May 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Now that Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is out and in the open, I feel that I have finally come to some conclusion, or at the very least some articulable opinion regarding the practice of putting sex on film. Tossing my mind back to the days when this project was just a rumour in the air about the Danish prankster making a movie starring Shia Lebouf and his member, one that would tread the line between “cinema” and “pornography” more perilously than he ever had before – because ‘The Idiots’ had definitely not attempted this – I am struck by how anticlimactic the whole three-and-a-half hours feels, anticlimactic in the sense that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is perhaps a lot tamer than the hullabaloo leading up to its release suggested it might be, not that hullabaloo is ever predictive of anything. But at the very least, the film in my opinion does not commit any transgressions greater than have been done in previous von Trier efforts. Assuming, also, that the claims made by the director’s production company Zentropa are true – the ones about digitally grafting movies star faces onto porn star bodies – then one could concievably argue with some degree of conviction that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is likely not his most ‘pornographic’ film, which in itself is a problematic claim on so many levels, semantic and otherwise.
‘The Idiots’, a 1998 Dogme 95 film (Dogme 95 being a movement that forbade – amongst other things – the use of effects), featured actual sex between individuals whose heads and genitals were of the same flesh and shared the same DNA. ‘Nymphomaniac’, as far as we’ve been told, does not. Does this then make it less pornographic than von Trier’s 1998 picture? Does ‘The Idiots’ as a film have sex more on the brain than his most recent opus? Well, firstly, I’d argue that ‘The Idiots’ simply has sex in it while ‘Nymphomaniac’ is generally more sex-centric, if only sex as seen through one or two particular points of view.
Thinking about ‘Nymphomaniac’ over the last two weeks has led me to settle on the opinion that it is a film that does not explore or portray sex and sexuality in a particularly interesting or challenging way, but one which, by virtue of its sprawl and ideological indiscipline, is nonetheless a great heaving bonfire around which sex on film can be discussed. Maybe not sex as a complex facet of humanity, but sex as an element of cinematic language. I don’t want to review ‘Nymphomaniac’. I don’t want to critique the various performances and myriad accents featuted in it, the digressional script, the use of multiple aspect ratios, or whether it deserves its two-volume release. I’m not quite that interested in debating whether Lars von Trier is a misogynist or a wannabe feminist, whether he has anything to say or is just eager to be heard, whether he is intentionally or unintentionally tongue-in-cheek, or whether or not he loves or hates himself. Perhaps these are all meatier, juicier talking points, but I would like to take this opportunity to hash out some heretofore muddled thoughts and theories on filmic depictions of sex.
In my time as a young male raised in an epoch of sexual ubiquity, I have had my tiger’s share of media-assisted sexual gratification. I say assisted because some of my earliest autosexual experiences were facilitated by everything from women’s magazines tailored for conservative housewives and Avon catalogues, to kids’ shows hosted by finely-bosomed brunettes and even an admittedly sexually-charged scene from David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenz’. To further clarify, when I say autosexual I do not simply mean masturbation, but any situation in which I was sexually aroused in the presence of myself and no one else, an arousal which I to some degree enjoyed, encouraged, prolonged or actively sought out. Does the fact that I was sexually aroused when watching the host of Kideo (a South Africa kids’ TV show) or that I pleasured myself while paging through Avon brochures imply that that show or those brochures where pornographic or that they at least contained pornographic elements? Sure, they contained sexual elements, and if they did contain sexual elements but only unintentionally so – from the perspective of their creators – then were they necessarily pornography? I can assure you that the host of that show was no more sexually suggestive than a pretty Sunday school teacher, and that those Avon materials no more suggestive than an insurance ad adorned by a gorgeous, smiling face. Now, while the latter may intentionally capitalize on sexuality to sell both insurance and mascara, to say that Avon or AAMI intend on me flopping out my wiener and stroking it is highly cynical.
Conversely, there are sex scenes of varying graphicness that I have witnessed on television or on the silver screen or on my laptop which, despite oozing tits and ass aplenty, barely stir cyclops from his slumber if at all. Some of the above scenes were in films legally registered as triple-x adult material yet for all their sexual explicitness I could have been watching lions mating on Saturday daytime cable TV. In these cases was I or was I not in the presence of pornography? Whereas I was aroused by that which was perhaps not intended to arouse, the converse occurred with that which was certainly intended to arouse to some extent or at least mildly titillate which is, let’s be frank, what most sex scenes featuring attractive actors in ‘non-pornographic’ films are in some way expected to do. There is clearly a difference between something being pornography versus being pornographic. Perhaps pornography is created with intent whereas anything can possibly be rendered pornographic, even transiently so, by way of a patron’s response to its sexual potential. I wonder.
So having established the complexity of the concept of pornography, I would like to consider why – outside of the realm of audiovisual coital aids – sex is finding, has often found, and will likely continue to find its way onto screens.
It’s saying nothing really, to state that whatever is on the mind of society will somehow find its way into that society’s artistic firmament. If this is the case – which it surely is, considering how steeped in sexuality are our oldest surviving tales and myths – then it is no surprise that sex and film has a long albeit problematic relationship. Almost as far back as the advent of the cinematic medium, blue movies and stag films have existed. Sex is and has been on the mind of human society for millennia and there is really no point in questioning why it continues to be portrayed in art. The real question is what purpose sex serves in the context of film other than simply depicting an enduring part of human life or kowtowing to society’s obsession with it? If a filmmaker states, as many do, that they wish to depict human lives in as raw and truthful a way as possible without succumbing to the usual pressures to create drama and omit the everyday, then would it not be a little prudish of them to avoid capturing humans in the act of sex, whether real or staged? In fact, why should sex not be depicted? Surely it’s not in order to preserve some ideal of sex being an intimate and private affair that only the involved parties should have any right to experience, because if this was the case, a staggering proportion of dramatic art would be immediately rendered inappropriate and exploitative for having exposed and portrayed that which occurs behind one’s closed doors and behind one’s eyes. Of course, it would be naïve to ignore the abiding influence of religion and common morality on how sex is approached in various societies. And while the society that I am most familiar with – the predominantly Anglo-Saxon West – has its roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that traditionally considers sex to be a private and sacred (if not outright holy) act, in the secular here and now of 2014 when and where sexual explicitness and suggestiveness are commonplace in that there are increasingly commodified, it strikes me as particularly odd that the act of sex when transposed from its usual place under the duvet in a darkened bedroom onto a screen in a darkened theatre still seems to inspire discomfiture in so many people; well, at least from ratings boards and champions of moral “decency”.
It was only subsequent to the release in 2010 of Derek Cianfrance’s ‘Blue Valentine’ (a film I like but am not overly fond of) that I felt I understood something of the way sex is handled by the secular west. Now, assuming that the MPAA and other such organisations base their decisions on their gauge of the prevailing public mindset, then it can be argued that sex is not what causes such communal blushing, but the context in which sex occurs; the same goes for violence. This is nothing new. It has been clear to me for some time that violence is considered most disturbing when its psychological implications are brought to the fore. This is what allowed for the popularization – no – normalization of the action movie bloodbath in which hordes can be slaughtered yet nary a gasp or groan can be heard coming from a theatre audience. Kids half-watch such things in the presence of their parents at home, and the clanging of swords and barrage of gunfire are no more alarming to any of them than would be mild interference on the car radio. Similarly, people sit and consume their dinners while watching the news which is often a string of decontextualized violence recited plainly, as should perhaps be the case with all news, the “plainly” part that is. The horror may register intellectually, but there is little if any emotional impact. I know people (who shall remain unnamed) for whom violence is a strong no-no, apart from when it appears on the news in which case it is simply information despite the fact that some parties were actually affected, traumatised, maimed, killed. Violence is palatable, entertaining even, when the significance of the act is bleached out. Countless shootings and stabbings and beatings seen in countless films have barely scratched my psyche, yet one single act of brief violence in a film like ‘Cache’ still affects me, because it should, if only by way of my imagining what would possibly lead an individual to inflict such a thing on themselves and on the onlooker who stands looking on; because this is what the film itself asks.
On that note, back to ‘Blue Valentine’, a film that was threatened with – and may have in fact received (if I remember correctly) – an NC-17 rating (one step below X-rated) largely on the grounds of a scene in which a balding character played by Ryan Gosling fellates a character played by Michelle Williams. There was a mild cyclone of controversy about the MPAA’s reaction to this scene and much was written about it which I did not read, which means that some or much of what I say may echo things previously written and said.
When I heard of the MPAA’s decision I could not remember seeing more than Gosling’s oblong bobbing head shielded by William’s left thigh and seeing the response on the great actress’ face in a performance which consisted of more than the usual mechanical oohs and ahs that seem to score most sex scenes. Hers was a portrayal of vulnerability, desire, relief, uncertainty, frustration, conflict…things usually sieved from mainstream depictions of sexual intercourse. Just as the man who slashed his throat midway through ‘Cache’ did so – I believe – as an expression of something he felt he could not express with words, so too was the sex scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ in which a man tries to rekindle the fire with his wife in a kitschy hotel room and in doing so simultaneously expresses his desire to dominate as well as his utter dependence on her. In these two movies, violence and sex were not just acts for the purpose of narrative propulsion or embellishment; they are acts of communication, whether or not they were successful or even warranted. Moreover, the scene in ‘Blue Valentine’ has no comic or cartoonish undertones to it, just plain sexual honesty; no quick montage of a million and one sex positions, and more importantly perhaps, the deglamourisation of two recognizable and lusted-after faces such that what is on screen is not the Sex Olympics of the Gods but the simple psychosexual yearnings of average humans. Needless to say, it is exactly this type of honesty that disturbs people. Perhaps sex (and violence), when treated with seriousness, has an uncanny ability to access deep recesses of unexplored emotion and subconscious rumination in viewers that many – by conditioning or by choice – refuse to confront until they are expressed through acts that are either pleasurable or confounding or regrettable or all three and more. Violence is, of course, always regrettable…says the pacifist in me.
The sex scenes in ‘Nymphomaniac’ are not so much sex scenes as they are brief flashes of Joe and her lovers in various sexual positions. On this front, the film is disappointingly akin to many of its contemporaries in its approach to sex. Does Lars von Trier have any idea why it might be interesting to depict Joe in the act of sex? One could argue that for Joe, sex isn’t much more than a series of sexual positions with countless partners in which case the director is vindicated in the approach he has chosen. But considering he opted to pepper the film with random and frankly timid shots of penetration and genital intimacy, perhaps he should have utilised this explicitness for unprecedented artistic effect. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous of me to suggest that the way in which a person interacts not only with their own body but with the bodies of others can provide as much information about their state of mind as a well scripted monologue or exchange; as much if not more. This alone would be a sufficiently strong justification for the inclusion of graphic penetrative sex in a film.
Anyone who believes that fellatio is simply the act of licking or sucking another person’s genitals like it is a bland ice cream or lollipop, and anyone who believes that there is no more nuance to the act than simple mechanical licking and sucking, is frankly kidding themselves. Just as the word “yes” can be uttered in various ways to express various things, so perhaps can an act of oral pleasuring. The most disappointing aspect of a film like Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Battle in Heaven’ is that the sex acts seem to be so aware of their “scandalousness” that they are content with simply being graphic, failing to be little more than plain depictions of sexual intercourse. Admittedly, there are clear attempts in ‘Battle in Heaven’ to utilise sex as an expression of inter- and intra- class/ethnic relations, and the fellatio scenes that bookend the film are perhaps the clearest of all. But even then, the act is so mechanical as to be comparable to the tentative first steps of someone who has only just learnt to do something new and somewhat terrifying. The blowjob that Hugh Jackman’s character receives in ‘Swordfish’ or the one that Captain David Aceveda is forced to give in FX’s great show ‘The Shield’ are almost more accomplished expressions of something in a way that the equivalent acts in Reygadas’ film are somehow not, and I say this as an admirer of Reygadas and his oeuvre. It seems that, as graphic penetrative sex is slowly finding its way into “non-pornographic” somewhat mainstream cinema, there is a self-consciousness that prevents the expression of anything more than giddy exhibitionism and rebellion. Perhaps, with time, once graphic sex becomes less of a taboo, actors, writers and directors will become less concerned with the fact that they’re pushing boundaries and more attuned to the psycho-emotional power and density of sexual activity. Until this becomes more prevalent, artists who use the suggestive power of sex rather than the explicit power of it will dominate in the way that the oft cited scene from Bergman’s ‘Persona’ has dominated this particular conversation since it was first seen in 1966.
By far the most effective moment of graphic sexuality in ‘Nymphomaniac’, the shot of a rising erection is more an expository device than anything, expository in the sense that the penis’s becoming erect tells us exactly what the man in question’s sexual predilection happens to be, which in turn has minor narrative implications. So, I suppose graphic sex can be used to advance plot, though in this circumstance plot would be a strong word. However, with regards to Joe’s dependence on sex, I must say that almost none of the sex scenes in which she features illustrate what exactly sex provides her. I could barely tell you whether Joe actually enjoys sex, or whether there is an element of emotional dependency or self-absorption. The only scenes in which an individual sex act is observed without von Trier’s camera quickly looking away with a blush are the S&M scenes. Joe’s self-loathing and desire for punishment are made a bit clearer, but self-loathing is almost the “go-to” emotional hang-up for sex addicts in fiction. Besides, graphic depictions of sadomasochism are not particularly subversive in 2013/2014 in which case von Trier once again comes across as mildly toothless. At the risk of sounding perverted, ‘Nymphomaniac’ does very little to make a case for the artistic validity of graphic sex in “non-pornographic” film by simply not going far enough. Believe it or not, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’s much hyped sex scenes, while not involving much penetrative action, can be said to at least provide a viewer the slightest insight into Adele’s deep desire for self-actualisation and emotional freedom. In ‘Stranger at the Lake,’ another fine film, writer-director Alain Guiraudie utilises sex more fearlessly and with more psychological heft than does von Trier in ‘Nymphomaniac’, partly by investing his sex scenes with as much time and patience as he does the scenes of dialogue. In that film, sex and speech have similar thematic and narrative weight.
If sex is a mode of communication – non-literary, intuitive communication – then cinema needs to develop a sexual language that can express more than just desire. When two sexy young things manically rip their clothes off and boink each other in your run-of-the-mill television show or movie, one thing that is generally understood, without fail, is that these two individuals want one another on some level; nothing wrong with this. But imagine all other forms of language – verbal and otherwise – were portrayed on screen with equal unsophistication. Imagine actors could only either smile or frown, or were only permitted to speak the words “yes” or “no” and nothing else; hyperbolic as this illustration might be, this is – to an extent – the level of sophistication with which sexuality seems to be used as an expressive modality in film: desire, desire, desire, desire, desire. Maybe domination once in a while. Okay, sure, but what else?
No doubt, if art reserves the right to depict certain aspects of the human experience, on what moral grounds can it be prevented from depicting all aspects of the human experience? Sure, some of these result in more unease when portrayed in art than do others, but perhaps this is because modes of communication like sex and violence are more honest than the average human’s use of verbal discourse, discomfortingly so; honest in that they are deeply visceral and relatively more resistant to social conditioning than our use of words, maybe because we were fucking and fighting long before we developed a form of meaningful oral language and, in the wake of our new-found rhetorical skills, relegated those two to the closet where they can continue to wield immense influence from where they lie in the darkness of our collective id. Wherever words seem to fail, a penis or a pistol is never too far off for better or for worse, so why turn our eyes away or throw coy little glances? As much as it would be nice if violence ceased being a language of its own, if we are to explore ourselves as a species at the current time, we cannot ignore its power and its prevalence, its true terrible power. The same goes for sex.