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