The good, the bad, and the ugly

The controversial magic of Nicholas Barker.

THE FOUR PRINCIPAL cast members of Unmade Beds aren't exactly young, or attractive, or hip in any arty kind of way. Playing themselves—single New Yorkers looking for love—they're the kind of people usually portrayed in cinema as the sidekicks or foils to the winsome leading ladies and men. In a couple of cases, they're the type you imagine lurking behind those personal ads that sound too good to be true, such as the 54-year-old self-proclaimed swinger who says that his dimly lit, cheesy love den of an apartment tells women, "You're here to fuck." However, their stories, as mediated by British director Nicholas Barker, make up perhaps the funniest and most poignant movie ever made about dating.

Unmade Beds

directed by Nicholas Barker

opens April 2 at Varsity

It is also a movie that's sparked much controversy, due largely to Barker's method of composing a "real-life feature"—a film in which actors speak from a script based on interviews they conduct with the director. The structure is that of a documentary, but the material is partly made up. Thus, while Unmade Beds has been a critical hit and is winning awards at international film festivals, it has yet to pick up a distributor. At its Venice Film Festival screening, October Films co-president Bingham Ray was so angered by the film that he walked out. This is a shame, because the movie is beautifully crafted, original, and smart in so many ways. It may be rattling, but it is also so honest and emotionally charged that it would be showing in every city across America if it were up to me.

Barker, a documentarian and anthropologist, has stated that 95 percent of the movie's script are words uttered by his subjects during interviews. The rest he's tweaked for comic potential. Some accuse him of being sadistic, mocking his subjects and portraying them as losers or freaks. I couldn't disagree more; I'm with New York Times critic Margo Jefferson when she states that "good nonfiction has to be as carefully shaped as good fiction." Whatever Barker has added or omitted ultimately works to heighten the humanity in the portrayal of his characters.

Barker's four subjects (the old swinger; a smart, cheery blonde who weighs 225 pounds; a gold-digging former lap dancer from Jersey City; and a 40-year-old, 5-foot-4 man) give separate monologues about their dating experiences. Intimate and self-confessional, each person speaks as if he or she were confiding to a close friend. Bitingly funny at times, 225-pound Aimee tells us that at 28, with a good job and medical insurance, she is a catch to all the "losers" she dates. Her ex-boyfriend was a taxi driver who liked to be whipped and beaten. Then she laughs, cracking that she was "dumped by a submissive."

What is revealed is often not pretty or politically correct. When Aimee starts crying because her family has given up hope of her ever marrying, her tears are real, full of self-pity, whining, and a heightened sense of doom. In one scene, Brenda, the former lap dancer who refuses to date anyone Jewish or black, undresses and points out all the virtues and flaws of her aging body. Despite her fattened thighs and stomach, she still thinks she's hot—"I thank God every day for my chest." It's a precious moment, because by this time we have sided with her; in effect we have become her friend, and who can deny a friend the illusions that keep the ego intact?

Even in the most despicable character, Barker manages to show something sympathetic. Mike, the swinger who sees women as either babes or "mutts," tells of a low moment when he was rejected for not being a corporate leader. "Women are judges," he says. "They sit on a bench and judge everyone." I didn't agree with him, but I felt for him nonetheless.

As if the stories weren't enough, Unmade Beds is also visually striking. The movie's cinematographer, William Rexer II, composes with a poetic eye. Cast monologues are regularly interspersed with gorgeous, Edward Hopperesque scenes of New York matched by electronic rhythms or bleatings of jazz horns. The camera shows a Manhattan that's surreal, desolate, almost sanitary—glittering under bright blue skies, its tall buildings dwarfing its people.

When the camera does focus on the city's denizens, the scenes are always distant shots through windows, as if you were looking directly from an apartment across the street. Catching the mundane are scores of one-second glimpses of Manhattanites in their homes: couples embracing, couples arguing, a man lighting a candle, a woman turning off a tea kettle, a dog bouncing on its master's bed. They're beautiful contrasts to the close-up monologues that draw viewers into the speaker's heart. You also wonder if Rexer waited hours watching strangers' windows, trying to catch that perfect non-moment, or if extras were hired and the scenes were scripted. Either way, it's mesmerizing: The film's tone is less voyeuristic than capturing the everyday feeling of urban living.

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