Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.


Published: 9 May 2012

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The Fashionistas (2002)

Simple nesting, seduction into the dark side and overt irony.

One category of folding is a bit slippery. The device is simple: a film makes fun of viewer appreciation of a certain quality, and in doing so uses that very quality against the viewer.

A good example is the ‘dumb comedy’ movie where we start out making fun of the jokes, but get swept up in the humor. A sensitive introspective viewer can really get upset by this because he creates a class of undesirable beings and is then tricked into joining that class.

We see it in some modern 'adventure' films, where the violence is presented as comic, even silly but still we have it in excess and by the time the film is over we have accepted the thrilling ride. A twist is when a villain is made accessible and then does something horrible.

And we see it a lot with sex. A common trope in romantic comedies is to have a guy that we judge being unacceptably obsessed with women, or nudity or the chase. But by the end we discover that much of our pleasure has come from those very experiences.

In the survey of folding types, I call this Exploitation Irony.

This film is an example using sex. You wouldn't come to this unless you were attracted to extremes, and what most would call perversion. (There is a lot of bondage, violent sex, anal insertion and latex suits.) It cleverly presents itself as parody, however, so the timid viewer can enter with some distance and venture as far as he/she wishes.

In fact, much of the allure is that this is on the other side of a line you would not cross — but of course you do in the watching, assuming you are the target viewer.

The story construction is also folded; I believe this was deliberate and used to increase the effect of the engagement just noted.

The thing itself is a show, which most people would presumably watch on DVD. Within this is a (fashion) show, an ordinary fashion show presented very much as a performance. Within that — as the show gets hijacked by bondage babes — is the erotic fashion show. This is merged by some plotwork into DVDs within the DVD.

Within and without these inner DVDs is our main character, Jesse.

Ted's law clearly holds here, where the distance between ordinary life and the fantasies of ordinary hard core porn are treated as the same distance between ordinary porn and the extremes presented here.

The model for this film is clearly 'A Clockwork Orange,' including the punishment training of enforced watching, and the emphasis on performance lives through style. An interesting covalent plot device is a ‘chameleon’ line of clothes that start one way and shift levels.

It is over 4 1/2 hours long.

Catherine (2005)

A folded story with very carefully engineered cinematic expression.

Michael Ninn is something of a force in porn, having created a genre he tags artporn.

The idea is to go in a different direction than the direction of erotic from porn. Instead, he tries to take porn and treat it ‘seriously.’ This film has straight hard core sex, and as it happens the main actors are actually married, but there is a clear attempt to push the boundaries of rough sex.

Superficially, and probably as understood by the average viewer, the sex scenes are imagined fantasies of the redheaded star. But both the structure and presentation of the thing are fascinating.

First the cinematic qualities...

It is superbly photographed and lighted. I forget, but I think they found an interesting Romanesque cathedral in Budapest for the fantasy sequences. Cinematically striking:

  • Ninn gives us a signature Tarkovsky shot (as adapted by John Sayles in 'Lone Star:' our heroine is on the floor in a modern apartment next to her (dead?) husband. The camera pans left and we see the same woman standing against a wall as an observer. The camera continues to pan and we see a third instance of that character with the other two behind. She looks at the camera and tells us that its ‘all that bitch’s fault.’
  • The modern set reminds us of ‘Rope,’ the colors of ‘Repulsion.’ The fantasy set is an outside staircase of a Budapest building. I think the design here is patterned after a set in Julie Taymor's "Titus," which also incidentally featured (in a very minor role) a magical redhead.
  • Before the credits, we get an obvious nod to Eisenstein, his famous baby carriage in peril of rolling down steps. De Palma turned it into a sort of quotable bit in ‘The Untouchables,’ and since then we've seen it in three or four joke movies (I forget which ones). In this case, it does roll down the stairs, Ninn letting those of us who know that disaster has already occurred.
  • The female star in her fantasy persona is made up as Jenny Runacre's Queen Elizabeth in Derek Jarmon's 'Jubilee,' down to the accompanying grotesque maiden in waiting and a fat courtier. The quoting is perfectly identical in appearance, but she has clearly been directed to emulate the movements of Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth.
  • The red hair is piled high and dotted with pearls. The color of the stock is so saturated that red hair becomes a character unto itself, apparently denoting the sexual urges that cross realities.

The story is presented by profoundly poor acting and dialog. It has a commissioned song from Van Halen, which I suppose was considered high budget and appropriately energetic. All that is trash, but the structure is folded with well conceived sophistication.

That structure is also taken from Jubilee, but with more creative adaptation. 'Jubilee' juxtaposed two eras and sets of characters: modern punks and Elizabethan courtiers.

This time around, we have a modern woman, Catherine, who is haunted by her own fantasies, sufficiently haunted that she inhabits them. The folding is similar to the other Ninn project I have seen, where LSD trips overlay a sexually laden fantasy world on the ‘real’ one. The ambiguity is stronger here. The imagined woman is a Renaissance queen. She is 'the bitch' who as the dream identity of the modern woman has seized control of reality and who killed the husband who has ravished her.

The Sexual Adventures of Little Red (2007)

A complex adaptation of Red Riding Hood and its slow shifts in agency.

This is from the Prague team of Max Candy and Louis Moire, and I believe is distributed by the artcore guy Michael Ninn.

As it happens quite by accident, our study in narrative dynamics uses as an example a retelling of the story of Red Riding Hood. So I know more about the dynamics of the story and its variants than the average guy.

The opening credits feature this poem:

From this short story we discern, What all young people ought to learn

Ladies fair orient rosy blooms appear, They are beauties in the fragrant spring air!

Sad do they listen to all sorts of tongues, Like some enchanting syren's song

So many of them has the wolf devour'd, The wolf, I say for wolves with powers

Of every sorts, and every characters, Some of them mild and gentle humored , Tamed, familiar, full of compliance

With language wondrous sweet, Following young ladies as they walk the street

Ev'n to their very houses and bedside, There, in their true design they artful hide

Yet, these simpering wolves who do not see, All beauties, dangerous in fact to be.

...which is a retranslation of Charles Perrault's 250 year old poem about the moral of the fairy tale. The adaptation in the film subtly reorients the danger from the wolf to the danger of sex in woman. The subtle change matters. Here is the end of the original:

...Follow young ladies as they walk the street,

Ev'n to their very houses, nay, bedside, And, artful, tho' their true designs they hide;

Yet ah! these simpering Wolves! Who does not see, Most dangerous of Wolves indeed they be?

Cool shift, huh? There was a very intelligent writer involved in this one. So it starts out as a new story folded on top of the one we know. The plot is a sort of groundhog day, patterned after 'Run Lola, Run,' where the same events are repeated with some variation (because the girl learns) and are extended. So each repeat takes the story further, but dynamically changing the version we saw before.

Our central character is Red (who does not have red hair). She is a new runner, a mule delivering some sort of package for the fairy godmother, a sort of mafia godfather. Each time the story resets, Red loses a petal from her flower tattoo, a sort of 'loves me, loves me not' quantum shifting that indicates the lives remaining. (We learn late in the story that the wolf has a similar tattoo.)

Each repeat of her trip involves a new sexual encounter that prevents her from completing the run. She recalls the past versions so is able to avoid the past diversions. (But the wolf learns as well.)

As the episodes repeat, the story changes its nature from having the wolf as the threat to having the sex of the woman as the threat. This occurs by her awakening her sexuality and taking agency of the story.

Although the sex is as you would expect: formulaic by Europorn standards, the narrative construction is worthy of Charlie Kauffman. You can't really watch this and not appreciate the art from the writer.

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2012