Porn, again

Michael Winterbottom's sexually explicit 9 Songs ends up reproducing the anti-humanism of pornography.

To ‘live in the moment’ is often presented favourably, but what does it really suggest? A ‘freer’ existence, perhaps, one without ties to people, profession or property; a full appreciation of the world as it is, unmediated by rational thought or reflection. Proceeding by reactions rather than actions, one is spontaneous, intuitive, impulsive.

Counter to this immediacy, film, the moving image as expression, contains all the essential elements to represent human beings as historical (it can move backwards or forwards in time) and social (actors, characters, narratives, all made for an audience, for a public showing).

A feeling such as desire - a particularly popular muse that accompanies the impetus to live in the moment - challenges the medium because it is an internal sensation that also demands immediate satisfaction, a ‘wanting now’ that in film has found its most natural and blank expression in pornography. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (released in UK cinemas on 11 March) is a pertinent example of a cinema driven by the appeal of immediacy set in a paradoxical framework of anti-porn, attempting to wrestle sexual relations on screen from their traditional and more vulgar categorisation.

The film provoked controversy at Cannes in 2004 for the explicitness of its sex scenes, the most boldly revealing of any British film to date. Its reputation, however, is largely disingenuous to its original aspirations. There is an anti-pornography impetus, an attempt to reclaim the filmic depiction of physical relations between people from its more vulgar genre and integrate it instead into a film charting the progression of a relationship between two people: a young American and an Englishman living in Brixton.

For Winterbottom, films have not given enough credence to an essential factor in the growing intimacy between two people: the development of their sexual life together. His scenes of this, by contrast, are long and compose most of the 65 minutes. Though they are tenderly and subtly constructed - Michael Nyman’s piano accompaniment an elegant refrain - Winterbottom eventually confirms the validity of his own criticisms.

It may be fair to claim an historical misrepresentation: films too often allude to a physical relationship between two characters by providing a staple bed-moment as a mechanical nod to the audience, confirmation that this stage has been reached. But what 9 Songs proves is that the reason for this historical absence is more than mere prudishness or censorship constraints. Understanding the film’s two characters still comes from the snatched moments of dialogue, glimpses of domesticity and an intermittent retrospective narrative. The sex scenes are always dependent on this parallel development of character; by themselves they mean little.

The emotions, anxieties or contemporary afflictions experienced by the couple are hinted at through physical engagement only. Despite Winterbottom’s attempts to subvert it, the script, or absence of it, is taken directly from pornography and can’t but reproduce the genre’s anti-humanism. Rather than holding up reflective, articulate social beings we have isolated bodies trying to understand each other tangibly but never also intellectually. It is not of course absurd to suggest that relationships go through stages with more fixation on the physical and take place in settings removed from society. What is astonishing is that Winterbottom deemed that adapting this to screen might be of broader popular interest. Instead, once the hour has passed, he has confirmed that little understanding can come from only sex, silence and single rooms.

Relationships are defined by their intimacy, but also their interaction with the outside world and their place within it. Social networks are entirely absent from 9 Songs, and the scenes at the Brixton Academy express little more than faces in a crowd. Consequently, you only ever have half a story. As a commentary on contemporary relationships 9 Songs can say little when it shows such a lack of interest in how these exist in relation to society more broadly. What is frustrating is that the snatches of dialogue are quite richly suggestive, and when the characters do get a chance to talk, you want them to say more. But Winterbottom won’t allow this, bored, it seems, with conventional chatter.

Since its controversial opening 9 Songs has been plucked from the cutting-room to a more elevated status, with a premiere at the National Film Theatre in London. Rather than igniting debates about what should be shown on screen it is more relevant to consider why some things gain little from being screened. A relationship as unfettered, dispensing with all the banalities of daily life and toil, shows little more than primordial bodies at play.

A longer version of this article is published in Vertigo, Spring/Summer 2005.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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