On the outside Don Jon appears to be your average rom-com. What we get is a character study and commentary on the harmful affects "informed" sexuality in our media. The lead, Jon, is a fit, attractive, single bartender that easily brings home a new lady every weekend. A macho, alpha, Joisey guido, he's not the typical picture of a porn addict. And being a touch dim, he doesn't realize how unhealthy it is that he prefers time alone with porn better than the "hassle" of real sex with real women.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars in and directs the film, leads with a montage of footage of sexualized women; from seemingly innocuous characters like Minerva Mink from Animaniacs to commercials and pornography.
Women are portrayed as sexual objects in our cartoons, comic books, commercials and movies. They're the eye candy, prizes to be won, and not as frequently, the protagonists and heroes in the story. Women are not the only victims of this and Don Jon is extremely fair in depicting how these fantasies harm both genders. Jon's sex life and relationships are stunted because media and porn has helped him form a very specific idea of what sex should be. (For instance, he hates missionary because the woman's breasts are "flattened", probably because in porno most breasts are fake and don't have this "problem." And because missionary is rare in pornography.) He's never made a genuine connection. Similarly, his love interest in the film is addicted to romance films and bases her relationships on similarly unrealistic standards, demanding Jon attend a community college class just so she can tell her friends "he's in school", among other unreasonable requests. It fits her fantasy of what a relationship should be. Her bedroom is filled with posters of romance films, white swans, and pink and red roses. There's also a hilarious film-within-a-film on Jon and Barbara's first date that mocks typical boy-meet-girl love-at-first-sight movies.
Don Jon's full of laugh-out-loud moments, excellent acting (Scarlett Johansson goes against type as bitchy Jersey blond and nails it) and truly sweet moments in the least traditional ways. We watch a jerk-ass kid take steps to become a real man and learn to forge his first genuine connections. Gordon-Levitt's doesn't miss a beat and is completely immersed in the role. For anyone in fear of the subject matter, this is a movie about sex that isn't raunchy. To go with the theme of depicting "real" connections and sexuality, only the pornography the character watches in the film is explicit, and every other sex scene is shown obscured or even fully-clothed. It's a fun way to play with the conventions and hammer in the point that the reality of sexuality is completely different than it's nearly-always seen in the media.
A Life in Dirty Movies
I'd never heard of hipster-darling director Joe Sarno until I randomly stumbled upon A Life in Dirty Movies on Netflix. A character in Don Jon, concerned about Jon's porno addiction, recommends a more cerebral, sensual film for him to watch to help him understand sexuality is more mental than visual. These were the types of films Joe Sarno made at the height of the "sexploitation" film era in the mid to late 1960s.
The film opens with a meticulously lit and staged scene in black and white. There's a director coaching two drop-dead beautiful young women against a pristine white backdrop. I think I'm watching a modern re-creation of how Joe Sarno would have directed his films, but soon discover this is a clip from one of Sarno's movies! That's how "ahead of the curb" his style was. He had an incredible eye for light and shadow, borrowing from the famous king of chiaroscuro and angst, Ingmar Bergman. His films look clean and modern, you can immediately see why there's a revival of interest in his creations. His "sex" movies, made for the "raincoat crowd" (worn to hide certain activities in the movie theatre) were theatrical and arty. They were heavy on characterization and dialog. Against conventions of the time (and even now) they were all female led. Sex scenes weren't explicit and anachronistically, Sarno voiced his preference for showing woman's pleasure, fascinated by woman's capacity for imagination over visuals for arousal. A film historian notes that the female leads in his movie use their men as objects for their gratification. Men took the back seat and orbited the women in the story. This is still rare, way before a time with big names like Cameron, Miyazaki and Guillermo Del Torro made strong female leads their trademark.
This isn't a film merely about a feminist director before-his-time. It's about modern-day Joe Sarno, his supportive wife Peggy, and their quest to make a final film in world where there's no market for it. He tries to dirty up the dialog in his script, making it more sexuality explicit, but no one will fund his old-fashioned flick.
The heart of the film is the connection you feel between Sarno and his wife. They met and fell in love on the set of one of his films and spent their lives together happily working on his projects. Despite extreme disapproval from her well-to-do-family, she helped with props and costumes, flew with him to Switzerland to film, and supported Sarno through his every peak and fall. It's incredibly touching to see a couple so in-sync and supportive. Even when his style fell out of vogue and "hardcore" films made Sarno's type of film completely unprofitable in the 1970s, she never stops supporting his original vision.
This is a movie for every artist, wanna-be film maker, or film lover. Sarno never became mainstream--famous. Even with the decent-sized underground revival of his work, the Sarnos were deeply in debt. Through it all they didn't abandon their dreams, they didn't stop creating exactly like they wanted to. That is life well lived.
And while we're on that sex kick! Starlet is a charming indie film that has a sexy surprise as a little blip to ponder mid-film. It's not as multi-layered and sophisticated as Don Jon or as sweet as A Life in Dirty Movies. Regardless, it's a movie that stuck with me. And like the others, it turns your expectations upside-down and throws in surprises. Starlet is, at its core, a simple movie about the unlikely bond that forms between a listless, leggy Californian 21-year-old and a grumpy 85-year-old woman. For a movie with a provocative surprise and undercurrent, it's very understated. This is a day-in-the-life look at an apathetic, bored young woman. We watch her animate and revive the closer she gets to Sadie, a cantankerous old woman who is, of course, more than she seems. The story's been told before, but Starlet's take is refreshing. There's no melodrama and few Hollywood cliches. The characters just are, and it's enjoyable to watch their lives and stories unfold. The sunny setting perfectly matches the languid pace, Starlet feels like one perfect, breezy California day. The film captures our current late-teen, early-twenties millennial dilemma in subtext.
College doesn't guarantee work, there's minimal job security and no promise for social security. What the hell is there to work hard for now-a-days, in the eyes of a confused young person? One nitpick I have is a central conflict being resolved too easily, but overall, it's just a pleasant story to get lost in.
The bed, he spins! I must stay in a campy themed Love Hotel one day...
Love Hotel is a documentary that touches on universal aspects of sexuality as well as sexuality within the confines of Japan's reserved culture. I'm fascinated by sexuality in Japan. The country's population is "aging;" with few young people having children, there are more elderly than young people in Japan. Japan's citizens are incredibly industrious, but it has a price. Teen pregnancy rates are among the lowest in the developed world, when you're going to "cram schools" to prepare for your college exams after school for years there's less time for social interaction. The result is a growing amount of youth that's content to stay single, partly because of diminished social skills, and partly as rebellion. These young people are known as "parasite singles" in Japan. Men who refuse relationships and pursue their hobbies (sometimes ones deemed "feminine") with free time are called, hilariously enough, "Herbivore Men." (Because if you don't eat meat you're not a virile man, of course!) If you're a fellow Japan-o-phile and want to known more, pursue Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage & Sex in Contemporary Japan. None of this is covered in the documentary. Love Hotel instead focuses on clients of one Love Hotel in Osaka, Japan. It explores how patrons use the rooms to role play, spice up their sex lives, and provide respite from busy lifestyles. An adventurous middle-aged couple, a pair of male attorneys fighting gay-rights cases in Japan (also a couple), and a free-thinking dominatrix are the characters we follow the most. In a sweet moment, we also see an elderly couple who rent a disco themed room just to dance together.
Love Hotels, for those not in the know, are elaborate, usually kitschy, themed rooms you rent by-the-hour for sexy times. We have some in the USA in cities like Miami and I shall rent one before I die for the experience, but I doubt the ones in the US would have anything as nifty as sex toy machines within! A wave of neo-conservatism is closing Love Hotels across Japan, and in a fair, unbalanced way, Love Hotel shows the benefit of this ancient tradition as a respite from the busy and restrictive Japanese lifestyle.
I have crawled out from under my rock and finally watched Arrested Development, a cult comedy that was rebooted for new seasons on Netflix. Because like the first run of Family Guy, it's just that damn funny. Ahead of it's time as a comedy of errors mirroring America's financial crisis in 2004, Arrested Development is about a wealthy family trying to keep it together in hilarious fashion after their sole provider and patriarch gets sent to jail for shady business deals. The dry narration for each episode pieces the show together like a documentarian reading case files. It's a unique touch. I loathe most sitcoms for the plot predictability. Even the laugh track grins me. It's refreshing to watch one that tries new things.
The Boondocks, Season 4
I am a huge fan of Aaron McGruder's national newspaper comic strip turned TV series, The Boondocks. A few of my friends find it's too abrasive. If you hate liberal cursing, this isn't for you. If you wouldn't tolerate almost record-breaking (is it in Guinness yet?) use of the N-word, this show isn't for you. If you crave hilarious social satire on all things modern politics and pop culture with references to anime and kung fu movie galore, watch on. I'd urge anyone who's uncomfortable to give it a chance. If you, too, were raised by often-angry, cheap parents, you'll relate! The Boondocks is what my childhood sounded like! Nostalgic and funny, can't beat it! I've watched Season 1 enough to quote it, so it's weird that I haven't watched Season 4 until recently. Season 1 was limited on action because of the show budget and difficulties, making it very dialog heavy, but it still remains my favorite season followed closely by Season 2. I feel like the budgetary restrictions with these seasons forced some deliciously creative writing in the script. Season 4 was still enjoyable, but it hasn't measured up to the pedestal I placed Season 1 upon. While watching, this season 4 felt different. Upon research I discovered McGruder left the show mysteriously, alluding that it was to work on the live-action show Black Jesus for Adult Swim (to avoid the controversy he constantly had to dodge while working on The Boondocks, he jokes.) It's sad that this was the final season of a show that really pushed the envelope with its satire and humor, but I can respect an artist's need to move on after nearly two decades of working with the same characters! I'll enjoy watching his creation for years to come.
And that's it for now! I could hold back my movie nerd ranting no longer, this month's picks had too much substance to hold back. Got any related picks for me or thoughts to share? Let me know in the comments. I think next week I'll focus on more visual arty films...