Thursday, 11 February 2010

Random notes on the awkwardness of the human body

“They flung their clothes off and climbed into the huge mahogany bed. It was the first time that he has stripped himself naked in her presence. Until now he had been too much ashamed of his pale and meagre body, with the varicose veins standing out on his calves and the discoloured patch over his ankle. There were no sheets, but the blanket they lay on was threadbare and smooth, and the size and springiness of the bed astonished both of them.”
1984 (George Orwell; chapter IV: 165)

I am currently – and for the first time, as much as I am ashamed to admit it (if I was ever to write a list of all things I have never read, seen, listened to, although I really should have by now, it would be endlessly long, which makes me feel really small on occasions) - reading Orwell’s ‘1984’. And I am absolutely loving every page of it. However, I was hoping it would re-awaken in me my love of political theory, make me crave for re-reading Hannah Arendt, remind me of my childhood fascination with ‘Logan’s Run’ (and, as funny as it sounds now, Michael York), or at least leave me wanting to see the film made after the famous novel, which I have not seen either. And it did, at first. Until I came to the crucial words.

“I love you.”

From that moment on, I realised that the most relevant (and most beautiful) of the many layers of Orwell’s novel is the romance. I can barely remember the last time I so enjoyed discovering the complex routes of the heart among pages and pages of written material, and what struck me as particularly beautiful is the innocence of the protagonists – or, it is the innocence to Winston that is particularly endearing in a way; for, unlike Julia, who has a certain ‘edge’ to her and is still relatively young, he is an adult male by all ‘measures’ (as if one could ever measure such a thing), yet his feelings seem so new and unknown to him. There is no doubt that the innocence is at the same time saddening – it is not a matter of choice, but a result of political decisions and restrictions. Yet this makes Winston as a character no less loveable.

The 'awkwardness' against 'beauty'

But there is an ‘awkwardness’ to Winston – one described beautifully in the quote above, which I instantly embraced as an extremely lucky find, since of this particular one there is still too little mention in literature; and - as I realised while walking home through the thick layers of fresh snow, trying to bring to mind all the cinematic depictions of the same kind – even less mention in contemporary cinema. Winston, a grown man of thirty nine, finds himself feeling awkward about his own body when compared to that of his young lover. There is a genuine sense of shame he feels when with her, and, tho it goes away rather fast, it caught my eye right away, as it somehow unveiled a tiny fragment of his soul that I could sense, but have never caught explicitly stated before. And while it had instantly brought a compassionate smile to my face (while it will take some time for him to realise it, Winston is without a doubt the most humane of the characters; even more than the proles, whose simplicity of life, tied to his own memories, made him re-discover what it was that was and remained the distinctive mark of humans – feelings, the ability to ‘bear’ emotions), it made me wonder why this awkwardness about oneself, about one’s physique, the ‘shell’ of our souls, was so rarely a motif in cinema, when it is a feeling so widespread and so known, that I was able to reconstruct his emotions in my head perfectly.

Cinema likes to deal with shyness – yet shyness is much more complex, and has so many more dimensions that it can barely compare. It also likes to deal with insecurities, depressions, fears, or base its plot on exaggeration, imposition upon its characters of severe physical disabilities and conditions...Yet it has very little understanding for the simple discomfort we occasionally cannot escape, faced with the ‘plain-ness’ of ourselves when compared to the sheer beauty of that particular ‘other’ standing completely exposed within our reach. It is the kind of feeling that makes our cheeks slowly change their colour, becoming with every new second a tiny bit more similar to that of rose petals, while our eyes cannot find a calm spot to focus on, nervously switching from the site of naked gorgeousness to that of the dirty floor and our shoes firmly glued to it, unable to make even a tiny step forward. And yes, maybe it is just me, but my obsession with human emotions constantly leaves me with craving to find more of it shown in cinema, making it at least as common of a topic as it is in literature, where fragility and discomfort still seem to be less of a taboo.

A Hollywood (im)perfection?

Or maybe contemporary cinema is just unable to depict this kind of awkwardness, even when it really tries? After all, in the imaginary world of Hollywood, where all the bodies are carved to perfection, it would seem like there is no reason for anyone to feel any discomfort about him- or herself: all the housewives, lawyers, unemployed fathers and single mothers of three are portrayed by the same prefect faces and same great figures, and it is highly unlikely that any one of them would ever experience any sense of self-doubt when confronted with the same perfection embodied in the partner – right? But the truth is, the awkwardness is a subjective feeling, as is the ‘perfection’ of the other which our eyes see – and no amount of ‘objective’ beauty (what would that be anyway?) can be big enough to overcome it sometimes. It seems more like the big factory of cinematic dreams is still too embarrassed by the ‘private’ weaknesses of humans to bring them to the open safely; as if they’re making us ask ourselves: really, if Winston was indeed a character in a major production, one that relies on the beauty of its image and the deep pockets of its financiers which are paying for the substantial post-production, would we really want to see his moment(s) of discomfort, the traces of age and life’s footprints all over his naked body and the gray shadow of shame in his eyes, when we could – in those same minutes – witness the marvelous, detailed depictions of the world he belongs to, a picture much grander and more impressive than the delicate nuances in the feelings and moods of one tiny existence? For teenagers, it’s OK to feel awkward – many films and TV shows targeting this particular audience deal precisely with this issue; even for women it is somehow not so uncommon, it seems. But for a man, it becomes almost impossible: in the world of McConaugheys, Clooneys and Pitts, why would there ever be any room for discomfort? And even if there is, do we really want to see it?

The Europeans still seem to be more courageous – yet, even in contemporary European cinema, facing the awkwardness one is confronted with simply by being ‘locked’ in his or her body on screen seems to me to be somewhat rare. While the notion of physical beauty and the pleasure that comes out of it appears to be treated much more ‘democratically’ than in American (mainstream) cinema (which is no wonder when you think of it, since ‘Europe’ is a term that covers a variety of different national cultures, and that’s only a start to diversification), awkwardness related to one’s body still rarely takes center stage. One could suggest here that, overall, female directors have an easier time depicting it – just think of Catherine Breillat’s ‘A ma soeur!’ or Lucile Hadzihalilovic's amazing 'Innocence'. Yet both films, once again, place little girls at the centre of attention. What I was hoping to find was not found there either (tho they are both marvellous films indeed).

The beauty of Phil

There is, however, one film that is extremely dear to my heart because it is not afraid of its main character's sense of awkwardness. In Mike Leigh's 'All or Nothing', Timothy Spall's Phil Bassett is completely uncomfortable with himself, and we, the audiences, are aware of this. And not only that – we are made to watch his suffering, his complete breakage and loss of all inhibitions, all caused by a strong lack of love, of feeling loved (a state/feeling rarely depicted as bravely in contemporary cinema), while we know the whole time that he is, even while admitting all this to her, embarrassed of himself in front of his wife. Funnily enough, Leigh's film involves no nudity, no gentle encounters or love scenes; yet that only makes Phil's agony worse, because it is literally prolonged to hours, ending up in an open confession, which in itself is a source of shame and awkwardness. Yet Phil is lucky to find understanding at the other end, and although the future remains open, his discomfort will hopefully disappear eventually.

Of course, Leigh's film is not the only one of the kind, but it is among my definite favourites. And, other than a handful of others (does Reygadas' marvellous Japon count here? Or should the audiences in that film be more uncomfortable with the bodies of its characters than the characters themselves?), I don’t really know many films that deal with the topic so shamelessly. But I would like to know – I really very much would. So if there is anyone who could offer me some ‘to watch’ suggestions, or offer a fresh perspective on some of the films I have already seen, but have never really thought of them in the light of the topic, I would be more than happy to hear them.

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