9 Songs

Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs is a movie mystery. Not, that is, a movie about a mystery. There can be few movies in history which have been more insistent about removing any trace of mystery from what appears on screen. No, the mystery that puzzled me when I saw it was the movie itself. Why was it made? Only about 70 minutes long, its story, dialogue and characterization are all exiguous. Matt (Kieran O’Brien) is a polar research scientist who meets Lisa (Margo Stilley), an American student, at a rock concert in London. Between further rock concerts, the two of them engage in several acts of sexual intercourse in Matt’s apartment over the space of some months before Lisa decides it’s time to go back to America. There is also a framing device. At the beginning and end and various points in between we see Matt in a polar setting, ruminating in voiceover about the Antarctic and reminiscing about Lisa.

And that’s about it. There is a half-hearted attempt to link the love-affair with Antarctica when Matt describes the latter as being where “claustrophobia and agoraphobia are in the same place, like two people in a bed.” But if there is supposed to be any suggestion of a comparison between the vast frozen wasteland at the bottom of the world and Matt and Lisa’s emotional lives, it doesn’t come off. Quite the reverse. Any wasteland-metaphors would have to be Sahara-like in their heat in order to convey the emotional temperature implied by the explicitness of these sexual encounters. Along with their clothes, Winterbottom has stripped away from Matt and Lisa every last vestige of social context. This is pure sex, raw and physical, unencumbered with families or friends or personal histories. If the two lovers have anything in common but their musical taste and their wish to engage in coitus with each other, the fact does not interest Michael Winterbottom. Only briefly and mostly retrospectively is there any hint of love or romance.

That kind of minimalism looks to me as if it might be a response to a challenge. Winterbottom must have wondered if he could make a movie about a sexual encounter using nothing but sex. Or sex and music, since the “9 Songs” of the title, all of them more or less passionate effusions heard by the lovers at their various rock concerts, have about them rock’s invariable sexual suggestion — for what that’s worth. But there is also another reason why the movie was made. The publicity about it stresses the fact that has shattered a taboo, since it is the first film not made as pornography to show actual penetrative sexual acts, both oral and vaginal, an erect penis and an ejaculation, or that which is known in the porn industry as “the money shot” — except that here, we are meant to understand, there is no money in it. Honest!

Really? I’m a bit dubious. The movie, that is, does exactly what pornography does, but it’s not called pornography. It’s made by a serious director of real movies (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, Code 46, In this World) who absolutely insists, cross his heart and hope to die, that it was not made to titillate. Or to make money. Therefore, it must be original — and being original in the movies as in the other arts is thought to be reason enough for anything. Those of us whose memories reach back to the 1960s may wonder whether 9 Songs is really all that different from I Am Curious (Yellow) or Last Tango in Paris or any one of a number of other movies that allowed the high-minded to watch a bit of porn under the cover of “art.” I can even remember when “art movie” was a widely understood euphemism for the only kind of porn that was legal before the mid-1960s.

To be fair, the portrayal of the sexual acts of the lovers’ in 9 Songs really is superior to that in most of the pornographic films I have seen. There is about these a kind of built-in campiness, an exaggeration as deliberate as those comically fake balloon-breasts that porn’s best customers seem to demand. It is as if the directors had purposely to stress the artificial everywhere else as a compensation for portraying the central acts au naturel. There’s none of that in Winterbottom’s picture. Neither the sexual acts nor the lovers themselves have that prettied-up look that pornography seems unable to do without, and Miss Stilley’s breasts obviously owe nothing to surgeon or silicone.

So then the movie really is original, right? Well, sort of. But such originality, even if we allow that it exists, will mean little or nothing to ordinary movie goers. It depends on a concept borrowed from the élite world of the plastic arts. Just as there is nothing to suggest Art in a pile of bricks or an unmade bed in their normal contexts but they become art when someone has the bright idea of putting them in a museum, so movie sex becomes movie art when someone has the idea of putting it into an art movie. In other words, 9 Songs is a form of conceptual art. The point is a sort of post-modern absence of point. The film is deliberately unremarkable as sex in order to be strikingly remarkable as cinema — at least it is if we allow Winterbottom his claim to be the first director to present explicit sex that is nevertheless not explicitly pornographic.

Hey, baby. Wanna make cinematic history? Winterbottom has given us nothing on which to build any further expectation of meaning or purpose in the film beyond the passing of that milestone — unless it is just that sex without context is in some sense what movie sex really is. Movie romance, whether mainstream or pornographic, is always finding that its natural tendency is to be a seducer’s device to get the audience as quickly as possible from a social to a sexual encounter. You also can’t help wondering what Miss Stilley and Mr O’Brien had in mind when they traded away their sexual permission — a thing once thought to be of considerable value, especially to a woman. Money? Fame? A place in movie history? Perhaps the film’s real purpose is to remind us of what kids of my generation learned in the backseats of cars at the drive-in: that movies are still a great way for girls to be persuaded to do things that girls are otherwise not easily persuaded to do.

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