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Spotlight | The Erotic Man (Jørgen Leth, Denmark) & Dialogues (Owen Land, US)
By Michael Sicinski
This fall in Toronto, 73-year-old Danish cultural institution Jørgen Leth world-premiered The Erotic Man, a nubile skinscape of the developing world based on his controversial 2005 autobiography, The Imperfect Man. (That title, of course, is meant to simultaneously conjure apologetic fallibility and Leth’s best-known cinematic triumph, his 1967 experimental short The Perfect Human.) Although this one-time éminence grise had already embarrassed himself and undergone partial rehabilitation in Europe following the book’s publication, Leth had mostly escaped any real scrutiny in North America, where he is considerably less than a household name. In Denmark, after all, Leth has been a TV sports commentator, and in 1999 he was appointed honourary consul to Haiti, a nation he had repeatedly visited and documented throughout his career. Much of this fell away following the release of The Imperfect Man.
Why is this? The book detailed, among other things, Leth’s virtually non-stop sexual escapades with girls one-third his age or less, in nearly every non-Western nation he ever visited. While Haiti was Leth’s favoured pit-stop for poon (including, but not limited to, a long-term relationship with Dorothye Laguerre, the underage daughter of his cook), his pecker-guided itinerary included Argentina, Brazil, Senegal, the Philippines, Panama, Laos—pretty much anywhere a pair of young, supple brown breasts were available for de-brassiering.
Five years onwards, Leth appears resolute in his contention that his saggy Euro-flesh and the buying power that comes with it are still fundamentally entitled to plant their flagpole anywhere they please, because The Erotic Man displays very little in the way of self-reflection. Leth shows an occasional table reading or a clumsily revelatory moment in which his anxieties show through. (“We are not making porn,” Leth insists to a reluctant participant. “We shoot in VIP rooms in luxury hotels!”) But for the most part, The Erotic Man consists of slow pans up and down the bodies of live nude girls, lounging on beds, standing against walls, displaying their young un-American bodies and saying nothing. With their burnished lighting schemes and quick, smooth fade-outs, these extended passages must be acknowledged as fairly sophisticated, upscale pornography—Playboy Presents Brown Sugar from the IMF—although Leth’s taste in women is comically uniform.
Sometimes Leth will shoot himself staring morosely out a hotel window, waxing nostalgic on the passage of time. (Gravity!) The only real breaks from this profoundly tedious pattern are the admittedly uncomfortable sequences with Laguerre, in which she asks our intrepid filmmaker when he will finally take her to Denmark and make her Mrs. Leth. (He fidgets, explaining that that was never the deal, and that she is young and should enjoy life.) At one gruelling moment, when Leth’s exploitative tendencies could hardly seem more thoroughgoing, he intercuts POV camcorder footage from atop young Dorothye as he fucks her. “Oh, yes,” she moans, “that feels so good.” C’est Laguerre! With apologies to Clausewitz, The Erotic Man clearly shows that sex can be a colonial war by other means.
In contrast, another major figure in experimental cinema premiered his own autobiographical sex opus last year, to relative indifference. As is the case with The Erotic Man, 66-year-old Owen Land’s Dialogues is a kind of “dirty old man” film (or more exactly, a feature-length video), and has been unkindly dismissed as such in some quarters. In fact, some extraordinarily ungracious crew members went so far as to construct a Vimeo hit-piece about the experience of working with the eccentric Land, in which they mostly bitch about not getting paid. (See Mike Everleth’s article at Bad Lit: www.badlit.com/?p=3032.)
Setting up a comparison (or a dialogue, if you prefer) between Land’s Dialogues and Leth’s Erotic Man is a bit of a lark, a sort of one-night stand that would never occur in the realm of actual exhibition. Leth is ensconced in the system of European art-film funding and as such circulates in a top-tier festival echelon. He does indeed stay in VIP rooms in luxury hotels. Owen Land, by contrast, is frequently penniless, has gone for long periods of time during which no one knew exactly where he was, and when he completes new work it tends to show at select museums or in small venues for a self-selected coterie of avant-garde aficionados. And even within that hardscrabble demimonde, Land has managed to burn many a bridge. His previous video, Undesirables (1999), depicted the decline of American experimental film as the result of a sort of noir-ish conspiracy, and most major filmmakers of the movement were represented in very thinly veiled caricatures. Undesirables premiered at the New York Film Festival’s Views From the Avant-Garde, and reportedly some former allies wrote Land off right then and there.
But even apart from Land’s relative disenfranchisement, there is another highly significant divergence between the two artists that casts both projects in a very different light, even before we begin examining the structure and content of Land’s Dialogues. Unlike the rather straightforward experimentalism of Leth (isolating gestures, employing repetition, but keeping things pretty much at face value), Land’s extensive filmmaking career has been characterized by complex layers of irony, self-reflexivity, deconstruction, structuralist hijinks, and, just to mix it up a bit, a firm commitment to the tenets of Christianity.
That is to say, Dialogues, like all of Land’s work, enters the screen and our minds on an exploratory, dialectical plane of consciousness that The Erotic Man never approaches. We are never intended to unproblematically trust Land’s presentation of his past sexual exploits; they are under the sign of complete factual unreliability. Nevertheless, Land’s project, like his close attention to the vagaries of language and the mysteries of the spirit, is not some snarky art gag. Rather, Dialogues reconstructs moments from the young Land’s life—moments of desire, and moments of illumination and understanding—in order to provoke this dual consciousness, or the full presence of emotions (including arousal), combined with temporal distance and even judgment.
This is in part achieved through comic dissimulation of the sort Land has employed throughout his career. After opening with a quotation from the Song of Solomon, Dialogues presents an onscreen text from anthropologist Helen Fisher (a specialist on the codes and rituals of heterosexual coupling, and a consultant for Match.com) regarding the relative sexual indefatigability of the human female. Land quickly follows up with a second text that supplies the punch line: “‘If only that were true of Helen!’—Bud Fisher, Helen E. Fisher’s husband, and author of the comic strip Mutt and Jeff.” Nice one. Given that Bud died a mere nine years after Helen was born, we can presume Land is full of shit, but it’s the juxtaposition that matters. In Land’s conception, the female sexual animal is not only in complete control but is also capable of a kind of scientific theorizing regarding her place in the heterosexual union, whereas he and other guys can only scuttle along with schlubby humour that, hopefully, yields an inadvertent depth. And, of course, given that Land’s opening shot is entirely false, he’s mocking these male/female stereotypes (“thinking with my pecker”/women in the driver’s seat) even while he mobilizes them.
Land’s most complex, Menippean films, such as Wide Angle Saxon (1975) and On the Marriage Broker Joke…(1979), have adopted a similarly Janus-faced mode of critique with respect to the procedures of experimental cinema. The works have mocked the very ideas of structuralism, medium specificity, and Freudian/Derridean linguistic slippages even as their construction relied upon them. Wide Angle Saxon, for instance, combines Land’s earlier Remedial Reading Comprehension (1970) and Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971) into the fake film “Regrettable Redding Condescension,” in which various objects, including (nostalgia)’s classic hotplate, are covered in red paint. On the Marriage Broker Joke… features a discussion about the marketing of Japanese salted plums, and packaging them in jars sized “small large” and “large small,” so as to avoid mention of the “medium.” All the while, Land relies on the rhythms, repetitions, direct address, and seriality that only the “hated” structuralist mode can provide.
Likewise, Dialogues is a sex farce, with “Owen Land” as its putative hero. This is a younger “Owen,” sometimes from the mid ‘80s, at other times the late ‘60s or mid-‘70s. This “Owen,” seen travelling the US and the world presenting his films at college campuses and museums, hooking up with cute co-eds, programmers, and assistant professors, is always a young man. In the 1985 scene, for example, “Owen Land” would have been much older, and quite possibly much less in demand during the period depicted. Experimental film was largely on the outs in the ‘80s, “structuralists” particularly so, and yet our man was apparently young, suave, had a magic dick and access to faculty couches across the continent. Obviously Dialogues entails some, um, embellishment. (And in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, he wouldn’t have even been “Owen Land,” but “George Landow.”) But more to the point, there is nothing in Land’s filmography, or in the reductive, stylized mise en scène of Dialogues, to indicate that we’re expected to take “Owen’s” Lothario act seriously. (Unlike Leth’s conquering phallus, Land’s portrait of the dirty old man as a young buck is posed as a comedic hypothetical: what if avant-garde filmmakers actually got laid?)
But in addition to being a kind of ironic restaging of Land’s ostensible sexual history from a certain point in his life, Dialogues is also a set of individual, fully detachable short films, structured like modular blackout sketches, which allude to religious and philosophical problems. Land has indicated that the project was partially inspired by Plato’s Phaedo, in the sense that Land is both “apologizing” for being a wily cad, and attempting to demonstrate, with more than a touch of irony, that he and other human beings may not have an option for behaving in any other way. Like Socrates, Land’s corruption is a means for revealing first principles. Unlike Socrates and Plato, Land is skeptical about his ability to reveal actual Truth. (“The axis of truth is between a maiden’s legs,” “Owen” states near the start of the film, one answer among others.) But, unlike post-Nietzschean ironists who scoff at the very notion of Truth, Land the Christian seems merely to stand at a juncture of humility. He won’t get to complete knowledge because he is supremely finite.
So, in the midst of all its faux-reminiscence and mondo topless sexy-time, Dialogues has a neo-Platonist heart. But its continual concern with matters of the flesh also calls to mind certain Cartesian themes, as well as a dialectic between Christian and Buddhist tenets with respect to the function of the body as a vehicle for, or impediment to, enlightenment. However, Land being Land, every religious or mythological text is potential grist for his multi-pronged inquiry. In the second full vignette, “The Divided Self,” the two actors who play “Owen Land” throughout Dialogues, Trip Davis and Eric Michael Kochmer, appear, respectively, as Loki the Trickster Owen Land and Parsifal the Pure Fool Owen Land. “I’m a low-key Loki. Turn up the key light, please,” says Davis. Loki claims women sleep with Parsifal “because they feel sorry for the poor fool.” “Pure fool!” corrects Parsifal. “Women like [Loki] because he tricks them into bed.”
But other segments, the parts that have most likely gotten up the dander of critics and programmers, are seemingly more straightforward in that they play like awkward avant-porn. How anyone could take these passages at face value is beyond me, but they are sufficiently sui generis that an unprepared viewer would definitely have difficulty discerning Land’s immediate purpose and might go with self-aggrandizement as an easy out. The spare staging and flat acting of the more “naturalistic” portions of Dialogues have a lot in common with later Michael Snow efforts such as Prelude (2000), *Corpus Callosum (2002), and SSHTOORRTY (2005), in that they simultaneously construct and refute a closed diegetic space. And, as Land shows us, this is something that porn does as well. The segment “The Silence of the Consonants, of ciao, Maine,” bears the structure of a classic dirty joke or a porno pretext. Nighttime, middle of nowhere, a.k.a. Bowdoin College. Telephone call. “Who was that?” “Owen Land! He needs a place to stay for the night.” Before long, professor “Don Skoller” and his hot young film student “Bridget McBride” welcome Young Master Owen into the house. She eats a banana, likes what she sees, and, before long, they’re stripping in the guest room. Professor Don bumbles in, catches them, and smiles. And scene. But what we’ve witnessed, apart from a clumsily staged scenario, is Land rewriting his undoubtedly tedious weekend in the boondocks as an erotic adventure, through the lens of patent fantasy. (And, adding insult to injury, Bridget mentions that while she knows Land’s films, she prefers Yvonne Rainer.)
But aside from Land’s representation of semi-random sexcapades and the frequent appearance of gods, muses, and philosophical mouthpieces, perhaps the one other defining element of Dialogues is Land’s use of unlicensed popular music over lengthy segments of the film. Again, this formal device is both structural and satirical, in that Land is paying homage to another member of the avant-garde pantheon, Kenneth Anger, whose own films were characterized by the combination of whole-cloth rock records (similarly unprotected), spirituality (in his case Crowleyite Lucifer worship), and reasonably frank (gay) sexuality. But while everybody loves Kenneth Anger, Land’s use of brazen hetero-comedy hasn’t yet acquired the necessary historical distance for proper evaluation for anyone but Land himself it seems.
Land’s musical repertoire is surprising for a number of reasons. It’s a mix of nerdy artcore (Laurie Anderson’s “Born, Never Asked”; Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”), pop rock (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”; Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”) and classic rock (The Hollies’ “Bus Stop”; The Zombies’ “She’s Not There”; Yusuf Islam’s “Hard Headed Woman”). But one of the connective principles for Land’s use of the songs is their suitability for a semi-literal application, resulting in either the songs’ undermining of their own romantic clichés or their interweaving into a punning structure. In the segment “The Cinema and Its Double, or Too Cold to Cry,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” becomes “Last Dance with Mary Sap,” complete with a partially new set of lyrics to accompany “Land’s” sexual tryst with Purdue University professor “Mary Sapperstein.” For “Bus Stop,” Land generates a dialogue between himself and a young Toronto woman, at a bus stop in the rain, discussing the absurdity of two people falling in love at a bus stop. They promptly fuck. Again, Land has produced an implausible scenario that functions as lowbrow humour (something you’d see on some pay-cable version of Two and a Half Men) and a vindication of the claim that pop music sincerity is stupid. (“Land” and Raincoat Girl don’t fall in love: they screw in broad daylight on a park bench. Although of course, they really don’t, and probably never did.)
There are inevitable complaints that certain viewers will have with Land’s Dialogues, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. When the film premiered at last year’s Migrating Forms festival, some found it overlong, considering that it has no obvious linear development. As a defender of the work I would counter that this is part of the point. Dialogues is segmented like an earthworm, can be viewed in part or in its entirety, in different arrangements, and this would not appreciably disrupt its integrity. In fact, Land has shown Dialogues as a work in progress for years. And in fact, the crewmember who made that unflattering Vimeo short has shown clips from several other portions of Land’s film that the cameraman is holding as collateral for pending payment. (My advice to Owen: let him keep the tapes. Dialogues is perfect as it is.) But more to the point, Dialogues’ modular construction provides yet another bit of structural humour, since the video’s nonlinearity is decidedly at odds with the goal-oriented attitude that characterizes “straight sex” in the popular imagination. For all of Land’s ribaldry, Dialogues may in fact be more talk than action, a film that screws around but never cums.
There’s also, of course, the more serious charge that, once we get caught in the turnstile of Land’s mise en abyme of self-reference and uncertain rhetorical warrants, playfulness becomes its opposite. Parodying sexism or ruminating on lust and its role in la comédie humaine is no different than just making a T&A film. To this I’d answer, have a look at The Erotic Man, and see whether Dialogues is not, among other things, a satirical response to the idea of male sexual prowess as a gift to femininity, or as a door to spiritual awakening. Some of the women in Dialogues are innocents, but most are smart, fun, and very aware of their ability to have their way with the blinkered young “Owen Land,” who is silly enough to think that he’s on a quest that few can comprehend. Owen Land himself, by making Dialogues, demonstrates that he has always been in on the joke. Clearly, Jørgen Leth never will be.