In the music video for David Berman’s late-career song “Darkness and Cold”, which is either a harrowing suicide note or a comic resignation to living depending on your perspective, Berman’s actual ex-wife Cassie (erstwhile bass player and secondary vocalist for the Silver Jews) glams up in the bathroom mirror for a date with someone else, while Berman sings pathetically into a shower head.
There are other darkly hilarious touches throughout the video, most notably its opening, which absurdly declares, “any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental” (before of course proceeding to present us with a slice of obvious autobiography), and its closing, a generic dance-party music clip with pulsating rainbow text that wishes viewers a great summer from “The Bermans” (fans at this point were well aware the couple were no longer romantically together).
Comments beneath the video indicate that all this makes some people uncomfortable. They question whether this is a degree of soul-stripping that exceeds reasonable, healthy boundaries. They wonder about the relationship dynamic that allowed such a self-roast to take place. They find it chilling in light of David’s eventual end.
Of course, these concerns about the video are absolutely valid.
And I love it.
There is nothing more natural to me than the way this video was handled. In a weird way, I envy whatever understanding needed to exist between David and Cassie to make it possible. I experience it as a thrilling validation of a personal creed: radical self-disclosure with an overlay of gallows humor. In fact I don’t know any other way to be. It’s the main reason why, while I’m no Star Wars fan, I adore Carrie Fisher.
As hinted at in my recent “writing to people from your past” post, it appears this quality of mine has proven too much (or at least unappealing) to my old intimates. Granted, this is a condition that has developed over time. When we were younger, I felt I could drop in on these people with bruisingly self-deprecating, straight-talking (even if fiercely flamboyant) novellas out of the blue, and they’d respond at various lengths, and we’d quite fluidly pick up where we left off, and it all felt like the most intuitive thing in the world.
Not so, anymore.
And while I respect this totally, I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t has made me feel a bit…without roots. Which is why my choice of entertainment this weekend unexpectedly went to my head like Champagne fizz in the most peculiar way.
Now, we all know that when the most memorable morsels of an art work are relentlessly repeated and parodied, they end up divorced from their origin. Add to this that, as a kid in elementary, I liked to assert myself and buck the rest of my peer group by parroting the judgments of conservative adults (charming, I know). The result of all this being that I’d often come away with inaccurate, sometimes prudish assessments of pop-culture phenomena I truly knew nothing about. Such was the case with the tawdrily named Soderbergh debut sex, lies, and videotape (1989). The sensational nature of the marketing campaign didn’t help.
But when slv was mentioned on a CineFix list of classic independent movies recently, I made a mental note to check it out.
This past Friday night, check it out I did, and was over the moon to find out that it couldn’t have been MORE tailor-made for me as a target demographic. Aside from the smoldering charisma of young James Spader (whom Emma Chaplin has wisely dubbed “the thinking woman’s pervert”), the film indulges the fetishization of compulsive honesty.
Indeed, it is slv‘s overarching messaging that influences how attractive I find Spader in it. With his shameless rippling mullet (admittedly, something I must choose to forgive), he really doesn’t look all that different from the yuppie scum he usually plays. So it’s not so much the physical appearance, but the very particular, personal dilemma of Graham Dalton (and, OK, maybe a little bit his beautiful mouth) that makes me so weak.
I’m not normally the type to watch someone sleep, but for you I’ll make an exception.
I’m verging on sounding like an undiscerning fan here. So before I go any further, let me acknowledge that I know this film is not black and white (despite being a cautionary tale of sorts), and that Graham Dalton is not beyond reproach. Beneath his predilection to watch other people confess (while remaining at a remove himself) is a craving for control and a terror of intimacy, and it is the result of past trauma. It’s clearly displayed as such in the scene where Ann turns the camera on him. In that moment he is suddenly neither attractive nor particularly honest, as he tries (and fails) to wrest control back by feigning disinterest, even boredom.
That notwithstanding, Graham’s way is still portrayed as more “on the right track” than John Mullany’s. At the movie’s conclusion, having unlearned some bad habits, Graham is re-trained in the art of touching and being touched (even if his apparent thorough rehabilitation is a bit wish fulfillment-y), whereas when we last see John he is a caricature of himself (yes, we always knew he was the kind of dude who would wear that bow tie, but now we get to actually see it), and he’s beginning to drop all the plates he’d kept barely spinning up to that point. Fortunately, though, John has just enough dimension to make us – not care about him, exactly, but take note of him and what he represents. Real human connection and the self-possession of women don’t make him afraid so much as flummoxed. There’s an entire reality beyond his own that other people are seeing, and he can’t see it, can’t penetrate to it. You get the feeling that as time and progress march on without him, he could end up going mad.
As for Ann Mullany – she unsettles me, because despite all the superficial trappings about her that I can’t relate to, there is something fundamentally similar about us. I disagree with the (vaguely sexist) language widely used to characterize her in reviews: prim, frigid, shy. Introverted, yes, and repressed, sure, but despite being the “good Southern girl” and having internalized certain gender-trope bullshit, Ann is the biggest punk in this movie. She has existential difficulty reconciling between micro- and macrocosmic concerns and an OCD fixation on the proliferation of human waste (a stand-in for her protectiveness over her own body). Her entire aloof persona is a rebellion against her earthier, more voracious sister, and her ultimate desire to be recorded by Graham is a rejection of others’ expectations, a violent reclamation of her own personhood.
All of the things I’ve said up to this point probably warrant some self-examination on my part. Is my boundary-testing, put-it-all-out-there nature a sign of dysfunction? I suppose it comes down to a few things, like what motivates it at any given time, whether I back off when my outreach is unreciprocated (I do), and whether being this way is helping me achieve what I want or bearing me further away. But living as we are in a virulent stew of image-worship, bad-faith arguments, and objectification of the “other” – at the very least I believe that I am “on the right track”.
When it comes down to it, probably all I’m really chasing is an ideal of deeply fulfilling group therapy – but most folks just aren’t into it. For that revelation I have to thank Dave Kehr, writing here about slv for the Chicago Tribune in the year of its release.