Hardcore Stenography

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So, INVESTIGATING SEX — I had a hard time getting to see this. I heard about it when it was new, ie before it failed to come out, from Emily Bruni, who plays the wife of Alan Cumming and the lover of Til Schweiger in it, and she spoke very warmly of writer/director Alan Rudolph, whom I love (usually). Not long after, I shared a car with Alan Cumming, but I didn’t get a chance to ask him much of anything as he was on the phone most of the time. He seemed nice, but very very busy.

Meanwhile, years passed, and the film never got a UK distributor (despite featuring Dermot Mulroney, Julie Delpy, Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld…) and didn’t play any festivals near me.

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Finally I obtained a copy, which proved to be dubbed into Greek, then another copy in English and subtitled in Portuguese, and then the film turned up on YouTube in its entirety, and I quite simply failed to watch it.

But now I have, and it joins the pile of really good Rudolphs, funny and sweet and romantic and just a little strange. At the mansion of an eccentric millionaire (Nolte), a group of (initially all male) artists, writers, filmmakers gather to recount their observations and experiences of sex. It’s 1929, so dressing a couple of lady stenographers in sexy black uniforms and employing them as combination secretaries/muses seems cool. The known factors (Campbell, who never previously seemed able to act, and Tunney, whom I don’t recall well enough from THE CRAFT because that had Fairuza Balk in it) are excellent, but the film also has up-and-comers Terrence Howard and Til Schweiger and Jeremy Davies — and the aforementioned Bruni, whose face has all these unexpected swoops and arches, like a wondrous funhouse Fonda, and John Light, neither of whom has caught on as they should (though they both work regularly, which is the main thing). Both have the kind of faces that make you lean forward, and maybe even cock your head sideways sometimes, which I regard as a good thing.

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Funny how Rudolph’s ensembles — the main thing he shares with his mentor Mr. Altman, an exec producer here, is a desire to let the supporting players nose ahead of the leads — never really attracted a big audience. They’re always intriguing mixtures, like a great party you wish you could throw. Consider —

Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, Keith Carradine, Lori Singer, Joe Morton, Divine…

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Peter Gallagher, Wallace Shawn, Lili Taylor…

The film doesn’t have a Mark Isham score, normally an essential trait of any Rudolph joint, nor does it have songs per se, but Ulf Skogsbergh’s slightly eerie music — woven around the idea of the succubus that tantalises Mulroney’s character — is a standout. Why hasn’t he done anything else in movies? Google suggests he’s a photographer, unless there are two Ulfs.

Highlight: Nolte’s confession of a love affair with a donkey.

Retrospective, anyone? Or an Eclipse box set?

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11 Responses to “Hardcore Stenography”

  1. Neve Campbell is truly terrific in Altman’s The Company, which also features the now overwhelmingly annoying James Franco.

  2. I was not aware of Alan Rudolph, but when you mention that he is compared to and was mentored by Robert Altman, I guess I have some catching up to do.

  3. Like a lot of beautiful actors, Campbell got good at her job just as her stardom started fading, which is a real shame.

    Rudolph scripted Buffalo Bill and the Indians for Altman as well as acting as AD, and then Altman produced his “first” film, Welcome to LA. The two reteamed several times, whenever Altman’s career was on the ascendant and he had some clout. Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions was originally scripted for Altman in the 70s.

    Rudolph has said that he’s more of a romantic than Altman, and his film’s have more respect for their own “movieness,” whereas Altman’s primary interest was always injecting a kind of realism.

  4. I didn’t know anything much about this one going in, and gradually started wondering if these characters were based on real people. Was the photographer named Oscar supposed to be Man Ray? Only afterward did I discover that it’s based on a book, José Pierre’s Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions, 1928-1932, which Abebooks describes thus: ‘In January 1928, the surrealists initiated their remarkable “researches into sexuality” with a series of round-table conversations involving key figures such as André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Louis Aragon, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Antonin Artaud. The transcripts, in all their bizarre and fascinating detail, are presented here. While there is plenty of humor, not all of it intentional, the speakers were trying scrupulously to record every aspect of sexual love, cataloging preferences and positions, quality and quantity. This book is a unique historical record of sexual practice and ethics; a fundamental text for understanding the surrealist movement and, for all its idiosyncrasies, a document that still retains an extraordinary vitality today.’

    The movie was released on DVD in the US as INTIMATE AFFAIRS.

    Interesting that three of Rudolph’s best movies (THE MODERNS, MRS PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, and this one) are set in the 1920s.

    I do wish Criterion would latch onto Rudolph.

  5. I ran into Altman at a screening just before he shot The Company “I know nothing about the dance world,” he told me, ” but its got all these pretty girls in tights so I just HAVE to do it!”

    The arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” and all the rest of the music for the movie is by the great Van Dyke Parks.

  6. “Intimate Affairs” is a wretched title! I had thought the Alan Cummings character and his wife were possibly based on Salvador Dali and Gala, but maybe not. A character key would be a nice extra for any future release.

  7. Agreed that INTIMATE AFFAIRS is a horrible title. Not sure who they were trying to appeal to with that.

  8. It hits the same button twice, that’s what’s wrong with it. I guess they though the original title was too clinical so they wanted sexier. But trying to be sexier than a title with the word “sex” in it is probably folly.

  9. Rudolph felt like a key American auteur in the 80s. I saw Trouble in Mind on release on a Saturday and went back to see it again the next Friday. For a while I needed to see everything by Rudolph, who seemed to be onto something. I always think that about filmmakers that I fall for, that they’re about the reveal big important things. And then Rudolph gradually drifted away or I did, or he didn’t get released any longer in the UK. It’s so long ago now, would Trouble in Mind still work? I’m curious, but also almost too scared to look. That said, I took another look at Something Wild recently, after Demme died, and it’s still very good.

  10. I wish I proofed my comments before sending.

  11. I went in and corrected. Hope that’s OK.

    Trouble in Mind holds up very well, imho. Also The Moderns, Choose Me and Mrs Parker. Less convinced by some of the others, but this is good and I need to give The Sex Lives of Dentists a try.

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