Tag Archives: Voyeurism

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN THE BASEMENT (2014)

Im Keller

DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl

FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians

PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.

Still from In the Basement (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.

COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.

Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.

While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When did this kind of thing, they did not drape it in obscuring Art.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: WONDERWALL (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Joe Massot

FEATURING: Jack MacGowran, Jane Birkin, Iain Quarrier

PLOT: An absent-minded professor falls in love with the bohemian fashion model next door when he peeps through a hole in his apartment wall and spies her frolicking in a psychedelic wonderland.

Still from Wonderwall (1968)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got animated butterflies, women who dress like go-go dancers and men who dress like princes of candy kingdoms, and wall-to-wall hallucination sequences. In some ways, Wonderwall is the ultimate flower-power feature, with not much plot but lots of swirling colors and long-haired people being groovy. The main question is, is Wonderwall a pinnacle of paisley pop-art, or just overwrought hippie kitsch?

COMMENTS: Professor Collins is the kind of scientist who keeps his nose buried in a book when his eye isn’t glued to his microscope, until one day while he’s spending his evening recreationally observing blue-green algae he’s annoyed by the sounds of loud sitar music coming from the apartment next door. When he throws his alarm clock at the wall, his butterfly display case clatters down, revealing a peephole into the swinging pad. He trades the microscope eyepiece for the hole in the wall behind which willowy Jane Birkin sways in silhouette: suddenly, microbes are yesterday’s news. From that moment on he’s in love with the fashion model next door, whom he’s too shy to talk to, and addicted to spying on her pot-and-bisexual-love parties. He calls in sick to work and spends his rare non-peeping moments imagining himself dueling with the lady’s boyfriend with giant power drills, cigarettes, sticks of lipstick, and other phallic symbols.

No matter how much his nutty professor persona is meant to evoke a lovestruck outsider like Chaplin‘s Tramp, however, it’s hard to get behind this stalkerish guy, particularly when he sneaks into the model’s apartment and holds her hand while she’s knocked out from sleeping pills. Today, we view such obsessive behavior as a potential preludes to a front-page headline story about a socially maladjusted man hosting a secret sex dungeon underneath his floorboards. But the 60s were a more innocent age; rooting for a dirty old man with a good heart came naturally. Of course, since the professor represents the square establishment and Penny the freedom and vitality of youth culture, on the symbolic level the peeping is not so much creepage as pure lifestyle envy. The professor hallucinates a faceless mother in a wheelchair (sexual guilt) who nags him when his peeping threatens to get too libidinous, and he tears down a strangely avant-garde mural of the pieta to get space to drill more holes in the wall, representing the need to get beyond religion in able partake of the joys of voyeuristic bohemianism.

Still, you’re not watching for the outdated counterculture back-patting, but for the far-out visuals, of which there are a plenitude. Animated butterflies flitting against brightly-colored stockings. A psychedelic recreation of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Jane Birkin as a mermaid floating in a field of bacteria. Speaking of Birkin, she’s quite the visual attraction herself: luminous, lithe, comfortable in the nude, this long-haired vixen is the best argument for the sexual revolution anyone could come up with. She doesn’t speak on the movie, which is a good idea: it keeps her as Professor Collins’ mysterious unobtainable ideal. Her real-life story is not so idyllic, however, and we sometimes get non-fantasy glimpses of a woman struggling with a less-than-noble boyfriend who sees her as a status symbol and sexual plaything. In fact, the movie ends on an unexpected bummer that’s totally out of tone with the rest of the comic story; the sudden dose of pathos is a shock to the system. Overall, this pro-freak experiment in disorganized hedonism plays out like Czechoslovakia’s Daisies without the political or feminist subtexts. It’s a paisley time capsule that reeks not-so-subtly of pot smoke.

The Indian-rock score by George Harrison is not a classic but it is period-appropriate. While Cuban expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who, together with the director, had fled Castro’s Cuba during the missile crisis) completed the screenplay, Wonderwall‘s story is credited to Gerard Brach. Brach more famously wrote the scripts for Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers for his regular collaborator . MacGowran also played the lead in Vampire Killers. Director Massot went on to make the music-video styled concert film The Song Remains the Same for Led Zeppelin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Archly camp and dreamily surreal…”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)

Ai no Mukidashi

“Nothing is more important than love.”–Shion Sono on the theme of Love Exposure

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Nishijima, , Sakura Andô, Atsurô Watabe, Makiko Watanabe

PLOT: Yu Honda, the son of a Catholic priest, falls in with a gang of upskirt photographers in an attempt to generate sins he can confess to his father. One day, while dressed in drag after losing a bet, he falls in love with Yoko, a man-hating schoolgirl who believes him to be a woman. He strives to woo her despite the mistaken identity, but a mysterious girl named Koike and a brainwashing cult seem intent on preventing Yu from ever winning Yoko’s heart.

Still from Love Exposure (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sono’s original cut of the film was six hours long. At the request of producers he cut it down to two hours but felt the result was incoherent; the current four-hour run time is a compromise.
  • Sono reportedly wrote the part of upskirt photography guru “Master Lloyd” with Lloyd Kaufman in mind.
  • “Miss Scorpion” was a recurring character from a 1970s Japanese women-in-prison film series.
  • Despite winning awards at multiple Asian film festivals as well as a FIRPESCI international film critics awards, Love Exposure‘s long running time made it anathema to theatrical distributors. The movie finally saw a very limited run in U.S. and Canadian theaters in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some will doubtlessly be impressed by the bloody castration scene, but a less shocking image marks the centerpiece of Love Exposure: “the miracle,” the moment when the wind blows up Yoko’s skirt and reveals her alabaster underthings, giving Yu the first erection of his life. White panties—a symbol of sex masked in the color of purity—are the most important recurring image in Love Exposure, even more so than crosses and hard-ons. As Master Lloyd explains while pointing to a bronze relief image of a spreadeagled woman with a swatch of white silk covering her nether portions, “Anything you seek can be found here, in the groin.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there is some crazy stylization—slo-mo bullets following a schoolgirl through Tokyo and a dysfunctional family posing with a giant cross in the desert—what makes Love Exposure‘s mad heart tick is the plot that piles crazy on top of crazy. Any story that incorporates Catholic guilt, ninja panty-peeking photographers, kung fu and samurai sequences, mistaken identity subplots, and teenage cult kingpins, plays it all as a romantic comedy, and has to run for twice the length of an average movie just to fit in everything the director wants to say, is bound to be a little weird.


Trailer for Love Exposure

COMMENTS:  For four hours Love Exposure bounces back and forth between poles of purity and perversion, suggesting both the fetishistic Continue reading 129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)