OPINIONS


        
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

ending."


    

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

posse combined.


    

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 different 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.

Russell Brown is the editor of The
Simon
, a weekly online opinion magazine. Also a documentary filmmaker,
he recently directed Mama Laura's Boys, about the oldest blues club
in Los Angeles. He has been in the belly of the beast, having held
film-development positions with production deals at Columbia and Paramount
Pictures.




©2002 Russell Brown and Nerve.com, Inc.

Commentarium (7 Comments)

Apr 02 02 - 12:26pm
mean

Wonderfully written article. Almost poetic.

Apr 02 02 - 2:14pm
YG

Great article - a few too many spoilers for those who haven't yet seen "Y Tu Mama Tambien" though.

The secret to this movie's appeal was exactly the uncomfortable, but heartfelt, laughter which accompanied the skillfully subtle sexuality in the film and not just the overt in-your-face visual sexuality. There are moments when a gasp comes from the collective audience, and there are as many different reasons for each gasp as there are individuals.

This film is one that will feel different to you each time you watch, for the viewer's own experience leads to a personal interpretation of the characters' personal journeys and where these few days will lead as they live the rest of their lives, however long that may be.

Apr 02 02 - 3:07pm
kl

Absolutely well done. Thoughtful, candid and earnest. I look forward to seeing the film very much and am actually curious as to my reaction. Thanks again.

Apr 06 02 - 3:12pm
LO

Great work. I loved the film. It's a shame when teenagers can easily see tripe like 40 Days and violent action flicks, but not an honest film like Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Apr 12 02 - 7:33pm
iamj

The truth, what we desire and believe, Russell has put into words for us. More please.
Thank you to The Simon for a place, a home an understanding.

May 10 02 - 5:43pm
bw

Well said, Russeell, regarding your comments about Y Tu Mama Tambien.

I loved the movie. The story is compelling and the acting in partricular is amazing.

It reninded me of some of the early French New Wave movies, such as "Breathless", with its feeling of being shot with non-actors on real streets witout permits or much of a crew.

Most of the shots in Y Tu seemed to be hand-held. Were they? Did they shoot it on 35mmm film or 16mm? It looked really good but some of the scenes seemed to be so non-Hollywood that I felt like it was shot on 16mm. Please don''t tell me it was shot on vidceo!

Keep up the great reviews.

Oct 21 02 - 8:57pm
SL

i agree with most peoples feedback that it was an amazingly written article, well done. i went to see both of these main films higlighed, when they were at the cinema. i couldnt belive that people could sit through the highly predictable and boring plot of 40 days... and then leave the cinema feeling satisfied and loving it, when over half of the audience that was at my showing of y tu mama... left well bofore the end of the film as they disliked the film for some reason or another (most of which were teenagers that probably just got bored of reading the subtitles..i mean its a film, who wants to read a film(!)).