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No Sex Please, We’re Peevish

October 7, 2008

This piece first featured on the now discontinued blog, The Naptown Cine-Files. I have to credit Josh Eckert with sourcing all the wonderful images. He’s good at that kind of thing, what you might call a ‘dab hand’ (with all the sinister connotations you wish to apply to the phrase). If you enjoy this article, I recommend you check out the rest of the stuff over at the Naptown blog. It’s rather good.

No Sex Please, We’re Peevish

Let me start this off by announcing that I have no problem with real, explicit sex in movies. I also have no problem with fake, highly-stylised sex in movies. I enjoy watching gratuitous sex and violence and make no apology for it. What I do have a problem with is the recent spate of movies that boast real sex and little else. Actual non-simulated coitus at the expense of pretty much all the ingredients that make a decent film. Acting, dialogue, plot, screenplay, et al are jettisoned (or perhaps weren’t even considered in the first place) in favour of the cutting edge manoeuvre of actually showing an actual penis actually entering an actual vagina.

Now, if you’ve never managed to engage in any sex yourself nor ever viewed any pornography, this kind of thing might blow you away. It might be the most awesome shit you’ve ever seen in all of your 14 years on the planet. However, once you’ve reached an age where you have either enjoyed an intimate adult relationship (or perhaps just a series of emotionally detached sexual encounters….I’m not judging) or have already viciously abused yourself whilst gazing at all manner of outlandish, carnal nastiness online; this kind of thing fails to impress.

My first such experience with one of these films came the night I took the rueful decision to rent Baise-Moi (2000). This risible French offering had been making some waves in the press due to its containing REAL SEX and subsequently being the most explicit film ever to be granted an 18 certificate by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). At the time the BBFC had not long updated its guidelines on what could and could not be shown on British screens and had largely relaxed its rules on issues of explicit sex. Lucky for the distributors of Baise Moi, unlucky for people that like watching hard hitting movies that aren’t completely worthless pieces of shit.

See, Baise Moi is essentially a cheap French rip-off of Thelma & Louise. I initially thought that it was shot as such and when the filmmakers realised just how boring, pointless and crap their film was they decided to re-shoot some real sex into it as a cynical way to drum up some notoriety and guarantee some kind of action at the box-office. However, subsequent research for this very piece has revealed that one of the directors (for there were two at the helm of this turd – with nary the faintest whiff of talent between them) and both actresses were veteran performers in France’s adult film industry, suggesting that the explicit sex was always part of the plan.

The film involves two women, Nadine (Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaela Anderson) who meet through a chance encounter and embark on a spree of sex, robbery and murder. There is the suspicion that this movie intends to be some kind of statement about marginalized women being empowered through randomly fucking and killing people (with a heady dash of rape-revenge thrown in for good measure) but the whole thing comes across as a complete mess. For budget reasons, they shot the film in DV with natural lighting and some critics seem to believe that the lo-fi, grainy look imbues this atrocious effort with some kind of gravitas. Don’t be fooled people! It’s a rank amateurish effort that’s punching well above its weight.

Not too long into Baise Moi the viewer is treated to a gang rape scene that is neither horrifying nor remotely convincing. In fact, the clumsy way the scene is staged and choreographed belies the porno background of the filmmakers and leaves you with the suspicion that you’re supposed to be aroused. The co-directors, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, deny this though, having stated in interviews that their film “is not intended for masturbation, it is not porn” also “it is not erotic”. I can heartily vouch for the latter statement there but this business about Baise-moi not being intended for masturbation deserves some attention. The movie was clearly marketed as a sex thriller; the cover shows a gorgeous brunette in bra and panties provocatively aiming a gun. The “not porn/erotic” disclaimers seem like a dishonest addendum after the fact especially given that the filmmakers admitted in an interview with the Observer that they “always intended to kick up a fuss”.(1)

This interview also reveals that, in order to cope with the demands of making the film, the directors chose to be “completely steamrollered with cocaine”.(2)

Now, I reckon I’ve sat through Baise-Moi so that other good people don’t have to but if you’re feeling masochistic (or if you’re the aforementioned 14 year old who could probably get his kicks from this movie) then by all means check this film out. It will quickly become all too apparent that it was thrown together by people that were ripped to the tits on blow….trust me.

In comparison to Baise Moi, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) actually fits my argument better in that the film is about a young couple’s short relationship that focuses purely on the sexual intimacy between them and nothing else. There’s no distracting, sub-Natural Born Killers crap here, this film is about sex and ….um…..nine songs. The chronology of the film is framed by the characters attending nine live music shows with real bands featuring in the film.

Here I have to declare a personal bias; I don’t care much for the bands that feature in this movie (with one or two exceptions). If I have to sit through performances by The Von Bondies and The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the course of watching a movie then I’m gonna approach that as a chore undertaken with much reluctance. If you dig these bands then it’s a whole different story, I understand that.

So, plot summary in brief: Matt (Kieran O’ Brien), a climatologist, and Lisa (Margo Stilley), an American exchange student, meet at a gig and start shagging each other at his place. She has to return to American after a few months and their relationship winds down in a wee bit of a sad way.

Michael Winterbottom encourages a lot of improvisation from his actors, as much as the story will allow apparently, and if ever a film proved that this approach can be something of a gamble it’s 9 Songs.

The interaction between the two characters offers the viewer very little. There’s no flair or wit to any of the dialogue which has the unfortunate effect of making this film feel like a long 70 minutes. Fair play to the actors, O’Brien and Stilley, for taking on two fairly bold roles (Stilley was a 21 year old newcomer making her acting debut, she wanted her name taken off the credits after completing the shoot so that she could return to the states and maybe be forgotten as the chick that wanked a guy with her feet in the bath) but it must be said that their performances are distinctly and frustratingly underwhelming overall.

It’s been reported that the two actors never communicated to each other between filming so that their off-screen relationship wouldn’t mess with their character’s relationship. I don’t know if that was a good move because the end result looks like it could have done with at least a couple of workshops.

An honorable mention must be made to the technical aspects of this film. It looks good. Like Baise Moi, 9 Songs was also shot on DV but enjoys the distinction of being shot by a capable and skilled veteran filmmaker.

I think Winterbottom had the best intentions when making this movie but, in the end, it feels very much like a failed experiment. The problem with making a movie that realistically depicts the sex life of other people is that real sex is quite dull if you’re not a participant. As a spectator sport it’s terminally boring hence why pornography and live sex shows tend to be purposefully over the top and highly stylised. Again, if you’ve not had sex before, or seen any porn, then this film will offer you something extraordinary and you can show your appreciation to Winterbottom and the cast by jerking off to it whilst listening to Linkin Park or Eminem and resting up between sessions in front of Halo 2 or whatever it is that angry kids get up to these days.

9 Songs may be dull, at worst pointless, but it is nowhere near the naked travesty that is Shortbus (2006). The writer/director, John Cameron Mitchell, previously wrote, directed and starred in Hedwig and The Angry Inch (both the original off-broadway musical and the later film adaptation), which I must admit I haven’t seen despite hearing good things about it. His sophomore effort, however, inspired me to write this piece. It was the jizz-soaked straw that broke this weary camel’s back.

The plot here involves a group of young New Yorkers with emotional and sexual issues that they opt to resolve by attending an artistic/sexual salon in Brooklyn, the “Shortbus” of the title (apparently based on the “lusty loft” sex parties of the DUMBA artistic collective in Brooklyn). Inside Shortbus, the sexually diverse bohemian crowd generally whine about their sex lives and end up shagging each other (in REAL SEX scenes, gasp!) at various orgies and other mucky encounters. Different characters, including “pre-orgasmic” Sofia (Yook-sin Lee), gay couple Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson) and dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) attempt to work through their problems by having sexual encounters with themselves and others which all culminates in a blackout across New York city that coincides with the resolution of the characters’ difficulties (Sofia finally graduates to a “post-orgasmic” state, for example).

At the outset of Shortbus we are treated to a scene of a young man lying naked on his back with his legs over his head masturbating, and eventually ejaculating, into his own mouth. This scene serves as a potent visual metaphor for the entire film.

Shortbus contains amongst the worst acting and dialogue I have had the misfortune to be exposed to in a long time. It can actually curdle the blood in your veins with it’s utterly stinking lines and performances. Interspersing the heinous display of the character’s interacting with an occasional orgy scene does nothing to alleviate the viewer’s sense of horror.

Now, bearing in mind that this movie is meant to be a comedy on some level, try some of these lines:

“That’s Alice. She’s got a cunt like a wizard’s sleeve.”

“Justin, someone just came on your cat.”
“It’s not funny. Why can’t they leave my pussy alone?”

The latter quote above is reminiscent of the dire innuendo that used to kick around in British TV sitcoms about forty fucking years ago.As for the former, it falls into that familiar trap of camp/drag queen humour in that, as long as you’re crude, you need not worry about wit, timing, delivery, etc. to try and pass something off as a gag. Other highlights include the “Bitch’s Bedroom” scene where a group of women sit and have a frank discussion about their clitorises.

It seems Mitchell had the idea to make a film with REAL SEX before he had anything resembling a story. He has stated that his agenda was to “employ sex in new cinematic ways” by which we can infer he means getting a bunch of his pals from the East Village to agree to fuck on camera and then hastily cobbling together a dire, pitiable screenplay to wrap the sex scenes in so that the end result would at least resemble a movie in passing. Shortbus has the dubious distinction here of not even being recommended for the aforementioned 14 year old. Even horny, spotty kids don’t deserve the ordeal of sitting through this travesty in search of thrills.

Possibly the most infuriating and depressing truth communicated by all these films is that they vindicate the old cliché “sex sells”. Without their controversy and resultant notoriety these flicks would have gotten nowhere. Sure, they aren’t commercially huge films but they all garnered critical attention that would not have been forthcoming had there been no REAL SEX to reel folk in. I only heard about these films because they contained un-simulated sex and, having sat through them over the years (in the chronological order that they appear here) I finally realised what a deep disservice I had done myself.

Perhaps these movies deserve some praise for at least pushing boundaries. When quality films with decent acting, plots, good scripts, etc. are made in the future they might eventually be able to include real sex without too many pressures from censors thanks to the precedent that was set by these (and other) titles. Ultimately though, for the above films, it’s three for three as utter failures.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. The first is not to make real sex the be-all and end-all of the project. Take, for example, Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots (1998). This movie contains some very brief footage of un-simulated sex but it is very much in the background of a film that is bold and challenging throughout. The Idiots has a lot going on and the orgy scene is all the more effective for appearing as an afterthought as opposed to a main focal point.

Also, REAL SEX is simply not that exciting, the realism of its portrayal working in inverse proportion to the thrills it generates. There’s a reason sex in mainstream movies (and porn movies) doesn’t resemble the sex people actually have. You want to see frenzied, can’t-tear-your-eyes-from-the-screen sex, go and watch Weapons Of Ass Destruction(3) because the low-budget, arthouse stuff in cinemas will shortchange you and then claim it was deliberately un-erotic all along.

***

(1) Scandale! by Alex Sharkey – The Observer April 14, 2002 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/life/story/0,6903,683906,00.html

(2) ibid.

(3) Not a joke by me but an actual series of porn titles.

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