I frequently publish reviews by my friend J. Robert Parks, who writes for a Chicago-area paper and for Paste Magazine. Parks and I see eye-to-eye on many things. Occasionally we don’t.

I’m posting this review of Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs even though I personally disagree with Parks on a few issues surrounding the film. (In short, I object to the filming of actors engaging in real sex acts, and I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone else view such footage. Because of this, I cannot in good conscience buy a ticket to this film even to review it. For the same reason, I avoided last year’s scandalous film by Vincent Gallo, The Brown Bunny.) But I respect Parks, and I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on his review of this controversial film. I encourage you to post comments.

Sex. When my friend Garth was in college, he put up a sign in the cafeteria that had the word SEX in big letters. Then beneath it, in much smaller letters, he wrote, “Now that I have your attention, I’d like to tell you about this bike I’m selling.” Much has changed in the almost twenty years since Garth manipulated the student body with irrelevant sexual references. The post-feminist backlash has made the selling of/with sex even more overt, to the place where it’s now almost omnipresent. This cheapening of sexual intimacy has been accompanied by a firestorm of debate where forces on both sides argue about how sex is portrayed on tv, magazines, and especially movies. It’s safe to say that the two sides aren’t exactly arguing, as neither appears to be listening to the other. So it is with great trepidation that I wade into this morass–to attempt to review a movie that features more sex and deals more honestly with it than any film in recent memory.

9 Songs is directed by Michael Winterbottom, who has made a name for himself as an eclectic, thoughtful filmmaker. His 2002 movie In this World, about two young Afghans trying to immigrate to England, was one of my favorites of that year, but he’s also made the science-fiction Code 46, the post-modern bio-pic 24 Hour Party People, and the winter western The Claim, just in the last five years. I caught 9 Songs at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, where it arrived with plenty of advance notoriety for its explicit sex scenes, and they are explicit (and prevalent).

The movie simply focuses on a couple, a British man (Kieran O’Brien) and an American woman (Margo Stilley), who meet at a concert and then spend much of the movie going to other concerts and having sex (not at the same time). The concert footage, nine songs worth, is fantastic. Winterbottom shoots with a hand-held camera in the midst of the crowd, so it feels like you’re a part of the concert, though with an especially good seat. He taps into the tremendous energy of the music, light show, and audience, imparting that communal feel you get when you’re part of a 5,000-person crowd all dancing and clapping in time to the music.

He then cuts to the sex, which is just one man and one woman, but because the sex is real (erections, genitalia, penetration, orgasms), its energy matches the energy of the music. Furthermore, the intense connection between these two people mirrors the connection we experience during the concert footage, reminding us that intimacy can take a number of forms. There’s also a great tenderness to many of the sex scenes; an especially nice moment in a bathtub echoes something out of the French New Wave. This stands in stark contrast to the trend of European films in recent years that also feature real sex but emphasize the brutality and emptiness of the experience. The half-joke that circulated in Toronto was that it was refreshing to see sex between two characters who actually liked each other.

But it is real sex. Between two relative strangers. Who are being filmed. And we’re watching. And this, of course, raises a whole host of moral and ethical issues. What is the difference between 9 Songs and pornography? If you believe in the sanctity of sexual intercourse (as I do), can you condone a film that required two people to participate in it? Is there a difference between directing a sex film and watching it? And what is the impact of watching such private moments in a large theater?

I don’t necessarily have thoughtful answers for all of those questions, but I can say without hesitation that 9 Songs is not pornography. Its goal is not to titillate or arouse. Yes, parts of it are erotic, but that’s intrinsic to sexuality. The fact that Winterbottom can capture even a small part of the sexual experience–revealing its joy and intimacy, vulnerability and intensity– without cheapening it is testimony to his thoughtfulness as a director.

In fact, I would argue that 9 Songs has a stronger moral foundation than the simulated sex of most R-rated movies, the voyeurism of reality tv, and the commodification of sex in contemporary advertising. Those aspects of our culture, which don’t even arouse controversy anymore, manipulate sex and debase it. They create horribly false ideas of how men and women should relate to each other. 9 Songs does almost the opposite. It reminds us of the power of sexuality as well as its vulnerability. It celebrates the intimacy of sexual intercourse and acknowledges its consequences. The sexual acts in this film don’t occur in a vacuum. They are explicit but not gratuitous. Many critics have pointed out that the man and woman don’t relate much outside of the bedroom, which is a legitimate point. But it’s also true that 9 Songs is able, in its short running time (barely 70 minutes), to chronicle the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship, and do it thoughtfully and sincerely.

I do wish the film were longer, though. I wanted to know more about these characters, to get a better sense of what moves them and why they came together and why, in the end, they drift apart. There are also a few scenes in Antarctica that are forced. Winterbottom wants to say something about isolation, but the metaphor isn’t as powerful as the metaphor of the concert. Furthermore, I agree with my friend Garth, who wished that the characters had been played by an actual husband and wife, which would’ve mitigated some, though certainly not all, of the ethical issues.

It goes without saying that 9 Songs is not for most people. No one under 18 will be admitted when it opens at the Music Box this Friday, but adults should also give deep consideration to their own experience and whether seeing something this explicit would be beneficial or harmful. Still, this is one of those provocative films that actually provoked me to think and not just to flinch. There are more than a few filmmakers who could learn from Winterbottom’s example.

(Parks gives the film four out of five stars.)

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