|Believe it or not, there’s a scene in 40 Days and 40 Nights that
represents the entire American film industry. Matt (Josh Hartnett), a dotcom
casanova, has sworn off sex because his girlfriend dumped him. He now
believes, in a typically feather-brained Hollywood way, that only via
abstinence can he truly fall in love. It’s the thirty-ninth day of Lent, and
Hartnett, having just been propositioned by two hotties for a threesome,
walks into an important business meeting sporting a boner. He runs from the
room, but we know Josh’s suffering will end soon. After all, this is
Hollywood, and we expect, as they say in the massage parlors, a “happy
I suppose it’s not surprising that the studios would leave no stone
unturned in their zest for the comedy of physiology, but it’s more the boner
itself that serves as a movie-industry metaphor: pleading, aching for a
purpose, striving for victory at all costs.
You could call it the cinema of the unrequited boner contemporary films are driven by the manic desire to come,
then roll over and fall asleep. Nowhere is this desperation more resonant
than in the seemingly endless dribble of teen sex comedies. Whether it be 40
Days, or the entire Jason Biggs oeuvre, every story beat must end with
either an orgasmic laugh, or an orgasm and promotions go to development
executives who can make these happen simultaneously. But it’s not just
frantic pace and packing that gives these films a needy mood. These guys are
my generation, and their lives, dreams and desires all revolve around
finding a place to stick it the single act of gettin’ laid is as important
as destroying the Death Star.
The portrayal of teenage sexual longing started with great films like
Splendor in the Grass and Carnal Knowledge and proceeded, like most
Hollywood genres, to turn jokey and high-concept when executives realized there was money to be made. Little Darlings begat
Porky’s which begat Losin’ It as any attempt at thoughtfulness was squeezed
out in favor of a sexy poster and ambiguity-free ending. Teenage guys like to
see their contemporaries get laid it gives them hope and they don’t like
any emotional junk to get in the way of a good time.
The irony, of course, is that for all of this fascination with sexual
maturation (or, rather, losing your V-card) none of these movies has a clue.
So I look South for inspiration. From
Amores Perros to Central Station, the best films of recent memory have emerged from below our borders. And now comes Mexican director Alfonso
Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También, a work that feels intentionally subversive of
all Hollywood machismo storytelling, and is much closer to the real sexual
awakening of most men I know than the entire output of the American Pie
The story follows two Mexican teenagers on a road trip with an older woman.
We first meet Tenoch (Diego Luna) screwing his girlfriend, quickly and
clumsily, on the night before she leaves for the summer. (Wait! Shouldn’t
this end the film?) Meanwhile, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), is pumping a fast
one with his girlfriend while her unsuspecting parents wait downstairs. This
is real teenage sex lusty, unromantic, a quick sprint; not at all like the
idealized, starry-eyed Chris Klein/Mena Suvari union that ends American Pie
or the “caressing each other with a flower is better than all that fucking”
sequence in 40 Days. The boys in También think they’ve got it down they
know the talk, the moves, and they think they know the rules.
But if this is
a teen sex comedy, and these guys are already getting laid, what next?
As the story progresses, however, it becomes The 400 Blowjobs a series of
revelations about the true nature and consequences of sex. (Beware,
spoilers ahead.) Their mutual desire to seduce the older woman (a fantasy
also executed, giddily, in American Pie) becomes the mechanism by which
their friendship begins to crack, a competition that ignites a series of
one-upsmanships. Previous relationships are tarnished when they learn they screwed each other’s girlfriends. Even masturbation loses its
allure when the older woman, Luisa, tells them it’s affecting their staying
power. And late in the film, a sexual encounter is the only
way a certain love dare speak its name.
This is a far cry from our own homegrown teen comedies, where the end is
always a happy dance in laid-land. In Y Tu Mamá También, we imagine our boys
might never enjoy sex in the same easy way again. (Like most of us in the
real world, it brings up memories of the past.) When Julio sees Tenoch in bed
with Luisa, the movie tells us in voiceover that he feels the same pain as
when he caught his mother and godfather in each others’ arms; when Tenoch
learns that Julio slept with his girlfriend, it’s the same pain as when his
father was indicted in a political scandal. Suddenly, sex comes with baggage
spontaneity has a price with consequences
other than pleasure. But, of course, that’s not funny and an American teen sex comedy
that included this denouement would be impossible to market.
So Y Tu Mamá También is complex and sophisticated but isn’t that to be expected from art-house movies? Perhaps; certainly
American directors also deal with mature ideas about sexuality. In the
past couple of years, for example, Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz have
introduced us to characters whose sexual adventures reveal deeper human
issues. But there’s a dichotomy in American films: either it’s cheap, full
of gags and “Hollywood;” or it’s brooding, cynical and dark.
That’s not to say these films aren’t well-crafted and interesting, but for
me, the magic and uniqueness of Cuaron’s film (and similarly, last year’s
Nico and Dani, from Spanish director Cesc Gay) is its sense of joy and sense
of humor as the medicine goes down.
The majority of American indie directors wallow in their themes,
bleakness is rarely tempered with moments of tenderness. Yet for all their
attempts to break taboos, what makes Americans most uncomfortable is the
portrayal of intimacy between men. Cuaron’s
film depicts two straight best friends whose every interaction together
from masturbating on country club diving boards to forming a manifesto that
rules their relationship, is an act of love an emotion not allowed in the American buddy code. This love fills every scene: they laugh (constantly!)
and finish each other’s sentences, and tumble and punch. It’s strange to
think this is the stuff of subversive filmmaking, but it is.
But Cuaron directs with such ease and
naturalness you never sense he’s pushing an agenda. In this context, unembarrassed nudity and sexuality feel completely organic, part of something greater: joy (the boys swimming together), lust (Julio
diving into his girlfriend’s crotch) or fear (when Luisa orders Tenoch to
drop his towel and “touch himself”). American
movies about sex never actually show it.
Here, you can’t sell anything that hints of homoeroticism even if it is as
tame as boys showering and swimming nude together. American Pie would be a much different beast if the guys were all sharing the same pie. All the frat-house homoeroticism
in Hollywood movies (guys obsessed with each other’s sex lives, guys
watching their friends get it on) is subtext.
Yet there’s something creepier and more exploitative about the tits and ass
in 40 Days and 40 Nights than the cornucopia of body parts that forced Y Tu
Mamá También to be released without a rating. Everything feels so
restrained, planned and controlled in films like 40 Days that when you see a
stray nipple, you know that the actor’s agent negotiated how much nipple,
how erect, and through what gauzy fabric it would be shot. And you begin to
wonder if you’re getting your nipple’s worth.
This calculation is at the heart of the cinema of the unrequited boner. It
thrives on not asking real questions about sex because if you do, the
occasional naughty shots aren’t titillating. At the end of 40 Days and 40 Nights, Josh Hartnett gets the
girl he loves. His boner has a place to go. His anxiety is relieved. Y
Tu Mamá También ends on a diffe rent note two young boners are led to the
heart, and are left with desperation of a different sort. Ultimately, it’s a
little unfair to pit serious work like Y Tu Mamá against fluff like 40 Days.
But society gets the movies it deserves, and I wonder if, as Americans,
we watch Y Tu Mamá and see exactly how uptight we really are. The audience
at my theater squirmed and laughed nervously throughout the language of
the movie was foreign in more ways than one.
For an interview with the stars of Y Tu Mama Tambien, click here.