Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, March 21, 2005

Fucking Brilliant / Brilliant Fucking

I went to see Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs on Sunday afternoon, and I'm hoping to post about it in more detail when I get the chance; but in case I don't, I have to state categorically, for the record, that this is a goddamn diamond of a movie. If you've read the reviews, heard the mind-numbing cretinous drivel about controversy and art and all that bullshit, ignore it; this is a fucking masterclass in film-making and the morons wittering on about the sex are clearly incapable of seeing beyond the superficial, artificial "porn/art" argument to look at it as a bloody film, to evaluate it in terms of character, plot, theme, structure. So...

The movie is structured around the nine songs of the title, nine performances at gigs by bands and musicians such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand, The Von Bondies or Michael Nyman. This artifice of structure is used to slice the story into pataphysical moments such that, rather than leading the viewer by the nose along a tarmac trail all sleek and smoothly continuous, signposted here and there with scenes designed to spell out how the narrative is progressing, instead we move from stepping-stone to stepping-stone. We stop. We look around. We watch what is going on on the screen and we see, in that moment, in the way it captures this situation or that, examines it in exquisite and yet economic detail, a crystal clear picture of this stage of the story.

Winterbottom gives us a perfect symbol to represent this: a core sample taken from the ice sheet of Antartica. Though he does not bludgeon the viewer with what this represents, though he does not show the slicing of that ice core, the studying of the strata, only an ignorant fool could fail to see his point. The narrative, the history, the continuous story can be understood by slicing that sample into chunks and examining each individually. From the understanding of those individual situations we construct a broader understanding of how they relate to each other linearly, in the process of change. This much is blindingly obvious, but perhaps the approach is a little too formal for some, too experimental, too much like fucking hard work for idiots expecting the roller-coaster rides of Romantic and Realist sentimental narrative conventions, the ups and downs of life all boiled down to a simplistic straight-line story that will sweep us along in a stream of sensational or intellectual thrills and chills.

Winterbottom offers us a pataphysical narrative, a Modernist narrative and this in part is a denial of themes -- or rather of Themes. He rejects, in a way, the whole idea of themes as sweeping generalities, crude theories of The Way Things Are. In stripping away the illusory grit of Realism or glitter of Romanticism he is stripping away the lies of Doomed Love, whether it be doomed by Romanticism's Fate or Realism's Determinism. When challenged that he does not "play things as they are", in Wallace Stevens's "The Man With The Blue Guitar", the guitar man of the title replies "things as they are, are changed upon the blue guitar". This is Winterbottom's Modernist theme, the theme of all pataphysical work, that the moments, the ephemera are important beyond their place in any artificial and inexorable Scheme Of Things. That the moments are themselves where life is truly lived.

So that's life, then: things as they are?
It picks it's way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,
And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?
The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in the autumn air,
And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.
But all this Modernism does not make it a "difficult" movie unless you have the IQ of one of those buzzing flies. Each moment is as emotionally resonant and intellectually intriguing as any Romantic or Realist formulised version of the same scene, more so in the way the focus is held so tightly on the moment, so in the moment. It is an incredibly involving movie. All it asks is that we do not pretend that life itself is a story. In fact what it offers is a story much more real, much more honest, much more true to life, because it, like life, does not follow the artifical mechanics of the Romantics or the Realists.

It is a simple story:

1. boy meets girl
2. boy loves girl
3. girl is not wholly available but they get together anyway
4. an obstacle comes between them separating boy and girl
5. the obstacle is overcome, the boy and girl reunited
6. another insurmountable obstacle separates them totally
7. boy regrets lost love

Don't worry; I'm not giving anything away here. Like Moulin Rouge, which shares the same story, the loss is explicit up-front, the story here being framed within the male lead's remembrance of this past relationship. It may not be a terribly original story, but it is, in this case, rendered with a scrupulous honesty that is original. It is neither a Romantic tragedy nor a Realist tragedy. I won't go into any more specific detail here, because that would be giving things away that you should see for yourself on-screen. But I will say that the simplicity of the story is not simplistic, not simplifying; it is elegant -- excruciatingly, exquisitely pared down to what matters. What matters to the story. What matters to the characters within the story. What matters to the viewer, as a viewer of this story and as a human being who can't fail to see the relevance of that story if they care to remove the blinkers and just see it for what it is.

So we come to the characters themselves. And this is where the incomprehension of 9 Songs by the critics shows them for the fuckwits that they are. Because the two characters are revealed not through the vicarious thrills of flirtation scenes and argument scenes, not through the chaste Romantic nonsense of whispered vows and weeping elegies, not through the chaste Realist nonsense of awkward misunderstandings and bitter recriminations, not through any of that pornography of conversation, of endless, utterly gratuitous talking and talking and talking, but in the language of sex, of two people fucking. Between the gigs, we see the characters fucking at various points in their relationship. We get little snippets of dialogue, before sex, after sex, sometimes in a scene with no sex whatsoever, but for the most part it is the sex that tells us how they are relating to each other, here and now. The need, the love, the dependency, the desire for freedom, the whole fucking reality of the whole fucking relationship, why it might work, why it might fail, why it doesn't fail in one way, why it does in the end, the whole fucking story is fucking told up there on the fucking screen in the fucking way that they fucking fuck.

There is nothing shocking about this movie. People fuck and I see nothing shocking about that. There is nothing controversial about this movie. People fuck and I see nothing controversial about that. Perhaps this is why the liberal critics have failed to see its sheer fucking brilliance; perhaps if it had been less intelligent, more deliberately shocking and controversial they would have leapt to its defence, proud to be defending the outre, the avant garde, the breaker of taboos. 9 Songs breaks no taboos. The sex is real. The actors fuck onscreen. We see it in graphic detail, full penetration, money shot and all. But it is breaking no taboos, simply disregarding them. The camera does not linger with love or contempt on writhing bodies, and the sex is neither lit in the soft Romantic candle-light of sensual involvement nor in the harsh Realist fluorescence of clinical detachment; Winterbottom simply treats sex as it is, as we should see it, lit in the muted, low-but-clear light of his Modernist lens, revealed without the sentimental or intellectual exploitation of sex-as-symbol. It's just sex and that's one way we relate to each other in a relationship. People go to gigs and they fuck, and how they do that, how that changes over time, how they meet at gigs and fuck, go to gigs together and fuck, go to gigs alone and don't fuck, all the fine detail of real, accurately portrayed sex that can tell us as much, if not more about a relationship as any amount of gratuitous conversation, of flirting and fighting, strung together in a formulaic narrative structure where the sex serves simply as a symbol of the Consummation, the Reconciliation or the Separation (the favoured sex of Realism, mechanical and uninvolved on the part of one or both just to let us know the love is doomed). It's just sex.

But without that symbolic framework, where the sex exists outside those three easy boxes as a matter-of-fact aspect of life, as revealing of the relationship as any awkward silence or pointed glance, it seems the critics have come unstuck, simple things that they are. Whether in porn or art, whether that art is Romantic or Realist, sex is meant to be a symbol, a point of excitation for the prick, the heart or the head rather. A vicarious thrill. For all that the sex is graphic, I have my doubts about how erotic it would be to a heterosexual -- though I'm not the best person to judge that, I have to say -- but what it certainly isn't is exploitative. Indeed this is the least exploitative use of sex, I'd say, in any film I've ever seen -- and I include those chaste, coy movies where the camera cuts or pans away and nothing actually is seen on-screen; those, I would say, in using sex-as-symbol -- Consummation, Reconciliation, Separation -- are more exploitative by far. There are no vicarious thrills here for those seeking orgasms of the heart or head, and that, I think, is why the critics have almost universally missed the entire fucking point. Winterbottom has given us a goddamn masterpiece of economic storytelling that speaks to both the head and the heart without pandering to the cheap demands of either.

Fucking brilliant. Brilliant fucking.

1 Comments:

Blogger Paul F Cockburn said...

Wow... I wish I'd read this before I wrote my own blog entry - I could've sounded so much more intelligent!

1:47 pm  

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