Saturday, March 6, 2010

More problems with IFC: Indie Sex

These are my notes on the first installment I managed to see of IFC's four part series: Indie Sex. I don't know which one it was. Since this viewing I have also seen the part entitled: "Teens." Eventually, I'll see all four parts and put them together for an essay the lack of sexual imagination masquerading as its opposite in our culture. For now, here are some thoughts about the talking heads and the corresponding film clips.

IFC has turned into more of an unintentional comedy network than a place that showcases independent film. Case in point: they keep showing this documentary called Indie Sex, and I can't not watch it. It is as Bill Hicks once said of the TV show Cops, like a sore tooth I keep jamming my finger into my mouth to poke at.

It is loaded with pomposity and self-congratulation; filmmakers, critics and a third class of folk that I have to call "spokesmen" who take pride in their bravery for boldly dealing honestly with sexuality on screen or for being able to watch it maturely. My favorite part is when French director, Catherine Breillat, explains why she named her movie Anatomy of Hell: “because if hell has a human shape it must be that of female genitalia.” I apologize if I am misquoting. She said it so earnestly, so pompously, so... French-ly. She's like a caricature as good as anything you've ever seen from Eric Idle or Dave Foley. She also says that “the very fact that they ask: is it pornography or is it art, proves that it is art.” And I used to be jealous of the French and the superior education I imagined they receive.

Jokes aside, the thing I found most interesting is that the film paints Brown Bunny as the standout disappointment among the films considered. The talking heads are pretty dismissive of it particularly the IFC spokesmen with the nouveau Elvis Costello frames(I promise to learn his name by the time I get to part four). The consensus as I understand it is that they want to watch porn and feel good about it(I may be overstating it or even psychoanalyzing from my armchair), but then here comes Vincent Gallo to say “you have to watch this and you don't get to feel good about it.” He's probably heavy-handed but you have to feel the weight of that hand coming down on you if your going to say that. You can't dodge the blow (no pun intended) and then make fun of the guy. (In the interest of full disclosure I must admit that I have not yet watched Brown Bunny. I can say, for whatever it may be worth, that Buffalo 66 is one of the best American films of the 1990's. So I am probably predisposed to let Gallo have the benefit of the doubt.)

There's an interesting tension in this documentary between suggesting that we need to lighten up about sex, and pounding that suggestion home with utmost sincerity as if it were the most important goal one could imagine. Which is it? Is sex frivolous or does it matter? Is reality located in showing “real sex” on screen, in showing penetration or is it located in the emotional complexity of the other 99.9 percent of life that couples live together? It is especially funny that they all talk about breaking down taboos, and making people confront sex and deal with it even though it makes them uncomfortable. You know, because we live in such a repressed culture. Apologies to John Cameron Mitchell, but do you really think you are encouraging some kind of sexual revolution by showing penetration in a movie?

Though they don't show his movies much anymore, but I believe that over at IFC they still regard John Cassavetes as the father of American Independent Film. If I am not mistaken, they revere him (and rightly so) as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. So I cannot help but notice that he managed to put together an entire body of work that is bereft of a sex scene. No small feat when you consider that he made movies about teenagers prowling for easy sex, about a husband and a wife who end up cheating on each other, about a young couple falling in love, about three men who travel to England for the express purpose of cheating on their wives, about a strip club owner who seems to maintain sexual relationships with at least three of his “girls,” and about an author who lives in a house with a virtual harem, but still manages to find time to philander outside of the home.

This begs some questions. If we acknowledge that Cassavetes is an exemplary artist and a courageous truth teller of the highest order, we must ask whether showing sex is fundamentally truthful. Further, if we call Cassavetes the father of independent film, we must ask of showing sex is indeed a crucial aspect of independent filmmaking. John Mitchell Cameron argues that there is drama in the sex, drama that we miss out on in movies that zoom in to a closeup of a candle then dissolve to the post coital scene. Is that the independent tradition as Cassavetes practiced it; is that where the drama really is? If Cassavetes is the model then the tentative answers to these questions are no, no and no.

There's a lot of talk throughout the documentary about Hollywood lacking the courage to show sex. The way the subject is positioned, Hollywood is afraid of the truth of the sex act and indie filmmakers are not. That strikes my as a bit of grandstanding. What Hollywood fears is the loss of advertising dollars, not from showing sex acts, but from the failure to get big name actors in their movies. If actors were willing, Hollywood would put out nothing but graphic sex act after graphic sex act and they would make more money than they ever dreamed. A romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba might make a couple books, but if it includes them in a hardcore sex scene, it will be the top grossing film of all time. Hollywood's failure to show sex vs. indie film's insistence on showing it as explicitly as possible is not about truth.

IFC Still Dropping the Ball... and it's a bowling ball filled with cement that they're dropping squarely into my lap

So they've been showing Platoon. That's a flat out Hollywood blockbuster right there. They showed it three times today, and also showed Crash (the Hollywood blockbuster one, not the Cronenberg one, though they certainly manage to trot that one out a few times a month as well), The Station Agent (a fairly run-of-the-mill Miramax-style Indie) Last Days (I guess we're still calling Gus van Sandt “indie”) and Eaten Alive (a straight-up slasher, exploitation, B-movie).

That last one is indicative of a point I have made previously about this channel, namely that “indie” is now seen as an attitude of the viewership more than a description of the programming. It's indie and cool and hip to ironically watch bad horror movies, blacksploitation, Russ Meyer and all other manner of B-movie schlock, so IFC programs it. It's a lifestyle network now, not an art appreciation network. I guess that was too much to ask even though AMC, TCM, and even Sundance seem to do it reasonably well. My guess would be that IFC is the most lucrative of the four and I suppose business is business, its just that such a modus operandi kind of stands in direct opposition to the advertised spirit of the thing.

In another context I would write about the value of canon; of the necessity of showing the best of the best instead making sure demographics are represented. For the present, I am taking as read that the schedule of IFC does not represent the best of cinema any more than it represents independent cinema. My focus here is on the necessity of a venue for “alternative” cinema. I take IFC to task because they fly that banner. They make a big show of being the home for the indie and for the alternative, but they manage to program seemingly nothing but established former low-budget directors, fairly well known foreign films (today they showed Maria Full of Grace), B-movies that are to be consumed ironically and utterly mainstream films like Platoon.

IFC used to show movies I never heard of mixed with classics from the American indie tradition and from the art house tradition. If they had the same philosophy these days that they had when I first began watching the channel in 1997, we would not be looking at Cabin Fever, Boondock Saints, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, The Notorious Bettie Page, Go and Hard Candy, all of which are on deck for the coming week. Instead we might get to see Funny Ha Ha, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Sink or Swim, A Woman Under the Influence, Milestones, The Scenic Route and Portrait of Jason. I guess I'm asking too much.

It has come to this

I keep getting Asian porn spam in my comments so until further notice comments are turned off to all but other members of the blog. Not that this really inconveniences anyone....