Photo by John P. Johnson

Thoughtful examinations of carnal desire are so rare in American films that Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World is bound at some point to be dubbed “that sex movie.” This won’t be due so much to the film’s eroticism (the actual love play is about as arthritically constricted as any PG-rated film’s) as to Center’s naked display of human geography, with all its treacherous curves and soft shoulders. This is nowhere near being an explicitly hardcore movie, although it’s safe to say that viewers will never look at a Tootsie Pop the same way after one strip-club dance scene featuring porn actress Alisha Klass.

Wang’s owl-and-pussycat tale involves Richard (Peter Sarsgaard), a rich young computer wiz who’s withdrawn from life into a matrix of fast food and dot-cum porn sites and who, sitting home alone in front of several computer monitors, feels this is “the center of the world,” and he its master. But when this introverted tycoon meets Florence (Molly Parker), the drummer in a thrash band, his world — and his libido — receive a good shaking. The enigmatic Florence, who exhales a poetic, lost-girl appeal, introduces Richard to what she considers the world’s center — her pussy, which she displays whenever performing as a stripper at the aptly named Pandora’s Box nightclub.

Richard tries to reconcile these competing matrices (to say nothing of his notions of what it may mean to jack into them) by hiring Florence to spend a more or less platonic weekend with him in Las Vegas. Declaring that, indeed, she is no prostitute, Florence goes along with the idea, reinforcing Richard’s semi-chaste agenda by laying down a set of ground rules that might sound familiar to Richard if he ever went camping as a Boy Scout: no penetration, no Frenching or discussions of feelings, and a set schedule for chores (in this case 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.). Not surprisingly, Richard’s hopes for companionship and goofy celibate fun crater amid such strictures, which are tightened even further by the couple’s growing mutual dependence and a severe case of blue balls.

The Center of the World, a film composed of many small moments, doesn’t accelerate toward a dramatic arc: Through e-mail received on his laptop, the overheated cyberbusiness world that sustains Richard’s wealth periodically buzzes at the edge of his Vegas weekend, but never comes crashing into the plot. Similarly, a detour involving Molly’s problematic Vegas pal Jerri (Carla Gugino) tilts events toward an eventual denouement without really taking on a narrative life of its own. Meanwhile, Wang creates vignettes of unbridgeable longing and just-missed opportunities, architecturally playing off the elephantine pretensions of the new Las Vegas and the cavernous hotel room Richard and Molly occupy. This is not the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack or Nicolas Cage but a vast, disconsolate tableau that seems landscaped by Edward Hopper and Alain Resnais.

And yet Wang is also capable of raising the room temperature: There is a scene involving Richard, Molly and a recently battered Jerri that teeters vertiginously toward a three-way, and the moments leading to that possibility are giddy with erotic anticipation.

Wang’s game cast is with him every step of the way. Sarsgaard’s shy vulnerability never becomes cloying or pathetic, although he may seem too hunky or well-dressed to fit our notions of computer nerd-dom. More important, neither his character’s wealth nor his proposal to Florence seem at all indecent, but, on the contrary, touching. And, in a small but indelible role, Gugino delivers a jagged performance that prevents the somewhat circular story from running along on automatic pilot.

However, the film — recorded in digital video (both digi-Beta and mini DV) — clearly belongs to Parker, whose pale face, with its spray of childish freckles, taunts us by refusing to reveal her thoughts rather than flattering us by signaling them. There is a long wordless scene in which Molly, appearing in tight close-up like the washed-out, sulky whore she insists she isn’t, slowly begins applying makeup and lipstick to her blank face. With each stroke of a cosmetic brush or pen she comes to life until, much to her own subdued approval, she is transformed into an alluring, and intimidating, succubus. Parker has the kind of dulled, indolent eroticism that was once mistaken for mystique in Theresa Russell, and fashions from it a character at once opaque and irresistible.

And although it so happens that one of the characters is a stripper and that much of the story occurs in and around beds, make no mistake: The Center of the World is not a “liberating” film about sex. Instead, it is an examination of dreams and how disfigured our lives can become in their pursuit. (After hearing Molly play drums and sing with her band, we pray that she keeps her night job.) Wang’s movie likewise suffers toward the very end, when not only Richard and Florence paint themselves into a claustrophobic corner, but the screenplay (by Wang, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt) also reaches a dead end.

Still, we should be thankful for the courage of Wang and his cast in standing against a culture that nervously treats sex as either a prurient joke or a puritan crime. The day is years off, if it comes at all, when Hollywood shows the human body in all its heroic sexuality, instead of having it disemboweled, lobotomized or eaten onscreen. Until then, American movies will have to abide by Florence’s rules.

In its opening scenes, David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s documentary about the painter-adventurer Tobias Schneebaum, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, leans heavily on the second part of its title as the camera records the elderly Schneebaum studying a fleshy nude model in a sketching session, then follows him through a fish-eye lens as he somewhat ominously trolls the aisles of a supermarket for food. And when, during an anthropology Q&A with Barnard students, the question “What do people taste like?” arises, we suspect the Shapiros are about to present us with a real-life Hannibal Lecter. Happily, they move on instead to disclose the remarkable and unlikely life of a man who was a rising painter in the 1950s when he hitchhiked from New York to Peru in search of a remote Catholic mission, far up a river beyond Machu Picchu. Here Schneebaum was more or less adopted by a tribe of hunter-cannibals and, in the ceremonial aftermath of one of their deadly raids, ended up eating a small piece of human flesh — a detail subsequently seized upon when his book, Keep the River on Your Right, was published in the late 1960s. By then Schneebaum had embarked on another great adventure involving a stay with the omnisexual Asmats of Indonesian New Guinea. The Shapiros follow Schneebaum as he, with their encouragement (which he clearly resents at times), returns to both Peru and Indonesia in search of his old friends, some of whom, including a former male lover, he miraculously finds. The Shapiros, whose film is intercut with hilarious clips from vintage TV interviews with Mike Douglas and Charlie Rose, ultimately reveal a frail but mentally robust old man whose gnawing hunger for knowledge led him to shun a safe, comfortable career in art for a series of radically transformative experiences at the world’s edges.

PETER NEWMAN and WANG | Released by Artisan Entertainment | At
Sunset 5, Playhouse 7 and NuWilshire

KEEP THE RIVER ON YOUR RIGHT: A MODERN CANNIBAL TALE | Directed, written and produced by DAVID SHAPIRO and LAURIE GWEN SHAPIRO | Released by IFC Films | At the Nuart

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