Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Other

Up in the Air

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Jason Reitman
KEY ACTORS: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 91%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it’s soft and gentle and sweet and funny and thought provoking and easy watching, and I could watch it every week!
✔️ And yes, I do want to fuck the cast. I’d even argue that this film is George Clooney’s hotness peak!
✔️ Hotel sex with a handsome stranger was certainly a fantasy before this film, but it added the idea of luxury and exclusivity to this fantasy; a frisson of transience and possibility on expensive sheets.
✔️ Although it is another movie that has a possible cheating plot, I do think it’s sex positive as the main focus is on being OK with who you are. Whether you’re frequent flier Ryan or his home girl sister, it’s OK to have the life (and the love and sex) that you want and in the absence of significant sex negative themes, I’m going to give it the mark.
❌ But does it pass the Bechdel test? Can it be only the second 5/5 movie?? In the end, this comes down to accepting nuance in a binary question. There is one conversation between two named female characters that isn’t about men or dating – Natalie fires Karen Barnes, the women who later takes their own life. It’s an important plot point, but it is only one conversation and the women’s name is only revealed later. She is also not listed in the credits. Is that enough to scrape over this lowest of bars? I don’t think it is…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Up In the Air poster showing silhouettes of Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga against a big airport window

George Clooney is a good looking man. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion. But when was he hottest? Young and spunky in ER? Slick and tuxedoed in the Oceans movies? Cocky and criminal in Out of Sight, a strong candidate?

I’d argue that George Clooney’s peak hotness is in this week’s film, Up in the Air. Not only does he look incredible in a suit and is at a perfect level of silver foxness, but he’s also playing an unattached business man, moving from hotel to hotel and maxing out on perks and upgrades. He oozes the pleasures of an anonymous nomadic lifestyle and you just know he’d be the perfect hotel stranger to fuck! Yes, this is George Clooney at his absolute best.

Clooney and Farmiga sat in a bar and laughing

But I love this film for many more reasons than just the beautiful men and the hotel sex. It’s a beautiful film and it makes me really happy, even though it objectively doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a real ending with real growth for the characters, and I love it.

The film follows Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a travelling business man who visits companies to fire their employees, a particularly pertinent role in 2009 during the financial crisis. His whole raison d’etre is to be anonymous and impersonal – he’s the bad guy, he’s the face of the faceless corporation that wants to fire these people, allowing their bosses to remain sympathetic and unaffected. And this impersonal existence has bled into his entire life. Ryan is on the road over 300 days a year, living in hotels and flying American Airlines across the country. He has hotel membership, he collects air miles by the million, he lives out of a carry on suitcase to save time at each check in. As the Guardian review noted, Ryan essentially neglects the ‘real loyalties of family and emotional commitment’ in favour of reward schemes and loyalty programmes. He feels light and free and unencumbered by his transient lifestyle – so much so that he gives motivational speeches about discarding the unnecessary weight in our lives.

‘How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life…Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.’

Clooney stood in front of a bed with all his belongings laid out and waiting to be packed

Except, of course, that he can’t stay in his bubble forever. Two women break through – one personal, one business – and change the way he sees his freedom. The first, Natalie Keener (Kendrick), is a young woman who is sent on the road with him to learn about firing people. She’s enthusiastic and ambitious and everything Ryan is not, yearning after a long term commitment. During their work trip, she breaks up with the boyfriend she gave up everything for and has an existential crisis of sorts. She is an interesting character as she is both the stereotypical needy marriage and baby loving woman that the film gently mocks for having such homely goals, and she’s the modern breath of fresh air that starts to make Ryan feel like he is missing out on something in his solitary world.

Clooney and Kendrick sat at a conference table. He is looking confidently forward; she is looking quizzically at him

The other woman, Alex Goran (Farmiga), is yet another example of a woman that I want to be. She’s cool and sophisticated and sexy, and I had to look up Vera Farmiga’s age when it was filmed as the fact that she was 34, as I am now, makes me feel very uncouth. I’m beginning to think I have some sort of suit or office wear kink as all the women I love on screen tend to dress pretty sharply, wearing trouser suits or pencil skirts with blouses. Actually, they tend to have a lot of sex too so maybe the office wear thing is a red herring…! When they meet, Ryan and Alex spar and flirt over the reward schemes and frequent flier perks that they’ve accumulated – as Alex says, they’re both people who ‘get turned on by elite status’ – and they end up having an affair in many hotels in many states, matching their schedules and making additional flights to ensure their paths cross.

Ryan and Alex’s chemistry is just so hot. I absolutely adore each of them talking about their experience of the mile high club – Ryan hasn’t ever managed to have sex on a flight unlike Alex who fucked on a daytime regional flight, a status symbol that is far superior even to Ryan’s concierge card! It did also amuse me that Ryan and Alex are shown to have Good Movie Sex. All the signs were there – ending up on different levels from each other, one on the floor, the other on the bed, with sheets ruffled around them and covered in sweat. That’s how you show Good Movie Sex!

Also, I need to make a quick side point about fucking in hotels. Why is it so hot? Is it the transience or anonymity, as it is for Ryan? Or the fact that someone else cleans up afterwards?? I don’t stay in hotels for business so I know that for me at least, hotel sex is usually so hot more because of the reason I’m in a hotel – a holiday, an erotic writing conference – than because of the literal room but still. Wow!

Anyway, and more importantly, after meeting Alex, Ryan starts to see the benefits of having someone in his life – perhaps someone exactly like her, someone who understands his need to roam – but his attempt at making their relationship more than just hotel sex backfires when he discovers that she has a family at home; a husband and children who she keeps separate from her own travelling existence.

I struggle with this cheating plot line as I really like Alex but I don’t agree with her ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’ attitude. It’s never explicitly stated that her husband doesn’t know about her other partners but her anger at Ryan turning up on her doorstep suggests otherwise: ‘you could’ve seriously screwed things up for me. That’s my family; that’s my real life.’ Being polyamorous with great relationships with my metamours, I hope that she’s just talking about protecting her children from the reality of her life away from home and her husband consents to her extramarital affairs. It would seem the most sensible way to survive long periods apart. I hope that her husband knows and understands and agrees, even if it’s with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach, and although she still couldn’t commit to Ryan as he’d hoped, it makes their relationship more real and less…casual.

I find this ambiguity particularly sad as the film makes a point of clarifying that their relationship isn’t casual when that description is used in a derogatory sense, but Alex’s lies undermine the suggestion that there are different ways to have a relationship and that they’re all good. When Natalie questions whether Ryan and Alex have any future, questioning whether the casual relationship that they have could ever be real, Ryan responds by telling her that ‘your definition of “real” is going to evolve as you get older.’ I liked this; I liked the idea that the fairytale relationships that we’re brought up to believe are the only way to find happiness might not actually be the only way, which is why the reality of Alex’s deception upset me almost as much as it upset Ryan:

Ryan Bingham: [over the phone] I thought I was a part of your life.
Alex Goran: I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.
Ryan Bingham: I’m a parenthesis?

So much in this film is about how life isn’t going to be how you’d planned it. Whether it’s an employee being fired or Ryan discovering Alex’s ‘real’ family, there’s a sense of danger when looking forward – there are too many unexpected outcomes, too much risk. Or perhaps it’s better to say that there’s that sense of danger with too much forward planning, as exemplified by Natalie’s shock at being dumped when she’d planned her whole future around a guy:

This is the scene that stuck with me the longest after I first saw this movie. The contrast between the very specific and frankly superficial needs of younger Natalie and the simpler but perhaps more important desires of older Alex struck a chord with me. I was 24 when this film came out but was horrified by Natalie’s wish to be engaged by 23 with children already, and her plans to have her career sorted and be ‘entertaining by night.’ Do people really want that at 23?

I’ve often wondered if studying medicine, and so being at university for years longer than my contemporaries at school, delayed my need to be ‘grown up.’ At 23 or 24, I was still studying and could think of nothing worse than being settled with a family and hosting dinner parties but I knew many who did want that and many who achieved it. Such is an the grip of the patriarchy that being a successful wife and mother also remains the way that many of us measure our achievements, particularly when measured against our careers. As GOTN wrote a few months ago, women are still judged by how well we take on household admin so, even though Up in the Air does depict Natalie as an extreme example, she’s certainly not unusual in wanting to put a marriage and household above a career.

It is interesting rewatching the film now I’m 34 like Alex. When I was in my early twenties, I may not have wanted the commitment Natalie does but I did have a checklist of superficial qualities that I was looking for in a partner – older than me, taller than me, smarter than me, ginger, blue-eyed, bearded – but I had given up on that sort of list long before I met my future husband (although anyone who knows him will realise that it’s a frighteningly accurate description. It seems I have a type!). Even by my mid-twenties, I knew that finding someone with similar family values or shared views on children etc really is more important than what they look like or how many syllables are in their name.

The scene is played to show Ryan and Alex as the wiser, battle-weary elders who are gently laughing at Natalie’s naivety, but it also shows that the reality of dating in your thirties and beyond does require compromises. Both agree that having a nice smile is important but, other than that, Alex’s wish list seems much more focussed on avoiding conflict than about desirable qualities. Is that what is meant by settling? Is that a bad thing? Again, I now agree with Alex that what feels like settling changes as you get older – it’s more about realising what is important and widening your options.

Clooney and Farmiga; she has her hand on his shoulder as both look towards the left

Even though Ryan is apparently on the wiser side of that discussion, he is the one whose character arc involves the most growth and change when it comes to relationships. Early on, he is dismissive of marriage, asking Natalie to ‘sell it to [him]’ and effectively countering each of her arguments. It sounds like a practiced speech, a well-worn discussion. Slick and certain. In contrast to this, when talking to his future brother-in-law, Jim, and trying to warm his cold feet before his wedding, he is less sure of himself, less certain but wholly more believable: ‘If you think about it, your favourite memories, the most important moments in your life… were you alone?’ It’s almost as if he’s coming to the realisation himself, persuading and comforting Jim and reaching the conclusion that ‘life’s better with company’ at the same time.

It is only after this realisation and after he discovers Alex’s family that Ryan achieves his lifelong ambition of earning 10 million air mile goal, but his success becomes so much more poignant with his new attitude towards having more people in his life. It’s everything that he’s worked for and is the ultimate symbol of his isolation and transience, but it seems to feel so hollow once he has it. The film’s tagline is that it’s a ‘story of a man ready to make a connection,’ and by the end, I certainly believe that he is.

After all, everyone needs a co-pilot.

Next week: Dirty Dancing

Sorry for the delay posting this week – holidaying with a baby has even less writing time than I expected!!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

sex, lies and videotape

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
KEY ACTORS: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.2/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 5/5 (Fuckable cast, sex positive themes, source of fantasy material, passes the Bechdel test, rewatchable. Yes!!)

This contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (free, with Spanish subtitles), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £5.99) Sky Store (to rent), Ratuken TV (from £2.49)

The movie poster of sex, lies and videotape, showing images of the cast intercut with thick black lines

Of course this was going to be the first movie in this new series – it was the one that inspired it all! A film about sex, relationships, voyeurism, exhibitionism and with Secretary’s James Spader as the lead? It’s safe to say that this movie had a big effect on me…

Made in 1989 and Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape tells the story of four people: married couple, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher), her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) and an old college friend of John’s called Graham (James Spader). Ann and John’s marriage is struggling – she is in therapy discussing how she no longer likes it when John touches her and all the while, he is fucking her sister. John’s friend, Graham, has only recently moved to the area but creates ripples in the uneasy balance of these relationships. He reveals to Ann that he is impotent and unable to have penetrative sex. Instead, he gets off on videos he’s made of conversations with women talking about sex. His arrival, and the videos he makes of them, prompt both sisters to reconsider and eventually end their relationships with John. It’s such a good film!

And it’s not just me that thinks this film is great – it won the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where James Spader also won the Beat Actor Award, and Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1990 Academy Awards.

I first saw this around 2005 during my many years at university and when I was deep into an obsession with the OC’s Sandy Cohen, also played by Peter Gallagher, as many women in my friendship circle were. ‘What would Sandy Cohen do?’ had become a mantra of sorts for us! I was in my early 20s and a long way from working out who I was sexually and what I liked, and I watched this with a group of girlfriends mainly to see what Sandy Cohen had done before becoming Sandy Cohen. They were intermittently shocked and bored – he is not a good person here. I could not tear my eyes away and I’m not sure I have ever been the same!

This film initiated such a paradigm shift in me because it caught me at a time when I had no real sexual experience or confidence, but I knew there was so much wonder waiting just out of reach. At that time, I recognised so much of myself in Ann; her hesitation and embarrassment about sex, her frigid existence as a housewife locking her into a life that she knew was making her unhappy but that she couldn’t work out how to change, and I was so afraid that this was my future.

A two year relationship during sixth form with an eighteen year old boy who was too afraid of being caught buying condoms to actually have PIV sex had been followed by several years of celibacy, and I was left somewhat paralysed when it came to sex. The very few times I did have sex had not gone well and I was stuck, bound by my fear and lack of experience. Maybe I would never work out how to have good sex? Maybe I too would end up in a sexless marriage, living as the perfect housewife but never be sexually fulfilled?

Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher in bed. He is asleep, she looks frustrated

So, like Ann, I was fascinated by Graham and his videotapes. Maybe it’s because of my love of movies but there is something nostalgic and a little romantic about Graham’s box of videotapes, each labelled with the name of the person he was filming. As a viewer of the movie, you don’t see much of what is on these tapes and it is left to your imagination, but just the idea of all of these women opening up and talking about sex, answering Graham’s questions and discussing these intimate subjects with such ease, was intoxicating.

And, oh my gosh, I wanted Graham to make a tape of me. I imagined feeling terrified and vulnerable but safe enough to talk, which is a hot combination of emotions! I imagined Graham’s questions probing me and making me realise things about myself that I wished I could vocalise. It was such a delicious fantasy, and one of the earliest that I can remember that was definitively sexual rather than more romantic. I only watched the movie once until many years later but I cannot tell you how often I reimagined that scene and that idea…

Interestingly, in 1989 Roger Ebert described his use of video as a form of sexism assault as ‘he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.’ While I’m not sure that this view of assault stands up in the post-#MeToo world where more definite assault has been revealed to be so dishearteningly widespread and Graham clearly has the consent of the women he’s recording, it did strike me that his simple voyeurism could be seen so negatively.

Because looking back now, this is almost the perfect acting out of my exhibitionist/voyeur tendencies. To be watched so intently by someone who will get off on watching me over and over is among the hottest things I can imagine. Equally, I love the idea of videoing a partner like this, and it proved to be as hot as I’d hoped when I filmed my husband finally breaking his 10 day orgasm denial streak a couple of years ago. The results were definitely NSFW but I got off on the filming and the watching later in almost equal measures, and I remembered Graham’s videos with new eyes.

Andie MacDowell looking towards the camera, wistfully holding a camcorder

This is also a form of voyeurism that adds distance and time to the immediacy of the experience, a deliberate choice by Soderbergh. Talking to Film Comment in 1989, he explained that ‘video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events…[Graham] needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism.’

This won’t be the last time I talk about James Spader but it is a good place to introduce him. He is among the most fuckable of all actors and, unlike most celebrity crushes, this is more because of how he is rather than how he looks. In the same review mentioned above, Roger Ebert feels that Spader has the ‘kind of sexual ambiguity of the young Brando or Dean; he seems to suggest that if he bypasses the usual sexual approaches it is because he has something more interesting up, or down, his sleeve.’ That is true of his character here and it is definitely true of his character in Secretary. Both are superficially ordinary, almost boring, and yet have such fascinating and kinky depths, and the juxtaposition is intriguing and a little dangerous.

James Spader with a mullet, gesturing towards the camera

Although the videotapes appealed to me more than the sex or lies of the title, there is so much of interest in the sex and sexual relationships from the other characters. The interplay between Graham’s impotence and Ann’s frigidity in contrast to John and Cynthia’s hypersexuality is almost a caricature. Is this to suggest a challenge or to justify the behaviour of the other characters? Roger Ebert describes the ‘fundamental fact of the human ego’ that we believe that a new partner could cure impotence or overcome frigidity – they’ve just not found yet right one, they’ve not been fucked by the right guy, and other such sexist opinions – and it is true that both Ann and Graham’s character resolutions do revolve around them finding each other. But it doesn’t play like ego; they are almost reluctant in their approaches to each other.

Unlike Cynthia who does visit Graham with the intention of ‘curing’ his impotence as he won’t be able to resist her. And I can see why she’d think that – Cynthia is just so fucking sexy in that 1980s stereotypical kind of way with big hair, a filthy laugh and denim cut off shorts (Laura San Giacomo also played Vivian’s friend Kit in Pretty Woman, another character who rightly or wrongly taught me how women can be sexy), and I did want to be her. I wanted to be that brashly sexy, that confident and capable of getting what I wanted.

Laura San Giacomo lying on her back with her feet in the air, wearing a black dress and black boots

But despite the use of unusual camera angles, sweaty faces and red based colours making it clear that her and John were having Good Sex, it’s not hot. The further through the film I got, the less attractive I found them. Certainly, neither of them are as attractive as they think they are and the sex may appear incredible – energetic, hard and fast, sweaty – but it is framed by so much deception that I struggled to find it that appealing! John is also too much of a twat to be attractive, and their sex less desirable as a consequence.

I think this was the beginning of the end of my reliance on movie sex as a visual learning aid. Porn has always been too starkly real for me, preferring to create my own imagery when reading erotica instead, so movies were really my only visual references for how sex should look. And it turns out that it’s rarely as hot as anything I’ve experienced in real life.

After this film, I stopped expecting the sex I saw to be as hot or arousing as the sex I could imagine. The words? The ideas? Fuck yes! And that’s where this film delivers those delights in spades…

Next week: The Thomas Crown Affair!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Sex, love and videotape

A photo of a segment of my DVD shelf with a small gold trophy with ‘Best Shag’ written on it

In 2012, I decided to write a list of every movie I’d watched. By the end of January, the list was 43 films long and I decided to set myself a challenge: could I watch 365 films in a year? The answer is yes, I could. I could watch 371 in fact!

I love watching movies. As a child, I’d watch the same film over and over, sometimes every day, until I could recite every word or make up my own lines between the dialogue to write myself in as a character. As a teenager, I’d seek out every film that anyone ever recommended so that I could drink in every moment, every experience. I’d watch action movies, rom coms, historical fiction, science fiction…everything. Once I left home, going to the cinema was my escape, and I have never lost my love of it, going as often as I can and seeking out cinema experiences – outdoor screenings, immersive cinema showings, movie marathons, double bills and singalongs. I also own over 400 DVDs, many now stored in the cellar as technology has already surpassed them but I just can’t bring myself to throw them away. I love love love watching movies!

I also love sex. I love sex! But I only really discovered how much and in how many hot and horny ways in the last five years or so. I hadn’t experienced enough to know what I wanted. Strangely considering how much I love movies, porn doesn’t do anything for me as my fantasies always needed more of a story. I imagined elaborate scenarios where the physical act of sex was only a very small part and I would get off on the build up, the personal interactions; the plot. Really, I needed a whole movie, not porn!

So movies with good sex scenes were everything to me. Plots about sex or sexuality and hot characters in hot situations would inspire fantasies that I couldn’t dream up on my own. They were also an education of sorts. Sex education is notoriously rubbish and when I was at school did not include anything about pleasure. In lieu of actual experience, I used movies to answer questions or demonstrate what sex should be like.

But is that a reasonable thing to do? And which are the good movies to watch? Which are the hot hot mainstream movies and what can they teach us about sex? Are there movies that teach good lessons about love and relationships?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I know which movies I like and which turn me on. I know which movies I think have interesting themes or handle difficult topics well (or badly!). And I kind of fancied watching them all again!

This new blog will, therefore, be a catalogue of my favourite movies that discuss sex; talking about why I like them (or don’t like them) and what I learned (or didn’t learn) from them. They may be on my list because they’re hot or because they’re fascinating. They may be included even if they’re rubbish but start the right conversations. They may be there because they had a profound and lasting effect on me, or just because they’re a favourite!

I’m also giving each movie a score out of five – my ‘sex score!’ I was tempted to just give a personal rating but I have a tendency to score everything very highly and I’m not sure how useful a list of movies scoring 4 or 5 out of 5 would be! I expect the scores will still be relatively high, especially to start with, as I will only really be choosing films that I like and each score is essentially based on my opinion, but at least there’s a process!

The movie could score a point for a positive answer for each of these five areas:

Cast fuckability: simply, do I want to have sex with the cast?
Sex positive themes: does the movie actually like sex or is it just a plot point or weapon? Does it show sex work or sex in a positive way or is it judgemental?
Source of fantasy material: not all movies that include sex, um, inspire me or provide building material for fantasies. But if there’s an idea or even just an image or a flash of magic that I can’t forget, it gets a mark!
Bechdel test: although passing this test does not guarantee that it is a feminist movie, it is a low enough bar that I think it’s worth noting if it fails! So, are there two named female characters? Who talk to each other? About something other than a man?
Rewatchable: I watch movies a lot, and over and over again. So would I watch this one again if I saw it on TV?

I am so excited about watching all of these delicious wonderful hot movies again!!

So which mainstream movies do you love? Which turn you on? I’d love to hear about them…

New posts will be published on Sunday evenings and the first will be Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 masterpiece, sex lies and videotape.