Sex: The Annabel Chong Story

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Gough Lewis
viewed: 06/19/03

I read about Annabel Chong (a.k.a. Grace Quek) first about 6-7 years ago in Giant Robot magazine, which is an interesting magazine in its broad scope though not always in its writing quality, and was not unsurprised when I read that a documentary had been filmed of her story as well. Chong, a native of Singapore, was a USC undergrad in sexual studies who entered the porn industry in a combination of research, perceived social commentary, and presumably to confront personal issues that she had about sex in general. The Giant Robot article and this film center around the apex/nadir of her journey, the filming of her movie, World’s Biggest Gang Bang (1995) in which she had sex with 251 men in a single 10 hour session, more than doubling the then world record.

As a documentary, this shot-on-video film is no great shakes. But as with many documentaries, the subject matter sometimes transcendently compelling and can override a less than quality film. I am not sure how “transcendently compelling” this story actually is, but there is something more here than the film manages to capture. Chong is intelligent, idealistic, troubled, and naive, and at the tender age of 22, these characteristics are in no way a-typical. Her academically inspired rhetoric about Sexuality and Women’s Studies is impassioned yet inarticulate. I wouldn’t doubt for an instant that someone with greater objectivity and education could weave some strong analysis of the issues that Chong seems to project on her situation.

What she seems incapable of recognizing is the self-destructive nature of her acts. Years before, in London, Chong had been gang-raped, a scene to which the camera follows her rather morbidly late in the film. A couple of times the film alludes to drug use, something which Chong is never shown doing or talking about. One scene depicts her cutting herself with a knife (scratching would be more accurate since the wounds she inflicts are not deep). This might be the great irony of that scene in general, as Chong’s life seems to be a series of self-inflicted emotional wounds which she doesn’t have the wherewithal to recognize.

There is so much material here that could have been better explored. Small asides with friends and associates fail to enlighten the subject in much more than hints. She delusionally tells an old school friend that she “is now one of the biggest porn stars in the world,” though, based on interviews with others in the industry, the claim is by no means an accurate one.

Ultimately, this is a depressing story and a depressing film. One would hope that this film would never become a truly tragic footnote in that perhaps Chong has grown/will grow and move on. At the end of the film, she returns to the porn industry after having quit. Her struggle for self-awareness, to come to terms with who she is, remains incomplete at the end of the film. And though her experiences are extreme and unusual, her troubled exploration of self is something that I think that most people can recognize and empathize with.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. John Ford
viewed: 06/16/03

Another journey to the realm of the classic Western for me, yet another John Ford film that I had not before seen. With John Wayne, no less!

I, like many people I would guess, have a somewhat prejudiced impression of John Wayne, the macho, drawling image of stereotypical American maleness, tough guy who solves problems by shooting people. Interestingly, this film seems to comment on that very stereotype considerably. And I have to say that the only other John Wayne film with which I am familiar, the brilliant John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), also seems to play Wayne against the types and ideals that from the outside seem to be what he represents.

As the film opens, Jimmy Stewart, a U.S. senator, arrives at the town of Shinbone (love that name) on the train, returning to the now civilized almost modern Western community, which boasts churches and schools and even looks very 1950’s. The bulk of film is told in flashback, as Stewart recounts the tale of how the town was settled, how law and order took over and ousted the wild criminal element embodied by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin, who is totally excellent). It’s an interesting perspective for this film and filmmaker, in the latter days of the studio system and the a late classic-era Western from the greatest of the genre’s directors, looking back at the latter days of the “Old West”.

Wayne represents the classic Western hero, whose tough guy confidence, street-wise smarts, and ability to sling a gun prove to be just the skills that make a man a man in the order of things. Stewart is a lawyer and a pacifist who wants to tame the West with law and justice and shuns the fighting and killing that he perceives makes Wayne’s character just as bad as the villan. Though the story is told from Stewart’s perspective, and presumably the audience is meant to side largely with him, the tension between the two ideologies drives the narrative. In the end, Stewart gets the girl (the usual determinate of who wins in these types of stories), but by compromising his ideals. And ultimately, I am not sure exactly what Ford was saying here, but perhaps it’s that the West needed and authority of violence to instill arepresentative authority of law?

I don’t know exactly, but it’s a very good film, with a well-developed narrative and excellent performances by some truly classic Hollywood stars. If you haven’t seen it, you should add it to your list.

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
viewed: 05/28/03 at The Coronet Theater, SF, CA

I’ve been really falling behind on this diary of late, and sadly, haven’t even been really seeing all that many films. This is yet another entry that I would have been much better off having written a more closely to the time I had seen it.

That said, the only thing that I think I would have articulated with more energy was my overall disappointment with this film. Perhaps what this sequel proves more than anything is that The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers was more pure design, style, and technology rather than storytelling and anything overly fascinating. This time around, the design and visual style are familiar (rather than flashily innovative), not only from the previous installment but from all the hundreds of films and commercials that have co-opted the original’s more powerful visuals. The technology, as is so often the case with digital special effects, has become pedestrian rather than eye-popping, and perhaps even more criminal, the visuals look more and more like an expensive video game than a movie (though it could be noted that part of the media glut that accompanies the release of this film is a rather large spate of just that: video games).

Perhaps the greatest innovation of the first Matrix film was the real integration of Hong Kong-style fight sequences, employing famed kung fu choreographer Yuen Wo Ping’s artistry. In some ways, perhaps this is part of the ultimate legacy of the heyday of Hong Kong film, that style and character of its action sequences was finally truly co-opted by American film-making, not so surprisingly in a somewhat cutting-edge fantasy blockbuster.

The newer film, which lacks the original verve of its predecessor, winds up being an amped-up version of the first film, but with a lot more silly narrative and pseudo-religious fervor (or is it pseudo? Is this film just pure Christian iconography?). Some of the backstory of The Matrix Reloaded truly verges on the level of badness found usually in the lesser Star Trek films. The most painful scene is the one in which Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus character preaches to the people of Zion about the Christ-like Neo and then tells them to dance! Which they do, in an interestingly filmed but largely campy orgyistic rave sequence. The Wachowskis seem to want to portray the earthy humanism of the downtrodden Zionist freedom fighters as they writhe to Trance-like disco. A fantasy about an idealized working class of the young and the hip?

The other nadir that the film hit was the long explanatory speech that laid out the story in doublespeek mumbo jumbo while cross-cutting the bigger action sequences. Perhaps we should credit the Wachowskis with figuring out how to use Keanu Reeves fairly well…it seems that most of their direction for him would have been: “Just look cool.”

Reeves: “What’s my motivation?”

Wachowskis: “You ARE cool.”

Reeves: “Cool, then.”

Rivers and Tides

Rivers and Tides (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer
viewed: 05/26/03 at The Red Vic Movie House, SF, CA

This is yet further testament to how behind I have fallen in my little film diary/journal thing. No time to catch up and so some pretty interesting films, like this one, will get short shrift, I am afraid.

I had missed this film when it had been through town last year or whenever it came through. It sounded really interesting, focusing on the work of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates his art installations out mostly in “nature”, using only found objects, often even highly perishible ones to build his varying creations.

Goldsworthy’s personal words on the subject certainly attest to his passion for nature and his connections to the Earth. While this was a little new-agey in spoken form, the visual presentation of him creating his work and his work itself truly have a transcendent aspect of this sensibility, one that is very profound and at times even stunning.

This film works well as a document to his process, especially since his work is largely ephemeral and constructed in such isolated spots that the experience is less one of exhibition and seemingly more personal. He documents his work with photography for historical and cataloguing reasons.

One thing that I liked about his work (I was mostly unfamiliar with him before reading a review of this film about a year or so ago), was the way that it has a sort of organic feeling of inspiration, building things the way that people do with sticks and mud or stones, like daisy chains or other such things that people/kids do when they are out on the beach or in the woods. So, there is something very natural about the process and not just the materials and forms.

Definitely worth seeing, if you are curious. We saw this film as part of the Monday Night Movie Club at the small Red Vic Theater in the Haight. It was Memorial Day Monday, at the end of a warm and pleasant three-day weekend, sun still out… Shockingly, there was a line almost around the block and the film was sold out! Only in SF (and more likely only at a theater as small as The Red Vic) could a documentary about an obscure artist would be a blockbuster.