Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“Sex Scenes” is one of my favorite media creations of the last few years. So I’m happy to admit that several of the folks who contributed to it have connections to this blog. Written by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill, it’s a narrative, audio-only thingamajig with a strong erotic bent. (The official website calls it an “audio extravaganza,” and I guess that’s as good a description as any.) The story focuses on a young filmmaker named Kati Paxton (Lizzie Knowles) who wants to make a sexy, adult-oriented movie. The work, which is to be called “Sex Scenes,” will feature real sex acts performed by real movie stars, and it’s Kati’s hope that it will reset the mores of contemporary Hollywood, returning movies to the place of artistic and cultural importance they occupied during the ’60s and ’70s. Kati’s an excitable girl, but few things excite her more than talking about the great erotic filmmakers of yesteryear. Bernardo Bertolucci. Michelangelo Antonioni. Marco Ferreri. Radley Metzger. These are more than just names to Kati. As their syllables roll off her tongue, tinged with both longing and aspiration, they convey an almost incantational power. Kati is a woman on a holy mission.
I don’t use the word “holy” lightly. Sex and movies are treated here as quasi-spiritual benchmarks, as poles which the characters flit around in hopes of locating something meaningful. But they’re also figurative white rabbits: time and again in “Sex Scenes” a character will pursue an erotic or artistic goal only to find himself outside of his comfort zone, where he’s forced to take a good, hard look at himself in the mirror. This is an approach to art and sex which is itself very much of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s all about the experience, man — about losing (and finding) yourself in the moment.
Wait — I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m also making “Sex Scenes” sound more self-important than it is. Truth is, you mostly catch the themes on the rebound, after the narrative has surprised you and you’re reflecting back on what you’ve just heard. That narrative concerns not only Kati’s attempts to get her movie made but other subplots as well, though everything overlaps in a pleasingly Altmanesque way.
The sprawling plot includes over fifty characters. It might be helpful to name and describe some of them:
- There’s kittenish call girl Kelly Sanders (Lulu Daniels). She wants nothing more than to parlay her earnings into a homey bungalow just outside Hollywood.
- Kelly’s pimp is the father of Sierra Kodaly (Karen Grenke), a scatterbrained agent doing her best to stay on the cutting edge — and keep pace with her much younger girlfriend.
- Sierra had her first sexual experience with rock-jawed leading man Garrett Lord (Scott Barker), a legendary womanizer whose conquests include the fame-addled mother of Tom Altavilla (Jason Jacobs).
- Tom is an aspiring screenwriter biding his time as a Hollywood go-fer. His boss, who refers to Tom as “the metrosexual,” is “meatball” action director Evan Mescher (John Jones).
- When Evan isn’t making unconsciously homoerotic buddy flicks, he’s “mentoring” female up-and-comers like Kati — which is a nice way of saying he’s screwing them from behind while their heads are stuffed in his toilet bowl. (No, I’m not kidding: during these sequences, the girls’ voices have been processed so as to ring with a porcelain-y vibrato.)
- Evan’s career is on the skids following a disastrous foray into “personal” filmmaking, but things start to look up once he meets Nathan Moffitt (Jake Thomas, managing to actually sound sweaty), a guerrilla pornographer who has some interesting ideas regarding testicles.
These subplots and others connect with Kati’s film in one way or another, though sometimes the relationships are tangential and fuzzy. This suits what I take to be the overarching aim of “Sex Scenes”: to riff on the modern media landscape. It’s a landscape which is itself fuzzy, one in which the vestiges of the old movie industry are under constant siege by new media — by porn and digitization and the internet and reality TV; in which entertainment has been decentralized; in which movies have lost their place as a cultural reference point. Frost and Sawhill seem to be wondering, playfully if somewhat ruefully, whether movies even have a point anymore, or if they now mainly function as platforms for reinforcing celebrity.
Of course, “Sex Scenes” is itself a product of new media, a fact which lends it an amusingly self-referential quality. Indeed, one of its principal pleasures lies in trying to figure out just what it is. Does it qualify as an audiobook? A spoken-word TV program? Or is it more of a 21st-century take on the radio drama?
Maybe I’m revealing my bias here, but I feel most comfortable comparing it to movies. I’ve already mentioned Altman, who I take to be the principal influence. But the layered complexity of “Sex Scenes” also reminds me of the essay film, particularly as practiced by filmmakers like Chris Marker and Bruce Weber. To be sure, “Sex Scenes” is more narrative-heavy than the typical essay film, but it nevertheless hews closely to the musings of its authors. Frost’s and Sawhill’s personalities are detectable right at the top of the mix, and the pair are very good at keeping their ideas pinging happily back and forth between the fictional and commentarial levels of their work. You’re never really outside of their peculiar point of view.
Still, the essay comparison fails to convey the degree to which “Sex Scenes relies on performance. The press kit claims it was developed over three years, through live readings at venues such as the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. That makes sense: the dialog feels honed to a live audience, its beats and cadences developed around the participation of a crowd. And the actors perform with a zeal — and a quick-minded intelligence — that never feels far removed from repartee.
As Kati Paxton, Lizzie Knowles has an air of entitled impulsiveness; she’s a proxy for the young American woman of the ’00s and ’10s, the one you’ve been reading about in magazines — and who may have recently taken your job. John Jones brings to his Evan Mescher the perfect tone of boorish self-absorption; he uses his caramelized, car-commercial voice to lampoon our canned notions of masculinity. (Evan may be based on “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner — his career is an adjunct to his dick.) And as former artfilm cinematographer Istvan Kodaly, Jeremy Lawrence has a saturnine coo; it lends his lines a corkscrew ambiguity.
But I’m only skimming the surface; all the performers in “Sex Scenes” are great, and it’s a tribute to the vividness of the characters that they volunteered to work for free. And with lines this juicy, who wouldn’t work for free? Frost and Sawhill have salted the script with the sort of lewd bursts of language that one typically hears in locker rooms or at frat houses — and (blessedly) they’re not above using them for shock effects. “You trim pubic hair like women in Cinemax movies!” exclaims Kati’s foreign-accented lover upon first beholding her nakedness, a comment which caused me to laugh out loud almost in spite of myself. Crudity like that is built unashamedly into the banter, the way it is in “South Park” or in Farrelly brothers movies. And when the characters get really worked up, they can sound as though they’re reading from old issues of “Penthouse Forum.”
That’s appropriate: the authors make no bones about their affection for the world of erotica. And not just the gauzy, purplish sort of erotica either: the tone here is closer to “Porky’s” than “Emmanuelle.” In fact, it’s not an exaggeration (or an insult) to say that “Sex Scenes” is paced like an ’80s porn film, with a sexual interlude arriving dependably every few minutes.
As sex writers Frost and Sawhill come off as sweetie-pie debauchees: they’re never afraid to go “there,” and when they do they’re generous enough to bring their characters right along with them, revealing them more fully in the process. When Evan learns that an academic has written a book claiming him as the gayest filmmaker of all time, he reacts with a compensatory surge of machismo. Only after he’s considered the obvious is he able to regain his hitmaker mojo. And when the business of internet sex mogul Chessie Matteson (Lucy David Kent) is challenged by teenage upstart Nathan (he pronounces it “nathaaaaan“) Moffitt, they decide to forge an alliance — but only after coming together in a raunchy hotel fuck session. (Of course, it’s inspired by their own pornography.) This is a vision of an entertainment industry in which doing each other has supplanted doing lunch as the preferred forum for deal making, in which you get ahead only by getting off.
Near the end of “Sex Scenes,” Kati wakes up to find herself in the tent of a virile Middleastern warlord named Bojan (Peter Straus). She’s trussed up and has no idea how she’s gotten there, but she’s savvy enough to ponder the Chinese-box quality of her situation. Her attempts to make a movie have landed her inside of a real life movie — and it’s not quite the movie she had planned! (That sort of doubling is all over “Sex Scenes.”)
Knowles’ performance here makes you feel Kati’s frustration, her struggle with her inner diva. She’s a smart go getter, and she has movies in her blood, but she’s been one-upped — by Evan, by the biz, by the gossip industry, by an international pornography syndicate (it’s a long story). It’s almost enough to make a girl abandon her dreams and go back to assistant directing on video game spin-offs! But if art and sex are the ideals between which the action in “Sex Scenes” oscillates, there is consolation (and ecstasy) to be found in the middle ground — in mediation, compromise and surrender. And surrender Kati eventually does, in grand style.
Kati’s predicament is a reminder that, when it comes to new media, we’re all exploring uncharted territory — and there be monsters in those mysterious waters!
Increasingly, the media consumer is a free agent. He seeks his entertainment in piecemeal fashion, usually on the web, perhaps via Google or a peer-to-peer network. But a web search is a scattershot event, and it resists hierarchy: what starts out as a routine query may land us in an unexpected place — perhaps on YouTube, a blog, or even on a new friend’s Facebook wall. And it’s often hard to figure out what we’re consuming once we get there. Popular songs serve as backdrops for video mash-ups, which in turn use clips from old Hollywood movies, often right alongside chunks of anonymous home video. Indeed, the practice of sampling, so controversial when it first became prevalent in the ’80s, has become the predominant mode of composition — as well as an apt metaphor for the buffet-like way in which we interface with media.
All of this can be confusing, jumbled, headache inducing. But it can also be liberating. The traditional entertainment industry, which maintained a stranglehold on forms and distribution for over 100 years, has begun to crumble, and real talents have emerged through the cracks in its facade.
Talents like animator Nina Paley, whose feature-length “Sita Sings the Blues” garnered quite a bit of attention when it was released online last year. It’s an often charming hodgepodge of cultures and styles, and it’s inspired a truckload of positive reviews, including some from big media critics like Roger Ebert.
Or Maru, the cat who has emerged as the Pickford of the kitty video genre, racking up over 200 million views on YouTube and a mention in “Entertainment Weekly.” The maker of the videos, who goes by the handle mugumogu, brings to his (her?) work the sort of tonic understatement that filmbuffs have long admired in Ozu.
Or Majestic Micro Movies, a self-described “filmmaking collective” that has released several trim, elegant videos on Facebook, including a series of essays on film style. Written by Lloyd Fonvielle and directed by Jae Song, the series manages to be both reverent and drolly satirical. When’s the last time a Godard reference made you giggle?
Or YouTube songsmith Parry Gripp, a sort of 21st-century Weird Al Yankovic who eulogizes popular internet subjects via songs so catchy I suspect they’re bad for your health. “The world has gone insane,” sings Gripp in his “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig),” and after watching the video a couple of times you just may decide that he’s right. (Gripp is at the forefront of what might be described as a new sort of dada, one born of the internet’s penchant for monumentalizing triviality.)
These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg, and they don’t even touch on all the imaginative erotic content that’s out there (tip: check out Ishotmyself.com and Kink.com). They’re part of a messy and exciting new entertainment ecosystem — one for which “Sex Scenes” might be a good standard-bearer. For few works in any medium are so adept at using the tools and attitudes of the culture to ask where we stand and just what it all means — and to do so in a way that’s fun and hilarious and sexy.
None of this has prevented “Sex Scenes” from being thoroughly overlooked, perhaps because it doesn’t fit comfortably into any established category. For those who don’t like surprises, that’s a fair enough reaction. But for everyone else, a work like “Sex Scenes” represents an alluring — if somewhat befuddling — adventure. Because in a sense we’re all right there in that tent with Kati Paxton, uncomfortably bestriding the gap between traditional modes and the slipstream discombobulation of the digital age. Perhaps if we’re to learn anything from Kati, it’s that a little surrender goes a long way.
“Sex Scenes” is published by Rapture House. It was recorded at Georgia Hilton’s World Wide Audio in New York City with sound engineers Dan Cioffi and Casey Zanowic. (The production values are first-rate all the way, with sound effects used judiciously to spike the narrative.)
The full work is available as either a CD or a download, for $21.95 and $16.95, respectively — fantastic prices when you consider it’s nearly eleven hours long. The official website is at: http://www.sexscenes.info/. Individual episodes are also available as MP3 downloads at Amazon.