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      Center of the World
    The Vegas strip

    "Center of the World" explores sex and unreality as an Internet millionaire and a stripper take off for an intriguingly in-your-face weekend in Las Vegas.


    The word on the street is that Wayne Wang's latest film, released without an MPAA rating, is all about sex. Not in an "American Pie" kind of way, mind you, but in an unsimulated, in-your-face, look-at-my-cunt kind of way. Well, "Center of the World" is certainly more "Last Tango in Paris" than it is "Porkies," and it's beautifully shot in a naturally lit digital-film environment by Wang, but the story you may expect to see is actually more of a mindfuck than of any other kind.

    Directed by: Wayne Wang.
    Written by: Wayne Wang, Miranda July, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Ellen Benjamin Wong.
    Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Mel Gorham, Jason McCabe, Carla Gugino, Balthazar Getty, Pat Morita.

    Related links: Official site
    The film begins in Las Vegas, a city fawned on by postmodern thinkers, like story collaborator and novelist Paul Auster, because in Vegas, baby, any reality you want can be manufactured for you. The opening sequence, a Mac-inspired animation of images from the Vegas strip serves to illustrate that point: Venetian canals, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids, all ready and waiting for you and your Middle American conventioneers to experience on the Vegas strip. Is it really a canal ride in Venice? Maybe not. But if you're never gonna get there, it's as real as can be. Vegas is where nothing is truly real but the illusion of reality. A fitting place for the expensive little three-day weekend that our man Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) has invited his friend Florence (Molly Parker) to.

      Center of the World
    Richard, a late-20s technogeek, is a new e-millionaire in Los Angeles who hasn't spent much time away from his computer in a couple of years, doesn't seem to have any friends beside his financial advisor, and may have never been closer to a woman than an online hidden-cam in a sorority-house shower. Richard's been sitting at his computer long enough to be rich, bored and horny. Thirsty for something, he introduces himself to Florence, a quiet, attractive young patron at the local coffee shop. Florence is a drummer. Florence pays the bills by stripping. Thus do worlds collide for Richard who exclaims, "But you don't look like a stripper!" To which Florence responds, "What does a stripper look like?" Her frank and self-assured coyness immediately sets off Richard's honest and shy curiosity. At first, these two appear to be a genuinely engaged couple who might actually become friends.

    What comes next is an offer for Florence, to come to Las Vegas for the weekend with Richard for $10,000. Not necessarily for "round-the-clock sex," but also "to get to know her better." Incredulous and reluctant, Florence sets a number of rules and conditions for the encounter, including no penetration, no kissing on the mouth, and no talk about feelings. Smitten, Richard smiles and nods his head all the way to Vegas. Lost in the excitement is perhaps the most important part of the deal that Richard never fully understands, when Florence asks him, "You know it's all an act, right?"

    Naturally the weekend in Las Vegas is not what either Richard or Florence expects. Both are at first free and easy with their new lifestyle of excess, masquerading as vacationers. But their true (not allowed) feelings about the situation unravel before too long when Richard begins to let slip his romantic intentions and his naive perception of their new "love-affair." For Florence, every long stare, adulation and even trace of the odious word "love" remind her of her professional code and how inescapably she has committed herself to three days straight with this would-be Romeo.

    Center of the World  
    The film climaxes, appropriately, when Florence does. In an unanticipated maneuver, her orgasm rips open Richard's mind to the true mystery and confusion of sex experienced between individuals that he presumed to know through his solitary world of fantasies, phone sex and internet pornography. In the end it is his encounter with the most intimate — "real" — part of Florence that wakes him up out of his fantasy. They are simply two individuals with needs and desires. The sex between them is bought. Real sex, yet not really.

    Important to know that in the center of its world, this film is not about sex. Wang's filmmaking style for "Center" may say more about the truth of the story within than anything the characters say into the camera. The movie is full of gorgeous scenes shot with either just a bit too much shadow or just a bit too much raw lighting, resulting in a feeling of natural light at almost all times — nothing artificial, everything real. Much like the films of Lars von Trier and the other Dogma 95 filmmakers, the use of natural light enhances the sense of reality for the viewer. There are odd effects and perspective changes that suddenly remind us of a best friend's homemade video. The fortuitous sunlight coming through the office windows in one scene reflects off the glass-top desk and creates a double-layered image over a character's face. The lighting technique hides nothing, not even the small pimples above Florence's eyebrow, but it has all been calculated to do so. The use of natural light is a conscious choice by the director, a choice he uses beautifully to make the two main characters vividly transparent to the viewer. But in doing so, he also shows us how easy it is to make something look real. "Center of the World" is all about the difference between what appears real and isn't and what really is, even if it doesn't.

    "The Center of the World" will certainly make you think about sex again, and what mysteries of the human mind and heart it may hold; but it won't deliver to your more prurient interests as its marketing campaign or web site would have you believe. The erotic sequences are nice, there's even one quick cherry of a lollipop scene, but the film is half limp when it comes to pushing boundaries in the films-about-sex genre. So like the unfulfilling sex between Richard and Florence is the contrast between the well-done (albeit quick) shots of full-frontal female nudity and the painstaking avoidance of any full-frontal male dick. (Talk about unreal!) The performances by Peter Sarsgaard as Richard and Molly Parker as Florence are well delivered and solid, making their characters' most titillating scenes happily result in a little audience seat shifting. A brief appearance by Carla Gugino as Jerri, a Vegas casino dealer cum high-class hooker, is a lively performance and welcome respite from the increasingly tortured lead duo. "The Center of the World" could probably have been much more, given its talented director, writers and cast, but even as it stands it is a worthwhile commentary on the realness and complexity of sex in a world where reality-based entertainment and carefully researched marketing images are increasingly the unreal displayed reality to which our culture measures itself. A film worth seeing for the (sex) film buff, but not for the sex.

    JANUARY 20, 2001

    Reader comments on Center of the World:

  • Fire and Ice   from Melodie, Nov 25, 2002
  • Re: Fire and Ice   from BJ, Mar 14, 2003

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