Gregg Araki's Splendor

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    In the Grass "In his heart you know he's gay." That thought came after seeing Gregg Araki's Splendor, a "heterosexual" romantic comedy with bisexual allure. Showing off a triangulated love affair involving a woman and two men, Araki photographs the men so erotically that masculine charms outweigh the plot's deliberately, deceptively feminine emphasis. A young Los Angeles actress, Veronica (Kathleen Robertson), faces the camera and narrates her live-in relationship with a blond punk drummer Zed (Matt Keeslar) and a dark-haired writer Abel (Jonathan Schaech) she met at a Halloween disco bash. Veronica enunciates a lusty, infatuated view of these men?Araki's view?which, thank God, is nothing like Catherine Breillat's in the supposedly feminist Romance. Veronica (seeing through Araki's eye) revels in male sex appeal instead of reviling it. The central recurring scene is of Veronica, Abel and Zed tangled together in postcoital bliss?Splendor. Their radiant, tumid triad suggests a circuit of carnal happiness in a current that runs between male poles.

    To call this a breakthrough would be to disregard the inherent richness in such movies as Ernst Lubitsch's 1933 Design for Living (Araki's inspiration) that also mixed the meanings of playful male and female eroticism. Lubitsch's trio of lovers included a dashing young Gary Cooper whose relaxed glamour was that film's (subliminally) bisexual bonus. Araki keeps the surface sexual activity just as orthodox as Lubitsch, except for a scene where Araki's threesome get stoned and Veronica eggs the two males on to kiss each other for her own amusement (Abel is hesitant, Zed is willing and?)

    Touting the joys of heterosexual happiness, Splendor can be seen as a development of Araki's usual provocative innuendoes from the gay-themed road picture The Living End (which flouted AIDS panic with a desperately horny pair of male lovers on the lam) to the increasingly bisexual content of his movies that came after (climaxing in the 1997 Nowhere, the summit of his "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy").

    Araki's day-glo punk esthetic has mellowed into neocon conventionality?enshrining marriage, parenthood and a pop-art version of middle-class comfort. It's difficult to say what's more important to Araki's sensibility: California, pop culture or sexual license. His films all mix movies, music, sexual allure into a casual ebullience expressive of particular social manners?a sun-drenched way of life, a permissive way of seeing things. Splendor indulges the flesh and spark of sexy youth culture unabashedly; the story's sensual ease seems, unmistakably, California's contribution to American fantasy as much as Araki's contribution to modern movies' discourse on youth mores. There's more authenticity in Splendor's turn toward orthodoxy than in the facetious chaos of American Beauty. Araki depicts a desire for normalcy that, however reactionary, is a human and probably sincere expression of the longing he knew to be inside L.A.'s postpunk rebellion.

    Always a student of French New Wave rigor, Araki has learned to complicate sub-cult, young adult hipness. In the iconoclastic 1974 film Going Places, Bertrand Blier dared to have Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere jump each other's bones?the randiest, classiest buggery until The Living End. But Araki avoids that now; he means to transgress in the opposite direction. Not a farcical anarchist like Blier, Araki aspires to a classical romantic schematic. Instead of going places new, he retreats to a version of Godard's A Woman Is a Woman?the 1961 musical-comedy experiment of Anna Karina sleeping with both Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Claude Brialy in order to become pregnant. Essentially Godard puzzled over the complexity of Karina's female desire, but Araki uses a woman's perspective (Veronica) to chart desire's fluidity?his own.

    Whatever Araki's current sexual interest, he's a genuinely impressive filmmaker?that's what makes Splendor's heterosexual burlesque both worth pondering and challenging. His talent and always-clever satire of commonplace hip sentiments don't need the insulting condescension that reviewers have heaped upon Rose Troche for her amateurish Go Fish and atrocious, doctrinaire Bedrooms and Hallways. Araki isn't banal enough to pose as a gay standard-bearer. Seeking an exploratory approach to sexual identity while avoiding Gus Van Sant's refusal, Araki uses Splendor's farce only to confound typical expectations of what a straight or gay movie can be.

    A New York- or London-set film about a menage a trois would undoubtedly be grungier or perhaps emotionally violent (or arch like the sluggish Bedrooms and Hallways). But California-born Araki?inheriting the Beach Boys' sunniness, L.A. punk's impudence and the modern legacy of Hollywood glitz?has a culturally induced view of such unorthodox relationships as a plausible pop fairytale. This makes Splendor irresistible at the same time it is facile and superficial. Its romanticism is most acute when Zed presents Veronica with a stuffed animal embroidered "I Wuv Ewe" or snuggles next to her?and Abel?to speak from his heart. These youth-worshipping images seem both emotionally and erotically charged?a polymorphously perverse playpen.

    In such instances, Araki's talent overwhelms his politics, maybe even his conscious intentions. Of all contemporary filmmakers, Araki's got the wittiest use of color (even Almodovar's a distant second). His exuberant vision makes it possible for all viewers to delight in his characters' pop-saturated sex lives?Zed's humpy drumming, Abel's rock-journalist intensity and, when Veronica's affections expand, a hotshot tv director named Ernest (Eric Mabius). This added complication ends in a weak parody of The Graduate, but it's forgivable when you notice the new beau's eyes match his baby-blue outfits. Standing together on a Maui beach, Ernest and Veronica watch a pink and orange sunset?it's intentionally silly, but more persuasive than that; Ernest is the picture of gap-toothed, yummy boyishness.

    Araki's plot says "het" but his eyes say no. Perhaps Kathleen Robertson's a lovely person in real life, but onscreen she calls to mind the trite aspects of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alicia Silverstone (i.e., Jenny McCarthy). In her monologues, Veronica is photographed with music-video light reflections in her pupils. Araki may mean to suggest starshine, but she comes across as vapid, slightly cross-eyed, whereas the boys seem soulfully sexy. Zed with the abs and Abel with the fur have a strange meet-cute, pissing against a tree. (Keeslar, who gave an original, fully defined romantic performance in The Last Days of Disco, is cast in perfect sync with the intense, overripe Schaech.) They compete for Veronica, then share her good-naturedly. Between both men in bed she looks, to the unsuspecting eye, to be in clover; but though she's in the middle it's almost like she's not there. Araki's apparent infatuation sublimates Veronica's presence. Confessing indecision to Mike (Kelly Macdonald), a lesbian sculptress best friend, Veronica's anguish seems merely theoretical. (Telling word-image match: "It wasn't like it was all about the money," Veronica describes dating Ernest, followed by a shot of her high heels stepping out of his limo.) Sex and luxe?a purely Hollywood complex about male-female relationships that Araki passes off with aplomb.

    Another complex ensnares him, though. Abel, Zed and Ernest are such whiteboy icons you wonder if Araki's former Asian alter ego (James Duval) has been sublimated too? The racial narrowness of Splendor's fantasy alerts one to the movie's drawbacks. Araki's openly erotic admission (an erotic fixation on the Other) takes him past his usual balanced, social idealism; past good sense. By unapologetically objectifying white males, Araki switches the domination usually intended for females into a fantasy of possession, altering the standard movie effect of white male superiority. But that's a naive assumption. Certain movie performers could always be cast for the fact of their sexual appeal (Brando's the great example, Keanu Reeves is a modern one), and the acknowledgment of that appeal could open minds about the breadth of male sexuality. But Araki's daydream, not fully unleashed, loses its subversive suggestion. Splendor glorifies its actors in a nearly unprecedented way (for an American film), but it doesn't look soberly or realistically at sexual relations or intimate power plays. That's how you know the film's heterosexuality is a jest. It's beyond the provenance of criticism to judge Araki's erotic taste (sounds like a Ben & Jerry's flavor). But at least it's handsome. Should Araki ever probe traditional white male heterosexual privilege more boldly, the result will be more than just the ultimate teenage crush.

    Clipped Bio-flicks. Coinciding with the upcoming rerelease of A Hard Day's Night, check out Richard Lester!, a documentary interview with the trendsetting, now elusive director by Stacy Cochran, herself an original indie director of My New Gun and Boys. You can tell from the exclamation point Cochran puts on her title that the view on Lester is respectful, perhaps even expressing a longing for Lester's now-missed iconoclasm and wit in this age of formulaic music videos and vapid teen movies. Lester appears polite and modestly forgetful about a career that changed the course of pop cinema. American-born, he went to England in the same era as Kubrick and fashioned an equally idiosyncratic and remarkable filmography. Cochran's attentiveness to Lester's style adds insight to the unconventional, personal wit in her own young adult dramas. And she sweetly shows herself a student of Lester's in the film's shifting backgrounds and a comic routine in which she introduces her small crew to Lester as an enormous big-budget retinue. In Get Bruce, the comedy writer Bruce Vilanch gets the celebrity profile his well-known clients (Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, etc.) think he deserves. Starting with Ann-Margret singing a title song calling him "Dorothy Parker's zaftig clone/Tallulah with testosterone," it peeks behind the lie of pop celebrity to reveal hype's script doctor. "You have to take [a star's] attitude and choose words that suit that attitude," says the t-shirt-wearing wag (one reprints Munch's The Scream, which Vilanch calls "a recent portrait of Macaulay Culkin"). It's like watching a Talk magazine article complete with gleeful shots of (and protective comments about) Clinton. Crystal brags about an Oscar parody he cowrote with Vilanch but not crediting its Talk Soup source. Bruce himself respectfully credits Redd Foxx's inspiration and Williams does an X-Files routine that is the year's funniest two movie minutes.