Filmmaker Wayne Wang is best known for his earnest, compassionate portrayals of familial and social relationships in movies like The Joy Luck Club (1993), Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995), and Anywhere But Here (1999). The Hong Kong born director has made a few edgier, politically inclined independent films (perhaps the most notable being his first, Chan Is Missing ), and he recently partnered with Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Luddy in the production company Chrome Dragon, dedicated to supporting independent filmmakers in Asia, but the “nice” movies have made his Hollywood rep.
According to interviews, Wang’s desire to complicate this reputation informed his decision to make his new film, Center of the World, which deals with racy subject matter that borders on “pornographic.” Like Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Wang’s film is being released without an MPAA rating, but that doesn’t mean the images are graphic or the sex “real.” It only means that the ideas are difficult enough that an “adult” audience might be better suited to comprehend the film than a non-adult audience, and that the implied sex is non-standard (including some anal and oral activities, and an image of menstrual blood, that is, ironically and tellingly, faked).
Even with all this potential controversy and outrageousness swirling about, the most interesting questions raised by Center of the World have to do with some unsensational definitions: what does it mean to be adult? To be responsible or connected to others? Or, for that matter, to be real? For that is what’s at stake in pornography—its realness, or its capacity to solicit real (physical, sexual) reactions in its consumers.
The plot concerns two vulnerable, self-consciously adventurous characters: they’re never quite sure how brave they want to be, but erratically push themselves to whatever brink they imagine is out there. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) is a lonely geek boy, a millionaire dotcommer who’s already sick of making money (even video games, where he’s always in charge, have lost their allure). And Florence (Molly Parker, amazing in Lynne Stopkowich’s Kissed) is a stripper who’s simultaneously bored and distressed by her work, and would really rather pursue her dream of drumming for what looks like a punk-lite band. These lost souls meet when he visits the conspicuously named Pandora’s Box, the club where she’s employed, and he’s so taken by her (lap dance) that he asks her to come to Vegas with him for three days: no strings and lots of money. Exploring each other’s fantasies in a deluxe hotel room, they come up against some long-buried traumas and longings. While Florence struggles to maintain “control,” Richard tries to let go. But this particular gendered conflict is as trite as they come: Richard thinks the “center of the world” is in his laptop, by which he surfs the public sphere at any old time he likes; for Florence, the “center” is a woman’s “cunt,” from which all life flows. She’s just your average earth mother dressed up like a pole dancer.
The most frustrating aspect of Wang’s movie—co-written with Paul Auster (with whom he worked on Smoke and Blue in the Face), with input from Auster’s wife Siri Husvedt and performance artist/former stripper Miranda July, under the collective name, “Ellen Benjamin Wong”—is that it traipses over such well-traveled ground. The topic and the approach—using digital cameras that allow unconventional intimacy along with a cheesy, porn-like look—make the film appear, at first glance, to be bold and new. It’s not. The first version of this story that came to my mind was a famous one—Klute, the 1971 movie that made Jane Fonda a “legitimate,” award-winning actor. The conceit in Klute is that Fonda’s Bree is an unhappy prostitute, seeing a shrink to learn the reasons for her self-destructive behavior and inability to commit. Then she meets Klute (Donald Sutherland), the real man who makes her feel real emotions.
The dynamic in Center of the World is depressingly similar, in that it sets up a likely romance between unlikely partners, who are struggling to figure out what’s real, about themselves and each other. Their Vegas hotel room starts to feel very claustrophobic. Richard and Florence are initially so complete in their parallel aloneness and repeated efforts to seduce and then reject one another, that it looks like you won’t even see another character. And then come two interlopers, whose function is to—how to say it?—“flesh out” the principal couple. In the script’s clunkiest device, Richard and Florence are each is assigned a drop-in friend who sheds light on his or her motivations. His is a college classmate, Brian (Balthasar Getty), so smug and self-involved that he makes Richard look well-adjusted.
Florence’s illustrative “friend” is Jerri (Carla Gugino), with whom she once shared Vegas tricks, and some other desperate history that the movie only hints at. Beaten by her thuggish boyfriend, Jerri arrives at Florence’s door, her face bloody and bruised. Here again, Richard looks like a relatively healthy “catch,” vaguely moved by Jerri’s pathetic seduction, but more practically, understanding what he does do well: he offers her much-needed money just because she’s Florence’s friend. “What planet is he from?” Jerri asks, between tearful gurgles. With a flash of insight, the film presents this entire scene from Florence’s perspective: she leaves the room and comes back in to see Jerri all over Richard, but it’s not jealousy that sparks her next decision. It’s fear. She sees in Jerri a mirror image of herself, past and future: what if this guy is too good to be true? Truth is elusive, a matter of faith more than proof. And still, people with means—money, power—can create their own realities.
While both Richard and Florence’s mutual attractions are based on personal needs rather than external, observable realities, or even much recognition of one another in that hotel room, his projections have a power that hers do not. He has options and can make decisions that she cannot. This difference between them is crucial, and underlines the violence of fantasy when it concerns someone else. Put simply, you can’t imagine, anticipate, or make sense of someone else’s desire, and that is precisely the problem posed by porn: its ostensible and much-vaunted realness is, by definition, “fake,” performed in exchange for money. But if porn is pretty much endlessly fascinating (deciding what’s fake and what’s not is only the first problem; the more substantive one is deciding whether it matters what’s fake and what’s not), The Center of the World gets simple early on.
Its first moments are promising: opening with shots of artifices associated with Las Vegas (those bizarre replicant versions of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and of course, the Sphinx), the movie seems poised to probe its characters’ (and its own) inability to define terms: reality and fiction aren’t so easily differentiated; fiction can be more effectively real than reality; etc. But The Center of the World never gets past its own investment in arty pretense, as if it’s wondering how to be not-a-porn film, but still teeter on that titillating edge?
Taking the film on its own terms, what appears to matter is the inevitably developing emotional bond between Florence and Richard. That she resists this bond is predictable. She’s in a business that Richard can only understand as consumer, and her performative integrity—her self-orchestrated remove from him—is her only means to control, however simulated. She is vigilant, which, in this movie’s tired vocabulary, translates into her being damaged and unable to move forward. (Thank goodness, she recognizes at least that Richard is not the optimum vehicle for movement.)
For Richard, control is outwardly a less vexed issue: he’s super-privileged, a straight white man with lots of money who’s used to getting his way, in his virtual life and elsewhere. But according to the dictates of the Klute-et.-al. plot, he will have to reckon with his control, his responsibility for someone else, and his own gauges of realness. Predictably, before he comes to his epiphany (if that’s what he comes to), Richard’s idea of what’s “real” leads him, in his own frustration and rage, to a base physical dominance, demanding Florence’s submission as a function of her “honest” desire. This is, of course, exactly what she cannot give him, but the fact that he makes the demand reveals that he’s not from another planet after all, but from right here on earth, centerless as it must be.