Lights, Camera, Action

3 May 2011

Sex in cinema should no longer be controversial. But after all those years, and all those clinches, it seems moral guardians are still getting hot under their starched collars.

Blue Valentine: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

Blue Valentine

Last year, Blue Valentine almost received the notorious box-office-killing NC-17 rating (no one 17 and under permitted) in America because of a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character, Dean, dives between the legs of his new girlfriend, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and brings her to noisy joyous climax. It’s the most romantic, tender and erotic sex scene in the film, yet it was this scene that worried censors – not an earlier and far more explicit one, where Cindy is essentially just a motionless and slightly bored vessel for her animalistic jock ex-boyfriend.

In an era when sex is apparently everywhere and we’re all supposedly more relaxed and open about sex than ever before, why would an intimate and passionate scene raise eyebrows? The minor ratings controversy over Blue Valentine reveals how conservative mainstream America still is about what is considered ‘the norm’ in human sexuality and what is appropriate viewing for the general public. Surely there’s something fundamentally wrong when a commonplace sexual act, which happens to focus on female pleasure, is considered abnormal. Such squeamishness is not just prudish; it’s an attempt to maintain a very conservative status quo based on bland, straight, male tastes.

Mae West

Mae West

It wasn’t always like this. Early Hollywood cinema was comparatively risqué with its highly suggestive dialogue, naked bodies in silhouette and coy undressing scenes. Most shocking of all were popular female actors such as Mae West, who frequently played sexually hungry, assertive and witty characters. Whenever there are expressions of sexuality, however – particularly expressions of female sexuality – there are groups who wish to ban it from the public eye. In 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code – after the original chief censor, Will H Hays – began enforcing its strict policies. For the next two decades Hollywood cinema was free of any physical expressions of love that were more lustful than a three-second kiss.

In the 1960s things changed, as there was growing demand for intelligent cinema that could explore challenging subject matter without the restraint of dogmatic censorship. By the 1970s, art-house films such as Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Don’t Look Now (1974), featuring American stars in explicit sex scenes, went mainstream and the Hays Code became officially outdated. Gone were the days of having to symbolically suggest sex with strategic fade-outs, bursts of fireworks, shots of the characters smoking or trains going into tunnels. Australian censors took a bit longer to catch up, but by the 1980s local audiences were also able to see such films uncut.

Going The Distance

Going The Distance

Mainstream cinema today is getting increasingly better at acknowledging that sex does not only exist between couples as the conclusion to their romantic storyline. Recent films like Going the Distance (2010), Love and Other Drugs(2010) and No Strings Attached (2011), as well as the upcoming Friends with Benefits (starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) at least toy with the idea that fun and free sex often precedes a committed relationship. Interestingly, while these films play with the idea of ‘casual’ sex, they still conform to a traditional ‘happy ending’ that is conventionally monogamous and heterosexual.

Hollywood has a long history of portraying queer sexuality as something to be laughed at or feared. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex characters are frequently punished with either literal or spiritual death, and plots about previously straight characters indulging their same-sex desire are often used to indicate a descent into violence or madness. The 1990s New Queer Cinema movement challenged these representations, with directors such as Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin, 2004) and Rose Troche (Go Fish, 1994) creating characters who happily switch between same- and opposite-sex partners. Nevertheless, even a film as recent as Black Swan (2010) fell back on the cliché of an imagined lesbian encounter as precursor to Natalie Portman’s character spiralling into self-destructive insanity.

Secretary: James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Secretary

People who engage in various sexual fetishes and sadomasochistic behaviour have also long had to endure their desires being either mocked on screen or portrayed as a dark, dangerous and shameful subculture. A rare respite, Secretary (2002) provided a non-judgemental portrayal of a dominant/submissive relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader learning to embrace their desire to engage in sexual power-play games in order to find true love with each other. Funny, sweet and romantic, Secretary revealed how similarly people experience love even when it is expressed in ‘kinky’ ways.

The director of Rabbit Hole (2010), John Cameron Mitchell, achieved something similar in 2006 when he successfully self-distributed his unrated comedy-drama, Shortbus, containing characters who were gay, straight and everything in between. They had unsimulated (ie real) sex as couples, threesomes and more. Age, race, gender and sexual orientation provided no barriers to the fun. This warm, funny and honest look at a range of different relationships celebrated diversity and also suggested that, at heart, we all want to love, be loved and get our rocks off with like-minded people.

Shortbus

Shortbus

The critical and commercial success of independent films like Secretary and Shortbus demonstrate that there is an audience for films about sexuality in all its wonderful and exciting permutations. Hollywood needs to catch up because not only does focusing so heavily on straight male desire exclude more than half the audience, it’s boring. At present, we run the risk of porn scenarios and rom-com narratives having the monopoly influence on how sex is depicted.

Far from shielding ourselves from sex on the big screen, we should be demanding more of it. And demanding that it be more representative, diverse, confronting and, well, sexy!

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 378, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Top Ten Films of 2010

31 December 2010

Top ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia in 2010

Inception

Inception

1. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
This almost clinical and mechanical representation of the human subconscious facilitated an extraordinary exploration of cinematic space in order to deliver an intriguing heist story with wonderfully thrilling action sequences. This year’s masterpiece.

2. Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
This mesmerising assault on the senses by the director of Irréversible was a strange, brilliant and audacious first-person head-trip into drugs, death, sex and the neon lit metropolis of Tokyo.

3. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Martin Scorsese’s latest film was a typically brilliant example of subjective filmmaking, but where the point-of-view belongs to an unreliable protagonist. A sophisticated exercise in film style dressed up as a pulp thriller. So much more than a spot-the-twist film.

4. Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010)
The Australian film to receive the most hype this year was also the most deserving. The low-key filmmaking resulted in a tense, gritty and at times horrifying crime drama.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3

5. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
The combination of tight writing, powerful sentiment, humour and characters with so much heart delivered one of the greatest animated films ever made. Possibly the most perfect resolution to a trilogy too. Not a dry eye in the house.

6. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
An extraordinarily empathetic film about the everyday and commonplace tragedy that love doesn’t always prevail. Contains the year’s strongest performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.

7. The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009)
The surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, this Argentinean murder mystery/romance contains hidden depth. A thrilling and intriguing genre film in its own right but also a moving representation of Argentina’s history of political turmoil.

8. The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)
To reduce this to merely a generic hit man film ignores how immaculately crafted Corbijn’s second film is. The rich use of style and homage offers multiple rewards for a visually literate audience.

9. The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)
Another great example of subjective filmmaking where the film gets increasingly deranged as its psychopathic protagonist increasingly loses his grip on reality. A superb adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled novel featuring some incredibly upsetting acts of violence.

10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)
It wasn’t an old-school David Cronenberg film but the glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller made it feel like one. Transgressive wicked fun.

Honourable mentions

11. The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
12. Boy (Taika Waititi, 2010)
13. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
14. Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)
15. Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009)
16. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)
17. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
18. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
19. A Prophet (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard, 2009)
20. Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

Top ten unreleased films

Son of Babylon

Son of Babylon

(Films with either very short seasons or only festival screenings, and to the best of my knowledge aren’t scheduled for a general release in 2011).

1. Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2009)
2. I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)
3. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2010)
4. The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
5. Poetry (Shi, Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
6. Nobody’s Perfect (Niko von Glasow, 2008)
7. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, 2009)
8. When You’re Strange (Tom DiCillo, 2009)
9. World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)
10. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime, Robert Guédiguian, 2009)

Other

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

1. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) at the Astor Theatre.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) with a live orchestra at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
3. Tim Burton: The Exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
4. The Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Jacques Demy seasons plus the Max Ophuls and Tod Browning nights at the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
5. The experience of seeing The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003) as part of the on-going Cult Cravings program at Cinema Nova.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema.

An earlier (and since revised) version of the top ten film list originally appeared in the December 2010 edition of the Triple R magazine The Trip (online here).

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010


Film review – Blue Valentine (2010)

23 December 2010
Blue Valentine: Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling)

Blue Valentine is a film about the beginning and end of a relationship. Told in a parallel narrative structure, it’s present day scenes depict the breakdown of a marriage while the beginnings of the relationship from six years earlier are revealed in flashback. Co-written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who has a background in making documentaries, Blue Valentine takes a non-judgemental and observant approach to the dynamics of the relationship that it explores. While there are multiple small reasons for why the relationship sours there is no singled fixed explanation for why it ultimately stops working. Nor is there any attempt to allocate blame to either person and similarly to other marriage-in-crisis films such as Eyes Wide Shut and Revolutionary Road, attempting to argue who was more at fault is futile and misses the point of the film, which is that sometimes love just doesn’t work and that’s a tragedy.

While Cianfrance’s approach may be objective and non-judgemental that doesn’t mean it is not intimate and emotional. A lot of Blue Valentine is shot in a series of close-ups and medium close-ups to pull us into the world of the two characters Dean and Cindy, beautifully played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The tightly framed cinematography captures their every reaction, gesture and fleeting expression to communicate a wealth of information about what they are feeling. Both Gosling and Williams have been steadily establishing themselves as two of the finest contemporary actors when it comes to delivering nuanced, convincing and honest performances and their work in Blue Valentine cements this. The combination of restraint and raw emotion displayed by the pair is extraordinary.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

Part of the authenticity of Blue Valentine is its open depiction of the sexual dynamic between Dean and Cindy and how their physical intimacy reflects their emotional health. Sex in cinema is so often portrayed as either a titillating transgression, the ultimate symbol of a romantic union or the first moment of true commitment. All of these representations ignore how common sex is in everyday life for a lot of people, whether they are romantically involved or not. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs was an attempt to demystify sex by depicting a short affair through sexual encounters, but the overtly graphic nature of the unsimulated sex distracted from the film’s intent. The sex scenes in Blue Valentine, on the other hand, do succeed in conveying the status of the relationship. During the sections of the film before Cindy begins going out with Dean, we see her having sex with her previous boyfriend and the act is cold and impersonal. The contrast to Cindy’s first sexual encounter with Dean is dramatic as it displays his affection for her in a way that the eroticism of the act is also incredibly romantic. However, between these two flashbacks we see a present day scene where they are staying overnight in a gaudy themed hotel room and Dean is desperately trying to connect with Cindy by having sex with her. The frustrations, anger and resentment that both characters display at this failed encounter is incredibly painful to witness and made all the more bitter by the tender flashback scenes we see later.

Blue Valentine:  Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams)

The core moment in Blue Valentine is indeed one of the flashbacks where Dean and Cindy do connect and fall in love. It is not a sex scene nor is it a melodramatic outburst of emotion. Instead, it is a spontaneous moment where Dean and Cindy muck around on the street with the warm glow of a shop window providing a welcome juxtaposition to the gloomy blue light of the horrible hotel that we see them staying in six years later. In front of the shop window Dean sings and Cindy dances and the whole situation is goofy, messy and twee. It is also incredibly sweet and the continuous long shot effectively captures this moment of two people falling in love.

The final powerful moment of Blue Valentine is actually the end credits. With the final shot lingering in your mind, and the ramifications of what it means, the effect of the burst of music and having still photographs from the early days of the relationship behind the credits is absolutely devastating. Every once in a while a film arrives that is so honest, so expertly crafted and so sincere that the powerful emotional response it elicits is profound. Blue Valentine is one of those rare films. See it with somebody you are breaking up with.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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