Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs

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Ty Burr, Globe Staff, 8/21/05 - 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. Completely aside from its success as art or entertainment -- on that score, the movie stands as an intriguing idea left frustratingly 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 in an interesting heap.

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 and more reactionary harbors. By the late 1970s, a sexually active teenage girl was simply the next target for Michael Myers's 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 metastasization onto the Internet in the late 1990s essentially gave Hollywood the escape clause it needed. Since the ''real thing" was readily available if you so chose -- and on increasingly private terms -- the pressure was off commercial movies to compete in prurience. In fact, the pressure was on for them not to. The dirty secret about dirty movies is that audiences feel uncomfortable watching them in a theater full of strangers (or worse, unexpected acquaintances). Home video and the Internet took porn back to the bedroom where it belonged.

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's product rather than storytelling and has to adhere to the demands of a paying audience, mass-market hard-core has a ritualistically defined beginning, middle, and end. Plus there's all that cheeseball music. Faithful only to baseline anatomy, porn is in many ways more repressive and repressed than mainstream culture.

So it makes sense that movies -- ''real" movies -- are beginning to experiment once more with real sex: 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? A personal perspective?

All have been tried in recent years. Vincent Gallo capped off 2003's ''Brown Bunny" with actress Chloe Sevigny graphically servicing the director/star -- the results were hooted down at Cannes and have since been defended as extremity in the service of expression. David Mackenzie's ''Young Adam," also from 2003, pushed the limits of simulated sex with Ewan McGregor as a callous rake in 1950s Scotland.

Then there's the French, doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie with the reverse-narrative rape of 2002's ''Irreversible" (in which the man's naughty bits were rendered digitally) and the tiresome eroto-intellectualisms of ''Anatomy of Hell" (2004), in which the pretensions and the plumbing were equally on display. That film's director, Catherine Breillat, had better luck exposing the backstage machinations of onscreen nookie with 2002's ''Sex Is Comedy," while America's Paul Thomas Anderson did the same for 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 sex. There is tenderness, enthusiasm, laughter, banality, and, yes, there is oral sex, penetration, ejaculation, and (very) light S&M.

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.

The more pointed questions might be: What does ''9 Songs" gain, if anything, from showing real intercourse in a non-porno context? Would the movie be any better or worse, more insightful or less moving, if it had simulated the sex like other movies? Would it be less honest, and what does ''honesty" mean when actors are playing fictional characters? (At the very least the editorials and this article wouldn't have been written, but only a cynic would accuse the ever-earnest Winterbottom of doing it solely for the attention; he's a provocateur, not a mountebank.)

Why are we so scared of real sex in movies anyway, especially when it's connected to love? Does a society benefit from building a wall between brutally functional carnality and diluted mainstream expressions of same, or is the wall maintained at the expense of considering the infinite gradations between the two? Sex is a universal and driving force in much of our society and culture -- especially popular culture -- and we isolate it at our peril. ''9 Songs" brings it out from the back room and says, look, this is what two people who care for each other do. You may hate the idea of the film, and you certainly don't have to see it if you don't want to, but Michael Winterbottom has exposed a lot more than his actors to the air.

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A Review of 9 Songs

Kim Voynar, Cinematical, 8/31/05 - When I went to see 9 Songs, I told my friends who were going to see it with me, "Look, I'm not making any promises about this film; all I know about it, is that it's supposed to be very steamy and sexy, and it revolves around music, specifically nine songs by some bands I like". And that pretty much sums up the movie, although calling 9 Songs "steamy and sexy" is perhaps a bit like saying that a Quentin Tarantino film "dabbles" in violence and foul language.

9 Songs is a very well done, artsy sex flick, interspersed with the nine songs of the title, which drive what little narrative there is to the film. The film tells the story of the relationship between nice Brit guy Matt, a glaciologist, and Lisa, a highly-sexed, somewhat nutty, 21-year-old American studying for a year in London. Specifically, the film is about Matt and Lisa having lots and lots of very graphic and hot sex, and about Matt's efforts to get closer to Lisa, who doesn't really want anything but his constant sexual attention and many, many orgasms.

There are shots of Antarctica interspersed throughout the film; Matt narrates the story after the relationship ends while on a trip to the frozen continent, and the continent itself - its barren, endless coldness, with glaciers breaking off from the land to eventually disintegrate in icy waters, is there to serve as a metaphor for Matt's relationship with Lisa more than to interest us with how cool it is that Matt is a glaciologist (although, I must admit, that did get a "that's a cool job!" thought from me - how many glaciologists do you know?).

Director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People) does a really nice job with the sex scenes. Unlike a lot of basic porn flicks, which tend to be shot from the over lit, big-lights-aimed-at-a-cheap-hotel-bed, "hurry up, we only have this room for another 2 hours" school of sex cinematography, 9 Songs goes to great lengths to show us sex as art. Perfectly lit shots of a mouth on a nipple, a kiss backlit by sunlight through a window, a hand tracing a belly, the perfect curve of buttocks and thighs - even the pounding, thrusting bits were a cut above your average sex film.

There's enough oral sex, masturbation and penetration to satisfy even the most discriminating of sex film connoisseurs. In spite of the abundance of graphic sex, though, the sexual element of the film still rose above base pornography for me, though I expect a lot of people might not see it that way. If 9 Songs is porn, it's porn the way it ought to be - driven by good music instead of cheesy "bonk-chicka-chicka-boink-boink" electronica, with the kind of lingering, erotic shots on naked body parts that draw you into the film and its sexuality, rather than leaving you feeling as it you'd accidentally stumbled into a slightly embarrassing, stereotypical frat-boy sexual encounter.

Winterbottom uses the sex scenes, as much as the music, to illustrate the arc of the relationship between Matt and Lisa. As the film progresses we see more and more closeups of genitals rather than lingering, intimate shots, and Lisa starts to move emotionally away from Matt, by turning her attentions to a female stripper giving her a lap dance and her vibrators. She seems to be pulling away, showing Matt she doesn't need him for her sexual satisfaction - or perhaps, that he alone is not enough to satisfy her.

The nine songs of the title didn't work quite as well as I would have hoped, in spite of my fondness for many of the bands: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Dandy Warhols, The Von Bondies, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, and Primal Scream, all contributed songs to the film, and Michael Nyman offers a lovely piano solo from his 60th birthday celebration.

As a series of stand-alone concert scenes, the music bits would have been fine - they were entertaining enough musically - but as an element telling us something about the story, this idea doesn't work so well. Most of these bands favor the kind of loud, distorted, yelling-into-the-mike style of music much favored by the hipster crowd, and this type of music doesn't really lend itself well to being able to comprehensible; thus, it's hard to decipher what a given song is supposed to contribute to the storyline.

The songs are supposed to guide us along the film's narrative arc, as Matt's relationship with Lisa evolves, devolves, and eventually disintegrates. You really almost need to be a fan of all these bands, and know the songs they are playing and what the lyrics say, to be able to get anything out of the concert pieces other than just enjoying the sound of the music. In that sense, 9 Songs is really more an ode to these great bands interspersed with hot sex, or an ode to hot sex interspesed with music videos, than a narrative film in any but the loosest experimental sense. And yet, I liked it, and overall the film worked for me.

The element of the film I liked least, actually, was Lisa. In spite of an able and sexually enthusiastic performance by Margo Stilley, she was just a really unlikable character, and not because she was a woman who unabashedly liked sex - we need more movies with strong, unapologetically sexual female protagonists - but because she just really came across as a one-dimensional bitch. In between telling Matt to "pay attention to me" (the girl's neediness to be noticed and focused on bordered on the neurotic), she was saying mean things to Matt out of the blue ("Those glasses are ugly. Those glasses look stupid.") and deflecting his earnest attempts to move the relationship along.

Personally, I would have rather seen her just say at the beginning of the film, "Look, Matt, I'm only here in London for a year, and I'm just looking for someone to have lots of really hot sex with while I'm here. No ties, no relationship, just lots of steamy-hot bonking. Sound good?" Instead, she manipulates and holds onto Matt by appealing to his libido, ultimately telling the poor guy on his birthday weekend that she's going back to America.

Other than that minor complaint, however, I thought 9 Songs was an interesting attempt at being experimental and pushing the boundaries of sex as art. Go to 9 Songs looking for a strong story line and fascinating character development and you'll likely leave disappointed. If you go to it looking to see lots of well-done, very erotic sex interspersed with some great music, you'll likely have a good time. Bring a date, then go home after and analyze the, er, finer points of the film.

See also ...
Lots of Sex at the Cannes Film Festival

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