The problem that haunts movies that focus on sex is that bodies photograph better and more easily than souls. And because the people onscreen are strangers whom we do not love, the very act of photographing sex, no matter the intent, implies voyeurism by the artist and an invitation to voyeurism for the audience.
As a result, scenes and movies that are about sex, as distinct from scenes and movies about love or about marriage, will always be dancing on the edge of pornography — and that dance either has a tendency to swallow the rest of the film or become faintly comic in its trying to avoid showing mere rutting (As Roger Ebert once wrote about one of Ken Russell’s fantasmagorias, “there is nothing quite so ridiculous as someone else’s sexual fantasies, and nothing as fascinating as our own.”). In fact, often the very best scenes in sex-drenched movies are the most surface chaste, or played for emotions other than eros or joy.
Last weekend, the Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” opened in New York and Los Angeles, with a rollout to follow in the rest of the country. Even though I haven’t seen it yet, I knew months ago from buzz/gossip from the Cote d’Azur that it contains the longest, most-graphic lesbian scene in the history of respectable movies. And I’ve heard of the subsequent criticism by the lesbian author of the graphic-novel source and of the charges of on-set brutality made by lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos against director Abdellatif Kechiche, and the subsequent feud by press conference. Which leaves the film with another 2 1/2 (approximately) hours to fill with … two women fully clothed, I guess (and what’d be the possible interest in that?).
Similarly, as the late Stanley Kubrick’s swan song “Eyes Wide Shut” was gearing up for release back in 1999, all the speculation surrounded the film’s sexual content — did real-life married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman actually “do it” onscreen; was Cruise cross-dressing, or gay-bashed; is the ratings board gonna let the central orgy stand; are they gonna mess with it electronically?
As seems to be happening with “Blue,” the actual film got left behind. While sating its opening weekend curiosity, America learned to its shock that Kubrick had made a slow 160-minute dream about erotic simulacrum and about not being able to have sex outside marriage. The notorious orgy scene had breasts, butts and genitals on copious display but for all the eros felt, they might as well have been piles of melons, tripe and kielbasa carefully stacked for display in the produce section at Kroger’s. (Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang gets more charge out of the watermelons in “The Wayward Cloud” and a cabbage in “Stray Dogs” … and no, I’m not even slightly joking when I say that.) When Kubrick’s anti-eros played before 1999 audiences expecting “the sexiest movie ever,” there were widespread reports of bad laughs and boos. In an inversion of the usual bohemian script, the orgiasts were people with the most freedom and fewest inhibitions of any people in history and the result was un-erotic nausea. The few moments eros is present in the film (Kidman’s bedroom monolog, Kidman looking into the camera and Cruise’s occasional flash fantasies of her) are tied to the social convention of marriage and its soul-daemons. And then the Stanley Kubrick cheekily ended the film and his career with the f-word, followed by a cut to black.
“Eyes Wide Shut” was the greatest joke ever played on pornhounds and libertines, about the necessity of repression, even for sex. We don’t believe that any more, in this enlightened era of liberation and freedom, a time which has given us a whole new genre of sex movie — the sex-addict film, of which I’ve seen four examples in the last few years (two of them still in theaters).
None of the four are great and all, to a greater of lesser degree, stumble over the problem of the ubiquity of sex actually being the film’s subject, rather than the occasion. How does one believably portray a sin or vice without making either it too attractive or collapsing into tut-tutting moralism? Sin has to be at least somewhat attractive, otherwise how could temptation work; temptation has to be at least somewhat tempting, right? But a sex addict isn’t like, say, a bank robber or gangster. While audiences might root for James Cagney or Al Pacino (and at least in principle be inspired thereby), the very act of watching “Angels With Dirty Faces” or “The Godfather” isn’t anybody’s unmediated occasion for the sins of murder, drug-pushing, whoremastery, etc. A realistic portrayal of sex addiction, which nearly always involves consumption of imaginary images, i.e., cinema itself, is necessarily a trigger for some, including that part of the audience that “associates with” the film and is likely to especially seek it out.
The best of the four is the least-recent, “Auto Focus” from 2002 starring Greg Kinnear as “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane, who sank into a porn-and-whores habit that wrecked his marriage and career and, the film hypothesizes, led to his murder. Director Paul Schrader still has some of that ol’ time religion in him, but the film’s insight into Crane is that he’s largely a moral drifter, without passion or conviction, coasting through life and his career on good looks, charm and easy amiability. He wouldn’t think that playing drums in a topless bar is a great dilemma one way for good or ill — just be a good egg and go out with a bud (played by Willem Defoe: maybe a little too right as the devil figure). Crane doesn’t get any great pleasure from sexual decadence and the film offers little reverie. But he doesn’t get any great pleasure from his marriage either or apparently from acting. He was conventionally attached to marriage and temperance at the beginning of the film. When rich and famous, he floated just as easily along with the decadent zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s and into a sybaritic lifestyle on the “cuzzican” theory. “Why do rock stars date supermodels,” a member of Duran Duran once was asked, and he answered “because they can.”
In 2011, British director Steve McQueen, who also directed this fall’s “12 Years a Slave,” cast Michael Fassbender as a New York sexual compulsive in “Shame.” Compared to the 1970s setting of “Auto Focus,” in the present day, technological advances mean sex and porn are everywhere and one needn’t be a Hollywood star with access to special filming equipment and name recognition to get it. All you need is a modem or hotspot. McQueen, especially in his first film “Hunger” is a master of the set piece and a ferocious director of human flesh and of making bodies and things present to you, rather than mere images.
When Fassbender has what would be considered a normal date rather than a hookup/purchase, the woman, a co-worker played by Nicole Beharie, wants to know him and is attracted to him, but he cannot reciprocate, either emotionally and intellectually over dinner or physically in bed. Like Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris” (a far better operatic, moralistic film about sex) this is a man so sunk in depravity, it’s all he can respond to. There’s a subplot involving Fassbender’s sister, a depressive singer heroically played by Carey Mulligan despite being anemically underwritten, but “Shame” primarily follows Fassbender through a yo-yo of acting out sexually and regretting it, then expressing his regret by acting out, preferably in a manner designed to hurt himself, in body or soul. The word “yo-yo” is the hint to why ”Shame” failed as a dramatic picture for me; the actions, including a third-act death I didn’t buy for a second, are arbitrary. There is no organic dramatic reason for this moment, rather than that moment, to be (or not to be) the “hit bottom” moment or simply the latest valley to rise back from. That arbitrariness may be an accurate portrayal of addictive behavior, but it sucks as drama. I thought nearly the same thing about the Denzel Washington alcoholic-pilot film “Flight” from last year, also sometimes-superb but unsatisfying as a whole, which suggests that this is a problem with translating the ethos and worldview of the recovery movement to drama.
Thanks For Sharing
Which provides a nice segue to “Thanks for Sharing,” which resembles “Shame” in being about sexual compulsives — a whole group of them actually — but differs in that the Fassbender character is essentially alone and acts as such. “Thanks for Sharing” is a portrayal of a sex-addicts anonymous circle, principally five-years-sober Mark Ruffalo, longtime circle leader Tim Robbins, and two new members — Josh Gad, a serial public groper forced to come to SA as a condition of sentence, and promiscuous punk Pink. As the title suggests, “Thanks for Sharing” is basically Recovery Movement evangelism, a version of those evangelical films made to spread the Gospel, complete with scenes where the theology of Substitutionary Atonement or of the 12 Steps becomes the stuff of dramatic dialogue (I even saw it on a Sunday, and it made me feel like a Muslim at Mass).
The various plot threads illustrate the religion’s teachings and as with Christianity, everybody in this movie is some sort of sinner/addict, especially the ones who say they’re not and/or seem to have their lives most together. “I was attracted to an addict,” one sinner even confesses. As the talent suggests (Gwyneth Paltrow, Patrick Fugit and Joely Richardson have roles too), this is far better acted than such films, because of the makeup of Hollywood and the acting profession. Pink is surprisingly good, fully capable of holding her own in an awards-garlanded cast. While it’s the opposite of the randomness of “Shame,” “Thanks for Sharing” evangelical impulses are their own vice, making the whole thing seem predestined. “One step forward, one step back” also may be true, but if you’ve seen many movies like this, the first time you hear, for example, that Ruffalo has been sober for that long and takes care to remove TVs and computers from hotel rooms on business trips … you know this is gonna end, spectacularly. Which brings us to another unfortunate similarity “Thanks for Sharing” has with “Shame.” Both Ruffalo and Fassbender go on a bender, which the respective films present in what might be called a “montage of degradation.” With disfigured faces. The cutting rhythms are very similar, the shots getting shorter as Ruffalo’s and Fassbender’s faces get more distorted and breathless, and then shorter and shorter, and twisted and short of breath, and short of shot until … well, we’re all big boys here. And I’m sure it’s a coincidence that Fassbender is widely considered one of the sexiest actor-stars (one of the very first shots in the film leaves absolutely nothing about his body to the imagination) and that Ruffalo is by far the best-looking man in his ensemble cast. For equal opportunity, “Thanks for Sharing” does provide a good look at Gwyneth’s tight-as-a-bug’s-nostrils body prancing around in sheer and chic black underwear.
That mistake is very surprising because one thing “Thanks for Sharing” does do well — indeed better than “Don Jon,” the other film still hanging around in theaters about sexual addiction — is to show the ubiquity of “triggers” in ordinary modern life. By this I don’t mean porn at all, indeed quite the contrary — ordinary TV shows and ads, common forms of dress, posters in the street advertising legitimate products. (Frankly, if I could wave a blue wand that would eliminate all pornography but keep ordinary and general public space as it is, or wave a red wand that would return the latter to 1950s standards for propriety but keeping the porn industry as it is, I’d pick the red wand without much thought.) One of the best moments in “Don Jon,” initially titled “Don Jon’s Addiction” when it played at Sundance earlier this year, is when an ad for a fast-food fish sandwich that looks like a parody of “oversexed ad” comes up on the family TV.
Writer-director-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though, says it was a real ad and it plays in the film at a time when his titular character is trying (not too hard admittedly) to limit his porn intake as a concession to a girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) who he thinks might be The One. “Don Jon” doesn’t go as far as “Sharing” in pushing that topic, but it stands out.
For 2/3 of its length in fact, “Don Jon” is quite a good film about porn addiction that ducks the language of recovery, a discourse that now, as my friend Eve Tushnet noted at Patheos apropos of “Thanks for Sharing,” seems to provide the only common language to discuss properly theological subjects like grace and redemption. Borrowing from Rousseau in the “Confessions,” Jon forthrightly says fantasy sex (porn and masturbation) is more satisfying than the real thing. And not because he has to “settle for” the fantasy: Jon has the looks and demeanor to get more-or-less any woman at the club to go to bed with him.
It’s just that actual people don’t, can’t or only imperfectly fit the fantasies that his sexuality has increasingly molded itself around and that the highly segmented porn market, thanks to the genius of capitalism, adapts itself to pander to. In short, he’s a slut whose soul has been reduced to gratification and objectification. But that attracts Jon to Johansson’s character, in fact, is her very inaccessibility, that she refuses to be picked up, used in a one-night stand, and forgotten a week later. After he has won her over and they’re discussing moving in, she walks in on his post-coital ritual of going to the computer for the better sex. She is properly appalled and demands that he stop using porn (which he interprets as “not use as much and not when she is around”). Unfortunately the third act goes off the rails — turning Johansson’s character into a controlling harpy, suddenly turning Jon’s mute sister (a wasted Brie Larson) into an oracle, and presenting as moral growth switching for fornicating a hot woman his own age to doing the same with a cougar who explicitly puts marriage off the table. (Da Joisey Tawk schtick of Gordon-Levitt and dad Tony Danza were an irritant throughout though.)
The Damage Done
So can a sex scene ever work? Obviously, as anti-eros … as the “Eyes Wide Shut” comparison suggests. Some strong scenes of erotic intimacy involve fully-clothed persons — Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in the library “Atonement,” Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore doing a slow embrace-dance while Dinah Washington sings “This Bitter Earth” in “Killer of Sheep.” I also was amused (as I rarely am) by a scene between Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in “Lethal Weapon 3,” because of the foreplay. They’re both badass cops proud of their war wounds and start showing them off, each trying to one-up the other. An inventive way to get their clothes off for what we knew had to happen from the start of the scene, it also played as a funny bit of characterization (wow, what a concept!) For years, I thought the best sex scene was one in which the couple is in bed, but don’t go through with it. In “A Man and A Woman,” as we hear heartbeats on the soundtrack, the recently widowed Anouk Aimee starts having recollections of her husband and, without excessive dramatics, asks Jean-Louis Trintignant to stop. It’s the sexualized version of the end of “Casablanca” — love sometimes means giving someone up.
Then in the last decade I have seen two films that both made my Top 10 for their years with lengthy, very explicit scenes — the Israeli film “Late Marriage” and the Romanian “Tuesday, After Christmas” — in which the four actors are nude and you see all the parts eventually (though not hard core, neither film was rated; they would’ve been irredeemably rated NC-17 if they had). These two films suggest another idea — that onscreen sex works best when the takeaway is an establishment of casual intimacy over acrobatics and hotness, i.e., the audience enjoying sex for spectacle’s sake, which porn can always do better anyway. In both films, it’s the first time we see the couples together (in “Tuesday,” it’s the film’s very first scene) and it immediately establishes that these are longtime affairs. This man and this woman are totally comfortable nude around one another, joke about the mechanics of sex, and discuss topics ranging from the role of witchcraft on a woman’s body to Christmas gifts — for his family.
It’s not a pickup where you’re worried about impressing or anxious to get her out of the house. And the films share that ease, the camera neither prurient nor prudish about the presence of two naked people. In “Tuesday” in fact, a la The Official Romanian Style, it’s a single shot in which the camera barely moves. Neither director strains for the best angle to assure us that that’s really the lead actor’s manhood nor goes for the “Austin Powers” effect — angles, movements and props placed to show as much flesh and as few pubic hairs as possible. The film takes the characters’ nakedness in as matter-of-fact a way as the lovers themselves do. If breasts are there in the shot, they’re there; if not, not. In “Late Marriage,” the affair is set in a Georgian Jewish culture that still practices arranged marriage, and he knows the woman, a divorcee with a child, would be unacceptable to his parents. It’s a complex and ambivalent film that, in the somewhat loserish character of the man, suggests more than the “follow your heart; arranged marriage is tyranny” template. It can just as easily (if just as oversimplistically) be read as “here’s the schmuckdom and immorality that modern mores produce.”
As for “Tuesday, After Christmas,” the first scene, as good as it is and as perfect an overture as it is, isn’t even the best sequence in the most uncompromising adultery drama to be made in many a moon. That would either be a lengthy scene in which the man takes his unwitting wife and daughter to the dentist (his lover is the dentist) or the scene in which the wife confronts him with her suspicions. And is no schmuck. Or maybe the very last shot, on the titular Tuesday after Christmas — the sex has been fun, but the damage we see far greater.