Friday, February 18, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Sex on Screen, Now & Then

The depiction of sex on screen has been a source of controversy, titillation and even academic study since the early years of the film industry. While some moviegoers complain about increasingly graphic sex scenes, others defend them as important expressions of artistic freedom, albeit for adults only.

A great retrospective of films made in the last 30 years that are renown for their frank take on human sexuality — heterosexual, homosexual, and everything in between — will take place at the Quad Cinema in New York City today through February 24 and then at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Los Angeles February 25-March 4. This "Celebrating Sex in Cinema" series will include 1986's notorious but excellent Betty Blue plus more recent eye-openers Antichrist, 9 Songs, Shortbus and the acclaimed documentaries This Film is Not Yet Rated and The Price of Pleasure. In LA, Bruce LaBruce's flamboyantly gay 1996 homage to classic Hollywood, Hustler White, will also screen as part of the retrospective.


Both city's showcases will also feature the latest entry in this envelope-pushing, non-pornographic-but-just-barely-so genre (and some would term Shortbus, at least, decidedly pornographic for its shots of ejaculations). Philippe Diaz's Now & Later is an intelligent exploration of sexuality that takes a quote from philosopher-sociologist Wilhelm Reich as its starting point: "A sexually repressed society will resort to violence." Reich wrote that the most famous illustration of this to date was Nazi Germany, where natural sexual impulses were largely condemned and the resultant cultural inhibitions led to the Holocaust and all out war.

In Now & Later, an attractive young man named Bill (played by James Wortham) is on the run from the law due to his involvement in a banking scandal. He is planning to leave Los Angeles for Nicaragua with the help of his immigrant friend/former driver, Luis. While Luis makes the final arrangements for Bill to leave the US, Bill hides out in the rooftop apartment of Angela (the lovely and vivacious Shari Solanis). Angela is a sexually uninhibited professional nurse, originally from Nicaragua, who has learned through her own past experience living under a repressive political regime that "Free love is the only true love." She decides to help Bill shed his puritanical worldview by overcoming his sexual inhibitions. Graphic lovemaking and blunt conversations about such seemingly disparate subjects as masturbation, luck/chance vs. will, and US foreign policy follow.


There is a lot of talk in Now & Later, despite its vigorous sex scenes, and the film really bogs down in the middle with a lengthy political discussion between Angela and Bill. However, it is generally very well-written and -acted as well as beautifully photographed. Wortham comes across as wooden at first, but gradually this becomes intentional and appropriate for his character; Bill loosens up as his libido is unchained. The film gets bonus points for giving the men equal exposure when it comes to full-frontal nudity (I say this from a justice perspective rather than a gay one), for including condom use in the sex scenes, and for a three-way, bisexual scene involving sexy TV star Adrian Quinonez.

Writer-director Diaz earned a doctorate at Europe's prestigious Sorbonne, and it shows in his work here. Anyone going to see Now & Later expecting a mindless orgy of sex will be disappointed. The film is more reminiscent of moody, literate films like Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (both directed by Phillip Kaufman), Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris or Catherine Breillat's Romance (yes, women make sexually explicit movies too) than Debbie Does Dallas or Chi Chi Larue's latest gay porn epic.


Diaz, his predecessors and his current collaborators are right to challenge the enduring puritanical attitudes toward sex that have long permeated American culture. The end result has been a media that is overly permissive of violence and violent sex and virtually neglects mature, loving sexuality.

So, you ask, what are Reverend's fave "Sex in Cinema" achievements? In addition to Kaufman's two masterpieces above, I'm a fan of the kinky yet artistic eroticism of Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book; 1988's underrated, vividly acted Patti Rocks; the late Derek Jarman's "saintly" Sebastiane; and the gay coming-of-age drama Come Undone. Also, while it isn't sexually graphic, I would feel remiss if I didn't mention Bill Condon's Kinsey, a great biopic of the (in)famous sex researcher.

Movie Dearest would love to hear YOUR favorites! Be sure to leave your comment below.

Reverend's Rating for Now & Later: B

UPDATE: Now & Later is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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