Thursday, June 07, 2012

Culture Shock 06.07.12: Movies more scared of sex than you think

Movies and television take a lot of heat for promoting supposedly immoral, promiscuous and irresponsible sexual behavior.

But when it comes to movies that actually make sex their main focus, you may be left wondering why anyone has sex in the first place. Sex in these movies is awful, joyless and nothing good ever comes of it.

On second thought, that does sound like a pretty irresponsible depiction of sex, just not the one we've been led to expect.

Two recent films are Exhibits A and B. The first is "Shame," newly released on Blu-ray and DVD.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, "Shame" follows Brandon, a 30-something business executive in New York, as he goes blankly from one sexual encounter to the next, until the arrival of his emotionally unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) upsets his routine.

We're never clued in to what it is, but the two clearly are carrying around a lot of old family baggage. Sissy is needy, and Brandon resents her for it. Meanwhile, he's trying and failing to meet his own needs through meaningless sex — a strategy designed to fail because meaningless sex is, by definition, meaningless.

Brandon is the poster boy for sex addiction. He has lots of sex but never enjoys it, and he keeps right on going.

Yet, despite depressing movies like "Shame" and a few high-profile celebrity cases of suspect credibility, one fact remains: There is no such thing as sex addiction.

I know. This is not what the doctors on TV tell you, but stay with me.

Sex addiction is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and there is no scientific evidence that it exists. So says David J. Ley, clinical psychologist and author of a book pointedly titled "The Myth of Sex Addiction."

Most people have sex because they like it. But while that might make for good late-night viewing on Cinemax, it doesn't carry the day with art-house filmgoers.

That brings me to Exhibit B, Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film "The Girlfriend Experience" (Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix instant) starring former adult-film actress Sasha Grey.

Grey plays a high-class call girl whose clients are mostly Wall Street 1-percenters during the darkest days of the Great Recession. A woman who sells sex and men who sell mortgage-backed securities — it's a juxtaposition perfect for Soderbergh's ideological ax-grinding.

She makes decisions based on astrology-like personality guidebooks, and they make trades based on voodoo economics. Or something like that.

Grey's character, Chelsea, is destined for disappointment because she is commodifying sex, but that's not the worst of it. What she offers her clients isn't just sex, but companionship — a "girlfriend experience."

It's that she does this for money that makes it doomed in Soderbergh's eye. It makes her like the buyers and sellers who ruined the economy then took off on a trip to Las Vegas to gamble literally, not just metaphorically.

Yes, when a well-heeled Hollywood director wants to criticize sex, of course he compares it to the business world.

Here even Cinemax shlock is judgmental. When the lonely housewife played by Shannon Tweed decides to become a call girl, you just know someone is going to get murdered.

If you pay for sex, you'll have to pay.

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