Wednesday, October 24, 2007
10/24: I Am Curious — Yellow; Sweet Movie
[This is a Transgressive Sex Double Feature, my second contribution to the Double Bill-a-thon 2007 going on over at Broken Projector.]
Although it's somewhat hard to believe now, Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious — Yellow made quite a stir upon its initial 1967 release and subsequent importation into the US in 1969. The film was confiscated before even being shown, and subjected to an intense censorship debate while its release drew massive crowds curious about the scandal. Looking at it now, the film's nude scenes are scarce and relatively tame though it does say a great deal about American puritanism that, 40 years later, the scene where actress Lena Nyman kisses her lover's penis would still cause an incredible furor if it appeared in a mainstream Hollywood film. Other than that, though, times have changed, and the question becomes: now that the outrage has died down, what else does the film have to offer? The answer, predictably, is not that much.
No doubt, Sjöman was remarkably ambitious, and his film (the first part of a diptych with sister film Blue) ranges far and wide in its combination of political and sexual exploration. The film attempts to blend the personal with the political, documentary with fiction, and locate all this within the metafictional framework of the film crew making the film. It's a true Godardian project, and no doubt if Godard was making it all these disparate elements would hang together a bit better, or at least hint at something deeper beyond the mess. As it is, the film strikes too uneven a division in its balance of politics and sexuality. The first half hour or so engages in some interesting political discourse, questioning both capitalism and hardline Communism. That is, literally questioning them, through a series of probing man-on-the-street interviews that attempt to get at the nature of class distinctions in 1960s Sweden. There are some very interesting parts here, especially the tongue-in-cheek "interview" with Martin Luther King, using stock footage of him intercut with Sjöman (playing the film director within the film) on-screen asking him questions. This leads into a scene of Lena going around asking people if they've heard of non-violence — hilariously, the first people she asks are a trio of cops, who oblige by saying no, never heard of it. She then asks a middle-age woman what she's heard about King, and the answer is "Oh, he won't fight for his beliefs, right?"
This is pretty much indicative of the film's political questioning, which is amusing and frequently at least thought-provoking, but perhaps not as deep or probing as Sjöman would like to think it is. Moreover, after the very beginning, this political material is increasingly backgrounded in favor of the fictional story that's being filmed by the crew within the film, about Lena and her philandering lover, Börje Ahlstedt. This is the part of the film that earned it its notorious reputation, and as an exploration of sexual liberation, feminism, and the "personal as political," it's not without interest. But mostly it's a drab, lifeless, indifferently acted series of scenes with little energy, little intellectual depth, and even little of the crackling wit that was present in so many of the earlier scenes.
The film's hardly a total loss though. Lena's sexual journey remains of interest as an examination of the consequences of total freedom and the individual's responsibility to make his or her own life and ideas. This is an interesting time capsule of an older era, flawed and badly dated, but somewhat redeemed by its sense of humor and seriousness of purpose.
Dušan Makavejev's Sweet Movie is another film whose primary renown these days is as a source of controversy and shock value. One crucial difference between this and I Am Curious, though, is that Makavejev's film still has the capacity to shock audiences, even jaded modern ones used to seeing just about anything in films. In fact, I only thought I was used to seeing just about anything, until Makavejev reminded just how much potential ground "anything" could cover. The film's steadily escalating assault on the senses starts relatively low-key, with the hilarious introduction set at a kind of gynecological beauty pageant, and culminates in a massive scatological orgy/food fight reminiscent of the Vienna Aktionists (and indeed, Aktionist icon Otto Muehl himself appears among the shitting, vomiting revelers). The last half-hour of the film contains some of the most perpetually shocking and visually extravagant images ever committed to celluloid, and their potential to stun and overwhelm remains undiminished by the 30+ years since their first appearance.
But if that's all Sweet Movie had to offer, it would be little more than a slightly fresher version of I Am Curious, which is certainly not the case. What's interesting is that Sweet Movie appears on its surface to be an infinitely more light-hearted, less serious effort than Sjöman's film, though at its heart it hides a much deeper political core. At times, the film's episodic structure and over-the-top energy make it feel like a particularly demented Monty Python episode or a parody of Aktionist excesses. The film's epic denouement had me alternately gasping in astonishment, laughing with sheer I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that delight, and wincing with disgust, sometimes within seconds of each other. It's such a visceral experience that it's quite easy to miss the film's subtler political subtext amidst all the chocolate sauce and mashed potatoes.
The film is, most obviously, a total celebration of freedom and no-holds-barred living. The loose story follows Miss World 1984 (Carole Laure), who's chosen as the most pure and desirable woman in the world, and given the dubious prize of marrying a Texan milk billionaire. After a disastrous wedding night — instead of making love, he rubs her down with alcohol and then displays his liquid-spurting, gold-plated penis for her — she's tossed aside and spends the rest of the film being limply passed from one ridiculous incident to the next. Carole is in the hands of the capitalist West, a typical feminine image of beauty used as an advertisement — most humorously in the film's infamous chocolate bath — and a status symbol, but never as a living, breathing person of her own. But the film's depiction of Communism is even nastier, with Anna Prucnal playing the symbolic captain of a symbolic ship with Karl Marx as its figurehead and a hold full of sweets and a huge sugar tank. Prucnal seduces a Russian sailor from the battleship Potemkin, copulating fiercely in a sugar bath, and in one memorable and shocking scene, she performs a creepily sexy striptease for a gathered group of seven year-olds. She's a symbol of Soviet Communism, seductive and alluring from the exterior, but with a deadly violent streak underneath, as revealed in the finale when the police unload her boat's cargo of corpses.
But the film's iconic image of Communism is some inserted documentary footage of the bodies found in the mass graves of Russia's Katyn Forest, where Stalin's army had killed and buried over four thousand people. Makavejev uses this footage in an interesting way, inserting it into the narrative twice, once towards the beginning where it is off-putting and seems out of context, and then again at the end, after the orgiastic communal scat party. In this second iteration, the footage's purpose becomes more clear, acting as a recontextualizing reference for the previous 30 minutes. Juxtaposed against the sheer human brutality of the Katyn Forest massacre, the film's over-the-top antics seem as light-hearted as they had previously seemed gratuitous. The film is sometimes hard to take, but despite this it is not the nihilist work that it is often decried as. Its concentration on human bodily processes is couched within a framework of celebration and riotous, hedonistic fun the commune dwellers who are smearing each other with feces, inducing vomiting, and peeing into their food may be on the absolute fringes of acceptability, but they sure look like they're having a ball. And more importantly, in spite of the strong discomfort factor, it's mostly a ball to watch them.