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Filmism.net Dispatch August 10, 2020

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Last time in the Filmism.net Dispatch we looked at the history and legacy of violence at the movies. As promised, this time we turn our attention to its close thematic cousin; sex.

Sex is fun.

No, that's not blindingly obvious, and when I say 'fun' I don't necessarily mean sex is physically or emotionally satisfying. It's basic psychology coupled with basic physiology that we have to be having fun to enjoy anything, unless there's some dark ulterior motive (in which case, you're probably not really enjoying it anyway).

In this context, the word 'fun' means playful, amusing, enjoyment. Of course we usually have to be attracted and turned on and all those darker, seemingly more powerful forces to perform a consensual sexual act. But to healthy adults, sex in the real world is a thing of lightheartedness, even laughter.

We almost never see sex in entertainment that happens because two people in their right minds with no dark agenda are attracted to each other, feel safe and have fun doing so. In popular culture, it couldn't be more different. Sex is seen as something so deadly serious it's almost received the same way violence is... at least by the characters.

There are so many hang-ups, judgments/self judgments and perceptions about what sex should be among the audience of any media that depicting it is fraught with danger of losing their sympathy. Almost no character has wonderful sex without there being some downside. That applies particularly to female characters, where (shock! horror!) a woman enjoying sexual satisfaction for its own sake is like a Tarantino film without any profanity.

The above is partly true of course because of the inherent nature of drama; some conflict must ensue. But a part of it is also how we perceive or relate to the characters, and our perceived self worth alongside them.

Think about a character who has the kind of life many of us dream about. His (because such a character is almost always male) pick of sexual partners, a really expensive car, lavish parties every night. What does that character have in common in every fictional story? He's going to be the villain, or at the very least he's going to be far from the hero.

Why? Because nobody in the audience who dreams about that life wants to be reminded that they probably have a boring job for an insufferable boss and can barely keep up with mortgage payments. If we see someone living that dream, that character must get his comeuppance for it simply because too few of us have it.

In the same way, sex on screen is a little bit like wealth We love seeing it but we hate to think people have it when we don't. So unless the author or director wants us to finish the book or come out of the movie feeling wretched, fantastic sex with attractive partners (along with money, cars, etc) is a privilege that must be paid dearly for, as if having fantastic sex all the time is the crime rather than whatever racket the antagonist will inevitably go down for.

Another obvious expression of it is the common trope in slasher movies of the 70s and 80s of the horny teenagers killed off by the status of their sexual activity, often during the act itself. Some might take it as a then-timely parable for AIDS but the intent of the Final Girl archetype who kept it in her pants and survived to the end was clear. Remain chaste. Sex can kill you.

The irony is that all of us who've been in relationships or even one night stands know not only how fun (in the above sense of the word) but often how silly, embarrassing or ungainly sex can be. Sometimes the only way to survive a bout of lovemaking without wanting the earth to swallow you up is to laugh at ourselves for what can go on.

When we watch it on screen, it's also usually about taking sex to some ridiculous limit. Because we equate danger with sex appeal, movie sex is usually portrayed as being an act flung far outside the comfort zones of the characters. But most of us know sex can only be truly satisfying within a comfort zone (even if we're trying something new). The parameters within which we can feel turned on and sexually satisfied can be very narrow. Rolling over and over on a bed or throwing ourselves around a room with abandon is a serious recipe for breaking the rhythm and mood in real life.

The inherent disconnect comes from the fact that because young, beautiful people are attractive and because we equate young, beautiful people with sex, we assume sex will be attractive too. But as most adults know, sex can be anything but attractive. For one thing, if you turn to entertainment for sex education you'd imagine only attractive people have the right to sexual fulfilment.

But at the risk of getting too political, that was exactly the message behind Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth. When we only ever see young and attractive people having satisfying sex it subconsciously teaches us that only young, attractive people deserve it. To Wolf, the myth was that woman have to work to remain attractive and that sexual pleasure was the result of that work rather than our birthright. Thankfully, it's a welcome quirk of human psychology that no matter who you are, someone will find you sexually attractive.

But sex often isn't that attractive. We can make it so to ourselves because we love our partner, light candles and employ any amount of romantic or sexy artifice, but despite the sexual arousal we (and only then when it's very pretty carefully cast and staged to heighten our arousal, like it is in porn) get from watching sex, the act itself can look frankly ridiculous.

When we watched couples roll over and over in bed depicting lovemaking through most of the history of cinema, did nobody ever wonder to themselves about how the couple ever got around to the repeated insertion of a penis into a vagina, an action that requires movement of the body along only quite specific parameters of movement once the rhythm has been established?

There's also much more social acceptance of nudity and sex today across media, and the portrayal of sex on screen is far more realistic (for want of a better term). But ask any director or actor who's done a love scene and they'll tell you how orchestrated and choreographed it is. Why? The natural effects of sex on the body as it jiggles, flops, farts, queefs and slaps during real sex can be riotously funny, just the sort of thing that can destroy the gilded romance or edge of dramatic danger most movies want sex to look like.

What's also funny is that for all the criticism you hear about porn exposing unrealistic sexual practices to children, the basic mechanics of sex depicted in pornography is real enough simply because the performers are having real sex, no matter how staged it is or how much fun they're really having.

Sex in the movies, by contrast, is just as phony without even the biological, true-to-life aspects of real sex going on.

Still in the grip of COVID19 as the world is, there's been very little sex or violence on big screens recently. My local's showing reruns of a few classics, the kids films that were out during the last Christmas holidays and the last major film to arrive on the cusp of the shit hitting the fan, Vin Diesel supernatural action turkey Bloodshot.

But like the rest of the barely employed world I have been giving the fibre optic internet cabling in my region a fair old hammering. After the rest of Studio Ghibli's oeuvre I didn't expect anything less than magic, nature, romance and adventure in every hand drawn frame of Porco Rosso, and it delivered in truckloads.

Special mention also has to go to Alexander Payne's Downsizing. I normally wouldn't talk about a film I ended up not liking, but the reason it was such a disappointment when it was over is because the first hour had been so brilliant. You've just never seen such a solid idea go so spectacularly off track.

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