Movie Review: Solar Anus Cinema
Iraqi-born, Chicago-based filmmaker Usama Alshaibi has collected ten of his short films made between 2001 and 2008 for Solar Anus Cinema. This DVD shines a light on the transgressive director’s interest in the female form primarily through a series of highly stylized film portraits of women.
Nine out of the ten films included are short profiles of women that run just a few minutes long. The tenth film, the longer running narrative The Amateurs, I’ll deal with below. But, with the portraits, sometimes the object of them is Alshaibi’s wife, performance artist Kristie Alshaibi, but mostly he has convinced other women to pose, strut or writhe in front of his camera’s leering gaze.
The antecedent to Alshaibi’s transgressive work here is Richard Kern’s 1993 My Nightmare, an autobiographical fiction that has the director fantasizing about getting it on with a sexy nude photography model while in “real” life the model is repulsed by his come ons.
For his own female portraits, Alshaibi rarely inserts himself into the action, but his presence is always strongly felt in each piece. While the women are typically posed alone in a studio, Alshaibi’s moving camera constantly reminds us that his subjects are never by themselves, that they are sharing their space with a director who runs his camera over their bodies, soaking in the whole of them as well as their individual parts. Sometimes it’s by an aggressive camera that races and moves in, out and around its nude or barely-clad subject, other times it’s a static camera locked on a tripod that still achieves the same effect through cutting between close-ups, medium shots and full body shots.
Also, whereas Kern explored his physical fantasies in My Nightmare, Alshaibi’s own realized fantasies are purely what we get: Visual. Alshaibi seems genuinely fascinated just by the mere bodily existence of these women. With the exception of his own wife, the women are purely objectified. They are objects to be viewed and admired and there is no tension that Alshaibi wants to touch any of them. His camera’s piercing gaze is all the penetration he needs.
Alshaibi does transform his gaze into physicality with each portrait’s oblique and direct references to violence. Yet, this violence, although outwardly reflected on the women’s bodies, are acts of self-flagellation. Alshaibi is punishing his own guilty consciousness over his voyeurism by transforming the women from sexually seductive beings into physical forms made up of flesh and blood. Alshaibi reminds himself, and the viewer, that the women are not objects, but subjects.
Before running through the film portraits individually below, I’d like to discuss the centerpiece of the collection that concludes the disc, The Amateurs. Alshaibi explores these same ideas in a longer narrative that casts himself as an amateur pornographer with unruly subjects. The “violence” here though is on an emotional, psychological level as the aspiring porn actors try to negotiate their way through their scenes.
Alshaibi’s alter ego in The Amateurs is much more aggressive than what we believe the real Ashaibi, the one who directs the film portraits, to be. For the most part, he keeps himself removed from the on-screen “action.” He remains mostly behind the camera cajoling his two male cohorts to do terrible things to the women who have arrived for the shoot. The film is a comedy with the humor arising both from Alshaibi’s ridiculously bold requests and the males’ reluctance to do what he asks even when the women seem agreeable, sometimes too agreeable.
It’s an interesting turning of the tables on the sexes. The men are humiliated when they act sensitive towards the women. Both the female subjects and Alshaibi the director directly insult and humiliate them. But when push comes to shove and Alshaibi is forced to take the reigns, even he is unable to consummate the acts he desires to watch.
While much of The Amateurs is extremely funny, two scenes are unbearably tense. The first comes from knowing a little bit about Alshaibi outside of the Solar Anus Cinema disc. It’s not identified beforehand, but one of the women in the film is Alshaibi’s real-life wife, Kristie. The closest to sexual touching — and I want to point out I’m not referring to anything explicit here — comes when Alshaibi touches Kristie in ways to show the men what he wants done to her. During these scenes one starts to wonder how far Alshaibi is going to go with this charade.
The film then concludes with it’s most tense situation yet. The Amateurs, although knowing it’s fiction, has a very strong, realistic documentary feel to it and by doing things like casting his real wife, one starts to wonder how much fiction and documentary are influencing each other. The final scenario involves a girl who doesn’t speak English and her drunk, unconscious boyfriend. The violence is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level when one just doesn’t know how much is acting and how much is real. Does the actress speak English or no? Is that guy really drunk or is he exceptionally convincing? Setting up these tense sequences is when Alshaibi shows off his greatest skill as a transgressive filmmaker.
As for the short films preceding The Amateurs, here’s the specific rundown:
Traumata. Sarah Lynn stands before us fully exposed in front of a white wall. Her body is covered with evidence of domestic abuse. Black eyes. Bruises. Bandages. Her right leg in a cast. A wrist cast comes and goes. The bruises seem more abundant in some shots than others. Meanwhile, Alshaibi races in and around her body focusing on these wounds while a pounding punk rock score by Custom Car Commandos pounds away at a happy, frenetic pace. The camerawork turns her bruises into entertainment, but Sarah Lynn’s sad, humiliated expression reminds us of the emotional pain that scars deeper than the physical wounds.
Organ Molly. The film begins with Molly mostly clothed. As she vamps it up and rolls around on a bare mattress, the camera races around her body at a jittery, sped-up frenetic pace. Her clothes are quickly removed in stages and she taunts the viewer, reminding us that we can only look at her as she looks at her own body through the viewfinder of a still camera. Eventually, she presses her face against a plate of glass and chews on her necklace until her mouth bleeds. Blood and saliva mix and are rubbed all over her lips and face, making herself look like the victim of abuse. Alshaibi does pop up briefly near the very end where we see him holding his camera high up over Molly’s prostate form. We are reminded that he is the voyeur as much as we have been.
Self-Contained. A completely nude Kristie lies on the ground wrapped up tight in plastic wrap like a mummy. The camera pushes in and out on her predicament. However, the tables turn for a brief shot of a freed Kristie wrapping the camera lens in plastic as if to taunt the viewer: “What would you do if you could wrap a girl in plastic?” She’s soon back on the floor, wrapped up again, but with her sex parts fully exposed. Not only does the camera find these parts, but she pushes them into our face, putting them out there. She knows what we would do.
Slaughtered Pigtails. The best title of all the films. Like a clip from a horror movie, a pigtailed Kristie runs for her life through a field while the camera races right behind her. The cameraman’s hand reaches out to pull her pigtail. Her panicked gasping lets us know she fears for her life. And like in any horror movie, she falls to the ground and the cameraman is on her, frantically tearing at her clothes. A clear plastic bag goes over her face. And she cries. Her faceless assailant comforts her. But is this a scene performed by actors? Or is this Kristie fearing a scene directed by her husband has gone too far? Who is comforting her? The cameraman “character”? Or the real Alshaibi? This is the kind of film if you found it on your own and didn’t know who Kristie was, you’d think all of it was 100% authentic and not made by a loving husband and wife.
Convulsion Expulsion. Kristie stars as a being from another dimension — one covered in white pancake powder and bandages — who convulses and explodes from entering our world. And by “exploding” I mean blood shoots out of every orifice. This is an otherworldly film, but one has to really marvel at the sheer technical mastery of Kristie expunging fluid out of certain places they shouldn’t be spewing out of.
Runaway. A woman gyrates while multi-colored spotlights roam over her body along with the camera. There are also some superimpositions that give the film a ’60s psychedelic feel. This is the only film on the disc that doesn’t have an undercurrent of violence running through it.
Gash. A nude woman leans against a wall and plays peek-a-boo with the camera and a large open wound a few centimeters away from her vagina. The colors of the film are extreme. She subject is mostly bathed in a muted orange, plus with the rapid camera rushing in and out it’s hard to tell if the wound is real or overly convincing make-up. Mostly the camera hovers below around her crotch, but sometimes it pans up to her seductive face, which silently asks, “Don’t you want to touch it?”
Patient. The only B&W film in the collection, a woman writhes around on a plush leather loveseat. She is completely nude except for torn black stockings and a bandage wrapped around her head. She is smiling and having a good time, but the bandages hide some type of wound that peeks out around the edges. She appears to be happy that the viewer can still look at her as a sexual being despite whatever deformity is happening with her face. There is a short burst of color at the end of the film, switching to a disconnected orange sky.
Spoiled. This is the one film in the collection that I personally can’t watch, but I have a thing about food. The film stars a woman kneeling on the ground munching on gummy worms that spill out from between her teeth and lips. That’s when I get grossed out and have to tune out. I should watch for full reviewer’s fairness sake, but looking at chewed food is beyond something I can get over. So, my apologies.
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