Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Salty/Woodshed, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film at the library was Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which somehow fell through the distribution crack and went straight from the festival circuit to DVD even though it was based on a work by a major writer (the late David Foster Wallace: a 1999 short-story collection that was also turned into a stage play in 2000) and starred talented and semi-“name” actors like Julianne Nicholson and John Krasinski. (Krasinski also directed and wrote the script.) Though the central protagonist is a woman, Sara Quinn (Nicholson) — who plays a graduate student who responds to a romantic breakup by deciding to do a research project about how the feminist movement and its changes in the dating landscape have affected men — it’s so close to Steven Soderbergh’s breakthrough movie Krasinski might as well have called it sex, lies and audiotape. The establishing shot showing Sara talking to her thesis advisor about her research project doesn’t occur until the end of the movie (showing that airy attitude towards chronology that afflicts many filmmakers today, though it works better here than it has in a lot of films that have been non-linear for no apparent reason).

Most of the film consists either of her interviews with the various men she uses as subjects in her research — shot in a sterile-looking office with the men pouring out their sexual confessions into the microphone of her voice recorder — or scenes from her life that illustrate the central theme of the movie, which is essentially that men are assholes and will say and do just about anything to get into a woman’s pants, and then to get the hell away from her once they’ve finished fucking her and before she has a chance to latch on to them and demand an emotional commitment or anything more than just sex. There are a lot of ironies surrounding this movie — including the fact that this heavily anti-male movie was written and directed by a man based on a story source by another man, and the way feminism doesn’t seem to have changed the male-female dating game at all, at least from the man’s perspective, except that it’s given women yet another excuse to avoid having sex with men. (One gets the distinct impression from this movie that the only males who truly respect the people they have sex with are Gays.) The film is presented as a sort of memorial to Wallace, whose birth and death dates (1962-2008) are shown at the start of the end credits — and certainly if you watch this movie knowing that Wallace not only died young but committed suicide, its misanthropy seems to make more sense.

It’s a well made movie thanks largely to the matter-of-fact blandness of Krasinski’s direction and the gnomic presence of Nicholson in the lead role: with her slim, boyish body and short hair, she cuts a surprisingly androgynous figure — plot-wise she’s supposed to be the representative of the female gender (she’s the only significant woman character in the piece) but visually she seems more like an interlocutor between the sexes — and her utterly impassive face remains mask-like throughout as she hears men tell her the most outrageous stories about their sex life without her visibly responding at all. Charles complained that the word “feminism” appeared nowhere in Krasinski’s script except at the end, when Sara was explaining her project — but frankly that seemed to me to be the point of the story: that male-female relationships are based on a set of lies, both the ones told by men to get women to have sex with them and the ones told by women to avoid doing so (the idea that straight women might actively and aggressively seek out sex themselves is utterly foreign to the fictional world of this film) and that feminism has only muddied the already dirty waters of heterosexual dating and relationships.

It’s instructive to remember that what we now call “second-wave” feminism (i.e., the women’s movement that began in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s) began at least partly as a response to the so-called “sexual revolution,” which through much of the counter-culture of the 1960’s was experienced by women as simply another piece of social pressure wielded by men to get them to yield — feminism gave counter-culture women tools they could use to resist having sex with men similar to the ways non-counter-culture women historically used the negative status of so-called “fallen women” to make men who were interested in them cough up with marriage, family and lifetime financial support before letting them in the sacred temple of the mons veneris. I remember the cover of Dan Greenburg’s early-1960’s book Scoring, which treated a woman’s body like a pinball table, with various points scored for reaching certain parts and the highest score — of course — posted over the crotch; and both the beauty and the horror of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (a title that’s something of a cheat since the movie doesn’t recognize the existence of any other sort of man!) is the revelation that the attitudes behind that early-1960’s book cover are still prevalent.

Anyone who remembers sex, lies and videotape will be expecting a Big Revelation from the last interview sequence in this film, and it indeed happens — in a story that sounds uncannily like the real-life tale of the woman who soothed the escaped convict who broke into her house and held her hostage by reading him passages from Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life (something that happened far later than David Foster Wallace wrote the source stories for this film!), one of Sara’s interviewees tells a tale of a woman friend who warded off a sexual psychopath by staying focused, and while she was ultimately raped by him she was able to turn off any trauma she might have had from the incident — and, unsurprisingly, soon enough both Sara and the audience realize this man is talking about something he did to a woman. Another welcome treat from this film is the sight of Christopher Meloni (still in the Armani suit, alas) as one of two men who’ve invented a scam for picking up women by hanging out at airports where flights are coming in and zeroing in on the woman whose husband, lover, boyfriend or whatever doesn’t show up to meet her, immediately taking advantage of her vulnerability at being abandoned. I couldn’t help but imagine that this character would ultimately turn into a sexual criminal, raping and killing a woman who didn’t yield to his slimy advances — and then Meloni, in his better-known characterization as Detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, would go after him and finally arrest him. (Meloni in a dual role as cop and crook: that’s one Dick Wolf and his writers haven’t thought of yet!)