Cruelty in art is like a glass of cold water flung into one's face -- unpleasant, humiliating even, but more than successful in refreshing one's attention. Unmade Beds is a maliciously funny satire of the New York singles scene -- a joke about self-delusion and unhappiness -- and it hurts. As I watched it, I became more and more angry at what the movie was doing, but by the end I had been trapped by my own fascination. The talented British writer-director Nicholas Barker makes us complicit in his crimes, both large and small. One response to this, of course, is simply to walk out -- that way we don't play Barker's game, and we avoid becoming cruel ourselves. But if we walk out, we miss one of the more original movies of the year.
Many of us are tired of spectacle and endless genre stories, bored by the same emotional and moral issues plugged into the same visually overwrought movies. Now and then, we require some relief -- a new way of making movies, even a new aesthetic. Nicholas Barker has come up with both. Barker has worked in recent years as a producer-director for BBC television, but he was trained as an anthropologist, and for this movie about New York singles, Barker and his staff began by doing fieldwork -- searching through personal ads and bars, interviewing, videotaping, etc. In the end, he chose four men and women -- heteros all -- ranging in age from 28 to 54, and filmed them during the summer, fall, and winter of 1996-97. First, the four subjects told him about their dating experiences in that period; Barker then mixed their actual words with inventions of his own, all of which they fed back to the camera. At home, surrounded by the armature of their lives -- their furniture and photographs, the laundry on the floor -- or driving to work, or out on the prowl in the city late at night, they deliver long and mesmerizing rants, complaining about the opposite sex and lamenting their own failures and frustrations in the singles scene. They act themselves (and with great skill), but in dramatically heightened versions. The film is a hybrid -- a documentary with the formal control of fiction.
The funniest and strongest of the four is Brenda Monte, a former lap dancer who needs money to keep up her mortgage payments. Brenda wants a man who will give her the cash without asking for sex. The trouble is that everyone asks Brenda for sex. Or so she says. This great fleshy bawd, showing off her golden breasts and belly to us, describes an entire male world inflamed by Brenda. Men keep exposing themselves to her, but she remains sternly unimpressed: The male member is easily available anywhere, but dog food, which she steals regularly from the grocer (she pulls out a can of Alpo from her purse), is something solid and real. Brenda is lewd, tough, quick-witted, hilarious -- a more vivid character than any fictional personage in recent American movies. Her opposite number in many ways is Mikey Russo, who affects the tough-guy-loner style of a Mickey Spillane hero -- dark clothes, cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger, a tendency to see the world as divided into beautiful babes and mutts. Mikey, 54, a failed screenwriter, lives in fear of being associated with a mutt; he carries a beeper so that a friend may summon him away from an unfortunate blind date.
Brenda and Mikey maintain a fantasy of themselves as irresistible, an image that all too often crashes against the rocks of unsatisfactory or unappreciative partners. But Barker doesn't actually show us any of their dates: He's interested only in the way these two present themselves to the camera -- that is, the way they delude themselves. Seduced by their need to justify their actions, and by their desire to be seen, his characters brutally and unwittingly expose themselves to our gaze. We become the critical mirror that they can't find, the friend and enemy who sees the truth.
Brenda and Mikey never meet; each character in this movie -- a sort of ballad of the lonely city -- is the star of a separate narrative line. Unmade Beds begins with warmly lit, exquisitely composed shots of anonymous young men and women viewed from outside their windows. We can't hear them; we can only stare at them. Slowly, dreamily, with absolute confidence, they move through their apartments, talk, undress (there are several classic-looking nudes) -- it is the state of sensual fulfillment and ease that is denied to the four principal characters. Right from the beginning of the movie, then, Barker turns us into voyeurs: We first see Brenda and Mikey, too, from outside their windows as they sit in the solitary gloom, taking stock.
Barker and his cinematographer, William Rexer II, have appropriated Edward Hopper's paintings as their warrant for voyeurism. The movie's visual style, the wrenching sense of isolation and frustration, comes straight out of Hopper. Barker even re-creates such Hopper works as Nighthawks, positioning solitary strangers at the corners of a coffee shop, behind glass windows. We look in at them; they look out. Staring and suspicion form the connection between them and us.
Aimee Copp, a young Valkyrie at 225 pounds, with flowing blonde hair and a self-deprecating giggle, can't get through to a man. Her personal ads attract older men who want to be dominated by a big woman. The most self-aware of the four, she is desperately eager to get married, and she makes jokes out of her own misadventures. "I was dumped by a submissive," she says. And Michael DeStefano, who is 40 and unmarried, has convinced himself that he's striking out because he's too short -- it's Michael's idée fixe. DeStefano is caught between resentment of the women who have rejected him and self-contempt. They are all caught in similar ways; it is, Barker implies, the common spiritual condition of hetero single life.
These are real people, and we can't help seeing what each of them is doing wrong. They have the classic troubles of losers: The egotism that holds their morale together is exactly the personality formation that makes them impossible as partners. Barker reveals a tragicomic situation, but there's a redeeming strength to his approach. He allows these four the dignity of their unhappiness. They are what they are; they will hold on to their anger and resentment even though doing so dooms them to failure, and in the end we build a kind of admiration for them. That emotion, when it comes, releases us from the amorality and nastiness of our situation as voyeurs. We laugh at the characters' follies -- and then shiver and think, "There but for the grace of God . . . "