Moviecrazed
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FILM TABOO IS SMASHED, TO GENERAL SHRUGGING

By STEPHEN HOLDEN
The New York Times, 4/27/05


In his surreal novel "Flicker," the author Theodore Roszak evokes the breathless awe of a generation of naïve American moviegoers when European art films offered Americans who came of age in the 1950's their first glimpses of the erotic delights precluded by Hollywood's Production Code. Remembering his baptism in Eros with Louis Malle's "Lovers," the 1991 novel's besotted narrator marvels retrospectively at how "the camera doesn't stare salaciously" but instead examines a woman's body with "the true eye of an experienced lover."

In the nearly half century since then, a nagging question has persisted: When, if ever, will an erotic film not marketed as pornography show a man and a woman enjoying spontaneous, passionate full-frontal sex? With the appearance of Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs," the answer is now.

This short feature-length movie, which the TriBeCa Film Festival is screening this evening and on Saturday, runs just under 70 minutes. Marketed at Cannes last year and previously shown at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, "9 Songs" is to be commercially released by Tartan USA in late July. It has already opened in Britain.

As you watch the film's actors Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley make love several times, proceeding from straight sex into light kink (a blindfold and restraints), "9 Songs" offers a reasonably sexy chronicle of an affair, with psychological baggage attached to the lovemaking; these are real people, not pornographic party dolls.

But "9 Songs" carries a residue of sadness and disappointment. Part of the letdown comes from a sense that the long-awaited appearance of complete sex on the screen, filmed without coyness, is too little, too late. Popular culture has become so inundated with pornography and pseudo-pornography that everyday sex, when you finally see it on the screen, looks banal. What might once have seemed thrilling and liberating produces a ho-hum response: Is that all there is? "9 Songs" even elicits a quaint sense of embarrassment at having barged in and violated the privacy of its characters. What are we doing here, anyway?

The movie shows you everything: male and female genitalia in various states of arousal, penetration and orgasm achieved by good-looking actors playing characters with distinct personalities. Part of the letdown comes from the fact that the characters themselves take it so lightly; it's only sex. The word love is bandied about, then dropped. Weren't we brought up to believe the earth should move?

The affair of Matt, a British scientist who studies glaciers, and Lisa, an American visiting London, proceeds over several months and is remembered by Matt during an expedition to the South Pole. The lovers meet at a rock concert at Brixton Academy, in London. The movie alternates between the bedroom and the concert hall (with side trips to Antarctica), as sessions of lovemaking are interspersed with nine rock songs, performed by groups like the Dandy Warhols and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. When the affair ends, Lisa returns to the United States.

Back in the days of "The Lovers," moviegoers would line up around the block at the local art house hoping to catch just a hint of what we see in "9 Songs." But that was then. The promise of erotic explicitness has long since stopped drawing overflow crowds to urban art houses. The scenes of oral sex and intercourse during menstruation in recent barrier-breaching films like Catherine Breillat's "Romance" and "Anatomy of Hell," and Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny" have not sparked box-office magic.

But why should they when the real-life sexual adventures of Paris Hilton, and of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, can be downloaded free from the Internet and replayed in the privacy of one's home? These pirated snippets may not be artistically photographed, but they're the real thing, and they're just the tip of a deepening pornographic iceberg.

If you Google the name Paris Hilton you'll find 2,240,000 English references, more than 21⁄2 times the number, say, for Meryl Streep. The Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi, who has performed stud service in two of Ms. Breillat's films, yields 623,000, almost the same as Dustin Hoffman (633,000).

These statistics suggest that pornography and its cold, performance-driven vision of sex have overtaken and begun to obliterate the more personal view of sex presented by the typically adventurous European art films of the 1950's and 60's. For all their sexual indirection, those films portrayed sex as liberating but volatile and something to be handled with care.

In the pornographic view of sex, it as an extreme sport practiced by professionals who place a commercial value on their bodies and their activities. Of course, anybody with a home video camera can become a professional and play this exhibitionist game. And why not? Haven't we been harangued since the 1960's with the cliché everybody is a superstar?

A deepening revulsion toward that pornographic view is evident not only in the hysteria engendered by Janet Jackson's antics at the Super Bowl and other such incidents, but in a new breed of European art films that might be called anti-erotic sex films.

The Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson's "Hole in My Heart," in which two men and a woman (naked much of the time) meet to make a pornographic movie but fail to connect sexually, is a revolting cry of disgust at the pornographic ethos. The worst of the horrors shown in Gaspar Noé's "Irreversible" is a graphic rape in which the camera refuses to turn away from the simulated but all-too-real-looking violence.

The simultaneous tumbling of the final sexual barriers in art films and the mass media's rising hysteria over indecency attest to the total disconnection between the two sides in America's culture wars. Until communication is restored, not likely in the near future, each side will try to pretend the other doesn't exist. For the conservative side, a marginally commercial art house film like "9 Songs" is easy to ignore; the chances of its being widely shown in the Bible Belt are minimal.

Meanwhile, everywhere, the pornographic sea continues to rise.