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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004
Lord, we got those tortured artist blues
There are many things I could tell you about "Investigating Sex," but perhaps the most telling is this: Actresses Julie Delpy and Robin Tunney both have brief nude scenes within the film's first five minutes, and both are prominently featured -- topless -- in the film's advertising. This is almost always a sign of a film that's desperate to pull an audience and "Investigating Sex," upon closer inspection, does prove to be a curious misfire -- one that went straight to video in most other markets.
This is a movie with a certain vibe, a certain arch manner in its performances that you've got to roll with if it's going to work for you. But director Alan Rudolph ("Mrs. Parker," "Afterglow") never establishes the tone strongly enough for us to do so; it's as if it's trying dance to "Kung Fu Fighting" while still sober.
Part of the problem is the material, based loosely on the 1924 novel "Recherches sur la sexualite" (doesn't that sound so much cooler?) by Surrealist artist and provocateur Andre Breton. The Surrealists -- and their Dadaist predecessors -- were quite bold and defiantly weird in their attempts to challenge bourgeois assumptions back in the day. Problem is, they've since served as the model for several generations of pretentious, smugly "confrontational" avant-garde artists (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, etc.), and it's hard not to think of those prats while you're watching this film.
Set in Cambridge, Mass., in 1924, the film follows a disgraced Harvard professor who lies somewhere between Freud and Dali in his desire to explore the psycho-sexual regions of the subconscious. Edgar (Dermot Mulroney, "Living in Oblivion") thus assembles a crew of his unconventional artist friends -- painter Zevi (Alan Cummings, "Titus"), photographer Monty (Til Schweiger) and filmmaker Oscar (Jeremy Davies) -- to discuss all aspects of sexual experience, however perverse, with nothing held back.
There to record this "research" are two stenographers -- and, um, "muses" -- Zoe (Robin Tunney) and Alice (Neve Campbell). When the talk turns to buggery and the difficulty of mutual climax, Alice is shocked while Zoe is stimulated, but both come back for more. Edgar's wealthy patron, Faldo (Nick Nolte), and Chloe (Julie Delpy), a former lover of Edgar, also join the discussion. Complicated couplings ensue.
Rudolph has some fun with his sources, quoting directly from Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's Surrealist classic "Un chien andalou" in a few shots. Mulroney, however, fails to nail his part, with a "disturbed artist" shtick that seems surprisingly forced as he rants about the succubus that turns up in his dreams. Of course, it might just be that he can't do "weird" half as well as people like Davies, who's made a career playing spaced-out freaks. Rudolph isn't one to maximize his punch lines, but when you've got Nolte drawling on in that wonderful, dissolute growl about the joys of humping horses, well, the laughs take care of themselves. Delpy, as usual, is mostly wasted, but -- just to remind you -- she does get naked.
I'm a bit surprised that Delpy doesn't turn up in Wim Wenders' latest, "The Soul of a Man," part one in "The Blues Movie Project": a seven-film, seven-director exploration of all things blues. Not that Delpy has much to do with the blues, other than expressing a fondness for Nina Simone. But then again neither does Lou Reed and he's featured, croaking away in his usual style, which is about as close to the blues as yamamba are to geisha.
Ah, yes . . . good old self-indulgent Wim, always ready to bring his favorite musicians into a film. Sometimes this works: Ry Cooder was accomplished and eclectic enough to respond sympathetically in "Buena Vista Social Club." The crew Wenders has assembled here, though -- mostly white and a certain breed of hip -- is stretching the notion of "blues" to the point it becomes "gray."
That's too bad, because Wenders has a nice little documentary going, flipping from 1927 and Blind Willie Johnson to 1931 and Skip James, before moving to the '60s and J.B. Lenoir. Wenders creates brief portraits of the young bluesmen, shooting in a jumpy, distressed black-and-white style to suggest period footage. He traces the spiritual yearning of Blind Willie, who lost his sight when his stepmother threw lye in his face. Skip James followed a darker muse, singing tunes like "I'd rather be the devil than be that woman's man," before disappearing into anonymity shortly after recording 18 legendary songs. Lenoir, meanwhile, was a strong Chicago bluesman, informed by the Civil Rights movement, before his career was cut short by an auto accident. All three left behind some genre-defining music, marked by its directness and honesty of expression, as well as some surprisingly delicate interplay between guitar and voice.
Wenders, however, seeks the modern legacy of the blues in modern artists who prefer a heavy layer of artifice and whose connection to the blues is tenuous at best. Lou Reed's Velvet Underground were notably nonblues at a time when so many rock bands were playing by-the-numbers 12-bar blues; his career since hasn't gotten any bluesier. So why is he here covering Skip James?
Ditto for Nick Cave and The Jon Spencer Blues Project, whose atonal howling may owe something to a vein of blues, but not the one that came from Blind Willie. Beck's affected performance would have the ghost of Skip James rolling in his grave; his voice is out of tune with his guitar, which is out of tune with his harmonica. Similarly, Ribot's version of Blind Willie's "Dark Was The Night" is jerky and atonal, reflecting nothing of the fragility and lyricism of the original.
Los Lobos and James Blood Ulmer show more understanding of the spirit of the originals, but one has to wonder: Where are such obvious choices as Cowboy Junkies, Robert Randolph or, for that matter, Cooder? About the only modern artist who merits inclusion here is the formidable Cassandra Wilson: Her version of James' "I'd Rather Be The Devil" simmers with the same haunted intensity. (Look for her at Blue Note Tokyo from Sept. 6.)
Better results ensue in the other films in the series, which are getting lower-profile releases, playing as late shows at Baus Theater in Kichijoji. Martin Scorsese's "Feel Like Going Home" traces the music's African roots, while Mike Figgis looks at the '60s British blues scene in "Red, White and Blues." "The Road To Memphis" follows B.B. King and Ike Turner, while Charles Burnett's "Warming by The Devil's Fire" tackles the soul-selling, sinner's blues. Clint Eastwood's excellent "Piano Blues" has already been shown on cable; catch it on DVD.