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The politics of exploitation

By Ray Pride

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  "Unmade Beds" is not a documentary.

Director Nicholas Barker calls this hilarious, ultra-stylized black comedy a "real life feature film." I think it's also some kind of lurid, original masterpiece.

Barker, once described as "the most sadistic director in British TV," takes for his first theatrical feature the failings of a quartet of New York singles who cannot find love (or even appropriate lovers). Barker and his researchers went undercover, placing and responding to singles ads in a New York alternative weekly, searching for their ideal lovelorn subjects. From the 100 they auditioned, Barker chose Brenda (photo), a fortyish former lap dancer behind on her bills and looking as much for money as a good man; Michael, a seething, 40-year-old Brooklyn bachelor who believes women mock him for only being five-foot-four and who has been answering ads for fifteen years; Aimee, a jovial, 28-year-old white-collar worker who weighs 225 pounds and says her flirting technique extends only to getting off a barstool and to "trip and fall on the guy"; and Mikey, a Greenwich Village swinger twenty years past his prime, who says he's never "dated a mutt" but is oblivious to all the signs that his Playboy philosophy sex-pad act is growing as tired as he is at 54.

Barker's brutal dissection is even starker when you learn that his subjects are playing themselves, from a script shaped and fictionalized by the director. Are they being exploited, perhaps even as much as the players in pornography? While their anecdotes are heightened by distillation, their actions are knee-capped by their vanity, their willingness to partake in the process. But why does this undeniably cool and calculating film rise above the potential of mere exploitation? Why is it so exultantly good?

Directing non-actors to play themselves was always a strange thing that I found most thrilling when I worked in corporate video. You would listen, transcribe, distill, rehearse, revise, direct. I had no idea that at the same time, other directors were putting this to higher use, notably the Iranians Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. It is cynical to say that all images lie, then to use that stand as license to partake in any old lie. The Iranians are doing something more piercing. Kiarostami, for instance, has made several films that investigate history, how we perceive history, how we perceive how he presents history. "Unmade Beds" is a different kettle of formal red herrings.

The fiasco-laden life stories, this display of roadkill on the superhighway of heterosexual desire, is composed for maximum mortification, to take advantage of the exhibitionism that knows no chagrin: loneliness. (His characters are flashers of the heart.)

Atop this latitude Barker gives his subjects to embroider their sorrowful and profane lumberings through longing, there is also a glassy, compulsive perfection to Barker's images, a rigorous formalism that takes the breath away (courtesy of cinematographer William Rexer II). Regard his art-photographer's precision in recording the tableaux of toiletries on his subjects' washbasins, the objects that rest on the kitchen table or beside the phone. There is a shot that typifies how Barker would offend true purists of traditional, accepted documentary form: a shot of a car passing a house in which a plastic grocery bag is tossed aloft, which underlines a point in the voice-over at that moment. Barker then takes the time to shoot the bag again, in close up, punching home his point.

Another element that could lead to accusations of pretension is Barker's hovering over an Edward Hopper print on an apartment wall, invoking Hopper's sunken Manhattan windowsills, black and agape like the eye sockets of so many skulls. He proceeds to perpetrate another fiction, glimpses of life lived, seen "Rear Window"-style from medium distance. We peer into windows as a young woman yawns, a man in a baseball cap irons. Flirts are rebuffed, warm embraces turn sexual. They are performers, too, paid and credited by name at film's end.

The city is shown as the abyss. Many of the to-camera monologues that Barker compiles are told while in traffic - To where? And why? Manhattan becomes an island of circuits, a track traversed by taxi and Town Car and sometimes on foot. These are circles of hell, and the cries of the lonely and damned are heard only by Barker, by us.

What Barker captures is not carnival sideshow stuff, this is the infernal gabble of interior monologue spoken aloud, the self-loathing and self-love and self-pleasuring and ass-scratching that runs in rivulets through most minds, all held up for proud display like an infant with a steaming fistful of fresh shit - Me, me, me, mine, mine, mine. But Barker is not mommy. And how else would we glimpse the sad yet vitally colorful life of a character like Brenda, who dresses as a sexpot but wants simpler, more basic things than easy sex: "For some weird fucking reason," she addresses the camera, "Men I've just met insist on showing me their dicks. I don't know why they do it. But recently? I've been seeing up to two dicks a day!"

This is not disdain but the kind of cruel, rapt attention that lovers pay when a relationship is fatally, finally fraying. This savage bastard mongrel movie is a marvel-a trick mirror, but a mirror held up to modern notions of love nonetheless.

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