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Being A Lonely Pervert Is A Hard Job But Someone's Got To Do It: A Treatise In Four Parts

Last year, one of my most rewatched films was Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), a film revolving around four people whose lives become entangled due to their various sexual neuroses. It's a film very interested in infidelity and what it takes to make relationships work. In general, I find the misery of heterosexuality, as portrayed in many a film, tedious. So, I avoided this film specifically because I assumed that it would be another film people enjoyed because it had straight people screaming at each other in it.

Sex, Lies and Videotape invited me in through its depiction of loneliness and perversion, both of which are aspects of being alive that are often mocked and derided. The serial killer is lonely and perverted. The stalker is lonely and perverted. Your average middle class married couple are not typically lonely and perverted, not unless the film ends with some kind of violent climax (I'm looking at you, American Beauty!). 

The film follows Anne and John, a married couple at odds with one another but unable to admit it. Anne doesn't like John touching her. John is having an affair with Anne's sister, Cynthia. When an old friend of John's, Graham, comes to town and stays with the couple, all three of these characters are made to evaluate how they view their lives because Graham has a secret: he enjoys asking women about their sex lives and filming it for later use. This fact will irreparably change them.

The characters in this film intersect at a moment where no one is able to articulate why they feel absent from their own lives. Graham and Anne are essentially celibate. John and Cynthia are having constant sex, seemingly to spite the idea of marriage. And all of the main characters, at some point, have to confront the idea of themselves as a romantic and sexual being through the lens of the camera.

I'm enamoured with the way Soderbergh is able to slip into a variety of genres with ease. At worst, he is able to make stories that are competent and functional but at his best, his films are deeply interested in the present moment, emphasised by a reflexive mode of filmmaking. A while ago, I reviewed Kimi (2022), a film about a woman using her skills as a tech agent for a software company to uncover a murder conspiracy. I wrote about the way it affected my relationship to isolation and identification with others, particularly within the context of the pandemic, something the film centres in its story. Soderbergh's work insists on dealing with humanity, even in films that you could claim have the capacity to be made by any director.

I took issue initially when people reviewing the film referred to Graham's habit of filming women talking about sex as a fetish. I think this is because there was something oddly sexless about it. One thing you'll notice about the film is that there isn't a lot of sex in it. It is pondered and philosophised about. We often see the build-up and aftermath of it. But there is only one scene that could be considered a 'sex scene' and it occurs directly after Cynthia has made a tape for Graham. For Cynthia, the act of confessing her sexual desires for the camera has liberated her, and sent her barreling towards pleasure. For Graham, he looks devastated watching it - not only is he once again trapped in his only sexual outlet, derided as a deviancy to those around him, he has potentially severed any relationship he could have with Anne.

My own prejudice towards the word 'fetish' stopped me from looking at how Soderbergh pathologises sexual difference and how this manifests within a world less interested in strict gender roles. Anne and Graham seem to be trapped within their traditional iterations of 'man' (horny, distant, stoic) and 'woman' (compliant, passive, neurotic), so for them, the camera becomes an avenue for exploration. When Anne begins speaking candidly about what she does and doesn't want from her sex life, this is a moment of complete freedom for her, signified most explicitly when she picks up the camera and turns it around to interview Graham. His fetish, in its depiction in the film, has kept him confined to a role where he is in control of the 'scene' he is filming and at a distance from his subject. Despite his protests that he has been doing this to stop him from harming the women he loves, he is completely isolated from the world and perpetually at a distance from his sexual and emotional maturity.

This is my favourite moment in the film, where Graham bolts to other side of the room, stating that he doesn't find the inversion of the roles subject and object very interesting. As a director, and especially in one of his earlier films, Soderbergh seems acutely aware of the power that the camera holds and the way it has come to construct and simultaneously deconstruct the human experience, becoming eerie foreshadowing for the perpetual eye of surveillance we live in now. To do this as a filmmaker and a man is incredibly powerful and very vulnerable, switching the roles of subject and object for the sake of liberating Graham from the confines he believes he should be limited to, for the sake of not enacting his masculinity on the world in the same way John does, a friend he lost touch with for this very reason. Graham is a self-induced lonely pervert as he believes this is only way to satiate his desire without hurting other people.

In The Cut (2003) is a film about a woman who is turned on by the idea of being victimised. Who hasn't been there?

There are very few moments when watching a movie that I feel genuinely represented on screen. Watching Meg Ryan, drunk, depressed, sat on her kitchen floor, accidentally banging her head against her open fridge made me feel seen in a way that's hard to convey. 

Jane Campion has a habit of fixating on the ways women's horniness draws them into uncovering the secret to ineffable patriarchal violence, and their journeys, often looking like a downward spiral to nowhere, coincide with the height of their pleasure. It's a hard line to walk, trying to discuss the irresistible appeal of violence and deconstruct it with the same hand. The film follows Frannie as she becomes obsessed with the details of recent serial murders which seem connected to her life, convinced in the back of her mind that the police detective she has started having a sexual relationship with may be behind them.

In The Cut had me enthralled in a specific way - Frannie is a loser. She doesn't have really any close friends, she is unable to maintain a relationship with a normal man and, she's cold and withdrawn in a way that's very unattractive. Only when she makes herself participate in life is she able to come apart in a meaningful way, see the mess she's been living with, the past she's refused to acknowledge.

Her sexuality fluctuates between abject, insecure and painfully literal, always out of her control. Moreover, she is punished for her desperation and her detachment. She can't win. There's a deep loneliness in being attracted to what's causing you harm. The desire for normality can be very painful when it's something unobtainable to you.

Wanting to die is abject. Being turned on by the thought of murder is even more so. And even with this, it's the crux of the erotic thriller. Campion is able to use the genre to ask and answer the question of what if a woman was a giant loser, had isolated herself from hegemony in a multitude of ways and still, still desired the victimisation of the dead white woman found beneath her house?

Meg Ryan on her floor is an image I return to because so rarely do women come apart in such a way, especially in a film that revolves around the danger male romantic partners pose to their heterosexual counterparts. It's a moment where she gets to be a mess, to mourn her sister in a legitimate way and also escape from the image she has created, the one necessary for the rest of the film to go on. We pause and look at how Frannie does not want to deal with her life. For a few moments, stuck on the floor, she doesn't have to consider anything but her own grief.

Porn is everywhere and no one wants to talk about it. I was so frustrated growing up because there was this itch to talk openly and candidly about the sex I wasn't having to anyone but there was no avenue to do it. Hence, internet pornography, unregulated, any time, anywhere. Mostly in my bedroom but the option was definitely there. For me, there was no other avenue to express my sexuality. Like I said, I wasn't having sex.

It became this really complex shame knot inside me where I knew the ethics of watching 'free' porn on the internet, how almost all of it was stolen and reuploaded without the performers' consent and how unethically it was produced, but I also couldn't stop watching it because I had no other outlet. Also, there were parts of me that liked this shame. Feeling bad about myself was validating to all the other shame nuggets I had stashed away in my brain. In both hands, I held an intoxicating spiral of pleasure and horror that I couldn't shake. Dissociative. Numbing. Ecstasy.

Good Dick (2008) is a film about two very unhealthy people: 'The Man' is stalking one of his customers in order to start a relationship with her, and said customer, 'The Woman' spends all of her time in her house, ordering junk food and watching porno tapes. These two people find each other at what seems like the lowest point in their lives and struggle to disentangle themselves, despite the fact their relationship is doomed as it's starting.

The compulsive desire to fuck someone you're disgusted by evokes a kind of paralysis, similar to that of watching particularly upsetting porn. You want it to be liberating, an expression of unadulterated sexuality that is free from judgement. It's just a desire after all. But then your stupid value system waltzes in, chastising you for wanting something that's going to harm you, sending you into further paralysis. And this paralysis doesn't allow you to process anything. And it definitely doesn't make it go away.

This film explores a particular kind of abject female sexuality, one that seems to align itself with male incel shut-ins rather than the very aesthetically pleasing lonely, mad woman. Women using porn to cope is not something you see a lot. Female chronic masturbators need representation too.

'The Woman' has had her life framed around the liminality of this pornographic space, stunting any kind of conventional female gender expression but at the same time, allowing this kind of perversion to feel insular and unobserved, becoming the only way she is able to have her sexual boundaries respected. This is done with a veil of irony of course because the only way she is able to process her sexual trauma and inability to be touched by another human being is by having the man she interacted with once at the video rental shop try to weasel his way into her house.

By taking a matter of fact approach to this kind of pathological sexuality, the film steers swiftly away from direct judgement and plays out a kind of mutual hostage situation where porn becomes the glue to understanding why these characters can't have relationships like other people.

Movies are all about watching. It's nice to observe people you want to be like, who you'd want to like you. Voyeurism feels good because it encourages vicariousness without having to leave the house.

I've Heard The Mermaids Singing (1987) follows Polly as she recounts the tale of her allegedly ruining her life and her infatuation with her new boss, Gabrielle, whose attention she can't seem to hold for very long. She uses the camera as a way to explain herself as well as hide in the corner and observe her counterpart excel as an artist in the way she can't seem to.

Desire, in this sense, becomes a form of envy and the camera is a filter, a tool by which she can control this feeling of attraction, resentment and rage. At the same time, it is alienating to live a life through a screen, unable to strive for what she wants because there are parts of her too messy, too lonely, too desperate to be articulated in a way that's not scary or off-putting. The secret observation of the people she's attracted to feels like the last resort of someone who has tried every other way to connect with people and come up short.

As a movie, the film invites the audience into a fantasy space along with the retelling of events, where we jump into Polly's photos with her and see how she would live if her world could be opened up.

This is a film about a desire for mentorship and guidance, where the potential lover is desirable because of what knowledge they have about the world. At the same time, Gabrielle is vulnerable in her expression of self-doubt and inadequacy. The ideal push and pull of teaching and observing, offering feedback and encouragement, melds the relationship between artist and lover. This is only severed when we learn that Gabrielle is not this beacon of artistic integrity and that she can't offer Polly the ideal she was looking for. In fact, she can't even give detailed feedback on her art. She simply dismisses it.

There is a compelling part of desire which is that it shouldn't be fulfilled because the excitement and heartache is what we really want. The validation that we aren't good enough to be loved and that we shouldn't try. We should, in fact, just sit in the corner, watching the TV, gazing at the stream of footage from the other room, where the more interesting, more beautiful people are doing more important things, like making art and living lives worth making movies about. 

Patricia Rozema privileges the shy nobody who sits in her room telling us the story instead of dealing with her problems because there is nothing more human than feeling like life wants nothing to do with you. Participating is overrated and not realistic. The art world is for people more connected with more money than you. So you take your camcorder, you sit in your room and you just talk. And hopefully someone listens.