Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sex, Lies, and Video: BAD LUCK BANGING

Here’s a uniquely modern movie, so up to the moment that, if it was rolled on newsprint, we’d say the ink isn’t even dry. Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scabrous, invasive, probing, uproarious, unflinching, and squirming look at a culture gone all to pieces. Its early sequences feature long, meandering takes up and down city streets following a sixth-grade teacher (Katia Pascariu) who has just learned a private sex tape she made with her husband has been released on the internet. And people found out. Angry parents have called for a meeting. How embarrassing. Those agonizingly wandering shots of her running errands between phone calls are suddenly fraught with the contemporary trauma of trying to go about your day while your world might be ending on the web. She trudges through Bucharest grocery shopping, picking up Xanax, and meeting with her principal. (The older woman casually explains: “The more idiotic an opinion is, the more important it is.”) Jude’s wandering camera finds sexually charged advertising on billboards, squabbling pedestrians, rude customers snapping at clerks, and the sound of cats fighting just off screen. It’s clear our lead’s dilemma is of a piece with a public of frayed nerves and short fuses—snapping, snarling, judging, lashing out—in a world falling apart.

Because it’s set in our pandemic world, the characters are usually wearing double-knotted surgical masks or decorative cloth masks. It adds characterization—what they choose to wear and how is a clear indicator of who they are, like when one character arrives late in the picture in only a face shield—and emphasizes the eyes. We’ve all had to become expert at making our meanings known through this obstacle; I find my eyes are far more expressive now than before.  Here Pascariu communicates all manner of wild-eyed disbelief and cringing mortification through bulging, rolling, squinting and glaring. She’s been violated and betrayed to have such a personal video blasted out online. It’s been taken down, but one parent downloaded it to have proof. What a world. Jude makes sure to twist the knife in the poor woman’s endless cavalcade of exposed embarrassment, to feel the casual cruelty of the mob’s entitlement to every prurient detail, no matter how lascivious the question.

Jude, whose previous work includes the similarly pointed I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, in which a historian attempts to reenact a massacre as a performance piece, has quite the edge in his filmmaking of late. He’s unflinching in diagnosing societal problems, and explicit in laying out his shocks. He’s also sly about structuring this movie, in particular. It opens with the tape in question, enacted in tons of detail by game body doubles. (It’s one of a handful of moments here in which he’ll use an explicit sex act as a shock sight gag. He’s definitely putting the provoke in provocative.) This gives the opening act’s longueurs an extra unsettled charge. Every character glancing at our lead from the corner of the frame have us wondering if they’ve seen the clip we’ve seen. There’s an added layer of nervy cringe. I also couldn’t help but feel that, in its way, it’s a coarse, vulgar, hypocritical movie about how coarse, vulgar, and hypocritical culture has become. How dare the community want to see such a video, such tabloid transgression, such unseemly gawking. And yet, here it is, too. Jude’s willing to show us the worst and then shakes his finger at us for finding it on the screen. That the movie’s so unsparingly funny smooths over that provocation.

Jude gives the lengthy middle portion of the movie over to a “glossary.” A montage of footage—original, viral, historical—is laid out in a satiric jabbing so savage that it practically draws blood. (It’s Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary by way of Godardian tomfoolery.) Children are described as “political prisoners of their parents.” Cinema is “Athena’s shield,” able to show us gorgon truths from a safe remove. There are many references to Romanian politics and culture, and such sly definitions of concepts like “truth,” “justice,” and “social distancing,” that it’s clear our globalized culture is sharing misinformation as much as, if not more than, it is Coca-Cola and Hollywood superheroes. It’s a dizzying collage of references: the Classics, viral videos, high art, low culture, politics, poetry, philosophy, talk shows, history, and pornography. This is a brain on a COVID lockdown, I suppose, left to stew and fester and rant and rave and feel society falling apart from beyond the screen.

The final act of the film is the meeting with parents. It is outside in the school courtyard, the easier to make hearing each other difficult, and the background sound of sirens on the busy urban street off screen all the more ominous a punctuation. Everyone is masked and distant. Of course it’s off the rails almost immediately. Here’s where the comedy of mortification reaches its most absurd heights. The assembled aren’t really interested in hearing anyone’s perspective or reaching an understanding. They’ve arrived with their arguments and simply want to yell, argue, and salivate. Parents’ judgments of this unfortunate incident—their knee-jerk condemnation of the teacher moving almost immediately past the accident of an uploaded exposure to the idea that she has a sex life at all—quickly becomes recriminations about pedagogy and curriculum. One might find it painfully familiar from our shores when parents start ranting about their students being taught the Holocaust. “Why!? Are you Jewish?” one anti-Semite accuses suspiciously. Another parent barks conspiracy theories about George Soros and Bill Gates. (Ah, yet another American export.) Soon it’s clear the parents are desperately trying to take action here to feel a sense of control they’ve otherwise felt slip away in the chaos of recent times. The teacher herself barely figures into it, really; they’ve victimized her further by forgetting she’s a human at all, even when face to face.

Where’s this all going? Jude is upfront that he has three possible, incompatible endings. He shows them all. (It’s like Clue in that way.) The point is the chaos, I suppose. He ends up at a gonzo fantasy idea that only John Waters could love. (If this movie is not on Waters’ annual Artforum Top Ten list, I’ll be shocked.) It doesn’t all add up, but it’s compulsive watchable. If we ever recover, it’ll be a heckuva time capsule, unpleasant, angry, and absurd. Jude stirs up the most explicitly, intimately upsetting social satire he possibly could, watches as one woman’s life unravels before her very eyes, and all along it’s clear she’s simply a victim of the free floating outrage that’s constantly searching for reason to erupt. Jude has framed the whole thing as a bitter lark with the chaptered segments, jaunty music, pink-and-white title cards, and fancy epigraphs. (The opening quoted text: “No one understands that the world is sinking on the ocean of Time…”) He makes a most sympathetic figure out of the pitiful teacher at the center, and views bitterly the upheaval swirling around her. What a hugely upsetting comedy about the awful state in which we’re plummeting; at least we can laugh about it as we fall.

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