Mainstream films are going all the way


That scurrilous Michael Winterbottom. With his new film, the British director of Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People has dared to blast the eyes of unwary moviegoers by showing the unshowable, by breaking the ultimate movie taboo, by going where none have gone before.

That's right, 9 Songs is about sex between a loving, committed couple.

Well, yes, the couple are actors, a Brit named Kieran O'Brien and an American, Margo Stilley, and their job is to convince us they're in an impassioned and lustful yearlong relationship of the type 20-somethings around the world might recognize. The sex is real and quite explicit, though, and the minor furor surrounding the film -- censorious editorials in the UK and Australia, the British-based Christian Coalition for Traditional Values condemning the film as "a rank piece of soulless pornography" -- comes from the unaccustomed conjunction of fake characters, real congress and a "real" movie.

While a similar dust-up has as yet failed to ignite on this side of the ocean, a casual observer might hope it would. Aside from its success as art or entertainment -- on that score, the movie stands as an intriguing idea left undeveloped -- 9 Songs exposes our nervously accepted notions of how and where sex is to be depicted in popular culture, what constitutes fake sex as opposed to real sex, and the compartmentalization necessary to keep the entire delicate scaffolding from collapsing.

Since the breakdown of the old studio system in the late 1950s, commercial movies have danced closer and closer around representations of sexuality. Barriers to nudity and behavior have slowly fallen, but sexual activity has remained simulated, even if with increasing frankness. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider weren't really making love in Last Tango in Paris, but the film was extreme enough for viewers to temporarily think so.

After a brief flirtation with post-'60s looseness, though, onscreen coupling in mainstream movies quickly retreated to safer harbors. By the late 1970s, a sexually active teenage girl was simply the next target for Michael Myers' knife in Halloween (1978). These days we can handle comic bawdiness in movies like Wedding Crashers, but serious presentations of explicit sexuality get marginalized to art-house theaters (the films of Peter Greenaway, for example) or are jeered off the multiplex screen, like the 2003 Meg Ryan misfire In the Cut.

One reason for this state of affairs, obviously, is porn: the emergence of hard-core sex movies from the underground in the early 1970s, their explosion onto home video in the 1980s, and their arrival onto the Internet in the late 1990s.

But when people think of pornography as "the real thing," it's of course anything but. There are rules -- of physical appearance, of narrative structure (such as it is), of what act follows what. Because it is product rather than storytelling and has to adhere to the demands of its audience, mass-market hard-core has a ritualistically defined beginning, middle and end.

So if you can show it all and it still doesn't mean anything, what needs to be added for it to have any weight? Art? Plot? Theory? Believable characters?

Vincent Gallo capped off 2003's Brown Bunny with actress Chloe Sevigny graphically servicing the director/star -- the results were hooted down at Cannes. David Mackenzie's Young Adam, also from 2003, pushed the limits of simulated sex with Ewan McGregor as a rake in 1950s Scotland.

Then there's Paul Thomas Anderson's story of the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the 1970s in Boogie Nights (1997). Even there, Mark Wahlberg received a prosthetic assist.

In this context, Winterbottom's 9 Songs is both braver and more naive. Because no self-respecting star would ever commit to fornicating on film -- celebrity depends above all on maintaining illusion, and, besides, the agents would probably want 15 percent -- the director has cast unknowns. This works to his advantage, since Matt (O'Brien) and Lisa (Stilley) have a sweet-faced and rather touching anonymity. These aren't the hard-faced fleshbots of porn videos but a believable couple doing what many kids their age do (or wish they were doing), which is go to a lot of concerts and have a lot of graphic, explicit sex.

Is 9 Songs pornography? If your definition of porn is the filming of sex acts, yes. If your definition of porn is the filming of sex acts with no other aim than physical arousal, no, it's not. Is it good art? Sadly, no, since Winterbottom alternates between concert footage of some excellent bands (the Von Bondies, the Dandy Warhols, Franz Ferdinand, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and the couple's frolics with a regularity that quickly grows monotonous.

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