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Humpday (2009) – No Pretty, No Mercy

August 29, 2011

While I am happy to join the chorus of disapproval surrounding the state of British universities, I cannot help but feel that there was something inevitable about the current wave of cuts and restructurings.  The problem is that, while there has been a massive expansion in higher and post-graduate education, much of this expansion was founded on a lie, the lie that you can teach someone to be insightful. Universities are brilliant at immersing you in a subject and teaching you to produce papers that look like the sort of things that academics should produce, but they cannot teach you to look at a phenomenon and say something truly original.  You cannot teach originality because you cannot teach creativity and you cannot teach creativity because you cannot teach insight.  Nowhere are the products of this lie more obvious than in contemporary film.

As Peter Biskind points out in the excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), people seldom attended film school in the 1970s.  Film schools existed but they held no status, carried no cachet and (most importantly) provided no guarantee whatsoever that any of their students would ever get to sit behind a camera and shout ‘Action’. Forty years later and film schools not only provide universities with a welcome source of income, they also provide the creative industries with a steady supply of competent individuals who are more than ready to step behind a camera and produce adverts, music videos and films on demand. Film schools train aspiring directors by helping them to deconstruct and replicate the techniques that made great films what they are. Because film schools are so popular and because they are so well attended, contemporary film boasts levels of technical sophistication that would humble the filmmakers of previous generations. Unfortunately, while film schools do a brilliant job of teaching people how to make a film, they cannot teach them how to make good and insightful art.  Because of this, the explosion of film school students has lead not to a generation of great directors but to a generation of skilled imitators.

In Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), David Bordwell masterfully deconstructs the techniques used in what he calls ‘Art-Cinema Narration’.  This form of narration involves the use of extended silences, gaps in narration and expressionistic visual composition that shed light on the characters’ inner states.  While these techniques may once have been radical and ‘difficult’, they are now as familiar to cinema-going audiences as the strictures of any populist genre.  Because these techniques are familiar, they can be adopted in order to lend a work an ‘art house sensibility’.  The textbook example of this sort of affection is Matthew Weiner’s period TV drama Mad Men.  As Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his piece in the New York Review of Books, Mad Men is effectively a soap opera.  However, because the series adopts many of the narrative tropes and techniques common to art house film, we assume that it is as intelligent and insightful as the art house films that pioneered these sorts of narrative techniques.  Because Mad Men’s plotlines are never resolved, we think the series is as smart as L’Avventura. Because Don Draper’s internal state is only ever alluded to in an elliptical fashion, we think the series is as smart as Last Year in Marienbad.  Films such as Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009) and Mike Mills’ Beginners are also excellent examples of works that look intellectually substantial but in fact have very little to say. Clearly, techniques developed in order to help filmmakers shed light on a new set of issues are now used to evade the responsibilities of coherent thought and genuine insight. What was shocking is now familiar.  What was revolutionary is now consolatory. When technical expertise carries more weight than genuine insight mere competence becomes downright heroic.  Mumblecore is a cinematic movement that finds virtue  and strength in technical mediocrity.

Mumblecore films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2005) and Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather (2010) are made on ultra-low budgets with minimal production values, largely non-professional actors and scripts that allow for a good deal of on-set improvisation.  Stripped of complex camera movements, lighting effects and art-house narrative techniques, Mumblecore films stress relationships over plot in such a way that the emotional and psychological meat of the film has no place to hide.  Mumblecore films are all about character and relationships and their power derives from a complete commitment to exploring these things in forensic detail. No handwaving. No distractions. No bullshit.  Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is brilliant in its unflinching commitment to the weakness and complexity of its characters.

Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore) are a couple rapidly approaching middle-age.  Their college years behind them, the couple have reached a point in their lives when being comfortable counts for a lot more than being interesting.  This is communicated in a beautifully observed scene in which the couple lie in bed kissing before cheerfully admitting that they are both really… really tired. For Ben and Anna, sex is now about starting a family rather than passion or fun.

This peaceful existence is suddenly disrupted when Ben’s old college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) unexpectedly arrives at their door. Unlike Ben, Andrew is not in the least bit settled.  Living a nomadic existence full of casual hook-ups and casual labour, Andrew presents himself as a free spirit and an artist but, in truth, he simply has no place in particular he needs to be.  He is aimless.

When Andrew makes friends with some of Ben’s bohemian neighbours and invites Ben over to hang out, he unwittingly allows the pair to revert to the adversarial relationship they enjoyed in college.  Unwilling to appear boring, Ben refuses to go home to his wife.  Unwilling to appear more square than the square guy, Andrew suggests making an ‘arty’ porn film. Drawn out by booze, the game of one-upmanship soon spirals out of control and the pair find themselves agreeing to have sex on film in order to participate in a local pornography festival.

As beautifully observed as this refusal to back down may be, what makes Humpday such a brilliant film is the fact that Shelton then proceeds to unpack the two men’s rivalry in absolutely excruciating detail.

The process of psychological crucifixion begins when Ben tries to talk Anna into letting him appear in a film with Andrew without actually telling her what this film would involve.  While Anna quickly works out that the film is intended to be a part of the local porn festival, she does not realise that Ben and Andrew are planning to have sex until Andrew accidentally congratulates Anna on her open-mindedness. After some of the most squirm-inducing back-pedalling this side of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Anna allows Ben to go ahead with his plan on the grounds that she once made out with someone at a party. Though hardly comparable to having anal sex with an old college buddy, this admission and the role it plays in Ben’s testosterone-addled mind is reminiscent of the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) when Nicole Kidman’s admission of lust for a passing naval officer sends Tom Cruise’s character off on an odyssey of abortive transgression and stunted self-discovery.

Green light given, the two men withdraw to a hotel room to shoot the scene.  However, they find it difficult to get going.  In order to kick-start the sex, they attempt a number of running starts including kissing, taking their clothes off and getting into bed together but, despite their insistence that they are absolutely up for it, sex is not immediately forthcoming.  Hoping to talk themselves into it by working out why it is that they want to have sex on film, the two men begin to talk about their feelings. The more they talk, the more open they become and the more open they become the most failings are brought to light: Ben talks and talks and talks around the fact that he is feeling cooped up in his relationship and Andrew admits that while he likes to think of himself as a free spirit and an artist, he simply does not have the creativity or the courage required for the job.  As exquisite as the characterisation in this sequence is, it is rendered all the more powerful by the tension regarding whether or not the pair will eventually wind up having sex.

Written and directed by a woman, Humpday features a refreshingly contrarian depiction of masculine sexuality.  Traditional and religious accounts of human sexuality tend to isolate women as unique sources of desire.  It was, after all, Eve who lured Adam into eating the forbidden fruit and many traditional societies continue to assume that women are the guilty party when it comes to adultery and fornication. Today, this identification of desire with the feminine has been stood on its head resulting in a tendency to present men as idiotic over-grown children forever in the grip of lust while women are more sophisticated emotional beings who value love over genital expectoration. Of course, sexism being what it is, this reversal of understanding has also lead to a reversal of values; where once women were criticised for being lustful, now they are depicted as duplicitous and cynical when compared to the robust authenticity of a man-child in search of orgasm.  Humpday challenges not only these sexual values but also the understanding of masculine sexuality that lies behind them, for while Shelton depicts both Andrew and Ben as sex-obsessed, neither of them actually enjoys the act of sex itself. While Ben admits at the beginning of the film that he would rather sleep than fuck, Andrew also benefits from a scene in which he foregoes the chance to have a threesome because he does not want to share a bed with an array of dildos.

Humpday presents male sexuality as confused, confusing and inextricably tied to such social and psychological issues as status, pride and aspiration. Neither Andrew nor Ben actually want to have sex with each other, but both are desperate to be the kind of guy who would have sex with a friend for the sake of art.  Andrew wants to have sex because he wants to be an artist and Ben wants to have sex because he is not yet ready to accept that he is the guy with the banal sexual existence of a while middle-class middle-aged college-educated man. While most films and TV shows depict male sexuality as idiotic but emotionally authentic, Humpday presents it as a rich and complex source of self-delusion.

Visually pedestrian and narratively unambitious, Humpday’s brilliance flows from absolute honesty and a transparent refusal to allow either of its primary characters off the hook.  Humpday is a film that strips its characters of all convenient fiction and keeps stripping until there is nothing left but an intensely uncomfortable truth, the sort of truth and insight that you cannot learn in film school.

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