tagReviews & EssaysUnsimulated Sex in Mainstream Film

Unsimulated Sex in Mainstream Film


Not too long ago, John Cameron Mitchell released his widely-anticipated film "Shortbus" (and I've just been too busy to go out and get it, until now). The movie has been pretty revolutionary, very controversial, and quite talked about, all because it features non-simulated sex scenes.

Of course, he's not the first to do so- many other movies, lots of them European, have done it- and he won't be the last, but there is a lot of sex there, it is fairly graphic, and this is America, at the pinnacle of some staunch anti-sex sentiment. Of course it's going to ruffle a few feathers. Now, personally, I have no problem with the idea of sex on film- I love porn, and I only think it's a plus if somebody tries to add a plot and real meaning to it. But at the same time, I have to wonder if John Cameron Mitchell's movie really is as sex-positive as it claims to be, and if we really do need to see explicit, graphic sex shots in non-pornographic film.

I was super-excited about "Shortbus", if only for the fact that the concept that motivated it: the idea that if you're going to have sex scenes in a movie, why not have the actors really doing it, and really feeling the emotions while going through it? It certainly sounds good, doesn't it? Imagine if you brought all the real-life intensity of sex on screen, and added a story to it? And then consider the way JCM created the piece- through a long series of improvisation that necessarily bonded the actors so there was connection there unlike the "Hi, how are you, let's get naked." feel of porn or mainstream simulated sex scenes. Toss it all together, and how can you not end up with a superior product?

I'll tell you how: a flawed premise. As I watched the movie, a lot of the shortcomings jumped out at me. As much as I love the idea of real sex to elicit real responses, it doesn't quite work because, well, it's acting. This isn't just real sex between people, where all the emotions can bubble up and come through- I think that Tony Comstock has the marketed cornered on documentary-style sex like that. But here, the actors are working from a script, and no matter what, they aren't their characters. Sook-Lin Yee is not pre-orgasmic. Paul Dawson does not (presumably) weep after orgasming from auto-fellatio. Are you starting to see what I'm saying? These people cannot really express the true emotions of the sex they're having, because the sex they're having is between characters, not themselves. The only way you can get what JCM is aiming for is if there is no storyline and no characters as the thing goes on- if it is, for lack of better words, reality TV. The only place where I might make a case for him achieving his goal is in the orgy scenes, where mostly real-life couples had sex, vaguely scripted, but mostly just played it by ear. There lies real emotion; unfortunately the entire movie cannot take place within an orgy. There wouldn't be much of a story there . . . though I'd certainly watch it :)

A part of me comes back to the old idea that this is acting, and it doesn't matter what it is- acting the part of a doctor or of a orgasm-deprived couples counselor- but it is acting when all is said and done. Why do we insist that there be more realism in something that is, essentially, meant to be acting? I don't want to see the actors in Nip/Tuck actually perform surgery- it's good enough to know that they're acting, and doing it well. And from what I've seen of the sex scenes in various movies, they can be acted out very well. With the right casting and good cinematography, I believe every bit of the chemistry and palpable heat onscreen. Much as I might like to, I don't need to see the presumed gential-to-genital contact in order to believe that the sex is "real" (and actually, in comparison to most porn out there, I have more of a need to see the actual penetration in order to believe the sex is real in porn).

So I've taken the main reasons why we might legitimately put non-simulated sex in mainstream films (the non-legitimate reasons being to shock, get a controversy stirring, to be "arty" and avant-garde, etc.) and categorically debunked them. The sex cannot be any more emotionally realistic to the storyline so long as the actors are playing characters in situations that do not reflect their actual situations. And the only real reason to see explicit genital shots is with a goal of arousal, which brings me to another point: time and time again, JCM has defended his work- justifiably, in my mind- against labelling it as pornography. Why? As he puts it, the sex has been purposefully "de-eroticized"; while the goal of pornography is to titillate and arouse and turn-on the viewer, his work features explicit sex, but with a different goal. But every time I hear that, I cringe somewhat. I know that he's making an important distinction, since there are more than a huge share of people who are dismissing the work as "just porn" and finding fault with it for that. But at the same time, I have to ask- what are we scared of? Why do we have to de-eroticize sex in order to make it have meaning? Can't something turn us on at the same time that it makes us laugh, cry, criticize, applaud, think, etc., etc.? I'm not sure the whole sex de-eroticizing worked, anyways- I know that in a pinch, I can (and have) jerked off to the scenes. One of my biggest complaints is that people think that in order to make sex deep and meaningful, they have to make it negative and non-erotic- and hence you get shallow, empty encounters bemoaning the inability of people to connect (The Center of The World, and so on). Sex is presented as cold and stark and with a definite goal: to depress, not arouse, you the viewer. Which is one way to present sex, I suppose, no more or less valid than any other, as much as I dislike it. But if explicit sexual acts are the realm of arousal, which I take as a given (there is no need to see genital close-ups, for instance, to better understand emotion and character motivation), and JCM does not intend for his work to arouse, then I just am not sure why exactly it's there.

The only other reason I can think of to have non-simulated sex in mainstream film is because it changes attitudes. I cannot begin to explain how happy and touched I was at all of the people who wrote in to Sook-Lin Yee's place of work asking for her not to be fired for starring in this piece of work. I'm tired of hearing about how starring in something explicitly sexual is supposed to be the end of someone's career; apparently you can do everything short of penetration and become a knockout star (indeed, having the requisite amount of sex appeal is pretty much the only way to make it big), but go that one step further, and you're just another scandalous blip on the radar. It's why I'm so happy that Chloe Sevigny bounced back with a mainstream performance in "Big Love" after performing fellatio in "Brown Bunny" and getting the same predictions of career doom. So I'm glad that JCM made his movie, because it does- and has- challenged perceptions of sex on film: what it can be, why it oughtn't be a taboo, how it works and what it means.

So am I happy about the end product? Definitely. For all its flaws, I love Shortbus to death, and I'm always intrigued by those films who choose to go all the way. I respect the actors and actresses who do. But do I think they and Shortbus can justify more non-simulated sex in mainstream film? I'm just not sure.

So what do you think? I'd love to hear some other opinions on the matter.

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