Go Go Tales
By Robert Koehler
So deep–and I mean deep–was the impression left by Abel Ferrara’s fabulous, ecstatic Go Go Tales and Asia Argento in particular, that I would suggest that Cannes introduce a new prize in honor of Asia’s oral hyperactivity, which effectively took over the festival for a few days running. I would suggest a Tongue d’Or. Not even Naomi Kawase’s mad, mad heroes trekking through woods and up a mountain in The Mourning Forest, nor the morally-haunted, white-gloved female executioner in Yinan Diao’s masterpiece, Night Train, nor the slow-motion flight of skateboarders in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, nor the cosmic sunrise in Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (and, OK, not even the kooky opening shot and the skydiving nun shot in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely) could compete with the image of Asia tongue-kissing her Rottweiler (not a pit bull terrier, as I had incorrectly noted in my review for Variety) during a pole dance number in Go Go. Of course, Asia also revealed her chops in Catherine Breillat’s shockingly sober and even classical Une vielle maitresse, licking her tongue all over a thoroughly yucky, bloody wound on the body of lover Fu’ad Ait Aattou (who, it be said, is prettier than Asia). And for good measure, Asia out-did Michael Madsen as a mean motherfucker in Olivier Assayas’ strikingly poetic and beautiful piece of pulp, Boarding Gate, Cannes’ most unjustly maligned film. Asia didn’t need to announce that she was “Queen of Cannes,” even though she did. Anyone with a set of eyes and ears could spot that indisputable fact. What was more remarkable was that she was in at least two exceptional movies–one of them, Go Go, a certifiable masterpiece–and that whatever transgressive elements lay within the warp and woof of the Breillat belonged entirely to Asia. Like Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining, Asia turns her increasingly unfortunate mistress into a creature that simply disobeys the laws of nature, and certainly of the costume drama. (Which then made me imagine what Jack may have managed in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the film that Breillat’s most directly recalls, along with the overt references to Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses. Then again, as the mind wanders further, Jack was actually Kubrick’s choice for Napoleon, in possibly the greatest movie never made.)
Because Go Go depicts one night in the life of New York strip joint run by Willem Dafoe, and because it’s written by Ferrara, a wild ensemble of night-crawlers, hangers-on, operators, glad-handers, scumbags, landladies (Sylvia Miles, whose screaming and profane Manhattanite should have won some kind of award, and I don’t care if Go Go wasn’t in the competition), fashionistas, showbiz wannabes, artist wannabes and other indescribable denizens fill the screen like an ever-shifting gallery of contemporary Hogarth paintings. As always with Ferrara, the maniacal excesses of capitalism threaten to take over Dafoe’s den of simple pleasures. (Miles, for one, tells him that his business sucks, and that she’s fielding an offer from Bed, Bath & Beyond to take over the property lease–thus, the film’s explosive, off-the-charts closing credit song, “Bed, Bath & Beyond,” written by the director and blurted out in throaty glory by Miles herself.) Dafoe wants his “family” to stay intact, but he has to win the latest New York State lottery to get out of the sea of red in which he’s drowning. He’s the eternal American optimist, facing off against real and illusory windmills, and, of course, he’s also Abel Ferrara. There’s an imbedded, loving tribute to Cassavetes and particularly The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but the results are both more hopeful and more ironic than in Bookie. Ferrara has allowed his comic self to run free, and he imagines a universe in which sensuality and tongue-kissing your doggie is just fun, and an end unto itself.
I’ll refrain here from delving into both Wang Bing (who, with Fengming and his short for the interesting and inevitably uneven omnibus film, O Estado do Mundo in the Quinzaine, was my choice for filmmaker of Cannes #60) and Night Train, both of which I’ll be writing about in upcoming editions of Cinema Scope magazine. Little if anything approached the majesty and formal daring of these films, but I’ll continue to also hoist the flag for Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, which, along with Reygadas’ film, poses issues of pure faith in cinematic terms that challenge non-believers such as myself. This was the case last year with Albert Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria, portraying a Don Quixote in direct conversation with God. (Serra, in a short essay in this year’s Quinzaine catalogue, praises ThÈrËse, by the Quinzaine’s tributed director, Alain Cavalier, as a film with a heroine who is “transformed by divine grace as we had been by the aesthetic experience that allowed us to transcend the world,” and that, “following Catholic tradition, we rediscover the universe through objects and the physical contact we made with them.”) Even though Kawase’s work is imbued with a considerable immersion in Buddhism (a factor, I think, in its rejection by a goodly number of smart critics at Cannes), and even though Reygadas is interested in portraying the plain-speaking and plain-living yet still-exotic spiritualism of Mennonites–an austere Protestant sect that makes a point of keeping to itself–both adhere to precisely this aesthetic of the physical-in-the-spiritual that Serra is referencing, and of which he is a supreme contemporary exponent. (“Yes, there is God,” Serra said to me over a beer in Vancouver last year, “but there are bodies. Bodies are very important–bodies are the key!”) These are films made by artists committed to radically formal cinema who also happen to be deeply religious, and it’s this combination that I think makes them problematic objects of fascination for critics and cinephiles, some (or many?) of whom aren’t religious at all.
I’m an atheist, for one, and a Darwinian, for another, but the manners in which the physical-mystical in the latest films of Serra and Reygadas and Kawase (and one might even add Kiarostami, although his own religious adherences are more subtle and hardly in line with strict Islam) comprise one of the most fascinating and unexpected patterns in new creative cinema. After a long stretch of time since Bresson and Dreyer (the overwhelming–perhaps too overwhelming touchstone in Silent Light) and, twenty years ago, since ThÈrËse (a film I now dearly wish I had caught in the Quinzaine), a certain kind of ecstatic religious beauty expressed through corporeality has returned in a big way. Since it confronts the contemporary skeptic with concerns and ideas that juggle the new and the ancient, it requires a longer and more thoughtful reflection than can be managed in a blog. (Blogs do have their limits.) In The Mourning Forest, a pantheism takes hold in the final third as an old man and his younger caretaker approach a gravesite, and death is contacted in a way that recalled for me Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. After Reygadas’ quite mortal humans work their way through a complicated marriage and a more complicated affair that the husband has been carrying on–and after several extended shots of bodies and machinery (cars, engines, threshers, soft-swirl ice cream dispensers)–a metaphysical miracle caps the final act, and in a moment, we are unmistakably back with Christ rising from the dead. These, with the remarks raised by Serra, are notions that Cannes has left me musing over, and that perhaps in cinema’s combined ability to conjure up dreams and the imagined as well as the visible, physical world, that an intrinsic system operating in the medium itself is being tapped by these (believing) artists. These aren’t objects of pure belief, for sure, but they insist that two worlds, the seen and the unseen, coexist. In the church of cinema that is Cannes, it shook things up. That’s what matters.