Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jon Lewis: Real Sex -- Aesthetics and Economics of Art-House Porn

Real sex: aesthetics and economics of art-house porn
by Jon Lewis
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The most successful U.S. real sex film to date is John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which opened on just six screens in October 2006, then on positive word-of-mouth expanded to over sixty screens in its third week of release. The film eventually grossed nearly $2 million, a respectable run for any art house film, let alone one with ample gay-male content.

What distinguishes Shortbus from previous real sex indies and imports is its exuberance, the notion that sex (and sex on film) might actually be fun. This hearkens back to the “different strokes for different folks” spirit of the groundbreaking 1972 porn film Deep Throat, which promoted an egalitarianism, a democracy of on-screen sex. Several mainstream reviewers celebrated Mitchell’s novel approach. David Ansen of Newsweek wrote:

“Other films (mainly foreign) have certainly given us totally explicit sex before. Think of Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Anatomy of Hell. Or the grittily aggressive Baise Moi. But these were all films that rewarded prurience with punishment (in the form of either graphically unpleasant sex or windy French philosophizing). Mitchell brings an all-American cheerfulness to his sex romp, a native-born faith in the therapeutic benefits of unfettered desire.”

With regard to the film’s orgy finale, Ansen shrugged off all the real sex on screen, concluding,

“This is XXX with a happy face.”

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis similarly commented upon the film’s happy feel:

“Mr. Mitchell isn’t the first nonpornographic filmmaker to incorporate sexually explicit material into his work, but he may be the most optimistic and good natured.”

Dargis went so far as to assert that the final scene in Shortbus offers not only an answer for the lonely twentysomethings in the film but a model for filmmakers in Hollywood:

“Mr. Mitchell finds his happy ending in raucous music and warm caresses, in an oceanic feeling in which everyone is free to be freakily you and me. His idealism is pleasingly touching and just maybe a bit naïve. It’s an idealism that feels out of place next to the hot-to-trot television housewives, panting pop divas, cringingly graphic memoirs and novels in which sex is an index of late capitalism at its most bleak. Certainly it’s deeply, if promisingly, at odds with an U.S. movie mainstream that has grown progressively more prudish about sex over the last three decades, while its representations of violence have grown more obscenely violent. Hollywood says let it bleed. Mr. Mitchell would rather we get off on life.”

Parting glances

Regimes of censorship are inevitably capricious, ambiguous, and inconsistent, yet they reflect upon the culture they serve in ways that are at once telling and troubling. The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), which rates films for the MPAA, makes possible the wide release of R-rated torture films like Saw and Hostel, yet offers no “legitimate” designation for a sweet-natured (adults-only) real-sex film like Shortbus. Saw IV, the R-rated installment of the popular torture film series released during the same twelve month period as Shortbus, opened on more than 3,000 screens nationwide and grossed over $60 million in its first 2 months in release. That’s 2,940 more screens than the reigning real-sex box office champion Shortbus reached at its peak and roughly thirty times its theatrical gross.

There’s more to this than the obvious double standard at the MPAA regarding sex and violence. The Shortbus/Saw IV comparison reveals the ways in which industrial policy and practice drives cultural standards. In the marginalization of art-house porn and in the mainstream commercial success of disturbingly violent horror films, we find our society not so much mirrored but reified by MPAA censorship policies and procedures. We are fascinated by violence in even its most extreme and hideous representation, and we are willing to indulge this fascination with few (if any) limits. Sex, especially real sex, makes us nervous … so nervous that if it can be shown (in any legitimate venue) it must be, it better be “art.” Art has become as much a matter of commerce as aesthetics. That is, by labeling something art you pretty much guarantee a small audience, one that is marginal to (and systematically marginalized by) U.S. pop culture.

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