Friday, June 13, 2008

Quid Pro Quo and Fur (film review)

“Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, the new(ish) venue of the American Cinematheque. Last night I caught another film there, Quid Pro Quo, and it was a real L.A. experience – a preview before opening night, with the writer/director Carlos Brooks, leading man Nick Stahl (of In the Bedroom and Terminator 3), and two of the film’s producers on hand for a discussion afterwards. The screening was free to Cinematheque members, with the respectful silence throughout the entirety of the closing credits a sure sign that you’re in L.A. (and of course everyone remained seated). In fact last night’s screening probably had a higher percentage of those credited people actually present in the room than any other screenings of the film will have!

I recommend this film highly; it was smart and well acted, and the production design was beautiful. It revealed an entire subculture that I never knew existed, which I expect most viewers will also find surprising: able-bodied people who want to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. They're called “wannabes.” It’s so improbable that I sat through the film wondering if the writer invented this subculture (this disorder), but no, he says it really exists.

In the film the lead character, Isaac (played by Stahl), is a paraplegic, who encounters a surprising number of able-bodied people whose greatest desire is to be confined to a wheelchair. They each, for whatever reason, have a deep psychological need to “use” a wheelchair (the verb of choice, not coincidentally, the same one that describes drug addicts). One of them in particular, Fiona (played by Vera Farmiga), fixates on Isaac, seducing him and sharing her private, secret wish – to become paralyzed – with him.

But it’s not some kinky sexual fantasy for her (in case you were thinking of The Company of Strangers); oh no. At first you think it’s going to be something twisted like that, but it turns out to be a much deeper psychological disorder, a form of hell that Fiona - daughter of a broken home and an alcoholic mother - has created for herself. Nick is a paraplegic not by choice, but as the result of a car accident, but he makes little effort to convince Fiona and the others that they should be grateful they ARE able-bodied. Instead he is respectful towards them, and tries to understand them. Oh, yeah, and then he finds some magic shoes that enable him to walk.

The film was shot in HD and the production designer achieved a film noir look. Brooks explained that the character Fiona thinks she’s in a noir film, and that the movie is shot from her view of herself. In fact the film’s voice-over narrative is characteristic of a lot of noir films (Bladerunner instantly comes to mind), but in this case the tone of that voice-over is deliberately conversational, modeled after the radio style of Ira Glass from NPR's This American Life (according to Stahl). His character is, in fact, a radio personality who tells stories, and the film is framed as one of those stories. Stahl calls it a beautifully written detective story, and it is, but it’s also much more. It’s about families and relationships, and how a single person or a single incident can change one’s life forever; and about the devastating impact of a dysfunctional family, and how our inner voices and inner demons can generate the narratives by which we define ourselves and our lives. It’s also profound; at one very intense point in the story Vera says to Nick, “I’m thinking about how easy it is to get used to a miracle;” at least she’s aware of enough to realize what she’s doing, and to marvel at the miraculous.

One of the producers says they hope the film will have wide distribution later this summer “when people are sick of seeing stupid movies.” Other films it reminded me of were Dirty Pretty Things (dir. Stephen Frears, 2002) and Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005).

Most of the supporting cast are New York actors; Stahl said if you IMDB them, they've all been in "Law and Order;" they mentioned one who is in "The Wire." The film was shot mostly in New York and New Jersey, with the flashback scenes shot in La Conner, Washington.

Fur (dir. Stephen Shainberg, 2006)

Oddly enough, I had watched Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus on the previous night, and Quid Pro Quo resonated with some of the same themes. (For the record, I’m NOT recommending Fur, it’s pretty bad – but this fall I will be teaching my “Artists’ Lives on Film” course again, so I’m trying to catch up on all the artist biopics that have been released since I last taught the course.)

As unrealistic as Quid Pro Quo seems, it turns out that this disorder – able-bodied people wanting to be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair – really exists. Fur, on the other hand, tells the story of a man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) who suffers from hypertrichosis, a disease due to which his entire body is covered with long, thick, fast-growing hair – which I cannot believe is an actual phenomenon. It also tells the story (or a version of it) of Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman), the photographer famous for her portraits of society’s “freaks” – giants, midgets, and even just plain old twins. Arbus’ photos are ambiguous; most discussions of Arbus speculate about whether her gaze was sympathetic or exploitative. Was she just a voyeur, or did she, as this film suggests, care deeply about the marginalized members of society? I personally have no opinion on the question of Arbus' own intentions, because I haven’t read much about her, but I do think she leads us to look at and think about people we might otherwise ignore. Also, I do know that the hairy man in the film (his name is Lionel) is purely fictitious.

What the two films have in common is this: they both show us society from the point of view of outsiders, of people who are outside the norm, and their struggles to love and be loved (thus representing the larger human condition). It’s not just the “wannabes” in Quid Pro Quo who are outsiders; as we are introduced to Isaac we see all the barriers he encounters on a daily basis: women don’t want to date him, taxis won’t pick him up, buildings and even streets aren’t accessible. It made me think about my own reactions to people in wheelchairs: do I treat them like they’re invisible? I’m ashamed to admit that frequently I do. In the performance I saw last week, “Action: Conversations” at Highways (see June 12 entry), these same questions were raised with regard to veterans. We have a lot of veterans in our society, a lot more now thanks to the Bush administration; but they’re not really so visible most of the time. Where is Diane Arbus when you need her?

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