Each and every one of us spurted up through her crack when she was called The Fountain of Youth. We all sprung from the Goddess of Sex in our primal brain. Through her we seek initiation into, and then later feed our nostalgia for that first bold flush of youth that we all experienced when we came of age.

Behind every boy/girl mating ritual Venus is the Mystery Date, first fruit of the creative matrix we call Mother Nature and the personification of good luck. Mars is her male counterpart. Men and women alike are hard-wired like a magnet to Venus. Soldiers comfort themselves with her image while at war. Suitors fall head over heels when at court. Women strive daily to imitate her in all her voluptuous venality. We all pay homage to her in the movies, engaging not in idolatry, but idealism.

A heavy metal projector spins out a fantasy of her ethereal charms so that we can encounter The Cosmic Babe in all her gorgiosity. Why do we go back again and again for a fleeting illusion?  Because she works wonders.

Now hear all ye’ worshippers of Venus, collect the seed from tasselled ears of tallest grain. Have them roasted on low fire in heaps and drizzle them with butter from the fatted cow. Now make a salt offering. Take this feast and gather all different kinds of people in caves and eat of her harvest while watching your goddess recline there, front and center. Enjoy her beaming down on you right now, your desire joined with hers, intimately. Somewhere up in the blue sky of love chemistry in your brain, she’s giving you heady suggestions of sex, with plenty close-ups on the incomparable premise of ideal love and beauty. Now frequently consume this feast and while away the hours in her presence and you will feel blessed.

Wake Up Call

Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”, which played in a discreet 9:30 slot on Saturday night at the 12th Annual Santa Fe Film Festival, has already gained a reputation for being erotic, insipid, brave, disappointing, groundbreaking, regressive and a host of other contradictions. It’s no wonder. A young woman consents to being drugged for the purpose of complete submission to the sexual whims of an ultra-rich clientele. At first glance, this plot might appear an invitation to take part in some tawdry voyeurism.

For me, the film was an expose about what infantile fantasies secretly motivate the wealthy, power-obsessed male psyche and how nature, the feminine and all that is beautiful is shamelessly sacrificed to his insatiable appetite.

To my knowledge, the nocturnal Beauty that slumbers in the nucleus of this movie never reveals her motivation for why she is making herself available to the host of parasitic vermin that covet her porcelain complexion and exquisite figure, but there is an important moment near the mid-point of the story that assures us it is not for the money, as we would assume, and that single episode supercharged my interest the character of Lucy.

The scene takes place after a high-end rendezvous when she returns home with an impressive stack of cash which she lays on the coffee table and pauses to gaze at luxuriantly. While hardly taking her eyes off the loot, she opens a small wooden box and takes out what is, presumably, a partially smoked joint, lights it, takes a hit and uses the lighter to burn one of the bills from the top of the stack. This did not come off, for me, as some kind of absurd irony. It takes place at the midpoint of the story precisely because it is meant to upturn all our presumptions about the heroine. It fascinated me and made me want to stick around to see where the story was going.

Lucy works at two dead end jobs, one as a waitress where she is always seen cleaning up at closing time, one as an office temp where she is sequestered in a room full of duplicating machines. She also attends classes at college in which she seems to take absolutely zero interest. On top of this, Lucy regularly submits herself to a perplexing lab experiment where she is required to swallow a latex bladder attached to a hose that makes her wretch and gag while the researcher inflates it in her throat. For this she is paid all of thirty bucks and she continues to show up for this clinical ritual even after she has broken into big time sex games with the super-rich. In addition to all this she persists in soliciting flagrantly licentious liaisons with any vulture that happens to circle her bar stool.

“My vagina is not a temple”, Lucy replies in direct contradiction to the enigmatic Clara, the exquisitely groomed, garbed and gracious pimp, played by Rachael Blake, who pairs Lucy with her prosperous predators. Contrary to what predators in the audience may conclude, this does not make Lucy complicit in her violation. It implies that the dominant male paradigm has perverted the culture and this young woman is so utterly steeped in its brazen sexism that she has never developed the slightest sense of her sexual self-worth.

I’m fairly certain that our disgust at the end of the film was intended by the filmmaker, and possibly some of the negative reviews of “Sleeping Beauty” derive from the inability of those reviewers to separate the harsh emotional resonances at the film’s conclusion from their own conclusions about the film. In saying this I do not mean to criticize the critics. One cannot argue with one’s feelings. Their response is natural and, on one hand, completely understandable, but I kept asking myself during the movie, why is this filmmaker wading into these murky metaphors? She must have anticipated being rewarded by many viewers with resentment and ridicule.

I presume the filmmaker is deliberately courting controversy but if I suspected that she was doing so for her own glory, or simply for the sake of pushing buttons, I would go right along with the skeptics. If I am correct about her intentions, the director’s position is reactionary–calculated to tweak her audience’s moral equilibrium for sure–but it is done so neither as a tease or a joke, so it did not invalidate the movie’s importance for me.

The most telling event in the story is repeated three times so that we really have a chance to catch on. Every time a date with the latest rich old fart has been set-up, Clara brings him into the room where Lucy slumbers, unconsciousness in bed. “It’s safe here.” Clara assures him. “No one can see you and there is no shame.”

Viola! The power hungry male fantasy is exposed in all its impotent, puerile ingenuity. What is being laid bare in Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” is not the divine body of Emily Browning. It is what all those aging rich dudes reach for as their precious power begins fading. It drives them to claw their way to the top and stoop so low to plunder nature, the dreams of humankind and all things precious and beautiful. They do it for this measly, pathetic, artificial gratification–to claim for their over-nourished egos the privilege of possessing, enslaving, and violating the most cherished things on earth in a place where they imagine no one can see them, punish them or interfere in anyway.

I recognize the value of this wake up call, which allows the audience to catch them with their pants down and expose them for what they have really been up to while we sleep.

If my assumptions about this film are correct, Sr. Louis Buñeul would be Ms. Julia Leigh’s patron saint. In these critical times, in which a doctrine of greed and manipulation of the masses has been cooped from the Popes and retro-fitted into the agendas of the corporate elites, perhaps we should all be more open-minded to transgressive cinema like this.