05/26/17

Love And Marriage? Or … Lovers And Marriage?

Marriage Bared, José Reyes Guillén, 2007.

I almost abandoned The Lovers at the AMC Loews Cinema when I learned I had to choose a designated seat. I stared at the offerings on the screen the ticket-seller swiveled at me. How would I know, I asked him, if the seat I chose was not behind the woman with big hair, or next to the guy smacking down a tub of popcorn, or in front of the ladies offering continuous commentary on the action? He looked at me blankly.

Choose! I had to choose! Is nothing left to chance? To his relief, I chose Seat B3 and headed up the escalator. I told the friendly girl who looked like she would have preferred any option to ripping tickets on a sunny afternoon in New York City, that if I’d known this was a seat-assignment theatre I wouldn’t have come here and I was never coming back.

All Seats Reserved! FernandodeSousa
Melbourne, CreativeCommons.

With that I entered Theatre Number Four with my ticket marked Seat B3 and settled into Seat C7. The Sultanette has never been a fan of taking orders. Good news is the seat was a cushy leather affair with electronic adjustments. I buzzed into reclining position and settled in for the ride.

As it turned out, the AMC venue offered the perfect foreplay to The Lovers because it is all about choices – the ones we make, the ones we avoid making, and especially the ones we think we’re making.

Out of Tune, Allen Lai, CreativeCommons.

Mary and Michael, played with comedic precision by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, are long-married. Long past the resentment stage, the disappointment stage, the passion stage – too indifferent even to be bored with each other – they are tethered to the baggage of a remote past. In a reference to the piano parked in the living room that he once played back in the day, Michael says, “It’s way too heavy or it would be long gone.”

Instead of playing the piano, Michael has cultivated a pot belly. Mary’s neck is showing crepey signs of withdrawal from youth. Their house in Anywhere, California is decorated with framed memories, neatly grouped on vast blank walls. Every morning they dash around each other, separately slurping coffee before rushing off to work in cubicles. Michael stares at graphs on a computer and Mary sorts out stats for meetings in a glass-walled conference room, dressed for success but bored to death.

The Stolen Kiss, Jean-Honoré Fragonard c.1780, Hermitage.

Sound like fun? Or even familiar? Don’t abandon The Lovers yet because Michael and Mary are both involved in juicy illicit affairs with legitimate hotties. Michael does pliés with a supple ballet instructor, Susan, (Melora Walters). Mary tumbles with Robert (Aidan Gillen) a writer of impish charm. Can anyone blame them? (Well the New York Times did but that was just another of the paper’s retrograde cultural rants dressed up to look politically correct.)

When Mary and Michael aren’t indulging their libidos, they are concocting the intricate lattice of lies required to keep from getting caught – excuses that seem unnecessary since they both prefer to avoid each other’s company at all costs. This is brilliantly portrayed in a scene when fate brings them together for an evening.

TV Stattic & No Signal, Liz Sullivan, Creative Commons.

To his surprise and horror, Michael arrives home early to find Mary on the couch, staring at the TV with a glass of wine. After an awkward exchange – both searching for excuses to cover up for the lies they had originally made to see their lovers that night – Mary half-heartedly invites Michael to join her for a glass of wine. Their awkward attempt at mingling resembles kids on a first date. Except these two have spent a lifetime together.

No spoilers here, I promise! To see the provocative resolution you’ll have to go to the movie which The Sultanette highly recommends. For now let’s just say that director/writer Azazel Jacobs doesn’t let you take sides. None of the four lovers are bad or callous. They’re just lonely people with big, needy hearts. The lines between passion and a shared past, love and loyalty, promise and predictability are not neatly drawn. The affairs are more than sex. The marriage is more than routine.

Three Lovers, Géricault c.1820.

“Let’s do something normal,” Michael tells Susan one night, and next scene they are cuddling at a movie. When Robert and Mary playfully seduce one another, the sexual frisson is delicious. When feelings between Michael and Mary begin to stir, it’s more than a desperate attempt to make things right again. The comfort of normalcy, the delight of sensuality, the pulse of consistency – don’t we crave it all?

The beauty of The Lovers is that as in life, the choices aren’t always clear-cut. Sometimes you just have to sign up for Seat B3 and settle into Seat C7. When I left the movie, the friendly ticket-ripper said, “Have a nice day.”

04/28/17
Photo: TheSultanette

100 Reasons To Love Jane

Photo: TheSultanette

Up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch

How have your last hundred days been? No doubt you’ve been engaged in peaceful reflection if not bored out of your mind from the lack of controversy, acrimony, and world turmoil.

No?

Well just in case you’re looking for a story about little guys giving creeps their due, The Sultanette has a film for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is the story of a woman’s fight for urban preservation but its most stunning scene celebrates destruction. Spoiler: The bad guys get obliterated.

The slow motion collapse of failed housing projects reflects the filmic elegance of director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor). But in this latest documentary, to watch these massive structures crumple in nuclear clouds of dust and grime is to celebrate the fall of the Titans. Goliath unhinged. Money, arrogance, power … poof!

After reading Joe Morgenstern’s Wall Street Journal review last Friday, “In ‘Jane,’ a Real Urban Legend Comes to Life” I escaped to the IFC (International Film Center) to catch it on opening day. Nothing like taking in a Greenwich Village flick in the middle of a Friday afternoon to staunch the internal bleeding of a week spent manacled to the computer.

For Jane Jacobs, the city was a living breathing organism and its streets were the veins where people gathered, gossiped, watched, kissed, cried, sighed, prevailed. Morgenstern describes her as “the apostle of street life” whose work “remains a guiding light for city planners.”

In the film’s riveting narrative she confronts her dark arch rival, the “master builder, redeveloper and implacable scourge of New York neighborhoods” Robert Moses and his “wrecking-ball alliance.”

Photo: TheSultanette

Around the fountain at Washington Square Park

The freelance journalist, wife and mother, with no college degree or training in urban planning should have been a pushover for Yalie Moses and his power elites. Jacobs liked to pen polite articles for the Sunday Herald, Vogue and Architectural Forum, and hang out in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. But when Moses proposed to cut Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, an iconic Village gathering place, it was her tipping point.

Though his brutal re-shaping of the fabric and geography of the city is legendary, Moses did not succeed in that project thanks to the opposition lead by Jacobs. The Greenwich Village housewife, as portrayed by the press, was also arrested for standing up to Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal which also failed.

Morgenstern suggests that after this victory, the film’s climax is reached and the narrative flags – shifting its focus from Jacobs to America’s urban renewal disasters that conclude with the montage of public housing projects brought down by dynamite.

Photo: TheSultanette

Springtime in the City at Washington Square Park

But to watch the fall of these monuments to arrogance – such failures that the only solution was demolition – is to understand that abstract models on a table aren’t always a solution for problems on the street. After hearing the cocky rhetoric of Moses and his urban henchmen, the sight of these buildings going down is proof in plain sight that occasionally the certainty of power can be just plain wrong.

The movie concludes that it was skepticism not certainty that served Jane Jacobs. Where she saw urban life as an “organized complexity” Moses looked on it as numbers on a balance sheet. “Just give them cash,” he responds when asked how he plans to gut a neighborhood to build an expressway, “They don’t own anything, so they’ll take it.” Today, her treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is considered a bible in the field of urban planning.

Photo: TheSultanette

Reserved for People. No cars allowed.

When I walked out of the IFC, the Village was revving up for the weekend. Freshly released from offices and classrooms, the citizens of New York were filling up bars, bodegas, and smoke shops. Why not swing by Washington Square Park a few blocks away?

As I approached the square, I heard strains of live jazz. Students clustered on benches and around the edge of the fountain. A couple of guys huddled over a chess board while a third refereed. A row of trees burst pink blossoms along a makeshift fence. A trio of Japanese guys played Mac the Knife and a young mom balanced her teetering baby as it bounced to the music. No cell phone rants. Just jazz, laughter, and conversation. Somewhere somebody clapped.

Was it for Jane Jacobs? Without her, this turf would be ruled by traffic lights.

Don’t wait a hundred days to see Citizen Jane.

01/24/17

Intimacy With Strangers

Beijing Chaoyang Park, 2008, drnan tu.

Open on woman alone in cozy living room. A sudden shattering of glass breaks the stillness as a man bursts through French doors behind her. He is hooded, all in black. He throws her to the ground. She thrashes back. Vases crash. He takes her violently and disappears.

I almost left Elle after Isabelle Huppert’s first rape scene, already skittish at the thought of returning to my New York apartment, alone with the image. Yes, I did say “first rape scene” and yes, I’m glad I stayed. Because after its brutal introduction the film, this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film, takes an even more kinky but intriguing turn.

Crime of Passion, Yumi Kimura.

To tiptoe around full disclosure (if you have a low spoiler threshold, continue at own risk) the woman Michele, played with icy reserve by Isabelle Huppert (Golden Globe Best Actress in a Drama) has a compromised past which keeps her from reporting the incident. When the attacker returns, she rips off his hood. She knows him. Previous casual encounters have been sexually charged. And now the games begin. Rather than repulsion, violence fuels their attraction.

CAVEAT: The Sultanette does not endorse the above. Though I’m all for sampling the next course on the sexual tasting menu, violence is not my cup of tea. But the film suggests (without presenting solutions, as the French have mastered over centuries) a more nuanced story.

The Fisherman & the Siren, Frederic Leighton, c.1857.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven of Basic Instinct, Elle is a sly exploration of the implicit understanding between two beings. It toys with who we sense behind the masks (and if we need to rip them off). And shocks us into contemplating the psychological forces that trigger sexuality between two bodies.

As previously stated on this blog (to the disappointment of the horndogs among you) The Male Harem is not about sex. But intimacy? Call me an intimacy whore. An intimacy nympho. I can’t get enough of it. Not the tell-all brand of intimacy pushed by the couple’s counseling industry. In the harem, we are strangers of a sort. We don’t share to-do lists. We aren’t responsible for each other’s lives. We share precious time together but not vows to stay together for all time.

Nude Boy & Girl on Beach, c.1913, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

What fills our time is the present. It might include good food, adult beverages, a movie, music, or play. It will not include conversation concerning the price of condos, celebrity scandals, Facebook, or Monday Night Football. (A girl just gets tired of talking about balls.)

If sex happens to be a component it’s not fuck-buddy sex. As anyone in holy wedlock knows, good sex doesn’t happen on a schedule. It rises from desire that’s not required. And the good kind satisfies the libido which curbs the need to settle for the boring kind. It’s like having “I don’t need to fuck you money” in the bank.

Amor & Psyche, William-Adolphe Bouguereau,1890.

Before The Male Harem I paid my dues: two committed couplings steeped in monogamy that added up to one-third of my life. I have no complaint with mutual bonding. I believe in loyalty, trust, and having somebody’s back. What confounds me is how proficient we are at inhabiting the same four walls and ignoring each other’s essence.

We’re wired to negotiate relationships by the jobs we have, the stuff we accumulate, the offspring we perpetrate. And while these are worthy tasks necessary for survival of the species, they’re hardly conducive to exploring the rich, sometimes contradictory, endlessly surprising subtleties of another human being.

Enter Under Your Own Risk

Self-indulgent? Impractical? Fantastical? Easy, really. You don’t have to borrow on the credit card, give up gluten, or spend an hour on the elliptical everyday. All that’s required is that you mute the mobile, dismantle preconceptions, douse expectations, and get your mitts off of shaping someone into your Fred or Ginger or Tonto or Trigger.

Online matchmaking has its merits. But it’s doped us into paying more attention to algorithms than instincts. What if all those carefully curated facts distract from the untidy mystery lurking behind them? In that sense, Isabelle Huppert and her masked intruder might be onto something.