Reviewed by: Themroc

Like most portmanteau films, Destricted is a fitfully rewarding and frequently frustrating affair. As the film lurches between wildly different approaches to the brief, film and video formats, documentary and dramatised fiction, and films that range from 3 to 38 minutes in length, it’s hard not to feel slightly punch-drunk - particularly given the extreme nature of much of the material. Just as you’re attempting to digest one interpretation, the film abruptly sets off – after only a brief pause - in a completely different direction. This smorgasboard of style, tone and execution is (when it works) precisely what makes the portmanteau structure theoretically appealing, since it invites the audience to compare and contrast the exploration of themes and ideas and allows the film-makers to investigate the subject matter in their own idiosyncratic way. However, as usual, the brief here is so wide-ranging and the films bear so little relation to one another that it’s almost impossible to write about the film as a coherent, comprehensible whole.

Destricted kicks off with Matthew Barney’s predictably baffling segment, Hoist, in which a man who is strapped to the undercarriage of a fifty-ton deforestation vehicle, pleasures himself against its rotating lubricated drive shaft. Barney’s segment was shot in Bahia, Salvador and is an excerpt from a longer piece entitled De Lama Lâmina. It is apparently a film about “the meeting of chronic libidinal energy and the destructive forces of technology…[and] the imperfect consummation of the human and the mechanistic”. Really? I would tend to argue that JG Ballard explored those ideas rather more effectively in his novel Crash and that, in any case, without the press notes to hand to explain the piece as if it were a mathematical equation rather than a work of art, I feel fairly sure that I would have been unable to respond to Barney’s film with anything other than blank incomprehension. Stripped of context, Barney’s film is so obscure, that it can mean almost anything or nothing depending on how much the viewer wishes to import. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if what I was watching was a dramatisation by an actor or a piece of documentary footage. Still, I should admit that I was similarly perplexed by large stretches of Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, so those more familiar with and sympathetic to his work may get more out of this than I did.

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Hoist is followed by Marina Abramovic’s documentary-cum-performance art piece, Balkan Erotic Epic. According to Balkan folklore (or at least so we’re told) men and women performed explicit sexual acts (masturbating over and fornicating with inanimate objects, keeping dead goldfish inside the vagina… that sort of thing) in the superstitious belief that it would prevent crops or marriages failing and keep families safe from evil spirits. Although the film is quite imaginatively designed in its use of animation, the reconstructed scenes of women massaging their breasts or men staring blankly at the viewer with an erection sticking out of their trousers make the whole thing seem less like a piece of serious history or anthropology than a joke at the expense of more credulous viewers. For all I know, every last word spoken in the film is the truth, but the (unintentionally?) tongue-in-cheek execution left me feeling pretty dubious. If Abramovic really was attempting to examine “what can be learned about these ancient traditions viewed now in a contemporary context” then, judging by the unsympathetic laughter her film elicited from the audience, she failed. Perhaps a more sensitive approach to the subject matter may have had more thought-provoking results.

Balkan Erotic Epic is followed by what were, for my money, the two most interesting films on offer. They also happen to be two of the shortest. House Call, directed by photographer and painter Richard Prince, is 12 minutes long and Sync which is directed by Italian film-maker Marco Brambilla, is only (a symbolic?) 3 minutes. In their different ways, what both films manage to do is significantly alter the viewer’s perception of sex, orgasm and voyeurism for their duration. House Call simply re-shoots (presumably from a television screen) and re-edits a piece of 1970s pornography (in which a doctor comes to examine a voluptuous naked female patient in her bedroom). But in so doing, Prince manages to transform a crude and prosaic piece of consumer product into something far more sensual and, in an abstract way, weirdly beautiful. Saturated colours bleed across the screen and the bizarre soundtrack ebbs and flows to create an intense representation of lovemaking that feels both emotionally human and yet completely alien and otherworldly. The technique of shooting the image off the television screen makes us aware of our own voyeurism, whilst simultaneously helping to transform the object of that voyeurism into something completely different. Brambilla’s piece is constructed with similar simplicity, compressing a battery of samples and shots from porn movies into a 3-minute blur of confused frenetic sexual activity and climax. God knows what my subconscious made of this assault, but consciously, the effect was to compress the banality of recorded pornography into something much more intense and visceral. Over almost before I had had a chance to adjust to its breakneck pace, it’s the film that in some ways I’d be most interested to re-watch, if only to fathom whether the experience is simply a shallow rush or something more complex.

Larry Clark’s segment is sensitively entitled Impaled (presumably to annoy people) and, at 38 minutes, is the longest of the bunch. The basic set-up is that Clark posts an ad on the web asking for young men who want to appear in a short film fucking “a hot porno chick”. Clark interviews the young men (aged between 19 and 23), asking their views on pornography and sex before getting them to strip off. He then allows his selected candidate to interview a number of porn actresses so that he can choose one with whom he will share his first anal sex experience. I must say that I rather like Larry Clark’s films and much of his photography and feel that (for the most part) the criticism of his work owes more to the prudishness of his critics than to the genuinely exploitative or problematic nature of the work itself. Yet, on an artistic level, this is the hardest of Clark’s films to defend. Not because it’s offensive, but because it’s so shallow and pointless. Although the experience of watching it is never boring (in fact it is quite engrossing in a nakedly voyeuristic kind of way), I was left with absolutely nothing at the end of it at all. Clark’s manner with the young men is reassuringly matter-of-fact and vaguely paternal, so even when the camera roams pruriently over their naked bodies and then those of the actresses, it seems benignly curious rather than leering or sinister. But there’s just nothing behind it. The introductory biog in the press notes describes Clark (with some justification, in my view) as a “cult anthropologist of American adolescence” but then goes on to describe this film as “a riveting documentary about desire and sexual initiation” (which is a stretch to say the least). Clark’s best work may well be interesting from an anthropological perspective, but Impaled simply is not. Do the interviews at the start tell us anything about the state of the nation or of America’s youth and their values or anything else for that matter? I didn’t think so. The interviewees aren’t a broad or wide-ranging enough cross-section to represent anything other than themselves. And what are we to read into the young man’s choosing of the oldest applicant as his bedfellow (she claims to be 40)? Considering that the older women get, the harder it is for them to get work in the adult film industry, I was lost as to why this choice reflected “sexual fantasies …directly related to growing up with pornography”. A far more likely explanation is that the older woman, probably more desperate than the others for a paying gig, was the only one who treated her interviewer like a prospective lover. During her interview she coos over the size of his penis, paws his chest and drapes her arms around his neck. The other interviewees, for the most part, behave in a much more formal matter-of-fact manner, even when presenting their bodies and genitalia for inspection. What do they care if they get the job? As one of them cheerfully points out “I have anal sex on film once a day, five days a week”. The interview process is followed by the sex itself, which is titillating in the way that footage of people fucking generally is. The only difference is that we can occasionally hear Clark dryly saying things like “frame up so we get the head of his cock at the top and his balls at the bottom”. But can anything really meaningful be gleaned from any of this? Well, let’s see – young men and women who shave their pubic hair are more prevalent than perhaps previously, and our hero discovers to his surprise and mild disgust that anal sex can be slightly messier in real life than it is when represented in pornography. But that’s about it. I couldn’t uncover anything more profound or interesting here than in the countless documentaries about ingénues in the adult film and sex industries that constantly crop up on late night channel 4 or 5 for the edification of the stoned and insomniatic. With Impaled, Larry Clark has unfortunately produced a lazy piece of harmlessly exploitative work that is neither of any anthropological value nor particularly interesting in its own right.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s short piece Death Valley is a visually beautiful film (shot on 35mm by celebrated British DoP Seamus McGarvey) which unfolds in one take in its eponymous location – the lowest point in the western hemisphere and one of the hottest places on earth. A man walks into frame, opens his trousers and after stroking his cock attempts to masturbate into the sand. There is a dismayingly pretentious explanation of the film’s literary and emotional subtext contained in the press notes, which I won’t bother to go into. Not because it’s necessarily unimportant, but because the ideas expressed in the notes are so poorly realised on screen that it doesn’t make any difference what they are. All I felt after watching the film for about two minutes (apart from admiration for the photography and the curiously beautiful sound) was embarrassment for the poor actor who looked desperately uncomfortable propped on one elbow and seemed to be having real difficulty reaching the climax that his director wanted. The performance is so strained and artificial that it not only looked ridiculous but also undermined the sensory responses generated by the stunning location.

Which brings us, finally, to French cinema’s current enfant terrible, Gaspar Noé, whose characteristically bleak 23 minute film We Fuck Alone (a possible reference to his first feature I Stand Alone) closes Destricted. Noé is a director of tremendous talent and bravura technical skill. His stunning debut Seul Contre Tous was one of the most original, moving and shockingly provocative films I think I’ve ever seen. His searing inversion of the rape-revenge drama, Irreversible, I found less successful. Directed with courage, flair and virtuosity, its initially clever use of a backwards narrative nonetheless proved in the end to be structurally self-defeating. Sadly, it seems that, if We Fuck Alone is anything to go by, Noé is going to allow his art to slide further into self-parody. His film starts with two people separately watching a woman being rimmed on television while they masturbate. The girl pushes a teddy bear into her crotch and the guy fucks an inflatable doll and jams a gun into its mouth. The film is shot in the lurid, infernal reds that have come to be Noé’s shorthand for a kind of nightmarish hell on earth, and the soundtrack pounds with the same sort of pulsating rumble that he used to such good effect during the early scenes of Irreversible. But since the two characters are empty ciphers, the initially unnerving effect quickly wears off and I found that the film became repetitive, pointlessly ugly and extremely boring. Even the fact that the couple on the television are engaged in an act that some still consider taboo seems like empty and ineffectual provocation with no deeper meaning or resonance. The cumulative effect was ultimately not shocking but deadening.

Destricted is being given a careful (or perhaps cautious?) release by Revolver Entertainment. Initially, the film is to be screened at the Tate Modern from September 6. Thereafter it will get a limited release in selected cinemas from September 15 before being released on DVD on September 15. Presumably, this is to emphasise that the film is to be considered primarily “Art” rather than “Entertainment” in a bid to prevent the kind of hysterical hue and cry that tends to greet stuff like this in the mainstream. Whatever else happens, I hope that it avoids the tarred brush of specious controversy. It’s best described as a flawed, patchy, misguided piece of work overall, and in some places it’s just plain dumb. But it is neither obscene nor indecent. I hope that, instead, it is critiqued on its own terms – as an attempt by serious artists to get to grips with the issues surrounding the depiction of explicit sex on screen. Cinema hasn’t successfully managed this yet in the way that other art forms have (although Nagisa Oshima made a reasonably successful attempt with Ai No Corrida in 1976 – subsequently banned in Britain until 1991, of course). But, for those intrigued, the birth pains of these ideas are diverting if not always successful or even, in retrospect, all that interesting in their realisation.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Destricted packshot
Explicit seven-part portmanteau feature examining pornography, sexuality and art.
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Chris ****

Director: Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince, Sam Taylor-Wood

Year: 2006

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

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