There is something inherently violating about cinema. Oliver Stone once referred to actors as prostitutes, which would, of course, make the camera a client. He could have been thinking of Nine Songs. Before this, I would have marked Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970s films as the epitome of the direct gaze, the refusal of the camera to turn away from the inadvertent reality at the margins of the frame. Bertolucci has been deposed. Michael Winterbottom’s nearly plotless yet oddly linear recollection of a doomed love affair does not merely walk the line between depiction and depicted, it hurls itself over that cliff with a despairing resolution.
For a scandalous film, Nine Songs is remarkably sedate. It moves at a Stanley Kubrick pace, a measured crawl that hypnotizes rather than assaults. The film plays like a porno movie directed by Terrence Malick.
Which brings us to the esoteric obvious in any discussion of Nine Songs: the film’s explicit sexuality. To be less highbrow, and to paraphrase something that was once said of the work of Henry Miller, Nine Songs is about fucking. The film’s sparse 70 minutes consist of nothing but a series of disjointed scenes which ostensibly record, shakey-cam style, a brief relationship between a London climatologist and an American student. The couple chat, cook, have a few fights, and go to rock concerts (the nine songs of the film’s title) and have sex. Everything but the sex, however, is merely a brief interlude. This may be the first non-pornographic film which exists solely in its sex scenes. There is nothing else of any significance going on in this film.
This is, of course, the point. Both inside and outside the film, sex is the dominating factor. The relationship depicted appears purely physical, and the film exists solely to assault the barriers of societal taboos and the limits of cinema. It succeeds on both counts only because the film is, ultimately, about neither sex nor cinema. It is, rather, about despair. Whether this was the intention of its makers or not, by the time the film ends, there is very little ecstasy, sexual or otherwise, to be had.
As I have said, the film is a recollection. A recollection by Matt, the climatologist in question, of Lisa, the unknowable erotic object of his haunting remembrances. Flying above the Antarctic wastes, the vista of empty white is filled by Matt’s disjointed memoir of his brief and now ended affair. The film works only because these recollections are so unbearably truthful and so transparently empty. While we prefer to think otherwise, our memories of our youthful relationships, like those relationships themselves, are almost entirely sexual.
And sexuality is clearly the only dynamic at work here. There is, in fact, nothing about Lisa (as she is recollected) that is interesting or attractive other than her apparently hyperactive sexuality. Matt appears to be a creature of casual indifference and occasional sentimentality. The intimacy between them, such as it is, is almost unbearably shallow. Which is why, of course, the film’s explicitness is essential. In this, it is disturbingly honest. It is often difficult to admit, in our age of talk shows and endless therapy sessions, that actual relationships often consist of two people who never say what they actually mean and quite often say nothing at all. Intimacy has been reduced to the physical purity of penetration.
Winterbottom has hit on something here, whether he has intended to or not. It is the key to his success and his failure. If Winterbottom intended to write a new chapter in cinematic realism, he has failed spectacularly. If he intended to chronicle the despair of a lost generation, he has succeeded in the same measure. The paradox of cinema exposed by Nine Songs undermines its intention. Winterbottom’s camera never turns away. The lens hones in like a merciless knife on penetration, ejaculation, bondage, blow jobs, cunnilingus, and masturbation. But the camera is more merciless than any knife, and this relentless reality serves to expose only a single truth: the camera slaughters the capacity of image. Under the relentless gaze, erect penises and swollen vaginas become objects as banal as a wooden chair or a pile of dirty laundry. The lens is a weapon that annihilates essence, reducing everything to light. Exposing the actor’s organs only emphasizes them as actors. The reality of their intercourse only underlines the fiction of their intimacy. We are watching two people have actual sex, and it serves only to remind us that we are watching two people barren of real intimacy engage in an intimate act for a camera. A camera that is a monstrous and uncontrollable demiurge. A camera that, far from embracing reality, only hurls us farther from it. The camera that does not turn away turns proximity to infinity, and leaves us in a terrible solitude. As terrible as Matt’s cosmic loneliness among the unrelenting ice.
It is here that Nine Songs defeats itself and thus triumphs. Rather than giving us a shocking depiction of actual sex, Winterbottom and his actors have given us an actual depiction of the emptiness of an age of distance. In our modern, globalized, globe-trotting world of absolute freedom, people meet, engage in ecstatic physical intimacy for a brief moment, and then never see each other again. We have returned to the nomadic, and even worse, a nomadic whose essence is solitude. Our freedom to penetrate each other in any manner we please is concomitant with the freedom to disappear, to return to America or to make our pilgrimage to Antarctica and to live only in memories. Memories, like cinema, are only images. The possibilities of life are greater than ever and yet we live surrounded by ghosts. We have been turned into creatures of inconsolable longing. The distance enforced by Winterbottom’s unrelenting camera is the same distance between his actors, who have sex in the actual and intimacy only in the memory that is cinema. Films are ghosts, and the camera can record nothing but that which is already dead. Moments which are as real as the light of dead stars, which lie to us even across the infinite reaches of empty space and illusory time. A distance as vast, profound, and unforgiving as that between the rock band and its enchanted audience, between memory and the remembered, between the dead and the living, between two people fucking for the sake of art… As profound as the distance between the camera and its subject. Nine Songs may have set out to expand the bounds of the erotic. What it creates is a wasteland. It is, in other words, and in spite of itself, a very great film.