Fantasia 2010, Part Two: Year of the Doll

by Randolph Jordan Volume 15, Issue 4 / April 2011 21 minutes (5085 words)

A sign of Fantasia’s growing stature on the festival scene is the increasingly high profile status of the films cast in the opening and closing slots. This year’s opener was about as high-profile as you can get: Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, introduced by the film’s young star and local boy made good Jay Baruchel. It was a pleasant surprise to hear of his earnest appreciation of the film’s premiere at Fantasia, a festival for which he had endured line-ups under the hot Montreal sun for years. This was his first time at the festival as an actor rather than a fan in the audience. “And what a good looking audience too,” he added. “I don’t know about you but I’ve got a hard-on.” Indeed, the aforementioned line-ups view like auditions for Montreal’s famed Fetish Week, an aspect of the festival that warms the heart of the Suicide Girl in all of us. And this makes enduring the crowds a lot more fun than, say, wading through the throngs of tucked, Tilly’d and sandaled folk at the jazz fest whose final days consistently overlap with Fantasia’s opening weekend.

As for the film itself, well, I will admit to having thought hard about whether or not I should bother attending the screening, given its position as a mainstream envoy of the evil Disney empire that stands as a Goliath in opposition to so much of the independent and underground spirit showcased by this festival. In the end it was my obsession with images of Manhattan, and the Chrysler Building in particular, that compelled me to go. I had secretly been excited about the film’s potential after the first thirty seconds of the oft-repeated trailer: familiar-looking aerial shots of the mid-town skyline grow closer and closer to the Chrysler Building until settling on a close-up of one of the iconic hood-ornament gargoyles which then opens its eyes, turns its head, and leaps off the building to come swooping down onto the streets below.

To my disappointment this particular sequence was dramatically altered in the final cut, the best shots having been excised completely. But the film still featured a worthwhile chase between the gargoyle and the sorcerer with a climax on the Manhattan Bridge, just one of a host of inanimate objects brought to life to raise various forms of urban havoc over the course of the film. The film’s preoccupation with animating the lifeless bookended nicely with the Metropolis closing film extravaganza. With its own narrative of machine made flesh, Lang’s influential film is the prototype for urban anxiety made manifest through variations on the Pinocchio syndrome. Presented here with newly discovered footage along with a new score composed and conducted by Montreal’s own Gabriel Thibeaudau live at the sold-out 3,000 seat Wilfred-Pelletier hall, this event marked a real coming of age for Fantasia. And it was a fitting end to a festival strung with films fascinated with mannequins, sex dolls, bad fake babies, and action figures from G.I. Joe to Jesus Christ. Eve’s Necklace, Théorie de la Religion, A Serbian Film, Ninjas, Air Doll??, and Marwencol all, in their own way, tested the boundaries between fantasy and reality by way of exploring the relationship between human being and plastic facsimile, making for an interesting array of meditations on the human condition.

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The most overt engagement with our plastic alter egos was Daniel Erickson’s Eve’s Necklace, a noir(ish) thriller played entirely by – you guessed it – mannequins. Although the festival guide suggests the film involves “traditional animation,” it is actually more of a puppet show, the mannequins manipulated by offscreen handlers as the camera rolls in real-time. An exercise like this immediately begs the question: why? Why mannequins instead of real people? Does it help the story in some way? Are these figures of aesthetic importance? The film is, of course, not without precedent. My favourite example is Todd Haynes’ 1988 short film Superstar in which he employs Barbie dolls to explore the tragic story of singer Karen Carpenter. By rendering her domestic life through the plastic machinations of these figures, the film deftly comments on the ills of superficiality in the highly constructed world of everyone’s favourite girl-next-door. Sadly, Eve’s Necklace has no such conceptual pretense to back up its choice of mannequin over live action. If it was meant to be funny, like the Japanese Fuccon Family shorts screened at Fantasia a few years back, it should have taken heed of the strategy employed by that series: go deliberately over the top as counterbalance to the muted nature of mannequin figures. And keep it short. Very short. Eve’s Necklace, on the other hand, is feature-length, and it plays deadpan straight. So it was funny for about five minutes, and then it was done.

Sadly, there is nothing particularly interesting about the story of a Mexican immigrant whose new married-life is threatened by a blast from the past: a pornographer to whom she is indebted for securing her visa. The only time I felt that the use of mannequins here became interesting was when the husband discovers one of the porno DVDs his wife had made in her past life. Having been established as an uptight workaholic with some sexual dysfunction, the husband is painted as something of an automaton who comes alive with jealousy when faced with his wife’s past. And so he watches in horror as his new bride displays all on his television screen.

Indeed, this moment had potential to flesh out, so to speak, the intersection between the artificiality of porn and the artificiality of the mannequin to reveal the superficiality of the husband’s character. Unfortunately the filmmakers did not dwell on the possibility of using the mannequin as a form of commentary on the film’s themes, instead seeming content at the idea that a straight-up crime thriller would become something more by way of its plastic thespians. Interestingly, the other films at the festival to employ mannequins, dolls or other forms of humanoid representation all did so in the context of exploring problems of human sexuality and the troubled line between fantasy and reality, taking these themes to far more interesting places than Eve’s Necklace. [Another film at Fantasia this year which would seem to fit into this theme, not seen by the author, is David Blyth’s Wound. ed.]

Théorie de la Religion, debut feature from Québec’s own Frédérick Maheux, presents 67 minutes of sexual violence committed against an inflatable doll. This is where Frank Zappa’s entourage would have taken their backstage sex-doll antics in Baby Snakes if their Jack Daniels had been spiked with Jacob’s Ladder.

Although most would label the film non-narrative, it does follow a formal trajectory marked by three conceptual intertitles. The first, from Pierre Klossowski’s Le Monstre, reads as follows: “I have always conceptualized a thousand times more than actualized, and I have always resented the nature that gave me the desire of an outsider while forever withholding the means to act on this desire” [my translation from French]. In these opening lines we find an echo of words attributed to Antonio Salieri in Milos Forman’s Amadeus wherein the composer decries a god that would allow him the musical capacity to fully appreciate Mozart’s genius without granting him the skill to emulate it. This is a recipe for bitter torment, a sentiment that seems to run through Maheux’s film to the core. And so the stage is set for a journey into the dark heart of the fantasy that can never be made real.

Théorie de la Religion begins by setting up the idea of the dangerous potential of pornographic fantasy. The first ten minutes intercut footage of violent acts committed against a sex doll with video footage of rape survivors giving court testimony and an excerpt of the final interview with infamous sex offender Ted Bundy describing his prison experience with other offenders who he says were all, without exception, deeply addicted to pornography. And so, as we spend the rest of the film watching the ritualistic abuse of the doll, we are invited to ask whether or not this type of behaviour is cathartic release or dangerous pre-cursor to taking these acts out onto the street.

Yet the film’s title suggests something more than just an exercise in the witnessing of depravity. Indeed, it reaches for the lofty goals of engaging with George Bataille’s influential work of philosophy by the same name, quoted in the second of the film’s intertitles mid-way through: “I pull you out, victim, from the world in which you were, and could only be, reduced to the status of object, an exterior sense of your intimate nature. I remind you of the intimacy of the world divine, the profound immanence of all that is.” Bataille’s book is an account of the rise of capitalism, but this account revolves around the development of a philosophy of religion as the organization of ritual sacrifice to reclaim humanity’s lost intimacy, and it is this angle that is reflected in this quotation by the description of the transcendent potential of violence. Yet while the book is a dense exploration of the machinations of the 20th Century world’s dance to the tune of the marketplace, the film makes no such pretence. Instead, its invocations of Bataille seem almost an excuse to run with the theme of human sacrifice as social benefit without any of the supporting social analysis. So let us ask the question: if the film is meant to comment on Bataille’s belief in the power of human sacrifice, what are we to make of the fact that the victim in this film is but a simulation? Is this a critique of Bataille? A critique of pornography? A critique of desire itself? We shall never know. The film ends on a cryptic note with the last of the intertitles quoting from B. Anel-Khan’s “Théorie et practique de la magie sexuelle”: “Woman will squash the head of the malevolent serpent at the determined hour… and it is thus that the masculine Satanism must be vanquished, by the triumph of the solar verge in the mouth of the feminine Satanism.” Here you get the sense that the film is trying to lift itself out of the vulgarity of the actions depicted on screen and suggest a spiritual component, in keeping with the film’s obvious desire to claim Bataille’s love of sacrifice as its own. But the film does not achieve the level of transcendence its protagonist aspires to.

For me, the film’s most interesting aspect is its use of form. While it depicts a litany of atrocities that could have been lifted from the pages of the Marquis de Sade or William S. Burroughs, the violence of the film is carried as much by its audiovisual aesthetic, shot on low-grade video and re-recorded on VHS with a continual stream of degradation present as though we are watching a porno tape that has been paused, scanned and rewound a few hundred too many times.

The soundtrack features various musical cues from screaming death metal and industrial noise to menacing electroacoustic drones, and these alternate with fittingly lo-fi direct-sound recording allowing us to hear the breathing and grunts of the perpetrator and the lifeless smacks and thuds of his implements upon the doll. An offscreen camera clicking stills and other recorded pornography are frequently audible in the background, suggesting that this is as much an event staged for pornographic purposes as it is an intimate view onto the madness of a single individual, lending the film the feeling of a true snuff rather than a fictionalized account. In its celebration of video distortion Théorie shares much in common with the long history of experimental film and video art that has explored the potential of medium-specific inducement to transcendental states of mind, and on this level the film works well in establishing a consistent and unrelentingly meditative tone, though not exactly a peaceful one. Look for it as the late-night title on a double-bill with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers.

Théorie de la Religion is worth some comparison to A Serbian Film, touted as this year’s most controversial entry, complete with security guards hired to “protect” the filmmakers in case of angry protesters (though they didn’t seem to feel the need to bring their bodyguards to the after party). The film tells the story of an aging male porno star brought out of retirement by the lure of big bucks for a secretive project that ends up sending him on a psychotropic journey through ever-increasing levels of possibly imaginary snuff film atrocity as he attempts to escape the labyrinthine compound in which the filming takes place. But the take on the line between pornographic fantasy and reality succumbs to its own sophomoric slickness, presenting truly awful scenarios with a polish that belies the filmmakers’ stated desire to be subversive. So while A Serbian Film tries really hard to go further than other films in order to make a point about how messed up things are in its country of origin, it ends up playing like a loud mouth bully in the schoolyard rather than a thoughtful speaker at a student protest.

The film’s centerpiece is the “newborn porn” sequence that presents an unsubtle literalization of the film’s message: in Serbia, you’re fucked from the day you leave the womb. But just as this scene is emblematic of the lengths the film tries to go in tying message to content, it is also exemplary of the film’s failure to break through to another side. The now infamous shot of a newborn infant being raped is viewed by the protagonist in a screening room with the project’s director who is trying to convince the star of the merits of his work. However, the video they watch is mysteriously shot from behind the assailant, the baby’s head just peeking out from obscurity, no penetration visible, as though these most vicious envoys of the snuff industry shoot their infant rape videos for the soft-core market.

To make matters worse, the baby here is only marginally more realistic looking than the mannequin baby that closes Eve’s Necklace to plant a paternity question in the minds of the audience:

The makers of A Serbian Film clearly know the limits of convention and are not really trying to break through to a different level of cinematic excess. And this deficiency is readily apparent in the tone of the film as well, utilizing very conventional horror/thriller genre tactic complete with shock cuts, continual eerie and dramatic orchestral music cues, and a mise-en-abime style non-linearity as the protagonist comes to terms with the drug-induced mayhem of the shoot by trying to remember what has happened by watching the footage in a video camera. If sexual violence is your thing, A Serbian Film still doesn’t hold a candle to the long-take realism of the rape scene in Nasty Noé’s Irreversible, or even the much less violent but more emotionally charged sex scenes in Mike Leigh’s Naked. In the end A Serbian Film clearly illustrates the difference between a film that depicts subversive acts and a film that is itself truly subversive. It is shocking in situation, but very conventional in execution. I didn’t see any walkouts, suggesting it is neither too hard to take, nor too boring to watch. In the end, these are both good things for a film that seeks the audience that Théorie de la Religion will never have. A Serbian Film could be watched by 14 year-old boys looking for a slight step up from the Friday the 13th and Saw franchises. Théorie de la Religion, on the other hand, could be watched by convicted sex offenders looking for a legal alternative to snuff film so as not break the terms of their parole. Though to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be caught at the border with a copy of either film in my bag…

A Serbian Film and Théorie de la Religion both attempt to explore the relationship between sacrificial violence and culture. On this front, Dennison Ramalho’s short film Ninjas puts them both to shame. Director of Love from Mother Only, my all-time favourite short film to have screened at Fantasia, I had high expectations for this long-awaited follow-up. And after a taste of his energy as collaborator on last year’s Coffin Joe spectacular, we were good and ready for some pure Ramalho. The film opens at a church ceremony where the congregation members are prone to ecstatic visions. Here we meet Jailton in the midst of a vision of an emaciated and lacerated Christ descending from the cross and approaching the man. A hand emerges from a gaping wound in Christ’s chest and holds out a gun to give to Jailton, a nod to Cronenberg’s Videodrome [and Larry Cohen’s Gold Told Me To, ed.]

But what does it mean? Cut to night and we learn that Jailton is a good-hearted cop in the slums of Sao Paolo, and here we witness him shooting an innocent adolescent boy by mistake while chasing down a suspect. His fellow officers cover it up, but Jailton is plagued by vicious flashbacks rendered in deft montage sequences alternating between supernatural haunting and the harsh reality of a man losing his mind in squalid surroundings.

So the police captain shows up to make things right the only way he knows how: show Jailton a world so horrible that he’ll forget all about the dead boy. Enter the Ninjas, a group of cops who moonlight as avengers working outside the law, tonight on a mission to nail a local bad guy – literally.

Jailton wants out but is forced at gunpoint to stay and be made accomplice to the torture the Ninjas extol on the man and his hapless girlfriend.

Seeking respite, Jailton closes his eyes and remembers his vision of Christ, the gun emerging from the last of the wounds inflicted upon him. Does this gesture suggest that Jailton needs to own up to his crime of shooting an innocent boy, just as Christ himself was innocent? Or is this a call to arms, to recognize the healing power of the kind of ritual violence Jailton finds himself witnessing this night?

The film’s recurring image of Christ on the cross presents an interesting take on the theme of the living doll in this year’s festival: model figures of Christ are amongst the most pervasive images that people associate with a once and (for Christian hopefuls) future living man, a model for humankind. A great many Christians would desire nothing more than to look up at the cross and witness their savior come to life, descend into the world, and save the people. And this fact underscores the key problem with most religious faith: the gods are not alive and visible in the world, and religious life is governed by the equivalent of mannequins modeling ideologies that, like the impossibly tailored fashions in a Manhattan 5th ave window, are not on par with human reality.

The ambiguity of the message brought by the figure of Christ in Ninjas illustrates one of the criticisms of the Christian – and especially Catholic – church: a hypocritical celebration of violence against Jesus as the answer to all the world’s problems. In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard postulates that ritual sacrifice has been the bedrock of human society since the dawn of civilization, that it is our collective energies directed at a common enemy that keep us from tearing each other apart. Girard argues that the real message inherent in taking Christ as model for humankind, aside from loving thy neighbor as yourself and all that, is that human civilization can exist without sacrificial scapegoating. For Girard, Christ’s goal is to break the cycle and move us into a new phase where we learn to manage our need for violence without taking it out on anyone else. Yet it is easy to see how the figure of Christ can stand for just the opposite: the most celebrated scapegoat in history as a model for continuing the cycle of violence. Which model will he be for Jailton? The film offers no answer, but in the sophistication of its execution and the viscerality of its strange mix of realism and the fantastic it operates on a level high above the pure vulgarity of Théorie or the sophomoric game-play of A Serbian Film. Ramalho is unquestionably a force to be reckoned with. Word has it that a feature film is now in the works. Get ready…

And now for something completely different: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll about a sex doll come to life provides the antidote to the “I wish these were live actors” problem of Eve’s Necklace, the “it’s okay, it’s just a sex doll” premise of Théorie de la Religion, and the “I’d be better off dead” nihilism of A Serbian Film. And in so doing the film presents a charming take on a number of contemporary social issues. Of course there is the problem of urban solitude that drives a man to seek intimacy with an inflatable doll, and there is a long list of films that are critical of the Japanese culture of the overworked salaryman who suffers from a lack of intimacy as a result of his job. And like Kore-eda’s acclaimed film Afterlife, social commentary here is brought into the world of the fantastic, here through the magical scenario that brings the doll to life, setting out to discover the world and build her own experience just as the denizens of the afterlife sort through their past to find that one moment they’d like to carry with them into eternity.

But what fascinates me most about Air Doll is its eerie echo of Kore-eda’s lesser-known documentary Without Memory. This film is about a man stricken with a form of amnesia that returns him to a point-blank level of recollection each morning, having to learn the names of his wife and children at the breakfast table anew with every new day. He spends his time struggling to work his way through his basic tasks, making some mnemonic progress only to have it taken away again once he falls asleep. Indeed, he is as though a doll just come to life, having to explore the world and discover its uniqueness afresh as does Nozomi in Air Doll. Both films emphasize the fragility of life, the documentary putting this in the context of the fragile nature of the man’s daily experience and relationships, his wife and children knowing that the next day he will be as though a stranger, no more capable of sustaining a meaningful relationship than an inflatable doll. In Air Doll, this is presented through Bae Du-na’s pitch perfect performance as Nozomi, a delicate soul who, although alive, remains an inflatable piece of plastic. In the film’s signature scene she is pricked and deflates in the middle of the video store where she has taken a job, a co-worker having to re-inflate her rather suggestively to keep her from expiring completely.

Indeed, such threat of deflation is the reality of the amnesiac’s daily life, the experiences that fill him each day leaking out again as he sleeps, requiring re-inflation the next morning. In the documentary this is a sad fact of the man’s brain injury suffered during a botched anesthetic, but in Air Doll it is elevated to social commentary on a state of the world in which so much experience is surface-only, leaving us with little depth to carry through into the next day. While avoiding the harshness of the other films discussed here, Air Doll manages to probe deeper into the relationship between fantasy and reality, asking that most basic of questions: what are the consequences of absent intimacy on the lives of those who suffer from this state of being? And what role can fantasy play in filling the void like so much air into an inflatable doll?

In one way or another, all the films discussed here revolve around a lack of intimacy by way of plastic substitution. Nowhere was this clearer than in Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol, also featuring a strong theme of memory. Here we meet Mark Hogancamp, another amnesiac who (often unwittingly) explores his missing past (and alienating sexuality) through the creation of a fictional world called Marwencol that he populates with action figures. This world is built in the back yard of the house where he lives, in the quiet of small-town Kingston just an hour outside of Manhattan. The film reveals its secrets slowly, emulating the languid pace of gradual recollection experienced by Hogancamp after a bar fight left him first comatose and then without memory. And so it is a while before we arrive at the first and most obvious question an audience would have: why was he beaten? Unfortunately, my first thought is that he was a gay victim of homophobic assholes. The film’s first answer to this question appears to disarm my first instinct as we learn that he was an angry alcoholic with an ex-wife and string of past girlfriends (though this could be as much evidence in favor of being gay as against). But for the moment, it seems that he was most likely the asshole at the bar that night, probably just running his mouth and pissing people off. But as he can’t remember, we are forced to remain in the dark while the film unfolds.

In the meantime, we are brought into his world of Marwencol. Here Hogancamp works out his issues with dolls representing he and others that he knows. Elaborate scenarios unfold that speak as much to fantasy as they do to the secrets of Hogancamp’s past. The interplay between fiction and reality in this world of dolls is sometimes so striking that he occasionally crosses unacceptable lines, as when the doll representing himself marries the doll of a woman in town who is, in real life, happily married to someone else. When she hears about this she sternly tells him it has to stop, for she knows all too well that Marwencol is not simply a place of fantasy play; it is the realm of Hogancamp’s past, present, and future.

Hogancamp has documented his world through photographs for years, and eventually these pictures get discovered by curator-types who begin to feature his work in art magazines. These spreads gain him some fame as an “outsider artist” and ultimately culminate in a solo show at White Columns Gallery in Greenwich Village. Mark has all kinds of anxiety about going to the city that bring up fears of getting beaten up again (though the incident happened in his home town of Kingston), and here we find a textbook example of art therapy at work. Hogancamp works through his anxieties about leaving his home by re-creating the scene of his attack in Marwencol, here at the hands of Nazi invaders. But there is another reason he has fears about the show: he never intended his work to be “art,” and he doesn’t want to lose his world to outsiders. He knows the physical work remains his own, but is aware that by making it publicly accessible he is throwing his life open to scrutiny, and this is the last thing he wants taken from him as his memories and previous life were.

The show is ultimately a success, and here it is revealed that he does, in fact, have some “alternative” sexual interests. Late in the film, as he prepares for the show, we learn that he has a closet with 250 pairs of women’s shoes, among other items, and that he enjoys wearing these. We also learn that this subject was broached on the night of his attack. He wanted to wear heels to the opening, imagining that Greenwich Village was still a haven for artist types. When he gets there he realizes that times have long changed from his memory, a memory that was largely a media construction of the 50s beatnik scene to begin with. A bit disillusioned, he withholds acting on his desire until the show is done, donning a pair of heels just as the mops come out to clean up for the evening.

To cope with the stress following the show, he introduces his photography to the world of Marwencol, his character now with a camera taking pictures of smaller dolls, a way of working through the issues of self-representation that his public exposure has opened up. The final shots of the film present a kind of mise-en-abime where the world of Marwencol reflects Hogancamp’s life which then reflects the world of Marwencol, and so on.

It is interesting that his work, being appreciated for its authenticity as an “outsider artist” doing it for therapy rather than art, becomes reflexive once the work is put on display. Is this new element of self-reflection a sign of increased self-awareness on Hogancamp’s part? Or is it a sign that he is pushing his real-life stress into Marwencol in an attempt to sequester himself from the world even further? And here a disturbing issue emerges: along with his lost memories he has lost his taste for drink. But his taste for women’s clothes has returned from the depths of his lost memory. As his doll play helps him work through the blockage to reveal ever increasing aspects of his personality, will he move backwards to the man he used to be, or forwards as someone doing real therapy work? Is his art really therapy? Or a dangerous game that threatens to engulf him? And with this the film ends, having explored the relationship between human beings and their dollish representations the most thoroughly of all the entries to tackle this theme. And as such, Marwencol ended up being one of the highlights of my festival this year.

Fantasia Report Part 1

Fantasia 2010, Part Two: Year of the Doll

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He is currently Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Ryerson University, Champlain College, and LaSalle College. He is completing a monograph for Oxford University Press entitled An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema and is co-editing a collection for Palgrave entitled Sound, Media, Ecology. He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

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