Ooze to Blame?
Some movies, like certain farts, are so rank that you’re left with only two options: pretending that they never happened or assaulting the perpetrators. Professional obligations prevent me from taking the high ground, so brace yourself: This isn’t going to be pretty.
Body Shots, a dating-in-hell movie, rubs our noses in the wounded souls of eight youngish Los Angeles singles—four men and four women. Although we’re informed that they have successful professional careers, David McKenna’s screenplay focuses on their rancid love lives. The movie opens with a stoned couple passed out in bed, uncertain of each other’s name. Their stupor is interrupted by the appearance of a hysterical, battered young woman who claims to have been date-raped. Weeping and bleeding, she makes a double contribution to the film’s unseemly obsession with bodily excretions. Urine and vomit precede her arrival; snot and semen turn up later.
Director Michael Cristofer then backtracks to introduce the rest of the principals, all of whom interrupt their activities—chatting on cell phones in a health club shower; picking up pointers at an oral-sex study group—to speak directly to the camera about their hunger for sex and fear of commitment. One ungrammatically observes, “It’s not a big deal to figure out who to fuck. But who to love—how do you figure that out?” Another offers a fatuous Andrea Dworkin-esque formula: “Sex Without Love Equals Violence.”
After meticulously grooming themselves, the octet converge at a tacky disco where they proceed to get potted, switch partners, and have as wretched an evening as anyone could imagine. One pie-eyed couple indulges in stand-up sex in a parking lot. Another pair ends up in bed, whereupon the woman dons dominatrix gear, thrashes her partner with a whip, and inserts her finger where the sun don’t shine.
After an hour, Christofer suddenly remembers the date-rape plot, and the movie turns into a yuppie remake of Rashomon with William Kennedy Smith overtones. The alleged assailant, a football player, and his apparent victim offer conflicting accounts of what transpired between them, each claiming that the other initiated the sexual encounter. We’re left to determine for ourselves what really happened and, in an enigmatic coda, are returned to the bed containing the original couple, who almost, but never quite, connect.
To protect the innocent, I have chosen to omit the names of the cast, none of whom exhibits notable acting ability, and several of whom—including two blondes—are virtually interchangeable. But McKenna deserves the critical equivalent of a public flogging for his meretricious script, which, in the guise of condemning his preposterous notion of the New Morality, slips in as much soft-core porn and verbal obscenity as the ratings board allows. Outside of a Scorsese gangster movie, I have never heard dialogue so laden with “fuck” or, apart from in a dog obedience class, the word “come” ejaculated so incessantly.
At the preview screening I attended, the predominantly youthful audience laughed at the movie’s heavy-handed, puritanical climax—the only couple who appear to have a future together are the only ones who never make sexual contact—while older viewers suffered in silence. I walked out wondering what market this sordid, hypocritical mess could possibly appeal to. If I were slightly more paranoid, I’d suspect that Body Shots was covertly financed by the Christian Coalition as propaganda for premarital chastity, or part of a gay conspiracy to set back the cause of heterosexuality at least a century.
As a rule, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to botched art movies, if only because they strive for originality. Writer-director Harmony Korine’s excruciating Julien Donkey-Boy has forced me to re-examine this policy.
Korine, you might recall, is the erstwhile Wunderkind who, at 19, wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s exploitative neo-documentary Kids. Gummo, Korine’s notoriously repellent 1997 directorial debut, was so reviled by New York reviewers and audiences that its Washington engagement was canceled, even though it was hailed by the unlikely trinity of Gus Van Sant, Marilyn Manson, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine’s sophomore effort, finds him allied with Dogma 95, the neo-Luddite movement founded by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) that dictates the use of handheld cameras and real locations while repudiating the use of studio sets, musical scores, optical effects, and other “artificial” devices. This aesthetic manifesto, which has proved efficacious in its homeland, loses something in American translation, at least as Korine interprets it.
Shot with small digital cameras and blown up to 35 mm, Julien Donkey-Boy is largely improvised from Korine’s skeletal, partially autobiographical screenplay. There’s a narrative buried somewhere in its shambles, though you’d be hard pressed to find it without the aid of a press-kit summary. As the film opens, the title character, a gold-toothed geek, inexplicably attacks a young boy playing by a turtle pond. Julien then returns home to Pearl, his pregnant ballerina sister (whom he appears to have impregnated); his wrestler brother, Chris; and their sadistic German father. Somehow Julien, who is mentally defective, holds down a job as an attendant at a school for the blind. Having established this setup, the movie collapses into a series of haphazard vignettes involving an 11-year-old blind ice skater, the father’s armless friend, a priest in a confessional, a masturbating nun, and a grotesque magician who engorges a pack of lighted cigarettes. In an absurd climax, Pearl suffers a miscarriage while ice-skating. Julien runs away with the fetus and is last seen rocking it in his bedroom.
Left to their own devices, Ewen Bremner (Julien), Chloe Sevigny (Pearl), Evan Neumann (Chris), and German director Werner Herzog (the father) struggle, with minimal success, to come up with dialogue to flesh out their undefined characters. Anthony Dod Mantle’s grainy camerawork is as dysfunctional as its subjects, arbitrarily flailing about to capture the cast’s unpremeditated movements. Occasionally, the degradation involved in translating video images to film yields some arresting colorist effects. Most of the time, however, it makes you wish you were wearing a motion-sickness patch.
Beneath its unorthodox stylistic veneer, Julien Donkey-Boy is surprisingly conventional, stuffed with religious and psychological platitudes and echoes of Diane Arbus and Herzog, from whose work Korine derives his obsession with human anomalies. In a monologue that runs counter to his nonconformist body of work, Herzog eulogizes the climax of Dirty Harry, a manipulative movie that typifies the commercial cinematic tradition that Dogma 95 seeks to undermine. He ends by asserting, “I don’t like the artsy-fartsy thing.” Moviegoers who haven’t walked out or fallen asleep, as I did several times, will sigh a muted “Amen.” CP