Big Bang Theories

9 Ways of looking at 9 Songs

I. Standards and Practices
Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs is the slender treatment of a year-long London romance spoken in the economical language of intercourse and indie rock. Currently playing at the Angelika (it was released unrated), the film devotes about half of its 66-minute duration (the publicity materials add three minutes to the running time for maximum numerical symbolism) to hardcore bonking: a judicious selection of meat shots, fellatio with custard cream climax, full-coverage cunnilingus, and equal-opportunity light bondage, starring Matt (Kieran O'Brien), a glaciologist, and Lisa (Margo Stilley), a visiting American.

II. Unused Poster Blurb
From the Christian Congress for Traditional Values: "9 Songs is a rank piece of soulless pornography."

III. Ancestry
The earliest pornographic movie surfaced in Argentina around 1907; the Kinsey Institute dates its first American counterpart, a sound-free "stag film," to circa 1917–19. The proto-porn nudist-camp movies of the '50s couldn't show genitalia, and nor did the first bona fide American "nudie-cutie": Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), about a man with the ability to see through women's clothing. The six-reeler was shot for about $24,000, largely in a dentist's office on loan for the weekend.

Nihilist fuckfest: Rocco Siffredi in Catherine Breillat's Anatomy of Hell
photo: Courtesy Tartan Films USA
Nihilist fuckfest: Rocco Siffredi in Catherine Breillat's Anatomy of Hell

IV. Gross Indecency
As a connoisseur of the quotidian, whose first film was the six-hour Sleep, Andy Warhol was a natural-born pornographer and thereby something of a '60s outlaw. Warhol found himself under FBI investigation for interstate transport of obscene material courtesy of Lonesome Cowboys (1967), which was confiscated then recut in Atlanta in 1969; Blue Movie (1968) ran into similar trouble in godless Gotham. Law enforcement officials also took a prurient interest in Jack Smith's orgiastic Flaming Creatures (1963): From New York to Texas to Michigan, screenings were raided and prints seized, and Voice columnist Jonas Mekas received a suspended prison sentence for screening it at the New Bowery Theater on St. Marks Place.

V. Advertising
Thanks to an America-wide litigious assault that inadvertently doubled as a publicity campaign, it was Deep Throat (1972) that finally ushered porn out of the stained-raincoat closet, becoming a must-see for the hip cognoscenti—a trend The New York Times famously labeled "porno chic." The feds did their own PR no favors when they decided to prosecute not the film's mob-indebted director, Gerard Damiano, or the sword-swallowing heroine, Linda Lovelace, but male lead Harry Reems, an automatically sympathetic figure given that he spends much of Deep Throat nursing his overtaxed, bandage-swaddled member.

VI. That's Entertainment
In her pioneering 1989 study of moving-image pornography, Hard Core, the academic Linda Williams draws mischievous parallels between the musical and the porn film; Winterbottom's film pushes the analogy to its logical extreme, pairing song and, well, dance in a complementary duet of vérité performance. 9 Songs is an apt title for a movie composed of numbers: A live mix tape of tunes by young rock luminaries—Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies, Super Furry Animals, the Dandy Warhols—alternates with erotic set pieces as highly choreographed and narrative-propulsive as any musical sequence in a Freed Unit classic. In this regard, the seminal Flaming Creatures is less programmatic; as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum write in Midnight Movies, "the film ends, like a Busby Berkeley musical, with a series of ensemble and solo dance numbers."

VI. The French
Winterbottom originally intended to adapt the novel Platform by Michel Houellebecq, whose fellow French have cornered the market on high-minded nihilist fuckfests. Catherine Breillat's recent Anatomy of Hell, for one, offered up a stone dildo sliding out of a full-screen bush, as well as the tampon as Alka-Seltzer and the garden tool as phallic probe. Breillat boldly reinterprets the money shot via porn stud Rocco Siffredi's messy weeping, but 9 Songs keeps it classical, producing its hardcore credentials via the output from a blowjob and leaving the tears to the girl.

VIII. Listening Tours
The movie recognizes the concentrated Proustian potency of a rock song—we all live in fear of certain items in our record collections, knowing that an ill-advised spin could shake loose a snowy avalanche of carefully stacked and filed memories. Recording its gigs from the perspective of any face in the crowd, 9 Songs is elsewhere at its best in capturing ambient sound: unseen kids playing outside Matt and Lisa's bedroom, the deep, musical squeak of Lisa's knees against the bathtub floor as she leans over to give her sweetheart a kiss.

IX. Know It When You See It Proponents of 9 Songs have taken pains to insist that the film shouldn't be branded as porn, because (1) it has a narrative, and (2) the sex scenes aren't intended to arouse the viewer. But scads of blue movies have followed a story line, and surely it would be perverse for a work of sight and sound to get kicked out of Art Club for the crime of stirring the senses. Sex is as natural and everyday an occurrence as eating, says Winterbottom, so why can't we show it? But by the same token, you wouldn't think any less of Babette's Feast if you left the theater feeling hungry, would you?

 
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