Lesbian

America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-FILM-FESTIVAL-CANNES

The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) film still

For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.

Advertisements

Even “Perfect” Has Its Thorn; Cynthia Rose and the Gay Stereotype

Cynthia Rose (right, Ester Dean) humps a fellow group member in “Pitch Perfect”

Brilliant screenwriting is unmistakable. We count on it to carry us through a film’s entirety. Careless writing in an otherwise enjoyable screenplay, however, can mar even the wittiest of writers’ work. A mere moment of sloppiness degrading a film as an unwelcome party guest showing up two courses through dinner.

Such is the messy plate of Pitch Perfect‘s interpretation of a “gay” character, the butch, short hair sportin’, pussy-lovin’, titty-grabbin’, black bulldyke stereotype otherwise known as Cynthia Rose. But, what’s the point of giving her a name? Those offensive descriptors are how the filmmakers want you to see her, anyway. It’s a shame, because Pitch Perfect, otherwise effectively written by Kay Cannon, is an enjoyable film without a malicious bone in its celluloid body, telling the story of an all-female acapella group struggling its way to the to the top of yet another male-dominated field. It’s at once powerful social commentary on the trickling down of patriarchal dominance, but it’s merely the sloppy, outside-the-lines pandering for humor at the expense of a gay character that gives the film a sour aftertaste.

Cynthia Rose is given no purpose in the film other than to generate laughs in one of two ways; A) When any other characters questions her sexuality and B) when she indiscriminately grabs for any body part of the nearest female character. She’s plopped into the screenplay without much motivation; she tries out for an accapella group, makes the cut, and is never given much thought again–until a cheap joke at her expense can be thrown her way. The other girls get a kick out of speculating about her sexuality. A few of them find themselves in various compromising positions whilst in her proximity; Cynthia Rose is there, lust in her eyes and nothing but air in her hands, copping a feel whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Let’s take, for example, a scene which sees Cynthia’s fellow group member, Fat Amy, reeling on the ground after a rival group throws food at her from a moving bus. Amy writhes on the ground, screaming for help as if she’s been shot. Cynthia is first on the scene, beaming at the opportunity to give way-open-mouth CPR to a friend who’s clearly breathing (enough so that her screams alerted Cynthia) on the ground. The joke would be funny if it were, say, someone with a prior sexually-induced trait; we laugh at Quagmire on “Family Guy” because we know he’s a sex addict. A breast, leg, or thigh comically coincidentally finding its way into his line of vision, for example, might inspire an actual sexual response. We expect this because of his addiction to sex, not because of his gender or sexual orientation. Pitch Perfect has you believe Cynthia Rose’s only motivation is that she’s a woman attracted to other women. The straight men in the film, however, keep their hands to themselves. They proposition women, but we’re never given even the slightest inclination that they’re resisting the insatiable urge to to grasp every piece of female flesh which walks before them. Countless other scenes draw on this same “gay is funny” principle; Cynthia makes attempts at grabbing other girls constantly throughout, and each instance comes at a time when far funnier things are going on around her. Say I’m a whiner, but the carelessness in presenting a gay character in such a ridiculously backwards manner is distracting (and detracting) from an otherwise pleasant comedic excursion.

Some might say the film also mocks “fat” people with the inclusion of a character with “fat” in her name. The joke with Fat Amy, however, is not that she’s a “fat” person. “You really call yourself ‘Fat Amy’?” one character asks her. “Yes, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” she responds. The humor lies within Amy’s insistence on taking control of an otherwise oppressive situation. She embraces herself enough to throw the criticism back into the face of someone who might try to do the same to her. She’s a step ahead. Cynthia instead fuels the criticism by mere existence, the laughs coming at the expense of her inherent desire versus her harnessing control away from the social status quo.

I remember watching the documentary “The Celluloid Closet”, listening to Harvey Fierstein discuss the offensive “sissy” characters of early cinema. Forgive me, for exact quotes always elude me, but I believe he said something to the effect of “I’d rather have offensive screen time than no screen time at all.” The phrase struck me as well-intentioned, but misinformed; that response diminishes an entire culture as desperate for attention versus long overdue for equality. Pitch Perfect, a film by all means about a subject completely different, will have you oddly pondering the presence of gay characters in a similarly muddled fashion. Sure, the joke is “funny” at face value and the gay character is “there,” but are audiences laughing such characters back into the closet, mocking inherent attractions characters like Jack Twist and Nic Allgood feel simply because they’re attractions?

Disregard all the “whining,” if you will, but I’ll leave you with this question: Is Pitch Perfect a better film because of the addition of the content I’m talking about? A worse film? If you can answer that, there’s a problem.