Liberation And Its Discontents
   The cinema of exhaustion
   by Patricia Ducey

In the midst of the orgy, a man whispers into a woman’s ear: ‘What are you doing after the orgy?’ -- Jean Baudrillard

It’s 1972 and a suburban couple giggles in line waiting nervously to see Deep Throat, the first mainstream pornographic movie. Today, they would probably be surfing the cyberoptic Porn World in the privacy and isolation of their computer cubicles, along with millions of others. A hundred years ago, enthusiasts walked miles to nickelodeons to catch a glimpse of the new enterainment. Today, movies are relentlessly accessible on multiplex screens and cell phones from Dallas to Delhi, on time-defeating TVs, DVRs and VCRs. Jets, automobiles, optical cable, and 24-hour satellite television flood the zone with images and information. Speed, sex, and liberation: this revolution will be televised and digitized, interactive and eternal, waiting only for the touch of a fingertip to say ‘yes’.

But for all the professed personal, sexual and political liberation we enjoy these days, a certain enervation seems to have crept back into our filmic vocabulary. Modernity, post-modernity, or the end of history: whatever we call our era, the possibilities are limitless. Yet it doesn’t seem to be quite enough. Deep Throat, for instance, would cause hardly a ripple at the box office today, while Roman Holiday, a 60-year-old story of chaste princesses and rascally but good men, remains one of the top grossing videos worldwide. Like Baudrillard’s bored orgiast, we seem to be asking: is that all there is?

How does film deal with a rejection of boundaries in real life while still providing a narrative with suspense, continuity and enough meaning to put “butts in the seats”? Perhaps liberation and repression need each other—at least in the movies—because rebellion does need something to rebel against. Film narrative usually starts with a rupture of established order—an illicit love affair or murder, for example—and then the story arcs to its resolution. But this trajectory dangles precariously from the cliff of morality, which might prove unsatisfactory to modern audiences. Must the affair end, is the murderer truly guilty? Today’s filmmakers must redefine traditional storytelling for our ‘after the orgy’ or ‘end of history’ era.

Phantom of the Opera, for instance, modernizes the original 1890 tale (and even its stage version) by adding a bookend prologue and epilogue that places the narrative firmly in post-exhaustion territory. The films opens over a gray, post-World War I Paris, thus hinting that the excess the Phantom embodies, the frenzy of fin-de-siecle Paris itself, invites apocalyptic destruction. The film ends at Christine’s tomb, the inscription of “beloved wife and mother” on her tombstone, as her husband leaves a talisman of the Phantom at her grave, in a last gesture of understanding and love, affirming the redemptive power of traditional morality and the rightness of her earlier painful choice. The world has been destroyed by Thanatos; Eros rescues it, albeit temporarily.

Sideways, however, retreats somewhat from the cliff’s dizzy edge. Miles is a true anti-hero, rebelling against convention and morality entirely. He rejects success by working as a high school teacher—teaching English Lit is portrayed as pointless drudgery—and refuses to finish his novel; he steals money from his mother and lies to his best friend, all without narrative explanation or rationale or punishment. Only Jack, as comic foil to Miles, is punished for wrongdoing, as we see vividly when the woman he has lied to and seduced a week before his wedding beats him to a pulp. But what to do about act three, a ‘resolution’ to the predicament of these two lugheads? Insert Maya, the beautiful, wise and caring goddess, who, in a bit of deus ex machina, becomes attracted to Miles. We then see him through her eyes (and the demands of traditional narrative) as a lost soul worth saving. In her speech about wine and its connection to those who create it, she reasserts the social bond that Miles daily shreds. Whether Miles hears her message, or can possibly live up to it, provides much needed energy to the rest of the story.

Open Water, however, subverts traditional narrative to explore modernity and exhaustion quite successfully. Writer/director Chris Kentis uses several subtle narrative techniques to deliver a masterful unity of narrative, aesthetics and philosophy.

Susan and Daniel, Open Water’s protagonists, embark on a deep-sea scuba diving vacation to scratch the itch implicit in their placid existence. Perhaps a frisson of danger will alleviate their “stress”: an energizing whiff of death, then a quick jet plane home.

The opening sequence in the released film is a tight shot of the waves rushing onto the beach at sand level, the natural level of the sea and its denizens, then a quick cut to the couple’s large, well furnished home. Inside, Susan and Daniel are each tethered to cell phones and computers and even talk to each other via cells, although they’re only 10 feet apart. Thus a
rmed with their communication paraphernalia and bags full of intricate, expensive gear, they head for the islands.

The DVD offers an opening sequence that Kentis later cut. The same tight shot lingers at the sea instead of cutting to the couple’s home. Flies swarm an object on the beach—until a hungry tern swishes the flies away and we see a close-up, we don’t realize it is a dead and decaying fish. The sea then coughs up more dead things: two empty and torn scuba jackets. Kentis—wisely, I think—drops this opening and builds the character of a threatening nature in more subtle ways; by not telegraphing the ending, he adds to its power. He lets nature begin its assault slowly. After we see their land life, the irritations on vacation become ominous clues: the hotel room’s air conditioner is broken and they’re grousing, uncomfortable; a buzzing fly keeps them awake all night as Daniel helplessly flails away trying to kill it; an unseen insect or insects burrow into their vitamin pills while they sleep. Nature intrudes an inch at a time; violence lurks just beneath their illusion of civilization and they cannot see it. The film asks, is technology helping them or crippling them?

The film places Susan in the discourse of modern gender equality, as well. Their normal milieu, that of the harried business executive, is gender free. She frets over business issues with a colleague over her cell phone while she moves through their large and comfortable home. Obviously, she has helped purchase it. Some critics have remarked this sequence of the film is badly written and so ordinary that it’s boring—but ‘boring’ is the point. This new opening sequence illustrates the shallowness, posing as mastery, of their lives and serves to highlight their incompetence later. In fact, Susan and Daniel seem to reverse gender roles. She is perhaps even more allied with the sphere of work than he is. In another deleted scene in the vacation hotel, Daniel implores Susan to get off the phone—he’s been waiting an hour. She brushes him off; he cuts off her call. Susan bursts into rage and slaps him. They’re both shocked at the violence of her reaction. Away from ‘civilization,’ aggression reasserts itself. “I don’t know what came over me,” she says, truly surprised and sorry, but they both laugh it off. Sex, too, is a negotiation. In the hotel room, Susan demurs, “not in the mood,” in a rejection of a traditional romantic coupling, and turns away from Daniel.

Once on the dive boat, they half listen to the guide who tells his paying customers not to worry about the sharks. In his sanitized version of nature, sharks don’t really attack humans—besides, frightening the customers is not good for business. Underwater, they pet the sea life and snap more pictures. They thoughtlessly meander and, once they surface, are surprised that the boat is gone. Slowly their sense of security begins to crumble. They see a shark far off and Daniel unsheathes his knife; however, Susan mocks his bravado, as Kentis subverts this cue to the traditional “heroic” narrative.

The background music and photography now subtly change. The happy island reggae gives way to a somber bass note thrumming in the background, denoting danger and suspense. The folk tunes slow to keening spirituals. The entire movie frame is sea and sea alone, moving, shimmering—and laughing at the tiny humans it has ensnared.

At the midpoint of the film, after hours in the sea, Susan begins to sob. Daniel takes her by the shoulders and vows, “I know this sucks, but we’re going to get through this!” In a more traditional narrative, a speech such as this at the midpoint signals that the protagonist will now gather his strength and intellect and defeat the enemy. And, so, we follow the story trustingly. But as the sun sets on their first day in the ocean, the sun and sea turn blood red. A foreshadowing? The sharks circle ominously, as night falls. A lightning storm erupts. As the thunder and lightning drown out their pathetic screams, we wonder how the hero is going to get them through this. Perhaps Susan, the woman warrior, is the hero instead?

The next morning, however, the sun rises over a peaceful sea, and Daniel is dead. Kentis has snatched the promise of heroic denouement from underneath us. We watch helplessly as Susan kisses his lifeless face and pushes his body away. She stares blankly as the sharks pull his body under. The camera lingers on her calm visage—she is beyond struggle now, the destruction of illusion complete. At that final moment of illumination, Susan finally sees and tastes and feels the true nature of existence. The camera shoots the final scene in a long shot. We watch as a small figure in a wide-open sea slips out of her vest, the only remaining accoutrement of her techno-life, and plunges herself down into the sea. The bass thrumming stops—the story from the human POV is over. Whether serving herself up in a Dionysian embrace with the sea and shark, or merely escaping a more hideous death, she at once becomes tragic and heroic: she sees her fate, the ultimate fate of all, and embraces it.

The screen goes to blackout. The ending credits then roll over a montage of laughing vacationers. A dockhand lugs a captured shark up onto a table, pries open its fierce and bloodstained jaw, and slits open the stomach. Out pops Daniel’s ever present camera. Nature is food, nature is death—and so the worm turns.

Every age imagines itself as modernity, conquering the injustices, fears and stupidities of the preceding age—just before despairing of its own failures and excesses, that is. Film genres wear themselves out as well and reinvent themselves later for new audiences. Open Water, especially, ably melds the filmic and philosophic for today’s freewheeling but world weary zeitgeist.

-- Patricia Ducey

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