Thursday, January 12, 2017

Money Shot: Towards a Representation of the Male Orgasm Onscreen

Whereas the most famous female orgasm onscreen is a fake one (Meg Ryan, in When Harry Met Sally), arguably the most famous male orgasm in cinema is a joke one: Kevin Kline, in A Fish Called Wanda. It's hard to think of any representations of the male orgasm onscreen at all, meaning that Kline's preposterous cumface (which you can find on YouTube in a clip called "Funniest Orgasm Ever") takes the top spot. Kline plays Otto, a smug, vainglorious and aggressive buffoon, whose preposterous grimace at point of climax is mined for laughs and underlines his ridiculousness and self-importance.

It isn't that men don't orgasm in movies - I'm sure I recall various grunts and moans from male actors in all the sex scenes I've seen, indicating pleasure of sorts - but in most cases the camera is trained on the woman's face, to show her expression of all-consuming delight. In The Big Easy, for instance, Ellen Barkin is reduced to mush with a few minutes of fingering from Dennis Quaid, while in Rust and Bone, the camera stays on Marion Cotillard for the sex scene, playing an amputee who gets fucked back to life in a few cursory missionary thrusts from Matthias Schoenaerts. The implication, I think, is that to be shown at orgasm is to display your vulnerability: therefore, these scenes represent an act of power over the women by the men, who are able to find the key to their moment of powerlessness. To flip the switch would mean casting men as submissive, since to orgasm is to lose control, make yourself defenseless.

Supporting this idea: an interview of Xavier Dolan in December 2016 by Vulture magazine, in which he is asked about his lack of inhibition, for a sex scene in I Killed My Mother, in which he bottoms. This shows that sex is still rigidly coded, perceived as an act of dominance, of doer and done-to, and that to be marked as the receiver of pleasure is to be stripped of your power. One onscreen male orgasm, that of Louis Garrel in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, backs this up. Garrel plays a teenager caught up in a game of sexual daredevil with his sister (Eva Green) and an American visitor (Michael Pitt); his orgasm comes when his sister browbeats him into masturbating in front of them, and the scene shows that she is using power over him, making him retreat into a private sphere and display his secret self.

In certain gay films this imbalance, this actually rather ludicrous and harmful misapplication of antiquated sexual roles, can be redressed, although as we saw with the Dolan interview, ideas of dominance cross over into homosexual representations. Stranger By The Lake is a rare film to show male orgasm, although the film does it in a couple of ways - once with an actual cumshot, and on another occasion with a discreetly lit shot of two men cumming together, silhouetted against the night as it falls around them. In Brokeback Mountain, whose lone sex scene (one less than Annie Proulx managed in her short story) I only dimly remember, I believe the act is shown as a succession of gestures, fumblings and thrusts, rather than dwelling on a facial expression of pleasure or surrendering of a body to throes. Again, this is a nonsense: in the original short story, the cowboys' connection is primal and deeply sexual, with Jake telling Ennis at one point how much better it is with him. When Proulx's cowboys rush off together, abandoning Ennis's wife, it's because they are overcome by their desire, and Proulx sweetly talks of them "jouncing" a bed together. Scenes depicting this joint surrender to ardour and pleasure together would give a better idea of what connects the men than the ludicrous scenes of them arguing by a river like two old queens. But again: showing that racking physical transport, the visual depiction of vulnerability, the complicity and sweet innocence of cumming, would mark these men out as not manly, and I don't think an actor in Hollywood would take the role.

The Spanish film 10.000 km by Carlos Marques-Marcet provides a thrilling counter-example, starting with a long and terrifically well acted and choreographed scene that culminates in sexual intercourse between the protagonists. The camera remains with the man and woman as they talk and gradually give over to sex, building up progressively to pleasure felt by both but an orgasm that conspicuously judders through the man, as his girlfriend rides him. It's a clearly intentional and feminist decision, which shows us in a realistic and warm way a man who is deeply connected to his partner, and - as couples are - willing to surrender to a moment in her company. Their smiles and laughter in the moments afterwards, as the camera stays on them, show the well-crafted authenticity of the moment, and establish a connection that will be of great emotional importance to the rest of the film, as their bond begins to crumble.

Plenty of other scenes from other films underline what an outlier this film is in cinema. Certainly in films depicting heterosexual intercourse, the man retains a facade of power throughout sex in most instances, and the exceptions are rare. The extraordinary rarity of cunnilingus on film, compared to its (as I understand it) common practice among heterosexual companies, corroborates this sense that films are unwilling to show men in a submissive role. In 2016, A Bigger Splash's best sex scene involved Matthias Schoenaerts going down on Tilda Swinton, which goes hand in hand with his easy sexuality, his depiction as a modern, fluid man. Before that, I recall The Cooler (which I admit I haven't seen) meeting with extraordinary reactions in 2003 for, apparently, including a scene where William H. Macy eats out Maria Bello. This sense that going down on a woman would represent a loss of face to a man crosses over to most sex scenes in Hollywood, or even in Europe, where women are constantly depicted taking pleasure from vaginal intercourse unpreceded by foreplay. Needless to say, cinema is replete with blowjobs, from Pretty Woman to Casino via The Man Who Wasn't There.

Paul Verhoeven's Elle, out in the UK this year, gives the lie to these ideas, in a sex scene that is gutsy and liberating, as Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert, is overcome by a kind of auto-delayed orgasm that she takes pleasure in on her own, after the act, away from the man, and whose seismic seizures freak out her abusive lover, turning the tables on his twisted acts. In this instant, we see that female pleasure is its own beast, is not submitted to or bound by male power. It's a sharp and beautiful retort.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for a commensurate depiction of male sexual ecstasy onscreen, in not just one but several, many films, films which could show men divesting themselves of inhibitions, self-awareness, and hideous, defeating power roles. Films which might show kind, sexy, good men generously giving and happily receiving sexual gratification; willingly abandoning themselves to a moment of true defenselessness; charmingly and with no afterthought displaying the full expression of that gladly seized vulnerability.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Newsletter 2: Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian WIZARD YOU SHALL NOT PASS Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian

(This is a reprint of the second newsletter I sent. You can subscribe to it here:

What do we mean by 'good' acting? It's a subject that you could write a whole book on, and PERHAPS I DAMN WILL, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts.

Acting is easy, and everyone can do it. It's obvious to say, but every time you tell a lie you are acting, and even your day to day behaviour, while truthful, contains elements of performance. You choose to heighten certain words, to pause, to exaggerate, to use your body language for emphasis, in order to make your character manifest. Once, when I was at school, a boy in my class changed his walk almost from one day to the next. He had a boyish walk and changed it to a perfectly ridiculous, would-be cool saunter, which came with a stride that was too long and stretched his legs to visibly preposterous effect. But I suppose he wanted to convey something.

This is to say that everyone makes a big fuss over acting, which seems a bit hilarious to me. A lot of people are confused about acting: is it good acting if you notice it? Is the acting good if it's visible and you can pick up on what the performer is doing? I'm reminded of boys who went to a single sex boarding school and spend years afterwards wondering what girls are like, what drives them, how they tick. They're the same as you, dummy!

When I used to act, as a kid, the most important thing you could do to help me play a scene was tell me where to stand and how loudly to talk. When I was 10 I played a scene too big and the director told me to take it down a level, and I said I was worried the camera wouldn't pick it up, and the whole crew laughed at me - a big roar, rippling from sound guy through to best boy. But actors need to be told what they're acting for: where to look, stand, how fast to move, and how the camera is picking all of these things up. Every actor should look through the lens before each scene, to see what space they are performing in, and what comes across, in order to modulate their tone.

Let's take it that these are the basics of acting; the ground zero of plausibility and simplicity: being heard, being seen, saying the lines correctly. On top of this, add a basic comfort with the costume you have been given and chemistry with your fellow actors. This is the least, a minimum requirement - what you might expect of someone like, say, Keira Knightley after years in the business. What then adds excellence to these considerations?

Seven out of the last ten Oscars for best actor have gone to actors playing people who really existed. 'Only' four out of the last ten Oscars for best actress have gone to imitations of real people. It's both obvious and a commonplace to observe that these performances are often easier to interpret than purely invented characters, so that people who are foxed by the idea of acting can measure them against a known grade of verisimilitude. In my view, this sort of acting is fine, and actually sort of fascinating in many ways, and the ability to do it well is rather extraordinary, as it bespeaks an ability to subsume your own character, and behave with a truly different set of tics and mannerisms. But Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher is nobody's favourite Meryl Streep performance, and Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn is fun but not a patch on her Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr Ripley. In that film, her way of pushing her hair back is so perfectly self-conscious, and her line readings walk such a fine line between naivety and archness: it's like seeing a grain of sand blown into a glass balloon.

Blanchett is plausible, but she also does something different, which is to play on another level, or in a different register. Sometimes this is called overacting. But some of my favourite actors do something different, seem to bring fizz or punch from somewhere, which occasionally whips a film into shape.

One of my favourite performances this year is by Michael Barbieri in the film Little Men. Playing Tony, a young Latino kid from a less privileged family who dreams of making it to acting school, Barbieri for some reason chooses to play it like a young De Niro, with some quite stupendous line readings that aren't afraid to tip into badness. What makes the performance so much fun is that it's set in a pristine, elegant, perfectly controlled little film, a comedy of manners, a social satire, so that Barbieri's purposefully slurred words, his slouch, his playfulness, are almost at odds with the movie. But Ira Sachs has chosen to let him play it up like this, and it gives the film a significant boost, by giving his character a chance that the script cannot allow him. The film knows that this boy, though bright and charming and good, will amount to little, and cannot summon the reserves of privilege that his young friend (played with gentle melancholy by Theo Taplitz) has at his disposal: but Barbieri and Sacks lift Tony out of this impasse, by giving him such chances to shine in the viewer's eyes, by making him the magnetic focal point also for the film's shy desires. And, most importantly, the performance gives us pleasure: it's exciting to see someone try something, use his energy, and be so reckless.

Isabelle Huppert exhibits this fearlessness in her career choices rather than in her acting, which is much more controlled and calibrated than Barbieri's. But even she, in her two standout performances this year, does things that surprise, and take the viewer out of their presuppositions. The biggest shock in Things To Come comes when she utters a big, dramatic "yoohoo!!" at her ex-husband, frustrated when he cannot understand something: it's so fresh and funny, because it's the language of children, waving at you sarcastically, shouting, "Hey, wake up, dum-dum!" - but with the added hilarity that Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher, very measured and articulate, whose understanding of language is key to her concept of the world. Huppert throws these things in (watch her, for instance, delicately overplay a scene of slipping in muddy sand on a deserted beach while trying to find a signal on her mobile phone) because she is trying to take us out of our routine, trying to give something else to her performance. These jolts, these little nuggets of comedy or shocks of truth, serve to keep the audience on its toes. And again, it provokes pleasure.

My favourite thing is to see actors doing things. Any actor can recite lines, but I love to see actors talking while doing stuff. My favourite things I've seen actors do include: playing catch (the cast of Friends), climb a tree (Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou), do the washing up (Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi in Same Old Song), put flowers in a vase (Meryl Streep in The Hours), and cook an omelette (Stanley Tucci in Big Night). The things they do can be simple, but I derive pleasure out of seeing someone do these things easily, simply, while being a character; and I think that the idea of doing stuff is impressive, and gives us a sense of spectacle. Alden Ehrenreich does things in Hail, Caesar! - things of a different order (watching him use a strand of spaghetti as a lasso is one of the greatest joys in my life), but the idea is the same: to make the ordinary interesting, bring elements out of the everyday to underline them, and create pleasure.

In a sense, the best actors do the washing up with their words, make a spectacle out of that simplicity: language that we use all the time is played with by the best actors, rolled around in their mouths for fun, joy, to create something different. Jean-Pierre Leaud, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Denis Lavant, to name just a few: these are people who can play with a sentence, whose way of making something standard unusual elevates them into a level above pure verisimilitude. I like acting that underlines itself, and I like acting that plays, both in the sense of playing a game and of manipulating us.

I think we need to move away from worthy, realistic, 'good' performances - or, rather, make space for other sorts of performances. For instance, the best performance of all time is, factually speaking, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: what he does is true but also absurd and ridiculous; vital and satirical; collaboration and deceit. John Goodman has never won an Oscar, and perhaps he will one day, for playing, I don't know, Oliver Hardy: but Walter Sobchak is the one who hums with life, who does something so necessary and good and nourishing. We need actors like this, who will take a risk, and take us away from reality, the better to make us appreciate the lives we have.

Newsletter 1: #Huppert2017

(This is a reprint of the the first newsletter I sent out. You can subscribe to it here:

I grew up in the same town as Isabelle Huppert. Ville d'Avray is a serenely pretty, slightly colourless place in the Parisian suburbs, between Paris and the more rarefied Versailles. Ville d'Avray joins Versailles by a quiet road that wends past lakes and through the forest, finally opening out onto grand tree-lined boulevards that lead to the Chateau. To get to Paris from Ville d'Avray, you drive through the heights of St. Cloud, where Marine Le Pen grew up in a private residence, and wind down to where the Seine circumscribes the city. Ville d'Avray was memorialised in painting by Corot in the 1860s and on film by Serge Bourguignon in the 1960s, in his film Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray. The town is quiet, a little haven from the lights of Paris, and its inhabitants are wealthy, white, educated, bourgeois, presumably right-wing. Walking home from school I would go past enormous stone houses with big wrought-iron fences, such as the one Isabelle Huppert grew up in, and they felt mysterious and forbidding.

Huppert understands her privilege, and her body of work sets out with an almost calculating precision to needle at, defile, and destroy her bourgeoisie. In Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary, she conveys perfectly the gnawing sense of being stuck in an almost-place. Although Emma Bovary is of lowly stock, her aspiration to be better, to live more, to get to Paris at last, chimes with Huppert's recurring theme of a frustrated life. And Huppert, not for the first time, plays the mistress of the house, a big, foreign, daunting house that imprisons her within its codes. She does this in The Piano Teacher, too, leaning more into the perversion behind class systems - what Huppert does is not so much open the gates to the big house, but open them upon a sham: she shows the cruelty, the anguish, the screaming pain of the humans inhabiting these roles. Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher, and Michael Haneke, director of the film, are keen to work over the dislocation of the upper classes, the sense that they represent a crumbling caste, a totally vulnerable sect in a modern world they no longer own - and Huppert's performance fits into this, but she plays something else too, which is the soul of a woman. In The Piano Teacher, Huppert uses her body in an almost sacrificial way to locate something truly lost and damaged: this literal stripping away of artifice shows her decoding the role of the bourgeoise.

What is stunning about Isabelle Huppert's work is its artistic coherence. Time and again, although she has never written or directed a film, her work returns to these tropes. In Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, in one of her best, most fully incarnated performances, Huppert has no agency, and to see her so impassive and wan, flushed with tears and misery, is to see her again chipping away at the edifice of bourgeois roles: her tears are a rebuke, a hot embarrassment, and mark her resistance of sorts to the prison she finds herself in.

What are a woman's choices? Isabelle Huppert is thrillingly in control of her own career, being one of the only actors in the world to create projects, to reach out to directors, to suggest writers; but she also submits fully to a director's creation, molding herself into their story. This paradox plays out in the very characters she plays, who are shaped by the way they resist, the way they choose, or on the contrary are sometimes defeated by their lack of control. She flirts with this idea in Hong Sang-Soo's playful and delicious In Another Country, where she plays a sort of theory, a lost woman in a world that isn't her own, playing out a series of hypotheses set by her director; and she rams it home in Claude Chabrol's Story of Women, in which her wonderfully liberated, care-free, entrepreneurial backstreet abortionist is brought to her knees by a society of men who see her breaking free of her role as a wife and mother.

In her sensational brace of films this year, Things To Come and Elle, Huppert comes back to this. How she got the roles, how she made them what they are, is crucial. Things To Come was originally written as a far more maudlin work, about a woman whose husband leaves her after 25 years together, at a time when her mother is dying, leaving her to consider her own future, career, love life, solitude and mortality. Huppert elected early on to play the role with a far greater lightness of touch than the director, Mia Hansen-Love, had anticipated, finding something almost perversely skittish or amused in her character at times. (Quick aside: Hansen-Love is from the same sort of world as Huppert: bookish, bourgeois, liberated; her father taught philosophy in the school I attended) For Elle, Huppert made herself available for the film from the start, even at a time when Paul Verhoeven was looking to cast other, more famous actors in the role: she clung on in, making the film viable finally because of her suppleness, so that she could play this perverse CEO whose response to her rape is to entrap her rapist in a sexual game of cat-and-mouse. Verhoeven admits that the creation of the character belongs to Huppert, such as a scene where she screamingly evicts someone from her house and continues screaming long after they have left. What we have seen this year is Huppert's decisions, her choices, coming to frame the women she plays: this gives them an added depth, and something off-kilter.

You could not simply say that she is her own auteur now: but something of her accrued experience, of the stories that she has made it her career to choose for forty years, has come to wash off on two of her best, most complex, most playful performances.