All but the wank

By JAMES PARKER  |  July 24, 2007

The second episode of Indie Sex — “Taboos” — obliged me to reevaluate the work of director Todd Solondz. When Happiness came out in 1998 I found it to be a nearly inhuman exercise in stereotyped sexual humiliation — the blandly calculating pedophile, the phone pest with disgust coming out of his pores, etc. But viewed as part of a continuum that includes the giggling trash-explosion of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) and the bathos of David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey (1994), Happiness makes sense: with a grim clinical delicacy that is all his own, Solondz is probing the same areas. Repression, the unspeakable. . . . This would have been a great moment to interrogate, if only lightly, the current orthodoxy that the main business of the artist is to “push the envelope,” but Indie Sex doesn’t go there. The expert witnesses — Rosanna Arquette, Peter Sarsgaard, a gaggle of critics — are unanimous in their assent to ever-freakier sex scenes, trampling of taboos, and so on. Also running through the series is the touchingly democratic, quintessentially American idea that everybody has to be “represented” in the movies, that the dude who drinks maple syrup out of a wellington boot must see his reflection onscreen or else feel himself iniquitously disenfranchised. When these two tendencies meet, it seems to me, you get films like Todd Stephens’s Another Gay Movie (2006), whose hero is surprised with his dick in a quiche and a gerbil disappearing into his rectum. “I think I’m trying to say,” muses Stephens, interviewed by the makers of Indie Sex, “that, you know, sex is OKAY. Let’s just get over it and have some fun!” (Sound of libidos deflating across the universe.)

Can you stay up till midnight, you sexy beast? Four nights in a row? Give it a shot, because you’ll learn a lot from Indie Sex. You’ll learn that Catherine Breillat, boundary-busting French director of Fat Girl (2001), has an awesome funereal presence and a voice like a bear trapped in a wardrobe. You’ll gain a new respect for Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), after critic Jami Bernard points out the poetic verisimilitude of the scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh, losing her virginity, looks over the heaving shoulder of her swain and sees the words “SURF NAZIS” graffiti’d on the basement ceiling. And you’ll wonder how on earth Last Tango in Paris (1972) ever got taken seriously: the image of a ratty-haired Marlon Brando, half-god half-wino, demanding in his lockjawed way that Maria Schneider stick two fingers up his ass, now seems the reductio ad absurdum of improvised acting. In a related story, you’ll find out that the shower scene from Porky’s is not on YouTube. Bummer.

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