Saturday, September 8, 2012

Layer 544 . . . The Buzz, The Waltz and the Human Condition

Lying in the blazing September sun this afternoon in my fabulously comfortable rocking sunlounger I felt more relaxed than I've done in years, or perhaps decades. Is it any wonder when the past six summers, at least, have been so bad, or simply non-existent? We now know that this change for the worse in our climate is down to a shift in the position of the Jet Stream, which may or may not have something to do with global warming. Either way, it's been fucking frustrating.


In the Guardian magazine today there's an article written by Decca Aitkenhead under the title, The Buzz.

It seems there's a film that's about to go on general release called Hysteria, which "tells the true story of the vibrator".
The vibrator was invented by respectable Victorian doctors, who grew tired of bringing female patients to orgasm using their fingers alone, and so dreamt up a device to do the job for them. Their invention was regarded as a reputable medical instrument – no more improper than a stethoscope – but became wildly popular among Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, who soon began buying vibrators for themselves. For its early customers, a vibrator was nothing to be embarrassed about . . .
100 years ago women didn't have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor's office to get masturbated.
In 19th-century Britain, the condition known as hysteria – which the vibrator was invented to treat – was not a source of embarrassment at all. Hysteria's symptoms included chronic anxiety, irritability and abdominal heaviness, and early medical explanations were inclined to blame some or other fault in the uterus. But in fact these women were suffering from straightforward sexual frustration – and by the mid-19th century the problem had reached epidemic proportions, said to afflict up to 75% of the female population. Yet because the very idea of female sexual arousal was proscribed in Victorian times, the condition was classed as non-sexual. It followed, therefore, that its cure would likewise be regarded as medical rather than sexual.
The only consistently effective remedy was a treatment that had been practised by physicians for centuries, consisting of a "pelvic massage" – performed manually, until the patient reached a "hysterical paroxysm", after which she appeared miraculously restored. The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring.
If the story of the vibrator tells us anything it is that men have been determined for millennia to deny the most obvious truth about women's sexual requirements. Explanations for this collective denial have ranged from profound fear of female sexuality to sheer laziness. Either way, Maines says, "The constant from Hippocrates to Freud – despite breathtaking changes in nearly every other area of medical thought – is that women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are sick or defective." Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say, "out of sorts", than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women.


Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz is the title of one of the tracks on Leonard Cohen's superb 1988 album "I'm Your Man". It's also the title of a film written, produced and directed by the multi-talented Canadian Sarah Polley, which has recently been on general release in this country. The film had an absurdly bad review by one of the Guardian's film critics, who gave it one star out of five. This man, who shall remain nameless, appears to be a complete cretin.


Cohen has written many songs that deal with frustration and longing, including "I'm Your Man" in which he recognises that people regularly cope with a host of unsatisfied desires and fantasies. With brilliant tongue in cheek humour Leonard declares that whatever it is someone might want, he's the man to provide it. It's only a chat-up line, of course: Len's too much of a realist to imagine that any complex human being can truly be satisfied for very long. The point is, so what? Only romantics go around imagining that things can be otherwise, even if some people pretend that all's well in their life by keeping schtum about their frustrations and their usually unspoken willingness to compromise and settle for safety and security when life with a particular partner turns out to be less than ideal. Buddhists recognise that the greatest causes of misery in life are unsatisfied desires and attachment.

In Sarah Polley's film a character called Margot is the one who's frustrated. In a neat role-reversal she's married to a steady, down to earth, practical, decent, domesticated guy called Lou, who's trying to write a book that consists entirely of recipes for cooking chicken. He spends his days cooking chicken in various ways, and writing up his food experiments. Whenever Margot gets bored with the travel guides she's trying to write and approaches Lou for some diversionary cuddles or sex he's invariably "busy" and not interested - even in bed.

Margot and Lou have an apparently wonderful "best friends" kind of marriage in which they regularly play affectionate little games and say "I love you". Lou's not exactly a physical kind of guy, and so he's perfectly happy with the marriage. Margot thinks the world of Lou and yet . . . she's bored. And frustrated. She knows she needs more. She wants sex and she wants passion, excitement, novelty. And true intimacy. Somehow "love" is not quite enough.

She also wants someone whom she can talk to, share thoughts with and explore ideas with. When she and Lou go to a restaurant to celebrate their 5th anniversary she suggests they might have a conversation. Lou's response is, what for? Isn't the point of going to a restaurant to simply enjoy good food and wine? Surely they can have conversations any old time? If only.

The film reaches its true climax with a long, circular tracking shot that cleverly reveals a series of episodes in Margot's future life with a new lover, whilst "Take This Waltz" plays as its soundtrack.

At the conclusion of the film it's not clear whether anything is resolved, other than Margot realising that there's more to life than coupledom, and maybe it's the journey that's important rather than finding a destination, or a refuge, or security, or any kind of permanence. It seems that Lou has also realised that he's better off alone than married to a woman he knows he cannot satisfy, no matter how kindly and decently he treats her. He is what he is. And she is whatever she is. Lou somehow seems to have discovered his niche - he's published his book and is contracted to write a sequel - with another 50 chicken recipes. Whilst Margot might just be back where she started - on the road to finding herself - but at least with an awareness that this is what she's doing, and what she needs to do. Which seems like a very Zen thing to have learned.

All in all this is clearly an "art" film, as we used to say, which is the antithesis of the standard Hollywood model with its fast-cutting, all-action, easy to follow story line about nothing very much, and unlikely to provoke any thought or reflection. Sarah Polley is a true artist who paints with long, slow takes of the camera and leaves plenty of time and room for contemplation, connection and consideration. She highlights several key aspects of the human condition, but doesn't tell us what to think about them and doesn't point to any simple conclusions. Her characters and relationships are complex, multi-layered and ambivalent. This is not a romantic movie. And there are no solutions to the human condition.


Leonard Cohen and his wonderful band are playing at Wembley Arena tonight and tomorrow night.

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