Sunday, December 31, 2006

On Film: When Sexuality Goes Wrong

Yesterday I saw two films released in the last year that examine what can happen when sexuality is reduced to its basest instincts. Although the films are markedly different in character and tone, there is some commonality in the way sexuality is presented as a force that is primal and can drive a man to do things he would not normally consider.

As way into these films, it might help to check out Ray Harris's post at Open Integral, Sex is a skill that must be taught, which attempts to explain why humans aren't getting as much out of sex as we would like. The post doesn't go into how to change this situation, but it lays some groundwork for further exploration. Harris is arguing that we must learn how to have good sex, but what I really see in the post, and what we need to articulate better, is an integral understanding of sexuality that includes not just the physical mechanics of making love, but the soulfulness, the cultural beliefs, and the social environments that can turn sex into a loving act.

Both of these films inadvertently examine what happens when this is not the case.

The first is I am a Sex Addict, a somewhat comedic documentary about the film maker's struggles with sexual addiction. Caveh Zahedi has created a post-modern examination of his own life that is part fact and part fiction, and often as painful as it is funny. He is often talking directly to the camera, even during a scene, which creates some distancing and irony in the midst of the sadness that has been his life.

He is
a man who is driven by a "prostitute fetish," which he convinces himself and his various wives/girlfriends that if he can only indulge it one more time, just so, it will go away. That he is able to get the women to tolerate this for as long as some of them do is mind-boggling. But what the film really exposes is the addiction to faceless, meaningless, sexual release and adventure. When he sees the women as women, and not as whores, the fascination is ruined.

While Zahedi only offers fleeting explorations of what drives his be
havior, it felt to me that he was trying to fill an inner emptiness through sexual experience. A friend once suggested that all addictions are attempts to reconnect with the divine, or as he put it, seek the beloved. And in this film, that is the sense I was left with.

When he eventually "solves" his addiction, it is by learning to be present to his life and his feelings, a kind of mindfulness that allows him to stic
k with a relationship rather than escaping its challenges and pains through blowjobs with prostitutes. It's hard to like the main character because he is often so unfeeling, selfish, and narcissistic, but if you can stick with the film, it pays off.

The other film is very different, and although the reviews were pretty harsh in some instances, I think David Mamet's Edmond is the much better film. What saves this film from banality -- besides the allusions to other works that Mamet weaves into the film (based on his own play) and which provide some context outside the action of the film -- is the incredible performance by William H. Macy as Edmond Burke, a man who has lived too sheltered an existence and when forced to face this truth gives into his basest instincts.

One night after leaving work (and here we get the feeling of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), Edmond stops at a fortune teller (this act is part of a synchronicity that runs throughout the film) who tells him he is not where he is supposed to be. Upon returning home, Edmond tells his wife that he no longer loves her and that he is leaving.

Edmond goes to a bar and meets a man (
Joe Mantegna) who tells him what he really needs is to get laid. The man gives him a card for a "gentleman's club," but when Edmond meets a woman there (Denise Richards) he objects to the price for a visit to the back room. But the seed has been planted and now he is on a mission to get some action.

After getting mugged when he calls bullshit on a three-card monty scam (the dealer is Dule Hill), he gets himself a knife by pawning his wedding ring. When a pimp tries to rob him a little later, Edmond beats the man nearly to death. Along with the violence that erupts, there is also a deep well of racial hatred that is hard to watch.

Following this adventure, Edmond feels more alive than he ever has and when he stops for coffee in a restaurant, he tells the much younger waitress (Julia Stiles) that he wants to go home with her, that he wants to fuck her. The next shot is in her apartment after the act has been completed.

From here the film and the action gets more disturbing. But the primary thrust of the film's attempt at meaning is in the ways we have become cut off from our more primal nature -- various truths about who we are -- and how that creates an environment where these feelings and urges can erupt in destructive ways.

Mamet is portraying New York's inner city as a jungle, which is not a new conceit, but here it works because we see what happens to a man who has been thoroughly domesticated when he is dropped into that environment. He has no connection to his more primal nature so that when it is brought forth it has no limits, no containment to keep it from committing the most horrific acts.

And the trigger for all of this is his need to get laid. Sexuality, or some animalistic form of it, leads him into the jungle of his own psyche and what he finds there is both disturbing and freeing. By the end of the film, he is still trying to understand his place in the world, and whether or not humans have control in any way over their lives. But he has also accepted certain realities about the human need for affection that would have been unthinkable for this man at the film's beginning.

If Edmond had been having meaningful sex with his wife, if his more primal needs had not been repressed by modern society, he would never have ended up on this adventure. In this sense, the film is a cautionary tale on what happens when our lives become fragmented and we lose parts of what makes us human.

Both of these films reveal the need for a more integrated understanding and practice of sexuality, one that admits our more primal natures and one that also includes our higher selves -- the rational, the emotional, and the spiritual.

One last note: These films are not suitable for children in any way. Edmond will be hard for some people to watch due to the racism and violence, while the never graphic but always present sex in I am a Sex Addict might be challenging for some people.

That said, these are still interesting explorations of sexuality gone wrong.

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