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Lights, Camera, Lots of Action

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he same week a SpongeBob video was castigated as gay propaganda and PBS pulled a children’s program featuring a lesbian couple selling maple syrup, the Sundance Film Festival unspooled a slate of films that showed no fear. Several films tackled the cinematically and politically taboo, from teen sexuality to child sexual abuse, pornography to pedophilia, bisexuality to quadriplegic sex.

   
Filmmaker panels at the annual festival (held January 20-30 in Park City, Utah), included “Sex Stays in the Picture,” which addressed censorship and society’s shifting definitions of morality. The Queer Lounge held its own set of panels and fiestas. High-end sex toys — including a 24K gold vibrator — found their way into gift bags.
   

It may seem that Sundance
had sex on the brain. What’s more accurate is that each year, themes emerge
to act as a barometer for the current political climate. This year, sex was
one of those themes, and it makes perfect sense. Consider the increasing
restriction on personal freedoms felt by many these days, the role of artist
as cultural steward and the generative force of creativity, and sex is bound
to serve as a lens for larger issues. Below, a round-up of the
festival’s most provocative fare:

Nine Songs

Cunnilingus, penetration, ejaculation and a running time of sixty-nine minutes: Nine Songs was the most thoroughly sexual film at Sundance this year. Michael Winterbottom’s ode to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (emphasis: fucking) could easily disappear into drudgery, depending on your mood. If you can get past the self-conscious execution and forced narrative structure, you might find the film inspiring, less a chance to watch hot actors having real sex (although the footjob in the bathtub has its moments) than to contemplate intimacy and control. Is it easier to let oneself go when the emotional depths are bound by illusion? And is that place inherently constrictive or expansive? Tartan Films will release the film uncut, and unrated, in July.



The Squid and the Whale


If you grew up with divorced parents who adhered to a visitation timetable — or if you were ever an eight-year-old boy obsessed with masturbation, perhaps with a predilection for depositing your semen in public places — this film will warm you with that familiar been-there-done-that feeling. Life Aquatic cowriter Noah Baumbach delivers a laugh-out-loud tale of family dysfunction, while avoiding the pitfalls of self-aggrandizement typical of less mature writer/directors. Comparisons to Wes Anderson (who co-produced Squid) are fair but limited; Baumbach’s world is less goofy, more raw. Noteworthy are his portrayals of the preteen wanker and his sixteen-year-old brother, who finds himself torn between an unrequited crush and the pressure to lose his virginity with a girlfriend he desperately wishes were prettier.



Me and You and Everyone We Know
 

Emoticons take on new meaning in this quirky, crowd-pleasing debut feature by performance artist Miranda July. The innocence with which July treats the budding sexuality of her young characters — including a teen who agrees to be impartial judge of two girls curious about who’s better at oral sex — is completely refreshing. In the film’s buzziest scene, a seven-year-old’s scatological preoccupations lead to the funniest "sexual" chat-room exchange you might ever see. We don’t want to be spoilers, but let’s just say that after seeing this one, you’ll never look at ))<>(( quite the same. The recipient of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, Me and You… will hit theaters this summer.


Thumbsucker


Don’t let anyone dismiss Thumbsucker as just another coming-of-age story in the vein of Igby Goes Down or Donnie Darko. Mike Mills’ charming adaptation of the novel is primed to become a cult classic on its own terms. Lou Pucci is Justin, a seventeen-year-old with a way-past-infantile oral fixation. He tries everything to pacify the monkey on his back, from Ritalin to hypnosis from his New-Age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves). At one point, Justin’s unassuming demeanor lands him, blindfolded, in the clutches of a class hottie who uses him to test out her burgeoning womanly ways. Also of note: the sexiest nonsex scene of the festival, which involves socks on carpet and static electricity.


Hard Candy


An Internet dalliance between a fourteen-year-old girl and a thirty-two-year-old man results in unexpected outcomes in this chilling thriller by David Slade. Inspired by the true story about a group of Japanese girls who lured older men out of cyberspace to beat them up, Hard Candy might seem to be a straightforward indictment of pedophilia. But what’s ultimately revealed — largely through prolonged preparation for a castration scene — is something more complex about sexual politics, power and violence.


Inside Deep Throat


Yes, that Deep Throat. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the documentarians behind Taxicab Confessions) trace the historic X-rated film’s enduring impact on culture, politics, the porn industry and the personal lives of the actors and director. Inside Deep Throat includes the act Linda Lovelace made famous (remarkably de-eroticised in this context) and will be released by Universal later this year with an NC-17 rating. Count on it to divide audiences along first amendment vs. censorship lines, just as Deep Throat did in 1972. Hopefully, the film will inspire fresh dialogue about the economic disparities in the porn industry. (The fact that Lovelace died penniless is reason enough.)


Girl from Monday


In Hal Hartley’s sci-fi view of sex gone commercial, it’s Sometime in the Future, and thanks to the Human Reform Act, individuals have become commodities on the stock exchange. Each time you have sex, your market value increases. There’s a catch, though: if you get emotionally attached to the person you’re sleeping with, your value plummets. In fact, making love feels good, because it’s against the law. Using stark sets and digital effects, Hartley’s clearly waxing non-romantic about consumer society here. He’s also exploring the future of film distribution by selling Girl from Monday directly from his website, starting in April.



The Dying Gaul


In Craig Lucas’s bold debut feature, Peter Sarsgaard is Robert, a struggling screenwriter who’s offered big bucks for a script — on the condition that he switch the lovers in his story from gay to straight. The irony: the studio exec requesting the change is a closeted bisexual. Part indictment of Hollywood’s hypocritical treatment of controversial subjects, part discourse on the ambiguities of sexual desire, The Dying Gaul also addresses the tangled web of sex and power and the pain of loss. Robert is still mourning the AIDS death of a lover who inspired his screenplay, which layers his decision with Faustian implications. Drop in some emotional blackmail birthed from a chat-room liaison, add a potentially poisonous plant growing in the backyard, and you have the ingredients for a tragedy fittingly named after the Roman statue depicting a wounded warrior awaiting death.



Murderball


Capturing enormous buzz right out of the gate, Murderball chronicles the bid for Athens gold by the U.S. Paralympic rugby team. Filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro turn the tables on what’s widely perceived to be an emasculating way of life, revealing the quadriplegic athletes’ strength, dignity and virility. The filmmakers don’t shy away from the question most people are afraid to ask (i.e. can these wheelchair-bound guys have sex?), even including a non-sensationalistic how-to video in response. Murderball grabbed the American Documentary Audience Award and will be theatrically released later this year.


Joy of Life


Jenni Olson’s ode to a trinity of subjects — the city of San Francisco, lesbian sexuality and a friend who jumped to his death off the Golden Gate Bridge — hails from the festival’s Frontier section, a showcase for non-traditional storytelling. Over a series of cityscapes, a voiceover chronicles a butch woman’s sexual self-discovery and the history of the Golden Gate Bridge as suicide landmark. The interweaving of sex and death creates a meditation on life longed for, grasped and ultimately celebrated.



Mysterious Skin


Filmmaker/provocateur Gregg Araki pushes the boundaries of queer cinema — and cinema in general — with hot-button content such as pedophilia, teen hustling and a ferocious gay rape scene. Based on the novel by Nerve contributor Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is difficult to watch, but its perspective on the effects of childhood sexual abuse can’t be dismissed as gratuitous. The humanity of the characters compels you to sign on, and a sense of innocence repeatedly manages to illuminate the horrific. Mysterious Skin is scheduled to reach theaters this May and DVD sometime in the fall.



The Education of Shelby Knox

Shelby Knox is a firecracker of fifteen-year-old living in small-town Lubbock, Texas. Although she has never seen a condom and has taken a vow with True Love Waits (the organization that encourages young people to “save” sex until marriage), Shelby is concerned about her promiscuous peers in the face of rising STD- and teen-pregnancy rates. Could this have anything to do with her school’s abstinence-only sex-ed policy? Shelby believes so, and decides to fight for reform. As this true-life story unfolds over three years, we witness Shelby’s evolution, both as a maturing teen and as an advocate who eventually takes on gay rights. Surprise heroes in the story are Shelby’s parents, conservative Republicans who don’t share their daughter’s progressive political agenda but support her activism nonetheless. This timely documentary will air on PBS.


Pretty Persuasion


Audience response to this (wannabe) teen black comedy was divided. Some thought its satire scored, others found it unredeemably offensive. Think of a Heathers-Cruel Intentions puree, and you’ll understand the attempted tone; throw in a teacher who looks a little too closely at his female students, some girl-on-girl kissing, oral sex between a teen girl and adult woman, racial slurs, school shootings and a terrific performance by James Woods as a foulmouthed anti-Semitic who calls his daughter a whore and masturbates under his skivvies, and you’ll understand why this one might hit theaters unrated. Pretty Persuasion could have raised provocative questions about sexual politics or made an interesting statement about why mean girls do what they do, but we’re not sure it wanted to. As is, it drowns in its attempt as entertainment. But if you’re into sexually manipulative high-school girls in short skirts, this one’s for you.
 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Harriette Yahr is a writer and filmmaker. Her latest short film, Baker’s Men,
a romp about two little girls deconstructing a nursery rhyme, aired on the
Sundance Channel. Her writing’s appeared in Salon.com, Independent Video and
Film Monthly, and elsewhere. Her films have screened at various festivals,
including Telluride, and her honors include an NEA Regional Fellowship and a
nomination for a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.She’s taught filmmaking and been a
guest lecturer/filmmaker at Dartmouth College.