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Art or Pornography? A Look at 9 Songs

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn this classic article from a previous Sex Week, CC2K’s Phoebe Raven looks at Michael Winterbottom’s controversial ode to sex and music.

You gotta love German TV. Only in a country as liberal as this one could you be channel-surfing one Wednesday night and stumble over a movie like 9 Songs on a regular cable channel. A movie that is called pornography by some, artsy by others and garnered X ratings around the globe (which is an 18 rating in some European countries).

Though written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, who brought us A Mighty Heart and 24 Hour Party People, I’m not sure I want to call 9 Songs artsy nor do I want to deem it pornography, but it surely is an experience somewhere between the two. I was pretty damn happy no one was with me when I caught it on TV, because I think I would have blushed a million times over, the movie is so explicit. By the end of it, in one of the final scenes, I couldn’t actually believe my eyes. What I had merely suspected before was actually confirmed in that scene, the lead actress and actor were actually having real sex right there in front of the camera. Now you know why people accuse this of being a porno.

The plot of the movie is quickly told. Young American woman Lisa comes to England to work there for a year, she meets glaciologist Matt, they fall in love and go to a bunch of concerts at Brixton Academy together, all the while sharing a lot of intimacy and sex until it is time for Lisa to go back home.

The film basically consists of concert footage of the gigs the two lovers attend (guest appearances here by Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals and more) and sex scenes between the couple. If you are a fan of live music or some of the bands that appear, you will enjoy the shaky coverage of the concert experiences, but they are also significant for the story, because the lyrics of the songs featured actually give hints about the plot. If you are a fan of tastefully done sex scenes that are not exploitative, then you will enjoy the bedroom scenes in this film, but they also make statements beyond arousal about the relationship between the main characters.

Once you’ve gotten accustomed to the explicit sex scenes (assuming you are not a regular viewer of porn and are over it anyway), you can actually read them to be about Lisa and Matt’s relationship and catch the messages between the sheets, erm … lines, of course.

Let’s face it, before we turn 30 most of our relationships focus on sex, whether you’re having a lot of it or concentrating on abstaining fromit. When you’re young, you’re free and inclined to explore your sexuality. Therefore it makes perfect sense to tell the story of a relationship of twentysomethings through sex scenes in a movie. From the passion that dominates everything at first, so much you don’t even make it out of the kitchen before the deed is done, to the sexual role playing and variations later on, when trust has started to build up. We see it all in 9 Songs. Bondage, lovemaking, fellatio (including real ejaculation), leather boots and waking up in the morning together. Lisa and Matt have angry sex, make up sex, slow sex, rough sex and always good sex. When the movie ends it is obvious why the relationship ends as well. These are two young people who have their whole lives in front of them. They don’t want to be tied down, they want to try it all. And now they have tried it all with each other, so it’s time to move on.
Matt seems to have a harder time with it than Lisa, who is, as Matt puts it “deliciously egoistic.”

Don’t get me wrong – this is by no means the perfect movie to make about young relationships, there have been others and better ones. For all this movies does right with the lack of score in the sex scenes and the immediate cinematography (hand held cameras say hello), there are a few things that make me doubtful of this movie.

First up are the few small scenes we get of Matt in the Antarctic, flying over miles and miles of glacier or stomping through the snow while philosophizing in voice-overs about claustrophobia and acrophobia in the same place. These are taking place after Lisa has left and he is still suffering form the break-up. It is never entirely clear though what these scenes are supposed to symbolize. The cheesy, generic voice-overs don’t make it any clearer either. At best they are a failed attempt to infuse some fake artistry into the movie to relieve it of precisely the accusation made against it, namely that it merely is a pornographic film.

Next, I don’t really see the use of having your actors have real sex. I’m not saying this because I am a prude, not at all. For all I care people can have sex all they want, on film as well, if they like to do that. But it wasn’t the actors’ choice to have sex while filming, it was the writer’s and director’s, Michael Winterbottom’s choice. The obvious advantage of having your actors have real sex while you film is that you don’t have to go for any of the overused cop-outs many soft core films or even the racier Hollywood romances include to cover genitalia or avoid certain angles. But other than that, I really don’t see the advantage, which is only asserted more by the lead actress actually wanting her name removed from the credits after shooting, because she was uncomfortable with the result. (To spoil the surprise, her name is in the credits now, it’s Margo Stilley. Someone must have convinced her to be proud of what she did.)

Be that as it may, it might just be that an open, honest, uncensored look at young people’s sexuality was needed in Michael Winterbottom’s opinion. I don’t think the people in the same age group as Matt and Lisa needed this look, because we know what goes on in our bedrooms, but it just may be that the older generations needed this revelation. Come to think of it, the more prude of our generation probably needed those bedroom doors opened as well, even if it only is on screen.

One last warning before you run out and rent this movie to see what the hell I am talking about all this time: In my opinion Margo Stilley is not the hottest woman who ever lived, her body is a bit boyish and no, she is no blonde either. But she is natural and charming in her portrayal of Lisa. Kieran O’Brien, who plays Matt, on the other hand is not a looker. His ears rival those of Prince Charles and his nose is a tad disproportioned, but he is a decent actor, and with the above average other feature he has to offer, you don’t pay attention to his face much anyway. And guys, be careful you don’t walk away depressed from this movie thinking you don’t measure up. We girls are not as fixated on size as some might think.

At this point it is time for a conclusion and strangely enough I don’t really have one. I didn’t take away much from 9 Songs, it wasn’t a huge revelation to me as it may be for people who have never seen a porno or have never had sex, but it is a movie that would be great to watch with your partner to set the tone for a long night of fun. And you two alone will decide if there will be cameras involved or not.