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Wayne Coyne, Nazis, & S&M: The Night Porter turns 40

Written by Lee Newman on Tuesday, December 16 2014 and posted in Features

Wayne Coyne, Nazis, & S&M: The Night Porter turns 40

When is erotica, not erotic? When it involves Nazis and broken glass...



I am an unabashed film buff.  I dig movies.  I have seen a bunch.  It’s part of my overall obsession with Pop Culture in general.  Movies, Music and Comics.  They are the trinity for me.  I own more than I probably should and have spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort on all three.

Recently, the Modern School of Film, a New York school founded by Robert Milazzo started a joint venture with the Carolina Theatre here in Durham, North Carolina.  The series called Film Acoustic presents a film chosen by a prominent musician.  There were no rules or guidelines given to the musician, just pick a film and be prepared to talk about it.  For the debut presentation in North Carolina, Mr. Milazzo chose one Wayne Coyne – singer and visionary of The Flaming Lips.  Given that I am a huge fan of the band, when the Theater had a contest online to win tickets, I entered.  A week later, I was informed that I won.

Then it was time to go.  Morgan, my daughter, seemed like a natural for the other ticket as she just finished a film class at school and has a new appreciation for the art form.  So, I asked if she wanted to come as she would be home from college.  I IMDB’d the movie and sent her a link; because like me, she had never heard of The Night Porter.  At this point, my fun evening of film appreciation seemed to have gone awry.

Turns out that The Night Porter is a film about Nazis and sadomasochism, not exactly your typical fare for a father/daughter outing.  To further exacerbate my fears, Roger Ebert had seen the movie in 1975 and published a scathing review.  He talks of how he has wearied of violence and how the film “isas nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.”  Suddenly I panicked and offered my daughter an out.  I asked her to read up on the film and let me know.  She replied that she still wanted to see it.  Visions of soft S&M porn and an audience full of leather clad skinheads filled my head.

Then we went to the event.  There was a distinct lack of Marilyn Manson look a likes wearing swastikas. The audience that gathered was a comforting mix of people my own age and older with a few young hipsters wearing Flaming Lips tees and apparently toying with a Theremin app on their smart devices.  These folks were the most fun to observe as the night went on.  They seemed astonished at how nice the staff of the former movie palace were and how beautiful Fletcher Hall was.

 Milazzo introduced Coyne and they talked about why the singer picked the movie.  Turns out it was a huge influence on Embryonic, the Lips album from a few years back that marked the end of the pop period that had brought them national attention again with The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With the Mystics.  It brought back the noise of their earlier albums seemingly abandoning even the catchy hooks of songs like Christmas at the Zoo and She Don’t Use Jelly.  The movie also, conveniently, was marking its 40th anniversary and had a new shiny Criterion Blu-Ray on the shelf.  Introductions and warnings about paying attention to the nuances of the film out of the way, the lights dimmed.

Over the next two hours, the audience (most of whom had never seen the film either) were introduced to Max (Dirk Bogarde), a night porter at a swanky Viennese Hotel.  Max had a dark past though.  He had been an officer of the SS and the Hotel was a meeting place for a group of former Nazis looking to expunge their past by erasing their crimes.  Max’s trial as a clean slate was approaching and suddenly, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) enters the hotel with her husband, the conductor of a travelling production of The Magic Flute.  Max becomes uncomfortable and slowly, through flashbacks, the viewer is clued into the relationship the two had when Lucia was brought to a concentration camp where Max was stationed.  There are shades of Stockholm syndrome and an S&M relationship begins.  In the present of 1957, the two find themselves drawn to each other again and eventually begin their relationship anew.  To the detriment of the door mouse life Max proclaims he wants to lead.

It is an ugly film about the underside of life.  It is a study in obsession and the worst of humanity.  There is a subtle shift at the end of the second act that sets up the messy conclusion of the movie, which is clunky and spends so much time making its point, it forgets to be coherent.  It is a challenging and difficult film, full of the strange dubbing that is commonplace in the work of Italian filmmakers.  It is a seventies film, paced methodically and prone to empty shots of grandeur that only amplify the grotesque nature of the relationship being presented. 

It is an art film, full of all the usual trappings.  There is the attempt to be provacotive that obviously worked in full on Ebert.  There are choices made in story telling that allow for allegory to tell the story as opposed to solid narrative structure.  There are scenes that make little sense and actions that seem to lack a modus operandi.  However, in all its problems, pretensions and hideousness, it is as honest a love story as I have ever seen on film.  It makes no qualms about love being what love is regardless of logic.  We don’t choose who we love or how, it just happens and the rest of the world be damned.

The discussion afterwards, following viewings of the videos for Christmas at the Zoo and Do You Realize?, brought more insight into Coyne’s do it yourself, everyone else be damned creative spirit.  And it dawned on me how much of his music is about obsession and the friendship the auteur has kindled with Miley Cyrus suddenly began to make sense.  It was also awesome to see a personal icon be human and self effacing, clumsy and not as elegant as he always wanted.  It was an unexpectedly thought provoking evening that was nowhere near the uncomfortable nightmare I assumed awaited us.  

 





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