film theory

Leos Carax brings “Holy Motors” to Pittsburgh

Kylie Minogue and Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.”

The Three Rivers Film Festival continued this week with a screening of Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” an eternally perplexing film whose presence at this year’s festival is a testament to Pittsburgh’s standing as an up-and-coming hub for the arts.

The print was introduced as one of the only copies in the country, with a 35mm print having not reached U.S. shores as of Wednesday’s screening at the Harris Theater, downtown.

In line with previous screenings at the festival, however, the night didn’t go without its share of technical hijinks. Halfway through the film, buffering issues plagued Carax’s gorgeous film, forcing flustered employees to nervously inform a jeering audience that they may not be able to see the conclusion to “Motors.” Telling an auditorium full of pretentious film buffs they can’t see the end of a film like this is like telling a mother she can’t keep the precious results of the last twelve hours she spent in labor. Some were calm, some were up in arms. But, alas, the wonderful staff at the Harris Theater made sure those who chose to stay for the thirty or so minutes it took to fix the print went home happy.

The film itself eludes description—or “fair” criticism for just that matter. It is a film perfect in its artistic execution, catharsis in its purest form. It feels unfiltered, unburdened by a studio’s overarching creative control, but not lacking a thematic direction. It tells the story of a man, “Mr. Oscar,” given the task of completing various fantastical “appointments” throughout Paris which include masking his own identity to become someone—or something—else within various staged vignettes. Each of the scenarios sees Mr. Oscar applying makeup, full body suits, wigs, weapons, even “dying” a few times, all for the sake of crafting pure spectacle for an audience—not any specific one, simply the “idea” of “the audience” that lies at the core of any performance, filmic or non. “Holy Motors” is laden with elements Film Studies classrooms spend entire semesters reviewing; intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and conflicts between diegetic/non-diegetic aspects all come into play. “Holy Motors” is a film major’s wet dream, an act of defiance against contemporary cinema’s willingness to gloss over the dark (juicy) bits of reality that places the audiences in a position to respond versus passively “receive” at all times.

Edith Scob dons her “Eyes Without a Face” costuming in “Holy Motors”

It’s frustrating, confusing, intense, elaborate, something, nothing, and everything Leos Carax wants it to be all at once. Even in its most irritating portions of reluctance to let “the audience” in, “Holy Motors” is a film which can’t be faulted. After all, dreams can’t be wrong, can they? As a midnight excursion your brain may endure, the film is in a constant state of evolution, deconstruction, and re-imagination; destroying ideologies and scenarios pre-established only moments prior. There are countless references to films–classic and modern–that make “Holy Motors” a veritable treasure trove of cinematic and pop cultural history. Edith Scob reprises her role from “The Eyes Without a Face,” Kylie Minogue plays someone who is not Kylie Minogue in a film where Kylie Minogue music plays at a party, characters from other Carax films (“Tokyo!” in particular) make appearances as if they’ve never had a camera on them before. Scrapbooking for scrapbooking’s sake, I suppose. But not without purpose; this is a film which questions identity, performance, consciousness, and reality. Things taken for granted whilst commuting to work or seeing a concert, but pondered with precision and caution in dreams and cinema, the most pure forms of expression, which collide with dazzling results in “Holy Motors.”

When the print of the film lagged and skipped around thanks to the aforementioned buffering issues, one audience member (proud of himself for having such a brilliant thought) proclaimed (loud enough so the whole audience could hear) “I think the jump-cuts are intentional. This is brilliant.” While fancying himself a modern day Godard, he was shot down not only by the staff’s “fixing” of the “jump cuts,” but also by the one constant thematical message which runs throughout “Holy Motors”. The audience is a cog in a giant machine, victim (and, at times, willing participant) of the cinema’s ultimate power over any who relinquish their conscious state and hand it over to the all-powerful medium of film. He was wrong, but I’m sure Carax would appreciate his earnestness.

Even “Perfect” Has Its Thorn; Cynthia Rose and the Gay Stereotype

Cynthia Rose (right, Ester Dean) humps a fellow group member in “Pitch Perfect”

Brilliant screenwriting is unmistakable. We count on it to carry us through a film’s entirety. Careless writing in an otherwise enjoyable screenplay, however, can mar even the wittiest of writers’ work. A mere moment of sloppiness degrading a film as an unwelcome party guest showing up two courses through dinner.

Such is the messy plate of Pitch Perfect‘s interpretation of a “gay” character, the butch, short hair sportin’, pussy-lovin’, titty-grabbin’, black bulldyke stereotype otherwise known as Cynthia Rose. But, what’s the point of giving her a name? Those offensive descriptors are how the filmmakers want you to see her, anyway. It’s a shame, because Pitch Perfect, otherwise effectively written by Kay Cannon, is an enjoyable film without a malicious bone in its celluloid body, telling the story of an all-female acapella group struggling its way to the to the top of yet another male-dominated field. It’s at once powerful social commentary on the trickling down of patriarchal dominance, but it’s merely the sloppy, outside-the-lines pandering for humor at the expense of a gay character that gives the film a sour aftertaste.

Cynthia Rose is given no purpose in the film other than to generate laughs in one of two ways; A) When any other characters questions her sexuality and B) when she indiscriminately grabs for any body part of the nearest female character. She’s plopped into the screenplay without much motivation; she tries out for an accapella group, makes the cut, and is never given much thought again–until a cheap joke at her expense can be thrown her way. The other girls get a kick out of speculating about her sexuality. A few of them find themselves in various compromising positions whilst in her proximity; Cynthia Rose is there, lust in her eyes and nothing but air in her hands, copping a feel whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Let’s take, for example, a scene which sees Cynthia’s fellow group member, Fat Amy, reeling on the ground after a rival group throws food at her from a moving bus. Amy writhes on the ground, screaming for help as if she’s been shot. Cynthia is first on the scene, beaming at the opportunity to give way-open-mouth CPR to a friend who’s clearly breathing (enough so that her screams alerted Cynthia) on the ground. The joke would be funny if it were, say, someone with a prior sexually-induced trait; we laugh at Quagmire on “Family Guy” because we know he’s a sex addict. A breast, leg, or thigh comically coincidentally finding its way into his line of vision, for example, might inspire an actual sexual response. We expect this because of his addiction to sex, not because of his gender or sexual orientation. Pitch Perfect has you believe Cynthia Rose’s only motivation is that she’s a woman attracted to other women. The straight men in the film, however, keep their hands to themselves. They proposition women, but we’re never given even the slightest inclination that they’re resisting the insatiable urge to to grasp every piece of female flesh which walks before them. Countless other scenes draw on this same “gay is funny” principle; Cynthia makes attempts at grabbing other girls constantly throughout, and each instance comes at a time when far funnier things are going on around her. Say I’m a whiner, but the carelessness in presenting a gay character in such a ridiculously backwards manner is distracting (and detracting) from an otherwise pleasant comedic excursion.

Some might say the film also mocks “fat” people with the inclusion of a character with “fat” in her name. The joke with Fat Amy, however, is not that she’s a “fat” person. “You really call yourself ‘Fat Amy’?” one character asks her. “Yes, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” she responds. The humor lies within Amy’s insistence on taking control of an otherwise oppressive situation. She embraces herself enough to throw the criticism back into the face of someone who might try to do the same to her. She’s a step ahead. Cynthia instead fuels the criticism by mere existence, the laughs coming at the expense of her inherent desire versus her harnessing control away from the social status quo.

I remember watching the documentary “The Celluloid Closet”, listening to Harvey Fierstein discuss the offensive “sissy” characters of early cinema. Forgive me, for exact quotes always elude me, but I believe he said something to the effect of “I’d rather have offensive screen time than no screen time at all.” The phrase struck me as well-intentioned, but misinformed; that response diminishes an entire culture as desperate for attention versus long overdue for equality. Pitch Perfect, a film by all means about a subject completely different, will have you oddly pondering the presence of gay characters in a similarly muddled fashion. Sure, the joke is “funny” at face value and the gay character is “there,” but are audiences laughing such characters back into the closet, mocking inherent attractions characters like Jack Twist and Nic Allgood feel simply because they’re attractions?

Disregard all the “whining,” if you will, but I’ll leave you with this question: Is Pitch Perfect a better film because of the addition of the content I’m talking about? A worse film? If you can answer that, there’s a problem.