Oshima: Artists and Lovers, Take One (of Four)

In the medieval French fabliaux: a woo-won virgin, won by a scamp who tells her he must unleash his hose to water her budding garden. (He does.) Another scamp who tells another virgin that his squirrel needs to ransack her burrow for its acorns. Acorns? She gets the point, anyway­: his. Such scamps, after all, are the great poets, legislators of the innocent world, harvesters of the Garden, their metaphors metamorphosing real private instinct into the universal terms of universal analogues, their song a script that, as any successful plea, enacts the scene it describes. Reality is turned to fantasy is turned to reality—though, even because, there are discrepancies. And the fabliaux themselves, of course, are writers’ fantasy, that writing might get them laid (well…). The medieval satirist Alain de Lille, in his own writing, found his own analogies, that, for example, the feather-pen secreting its drips and drops of ink isn’t unlike the lover’s own tool inscribing its own legacy in the world (and on a once-blank canvas).

There are alternate suggestions why the dirty similes enchant. Words used improperly for improper conduct, the linguistic transgression underlies the social one, and as with Ovid’s Gods, forms are perverted to allow enactment of a lover’s perversions. Knowingly submitting to a lie, the lovers feel the slight thrill of a sin, but also the larger thrill of conjoining in an entirely preposterous fantasy together. They admit they cannot describe or define their own metamorphoses they are going through, from proclaimed innocent to actual if-acted debauchees--can only suggest it with a simile. The disguise adds the pretense of a game, played privately, in which a new order is ordained by one (conman), followed by another (the con herself), but something is at stake: he loses if she doesn’t submit to his stupid game and him. And the natural life of gardens and squirrels is reappropriated and reconfigured, so that these quotidian banalities take on great, vulgar meaning; the rest of the world is sublimated into their private sexual practice. We get something of the same naughty kick when Lubitsch substitutes a shot of a light turning off and a door being closed as synecdoche for sex. It’s right and very wrong--and leaves everything to one’s imagination, fantasy. Traditional critics might argue the lovers deceive themselves that they act innocently; the point, in any case, is that the act is only as dirty as the thoughts are.

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In another fabliau, a chaste girl is brought down (corrupted) from her lengthy bower to another when a lad calls up to her that he owes her a fuck in exchange for her pet crane (the entire world, here, as though grasped through phallic lens). She complies, and later, tells him she needs the fuck back. An economic exchange.

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Oshima Nagisa’s Pleasures of the Flesh, his rare ’60s foray into simpler pleasures of plotting, charts with pop aplomb the capitalist Odyssey of a thief in lifelong love with an innocent girl who leaves him for another man and with five years to spend stolen millions on surrogate girls to fuck him in her place (then he will be caught and will kill himself). The role-playing is double: the innocent girls are paid not just to play his lover, but (and this they cannot do) a particular lover, a girl whose apparition haunts his windows on occasion, so that the fantasy is at least double too: the sex fantasy his money enacts, and the hallucinations he can’t control.

This is all familiar Oshima zoning. Criminals exploit each other for money and enact transgressive fantasies. The fantasies are filmed against abstract voids (the pleasure hotel here given ’60s white gloss—a blank slate), as though the lovers, not totally unlike those of the fabliaux establishing a privately perverted order, were offered bare new worlds and stages and sex games to hide out from public compromises and create their own anti-establishment (a theme and device present in masterpieces of the time from Gertrud to 2001 to L’amour fou). Just as the fabliaux's lovers find new ways to present the same old act, Marienbad-like, the story operates as a series of reboots as the fantasy is reattempted—the blank slate renewed—again and again. This favorite patterning of Oshima’s is probably derived from a Japanese film he did like, Rashomon: similarly, Death by Hanging will constantly propose alternate perspective and styles to recreate recreations of a forgotten event, Sing a Song of Sex will split into competing fantasies, each as plausible as another, and Three Resurrected Drunkards simply restarts halfway through with the same opening scene intact, to indicate, Clue-like, an alternate direction the same root might spring. Oshima’s usual penchant runs through it all: break-down ontology altogether. There is no single way things could happen, and there certainly is no single way we can really know what happened: that’s simply a matter of perspective (the style famously changes every Oshima film), and usually it’s the perspective of delusive liars and dreamers and cheats whose unwilled hallucinations and self-told fantasies, enacted on-screen, are as true and false as anything up there. Thus, when Pleasure’s hero hallucinates his lover, she simply walks on-screen, just as a ratty ghost will enter again later in Oshima’s Empire of Passion.

Pleasures of the Flesh

And finally, there’s sex not as ’60s communal free-for-all, “free love,” but very expensive love that takes its economic, physical, and emotional toll, a means of subjugation if it’s paid for, but also if it’s not—in which case it’s rape. Hell, it’s always rape: sex, here and in other Oshima films, is the great symbol of societal angst, meant as transgressive release, a seizing-of-control, from a repressive social order, when in fact and fantasy it only echoes society’s humiliations (in Oshima films, men treat women like the Japanese treated the Koreans), and creates its own more binding ties and compromises as men find their instincts dominated by the women they must, in retaliation, dominate by the more material means of money and force. “Sometimes it feels like you’ve bought me,” Pleasures’ loser-hero tells one of the girls. She has the real power to ratify his fantasies. He thinks he’s bribing her when he’s being as exploited as the thief he stole his millions from and the company that thief stole it from were originally—as if the company didn’t exploit it before. The blatant theme of Pleasures is that everyone is compromised and corrupted by a capitalist economy. And mindset.

But. Implausibilities are what make fantasies plausible. Frustrations, thwarted means, inadequate ends: the stock-in-trade humiliations and compromises of a sadomasochistic romance are also what fuel narratives on, turn relationships into epic quests for heroic control. Tennyson tells us if Ulysses had just gone home and laid his pretty wife, and ignored her funhouse mirror substitutes along the way, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a poem. Or much of one. Such love—possible love, with nothing left to fantasize about—is the happy ever after ending just about only Dashiell Hammett could write about (Nick and Nora Charles are drunk and, like Oshima’s lovers, taunting and teasing each other constantly). That a capitalist philosophy makes sex easy and love harder is exactly why, in its way, Pleasures of the Flesh, like any good S&M lover, cherishes a subject it hates. Something as simple as Network sees businessmen as capitalism’s guiltless minions, seeing all parts of life for their ratings, their monetary value. But Pleasures of the Flesh sees the possibility of guilt in capitalism’s constant frustrations, sees that even when prostitution is the norm, money’s ability to enact any fantasy or perversion is itself as perverse as the fabliaux’ put-ons: both contractual agreements for wild sex couched in entirely practical terms that emphasize such sex would be impossible were it not the result of monetary game-playing, that the guilty fantasy remains a guilty fantasy staged as theater against white walls (away from capitalism's bright lights), that humiliation is a constant possibility, and that so, pleasure is at risk—an adventure.

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