By Scott Brown
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Wayne Wang is trying to get me fired. See, it’s my job to visit the site for his new movie, The Center of the World ( Here’s the catch: It’s smut — stylish, self-aware smut, but smut nonetheless. And so is its official site.

Naturally, that depends on your definition of smut. But if that definition includes nude close-ups of porn stars, then this site rivals Amsterdam’s finest cyberbordellos. Only cheaper. It also happens to be a bracing vivisection of the online flesh industry — and a fiendishly clever movie promo. Which is why it must be okay for me to be sitting here, on company time, catching a pole dance on my lunch hour.

”I like blurring the lines,” says Wang, whose dark tale of a socially stunted young millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard) vacationing in Vegas with a hired companion (Molly Parker) is ”just about two people and sex, every second of every frame.” Shot on webcam-ish digital video, the film earned an NC-17 rating. Artisan Entertainment opted to release it unrated (as it did Requiem for a Dream last fall), meaning Center‘s site needn’t censor itself. And it doesn’t. To enter, you must breach several admonitory barriers (e.g., ”No Touching the Girls”), which expand and contract beneath your cursor like, well, things that expand and contract.

Nervous? That’s how the director wants you to feel. Eschewing the standard gallery-and-plot-summary approach to Web marketing, he shot entirely new footage (without his principals), and teamed with hi-res!, the British outfit that created Requiem‘s eye-popping website. ”You actually dive into the screen,” hi-res! honcho Florian Schmitt says of his virtual strip club. ”We give you the feeling that you’re going deeper into the room.”

Go deep enough and you’ll end up chatting with real-life porn star Alisha Klass (who cameos in the movie). Alisha can be awfully saucy for someone who isn’t really there: Visitors, in fact, chat with an artificial-intelligence entity responding to naughty keywords. Though by no means flawless, it even encourages you to e-mail ”Alisha” with feedback; many have taken the bait. ”I’m so happy I got you off,” writes a satisfied customer. ”Want to do it again?” Apparently, lots of folks do: Artisan reports traffic topping that of the Blair Witch Legend site’s 1-million-plus unique users (following its redesign for last fall’s sequel).

Which brings me back to my conundrum: Just what am I looking at? Porno or promo? The answer seems to be…both. And while the site is awfully effective as spectacle, it’s fair to say its fans are not all cineasts. So congrats, Mr. Wang: The lines have been officially blurred, and publicity — like ”Alisha” — has taken on a life of its own. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to erase my browser’s history file before someone makes me clean out my desk.

The Center of the World

  • Movie
  • 88 minutes
  • Wayne Wang