by Greg Muskewitz
Over the short four years that I have been reviewing movies, there are always things that I have progressively noticed changing, but maybe one of the most drastic changes has been the press kits. I'm not talking about the production stills, the ever-growing bios or the unending credits list, but in fact the "meat," the info, the attitude of the people putting it together. The actual usage of the kit has gone down for me --to tell the truth, the only thing that I really used from it were the characters names, and some of the people on the technical side. When I first started, I read the whole kit, about the production, about the cast, about the movie itself, and over the time, even though those elementary labels have stayed, the written material itself has become PR-synthesizing, ego-stroking and useless facts about what the filmmakers have done/would like to have done in that particular movie. Nowadays, I rarely have the chance or the inclination to read all that, but by chance I did manage to read a good 90% of the press notes for "The Center of the World," which gave me quite the unexpected and unintentional laugh, or series thereof.But before I get into the movie itself (not quite in the same fashion as the lollipop ended up in the stripper), I must confess that the "screening" that took place for "The Center of the World" was not much of a screening, but instead me watching it at home, via a videotape screener. Apparently low on funds, Artisan decided to circulate the movie on video, slightly more convenient, yes, but not very preferable. Only, this was no tape worthy of presentation; although it was not shot in Scope, the image was doctored to the pan-and-scan format of the television, in addition to a "Property of Artisan Entertainment" burn-in at the top of the frame, not once every ten or 15 minutes, but non-stop, and a whirling timer at the bottom, counting hours, minutes, seconds, and tenths-of-seconds. How many more distractions must there be to get to the actual uninterrupted, undistorted viewing of the movie?
"Wang's imagination ends up in the notes, instead of on-screen."
A lonely, nebbish Silicon Valley youngster named Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) has been catapulted to the many zeros-in-paycheck status when his IPO bars no holds. He hangs out at local strip clubs and such, and has a circumspective crush on one of the lap dancers, Florence (Molly Parker). He approaches her with a financial proposal to accompany him to Las Vegas for the weekend. Hesitant at first (she's a lap dancer for financial reasons, but a drummer by "profession"), as the offering clambers up for his willing fee, she accepts at $10,000, but only if he follows in accordance to certain rules (i.e. no kissing on the lips, no penetration, for 10 pm until 2 am only, she gets her own suite, etc.).
But naturally, as things sexually progress and dilate (no pun intended), things get shaken up, and nothing goes quite as planned. I mean, who wasn't expected for the "no kissing on the lips" rule to be one of the first broken. Who, in the end, was not expecting for all the "plans" to be shattered to shards? However, the characters odysseys cross over into ambiguity. Did Florence know all along that she intended to break the rules, or did she lose track of her role, of her emotions, and let it go to far? Was the money a key in the eventual act of sex, or did she too, like Richard, really just want it? Well, director Wayne Wang plays unfair and chooses not to answer any of the above questions, but he gives us plenty of fuel to kick up the fire. For example, she knows Richard is strapped for cash, and is a generous, unassuming guy who wants to please her any way possible. So when one of her trick-turning friends (Carla Gugino) tells about the abuse she got and how the guy didn't pay her, Richard gladly gives her money to compensate for it.
Or later on, Florence already knows things are getting semi-heated up, and she talks to Gugino on the phone, bringing something up about tomato juice. During the "session" that night as Richard fingers her underneath the white patent-leather (or pleather) dress, she starts bleeding, and stops it there. At the end, when they do have sex, she plays it off as if she had done everything for the money and was completely emotionally removed. Richard tells her, "You're just dead," as she proceeds to masturbate herself for no good reason at all. It would be too simple for it all to be a ploy --I tend to believe she was caught up in the moment and in him, and that is illustrated on several instances, like when they run into an old friend of Richard's at the hotel, and she performs to him as a Southern belle.
Of course a running theme with this was the technological advances and efficiencies of today, and then trying to tie that into where the person then stands in the world ("The thing about computers is you're kinda connected to everything and everyone, kinda like you're at the center of the world"), which is refuted or challenged by her centrifugal belief in people doing that without the help of technology ("We're all born out of a woman's cunt; it's the center of the world"). Everyone's perceptions are distorted, and no one ends up happy or better off in the end. It plays like a vapid, less intriguing, less involving and less original re-working of Atom Egoyan's "Exotica," especially considering his thematic following of sex and video, in connection to Wang's employment of digital video.
That is the next problem, and surely something that if it poses as big of a problem on the small screen, is definitely going to look worse on the big one. If digital video is used effectively in the same manner as regular film, meaning that all the same effort is being put into it from the way it is shot to production values around and supporting it, there is nothing wrong with it. It's cheaper, it's more accessible, and it's also faster, but whether or not that is a benefit has yet to be proven. But with the majority of digital video-made movies I've seen, it is not being used effectively, but instead, used as a quick medium to throw something together and do so with very little expenses. The quality in "The Center of the World" is entirely off. It's ugly, flimsy, flat and unprofessional. The difference in quality changes from scene to scene at its own fluctuation and cadence, hopping between an already pallid, spotty image, and then to an even more successive etiolation making it almost colorless and a great deal more grainy and obtundent. The cinematography carries with it no life, no palpability, no visual connection. When Wang and cinematographer Mauro Fiore take the time to frame a certain scene, like Richard playing on his computer, it looks halfway decent and can easily be grown accustomed to. But the majority of the time, that does not happen, and it turns into a free-for-all.
That's where things started getting funny in the press kit. To give you one sample paragraph, this is what Wang mentally thinks he has accomplished: "Wang's first feature in digital video, 'The Center of the World' uses the medium's naturalistic properties and immediacy to inject a powerful suggestion of surveillance. Said Wang, 'I always wanted it to look real and explicit and voyeuristic. It's as though you're standing right there watching them. In screenings, people have been genuinely disturbed by that. The contradiction of that response --that you can no longer be a comfortable voyeur, that you're an uncomfortable voyeur-- I find great!'" There are further elaborations into these statements, but you get the idea of where he is going. But where ever did he get the idea that the use of digital video makes it look real, explicit or voyeuristic? If anything, having such dirty and unreal looking images, completely throws that idea away. There is nothing naturalistic whatsoever by using DV in that capacity. There's hardly anything to be viewed as explicit in this --nudity is kept at a bare minimum, and the most "controversial" scene has a stripper slide a lollipop into her vagina, swirl it around, pull it out, lick it and pass it on to a male customer (though edited up, which takes away any tiny effect)-- and so therefore there is very little for one to be voyeuristically magnetized to. And the idea about the comfortable voyeur turn uncomfortable one just comes off as a hilarious misstatement, making far too big of a deal out of extremely little. Digital video allows no intimacy with the movie you're watching --not even when it is effectively used like in Arturo Ripstein's "Asi es La Vida." It is the exact opposite, and isolates you far more than any trick under the celluloid horizon.
"The Center of the World" does very little for its actors, and Wang does nothing to either protect them or make them less vulnerable. The one who is left most naked, figuratively --not literally-- is Parker, who I find to be a very talented and daring actress. However, Wang takes her willingness, her strength and her skills, and subjugates her to a level of embarrassment and gratuity. All of the audacity that Parker put into the equally audacious "Kissed" is incessantly harped (and humped) upon for a similar hopeful effect here, but it fails. She is still brave her, and I give her a lot of credit, but she's taken advantage of, and it shows. Sarsgaard remains virtually shallow, with the personality of his character written and spoken into the role, rather than performed. His Richard is a lonely, empty man, sad only because there are those like him, but let it be known that "The Center of the World" is equivalently as empty, and a far cry from the center of anything other than ridicule.
With Balthazar Getty, Pat Morita, Robert Lefkowitz, and body-doubles Steve Maines and Lauren Moore.Final Verdict: C-.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5286&reviewer=172
originally posted: 05/05/01 06:08:48