Monday, October 1, 2007


So far the only movie I've seen alone in a theater is, of all things, Shortbus. I can't really explain why I selected Shortbus for my maiden solo cinema outing, other than to say that I was in a restless mood during a restless month, and it was what my local film series happened to be showing.

And it was definitely an odd movie to go to see by myself: Shortbus is sex, sex and more sex -so much sex, in fact, that sex becomes background rather than accent, page rather than text. Sex in Shortbus was like the stage business writers give characters to break up dialogue: "So there," Maya said, drawing the knife across the bread. Or, Darius fingered the dime in the pocket of his jeans. "Why?" he asked. Only here was more like: "Have you seen my car keys?" asked John, writhing ecstatically.

I got so I was actually bored by the sex, and it's hard to be bored by sex. It was as if the bread-cutting and the coin-jiggling and the thousand other tiny daily tasks had seized the narrative and were shaking it by its scruff. Every so often the story would emit one pitiful mew, but overall it had been handily subdued.

What reminded me of all this was an article in Sunday's NYT by Mireya Navarro about the trend toward real sex scenes (i.e, people actually having sex) in movies (Shortbus was used as an example). The article paraphrases Linda Williams, a UC Berkely professor: "These films...fall under 'hard-core art.' They escalate the explicitness, trying to step beyond the conventional but not veer into pornography."

I'm tempted to say that what separates pornography from "hard-core art" is that the sex in pornography is supposed to make you feel good, whereas "art" sex is supposed to make you feel bad. But this is perhaps too cynical a view of art (not to mention too lenient a view of porn, which can be awfully depressing). After all, "hard-core" artists (I think I'm every so slightly too amused by this term) are trying for something noble: they want to make sex in movies more real and less staged -on the theory, one assumes, that reality is more galvanizing than artifice

I'd argue that one any day, but I'm even more puzzled by the notion that real on-screen sex is "realer" than simulated on-screen sex. Sure, it's more of a physical reality for the actors involved, but cinema isn't about recreating actors' subjective experiences in the minds of viewers. It's not even really about recreating characters' subjective experiences: do we ever, in real life, watch ourselves having sex from multiple camera angles? (Wait, don't answer that.) Are we ever primarily onlookers in our own sex acts?

No, movies (and books, and plays) are about forcing us into that strange, limninal space between subjectivity and objectivity. They deal in partials: partial empathy, partial experience, partial understanding. The real value of "real" sex on-screen is shock: it's new, it's different, it prods us to take one cautious step back. And artists -hard-core, soft-core, delicious tootsie roll center- have always loved to shock.

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