Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16
Conviction! As far as loaded words go, this could be up there at the top. Of course it depends on the context surrounding the conversation. Context is central as it often determines the breadth of both what we mean by the word conviction and the object of that conviction. When you hear the word, what do you think? Does your mind immediately go to religion? Or does it lean towards general reason or logic? I find this difficult because words feel like semantic labyrinths at times. They’re hard to maneuver when you consider the variety of intentions and expectations. What I tend to do is look back over my shoulder into history and see how others articulated similar ideas. As you can imagine, conviction comes up in come unique times and places.
Winston Churchill put it this way: “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense”. Friedrich Nietzsche’s angle was this: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” What those statements really mean, I’m not quite sure. We’d most likely find some general consensus but with different trails leading off in various directions. This passion can lead us into academic debates and verbal arguments. These convictions can make us laugh, cry, and scream.
Within the realm of cinema, one generally agreed upon conviction that I’ve noticed is to not give too much exposition. In other words, tell your story by showing it. Don’t show your story by telling us what the images mean. Where it gets complicated is that the images convey such different things to different people. A sexual image conveys intimacy and beauty to one and immoral pornography to another. Sex undoubtedly gets the juices flowing. Just ask your local pastor if you can screen Patch Adams and compare that response to a request for Caligula or Deep Throat.
Sex doesn’t just have a history with the morals of America. From the Production Code to the current MPAA, censorship seems to be heavy on sexual content but not so much violent content. Just try a spontaneous ratings quiz. Take a movie you’ve watched a lot growing up, like Top Gun. Guess the rating. Survey says, PG! What’s the only Best Picture winner to be rated X? Midnight Cowboy, but its rating was changed later to R. We won’t even delve into the issue of the MPAA anonymity or their unjustified rating practices. The point is that conviction regarding displays of sexuality is fierce.
Let us thus consider one of the more recent films that is raising eyebrows regarding its sexuality. Taiwanese filmmaking extraordinaire Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) brings us Lust, Caution, his follow up to Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain. The film is based on renowned Chinese author Eileen Chang’s short story. Though the ballyhoo likely to surround this period drama will most certainly result in limited release and advertisement due to the stranglehold of its rating, Lust, Caution delivers a powerful and moving expose of our emotional and physical Eros. It seduces. It unravels slowly and eloquently. It demands patience and thoughtful consumption and Lee exhibits a masterful style, accomplishing a grand visual brilliance.
Our tale of intrigue, espionage, and seduction opens in a Shanghai that’s Japanese-occupied during WW II; the year is 1942. We meet Mrs. Mak sitting in a coffee shop making a phone call. We’re catapulted back to 1938 where this ordinary girl is a university student and a budding thespian. What we discover is that Mrs. Mak is really Wong Chia-Chi (Tang Wei), a good girl and war orphan who follows the impulses of her attraction to an activist, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) and is recruited into a dramatic troupe. Unveiled within she finds her true calling as well as a group of players, each with his or her own part, whose roles progress from pageantry to an assassination plot. Wong’s progressive role is seductress. She’s to enter into the trust of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) via Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and eventually tantalize the Mr., who is a Japanese collaborator, into a torrid affair. But when Yee is recalled from Hong Kong to Shanghai the plan is forced into hold until their paths cross once more and the mission can be consummated. Ultimately the mission is pushed to the brink of compromise and back again. After a long drawn-out foreplay, the climax of the film really conveys deep and raw intimacy—not the typical filler, but genuine gut wrenching emotion in our characters, the kind that physically and emotionally move us so that we’re changed.
Lust, Caution crochets with enticing hooks. It’s gorgeous, a captivating hypnosis of sorts, like a vivid sunset. Rodrigo Prieto lenses the film with precision. Music by Alexandre Desplat, editing by Tim Squyres, visual eloquence via production designer Pan Lai, and script by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus equals a truly beautiful film. Lust, Caution lies in the shadows of what characters say when they don’t speak. Though it varies in style and form from the Antonioni, Soderbergh, and Wong Kar-wai anthology film Eros, Lust, Caution broaches the underlying gusto of our erotic intimacy and the implications it has on the human heart.
I always tend to shy away from telling people to see or not see particular movies. I know some people can handle Pulp Fiction and others can’t. The same goes for movies that deal with overt sexuality. For good reason! I loved Craig Brewer’s most recent movie Black Snake Moan, but I know many people wouldn’t be able to watch it and effectively read between the lines. Sometimes our convictions feel like ideological worlds that aren’t all that real. There’s confusion going on inside of us. The cultural images that bombard us exacerbate that confusion. When I tried to reflect on this confusion I was drawn to a thought by Edgar Allan Poe from his poem “A Dream Within A Dream”. Whatever one might interpret it to mean, for me it deals with this desire to have clarity amidst the confusion. He put it this way:
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Are our convictions merely dreams within dreams? Do we really own our convictions or are they merely products of controlling environments? Religious culture and sexual images go together like oil and water. I struggle with my convictions regarding cinema, i.e. what to consume and why, as I’ve been so bred to steer clear, specifically when it comes to sexual images. My fundamentalist upbringing always taught me that those images are wrong. My mentors rarely if ever talked it out with me, teaching me that the images themselves are just displaced from a meaningful context. Rather the message is that the object within the image is itself wrong.
The other side of the coin is that the conviction of cinema is to entertain. If the pornography industry is any indication of its appeal, then it should be clear that sex sells. I don’t think it’s the quality of the image or the movie as much as the human heart merely fulfilling its brute passions with whatever the culture provides. In considering Lust, Caution or Eros or Black Snake Moan or Straw Dogs or Henry and June, etc. one must know oneself before one consumes. The question is: do you know yourself well? Or if you know yourself fairly well, can you then just watch what you want?
And back to the issue at hand: Is there a good model for cinema viewing that deals with sexuality? Can we distinguish those movies which fluff their films with sex to complement a story full of holes versus those whose images are specific to theme or content? Are we just bludgeoning filmmakers and one another because of our fear of the religious community? I’m not quite sure, though I fear we are. When it comes to whether or not you should see Lust, Caution or any other film that deals with sexuality, I leave that up to your convictions, whatever they might be—about sexuality or about the nature of conviction itself.