Leading up to Valentine’s Day, the films in this week’s selection each look at love in a very distinct way. If a love triangle makes for a joyful pre-Code comedy in Design for Living, it is the stuff of nightmares in Ôshima’s Empire of Passion. Finally, in How to Remain Single, John Wilson explores the meaning of love in times of dating apps, beauty pageants and an ever-growing sex industry. Even though the answers may be very distinct, all three films pose a common question: how to love?
Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)
On a train to Paris, commercial artist Gilda meets two promising artists: a painter and a playwright. What follows is a sexy celebration of free love: the trio comes to a “gentleman’s agreement”, a non-monogamous relationship that allows Gilda to keep seeing both men platonically, all the while helping them thrive in their artistic professions. As much as the witty dialogue in Design for Living speaks in wordplay and suggestive blank spaces, much of what is told in the film itself exists off-screen. Eventually, the “no sex” part of the gentleman’s agreement is broken, but the action is only implied in gazes: it belongs to the world in between scenes. You can rent Design for Living via Amazon Prime.
Ai no bôrei [Empire of Passion] (Nagisa Ôshima, 1978)
In Empire of Passion, a love triangle takes a less cheerful turn. In a Japanese village at the end of the nineteenth century, a married woman and mother, Seki, starts an affair with a neighbour in the village. As her new lover is consumed by jealousy, they decide to kill her husband and dump his body in a well. All seems to go by plan, until the husband’s ghost returns to haunt them. “Just as in [the film] In the Realm of the Senses,” Ôshima told Positif in 1978, “the story is about a man and a woman who do not hesitate in aligning their daily existence with their deepest sexual urges. Nowadays, nothing interests me quite as much as approaching the various forms that love can take with people who can only be saved by that love.” Empire of Passion is screened at MUBI.
How to Remain Single (John Wilson, 2015)
John Wilson’s How to Remain Single might as well be a late capitalist era synthesis of the two previous films. Narrated as a reluctant tutorial on modern day love in New York City, “one of the most efficient places to date on the planet,” he offers a “simple guide on how to end relationships before they begin”. You can watch How to Remain Single for free over at Vimeo.
A woman does not want to decide between two men who love her, and the trio agree to a “gentleman’s agreement”, to try living together in a platonic relationship.
Gilda: It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.
“None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment. Only Lubitsch knew we were making art.”
“He really did everything himself. He even cut the film himself; he may have been the only one who did that. I never met any director who actually went into the cutting room with scissors and cut their own films but Lubitsch.”
Gilda: You see, a man can meet two, three or four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.
Tom: Very fine. But, which chapeau do you want, Madame?
“With great excitement and forthrightness, the direct vitality felt in the way she moves back and forth between the two men, Gilda makes herself their sexual equal. But, ironically, at the climax of her confession when she reveals that she wants both men, she suddenly becomes quite still so that one of the men has to move toward her, and she takes on a demurely feminine expression of downcast eyes. The gesture may be seen as partly defensive, a way of avoiding direct contact at the most explicit revelations of her feelings, but it is also playful, a challenge made implicit in the defense itself.
If the play deviously maintains a double standard by making Gilda different from other women, the film in far more iconoclastic fashion totally rejects that standard by couching Gilda’s argument in generalized terms and establishing a definitive parity with the men. The sudden femininity of her gesture, then, is not so much an ironic debunking of her femininity as it is a way of saying that all socially defined forms of behaviour have an element of play about them, a give-and-take in which the partners all know the established rules and modes of action and agree to adhere to them as a form of communication even as they offer the most extreme challenges to them.”
Gilda: Now listen, Plunkett, Incorporated. You go to those customers of yours and give ’em a sales talk. Sell them anything you want, but not me. I’m fed up with underwear, cement, linoleum, I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!
Gilda: Don’t you tell ’em I’ve got hiccups. Tell them I’ve got the advertising blues. The billboard collywobbles! Slogans and sales talks morning, noon, and night, and not one human sound out of you and your whole flock of Egelbaurs!
- 1. John Ford, as cited in Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Laughter in Paradise, (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1993), 10.
- 2. Gottfried Reinhardt, as cited in Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Laughter in Paradise, (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1993), 207.
- 3. William Paul, Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 77-78.
A married woman murders her husband together with her lover and dumps his body in a well. Gradually, their downfall begins when, after a while, the husband’s spirit returns.
Michael Henry: What kind of a link do you see between Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses? Did you get the idea of a diptych as you were developing the new project, or did it happen progressively as you were directing it?
Nagisa Ôshima: It’s completely normal for a filmmaker to bathe more than once in the same spring. And the close relationship you mention does indeed seem to exist. Just as in In the Realm of the Senses, the story is about a man and a woman who do not hesitate in aligning their daily existence with their deepest sexual urges. Nowadays, nothing interests me quite as much as approaching the various forms that love can take with people who can only be saved by that love.
In Senses, the lovers created from start to finish–and with such supreme refinement–the voluptuous world that united them until the voluntary death of Kichi. Whereas in Passion, the couple seem to be the victim of their own desires and fantasies. The passion between Seki and Toyoji is depicted as a descent into hell. Is this the fate of adulterous love in the era in which the story is rooted? Or do you think that love in and of itself carries a tragic fate?
The space in Senses was delineated by the different rooms of love. It was artificially created, completely designed for voluptuousness. On the other hand, in Passion it is all about nature. Seki has a house where she lives with her husband, and Toyoji a small hovel that he shares with his young brother. Neither of these places is artificial. The two lovers live in fear because they constantly feel threatened by nature. I am trying to depict the human condition in its primal stage. In that sense, my new film goes back to the roots of all life, much more deeply than Senses ever did. The lovers seem cast into hell because of their sexual urges, but in my opinion, the rumbling of the earth, the murmur of the wind, the rustling of the trees, the songs of the birds and insects, in short, all of nature, is guiding the couple into hell. And the ghost itself is part of nature. Neither sex nor love has any meaning. Life itself has no meaning. And if it doesn’t have meaning, isn’t it hell? All I can do is express and project before you this human life devoid of any meaning, this hell that for me is always beautiful.
Michael Henry in conversation with Nagisa Ôshima1
“The visual idiom that Oshima chose for Empire of Passion does evoke the horror movie tradition with its swirling mists and chiaroscuro lighting, but only to emphasize how far the film is from any generic roots. In his early films, Ôshima had tried out both a realist idiom and a kind of theatrical stylization, but since the start of the Sozo-sha period, he had opted for something more fluid and less easy to pin down: his films were generally rooted in recognizable social realities–indeed, often based on news stories–into which he added individual and collective fantasies, leaving the viewer to decide whether it made any sense to distinguish between the two. His model, probably, was the surrealist Buñuel. Empire of Passion is true to this pattern. It’s set at a very specific historical moment, just after the first Sino-Japanese War, and shows rural life beginning to feel the effects of central government for the first time. Discharged soldiers like Toyoji return to their communities with ‘alien’ ideas and attitudes, village life is suddenly policed, and traditional ways of life are about to be challenged by such notions as ‘democracy’ and compulsory education. Using Nagatsuka’s novel as his sourcebook, Oshima shows both domestic life and the workings of the 1895 rural economy in great detail–and then complicates the picture by exploring the central characters’ private passions. In this context, the appearances of Gisaburo’s ghost are not horror movie scares but testimony to the village’s barely submerged dream life.”
A simple guide on how to end relationships before they begin.
“Hey New York! As we all know, New York City is home to some of the most beautiful, desperate and selfish people on the planet. Which makes it the perfect place to avoid relationships.”
John Wilson’s voice-over in How to Remain Single
“You know, I feel like I became interested in cameras when my dad got a home movie camera. I feel like most people did in the ’90s. I think there was — I’m probably part of a generation of video artists or filmmakers that started with hi-8 cameras and VHS-C cameras. A video camera was the coolest object in the world when I was a kid. I could make these little movies with my friends and then play it back and we’d make each other laugh, you know? That is the best part of filmmaking, making your own entertainment. And I feel like I’ve been doing this for my entire life. I never saw what I wanted to see in pop culture, really. So, I always wanted to make my own entertainment. I wanted to make work that I wanted to watch. And that’s kind of how—that’s been the driving force behind most of what I do. Just looking around and realizing, like, “Oh, why is nobody doing this? This is so simple.””
“Inspired by the work of Les Blank, George Kuchar and Bruce Brown, Wilson was never drawn to fiction filmmaking. Working on narrative projects before college made him realize that he wanted to strip the filmmaking process down in order to make it as personal and cheap as possible. “I didn’t like the process of making an independent short film on such a small budget because I don’t like not being able to provide decent pay or hours for people to be working on something,” he says. Excited by YouTube filmmakers creating hundreds of videos for small audiences, Wilson began working on a series of how-to videos.”
“I wanted to entertain my friends at first. I never really had any ambitions to make a TV show. It was also therapeutic in a way. When I moved back to New York as an adult, my first place had bed bugs, and I was also really lonely and all this stuff. I was afraid that all these miserable experiences would just be a net loss if I didn’t turn them into something. My logic was that if something positive came out of it, I wouldn’t regret that it happened.”
“Wilson’s subject is human behavior, and his terrain is New York, which he trawls with the obsessive devotion of a beachcomber, sifting through the streets with his camera to find the treasures buried among the trash, and not just the figurative kind. (...) For years, Wilson posted short films to his Web site, where he garnered a small and passionate following. He is, at heart, a collector and collagist, and he hit on the conceit of mock-instructional videos as a way to organize his abundance of material.”
“My obsession with documentary coincided with this job I had where I worked for a private investigator for about a year after graduating. I would watch all of this really banal footage every day and I would have to train myself to find these little moments to send to lawyers of people jumping out of wheelchairs and stuff like that.
That shaped me in one way or another. I started to shoot in a style that was similar aesthetically to that private eye stuff. I got really into non-fiction film and all the different ways of exploring interesting subjects. The tutorial format evolved out of this desire to do all of this documentary stuff at once and combine different genres and styles. I would shoot my environment every single day. All of this footage was sitting on a hard drive and I wanted to compile it into something, so I started to make these little video quilts out of all this material, and I needed some kind of adhesive to keep it all together, so I started to write these little memoir essays around them, just so I could have a home for all this material.”
“Wilson’s ethic feels at once familiar—finding its analogue in D.I.Y. punk scenes and contemporary major label “surprise” album releases alike—and idiosyncratic. He has made most of his output available to the non-film festival attending public on his Vimeo page immediately upon completion, deliberately bypassing today’s dominant channels for the exhibition and distribution of independent cinema. He claims to have no burning desire to partake of the festival circuit, and maintains that his films are made only for the pleasures that shooting and editing them bring him and the responses that they provoke from friends and total strangers online. The most fitting cliché to invoke here would be that this former private investigator has amassed his oeuvre for no other reason than the love of the game.”
“The genesis of the show goes back seven years. Wilson, at the time cobbling together a living through freelance gigs and odd jobs like editing video for a private investigator, began channeling his loneliness and personal setbacks into short, online films such as How to Live With Bed Bugs and How to Remain Single. His work eventually captured the attention of Nathan Fielder, who was looking for a new challenge after walking away from his groundbreaking Comedy Central reality-show parody, Nathan For You. Fielder signed on as a producer, and, much to Wilson’s shock, HBO took a chance on their quirky idea.”
“With my show, every piece of footage is unique and needs to be categorized and tagged so it doesn’t get lost in this massive archive. You also can’t just passively ingest this footage. It needs to be both literally categorized and poetically categorized as well.”
“Though it sounds like a vague term, “video art” is a full-fledged category of art practice, primarily the creation of short-form, experimental filmmaking made with consumer-grade video cameras. Since the 1960s, artists like Jaime Davidovich, Chris Burden, William Wegman and collaborators Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn have picked up camcorders and shot themselves in confessional, compromising and bizarre situations. Wilson’s show follows the path of the video artists who came before him.
Beyond making a home on HBO, How to With John Wilson also has the anatomy of video art. His narration, charmingly imperfect because it’s littered with stutters, hesitation and sudden, mid-sentence observations, embraces the format of the video diary. Filmmaker George Kuchar, whom Wilson has cited as an inspiration, would visit Oklahoma every spring, staying in run-down motels along Tornado Alley, expressing the loneliness and documenting the mundane as he waited for the skies to turn green and funnels to descend from the sky.”
“John Wilson lives a few blocks from me and sometimes I feel like I can’t go outside without the threat of being filmed doing my silly little activities in my silly little outfits.”
- 1. Jake Uitti, “Documentarian John Wilson on His HBO Show “How to With John Wilson”, Under The Radar, 22 December 22 2020.
- 2. Filmmaker Magazine, “25 New Faces of Independent Film 2016: John Wilson”, Filmmaker Magazine, 2016.
- 3. Andy Greene, “How John Wilson Made the Quirkiest, Most Transcendent Show on Television”, Rolling Stone, 10 December 2020.
- 4. Alexandra Schwartz, “How to with John Wilson” Offers a Martian’s-Eye View of Homo Sapiens’ Habits”, The New Yorker, December 14, 2020.
- 5. Ariel Lebeau, “John Wilson: The Anthropologist of New York City”, GQ, 9 December 2020.
- 6. Dan Sullivan, “Do Your Own Style: On John Wilson”, The Brooklyn Rail, October 2016.
- 7. Andy Greene, “How John Wilson Made the Quirkiest, Most Transcendent Show on Television”, Rolling Stone, 10 December 2020.
- 8. Andy Greene, “How John Wilson Made the Quirkiest, Most Transcendent Show on Television”, Rolling Stone, 10 December 2020.
- 9. Renée Reizman, “Inside the Video Art Origins of ‘How to With John Wilson’”, Observer, January 16, 2021.
- 10. Emma Roo, “How To Remain Single” review, Letterboxd, 2015.