Thursday, July 10, 2014

Psychosexual Border Crossings

One of the questions humans constantly ask is whether art mirrors life. Back in the 1970s, when Memorex started mass producing high-quality audio cassettes, the company developed a brilliant advertising campaign that featured a series of television commercials starring the legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald.

Today's digital technology allows artists and scientists to simulate all kinds of phenomena. From fractals and algorithms to CGI animation and DNA sequencing, the scientific processes we now take for granted would have seemed unbelievable several decades ago.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is adamant in his prediction that robots will soon achieve a level of artificial intelligence that allows them to replace humans in most work situations. What robotics engineers have continually failed to achieve, however, is to make their creations experience such human emotions as fear, insecurity, joy, grief, sensuality, and lust.

In theatre and film, a director's influence over an actor can tread a fine, fine line between inspiration and abuse. Is an exceptionally gifted director a visionary, a narcissist, or a sexual predator? A liberator, a spiritual guru, or a Svengali?

Two new films deal with directors whose brash exploitation of others and internal confusion about themselves blur the lines between fantasy and reality. In each film, the results are fascinating and sexually provocative.

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Screened during the 2014 Frameline Film Festival, Mexican filmmaker Julian Hernández's visual feast for horny voyeurs is entitled I Am Happiness On Earth. The film centers around the real-life and fantasy exploits of a filmmaker named Emiliano (Hugo Catalán) who is nearly allergic to monogamy and whose libido and cravings for hedonistic outlets can usually be satisfied by a convenient rent boy.

Although Emiliano is working on a film that utilizes the dancers in a troupe founded by his close friend (Gloria Contreras), some people in his close circle speculate that Emiliano is only making the film because of his physical attraction to male dancers.

Without doubt, the handsome, young Octavio (Alan Ramirez) has captured Emiliano's fancy. Though Octavio is recovering from an injury, he also has a fairly solid sense of self. After Emiliano comes on strong and beds the young dancer, he starts to lose interest and casually turns his attention to another man. When Emiliano fails to respond to Octavio's messages, the young dancer seeks comfort in the arms of two female friends while the filmmaker pursues fresh meat.

Octavio (Alan Ramirez) and Emiliano (Hugo Catalán)

For Emiliano, his creative process often goes dick-in-hand with his sexual conquests. Once he moves on to another project, he starts looking for new erotic stimulation as well. As he works on filming the erotic sequences for a new project, Emiliano performs behind the camera as well as in front of it (indulging in casual sex with actors and friends without caring much about anyone's feelings).

What Hernández does spectacularly well is capture the sensuousness of a dancer's beautifully toned body and use it as a vessel of desire, sexual fulfillment, and art in motion. Some may claim that I Am Happiness On Earth is little more than high-quality porn; others will see it as a voyeuristic feast offered up to viewers with no restraints.

What Hernández excels at is framing sexual desire, from the earliest hints of seduction through the process of cruising, conquering, and eventually trying to accommodate a nagging distraction. Deep, passionate looks of love alternate with the pain of betrayal, resentment at being taken for granted, and a steady parade of beautiful bodies engaged in gay, straight, and bisexual couplings.

If one's taste in porn bends toward high-quality art, this is the film for you. If, on the other hand, you're the slightest bit prudish, move on and leave the sexual delicacies for those who can appreciate their beauty. Here's the extended trailer:

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If I Am Happiness On Earth often feels like a full frontal, balls-to-the-wall fuck fest in vivid color with beautiful bodies, Roman Polanski's sly adaptation of Venus In Fur resembles a game of strip poker between a sexually repressed intellectual and a ditzy actress who ricochets back and forth between an exhausted, rain-soaked woman and avenging goddess with remarkable skill. An intimate tale which makes strategic use of leather corsets, dog collars, servant's uniforms and some well-timed lightning, Venus in Fur offers BDSM fetishists a delightful evening onstage as well as on screen.

Based on the David Ives play which premiered off-Broadway in 2010 before moving uptown the following year (with Nina Arianda delivering a powerhouse performance as Vanda Jordan and Hugh Dancy replacing Wes Bentley as Thomas Novachek), this powerful dramedy has undergone a stunning transformation while being adapted for the screen. What seemed like a piece which needed a live audience to make it come to life has, instead, become an even more mischievous and emotionally satisfying gender mystery with a delicate musical score by Alexandre Desplat that almost makes it seem like a caper comedy.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Matthieu Amalric (Thomas)
in a scene from Venus in Fur

In the following set of video clips, the playwright describes the process that led to the creation of his successful stage script and the casting challenges faced by his creative team.

Polanski (who had been looking for a project he could work on with his wife) got involved with adapting Venus in Fur shortly after his agent handed him a copy of the script at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. A year later, Polanski was back at Cannes with the finished product. In describing the process of working with David Ives to come up with a screenplay, the legendary filmmaker explains that:
"In the play, everything happens in an audition room; it’s fairly flat. However, in France, in particular in private theatres, where there is no repertory company, actor’s auditions are often held on a stage. So my first thought was to transpose the action to a theatre. Being in a theatre changes everything right from the start. Being able to move between the stage and the auditorium (not to mention backstage) opened up a whole lot of new possibilities. First we made cuts to the dialogue and changed certain scenes. Our aim was really to make it into a film. Our work was very detailed in that respect even though, when we were shooting, I changed some situations and improvised some movements." 
Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Matthieu Amalric (Thomas)
in a scene from Venus in Fur

While the stage set for Venus in Fur is a stark rehearsal room, Polanski has moved the action inside a darkened theatre where the set for a musical Western is still standing on the otherwise deserted stage. This allows the director to drop a perverse clue to viewers (which will probably only be picked up by theatre people) when the hands-on Vanda moves over to the lighting board and proceeds to use the equipment to establish the mood she would prefer for her onstage audition with the playwright.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Matthieu Amalric (Thomas)
in a scene from Venus in Fur

I was curious to see how the film adaptation of Venus in Fur (which is performed in French) would fare with surtitles being used throughout the movie. Much to my surprise, it helped matters immensely.

Whereas, in the stage performance I saw, there were many moments when the audience's laughter drowned out key lines of dialogue, nothing is lost in the film's translation. Polanski's freedom to work with various camera angles is enhanced by the fact that the actress playing Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is his wife and that Mathieu Amalric (who portrays Thomas in the film) is not only a gifted stage director but one of the most intuitive and brilliant internal actors in French film.

Timing, as they say, is everything. In the wake of the United States Supreme Court's odious decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, feminists will take special delight in the way Vanda schools Thomas about women, gender roles, and his latent desire to submit to a dominant female.

It's worth noting that Polanski's direction of Venus in Fur is greatly enhanced by the subtle work of cinematographer Pawel Edelman. Here's the trailer:

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