Monday, March 31, 2014

The Angle on Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Chapter III of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, demonstrates the effect of his central character's actions on others. The character, Joe (whose youthful and grown selves are played respectively by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), has been playing a game in which she schedules appointments with many men during the course of the night. She flips a dice to determine what her response to them will be. In the scene in question she tells her lover Mr. H  (Hugo Speer), a man she can’t stand that the reason she can no longer see him is that she loves him too much. After he leaves his family for her, H’s wife (Uma Thurman) shows up with her children, just as Joe’s next appointment for the evening appears, flowers in hand. Joe responds to H’s histrionics with “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” Steve McQueen’s Shame was a film about the consequences of sexual addiction, but von Trier’s project is far more ambitious. Joe’s lust is a combat against love. Actually the right word might better be called anesthetic. “For me love was lust with jealousy added,” she says and she forms a coven of women devoted to promiscuous sex who chant “mia vulva mia maxima vulva.” When she does fall in love with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the man who has deflowered her at 15, she says “I could suddenly see the order in all this mess. I wanted to be one of his things.” The form of the movie is a combination of erotic history like the Story of O, The 120 Days of Sodom, or Emmanuelle and a psychoanalytic case history like Freud’s Anna O. The psychoanalytic aspect is underlined by the fact that Joe is telling her whole story to a kindly seemingly assimilated anti-Zionist Jew named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who is a computer profile of the psychoanalyst/intellectual and who spends most of the movie trying to minimize her guilt and self-hatred by saying things like, “it’s extremely common to react sexually to a crisis.” One of the triumphs of Nyphommaniac: Vol I is that it ‘s totally devoid of eroticism even as it profoundly examines Joe’s lust in graphic scenes which include fellatio and public masturbation. Nymphomaniac is the exact opposite of Blue is the Warmer Color whose examination of emotion was deeply erotic in and of itself. It displays an almost clinical approach to nymphomania similar to that of a gynecologist toward the female reproductive system. If you wanted to reduce the movie to psychology you could say that Joe had a rejecting mother who turned her back to her as she played solitaire and a loving physician father (Christian Slater). As her father dies in a hospital where the loss of his bodily functions is graphically portrayed, Joe’s predatory sexuality reaches new heights. Volume I ends with Joe in an act of coitus interruptus  crying out, “I can’t feel anything.” The sex games between Joe and her friend B (Sophia Kennedy Clark) and the use of the Fibonacci sequences as one of the many extracurricular film graphics (that include memories and newsreel footage) are part of the film’s own peculiar form of Verfremdungseffekt which is curiously and perversely intimate. The notion of polyphony is a theme that emerges explicitly in final chapter of the Vol I, “The Little Organ School,” in the discussion of Bach, but it constitutes the basic mode of disquisition. From the very beginning sequence when Seligman finds Joe lying in the street—a scene which has the threatening quality of German Expressionist masterpieces like Fritz Lang’s M with its dirty brick passageways and water dripping on garbage can lids, there are two stories being told. Seligman is a representative of European culture and Joe’s recollections are interspersed with his own memories of fly fishing which come to him by way of a classic treatise, the l7th Century writer Izaak Walton’s The Compeat Angler. In these early sequences the act of picking up men is equated  with the notion of fish and bait. (a nymph is by the way an undeveloped insect). Nymphomaniac is not an exploration of sexuality or desire or love. It’s a classic compendium of information about the human species. Hopefully it will be cherished by generations of filmgoers in the same way that original editions of the Walton volume are preserved by rare book collectors today.

Friday, March 28, 2014

It’s Not a Rehearsal

Photograph: J.W. Taylor
Expressions like “sounds like a plan,” “I can’t complain” and “being on the same page” are the stuff of which small talk conventions are made of. But the expression “it’s not a rehearsal,” it being life,  though falling into the same category of taunting mediocrity seems, like cream, to rise to the top. We all have had our comeuppances with idiots who have used this against us, but it turns out to express a truth. One day you’ll come home, pay your bills and die. Now that’s the awareness that Heidegger was referring to when he talked about living an authentic existence. Even the most hopeless individual holds within him or her the faint dream of being discovered. Maybe he’ll become the subject of a reality TV series called “The Most Uninteresting Person Who Ever Lived.” Reality TV of course opens many possibilities to the extent that it functions like abstract painting does for people who say “my kid could do that" when they see a Pollock. At the very least he might make history by winning a big Powerball. Perhaps this is the Heart of Darkness Kurtz found--that there was no great come and get it day and that what you are is what you will be. If you’re disappointed then you might go against the advice of some recovery programs and give up before the miracle. Fitzgerald was being sociological in his over quoted “there are no second acts in American lives.”  “One door closes and another opens,” is the popular homily that is used to console those who have been fired from a job or rejected by a lover. But to quote the artist Hallie Cohen, isn’t it more accurate to say,  “one door closes and another closes”?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Montreal Journal V: Le Marche Jean-Talon

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Le Marche Jean-Talon is a big indoor farmer’s market on the outskirts of Montreal and "Qui lait cru!?!" is the name of one of the many concessions that line the aisles. It’s a play on words “lait cru” is the raw milk out of which a certain kind of cheese is made, but “l’ai cru?” means "who would have thought" (literally it’s “who thought it?”) Who would have thought the booth could have been manned by such a “sympatique” young woman in her green apron and big black boots. “Havre-aux-glaces,” is another colorful name literally translating as “haven” or “habour” of ice cream. Remember when you used to dock at Le Havre on transatlantic voyages to France? Wonderful olives are to be found at Le Maitre Olivier and chanterelles (some foraged and some not) and herbs at Les Jardins Sauvages. You can also pick up a package of Quebec St-Viateur Bagels thinner and less doughy and salty than your typical New York Bagel. St Viateur was founded by Myer Lewkowicz, a Polish Jew, who survived Buchenwald and immigrated to Canada in l953. In many markets you find samples of items like cheese, but at Jean-Talon you can also sample cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, kiwis and pears piled neatly on the counters and if you’re out to buy meats, head for the counter over which a sign reads "Charcuterie Artisanale," which sells everything from choucroute and sauscisson to pierogie.  The unique arrangements of words and foods that greet the shopper at Le Marche Jean-Talon can best be described with one word, “delicieuse.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Montreal Journal IV: Erabliere

Erablierre au sous-bois
In French an erabliere is a maple grove and most maple syrup in Quebec is harvested in the late winter to spring, when there are cold nights and warm days. The Festival Beauceron de l'erable, for example, occurs between March 2-29th this year. Canada produces 7 million gallons of maple syrup making it the largest supplier in the world and most of it comes from Quebec. The Erabliere au sous-bois is one of many "sugar shacks" in the flat farm country outside of Montreal, to which crowds flock to taste the fresh frozen syrup as it hardens in the snow. The tasting a sublime experience in which a stick is used to twirl the toffee. A horse drawn buggy ride through the grove is then followed by a big family style meal composed of down home dishes like yellow pea soup, pork rinds, ham, omelets and beignet (a French fritter that also resembles a donut). The French Canadian version of the hot dog is one of the specialities de la maison, but it might frighten some tourists since this angry red object is literally a hot dog to the extent that it resembles a dog’s penis. Though Montreal is renowned for earthy specialties like poutine and smoked meat, it’s still militantly French and the traveller can easily find the city to be a gastronomic short cut to France. But the sugar shacks epitomize a “cool” subculture (it’s hip and cold all at once) that demonstrates how sui generis Quebec can be and how far its sensibility is from both the other provinces of Canada and France.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Montreal Journal III: Cinema L'Amour

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
Climb to the top of Mont-Royal, where in the winter you'll find snow shoers, skiers, runners and even mountain bikers. At the top, on the Kondiaronk Belvedere, you can relax in front of a roaring fire in what looks like an enormous medieval styled banquet hall. Squirrel sculptures are nestled into the eaves. Descend down to the campus of McGill University and the onto Saint-Laurent where you’ll come to Schwartz’s Montreal famed Jewish delicatessen ("La Charcuterie Herbraique de Montreal") which serves no pastrami or corned beef, but a sublime smoked brisket that distills the best qualities of both. There one customer was recently seen eating a hot dog draped decadently over a sizzling rib steak.Then move along Saint-Laurent to what can only be described as a family style porn theater called Cinema L’Amour (“Gratuit Pour Couples Les Lundis et Mardis”). Cinema L”Amour is  opposite the site of Les Bains Schubert. Joseph Schubert, the politician and short lived mayor of Montreal, who lived from l889-1952, was the impetus behind a bathhouse, which serviced the impoverished immigrant population and which is now the site of a pubic pool. Take a right on the Rue Rachel and if you still have any room left in your stomach sample one of Montreal’s most famous dishes, Poutine at La Banquise. Poutine, is very much like the Chilian choriano, whose essence is French fries covered with gravy. It tastes better than it sounds and while you ogle an alluring waitress whose one bit of imperfection, a crooked front tooth, only adds to her charm, you will gaze upon a signed poster for C.R.A.Z.Y. , a film by the Jean-Marc Vallee, the esteemed Montreal born director.