Filth and Wisdumb


Madonna(photo (left to right: Vicky McClure, Eugene Hutz, Madonna and Holly Weston at the "F&W" premiere at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival) c/o Getty Images)

Madonna once said that she's not particularly interested in the pretty side of life, but rather its seedy underside.

Surely between her "Sex" book, videos for "Like a Prayer," "Erotica," and "What It Feels Like For a Girl," film roles in "A Certain Sacrifice," "Body of Evidence" and "Dangerous Game" as well as the disturbing visuals of her last three tours, she has managed to explore such societal transgressions as sadism, rape, and murder -- forcing us to do the same.

So it's little surprise that her debut as a filmmaker is set in London's grimy underbelly, a world of prejudice, poverty, thievery, strip clubs, prostitution, child abuse and "sexual deviancy." Interestingly enough, the pit of this stomach isn't an urban project or a sex district, but rather in what appears to be a middle-class flat, inhabited by "A.K. Krystian," played by the handsome, blue-eyed Euegene Hutz (lead singer of Romany gypsy group Gogol Bordello), and his two roommates, Holly (Holly Weston), and Juliette (Vicky McClure).

If on the surface this trio looks like the fashionable and go lucky "kids" next door -- if you happen to live among the hipoisie in Williamsburg, NY or Silver Lake, CA, that is -- internally they are all sad, tormented souls, who between them battle traumatic memories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse that untreated have caused them to develop split personalities.

A.K. is a bandleader who doubles as a pro-dom for dough, Holly is a prim ballerina who becomes a stripper to pay the bills, and Juliette is a pharmacy assistant who dreams of saving the suffering children of Africa yet instead uses her five-finger discount to deplete the apothecary's stock of pharmies to numb her own pain. It's precisely this duality of wisdom and filth or "Filth and Wisdom" that seems to run these characters' lives -- and guess what, we're no different.

If Madonna, herself, is part of the collective we, then this theory could also be applied to her creative project, i.e. the film, itself. The overall storyline may be unsalvageable but certain sequences are absolutely brilliant. The editing is off, but the soundtrack is right on target. Some of the themes are thought-provoking, yet the overall message -- of how with filth comes wisdom and vice versa -- is too obvious to merit much consideration.

Madonna has said about the film that only after writing these characters did she realize "that they were all aspects of [her] so the whole experience was both artistic and therapeutic."

Yes, there are starving artists, who remind us of Madonna's early struggle to make it in New York, women, who are judged by their bodies rather than their intelligence, which reminds us that if Madonna had only sought to titilate rather than teach, how much more "acceptable" she would have been, and finally the creative mentor -- the blind (but can "see") poet neighbor, Christopher Flynn -- an homage to Madonna's gay dance teacher of the same name, who believed in her, and encouraged her to pursue her performance arts dreams. It's unfortunate that Madonna didn't have a film instructor back then to direct her not to quit her day job.

But Abel Ferrara, who directed Madonna in "A Dangerous Game" in the early 90's, advised afterwards that Madonna's primary problem as an actress is her inability to break from her super-woman image in order to play a vulnerable mortal.  Is the notoriously guarded Madonna capable of such openness?  Not in "Filth and Wisdom" at least.   

Working on the film may have offered Madonna the chance to indulge in a longtime creative dream and the opportunity for plenty of self-examination, but unfortunately for the viewer this artist who is so concerned with the underside of life has a tremendously difficult time sharing hers with us.  It's personal authenticity that draws the viewer in, and without that Madonna's silver screen work continues to appear dilettantish.