by Mads K. Baekkevold
Though film is often seen to primarily provide us with a certain form of escapist fantasy – to leave the tedious drudgery of the real word for ninety minutes and be transported someplace magical – it is undeniable that many if not most films also aim to enlighten us on certain issues, to provoke thought, even change our mind. Said like this, one immediately starts thinking of dry, informative documentaries, heady political fare or seemingly narrow sub-genres such as Queer Cinema; but this is most certainly not the case. “Juno” (Jason Reitman, 2007) has a primary aim of being light, good-natured and entertaining popcorn fare, but it also wishes to address the issue of teenage pregnancy. “Brüno” (Larry Charles, 2009) wants to have its cake and eat it too: to make us laugh at the hilarious homosexual whilst illuminating us on the plight of lesbians, gays and transsexuals in modern America. “Sucker Punch” (Zack Snyder, 2011) wishes to be a video game-like whirlwind of guns, babes and explosions, but it also strives to say something about the objectification of women. Of course, it is not necessarily said that these films succeed in making their point clear and effective – a couple of the stated movies are even arguably guilty of perpetuating the stereotyping and unpleasantness they wish to combat – but the director’s meaning is there, even in these pieces of fluff.
But those are not the types of films this essay shall address. Form in film is defined by film professor T. Kaori Kitao as “a visual and iconic discourse as opposed to narrative text, dealing with the principles of framing, editing, and mise-en-scene understood as critical tools” (Kitao, 1998), and the films discussed below are ones that outright play with form, films that bend the rules of cinema to their own means, films that break the mold. Like Todd Haynes dramatizing Jennifer Carpenter’s life story through the use of Barbie dolls in “Superstar” (1988), like Derek Jarman using only sound and a blue screen in “Blue” (1993), like Todd Solondz casting one part with ten different actresses in “Palindromes” (2004): what these films have in common is a need to be daring, to experiment, to stretch the limits of what an audience will accept.
Yet it is not that similarity between these films this essay will deal with. The most important thing these and the other case studies have in common is that they play with film form to illuminate the issues found within: it is not just the story, the actions or the dialogue that sheds light on sexuality, identity, race, politics or whatever the director wishes to imbue in us, but rather the method of delivery itself. The form becomes the message. This essay shall move methodically through some common issues found in film and – aided by several case studies – see whether film form has been effective in supporting the delivery of these issues. The issues chosen are those that most closely deal with the makeup of a human being: ones regarding our sexuality, mind, body and identity.
SEXUALITY, CULTURE AND TRANSGRESSION: “PINK FLAMINGOS”, “DESTRICTED” AND ANDY WARHOL
Like in all other art forms, human sexuality has always been something man has wished to portray through the medium. From the very early studies of the human form in Eadweard Muybridge’s “Primitive Motion Studies” (1884-1887), via the genre of pornography, to recent films such as “The Reader” (2008) and “Blue Valentine” (2010), the subject of sex has given us a myriad of films spanning the widest of ranges regarding genres, quality and intent. Not surprisingly, a large number of these films deal with various deviations from “normal”, heterosexuality (though clearly films depicting vanilla sexuality vastly outnumber the “deviant” ones – nearly all mainstream cinema includes some variation of a boy-meets-girl scenario), and it is not hard to figure out the reasoning for portraying alternative sexual identities: audiences wish to be titillated, to be shown something different. Thusly, we get films such as “Basic Instinct” (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), “Wild Things” (John McNaughton, 1998) and “Cruising” (William Friedkin, 1980).
Sadly, these films and their ilk portray those who deviate from the norm as precisely that: deviants. Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transsexual (LGBT) cinema, on the other hand, are films that prominently feature characters with alternative sexualities (and are often made by directors and writers who themselves belong to the LGBT community) and deal with these themes without necessarily exploiting them or presenting them as The Other: au contraire, in fact. Issues are raised, exploring these people and their relation to society at large; and since these films are often made by people who already live an alternative lifestyle, it stands to reason that the films they make often play with commonly accepted film form and break the rules of cinema just as they have “broken” the rigid rules of society. So what, then, are some films that have played with form to bring forth the issue of sexuality in our common culture, and have they been successful in doing so?
The black comedy “Pink Flamingos”, made on a shoestring budget by legendary cult filmmaker John Waters in 1972 is notorious for reveling in society’s perceived sexual depravity of its main characters: it tells the story of the transsexual diva Divine (played by the real-life drag queen of the same name), who lives in a mobile home with her family of freaks – there is the egg-fetishizing, infantile mother, the criminally perverted son, the voyeuristic, over-sexed friend and a bevvy of other proud transgressives, all of whom are in a battle with the serial rapist/murderer Marble couple to be crowned “the filthiest people alive”. Was this film made by a filmmaker who was not part of the movement depicted within, it would be seen as a grave insult to people with alternative lifestyles: these people play sonatas with their rectums, indulge in nitrous oxide-fueled cannibalistic orgies and sell babies for heroin money – not the most pleasant company to be in. Waters takes the film to ridiculous extremes, as is his wont: he is aided by the form of the film, which is documentarian in nature and clearly the work of friends coming together to create something, be it profound or juvenile; in this way, one can clearly see that Waters does not exploit his principals, but is instead having a laugh at the fear of regular, conservative society by exaggerating their perceived perversion. Yet it is the notorious last scene of the film that really makes form and issue come together to make its point clear: after the main story has been rolled up we see Divine and her two travelling companions sashaying down the street. Waters’ own voiceover intones that we are about to see proof that Divine is not just the filthiest character to ever be seen on film, but also the filthiest actor alive: Divine picks up a piece of real dog feces, puts it in her mouth and swallows it with great relish. The director seems with this to wish to prove to us that this is not a game of dress-up for these people, these are genuine human beings whom society has deemed to be perverts: eating excrement is of course taking the entire concept to a ridiculous level of exaggeration, but no one ever accused John Waters of being subtle. Intensely conservative people may very well lump the LBGT community together with scat-fetishists (in fact, a series of recent video sermons from select ministers do just that), and Waters puts what they see as depravity out there for all to behold. These people exist, he says: they live among us, and if you don’t like it…too bad for you.
Another way of playing with form to express our sexuality can be found in the ongoing anthology film project “Destricted” (2006/2010): the project aims to explore the area where pornography and art interject, to arguably mixed results. Matthew Barney depicts a man covered in moss and bark making love in various ways to a monstrously huge piece of construction equipment in “Hoist” (2006). Sam Taylor-Wood treats us to a 15-minute uncut long take of a young man furiously trying to masturbate in the bleak landscape of the American desert in “Death Valley” (2006). Gaspar Noé intercuts a young woman pleasuring herself with a giant teddy bear with a man faux-raping a blow-up doll at gunpoint in “We Fuck Alone” (2006), set to the director’s trademark throbbing techno and frantic, blinking imagery. And so on and so forth for up till now 11 different shorts collected in two films, all experimental in form, all intensely sexual and graphic in nature. Some may rightfully admire the effort put into making visual striking art pieces, but the form in these films by and large overpower the general message simply through sheer exaggeration: as it is now the project seems to be a collective of self-proclaimed artful filmmakers trying to outdo each other in crass sexuality and manic, avant-garde form. The subtler, nuanced pieces such as Marina Abramovic’s “Balkan Erotic Epic” (2006), depicting the somewhat bizarre sexual superstitions of Balkan women, seem to drown in the shouty messes of her compatriots; but this is an as of now ongoing project, and it may yield more films that use form to say something profound about human sexuality yet, not just impress, shock and baffle.
A predecessor to the collection of films found in “Destricted” can be found in Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job” (1964). In it, a camera is fixed on the uncredited DeVeren Bookwalter, seen from his midriff up, as he receives genital oral stimulation for an uncut 35 minutes from unseen partners, shown at 77% of the original speed (from 24 frames per second to 16). It is another film in a long series of experimental films from Warhol that strain the viewer’s patience, clearly more art than entertainment: other similar Warhol films are “Sleep” (1963), which simply depicts a man sleeping for six hours, and “Empire” (1964), consisting of one continuous static shot of the Empire State Building for eight hours. Warhol is clearly saying things about the nature of art, cinema and entertainment in general in all these films, but “Blow Job” (along with his films “Lonesome Cowboys” (1968) and “Blue Movie” (1969)) also have the added theme regarding issues of sexuality – homosexuality in particular – as the people performing oral sex on Bookwalter are five (unidentified) young men. You would not know it to look at it, though, as this fact is never mentioned or alluded to in neither the film itself nor its credits: the issue of sexuality itself then becomes the a priori reception in the viewer (though only the title itself implies that a sexual act is taking place: Bookwalter’s face is almost curiously non-expressive throughout), whilst the issue of homosexuality then must come a posteriori; i.e. a knowledge that one must come to with added information, thought and emotion. The choice of form then speaks volumes about the issue of sexuality in society itself: sexuality is there if you look for it, and alternative sexuality has a place too if you care to scratch beneath the immediate surface.
MENTAL ISSUES, HANDICAPABILITY AND PERCEPTION OF REALITY: MICHEL GONDRY, “BUNNY AND THE BULL” AND “BLUE”
The issue of mental health is almost as prevalent in cinema as that of sexuality: again, it is not hard to see why, as it is something that we all can relate too, the threat of insanity or mental deterioration is something that can be found in all of us – if we live long enough, it is nigh sure to happen – and film is a medium that is splendidly equipped to depict the inner workings of the character, fit as it is to display the images to us delivered through the prism of their perception. This is truly a case of content dictating the form in the simplest of executions to spot: nary a horror film is without a scene where we are privy to the character’s imagination, a plethora films show us daydreams and fantasies, and more commonly than not liberal usage of color, editing, score and mise-en-scène is meant to show us the subjective reality of a movie’s characters as a form of creative shorthand. The range of tools that one uses to depict mental deterioration is rather cliché in most mainstream cinema: shaky camera, blurred focus, crazy angles, sinister music and intense color are but a few of the well-worn tropes one can employ.
Michel Gondry is a filmmaker who has gone beyond the limits of the norm when it comes to employing the tricks that put us inside the character’s head (nearly almost always dealing with some form of mental issue, be it abstract or otherwise). Through his frequent deployment of practical effects (up until “The Green Hornet” (2011) shunning the over-usage of digital imagery), he creates a universe that feels as real to the audience as it does to the characters that are going through them: quite obviously so in the case of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), where a good two-thirds of the movie takes place inside its main character Joel Barish’s mind as he struggles to hold on to memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine as they are being erased, or in his music videos for artists such as The White Stripes, Björk and The Chemical Brothers that often play with our perception of reality. Visually striking as they are, though, these works can not be said to strictly deal with the issue of mental health; “Eternal Sunshine…” says more on the theme of romance and letting go, the music videos are more about style: look no further, then, than his film “La Science des Rêves” (“The Science of Sleep”, 2006), for a surprisingly profound look at the issue of psychosis and mental illness. In it, Gael García Bernal portrays Stéphane, a young man with an overactive imagination: we are frequently shown his dreams throughout the film, surreal tableaus constructed out of papier-mâché, egg cartons and Styrofoam, dreams that take elements of his reality working as a lonely calendar designer and stretch them to bizarre extremes as dreams are wont to do. When he falls in love with his new next-door neighbor Stèphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) things take a turn for the worse: whereas earlier the dreams occurred in his sleep, they now start intersecting with reality (the French title directly translated is more apt, meaning “the science of dreams”), and what started out as sweet and endearing takes on a more sinister tone when it is realized that the character is plunging deep into the throes of a serious psychosis. The dreams are still portrayed as cute and fairytale-like, making the movie a compelling and startlingly accurate discussion on the issue of mental disorder: what we as human beings perceive in our heads as a shared reality can look very different to others, sometimes even downright scary and insane.
Another film that employs the same tricks as “La Science des Rêves” when it comes to addressing the issue of insanity is Paul King’s “Bunny and the Bull” (2009). In it, we are introduced to the main character of Stephen (Edward Hogg) who, as the film starts, is seen an agoraphobic shut-in who has not left his apartment for a year, stockpiling memorabilia and adhering to a strict routine of self-imposed tedium. Through flashbacks we are given the story of how he came to mentally deteriorate so severely: a horrifying incident happened on a trans-continental road trip with his best friend Bunny (Simon Farnaby), an incident so traumatizing that he has completely shut himself off from the outside world. Flashbacks, by nature, will be presented to us through the eyes of the character, yet the director has chosen a form that takes it to the next level. Depending on where in Stephen’s apartment the flashback takes place, the mise-en-scène of the memory that is visited will be altered: thusly, Germany is presented to us as a collage of photographs from an old box of Polaroids, Spain takes shape through bathroom furnishings, the eponymous bull is constructed out of clockwork cogs and wheels. A simple yet effective way of presenting the world through the mind of a hermit, yet the film sometimes falters in its gimmicky conceptualization that overpowers the issue at hand: King clearly wants to address how we perceive reality through memory, but like “Destricted” the form becomes rather too overpowering; the director is seemingly strongly influenced by Gondry, and naturally wishes to surpass him in style at the expense of content. When he is sticking to light slapstick comedy the form seems more than apt, yet when the film takes a third-act turn that wishes to illuminate a more serious issue it falls apart somehow; drowned in style.
It is not only the mind that can be presented in film to color the perception of reality: the brain resides in the body, and complications regarding the corporeal form can also influence how we receive the world; and more importantly, how we are received by the world. In films, this issue has been addressed by a diverse array of films, such as “Boxing Helena” (Jennifer Chambers Lynch, 1993), wherein a missing limb sends us into a spiraling, surreal nightmare of amputation horror, or “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Julian Schnabel, 2007), whose first third is told in literal first person perspective, viewed through the lens of paralyzed main character Jean-Dominique Bauby’s one working eye, or a large number of films by David Cronenberg, where body modifications influence the nature of reality to the extent of altering the form of the film itself, seen in for example “Naked Lunch” (1991), “Crash” (1996) and “Videodrome” (1983).
The aforementioned “Blue” by Derek Jarman is one of the more obvious examples that spring to mind in this discourse, simply because it is so intensely avant-garde in form, so openly trying to mimic the experience of blindness: all we as an audience can see is a saturated blue screen, free of any form or movement whatsoever; on the soundtrack, Jarman and a few actors intone a poetic litany about the director’s own experiences dealing with gradual onset of blindness due to being in the late stages of AIDS (the film would of course have had a natural place in the discussion on sexuality, as the script deals largely with the issue of homosexuality). Through this startling use of form, Jarman invites us to see the world as he sees it, to partake in his thoughts with minimal visual interference, to alert us to his plight. It is fitting that the blue used is the same shade one uses in special effect work to put in digital effects: as an artist he is being stripped of his brushes, leaving nothing but the blank canvas. But whilst the body has been robbed of the ability to create, the mind can still soar: the narration details the circumstances surrounding his blindness, diverts into abstract poetry, enlightens us on his thoughts on being a homosexual man in modern society. It speaks of life, it speaks of death. One would be hard pressed to find a film that encapsulates how film can deal with the issues of our mind and body as masterfully as Jarman’s “Blue” does, how art can transcend reality and break the ties that bind us. It manages to speak to us painfully and personally, as well as tying the issues within up to society itself; something one would imagine that all the films discussed here is attempting to do one some level or other.
IDENTITY, COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY AT LARGE: “PALINDROMES”, DAVID LYNCH AND “SCHIZOPOLIS”
Identity as a concept is one that will be forever mercurially fluid and shifting: out of six billion people you will get six billion different definitions of what goes into our physical and emotional DNA to make us who we are; sure, the previously discussed issue of sex, mind and body all go into making up a human being, yet there is an infinite number of other small factors at play. When identity is seen in relation to society, issues will be raised: issues of sexual identity and gender, of your place in society, of finding a place where you belong. A cornucopia of films deal with this in some way or another, be it as in the case of “Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982), which poses the question of whether a facsimile of a human being is essentially the same as the real thing, or “Black Swan” (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), a discussion on the duality of man, or “Brazil” (Terry Gilliam, 1985), a portrait of the id being crushed in an oppressive society: the various ways of handling the issue of identity in cinema are as plentiful as the number of films.
When it comes to expressing this through the use of film form, the previously alluded to “Palindromes” by Todd Solondz readily invites itself for discussion: this endlessly dark drama-comedy (an umbrella most of Solondz’ work seems to fall under) is a character study of the 13-year old girl Aviva, a suburban girl who desires nothing more in life than to have a baby. This desire goes beyond mere childish whimsical wish, and is seen to be something of an unhealthy obsession that leads her to conceiving a child with a boy her own age; an abortion promptly follows, unbeknownst to her leaving her barren. She runs away from her parents in anger, in search of a community where she can live out her own desires, eventually ending up at a foster home led by crazed Christian fundamentalists and becoming involved in their plot to murder an abortion-providing doctor. Seen as such, the story is already one that muses on issues of identity and society, and Solondz takes the underlying theme one step further by casting nine wildly different actresses (and one male actor) as Aviva: in one scene she is an average white teenager, in another she is a morbidly obese black woman, in yet another she is a young boy (it is most probably not coincidental that the word “palindrome” can refer to the nature of a DNA sequence as well as its semantic definition – words that read the same forwards as backwards). Flighty by nature, this choice of form further impresses in us how Aviva’s demeanor and role in society changes according to her surroundings; by extension, how this is something we all do. Rather than judge, the film merely states this fact; some may argue that this makes the movie coolly observational and emotionally unengaging, others that this stance invites the viewer to make up his or her mind, to engage in thought and discussion.
No discussion of identity in cinema would be complete without at least a mention of the works of David Lynch, nearly all of which deal with the theme of the roles we play: the duality of man can be seen in everything from Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson (both played by Sheryl Lee) in his TV series “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991), via Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield (both played by Patricia Arquette) in “Lost Highway”, to Diane/Camilla/Betty/Rita (alternatingly played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring) in “Mulholland Dr.” (2001). As in “Palindromes” the stagey nature of the parts we play and the masks we wear are enhanced by the use of actors doubling up and switching parts, taken to surreal and cryptic places whilst still managing to speak of the societal issue of imposed identity. Furthering the theme of the world as a stage is his frequent use of curtains and performance, seen in some form in nearly all of his films.
On the subject of changing oneself in regards to societally imposed norms and roles, a section of Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 comedy “Schizopolis” is worthy of attention. Supremely bizarre in form and seemingly halfway improvised, the film details the tangentially related stories of Elmo Oxygen (a code-speaking superstar Don Juan bug exterminator), Fletcher Munson (a speechwriter for a Scientology-parodying religion called “Eventualism”), and Mrs. Munson (who is having an affair with her husband’s doppelgänger). The film is too fragmented and too intentionally nonsensical to be discussed as a cohesive whole, but the way Mr. and Mrs. Munson communicate illustrates a lot of the same points as “Palindromes”. They both interact with most of the other characters in a normal fashion, yet they talk to each other like so:
Mr. Munson: Generic greeting.
Mrs. Munson: Generic greeting returned!
Mr. Munson: Imminent sustenance?
Mrs. Munson: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Mr. Munson: Oooh! False reaction indicating hunger and excitement!
This lack of genuine communication is of course what leads Mrs. Munson to take a lover, and Soderbergh seems to be saying that we all are guilty of communicating like this in modern society; genuine humanity is lost, all that is left is airy platitudes and bland, superficial statements. He also touches on other issues of communication as well: Mr. Munson speaks only in subtext with his neighbor (“Hello! Is your wife coming over tonight? Because her big ass always leaves me satisfied.” “Nice of you to mention her. She enjoys sex with you much more than she does with me.”), and whilst Mrs. Munson is at first able to communicate perfectly with her lover he soon begins speaking in Spanish, French and Japanese, becoming alien to her. Elmo Oxygen becomes a TV star and beds several beautiful women despite speaking exclusively in meaningless non-sequiturs (“Nose army. Beef diapers?”). Soderbergh may not be stating his points in the subtlest of fashions, but he does so whilst being consistently amusing and maintaining a steady tone: like in “Bunny and the Bull” we can see a slight case of the form somewhat surpassing the issue, but done here in an arguably more effective and skillful fashion.
This has been but a small, fleeting glimpse at the smörgåsbord of films that deal with the most important issues connected to the basic state of being human through their use of form. Films such as the ones discussed above will mercifully continue to be produced as long as filmmakers with strong personalities and a knack for projecting their visions onto the movie screen exist; these are issues that more than any others are void of right and wrong answers, of black and white distinctions, of easy shortcuts to the core truth within. We have seen how the use of form most assuredly can be used to address said issues, yet with varying degrees of success: as in “Blue” and “Blow Job”, where the form elevates the message to a dizzying new level, or as in “Bunny and the Bull” or “Destricted”, where the form threatens to drown the issue at hand. Transgressing film form will nevertheless always be a surefire way of calling attention to the message of a film, and truly masterful directors like Jarman, Solondz and Gondry will manage to remain supremely entertaining whilst underlining the gravitas. Soundly impressive, and tantalizingly indicative of what may yet be still to come: neither cinema nor these issues are going away anytime soon.
-Mads K. Bækkevold is a Level Three student majoring in Directing. He is currently in the midst of preparing for his Thesis Film, Cluster.
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“Blow Job” (Film) Independent. Directed by Andy Warhol, 1963.
“Pink Flamingos” (Film) Dreamland, Saliva Films. Directed by John Waters, 1972.
“Superstar” (Film) Iced Tea Productions. Directed by Todd Haynes, 1988.
“Twin Peaks” (TV) Mark/Frost Productions, ABC. Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, 1990-1991.
“Blue” (Film) Basilisk Communications, Artificial Eye. Directed by Derek Jarman, 1993.
“Lost Highway“ (Film) October Films. Directed by David Lynch, 1996.
“Schizopolis” (Film) .406 Production, Northern Arts Entertainment. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, 1996.
“Mulholland Dr.” (Film) Canal+, Universal. Directed by David Lynch, 2001.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Film) Anonymous Content, Focus Films. Directed by Michel Gondry, 2004.
“Palindromes” (Film) Extra Large Pictures, Wellspring Media. Directed by Todd Solondz, 2004.
“Destricted” (Short film anthology) Offholloywood Digital, Revolver. Various directors, 2006-2010.
“La Science des Rêves” (Film) Partisan Films, Gaumont. Directed by Michel Gondry, 2006.
“Bunny and the Bull” (Film) Warp X, Optimum Releasing. Directed by Paul King, 2009.