Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Woman, Her Men, And Her Futon

Christ—is this what I’m reduced to? Writing cinephilic mash notes to late-night Cinemax softcore? Appears so, my friends. To explain, let me make A Woman, Her Men, And Her Futon my humble offering of a blurb: “I came for the prurience, but I stayed for the art!”

Seriously though—this is a kick-ass little movie that I encountered years ago on cable one insomniac night when the moon was high and the neighbor’s mutt wouldn’t shut up. (If I wasn’t such a dog-lover, I’d have dialed up Elaine Benes for ideas long ago.) The morning after, first thing, I scribbled the movie’s name in my journal (not that there was any chance of forgetting it) and rediscovered it recently on DVD.

This film, from 1992, is written and directed by one Mussef Sibay. Opening shot: Mid-orgasm (his, not hers). Basic set-up: Jennifer Rubin is Helen, a recently separated married woman with an obnoxiously jealous boyfriend she can’t bring herself to ditch and a studly no-strings-attached lover on the side (Grant Show from Melrose Place). Most interesting, and at the center of the movie, is her relationship with a filmmaker-friend, Donald (Lance Edwards). He wants her to help him write his next movie—which sounds a lot like the movie we are watching, only from his point of view, not hers—but in point of fact, is really interested in worming his way into her futon, and also (secondarily) into her heart. Of course, she is perfectly aware of this—this movie is very lucid about how the characters view themselves—but isn’t sure if that's what she wants.

We are treading some ground here that is all-too-common in life and yet doesn’t get explored very much or very well in movies: the limbo zone between a fully platonic friendship and a fully sexual relationship. Helen doesn’t have much to her name—apart from the futon—and Donald invites her to move in with him without any strings attached. But once she does, he weasels his way into a sort of steadily ascending makeout curve consisting of: holding, cuddling, petting, fondling, kissing, and finally, a desperate bit of Could-you-please-just-take-your-top-off-I–promise-I-won’t-ask-for-more-and-I-swear-this-won’t-affect-our-friendship-and-we’re-both-a-little-drunk-and-you-know-you-want-to-a-little-bit-anyway, etc.

Because she is taking advantage of his hospitality (his home, his offer to work on his movie), she wants to relent. Mainly, she is insecure, coming out of an unappreciative relationship, and wants to feel wanted. This is some fertile territory for a psychological study of power relations in romantic relationships and this movie is unhesitatingly down with it. (Not formally but thematically, there are faint echoes of Fassbinder.) None of the characters are outright “good” or “bad”—everyone, as the old cine-adage goes, has her or his reasons. Helen is a character created with great subtlety and compassion, but we also see her lie, deceive, mislead and act passive-aggressive, all of them in small—not grand—ways. As in life.

Manny Farber lamented in his 1957 essay “Underground Films” that the masters of the male action film and of male characterization (Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Anthony Mann) were under-appreciated. One could take the obverse view here and say that it is rare for a male-directed film (meaning, what, over 95% of movies made?) to be truly woman-centric in its perspective. Which this film admirably tries to do.

The single most interesting thing about this movie might be Jennifer Rubin’s (non-?) performance. Is this “acting” or “being”? I have no way of knowing. She never tries to “emote” and has a near-blankness which (oddly) seemed very naturalistic to me. (One Amazon commenter slammed her performance as “comatose”; one might almost construe that as a compliment in this case.) Francis Bacon once said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not a strangeness in the proportion.” And Rubin, despite her supermodel looks, has an odd, almost awkward gait, both arresting and gangly. It’s a small detail, but this physical trait humanizes her even more, adding to her character’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. She was (imdb says) the original model in the Calvin Klein Obsession ads, had a small part in The Doors, and is currently a hostess at a TriBeca restaurant.

* * *

Continuing with today’s futonic theme, let us celebrate the Isley Brothers’ lubricious booty jam, “Between The Sheets.” (If you’re a hip-hop/pop freak, yawn and click away now, because nothing that follows will be news to you.)

“Between The Sheets” from 1983, off the album of the same name, has got to be one of the most sampled tunes ever. This bedroom ballad is an instrument of seduction not just in the lyrics (rhyming “receive me” with “release me”; “moaning” with “groaning”) but even in its musical structure. In a surprise touch, it abandons the verse-chorus pattern entirely at 3:25 and literally (but discreetly) initiates a bout of love-making to the accompaniment of the same musical figure repeated over and over (tension/release/tension/release….) until it fades out two minutes later. The synth bass and melody lines are simply delicious. No wonder people have been biting them ever since.

On “Big Poppa,” Biggie and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs quicken the pace of the Isleys sample, and Biggie delivers, with his usual authority, flow and (matchless!) cadence, a virtuosic bit of rapping. Since this is hip-hop, the usual parental advisories apply. (Which is my way of advising my parents—please do not download this song!)

Gwen Stefani on "Luxurious" goes in the other direction, slowing down the speed of the sample and putting a thick honey glaze on it. The subject is both sex and success (“champagne kisses/hold me in your/lap of luxury” or “Egyptian cotton…rollin’ in cashmere”). The opulent production, by Nellee Hooper and Tony Kanal, is candy. Each snare hit sounds like it cost a thousand bucks. So worth it.


Blogger Noel Vera said...

Because she is taking advantage of his hospitality (his home, his offer to work on his movie), she wants to relent.

Had a long-distance girlfriend in New York who was in this situation. Did she relent ('betray') me? I don't know. Haven't seen her in years.

Would like to note tha passing of Shohei Imamura (1926-2006). Saw very few of his films on the big screen. My favorite could possibly be The Profound Desire of the Gods.

May 30, 2006 8:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel ~ I've seen about six or seven of Imamura's films, and liked them a lot. The first one (that blew my mind) was Intentions Of Murder. Also really loved Narayama, Pornographers and Vengeance Is Mine.
The book on his work, produced/edited by James Quandt, is wonderful.

May 30, 2006 10:09 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I can only assume that the sultry heat we're getting here in PA has hit you up in WNY.

At 3am, you may want to 1-Tune Madonna's "Justify My Love". And while you're at it, Netflix Two Moon Junction, Sherilyn Fenn blonde and very, very naked . . .

May 30, 2006 10:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead ~ It is insanely warm up here. My brain's been frozen all day. Can't think, can't move, can only sweat...

May 30, 2006 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I had to hit the link to verify which Francis Bacon was being quoted. I saw Ms. Rubin in Delusion back when it was released in 1991.

May 30, 2006 10:24 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

In DC, it was 96 degrees in the shade, and I don't mean the Steel Pulse song. :(

May 30, 2006 10:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ouch, Acquarello. I don't think it was quite as hot here, but it was wicked humid.
My parents tell me it's been in the 110 degree range in Madras lately...!

Peter, I'm curious to rent something else with Rubin in it, just to get an idea of her range.

May 30, 2006 10:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matt Prigge on Imamura.

May 30, 2006 11:22 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

96 in Knoxville yesterday, too, with more of the same expected for today. We opened our swimming pool last week, assuming that, like most years, it would be another two or three weeks before the water reached a tolerable temperature. It's risen from 68 to 74 degrees in the last four days! If any of you scientists want to do the calculations, I could probably estimate the total volume. ;)

May 31, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Today's high is expected to be 88 around here. Couldn't even sleep upstairs last night, and had to move myself into the first-floor guest bedroom.
And my golden retriever was panting like a machine all night.

May 31, 2006 9:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead on the Lina Wertmuller collection.

May 31, 2006 9:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I like this new feature on Harry's blog where he collects all the links he's found during the month into one digest post.

May 31, 2006 9:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Round-Headed Boy on Jan Berry of Jan & Dean.

May 31, 2006 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

She never tries to “emote” and has a near-blankness which (oddly) seemed very naturalistic to me.

So in effect, what you're saying is that this Futon movie is Bressonian?

As for Jennifer Rubin, I seem to recall her being quite good in Blueberry Hill as a 50s teenager who fights with her mother, and learns about her dead father.

May 31, 2006 10:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"So in effect, what you're saying is that this Futon movie is Bressonian?"
Heh heh.
Well, Rubin's performance is quasi-Bressonian, but the movie's mise-en-scene and montage were pretty straight-ahead made-for-TV.

But the film's conception of the characters, its "feminine consciousness," its subtleties in depicting that "limbo zone" I referred to above--these were quite remarkable. (Perhaps they struck me a little bit more so because I wasn't expecting them in a late-night Cinemax film...!)

May 31, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

It's clear to me why you're undoubtedly such a good educator! I love how your write, how you cull things out, how you amplify with music. Always a treat to read.

May 31, 2006 11:15 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Sexy! I'm supposed to be working . . .

May 31, 2006 11:19 AM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

I like it when you write on Big Poppa.

May 31, 2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya, Jen, Eric ~ You're sweet and kind. Thank you!

May 31, 2006 4:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello on a documentary about Hergé, the creator of Tintin.

May 31, 2006 5:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ryan Wu, whose blog is named for an Imamura film, on the man.

May 31, 2006 6:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jen points to a fascinating little debate about the Wikipedia entry on Experimental Cinema.

May 31, 2006 9:01 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

G, did you know about the official Tintin store? Enter at your own risk. ;)

June 01, 2006 10:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Holy mackerel!
No, I didn't--thanks.
Gotta keep it a secret from my mom or she'll go bonkers in there...

June 01, 2006 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Isleys RULE!!!!!!

August 21, 2006 12:40 PM  

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