Otto; or Up with Dead People – dir. Bruce LaBruce – 2008 – Germany/Canada
Boarding Gate – dir. Olivier Assayas – 2007 – France
Paranoid Park – dir. Gus Van Sant – 2007 – France/USA
A while back, I wrote a snarky post about Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, in which I likened my relationship with the auteur theory with those of close intrapersonal relationships. What resulted was a tongue-in-cheek mockery of my own cinematic solidarity. Do I relate with cinema more than I do with real life? It’s a scary thought, but certainly not one that hasn’t crossed my mind before. I also alluded to a particular experience in which the film Amèlie “clouded my nihilism and filled me with a destructive sense of idealism and romance.” Said experience was no exaggeration, and yet as I’m contemplating my current personal state, particularly in relation to the films I’ve viewed recently, three films, from director’s who’ve thrilled me in the past, have sincerely moved me, in ways completely unexpected and unprecedented (maybe).
Let’s start with the sleaze. Who would have thought that “reluctant pornographer” Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or Up with Dead People and deconstructive Eurotrash artist Olivier Assyas’ Boarding Gate would have swelled up my insides (in the good, non-sexual way)? With Otto, LaBruce sets aside his usual fetishism for skinheads and infuses the film with the gentler side of a zombie film. Otto (Jey Crisfar) is discovered by Medea Yarn (Katharina Klewinghaus), who could best be described as a science experiment meshing Gudrun from The Raspberry Reich, Maya Deren and Anne Rice gone wrong. Really, Otto; or Up with Dead People is LaBruce’s remake of his own Super 8½, his self-serving satire of a porn star named Bruce (played by himself) and the documentary filmmaker (Stacy Friedrich) who’s embarking on a “Brucesploitation film” about his rise and fall in the porn industry. With Otto, LaBruce steps away from himself, instead focusing on Medea’s intended exploitation of Otto, a lost, homeless boy who believes (whether it’s true or not) that he’s a zombie, for the purpose of her political zombie porn epic Up with Dead People.
To say that LaBruce is for an acquired taste would be an understatement, but there’s a central issue in understanding why he detracts so many people. On the surface, his explicit, unsimulated (gay) sex would be a deterrent for most audiences, but there’s also his political agenda, fiercely leftist and patronizing. The leftist “activists” of his films take their agenda as if they were on the right, using tactics of violence and manipulation to overthrow the government which has bred their wrath. It is here, in LaBruce’s depiction of these individuals (and really all others that appear in his films), where audiences just can’t penetrate (sorry for the pun) why LaBruce’s films piss them off so much. LaBruce works under the similar guise as Gregg Araki, masking appreciation with condemnation that makes his films that much more “radical.” LaBruce admires, champions, scorns and criticizes the individuals that fill his screen. For Otto, LaBruce has made evident that his take on the zombie film is best understood as a visual metaphor for consumerism and political ambivalence. Yet where Otto hits home is in the way Otto stands for so much more: the crippling ennui, disillusion and de-habilitation of the contemporary youth. Not to stretch things too far, but Otto’s conception as a zombie (to his credit, LaBruce never reveals whether it’s in Otto’s mind or not) recalls the silence of Liv Ullmann in Persona or the escapism of Juliette Binoche in Mary (two films I’ve already compared). And, strangely, Otto becomes more heartbreaking than I could have expected.
Olivier Assayas continued to send chills down my back with his latest Boarding Gate, a film, not unlike Otto, that’s proved to part audiences and critics alike like the Red Sea (there’s your Charlton Heston reference, it’ll be your last). As Otto proved to be parallel to Super 8½, Boarding Gate serves as the mirror to Assayas’ own demonlover, the salacious, Sonic Youth-scored corporate thriller that brought attention back to the director, five years after Irma Vep. I think Boarding Gate is best understood in the context of Assayas’ recent career than it is stand-alone; in fact, most of Boarding Gate’s detractors have no clue who the director is or what he stands for. Many were struck with the amoral attitude of demonlover, in which hot women (Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny, Gina Gershon) in the business world delved into the underground, backstabbing, murdering and deceiving to climb that ladder. In many ways, the women’s active roles were as fetishized as the women in a Russ Meyer film, but I can’t say whatever Assayas was doing didn’t work. The director raised eyebrows with his follow-up Clean, a stark melodrama without the forced sentiment about a woman’s (Maggie Cheung) grappling with kicking drugs and rekindling her relationship with her estranged son. Clean had heart but didn’t wear it on its sleeve. Instead, it worked more as Assayas’ examination of humanism, in all its imperfections. Thus, Boarding Gate stands as the medium of demonlover’s glossy amorality and Clean’s unsentimental humanism, blending itself surprisingly well.
Sandra, played by your favorite screen siren Asia Argento, needs to pick up the pieces of her life. Her relationships with businessman Miles (Michael Madsen) and a contract killer (Carl Ng) have crumbled, and like Otto, she seems to have entered a state of detachment, unsure of herself or her own place within her understood world. I may be a little harsh on Ms. Argento from time to time, but her style of acting (mumbled dialogue, hazy-eyed, pain killer-fueled) is the true haunting aspect of Boarding Gate. It’s her gameness for shedding clothes while shielding the inner-self that keeps the film on its rails. Where the human and moral aspects collide is through her, because unlike Connie Nielsen’s Diane in demonlover, Sandra actually has a conscience. Diane’s freak-out after murdering someone is more a result of her shock than it is her morality. Sandra, instead, actually reacts to what she’s done with a flicker of a soul, as seen through Argento’s misty eyes.
The big difference between Paranoid Park and the other two is the placement of the emotional resonance. Paranoid Park doesn’t have an Otto or a Sandra, it has an Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teenaged skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard while train-hopping. Though I didn’t go into detail on the other two, Paranoid Park is flawed just like the others, but the other two films’ faults seemed out of the way of my general appreciation. With Paranoid Park, it took two sittings to look past Van Sant’s poor casting decisions. Enlisting teenagers from Myspace, the film reeks of amateurishness, something that Van Sant likely wanted to convey as youthful awkwardness and naturalness. It didn’t work, and perhaps the lousy performances from the cast, particularly Nevins, make the film’s reverberation shift elsewhere. Though Boarding Gate and Otto both reflected a personal change in their directors, Paranoid Park did the best job of illuminating the man behind the camera.
Though I usually don’t care what he thinks, Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman perfectly remarked upon the separation Paranoid Park has between Van Sant’s Death Trilogy in stating, “it’s the first of Van Sant’s blitzed-generation films in which a young man wakes up instead of shutting down.” It’s within this understanding that Paranoid Park cut deep inside me. Aided by Christopher Doyle’s dazzling cinematography, Paranoid Park is a mood piece, both grainy and sublime, but most of all, buoyant. It becomes a strange case of auteurism when three respected (and personally affecting) filmmakers expose their growth in humanity through their latest films, all within the same year. Back to my Bergman reference, the glimmer of hope shone through his later films, particularly Fanny & Alexander, opening up, in a sense, his entire career. I hope none of the three films I’ve spoke about mark the end of any of the filmmakers’ respective careers (I doubt it will), but I can’t speak higher of these men’s profound impact on my own self at this time, shrugging away ambivalence and ennui in lieu of the startling emergence of significance.