Bwog’s Resident Deviant and Movie Master, Mark Hay, is back with this week’s film recommendations.

I was as surprised as anyone else to learn this Thursday that the beloved David Letterman does “terrible, terrible things.” What will happen to Letterman now that he has admitted to the depravities that most human beings keep locked away deep inside? I certainly don’t know, but to ponder that question (and in solidarity with Dave), I now presents three movies about the dirty, horrible, kinky things that people do and the ways in which these acts change their lives.

Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is an epic of human nature. Unfolding over the course of one day in Los Angeles, the film consists of a series of roughly interlocking, but never clearly connected or sharply defined, episodes from the life of some-odd dozen people. In this world, there are three classes of people – the successful man full of regret for the evils he has committed, the abused children broken under the egos of their elders, and the tragic caregivers who hopelessly and suicidally attempt to rehabilitate child and elder alike.

These characters are just barely caricatures of human emotions. They are just close enough to the truth of life – liberties we take in life, the people we destroy for ourselves, and the ways in which we repent, or fail to – that many of them become grotesque, and in their ugly honesty absolutely pitiable. The film, as such, owes a great debt to the talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a hospice caregiver), Julianne Moore (a trophy wife who finds that she has come to love her dying husband), John C. Reilly (a lonely cop at wits end who falls in love with a self-destructive drug addict), and, astoundingly, that little pip Tom Cruise (an appropriately misogynistic sleaze-ball forced to reconcile with his father).

Are these overlapping lives just coincidence? The story is almost too messy to attribute to some higher power – certain stories are never resolved, certain individuals’ fates left unknown – but at the same time the confluence of these lives, the clashing of egos and improprieties, the self-realization, it cannot be chance alone. And by the end of the day, their lives, the culmination of years of neuroses and hatred and hidden secrets, all collapse and reform themselves, in part due to their own interactions, but largely due to a strange and inexplicable act of god.

Clocking in at three hours, Magnolia is messy, gritty, and hated by many. But it is also a beautiful human jigsaw.

Shortbus (2006)

This is a story of sexual deviancy as sexual healing (especially sure to please those of you affiliated with C-Spot). Taking place somewhere in the chaotic and confusing time between September 11, 2001 and the New York blackout of 2003, John Cameron Mitchell’s tenderly pornographic film follows the lives of a sex therapist Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee) who, ironically, can’t get no satisfaction; a gay couple, the needy Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) and the aloof ex-prostitute James (Paul Dawson), whose relationship is falling apart; and the socially devastated dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish). The three parties interact and attempt to bluntly help each other find carnal (and by extension, deeper psychological) satisfaction at a Brooklyn sex salon run by the drag queen Justin Bond (himself) and known as the Shortbus – a home for the sexually gifted and stunted alike.

By way of disclaim, some, if not all, of the acts vividly depicted in this film would make a gentleman cry and give pause to even the most cultured consumer of the pornographic arts (Letterman would have no problem, though). But Mitchell does not treat the sexuality of the characters in an egregious or smarmy fashion. Indeed, it is hard to find any other film offering such a playful and sweet depiction of what is, in truth, an extremely vulnerable and sensitive act. This is a film that attempts to put a face to sexual variety and tries to give a little humanity and connection to acts of a typically unmentionable nature. And, for this, it is commendable.

People come to Shortbus for much the same reason the former New York City Mayor Tobias (Alan Mandell) claims that the characters flock to New York and its underbelly: they come seeking forgiveness. They come seeking a place to fit in, someone to fit with, and a way to reconcile the pain and guilt and confusion within themselves. Graphic, but heartwarming.

Talk to Her (2002)

No one can take a situation so absurd, so soap operatic, and turn it into something so real and gentle; no one can take something so soft and sweet and turn it into something so hinky and suspect as Pedro Almodovar. Talk to Her is a story of unflagging devotion, sometimes carried too far, and of rebirth. Two men, the simple Benigno (Javier Camara) and the intrepid Marco (Dario Grandinetti) stand vigil, side-by-side over two comatose women. Marco’s love is a former matador gored by a bull, Lydia (Rosario Flores), while Benigno’s charge is a ballerina, Alicia (Leonor Watling) he had only ever seen before across the street, practicing at her studio. Both men come to know and love the women they care for more in silence and stillness than ever they did in life, and both fall deeply in love, drawing as close to necrophilia as may legally be possible.

And then Benigno does something terrible, although it is hard to feel that way. Objectively, we know what Benigno does to be wrong, to be amoral, but we also know his intentions to be pure and his soul to be good. Ultimately, his actions, which must not be spoiled in this review, lead to his own death and the rebirth of one of the women. In his questionable acts, there is a seed of good, in his death, a seed of life. There is reason to love Benigno, to fear him, to hate him, to do all at once – much as Marco appears to. And there is reason to believe that it is such for all people who do, as Letterman says, “terrible, terrible things.” All are flawed, but few are evil. All is strange, but much is beautiful. This is a worldview prevalent in all of Pedro Almodovar’s films. And if one can say nothing else of this man’s work, if one thinks it too twisted, too sinister, too conflicted, at least one must admit that it is a compelling and aesthetically pleasing ride.

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