The Blue Edition: 9 Songs, The Aristocrats, The Skeleton Key
By Fernando F. Croce

Raunchiness week. First, fleshly pleasures: 9 Songs. Just when I thought I finally had Michael Winterbottom almost sorted out (or rather, as much as you can "sort out" the bloke behind Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland and 24 Hour People), the restless British director follows the chilly dystopian surfaces of his previous sci-fi thriller Code 46 with handheld shakes and unsimulated shagging. The filmmaker is a one-man New Wave, more of a disciple of his own erratically explorative instincts than of any particular movement, though his latest does place him squarely in one recent cinematic school, at least -- the proudly explicit capering of Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont and, yes, Vincent Gallo, sneaking XXX-inserts back into the art-house. Even then, Winterbottom stands apart: where Anatomy of a Hell, Twentynine Palms and The Brown Bunny are dour dissections of a sickly Eros, 9 Songs doesn't bother to pile the weight of the world atop the couple's bedroom gymnastics. Sometimes a cum shot is just a cum shot, though even then it remains a moment of intimacy between people and, due to its vérité being, both narrative and, like all pornography, a documentary of performing bodies, keeping in with the director's customary genre-pretzeling.

The bodies belong to Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley), first spotted by Winterbottom's bleary DV lenses head-bobbing amid rock concert stage-divers, number one in the movie's musical sort-of structure. The on-stage thrashing is intercut with the newfound couple's enthusiastic nipple-licking and rug-munching; fucking from then on is reasonably less fragmented, even if still a far cry from the serene transgression Nagisa Oshima scored out of a single cock-sucking shot, held with Bazinian wholeness, in In the Realm of the Senses. To be fair, the movie insists on, if not a complete dedramatization, then at least a considerable stripping away of the camera's usually lurid stance upon photographing the sex act, so that all the clit-rubbing and pole-riding can be contemplated not so much clinically as neutrally, no different from making coffee or lighting an oven. Then again, sex without human beings is just about the mechanics of the organs, and Winterbottom rather perversely keeps the two characters barely an inch deep. Matt is the English researcher, Lisa is the American student, and all other info flows straight out of the actors' physiques -- O'Brien is compact, rope-lipped, kind of Belmondoesque; Stilley is skinny, toothy, a stunt-double for Maggie Gyllenhaal. When not putting dents into the mattress, they're ad-libbing, weakly. (She: "You look ugly like that," He: "Trying to look ugly." Or: "Sometimes I just want to bite your lip, like, real hard." Or: "Fuck me, please.")

So, a tale of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Fucks Girl, Boy Looks On Forlornly as Girl Moans to Vibrator Buzz Between Her Thighs. All that, plus post-breakup flashforwards to O'Brien surveying Antarctic glaciers while mumbling pseudo-profundities. "An exercise in reductionism," as Stilley reads from her beau's book on icy expanses? Why, then, was I in the end moved by 9 Songs? Clocking in at barely over an hour, it has the rough, penciled-in feel of a sketch, flurries of palpable physicality left along the path of a dissolving relationship. In the extended central session, O'Brien blindfolds Stilley for a bit of bondage -- "Forget who you are," a mantra for the basic transporting nature of cinema, yet the movie's tragedy is less about an affair's ephemeral nature than about the way emotional and spiritual mysteries seem to shrivel up for the characters as they become more familiar with each other's orifices. The opposite, of course, was discovered by Bertolucci, although the tango doesn't figure as one of the title's songs: The Dandy Warhols, Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, and The Von Blondies are among the bands, and if their live performances were meant to thematically comment on the action, a la Weill, then I missed it. Whether intentionally or not, Winterbottom's film proves that the excitement of a concert can be as illusory (and as hard to communicate) as carnal plaisir, plentiful yet distant, both to the characters and the audience.

*

The Aristocrats keeps the high-def grain from 9 Songs, but its raunchiness is of a different kind. Basically, it's A Hundred Ways to Tell a Dirty Joke, or perhaps Blue Comedy as Jazz -- a comic-circuit routine leading up deliberately to a wet-noodle of a punchline, so that the variations of the trajectory become the key. Director Paul Provenza and collaborator Penn Jillette shape the documentary as a tribute to scurrilous creativity, the dirtier the better, since what counts is not the piece itself, but the personal riffs wrung out of it by the tellers. The Catskillian legend, practically a "secret handshake" among comics, has fixed beginning (dude walks into talent agency with promises of a wowzer) and end ("Whaddaya call it?" "The Aristocrats!"), but the middle remains a blank canvas to be smeared with shit, piss, incest, bestiality, mutilation, and whatever else can be drudged up from the comedian's mind. Thus, George Carlin contemplates diarrhea as talent-show, Gilbert Gottfried saves a floundering 9/11 joke by dipping even deeper into bad taste, while Bob Full House Saget sketches in a version where kids are used as "holes;" Don Rickles, Sarah Silverman, Robin Williams, Kevin Pollack, Billy Connolly, Phyllis Diller, and Steven Wright, among others, spin their own versions of escalating depravity along the way. Not only a difference between images and words: 9 Songs aims to bring "obscenity" down to earth, The Aristocrats ecstatically shoots it into the stratosphere.

*

The Skeleton Key. If only its obscenity were of a visceral kind, though arguably that hasn't truly happened in a horror movie since Cannibal Holocaust -- no, its obscenity is the good, old-fashioned stupidity that for decades has been clogging up the genre. Kate Hudson, a New Jersey hospice worker with daddy-guilt, delves into swampy New Orleans to take care of a stroke-paralyzed Colonel Sanders (John Hurt), despite his Old South mansion being filled with creeking doors, hidden mirrors, a chair rocking itself creepy in the porch, and promises of dark secrets locked up in the attic. Hurt writes "Help me" in sheets and tries to crawl out the window in the middle of a storm; is he really afraid of ghosts, as wife Gena Rowlands says, or is there something else to the black magic stew? Since the plot also involves conjurations out of dusty records, old women with blank orbs and Peter Sarsgaard as a lawyer so affable you know there's something wrong, it's just a matter of time for the director, Iain Softley, to crank up the hysteria (and mandatory fadeout twist) for a laughable climax, where indigenous folk-magic hoodoo becomes the main ingredient in the risible duel. Plenty of spiritual unrest, but no I Walked With a Zombie delicacy, not even Angel Heat sizzle -- of this week's movies, only The Skeleton Key actually offends.


Reviewed August 18, 2005.

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