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Monday, August 25, 2008

Basic Instinct

Fourteen years ago, seeing Sharon Stone uncross her legs or frolic in the nude was a big deal on the big screen. Now, thanks to webcams, anything by anyone is possible....With the buzz no more and the lust wiped away from our eyes, what’s left is a poorly written, ill conceived erotic thriller.
2006 Review of Basic Instinct by Pete Croatto

I went to see Basic Instinct BECAUSE of all the sex in the movie! Anyone who tells you that they saw Basic Instinct for any reason other than to see loads of nudity and sex is so full of it, they should be slapped!
Amazon.com Review

While it is true that Basic Instinct could quite easily pass for porn, I nonetheless think the film has a good deal to offer by way of discussion points. It explores the intersection of desire, insanity, need, knowledge, and intimacy. Oh, and I think it is also a love story....in its own weird way.

"You just can't tell about people, can ya'? Even the ones you think you know inside and out." Lt. Walker says, shaking his head at the end of the film. The police have just pieced together a sick scheme by one of their own, the staff psychologist Dr. Beth Garner, who was killed at the end of a bizarre killing....or so they think....the ambiguous ending of the movie makes Lt. Walker's statement even more true than he realizes, because the case is anything but solved. And while the "facts" are conclusive, they are as un-interpretable as human beings themselves.

The entire film is about the failure of science to understand extreme sexual or criminal behavior. The director is telling us that art gives us more answers than science. - From the DVD commentary by Camille Paglia (American author, teacher, feminist, and social critic)

The film is clearly a throw back, with the unmistakable influence of Hitchcock (think Vertigo with the San Francisco setting/backdrop and the lady in white). Catherine Tramell (played by Sharon Stone) is the lead character. She has a certain gravity around which the film orbits, and everyone responds to her.

Nick is certain that Catherine is the killer. She aces the lie detector test, but Nick knows better. How does he know? "I've seen people lie before."

Nick is not a particularly extraordinary character. He's been involved in multiple instances of questionable shootings. So, people call him Shooter, which really pisses him off.

The film, itself, is also a bit less than exceptional. It is a bit off balance.

First, as noted by many critics and reviewers, Basic Instinct seems like more of a porno flick than a film to be taken seriously. There are several, extended sex scenes and all kinds of nudity, along with graphic violence. For the life of me, I can't see how it earned an R rating. No doubt the movie was, is, and will be used as porn for some, but for me there is certainly much more to the movie. If so, then this raises an interesting question: what is the line between art and porn?

If something is pornographic, is it excluded from being artistic? Can porn be artistic? Can philosophical art use pornography to comment on human nature and cause us to think and grow? Is pornography even sometimes indispensable to the artist?

Is it possible that the pornographic is one of the only ways to understand our 21st century American culture? Can we accurately comment on culture without commenting on (and even graphically representing) the pornographic?

These questions about the relationship of porn to art, philosophy, and culture are more applicable (and even urgent) now than they were sixteen years ago when Basic Instinct was released.

But back to the film.....and its imbalance.....The film also displays imbalance in the pacing. We find ourselves watching stereotypical characters going through the motions of predictable, B-rated scenes, and then abruptly we find ourselves in the midst of deep and twisted minds and dark, disturbing psycho-sexual chaos. The movies opens with a slasher murder scene: think Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene, only in bed and with an ice pick.....oh, and the woman kills the man this time.....After this bizarre opening, a group of almost arrogant male cops strut around the scene engaging in juvenile dialog.....but I think the contrast works. Gradually, the world of the cocky white males is turned upside down by the cunning Tramell, and Nick, the character with perhaps the most noticeable swagger, becomes one of Catherine's toys.

Perhaps the most interesting scene to me that illustrates the genius, control, and sheer beauty of Catherine Tramell is the interrogation scene. Catherine is brought in for questioning; her boyfriend was the one killed.

She is confident and relaxed; at ease.

"No," she says. He wasn't my boyfriend. "I was fucking him....I liked fucking him."

She lights a cigarette; comfortable.

She is in control.

"There's no smoking in this building."

"What are you gonna' do," she laughs, playfully, "charge me with smoking?"

In the end, the room of men is completely disarmed. Paglia interprets the film as centering on the archetypal femme fatale figure: the arrogant male loses control and is eventually decentered by the female.

She controls their minds. The power of her sexuality and superior mind combine to overwhelm them. She's not guilty, the men of reason and logic conclude.

But Nick thinks otherwise.

"She wants to play, fine! I'll play!"
"Everyone she plays with dies, Nick!"

As I said, Basic Instinct is primarily a love story.

"I'm going to nail you," says Nick as he walks with her on the beach the morning after their first sexual encounter. "No," Catherine laughs, "you'll just end up falling in love with me!" "I'm already in love with you," Nick replies, "but I'm still going to nail you."

What draws Nick to Catherine? She is exhilerating and mysterious. She is "the fuck of the century." She is someone who makes him fear and unafraid at the same time. She is also a writer, and she helps Nick write his story. Nick has a history of alcohol abuse, and of course, he is also "Shooter" to some of the guys at the station.

For Nick, Catherine is the object of sexual desire and his key to self-understanding....but she's insane.....but he loves her anyway, and he gradually becomes convinced that she is not guilty of murder. Love is.....what?

And if love is blind, what is desire?

The preview trailer for the movie flashes this statement:

Beyond desire is something beyond control.

Basic instinct explores the irresistible desires that drive us mad. But in Nick's case, Catherine represents both the key to his identity and his downfall. As his lover, she is his raison d'etre ("reason for being") and the key to his self-understanding, but as the femme fatale, she is dangerous and threatening. This complex mix takes Nick into the murky waters of desire, and then beyond desire and beyond control.

All of the main characters are caught in this complex crossfire of love, desire, need, and.....well.....insanity and psychosis. Roxy is Catherine's female lover who is driven to try to kill Nick; Dr. Beth Garner is attempting to hide her checkered past and win Nick for herself; and even Catherine becomes a bit decentered by the end of the film. We don't quite know what to make of it, either.

"She's evil! She's brilliant!"

By the end of the film, Catherine weeps. She is stripped of her elegance, genius, mystery, and power, and through her tears she is asking why everyone she cares about dies. Nick is there to hold her.

But what do we make of this?

If she is a psychotic killer, then perhaps this is a multiple personality. If she is not the killer, then she is playing the role of the tragic heroine.

The final shot in the last scene of the film unravels any ability we have to make a certain determination of who killed who. The killings (yes there are several) could have been done by any combination of the three main women: Catherine, Beth Garner, or Roxy.

Paglia suggests that this ending points to the fundamental ambiguity that is woman. I think it goes to the fundamental ambiguity that is human; our inability to discern or interpret how the complex web of desires and needs motivates our actions. We want to know; we want a final interpretation; we want to be able to say, "this is it." And in many cases we do, despite the fact that our interpretations are unstable: sometimes it is easier to believe in something: this is who I am.

What I like about Basic Instinct is that none of the characters are allowed a final say. The audience isn't even allowed a final say. In the end, the dominant, logical male cops look like simpletons; the cunning Catherine gets caught in the webs she has woven; Nick is at the mercy of love (or desire); Beth's past (or perhaps a fabrication thereof) is out in the open and she has no future; and when Lt. Walker says, "You just can't tell about people, can ya'? Even the ones you think you know inside and out," there is more to his statement than even he understands.

All of the characters are undone. And none of them can really say why.....even the audience is at something of a loss.....as we all are when events and people bring to the surface things about ourselves that we even we didn't know were there....and maybe they weren't!

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the World

There is a common phrase the Christians often use: Be in the world but not of the world. Two recent discussions (within the last several months or so) have me thinking about this topic.

This is a post (Insane and Evil and the Goodson Rec Center) by Doug Groothuis on his blog, The Constructive Curmudgeon:

Coming out of the men's dressing room, I sat down and was looking through The New Yorker. Then I gazed at some art work on the walls. Sadly, a huge TV was on. Before I knew it, the area was full of the sounds and sights of a rape-murder scene. It was in a public area. I was shocked by the visceral evil of the scene even as I fled the area as soon as I could, disgusted, shaken--wanting to rid my consciousness of what I just heard.

This culture has lost its sensitivity, its sense of saying "No" and leaving some things alone. There is no more childhood, as Neil Postman said. Everything is out in the open. There is no reticence, no restraint. This TV scene was from a major network and played on a public screen.

Being removed from TV culture, this kind of thing stuns me. And to think of the millions who see it every day and thing nothing of it... As Isaiah said long ago, This people has forgotten how to blush.

I posted a comment that said, simply, "So?"

The comment was promptly deleted.

So, I expanded my thought a bit and posted this comment:

I'll take another try.

My original comment was "So?" which was deleted because (I assume) you presumed I was being mean spirited. But that's not my point.

For the younger generation your above description is day to day reality. You can express moral indignation and awe, but in the end the question I have is this: how then shall we live? Your description does not shock me because I live within and inhabit a world you do not understand. My purpose in living in this world (rather than running from it) is to present a Redeemer to those who are interested in redemption.

So, I watch the movies, watch television, surf the internet, read widely of contemporary literature, and try to stay abreast of popular culture. I live the culture and become the culture. I don't run from the culture. You may criticize myself and others for "selling out" to the culture by becoming a part of it and not taking "the high ground" like yourself, but Christ became sin for us and inhabited the world, and he is my example.

Your post leaves me and others with nothing. That's why I ask, in all seriousness, "So?" For all of your moral indignation, you leave the next generation with no real plan for action, except to blog (i.e., use contemporary technology) about the evils of the contemporary world.

My question is a serious one of theology and praxis, and I submit it to you again in hopes that you will engage it. I do not do so in spite; I ask you in passion, but also in the spirit of grace and charity.

The other discussion I had was with JPS, who made the point that popular level conservative Christianity is a slave to the same entertainment industry, albeit without the four letter words. As he put it, we Americans are all addicted to entertainment (both Christian and non-Christian), the only difference is that Christians have "Christianized" forms of entertainment. So, Christians might ingest the same amount of entertainment (or nearly so), but it is a softer version; that is, our movies/music/etc. doesn't have the four letter words. For JPS, the problem is the same: an addiction to entertainment.

These two engagements bring to the forefront the question of "the world": What is the world? How have people of faith related to the world? And what are the implications for our interactions with the world here in the 21st century?

The 20th century conservative Christian reaction is essentially this: create alternative realities and an alternative "Christian" culture. So, we create Christian coffee shops, Christian cafes, Christian roller skating parties, Christian bookstores selling Christian books, Christian radio stations broadcasting Christian music, and, of course, most importantly, Christian thinkers labor long hours to develop a "Christian worldview" that Christian schools and Sunday school classes can then teach to Christians who do not want to be polluted by the warped thinking of the "secular worldview."

The Christian artificial reality, however, does keep us protected from the evils of the world, but it has had some interesting results. For example, the children of James Dobson's crowd are pure and safe, but they are still as spiritually bankrupt as the rest of the heathens, suffering the same OCDs and addictions as the rest of "the world," just without using four letter words. This is because the same Big Empty remains, regardless (or perhaps because of) how pure and safe we are.

In Romans 12, Paul says to not conform to the pattern of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. To me, this indicates that there seems to be a sense in which "the world" may be a pattern of living and thinking that does not depend on one's environment. That is, regardless of the believer's sitz im leben (or "life situation"), the question is one of mindset. Being "of the world" is a state of mind/heart/soul.

Let's turn to Jesus.

There is an odd thing that Jesus says in John 17 that interests me. John 17 is usually used as the basis to suggest that Christians should be "in the world but not of the world." But that's not really the point of Jesus' statement, as far as I can see.

15My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

What Jesus actually says is strange: being "of the world" is not a choice for a believer. Those who have the faith that Jesus speaks of cannot be "worldly" even if they wanted to. Verse 16: these people are not of the world just as Jesus was not of the world. This is something of an ontological statement of being; it's the stuff that true believers are made of. Believers just are not worldly by their very nature. As such, sitting through an "immoral" movie, listening to "secular" music, or even watching a porn flick doesn't mean one is worldly because being "of the world" is not an action or even a choice: it's the status of those who have been transformed by encountering Jesus and making the decision of faith.

Just like the Apostle Paul, the vision here in John 17 is pro-active and optimistic: be sanctified by truth. What is truth? Where do we find it? This doesn't matter b/c all truth that is sanctifying truth originates from "the word." The word moves the believer forward into a state of purity and sanctity. One can abstain from all of the so-called vices that "the world" offers, but this would be to miss the point. For Jesus and Paul the vision is to move forward in truth and being-of-truth.

This being-of-truth is not something I claim to know anything about, but it is clearly a powerful vision for transformation that does not depend on creating an artificial "Christian" culture. The Christian culture movement has created an us-versus-them mindset, but Jesus himself broke down such cultural boundaries by feasting with "sinners." Those who follow him in faith seem in the same situation: they are no more "of the world" than Jesus.

For more on a so-called "Christian worldview," browse through these pages: