Sunday, December 11, 2011
Someone really missed an opportunity by not calling this film Capitalism Killed My Dog. When Sam (Kevin Spacey), a senior executive at an investment bank, reveals his dog is dying, it at first registers as an oddball character touch, no different than a limp or fake British accent. But by the time he’s digging a hole for the poor pooch in his ex-wife’s front yard after selling off toxic assets and almost single-handedly decimating the global economy, the metaphorical intentions are all too clear—it was greed that done it, officer, greed and hubris and subprime lending. Arrest that credit default swap, sir. CAPITALISM KILLED MY DOG.
So first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor occasionally lays it on a bit thick in Margin Call, a flawed but often engaging drama set during the 2008 economic collapse. Chandor has a knack for the telling detail, and he nails the disorientation and shock of those first few chaotic hours, when only the canniest robber barons would make it out unscathed. But he also has the tendency to pummel his point into the ground with leaden seriousness (looking off a rooftop, a cocky young analyst unknowingly on the verge of losing his job helpfully foreshadows, “It’s a long way down”). Look, I hate the greedy bastards as much as the next middle-class schlub, but even I could stand to do with a bit less tongue clucking from the director. Whenever someone gives a speech, they seem to have one eye on posterity the whole time. They’re not talking to the people in the room, but rather the audience, who knows where all this is going and really just wants to see a terse, well-acted financial thriller, please and thank you.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Perhaps the only way to capture the distinct madness of Final Flesh is to describe a single moment. Any moment will do. None is any more important—or lucid, for that matter—than another. So, if you would be so kind, try to conjure up this conjugal scene in your mind’s moist eye:
A man sits on a bed, entirely naked, groping himself, while a woman twists and sways before him in a listless dance. The man, bespectacled with graying hair, has the slumping posture of someone waiting to have his teeth cleaned. The woman thrusts her chest out, her mouth agape in an expression that is meant to convey uninhibited carnality but rather suggests nasal congestion. Blankly, the man says—and I cannot overemphasize the nullity in his voice, a void so deep it’s a wonder the whole room doesn’t collapse into it—“Sugarfoot, I’m going to cum so fast the babies we’re about to make are already in this morning’s obituaries.”
And then, to verify his point, he picks up the newspaper and begins to read.
This is not pornography, although the confusion is understandable, given the creepily sexual tone and erect penises and whatnot. In actual fact, it is an inquiry into the nature of death, a raised fist shaken in anger at the injustice of an absent god, a pipe bomb floating through the sewers of capitalism, a Punch-and-Judy performance where the puppets are carved from flesh. And it just happens to be acted out by a group of semi-professional porn stars, like some awkward, oversexed community theatre production of a long-lost Dadaist play.
The writer/puppetmaster—director doesn’t really apply here—is Vernon Chatman, a former comedian turned professional weirdo. The living puppets are supplied by various online pornographers who, for a nominal fee, will realize your wildest dreams, assuming said dreams conform to the limitations of bargain-basement pornography filmed in someone’s cluttered mid-market bungalow (seriously, you can see a kayak in the background at one point). But rather than the expected script of fantasies and fetishes, Chatman instead constructed four interconnected scenarios, each a pileup of absurdities, non-sequiturs and whatever other strange droppings he could scoop out of his imagination. He then sent the scripts to four different companies, each of which performed his bizarre mini-plays under the assumption that everything contained within were merely idiosyncratic sexual kinks.
Some sort of summation is in order, if only to give a taste of the curious, queasy mood of the film. Each segment begins with a man and two women asleep at a kitchen table—two parents and a child, although there is typically no age difference in the performers (one group helpfully uses pigtails to indicate who is playing the youth). As a result, each segment begins to feel like a dream within another dream, while the occasionally repeated image or line helps further unify the segments (see, for instance, the recurring line, “I’m a kangaroo star!”). The threat of atomic annihilation is introduced early on, and these “bewildered sexmaritans” (Chatman’s words, not mine) grapple with the constant presence of death throughout. Beyond that, I can only offer highlights:
- First section: The trio wakes up at their kitchen table and discuss their imminent death. A woman bathes herself in several jars, containing the tears of neglected children, angel blood, and finally the tears of corrupt politicians, which take the form of a mouse, which she inhales lustfully. Someone reads the Koran while sitting on a toilet (no indication if it is number one or two). The women give birth to various edible objects, including a slab of meat named Mr. Peterson. “It looks like Gregor Samsa will get the last laugh after all.” The man stumbles on the word fascist (fass-ist), and then, as if to make this failure literal, falls on his face. His compatriots convince him he is a baby. He tries, unsuccessfully, to return to the womb. “My dream was to murder the president.” A woman mispronounces the word capitalism (cap-lism). Everyone dies.
- Second section: We are now in “hot, hard heaven.” “It’s Dr. Bedsore.” God communicates by sliding messages under the door. The trio is convinced they are in god’s womb, and plot escape. A woman excretes her brain into a toilet. The toilet seat is covered with the words, “Local sparrow licks slave lip.” The phrase “Stop manipulating me” is repeated several times. Scripts within scripts within scripts. Bad actors attempt to act badly. Someone stands on a table in bloody underwear. It will not be the last time. “Yes, it’s working—I’m turning British” (spoken in vaguely British tones). The man dies. “He’s coming back to life, symbolically.” They plot to spit acid in god’s face and escape through the wounds. “We’re going back to nature.” A woman eats cheese. Everyone escapes, symbolically.
- Third section: The table is covered in leaves. “Shuttup and let’s mash backs.” A woman suggests she is not a human being, but rather a bird with birth defects. A tantalizing existential dilemma indeed. The director is heard saying, “Action!” Very little happens. The universe, it is revealed, has been killed in a Spanish boating accident, or rather, a French lying accident (ha?). Two naked people shake a jar. Words written on a mirror: “The metaphor has.” “My hand has a mind of its own. I call it Miss Pearl.” Nits are picked. “Last night during sex, you called out the bible word for word.” Miss Pearl dies and becomes a ghost. The trio spies on themselves in the bathroom. A woman who does not know how to fake a slap fakes a slap. A conch seeping blood is probed with a turkey baster and pencil. Everyone dies.
- Fourth section: The table is covered in leaves. The lighting is somewhat notable here, in that there is some. “That was yummy voodoo fruit.” The man breaks an egg on a clock. “Watch, fascist” (pronounced correctly). A block of cheese instead of a penis. A cheese grater instead of a mouth. The man seems happy. The actors appear to be trying to convey emotions. “What are you thinking, human?” Cue screams. “Oh yeah, proxy.” A woman appears in blackface with a white cross on her forehead. The man has a swastika on his head. “You are going to die alone, like everyone else in the world.” Two corpses are married so that their dead baby will not be born in sin. The baby is a chicken. The chicken gives birth to an apple. “We’re ghosts in fetal form.” Someone stands on a table in bloody underwear (see, I warned you). “The existence of the universe is the third-greatest coincidence to ever happen. Here is the second.” A woman opens the fridge. Everyone—oh, never mind.
Anyone familiar with Chatman’s other work—particularly the corrupted kids’ show Wonder Showzen—will find Final Flesh oddly familiar, despite its novelty as the first work-for-hire exquisite-corpse avant-porn movie. One of Wonder Showzen’s favourite tricks was to use children as mouthpieces for taboo subjects, from capitalist exploitation to racism and religion. The porn stars used here seem equally oblivious about the meaning of the words they recite. Still, they play along as best they can. Mundane actions are performed with exaggerated sensuality, no matter how inappropriate—one woman moans with orgasmic pleasure as she shakes a jar of milk, while her bored male partner looks off screen, perhaps to a clock or mystified fluffer. Yet for all their evident confusion and boredom the performers are eager to please. There’s a sense of duty behind their actions that can only come from the conviction that someone, somewhere is watching you and masturbating furiously. I can’t quite fathom what a belief like that must do to a person’s behaviour (to say nothing of their mental well-being), but this film hints at the answer.
This all sounds a little creepy and exploitative, I’m sure, and there’s no denying the twinge of discomfort that comes from watching these endlessly pliable human puppets. One can only wonder at what strange fetishes they must regularly be called upon to satisfy, because they do Chatman’s bidding with nary a hint of surprise or even emotion (aside from the flicker of a laugh from one woman as she describes the camera as “a portal to pure love” and then breathes on the lens). But the final result is funny, fascinating, and more provocative than any of the puerile jokes being recited. These people are meat puppets without an inkling of who pulls the strings or why. They’re utterly powerless, and the only defense against that horror is to laugh at what you see.
Make no mistake: this film is out to hurt you. Bold and dumb, it is both avant-garde experiment and brainless crowd-pleaser. It’s a rock through a window, but instead of asking why it threw the rock in the first place, it asks why you didn’t move the house. In other words, Final Flesh is a question so foolish, so utterly ridiculous and incredible that everyone who hears it is rendered dumb, in every sense of the word. It is the heir to Un chien andalou, Pink Flamingos and the perverts on Chatroulette. It is a film equally irrelevant and necessary, completely disconnected from reality and as such invaluable in its perversion of everything normal and decent within the world. Never mind Lars von Trier—this is the real Antichrist.