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by Peter Knegt
January 26, 2013 12:52 PM
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Sex and the (Park) City: Considering An Atypically Sexual Sundance Film Festival

"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"

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"
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."

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8 Comments

  • James D. | January 28, 2013 11:12 AMReply

    Peter Knegt remains the primary reason I read Indiewire, and this article is the perfect example as to why.

  • Michael Medeiros | January 28, 2013 1:58 AMReply

    Well...we've got some comments here, haven't we? I just want to say that sex is a normal part of life. It's after all how we get here. It also, metaphorically speaking, is an affirmation of life. The hero rides off into the sunset with the loved woman and together they will continue the journey of humans on the planet. That being said, Hollywood, which includes indiewood, has always used sex to sell product. And the new rules, ie: cable, internet allow for so much more than in the past. Potentially, this is a good thing, as it allows telling stories that previously were not viable. Of course, the downside is that a lot of gratuitous fluff (and who will be the judge) floods the filmscape. There's a lot of ugliness on the internet, including comments on blogs and such. You know, sex is not "bad." And the sexual revolution, so called, is not over. It never will be over as long as so many humans are so screwed up and guilty about sex. That being said, I think corporate america does commercialize and use and distort sex in ways that are irresponsible. Sex can be healthy and good but is distorted in so many ways by so many forces.

  • Jeremiah | January 26, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    this writer and all the filmmakers he mentions shall rot in hell

  • Jeremiah | January 26, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    this writer and all the filmmakers he mentions shall rot in hell

  • Jeremiah | January 26, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    this writer and all the filmmakers he mentions shall rot in hell

  • L | January 26, 2013 4:29 PMReply

    Sex in film needs to be taken out till everyone is educated on both sides the reserved puritan types and.The people who feel the need too just blatantly throw it in our faces with tastelessly .Like why do we need to make movies that border pornography ? Is this the by product of a degenerate deteriorating hollywood film industry.What the fuck does pornograpghy have to do with art people need to learn to let the 60's and 70's go.The sexual revolution came and went get over it why rehash it ? Indie film makers are the biggest hypocrites simply for the fact that they copy the same hollywood tactics of getting attention for a movie.They just take it to and extreme shock level .I blame reality t.v films arent art they are made like news reports wheres the new ideas? wheres the creativity ? as far im concerned i haven't seen any ,indie films are just a front for people who weren't good enough to make a mainstream hollywood film.Places like sundance are homes to these "misfit toys"

  • ls | January 27, 2013 6:07 AM

    Because we have the first amendment and what you consider art doesn't have to apply to everyone. If film-makers want to explore the subject of sex who are you to tell them otherwise?
    You proposed it such be banned? So you want to live in an autocratic society? Freedom of speech doesn't just apply to what you agree with, that's not freedom of speech. You say people need to be educated? These movies are 18plus and if they went to public school they were educated on sex. Why would sex need to be taken out of film just because of your ignorance? That's nonsensical.

    "wheres the new ideas? wheres the creativity ?"
    They are everywhere and nowhere. You proposing creativity is dead, isn't an original thought either, so start with yourself. The fact that you can even say that in relevance to sundance and then favour mainstream wide released films just proves you're either a troll or a complete delusion moron with incessantly bad taste.

  • Rocket | January 26, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    "...depraved mind as though their conscience had been seared with a hot iron."