Thursday, March 09, 2006

sex, lies, and videotape

Dir. Steven Soderbergh (Full Frontal)

I was dissapointed when this movie came on at about 2 AM on Showtime the other night- I was expecting more nudity. But seriously, Soderbergh's maiden voyage as a filmmaker has a lot of really interesting things to say in terms of how his predictions have played out. To wit: Michel Foucault has become a dominant figure in the academy because of how effective his theories of power and normalization have predicted the development of the ideas of medicine and sexuality in modern society. I conjure this thought because of a Slate article I read the other day- there was an article entitled "Feminism Makes You Unhappy", and linked at the bottom was a fascinating discussion of pornography and its function in society. One major argument made related to antecdotal stories about how many individuals in today's society find themselves unable to achieve climax unless they are consuming pornographic materials instead of actually experiencing sex with a real life partner.

I think Soderbergh has powerfully predicted this development. While its true that pornography and its resultant saturation of society with concepts of objectification were present in 1989, the Internet really has changed these dynamics because of how it bombards us with these images and how it makes them accessible anytime anywhere (the recent spate of pornographic images on video iPods seems evident in regards to this point). The has four central characters- John, Ann, Cynthia, and Graham. The names are intentionally vanilla- I believe the point is that what we are witnessing are four normal modes of sexuality that the viewer will intially encode as deviant or foolish, but will eventually come to understand. John is married to Ann, but is sleeping with Cynthia, who is Ann's sister. Ann does not care about sex, telling her therapist early in the film that it is overrated. Graham, a quiet, creepy soul is an old friend of John's who moves in for a bit, and is impotent- he can only be aroused by videotapes he makes of women talking about sex.

None of the characters can just come home from a long day at the office and screw. Graham is into video voyeurism. John must sneak around behind his wife's back. Cynthia must overplay her sexuality at every turn, seeking encounters with any men available. Ann just isn't interested. I think we can read a thoroughgoing critique of several aspects of modern society into the film. John is the hypercapitalist yuppie (but instead of like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho a book written around when this movie was made, he gets his jollies with silent emotional violence instead of knives- but its still consumption that drives his desire). Cynthia is the figure who has naively embraced the liberative strains of the 1960's only to use them as tools to enact petty vengeance against her more popular, more beautiful sister. Ann is seen at a therapist several times in the movie, and this is the criticism of cold rationality- she has overthought environmental concerns like recycling instead of contemplating her own personal desires, and her need to find salvation in a therapist is just another faith in an external actor to provide her deliverance. Graham is the only character in touch with his real desires- but he still comes off as creepy. He is willing to admit he has a serious problem however- unlike the other three characters. "I have many problems...but they belong to me" he says.

The movie is constructed to make us sympathize with Ann and Graham- Ann because she seems like a good person, and Graham because he knows what he does is bad but at least is so much more cognizant of his failings than John or Cynthia. Late in the movie Graham has a dramatic break with his destructive consumption, and Ann is able to see that her obsession with status and perfection has been the cause of her unhappiness. Its the human connection made through conversation between Graham and Ann that makes it possible for both of them to throw off their shackles.

Here at Wake every student has a laptop and they are always on them. We have a big debate team and the squad room is frequently full of 15-2o people. And is often silent, except for the sound of typing. Everyone is communicating with each other via instant messaging technology, or looking at article, or listening to music. Everyone is in their own little enclave and only communicates via computer. Its really pretty weird. I think Soderbergh is getting at how we need to really communicate. For Graham, the biggest turn on is getting to hear a woman's secret. But at the end of the day, he and Ann are both willing to be turned on by their own shared humanity. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, for it is late.

I found much to recommend in this movie. The acting is excellent, particularly from James Spader in a very early role.


Blogger paroske noted on 3/09/2006 12:01:00 PM that...

Nice review Paul.

The best anti-pornography argument I have heard is from Naomi Wolf (and others, of course) who believes that exposure to porn when young people are first exploring sexuality normalizes the types of degradation that are found in those films. Teens come to expect that that is what healthy sexual activity is supposed to be.

I haven't seen s, l, & v in a long time, but movies that explore sexuality wihout being prurient themselves are hard to come by. Not that I mind prurient (Eyes Wide Shut is an example).


Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 3/09/2006 01:30:00 PM that...

Yea I think one of the best conceits about the movie is that the viewer watches anticipating steamy grainy sex scenes, and instead gets mostly meditation through conversation. I read Ebert's review of this movie and his argument is that the movie is saying the sexual charge we get from conversation could be more thrilling than sex itself (even though the reward for a good conversation with someone else may ultimately be sex). I wonder if "talking dirty" could easily become like pornography in the sense that it densensitizes us to sexual behavior- all this talk and what we get does not match the buildup? This is think is why Graham breaks his tapes at the end- he wants a return to natural sexuality.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 3/09/2006 02:49:00 PM that...

I am loving this insightful discourse about movies...BBE.

I am always intrigued by the confluence of voyeurism and sexual gratification, especially in films. In fact, it speaks to the very pleasure of the film-viewing experience. Christian Metz, I believe, argues that one of the pleasures associated with film viewing stems from one watching the movie in the dark movie theater- creating a sense of isolation that enables voyeuristic pleasure (he wrote long before home videos existed). If you liked sex, lies (which, I am sad to report, have yet to see), might I recommend "Peeping Tom" and listen to the commentary by film scholat Laura Mulvaney. Excellent, Excellent film.  

Blogger Omri noted on 3/12/2006 06:44:00 PM that...

I want to say it was Dennis Miller who commented that porn theaters couldn't figure out why they weren't getting any customers till they turned the lights out all the way so customers could be sure they weren't being seen looking too intensely at the screen. Now this could be a far simpler phenomenon (customers didn't want to be seen doing other things), but it could also be a limit case for the voyeuristic pleasure induced by the gaze - you don't want to be seen seeing... then again, I hate crap Lacanian film theory (which always seems to follow theorizations about the gaze), so I take it back...  

Blogger Omri noted on 3/12/2006 06:52:00 PM that...

PJ: I agree with you about Graham's message, but I think he's wrong on this count. Cybersex, anonymous videophones in Europe (I'm sketchy on the details of this - it's from a Zizek article on a similar topic to what we're discussing) and even the new wave of sex-based MMOGs all prove that you can have virtual sex without the sex. I'm highly sympathetic to arguments about the materiality of language, but I think that it does run aground in the most bodily of all acts. Normal sex is visual and corporeal before it's linguistic - to the extent that Graham disagrees, I think that he's heading in the wrong direction.

MAP: there are pretty decent arguments coming out now that pornography is harmful to healthy sexual relationships because it makes men expect their partners to be porn stars. Notice that this is different from the McKinnon/Dworkin argument, where porn is bad because it makes men seek more extreme sex because they can't get the thrill that they get from pornography from normal sex. The McKinnon/Dworkin argument is an addiction/desensitization argument. These new arguments are purely about socialization and normalization, and to mind my are considerably stronger. It is simply the case empirically that most boys' first exposure to sex comes from pornography - it is absurd to claim that this would have literally no effect on their expectations (or even more blandly on what they consider sex to be).  

Blogger Paul Johnson noted on 3/13/2006 02:11:00 AM that...


I think the lights point is really just simple about people wanting to get off in the movie theater. Nothing Lacanian there, just Freudian.

Of course you can have sex without the sex- but the fact that "just" cybersex is never enough for everyone makes the case that while we can be sexual pre-linguistically, fulfilling sexuality requires something more.

The socialization/normalization point makes a lot of sense to me. No wonder I was so dissapointed by Ron's mom in the sack.  

Blogger Omri noted on 3/13/2006 05:17:00 AM that...

PJ: Your Freud joke = funny. The theoretical undertones of your joke = less so.

At the risk of turning this blog into the light-hearted bagging on Marcus's penis that it is, let me be precise on two points:
(a) There is no such thing as a "sexual pre-linguistic". The sexual drive is introduced (as any drive is) by the structural barrier created by the "layering" of the symbolic unto the primordial real. In more mundane terms, recognizable drives develop (as such) when symbolic markers are thrown unto the chaos that is the real. It's not that there's something primordial that is sexually attractive - what is sexually attractive emerges when structural impossibility is introduced as an incidental to the chaos that the symbolic tries to circumscribe. So help me, if I have to burn every Foucault book in the Wake Forest library (all three of them), I'll make you believe that.
(b) Ron's mom is just fine in the sack. You shut your mouth.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 3/13/2006 10:10:00 AM that...

I think if we read between the lines, we realize Omri is not getting any--not from my mom (who has standards) or from the ladies of USC (who command larger sums than Omri can afford).  

Blogger Omri noted on 3/13/2006 01:28:00 PM that...

See, that hurts... PJ was the one making fun of your mother. I was the one sticking up for her.

Get it, sticking up?