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Sex and the (Park) City: Considering An Atypically Sexual Sundance Film Festival

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 26, 2013 at 12:52PM

Sex and the Sundance Film Festival is not a new equation. In fact, sex and this Sundance Film Festival isn't a new equation. It's been a talking point since before the festival even started.
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"Two Mothers"
"Two Mothers"

Sex and the Sundance Film Festival is not a new equation. In fact, sex and this Sundance Film Festival isn't a new equation. It's been a talking point since before the festival even started.

Leading into this year's festival, The Sutherland Institute, a super-conservative group (even for super-conservative Utah), said that state funding for Sundance should be cut on the grounds that its sexually explicit content doesn't jive with Utah’s "family values."

In this blog post a week before the festival kicked off, Sutherland public policy director Derek Monson said:

"For the sake of public decency and encouraging a free, moral society, the state of Utah should end its 'complex relationship' with the Sundance Film Festival. The festival’s organizers can continue to promote their goals without being dependent on taxpayers, and Utah taxpayers do not have to endorse films that are obscene and contrary to their values."

It's doubtful Monson's hissy fit will effect any future editions of Sundance.

“Sometimes the narrowest mind barks the loudest, and we’ve over time come to ignore it,” Sundance founder Robert Redford proclaimed at the festival's opening day press conference. “It’s a free country and maybe they should look at the Constitution.”

And he's right. But either way, one has to wonder if Monson or his fellow Sutherland Institute-ites had any idea how much this edition of the festival would go against his so-called "family values." 

Dubbed by many as "Porndance," the 2013 edition of Sundance proved an endlessly and uniquely sexual affair which has brought forth considerable chatter from festivalgoers and countless "sex at Sundance"-themed articles from the mainstream media.

But now that the festival is coming to an official close, let's take a closer look at the relationship between sex and Sundance 2013, because it's a fascinating one. And reducing it to a "Porndance" headline simply doesn't it do it justice.

The Spectacular Now
There was certainly some sexual themes characteristic of any given Sundance this year. Youthful sexual awakenings are a festival staple, and they were plentiful: Miles Teller taking Shailene Woodley's virginity in "The Spectacular Now;" Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen looking to lose their virginity in their final summer before college in "Very Good Girls;" Daniel Radcliffe portraying Allen Ginsberg's budding queer sexuality through his relationship with Dane DeHaan's Lucien Carr in "Kill Your Darlings." But as the countless arrows on all of Sundance's official trailers, posters and merchandise made clear, this year's programming was all about moving forward, and sexuality was no exception.

One of the films that the Sutherland Institute -- without having actually seen it -- used as a primary example of why Utah needs to stop funding Sundance was Anne Fontaine's "Two Mothers." The film is adapted from Doris Lessing's true story-based novella "The Grandmothers" and depicts two lifelong best friends (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) who begin knowingly having sexual relationships with each other's teenage surfer sons (Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville).

"Admittedly, having an affair with your friend’s son while she simultaneously has an affair with yours is a 'complex' relationship," the Sutherland Institute noted, "not to mention indecent, immoral, and potentially illegal, depending on the boys’ ages."

Robin Weigert in "Concussion"
Robin Weigert in "Concussion"

If the folks at the Sutherland Institute had actually seen "Two Mothers" before attacking Sundance's 2013 program, they could have added one genuinely warranted adjective to their little laundry list: Atrocious. "Mothers" is a gloriously wasted opportunity to explore a fascinating sexual and emotional dynamic, instead opting -- apparently unintentionally -- to become Sundance 2013's most-likely-to-succeed as a camp classic.

But "Two Mothers" introduces a trend present throughout the festival's program, one thankfully much more admirable in other examples. "Mothers" deals with intergenerational sexual relationships between older women and their younger partners. It's also directed by a woman. All of the above can also be said about three other films at Sundance: Liz W. Garcia’s "The Lifeguard," Hannah Fidell's "A Teacher" and Stacie Passon's "Concussion." 

Each directed by a first-time filmmaker, this trio of films do what "Two Mothers" fails to even attempt in using a female lense to explore complex female characters and their sexual relationships with younger partners. "The Lifeguard" follows Leigh (Kirsten Bell), a 29-year-old who moves back to her hometown only to find herself in an intense sexual relationship with a hot 16-year-old; "A Teacher" depicts an unstable high school English teacher (Lindsay Burge) whose having sex with one of her students; "Concussion" presents us with a fortysomething housewife (Robin Weigert) who begins a double life of lesbian prostitution behind the backs of her wife and kids.

Don't just call them cougars (though with "Two Mothers," go right ahead). In very different ways, each of these filmmakers use their first features to give us female protagonists that use -- to various levels of self-destruction -- their younger sex partners to attempt to push them through life crises (a quarter-life crisis in "Lifeguard," a mid-life crisis in "Concussion," and a full-on mental breakdown in "A Teacher"). They are complex character studies above all else, utilizing inter-generational sex to give their narratives a unique sense of humanity.

"I think maybe sexuality is being repositioned to where I think it actually belongs," "Concussion" actress Robin Weigert told Indiewire earlier the festival when discussing the common themes her film shared with others. "Which is at the center of a person instead of being something titillating -- what we do to get off or whatever. It's being re-understood as what it really is. Which is a fundamental, human aspect. And that's what I think these movies are addressing. I don't think they're salacious -- at least the ones I've seen."

"Don Jon's Addiction"
"Don Jon's Addiction"

The multi-generational sexual relationship does get one view through a male gaze in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon's Addiction." The film finds Gordon-Levitt portraying a thirty-ish New Jersey player (nicknamed Don Jon) who has a serious addiction to online pornography that's keeping him from any sort of meaningful romantic relationship. Enter Julianne Moore, a fifty-ish woman who shows Don Jon that sex isn't just about self-pleasure.

Though much more (intentionally) comedic than any of the aforementioned examples, "Don Jon's Addiction" is just as insightful. Gordon-Levitt proves himself very capable of giving us a narrative that takes on gender roles and hetero-male sexuality in an accessible but intelligent manner.

It also is a film that blurs together the two dominant unique themes regarding sexuality at Sundance this year: Multi-generational relationships and pornography. 

Easily the most disappointing of those films was the latest from Michael Winterbottom, who came to the festival eight years ago with a much more admirable and sexually explicit film, 2005's "9 Songs." This time he presents "The Look of Love," one of two biopics of porn industry icons. "Love" stars Winterbottom regular Steve Coogan as porn emperor Paul Raymond, and features a lot of nudity (though almost exclusively female). But it's generally a vapid, familiar narrative of the rise and fall of a once-successful man that will likely -- and deservedly -- be forgotten soon after Sundance comes and goes (though it was picked up for US release via IFC Films).

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who came to Sundance a few years back with their first narrative feature "Howl," also about the aforementioned Allen Ginsberg) gave the festival its other porn biopic in "Lovelace," the story of "Deep Throat" star Linda Boreman (aka Linda Lovelace, played in the film by Amanda Seyfriend), who led a hardly enviable life after becoming one of the first porn stars to become a household name when "Throat" became a full-on sensation in the early 1970s. More tame than "The Look and Love," "Lovelace" is also much more commendable in its non-exploitative look at its subject, presenting a feminist narrative somewhat in line with the female-directed films noted earlier.

"Ironicallly, ['Deep Throat'] was the first pornographic film that even approached the idea that women might want to get sexually gratified," "Lovelace" co-director Friedman told Indiewire. "It's about satisfying a man, but the plot is really about a woman trying to find her own sense of sexual gratification."


Travis Mathews and James Franco's "Interior. Leather Bar."
Travis Mathews and James Franco's "Interior. Leather Bar."

In a cameo role as Hugh Hefner, "Lovelace" also features James Franco (who also starred as Ginsberg in "Howl"). But it's by far Franco's least substantial contribution to sex at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. In something of a parallel to Hefner (but in a much more progressive way), Franco admirably was a sort of celebrity spokesperson for sex positivity at Sundance, bringing two films to the festival as a producer ("Kink") and co-director ("Interior. Leather Bar"), and giving them loads of deserved attention.

Collectively, these two projects are perhaps the cornerstones of sexual representation at Sundance this year. "Kink" -- produced by Franco and directed by Christina Voros -- is a documentary that looks at the world inside the San Francisco armory that houses the porn production facilities of BDSM (short for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism) website kink.com. Though it features multiple scenes of explicit sex itself, "Kink" mainly works to break through the misconceptions facing both BDSM in general and the way the porn associated with it is produced.

"The subject matter of these videos was pretty extreme," James Franco told Indiewire during Sundance. "I watch a certain kind of pornography, but this was much more extreme than the kind of pornography than I watch. And the dynamic within the video -- the sort of sadomasochistic dynamics within the video -- were so different from what was happening behind the scenes. There it felt like everybody is on the same team and everybody is working together."

"Kink"
"Kink"

"Interior. Leather Bar," meanwhile, is a project Franco co-directed with Travis Mathews ("I Want Your Love"). A blend of documentary and fiction, the film is about the two of them trying to remake the 40 minutes of explicit S&M material apparently cut from William Friedkin's 1980 film "Cruising" to avoid an X rating. While that in itself is an interesting concept (and part of the film is indeed a deliciously hardcore recreation of just that), the film extends well beyond it to discuss representations of queer sex in both Hollywood and society in general.

"As a filmmaker and a creative person I'm always interesting in questioning or examining areas or topics that create fissures or make us question how we are living," Franco said. "Is it by choice? What do we believe in? Is it because that's exactly how we want to live and that's what's making us happy? Or is that something that is sort of handed down in various ways of pop culture school, advertisers, everything. That's one of main reasons I was also interested in these subjects... I wanted to use real sex. But not in a pornographic way but in a way that helped talk about ideas or help tell a story."

And Franco's mission is perhaps the best way to summarize the relationship the 2013 Sundance Film Festival had to sex. Whether real or simulated, in documentary or in narrative. At its best it was used to indeed talk about ideas or to help tell a story. And most of it has already sold to US distributors, meaning this discussion won't necessarily live in the Park City bubble that was the last 11 days, and might just start some conversations elsewhere.  And while it might be tempting for those conversations to be more of the "so why is James Franco doing all these sex movies anyway" variety, it's a way, way more interesting conversation to look at what Franco (and Mathews and Voros and Passon and Fidell and Garcia and Gordon-Levitt) are doing instead of why.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco , Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Concussion, Two Mothers, The Lifeguard, Lovelace, Kink