Monday, December 14, 2009

A Brief Intermission -- 9 Songs

I wanted to talk a little about film today. I know this is a book review site, but I do think that good film can benefit fiction writers as well, especially experimental film that exploits non-linear narrative techniques and character driven storylines. I am not talking about a plot driven action movie blockbuster type movie here but true artistic film that fleshes out human pathology, more importantly that fleshes out human pathology from an unconventional angle. This film is about as unconventional as you can get.

It’s funny, I watch a lot of film, mostly Indie art house type stuff: gritty, psychologically disturbing noir type film. A lot of it foreign because, and this is my opinion here, the American prude filter is just set way too high. Anyway, I came across this film while watching a documentary about Sex in Film, and so when it arrived from Netflix, my husband and I watched it over the weekend. Mixed reviews abound, but here is my take on what I found to be so damn intriguing, and this is the same sort of rule-breaking and boundary pushing I like in literature.

The premise for the film 9 Songs is pretty standard fare in which the male protagonist Matt -- a glaciologist from London -- ruminates in an alternating first person/third person narrative on the intense but brief relationship he has with an American college student. One of the first things you notice about the film is its fragmentary feel and lack of a traditional storyline. Actually, there isn’t a story; the entire film is an interpersonal character study, one in which the pathology of both characters, specifically Matt, is exposed entirely through a voyeuristic look at their intimate relations. There is no dialog and very little between the scenes interaction. When there is real world interaction beyond the bedroom, the interaction is telling in a subtle and ghastly confrontational way without being intrusive or patronizing. I found it to be inhumanely human, neither esthetically satisfying, sexually gratifying, or emotionally pleasant. Just real people in a very real relationship -- albeit a shallow one -- with very real emotional needs kept in check out of an obsessive sense of vanity and insecurity.

The film is heavily edited and has an uncomfortable chop to it as it moves back and forth between intimate scenes, club scenes, and scenes of Matt drifting almost aimlessly in the Antarctic. The two extremes of his life juxtaposed offer a clarity so brutal we feel nothing but empathy for him really. The early stages of any relationship are supposed to be filled with self-exploratory grandeur, but here, this man feels nothing but cold isolation, which he articulates in one of many telling first-person narrative quotes: “Exploring the Antarctic is like exploring space. You enter a void, thousands of miles, with no people, no animals, no plants. You're isolated in a vast, empty continent. Claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place, like two people in a bed.” Sad, but for Matt, he sees the relationship as something real. He cooks for her, he takes her romantic places, declares his love for her in a poignant and sentimental way: naked in the freezing ocean – also very telling -- but for her, like the coke she snorts and the pills she takes, he is just another diversion and she just a tourist. When he offers to take an AIDS test so that they don’t have to use condoms anymore, she says, “Don’t bother, I like it this way.” The pivotal moment in the movie that really crushed me was when, after laboring to make her breakfast, he finds her in the bedroom masturbating and having a much better orgasm than she has ever had with him. Talk about defeating. Even with the art-porn explicit sex, this movie wasn’t pleasant to watch at all. The underlying futility of their relationship was so brutal that it tainted the eroticism, deliberately so. Bravo on all counts here. On a side not, yes, this movie has real actors having real sex, so if you can’t tolerate those sorts of camera angles and that sort of intimate nudity, then this is not the movie for you. If it were rated according to American standards, it would have been rated double or triple X.

As for the flaws some reviewers found, I am not convinced they were flaws at all. Some reviewers complained that the sex scenes were of low cinematic quality and that their grittiness took away from the beauty, but I don’t think any of this story was meant to be beautiful in an airbrushed Cinemax passion sort of way. This was NOT a romance, and it was NOT conventional porn. The female lead had a menacing aspect to her personality. She was almost predatory in a narcissistic way, and that made her unlikable, but again, I felt that was deliberate. The only flaw I felt was a true flaw was the seemingly inconsequential club scenes in which the bands perform the 9 songs. Maybe that’s because I haven’t figured out the relevance of the 9 songs yet, but it took away from the main focus of the film in a distracting way even if the soundtrack was kick ass and I loved all the bands.

Despite these perspective flaws, yes, I said perspective, what I found brilliant about the film was that all character development and exposition was done through intimacy. There was no telling of the life-story over coffee in endless contrived dialog, and there was no artificial outside conflict or influences to affect character development or the story’s outcome. I knew it was going to end badly from about half-way through this hour long film. I also enjoyed how the viewer is never explicitly told or shown anything. The ambiguity of the storyline is meant to be deceiving. Character development is so subtle that it requires a bit of psychological investment on the part of the viewer, and I liked that. I felt the characters were painfully exposed without even so much as a hint of confession. To me, that is pure genius. I hate when character motivation is so blatant that you feel like you are being bludgeoned to death with the stupid stick. A nonchalant viewer would miss all the subtle nuances and probably be disappointed, but a savvy insightful viewer who understands that much human relational psychology happens internally, just beneath the façade of love, would have been applauding the effort at the end as I was.

All in all, this film had an honesty to it. Art is all about being honest, it’s about articulating truth, no matter if that truth is poetic, vulgar, or frighteningly disturbing. Sometimes what might appear beautiful at first glance because we want it to be is inherently ugly at its core, and this is where the film achieved the highest merit in my opinion. So, if you like dark human drama and you don’t mind graphic sex, give this movie a watch. For a writer, it’s worth paying attention to for the non-linear narrative style, the use of flashback and introspection, and the ambiguous motivational aspects of the characters, or rather, how subtlety can be used to your advantage as a storyteller. Definitely a smart and deeply intense film.

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Anonymous said...

I don't mind graphic anything, but I honestly thought this movie was pretty dull. The Korean movie "Lies" was a better stab at the same basic idea.

Then again, I'm also coming to the conclusion that most of what happens in other people's beds is only interesting because you never see most of it, and that once you do it's a little like the story of the boy who cut his drum open to see what made it go bang.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Some people did find it dull and not the least bit sexually appealing, but the story, in my opinion, wasn't about what was happening on a physical level in the bedroom. The sex was used as a metaphor, as I saw it, so for me, the actual sex was uneventful because the physical act wasn't the point of the film.

I'll have to add "Lies" to my Netflix list. Thanks for the tip. the next film I have on que is "Last Life in The Universe." I saw it once already, but it deserves another look as I enjoyed it so much. You would probably like it.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I've seen "Universe" and was quite fond of it; it helps that it was by a filmmaker whose previous work I've enjoyed. (Bonus points, many of them, for Tadanobu Asano.)

Need to rewatch it and write it up when time permits.