Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Director Commentaries

Bolivian-American director Rodrigo Bellott brought his movie Sexual Dependency to Cornell's campus tonight, which always augurs for an interesting evening, since how often do you get to watch a movie and get to ask the director a question as soon as it's over?

Turns out you don't always went them around, though. Bellott's movie already wasn't my cup of tea, even though it so easily could have been, and it still provides some worthy talking points. Delivered entirely in split-screen (with one notable exception), the movie begins with the fraught, uneasy deflowering of a Bolivian school-girl at her friend's birthday party and then follows that anecdote with tangentially related episodes wherein peripheral characters in the previous mini-narrative have their own confrontations with the disquieting, often vulgar, and occasionally traumatic forcefield of human sexuality. The temporary protagonists include a Colombian teenager forced by acquaintances to sleep with a prostitute; a Bolivian fashion model and her boyfriend, who studies engineering in the US; an African-American woman archaeologizing her tortured self-image; and a white, chiseled football player hiding his homosexual desires from his hyperlibidinal teammates. (The university where all of the latter characters live out their dramas is Ithaca College, Bellott's alma mater, which made him and his film hometown favorites for tonight's crowd.)

Sexual Dependency is a series of promising ideas that keep going wrong, until the whole film feels like it's gone wrong, and you have to generously reconstruct what was worthy about it. It often feels like a thunderous exercise in stating the obvious: machismo imprisons Latin men and frequently degrades Latin women; black women in America are left out by prevailing cultural beauty standards; repressed homosexuality is the quiet cousin to homophobia, and both are quick inroads to sexual violence, etc. Taking for granted the severity of these axioms, they don't in themselves make for good drama, even though the film keeps wanting the facts of violence and hatred to compensate for its gimmicky structure, its dismally improvised dialogue, and its bald appropriations of images and ideas from easily identifiable sources, from Nan Goldin to Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Having basically asked the audience for a warm response in his introductory remarks, Bellott bathed in their softball responses afterward. Collectively, this was the type of audience that hears "20 minute standing ovation" or "86 hours of footage shot" and coos and ahhhs on cue. He worked hard to sell the relentless split-screen as a democratic gesture for allowing individual interpretation, ignoring the fact that the side-by-side points of view are often barely distinguishable, as well as the fact that his film clearly erodes audience "choice" by floating such a mammoth and universalizing thesis about sexual alienation. All the potential strengths of the movie's premise are stunted and coarsened until they are its weaknesses, and hearing Bellott's shaky defenses for his specularizing of rape and his convenient trading in racial stereotypes only made the experience more disheartening. To hear that the amateur actress who plays Love, the Bolivian fashion model, is now a Playboy cover girl is sad enough; to hear her director champion her choice as a symbol of "human freedom," in the wake of a film that pretends to expose the wounding violence of Western sexual life, is much, much worse.

I had a more positive interaction last week with the filmmaker, digiphile, and experimental visual artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson, recently anointed with a Cornell Professorship-at-Large. I was pretty agnostic about Hershman-Leeson's debut feature, Conceiving Ada, a celluloid-digital hybrid that impressed in concept more than it electrified in execution. I was much more taken with her zany follow-up Teknolust, which takes the piss of its own convoluted premise by styling itself as the first absurdist comedy of the post-cloning generation. It's a small film but a spritely one, and I gave it some nods in my 2003 year-end NicksFlickPicks Honorees.

I left Hershman-Leeson's public lecture with more questions about the technological motives of her non-cinematic work and some ambivalences about her overall approach to gender, which seems problematically radical and conservative at once. That said, she was forthcoming, collegial, and wholly open to debate throughout my interactions with her—she seemed much more aware than Bellott does that her work engages tricky questions in a tricky way and is therefore wide-open to critique. And she's a great and wide-ranging film fan, which was nice to find out about someone who has trudged through all the unglamorous sides of the industry. In fact, when an unfortunate chain of events led her to my own negative online review of Conceiving Ada, she was absolutely generous about accepting what I'd written and complimenting the site: a really classy woman, and a lesson in humility to Nick's Flick Picks.

Nonetheless, even if I cross paths with Rodrigo Bellott at the bagel shop tomorrow, I still ain't buying Sexual Dependency. "Weak sauce," said my friend and viewing partner Ann. (Her blog entries would be a lot shorter than mine.) From what I hear, Sexual Dependency has catalyzed a mini-revival of filmmaking in Bolivia, and I hope that's true, but I wish the country's ticket back into the world multiplex were a little easier to like.

Or maybe I am just an incorrigibly nasty person.

Photo still from Sexual Dependency © 2003 BoSD Films. Photo still from Teknolust © 2002 Skouras Films/Blue Turtle/HotWire Productions.

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