Stranded in the Jungle--33

Abel Ferrara, New Rose Hotel

LOST."You know, I love you so,/ You know, I need you so,/ You know, I'd die for you,/ So don't kill me, baby…" It's a song from Abel Ferrara's 1998 movie New Rose Hotel. The scene is a crowded bar, where various shady deals are going down. Everything is murky and fragmented. The lighting is low and indirect, sometimes red, sometimes blue. There are no establishing shots, so we cannot see the room as a whole. Instead, there are closeups, in shallow focus. The actors' profiles barely emerge from the shadows. The space behind them is flat and fuzzy. Their glances don't match as they are supposed to. Sandii (Asia Argento) takes the mic from another girl, and begins to sing. Her voice is thin and quivering at best. She murmurs the lyrics, or lowers her voice to a throaty whisper. The melody is slow, sparse, and melancholy. As Sandii sings, she paces languorously back and forth. Now she waves and blows a kiss offstage. Now she smiles in a sly, self-satisfied way. And now, as some of the other girls caress her, she throws her head back in simulated orgasm. The whole scene has an air of languid delirium. Ferrara's mise en scène is as exquisitely stylized as it is sleazy. The film's many softcore scenes are all off-kilter in some way. Either the space is inconsistent, or the light is dim and flickering, or the camera angle is just a bit oblique, or the time sequence is out of order, or a cut comes at the wrong moment. There's always the sense of something missing, something incomplete. The more exploitative the scene, the more fragile and poignant it ends up being. For the cheap and easy pleasures promised by Sandii's smile are as fleeting as they are readily available. And that is what makes New Rose Hotel a film about virtual reality. These gratuitous cheesecake sequences, in which nothing important happens, continually interrupt those scenes that are supposed to advance the plot. In terms of story, the movie is scrupulously faithful to its source, a 1981 cyberpunk short story by William Gibson. It's a tale of espionage, love, and betrayal. Gibson takes familiar film noir motifs, like world-weary fatalism and the femme fatale, and updates them for the age of high-tech multinationals. Fox (played in the film by Christopher Walken) and the unnamed narrator (called X in the film, and played by Willem Dafoe) hire Sandii to seduce a leading scientist, in order to get him to defect from one corporation to another. Sandii does her job, but then she double-crosses X, who has made the mistake of falling in love with her. Ferrara follows Gibson's narrative closely, except that he pushes nearly the whole story offscreen. A few early bits of action do take place in front of the camera. Fox and X meet in expensive hotel rooms. These rooms have lots of light and space, but not much furniture. Everything is luxurious, bright, clean, and sterile. Such spaces are the public face of international corporate culture. But they aren't where the important things happen. The global operations of capital transpire in a virtual space, one that isn't visible to the eye. That's why most of the plot of New Rose Hotel takes place off camera. Events are only conveyed indirectly, via grainy video-surveillance footage, wireless phone calls, and messages left on a pager. New Rose Hotel is not an action picture. For it isn't the events themselves that matter, but their ulterior effects. Unseen actions alter the distribution of money and power, and resonate in memory and reflection. The film ends with a 22-minute sequence in which nothing new happens. Fox is dead, and Sandii has disappeared, and X ponders all that he has lost. The sequence is filled with flashbacks from earlier in the film. Some shots are repeated exactly. Others are replaced by alternate takes. There's also footage that belongs to earlier scenes, but that is presented now for the first time. We get new views of things that happened earlier, as well as things that may not have happened. Ferrara doesn't need to show us the events of Gibson's story, or the details of his imagined technology. New Rose Hotel can do without these things, because film itself is already a kind of virtual reality. But then, so is memory. And so is yearning. And so, for that matter, is corporate finance. In New Rose Hotel, Ferrara makes these ghostly realms almost palpable. At one point earlier in the film, during a furtive rendezvous, Sandii had asked X to drop everything and run off with her. But X had refused, saying that he owed it to Fox to complete their scheme. Is that why Sandii chose to betray him? Now, at the end, X imagines changing this past. We see him say to himself, and then whisper to Sandii: "If you really want to, we'll walk away." He leans over her, as she lies prone in bed. Her eyes are closed. He gets into bed with her. The camera moves down and in, just a little, to stop on a closeup of Sandii's face. After a brief pause, she smiles. And that's the final shot of the movie. Blackout, and cut to credits. You can't put your arms round a memory.

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