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EROS and Civilization: Sexuality and the Contemporary International Art Cinema

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EROS and Civilization: Sexuality and the Contemporary International Art Cinema
  Articles Eros and Civilization 28 | lm internationalissue 36 In our age of globalization , it is oten assumedthat the distinctive thematic and aesthetic con-cerns o major international lm auteurs maybe homogenized and/or sublated into some sorto ‘universal’ orm o expression, apart romthe national identity and localized cinematictraditions rom which they derive. In such anera, nationwide and regional customs andpractices, including erotic mores, might alsobecome ‘homogenized’ under the regime o anintercontinental cinematic style. The lures o  Eros and Civilization:  Sexuality and theContemporaryInternationalArt Cinema By Frank P. Tomasulo   Keywords:   Eros (2004),Michelangelo Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh,eroticism in lm, anthologylms, nudity, national cinema  Articles Eros and Civilization   www.  | 29  the worldwide box oce and global prestige aretwo other actors that might lead to a one-size-ts-all mentality or contemporary lm-makers.It is thereore important to keep in mind thatthe question o national cinema and nationalidentity – what Siegried Kracauer called‘national character’ in reerence to WeimarGermany (Kracauer 1947: 8) – must always bestudied in the context o larger global, histori-cal and artistic determinants. In particular, therole o the erotic impulse in a given civilization’scharacter and cinema must likewise be inves-tigated within a broader system o custom andrepresentation. For example, are there interna-tional erotic practices that transcend nationalboundaries and belies? I Eskimos kiss withtheir noses, as the popular myth goes, what doesit mean i a French couple does the same? Moreimportant to this discussion, what does it meani that French couple kisses with their noses onscreen ? I devotees o certain religions expecttheir women (and occasionally their men) to bemodest in dress and demeanour (at least in pub-lic), what does that say about a culture’s erotica?One way to investigate these complex sexualphenomena is through an examination o international co-productions, particularly ‘port-manteau’ or ‘anthology’ lms, what the Frenchcall  flms à sketch , which suture together thedirectorial eorts o ‘star’ lm-makers romdierent countries around a common theme:love in the city, the Vietnam War, 9/11, etc. This‘quasi-genre’, i it can be called that, has a long and mixed history that fourished most notice-ably in the European art cinema o the 190s: Love at Twenty  / L’Amour à vingt ans (192), TheSeven Deadly Sins  / Les Sept pêchés capiteaux (192), Far rom Vietnam  / Loin de Viet Nam (197) and Spirits o the Dead (198), to name just a ew.In particular, Eros (2004), a cosmopolitanomnibus lm directed by Wong Kar-Wai,Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Anto- ‘Eros was assembled with the express purpose o being atribute to the career o the now-deceased co-director andcinematic maestro Michelangelo Antonioni by auteurs whohave been infuenced by his reinvention o lm eroticismand his distinctive cinematic style.’ Below The couple  Articles Eros and Civilization 0 | lm internationalissue 36 nioni respectively, can be interrogated ortraces o distinct national themes and semi-otic styles, as well as more globalized con-cerns that pertain to sexuality in our times.The idea is to suggest the complex natureo dening a specic constellation o lmsas a national cinema in an age o  both thecultural specicity o the nation state (andsemi-autonomous regions) and the worldwideamalgamation o such cultural ormationsunder globalization. Is there an internationalmodernist style o cinema (as there was, orinstance, in architecture), or do Hong Kong,American and Italian auteurs make very di-erent movies? Likewise, is there an interna-tional style o sexuality, or does each nation– and every lm-maker – have a uniqueway o representing contemporary Eros?Some background inormation: Eros wasassembled with the express purpose o being a tribute to the career o the now-deceasedco-director and cinematic maestro Michel-angelo Antonioni by auteurs who have beeninfuenced by his reinvention o lm eroti-cism and his distinctive cinematic style.Antonioni’s depictions o the sexual malaiseo the 190s were clearly congruent with theviews o psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whosebooks were largely responsible or the 190s(and 1990s) vogue o ‘identity’. Erikson notedthat ‘the patient o early psychoanalysis su-ered most under sexual inhibitions whichprevented him rom [attaining his identity]’(Erikson 19: 279). By contrast, the contem-porary patient was constrained not by sexualrepression but, according to Christopher Lasch, ‘In particular, the role o the erotic impulse in a givencivilization’s character and cinema must likewise beinvestigated within a broader system o custom andrepresentation.’ Below Staring at the sea  Articles Eros and Civilization   www.  | 1  by narcissism (Lasch 1979). Overtly charm-ing and successul, he/she is socially andsexually promiscuous as a way o avoiding close involvements. As a result, compulsivecopulation becomes perunctory and ster-ile: no longer a blissul pleasure shared bytwo (or more) people; rather, sex had becomea sel-indulgence or solitary monads.Herbert Marcuse oered a similar diagnosis.He pointed out that images o sexual grati-cation that had such an explosive negativeorce in Victorian society have been harnessed– in a post-industrial societé de consomma-tion that no longer needs the social cemento sexual taboo – to the service o the statusquo and consumerism (ater all, ‘sex sells’).Marcuse called this modern phenomenon‘repressive desublimation’ (Marcuse 194:72–79). In line with Erikson, Lasch and Mar-cuse, Antonioni’s clinical cinema was oteninterested less in the personal  psychology o love and sexuality than in the social  phenom-enology o contemporary erotic behaviour.These same issues are part and parcel o the cinematic world o  Eros , particularly thethree directors’ portrayal o the ‘sexual cri-sis’ o the modern libidinal apparatus (Lepro-hon 1972: 18). And, indeed, in very dierentways and in dierent historical periods, Wong,Soderbergh and Antonioni all address ac-ets o the ongoing global dialectics o sex.Originally, Pedro Almodovar was to havebeen one o the three lm-makers, along with Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni him-sel, but his schedule would not permit itso Steven Soderbergh was substituted. Eros  was a co-production o Fandango Films,Section Eight Ltd. and Solaris Cinemata-graca, and was one o the rst movies tobe distributed under the banner o WarnerBrothers’ nascent art-house division, War-ner Independent Pictures. It grossed a veryanaemic $188,000 in the United States. ‘The Hand’ The rst part o this trilogy – or should it becalled a ménage-à-trois ? – is ‘The Hand/Shoˇu/ 手 ’,directed by Wong Kar-Wai. As usual, the direc-tor’s perennial themes o time, love and loss areon display, all within the context o the evolv-ing socio-political context o his native Hong Kong, a British colony in the time rame o the lm. In particular, ‘The Hand’ is a noctur-nal chamber piece about the unrequited loveo an apprentice tailor or his most-treasuredclient, Miss Hua (Gong Li), a stylish Hong Kong courtesan o the mid-190s, a period whenancient traditions gave way to modernist sen-sibilities, particularly in the arena o sex. Overthe course o many years, the timid but besot-ted tailor, Xiao Zhang (Chang Chen), lovinglycrats the clothing that this sophisticated yetunattainable woman wears or other men.From the opening image, the directorcreates a milieu o loud, heavy rain, long empty hallways and silk sheath dresses – averitable lmic phenomenology o roman-tic places, textures and tapestries. Indeed,the rst shot portrays a Rashomon -likerainstorm that enguls the shabby PalaceHotel and surrounding waterront neigh-bourhood in which Miss Hua now lives.Inside Miss Hua’s room, however, it isquiet. She asks Zhang to remember whenthey rst met and that triggers the fash-back that is most o the rest o the lm.We rst see an empty stairwell in a ash-ionable apartment building – an obvioushomage to Antonioni’s concern with archi-tectural spaces – as the shy tailor asks ordirections to Apartment #1, Miss Hua’s abode.The courtesan keeps the virginal tailor wait-ing at this rst meeting while she pantsloudly o-screen in the course o servic-ing a wealthy customer in the next room.Zhang puts his hand on his orehead in asubtle gesture o embarrassment. Whenshe nally deigns to summon him into herbedroom, the camera holds on the décor o the waiting room well ater Zhang leavesthe room, another tribute to Antonioni.Once in her domain, Miss Hua tells Zhang that he cannot understand how to dressa woman without some sexual experi-ence. So, she orders him to take o histrousers and underpants and then initi-ates him into the world o the erotic byhand. She then dismisses him abruptlywith an injunction, ‘Remember this eeling … and you’ll make me beautiul clothes.’Although the shots o her bright-red pol-ished ngernails against the back o Zhang’supper thighs can be construed as erotic in a  Articles Eros and Civilization 2 | lm internationalissue 36 detached kind o way, this is not a particu-larly explicit sequence; indeed, its restraintis apparent, given the more overt orms o sexuality that have dominated internationalscreens in recent decades. Even when thewoman caresses his ass and testicles (caus-ing him to wince), the camera ocuses onZhang’s ace. Wong seems to take moredelight in the sublime subtlety o his shim-mering, highly composed romantic imagesand subtle editing rhythms (along with theaccompanying elegant classical string music)than in the actual depiction o this (par-don my language) hand job. Again, Zhang isembarrassed, on the verge o tears, even atthe moment o climax. That event is shot intight close-up on his ace or over orty sec-onds and then we cut to her reaction shotand, nally, the eggplant-coloured walls.In act, throughout ‘The Hand’, Wong seems to etishize elegant clothing, décor(curtains, lamps, eggplant-coloured walls,fowers and vases), and languid cameramovements – mainly through highly com-posed shots that are held on-screen muchlonger than necessary to make their nar-rative points, but that allow the specta-tor to contemplate the thematic relevanceo the ravishing imagery, a techniqueoten used by Antonioni in his heyday.The vacant stairwell o Miss Hua’s build-ing, seen throughout Wong’s segment, imme-diately ollows the hand-job scene – a visualcorrelative or the ultimate emptiness o theexperience, one that is worthy o Antonioni’sediting and use o ‘dead space’ in lms rom The Adventure  / L’Avventura (190) to Identifca-tion o a Woman  / Identifcazione di una donna  (1982). Although this mise-en-scène o pur-poselessness conveys the alienation o thedispassionate act, Zhang immediately allsin love or lie with his sexual mentor. Heexpresses this aection mainly through thebeautiul gowns and colourul dresses hemakes or her over the ensuing decades.In addition to empty architectural spaces,Wong also uses barrier images, also associ-ated with Antonioni’s cinema, to emphasizethe alienation between characters or to visu-ally hem in a person by constricting his/herspace. In one shot, the tailor is seen in hisshop, working on Miss Hua’s gowns, visu-ally and emotionally conned by his wist-ul, unspoken and exclusive yearning or anunresponsive woman and by his devotionto a trade he chose in order to stay in touchwith her. Again, Zhang’s dormant sexuality isconveyed visually – and through the actor’ssubtle, poker-aced expressions that ambigu-ously portray his latent male masochism.Antonioni once reerred to Eclipse/L’Eclisse  (192) as ‘a story o imprisoned sentiments’(Gilman 192: 10), and Wong Kar-Wai ol-lows in that tradition. Both his characters aretrapped – literally and guratively – in theirrespective situations. Barricades, ences andarchitectural structures visually oregroundtheir predicaments throughout ‘The Hand’.Furthermore, Wong uses subtle ges-tural codes o perormance, à la Antonioni,to convey character. At one point, we seeZhang in his workshop, tailoring one o MissHua’s dresses. In a subtle sign o his love, hecaresses the lining o her garment, a moveaccentuated by Wong’s use o slow motion.His love thrives despite sexual denial.Later, towards the end, both the tailor andMiss Hua look downwards; both are humbledand embarrassed by her distressed nancialsituation and his need to collect her bill. Bothhave ‘lost ace’ and hence subtly bow theirheads in mutual shame. Another example o  Below Wong Kar-Wai’s segment The Hand
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