Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Cross vs. The Circle: In Defense of Lifetime Television's "Cyber Seduction"

For those who excel and find comfort in the current cultural climate of snark, eager to be the first find humor in every subject, the immediate reaction is disbelief that this movie exists. "Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life," A made-for-television film with the issue of internet porn addiction as the impetus of its central narrative invites interest of an ironic nature. However, what gets overlooked is how the seeming ridiculousness of the lesson-oriented drama provides a valuably reductive framework for an extraordinarily well executed and morally grounded drama, comparable to the transcendent graces of Robert Bresson's cinema. It's also worth remembering that a snapshot of laughter is also a picture of cruelty.

The surprise of director Tom Mcloughlin (responsible for "Friday the 13th: Part 6", the singular and atmospheric height of that famed slasher series) a
nd his modest and powerful film is that it is not issue-specific toward the seemingly ridiculous subject of "internet porn" as much as a formally and thematically disciplined drama about addiction in its universal terms. The teen age protagonist is a perfectly cast (wide eyed and awkward overbite) picture of vulnerability and innocence. The montages of the teenage protagonist's long nights at the computer are precise evocations of the automatic circle of the whirlpool trajectory toward the drain. The brief second of bright blue that fills the screen in the addiction montages is mirrored in the baptismal high school swim meet pool chlorine that saves him. Yes, he finds religion, or "gets radical" as he says he needs to do upon realizing how his embarrassing addiction has crippled his girlfriend, family, and life.

While the baptismal conclusion opens "Cyber Seduction"up to the criticism of exchanging one extreme for another or of bit bei
ng shallow religious propaganda, its worth noting that Eastern religions espouse the endless masturbatory Circle ( indirectly adopted as the form of our secular times as Philip Reiff has observed) and Christianity has the Cross, a rising line of confluence and intersection. The subversive criticism inherent in the lingering question of Mcloughlin's film is that the circular nature of addiction leaves its victims with no other choice but seek the Cross of confluence. Additionally, in the film's relationship to larger aesthetic trends, the reductive framework of the issue-oriented moral lesson film such as this one, and other Lifetime pictures, is one that would behoove other filmmakers to follow. It would benefit all of us for filmmakers to aspire to make Lifetime pictures as opposed to the fake independent success of the well marketed nihilism in disguise, revealed in the therapeutic platitudes of films like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Persistance of the Goodness Vision

"You go on vacation with your family, you know... you hang out you relax. But here...these brothers are on the prowl!"

Recorded in 1991 in front of an audience of predominantly black tourists in Aruba, "Sinbad: Bringing the Funk" is a masterful comic performance. A singularity of place, time, and intended audience (black people vacationing in the Caribbean) but its effects are transitory and a larger testament to specificity-in-performance.

I highly value the Goodness Vision and comedians with reductively clea
n parameters like Brian Regan and Bill Cosby (Sinbad's overriding influence) but what's often overlooked about Cosby is the undercurrent of anger that should mar the reverence that is held by comics for his tales of childhood and parenting. I understand why today's best comics like Louis C.K. and Chris Rock compare Cosby to a Jazz musician, but the mastery of formalism can't salvage his abusive Black Catholicism in my mind, though Cosby ultimately does achieve the Goodness Vision (though more often than not more successfully in his brilliant 1980s sitcom than in his stand-up recordings).

Pain is intractable from humor, we all know this, but the requisite negative line that runs through Sinbad's story telling manages to hit home with his audience of single black male and female tourists, the force of recognition can be felt in the reaction to his bit about couples who try and ditch each other immediately upon exiting the airplane.

I particularly liked the segme
nt where he mocked a collective procrastinating tendency (implicating his own in a gesture of humility) toward packing a suitcase much too late in the evening before the next morning's flight in its developed exploration of a banal subject. Here and in a later bit in which Sinbad portrays an ugly guy he knows in Atlanta, who is lucky to be outnumbered by many single successful black women, the comic uses a hard-to-place ambiguous "nerd" voice. A brilliants shorthand to invoke obliviousness though without cruelty.

The comic's performa
nce closes with a serious biblical reference which precedes in a celebratory loving ritual chant-a-long led by special guest Doug E. Fresh, and a reminder to the audience that while it's okay to have fun as singles on vacation, these experiences pale next to the value they will someday possess to "the life of a child." Friedrich Nietzsche would appreciate this compartmentalizing of sin and morality as he valued this capacity in the Greeks. Also worth noting is the fact that very few comics could or would pull this off a moment of closing transcendence at the completion of sustained gaiety in this current period defined by a constant desperation search for transgressive openings . Even a supposedly non-blue Christian comic like Brad Stein seems like a con working a fraudulent gimmick with his pleas to his promise-keeper fans to oppose "activist judges," seeming to come from out of nowhere and not at the peak of a crescendo or to mitigate excessive levity.

All i
n all, compared to most everyone else, Sinbad possesses a nuanced understanding of sin's necessity curbed by morality as much as he does comedic business and its proximity to serious business.

Florida: Where's The Orchestra? Part One

Just above a whisper..."Hadassah...Hadassah.......Hadassah"A small figure on the shoreline. It's comedian Gilbert Gottfried, portraying a politician (The Senator) in a three-piece-suit slightly too large for his small frame.

The Senator approaches the shore of the Gulf Coast holding his cell phone, he tells his staff that he's seeking a better signal but he really wants to speak to his wife alone as he evades them while walking into the waves, ruining his pants and increasing their professionals' disconcert.

The Senator examines the sky and shoreline, where they meet as one wall. Her voice tiny in his ear but filling up that sky. The terrifying infinity of space and possibility. Haddasah's faith nullifies the terror of possibility, Those endless possibilities of the secular age. He always says her name the same way, as if struck, haunted, and especially when the sky clears.

Returning from the water, surrounded by the assemblage of his staff, revolving around him, speaking and moving at a different frame rate. The Senator's smile is resilient but slightly pained by sunlight, but it looks that way under clouds too... as we'll discover.

The heat makes illusionary tremors out of the horizon lines in the distance but there have been actual earthquakes in Florida lately. Maybe this explains the jittery nature of The Senator's staff, natural phenomena uncommon to the territory named after Easter has expanded naked possibility fraught with the fearful imagination of a collective.

Also happening lately, the shooting murders of German tourists by black suspects on Floridian highways, everything is feeding into everything else in these strange times. The Senator is heading the one man exploratory committee following these unnatural events due to his peculiar sensitivity in these type of matters; it seems that every one of his colleagues has a story about his capacity for surprising clairvoyances. Small things mostly, he once located the missing house keys of his Senatorial colleague from South Carolina, but remarkable nonetheless to any and all observers bound by the normal sensory limitations.

Later on at a press conference, strobing flashbulbs and reporters questions shouted with urgency. The Senator's voice, seemingly designed for maximum annoyance is self-consciously restrained here as in all of the his public appearances, a performative austerity, but one always wonders what he this voice sounds like in full panicky fright mode and unbound at night like a Jewish Werewolf. This is the true undercurrent of The Senator's unpopularity with many of his colleagues and the media: a formal unflappability of manner. Sure, there is the overly nuanced balancing act of his lengthy explanations (The Senator is a master of this "jazz neutrality"), his stereotypically politician transgressions and triangulations from and refusal of acknowledgement of what's plain-as-day-true to everyone else, that is the content which justifies the fists pounded on tables in frustration but the voice...the voice completes this perfect impetus for vexed hair-pulling.

The balancing act, the neutrality and triangulations, these are the byproducts of the Visions, the burden carried and worn by the seer. An elaborate path toward the right thing is being followed and its unexplainable by The Senator because it's beyond words, even beyond vision because the Visions are not literal visions. People overlook this imperfect nature of the prophet, who wears this burden with a shuffling hunched sloppiness, visions are not answers but attacks that lead its victims with not even directions but on a path seeking directions.

The press conference over, The Senator smiles, recording devices shut off violently and pencils stab sentence ending periods onto note pads in frustration. He's said nothing but he's made revelations seem as though forthcoming in the immediate; his gifts are not salesmanesque but he manages this illusion of nearness and farness impossibly through the prolonged static of outwardly flat and neutral execution.

At nighttime, The Senator climbs into a hotel bed with his already sleeping wife. Incidentally, he always sleeps in his suit when not on holiday out of a long gestating superstition. She resembles sea-turtle passivity in these unguarded moments and he drapes an arm across her body, an awkwardly placed hug intended to keep her slumber undisturbed. The Senator recounts his day in an anemic whine with therapy session honesty into her ear. Hadassah jolts unconsciously, moans monosyllables and The Senator nods a serenely felt understanding before reaching his own restful surrender.

He. She. Asleep. And his ongoing psychic investigation will have to resume the next morning as they both maintain their stillness as the next massive earthquake begins. The slow rising falling of their bodies in breaths, comforting to watch from above with God's eye, though inexplicable as the entire room vibrates with violent rattles.