Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks, or Sex in Movies for People Who Have Sex

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Goodbye Metrosexual, Hello Himbo

" — Donald Sutherland's buttocks — " Those were the words that drew my attention from the other side of the table. My wife's friend Pauline was speaking them to my wife. What struck me most wasn't the odd specificity of the reference, nor the muddled thrill of jealousy and delight that lurches through my heart as it does anytime I gather that someone is talking about something sexual with my wife (ensuring the instant obliteration of my attention to any topic I might have been discussing at my end of the table). What struck me then, and what strikes me now, is that I knew what Pauline was talking about, instantly. And so I leaned across and said: Don't Look Now!
    No one who has ever seen it has forgotten the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The scene is characterized by a tension between Roeg's cool, artfully distanced camera and the (apparent) commitment to total disclosure on the part of the unclothed actors, which has led to the legend that what was filmed was something more than a performance. The borderline-explicit sex is edited, too, in a disconcerting series of cuts, with flash forwards to the couple dressing to go out afterwards. This deepens the meaning of the sex scene, adds a note of pensiveness, even sadness. The rest of the film — a supernatural melodrama both tragic and terrifying — seems to tug at the edges of that single scene, making the sex appear in retrospect more poignant and precious. Their beautiful, disturbing, uncannily real fucking will turn out to be the only moment of reprieve for the two characters, the only moment of absolute connection. Even the film's title comes to seem a reference to the intensity of the sex scene. The result is like a brand sizzling into the viewer's sexual imagination. We feel

I want films that install themselves in my sexual imagination by making me feel that sex is a part of life, and at the same time make me feel that sex is an intoxicant, a passage to elsewhere.

we've learned something about sex, even as we're certain it required every bit of our own previous knowledge of sex to be in a position to receive and confirm the scene's knowingness, its completely non-verbal epiphanies. And so, when I heard Pauline say "Donald Sutherland's buttocks", I felt with a shudder my memory of this scene instantly recover itself, and I was touched and frightened and turned on again. And I wanted to take my wife away from Pauline and the others and show her the scene, because unlike nearly any other scene of sex I'd ever watched, this one was like a piece of my own sexual past.
    This, to put it bluntly, is what I want. Not Donald Sutherland's buttocks in and of themselves, but films that install themselves this way in my sexual imagination, by making me feel that sex is a part of life, a real and prosaic and reproducible fact in the lives of the characters, as it is in my own life, and at the same time makes me feel that sex is an intoxicant, a passage to elsewhere, a jolt of the extraordinary which stands entirely outside the majority of the experiences of the characters, as it stands in relation to my own experience. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I want the paradox. I want it all.
    Where and how this can come to happen in cinema's future is beyond my expertise — it occurs rarely enough in cinema's past and present that I suspect it is beyond anyone's expertise, that it instead must be discovered, perhaps even scared up sideways, in the midst of operations in pursuit of other truths. (Certainly Don't Look Now wasn't conceived, or received, as a "sex film"— and I've recently learned that the famous scene was in fact an afterthought, shot after the script was exhausted but the director unsatisfied). I didn't meet even a hint of it in Closer or Y Tu Mama Tambien or Henry and June or We Don't Live Here Anymore, but I did in the Israeli director Dover Koshashvili's Late Marriage, a slice-of-life drama both farcical and realistic. In Late Marriage,

Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No.

when the mama's-boy protagonist calls on his secret girlfriend, an older woman, the two unexpectedly devour each other in a long explicit scene that pinballs from annoyance to arousal to boredom and back to arousal, with a pause in the middle to sniff a used tissue for traces of bodily fluids — precisely the sort of Donald-Sutherland's-buttocks moment that makes a sex scene ineffable and lasting, a revelation. I met it for an instant in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, in the expression that crosses Barbara Stanwyck's face, so giddy it almost feels like an actor's lapse out of character, as she says to Henry Fonda: "Why, Hopsie . . . you ought to be kept in a cage!" (Oh, yes, I meet it often when I watch Barbara Stanwyck, and I wonder where our Barbara Stanwyck is hiding . . . might it be Maggie Gyllenhaal? On the strength of Secretary it seems possible . . . but then why aren't today's filmmakers making dozens of Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicles . . . what's their problem?) I met it, unexpectedly, in Miranda July's forthcoming ensemble comedy Me And You And Everyone We Know, where several child characters are portrayed with their sexual curiosities not only intact, but capable of setting up genuine erotic reverberations in the adults, with results that are not only disturbing and funny but also disconcertingly honest. (This is a matter that American films have been too fearful to take up, despite Hollywood's compulsive trafficking in child sexuality as an unacknowledged source of revenue, and as a source of energy in otherwise lifeless product.) I met it in Ralph Bakshi's pornographic animated films, a couple of times — most of all in the crude sequence of sex-in-a-moving-jalopy, set to Chuck Berry's frantic and bawdy "Maybelline." The scene somehow manages to convey a moment of sexual self-discovery in the autobiographical cartoonist character who is drawing the images, ratifying his lust by satirizing it. I met it, of course, in Luis Buñuel's Belle du Jour, when Catherine Deneuve, playing a wealthy housewife slumming as a prostitute, dares herself to look into the mysterious buzzing box presented to her by the enigmatic Asian whorehouse customer. What she sees there intrigues her, and her curiosity pleases the Asian gentleman. We cut to a scene afterwards, where both have been gratified by

I don't want to choose between scrupulous documentary realism and fantasy — I want them both.

whatever it was that occupied the strange, buzzing box — we never get to see inside it ourselves.
     Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No. I'm calling for what I don't know to be calling for, I'm calling for surprise, for complicity delivered in an instant, I'm calling for filmic moments that lure and confuse me the way sex can, at its best. I don't want to choose between scrupulous, grainy, documentary realism (or the new and unsavory hi-definition nudity I've been warned about) and fantasy, imagination, exaggeration, cartoons — I want them both. Give me prosthetics, like Marky Mark's penis extension in Boogie Nights — give me even more like that, give me a whole cinema of actors in fake bodies, like Cindy Sherman's prosthetic pimply butts and swollen breasts in her still photographs. Give me the sex lives of animated characters, and of rotoscoped actors, like the ones in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and his forthcoming A Scanner Darkly — a perfect solution to marrying glamorous and recognizable actors to explicit bodies without disturbing us or the actors by disclosing the actual bodies of actors, a perfect way to keep from rupturing the dream. Give me real bodies, too, of actors I haven't met yet, in scenarios which are stubbornly unpornlike and only half-erotic, like Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming Nine Songs. Let me see what happens if Michael Winterbottom has to show his bottom, and Eliot Winterpenis his penis, and Carla Summertits her tits, and Lucius Springtesticles his testicles, and Delia Solsticeclitoris her clitoris, and so on. And, for that matter, Donald Sutherland is still among the living: let's see how his buttocks are holding up. C'mon, show me something the mention of which will make my head turn at a dinner party thirty years from now. Try and make me blink. Try and make me keep from blinking.  

©2005 Jonathan Lethem and Nerve.com
Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, Gun, With Occasional Music, Fortress of Solitude, and the current You Don't Love Me Yet. He lives in New York.