Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Carla Gugino
Written by: Wayne Wang, Miranda July, and Paul Auster (a.k.a. "Ellen Benjamin Wong"), and Siri Hustvedt
Directed by: Wayne Wang
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88
Date: 04/19/2001
IMDB

The Center of the World (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Small 'World'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sex has always fascinated filmmakers, from the early nudie-cuties in thesilent days, up until the more intimate and graphic Last Tango inParis (1972). But at the same time, American censors have always beenmore intimidated by sex than violence, and therefore it becomes harderfor filmmakers to get at the reality of sex -- it becomes a joke.

In the years since Last Tango, a brave few have attempted baring their souls with varying results, such as Boxing Helena (1993) and Showgirls (1995) on the low end or Empire of the Senses (1976) and Crash (1996) on the high end.

Now San Francisco filmmaker Wayne Wang gives it a try. According to the press notes, Wang was invited at the very beginning of his career to make "blue movies" in Hong Kong but never ended up taking the job and always wondered what it would have been like. The Center of the World is the answer to that question, and it belongs at the upper half of the equation. It's a passionate, dark, and delicate achievement.

Peter Sarsgaard stars as Richard Longman, a (believe it or not) dot-com millionaire. Richard suddenly becomes fed up with his life and can't muster the energy to even leave his house. But he meets a cute girl named Florence (Molly Parker) in a laundromat and learns that she's a stripper. He goes to see her perform and invites her to spend a weekend with him in Las Vegas. She agrees, but for $10,000 and under the condition that she is only required to perform her "duties" during certain nighttime hours; the days are her own.

Though Las Vegas becomes a metaphor for "the center of the world," and is pivotal to the story, the characters don't spend much time outside. Most of the story takes place in their hotel room and in other anonymous rooms. Incidentally, Florence and Richard each have their own ideas as to where the center of the world may be. For Richard, it's the internet. For Florence, it's women.

Wang co-wrote the story with novelist Paul Auster (who previously worked with Wang on 1995's Smoke and Blue in the Face), Auster's wife Siri Hustvedt, and video artist Miranda July. (Credited screenwriter Ellen Benjamin Wong is a fictitious nom de plume, using the middle names of the first three writers.) The four of them give the story a perfect balance, distributing weight equally between male and female. Richard secretly believes that if Florence will just get to know him that she will fall in love with him. Florence's thoughts are a little less clear (perhaps because I'm male), but her plans definitely take a wrong turn when her friend Jerri turns up.

Jerri (Carla Gugino) appears in only two scenes, but makes an everlasting impact on the film. She's a sexy, voluptuous, desperate, and lonely sexual predator who allows herself to become a victim for satisfaction. She shows up at the hotel one night and sends Richard's and Florence's delicate balance into a tailspin, causing Florence to move farther than she intended to, like a meteor knocked out of orbit.

Wang shoots on digital video, bringing an intense reality and intimacy to the proceedings. It's perhaps the best use of digital video I've seen so far in this new age. It also strikes me as Wang's most condensed and personal film in over a decade; perhaps the new medium brought him closer to his roots. In any case, The Center of the World is a brave and sexy film not easily forgotten or dismissed.

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