Brief thoughts on (Not) Going the Distance

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

This blog will feed out of my former Ning blog, Cinema Salon, which is now defunct after I refused to pay to put my thoughts online (cheers, Ning!).

Where that blog was a collective endeavour to which anyone could and some people did contribute, this new wordpress blog forces me to do it the old-fashioned way – on my own.

It is to a certain degree appropriate, then, that my first – but brief – blog on this site will be about masturbation – or more particularly phone sex as (not) depicted in Going the Distance (Nanette Burstein, USA, 2010).

During this film, long distance partners Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Garrett (Justin Long) decide that, if anything is going to help his blue ball syndrome, then they must engage in some phone sex.

This is fair enough – and what happens is a relatively comic scene in which the couple begin to get it on before realising that they are engaged in different fantasies, which ultimately they find something of a turn off and mutually decide not to complete their telesexual and phony coitus.

In the same way that Lars and the Real Girl (Craig Gillespie, USA, 2007) did not dare to show anyone shagging a sex doll (compare to Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s superior but still oddly dissatisfying Kûki ningyô/Air Doll (Japan, 2009), in which the doll gets pumped – and penetrated – on many occasions), Going the Distance similarly refuses to, well, go the distance when it comes to depicting sex on screen.

The phone sex moment is only one of several acts of coitus interruptus in the film: the couple’s first night together is spoilt – at least initially – by the ‘soundtrack’ provided by Garrett’s flatmate Dan (Charlie Day); their reunion shag after Erin has moved back in with her sister is spoilt by both sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and her humdrum husband Phil (Jim Gaffigan – of whom Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rich man’s version). In the second case, frantically are they making love on the dining room table that they wake up Corinne, before realising that Phil was having a midnight snack alongside them all along.

Yes – this is all amusing, particularly when Dan interjects and explains that he was enjoying the fantasy that Garrett was putting forward on the phone. But what is interesting is what I shall call the prudishness of the whole affair: there is a level of frankness at play – sex happens – but never are we going actually to see it. Even though the film shows us more or less everything but a couple shagging in the dining room scene.

This is perhaps just all very standard Hollywood: no sex, please, we’re evangelicals. But what is interesting is that in the cases of sex, one gets the impression that no one minds being seen. That is to say, after Dan’s initial interruption, Erin says that he can deejay and they continue to make out (we cut to the next morning). And when Erin and Garrett are caught by Phil on the dining room table, one gets the impression that happily they would have carried on (for him), had Corinne not come down to spoil their fun. In other words, Erin and Garrett are happy to talk about sex. I would wager that they themselves are happy to ‘perform’ sex in front of other people. But the filmmakers are unhappy for them to perform sex in front of us.

What is interesting is that the characters in the film are wary of their audience and as such their sex is not just an intimate moment between two people, but it is a performance of sex that knows very well that it is being watched. Where diegetically Erin and Garrett are performers, Justin Long and Drew Barrymore as actors in the film will not perform that which their characters are prepared to. For the actors, sex remains private, but for the characters it is a public show – to which we audience members do not gain access.

This is not about film ratings necessarily. Or if it is, it is an issue with film ratings in general – because of course this film wants to maximise its profits and can only do so by achieving certain certificates (cue the usual argument about how extreme violence gets barely any censorship, but put human reproduction on a screen and everyone is up in arms). What I am trying to say is that Going the Distance suggests that Americans are very happy to perform sex, but that this performance – for other people – surely uncovers a refusal to engage in sex as a participatory activity between those doing it as opposed to a participatory activity between those doing it and those watching it. This is not just Garrett using Erin as a springboard to kudos from Dan (although there is an element of this at play somewhere in the film), because Erin is complicit in this and wants to show off her own sexual prowess to her sister and brother-in-law, after all. This, then, is about how in these cutesy relationships, people are not engaged with each other as people, but they are engaged only with themselves and an obsession with being perceived by others as ‘in love’ – as opposed ‘really’ to being in love (if we can know what that is).

Phil emerges as the bad guy when he criticises Garrett for his romantic gestures towards Erin. It is not that ‘real love’ is or must be devoid of romance; but the probably more ‘real’ relationship is critiqued for not involving the same element of performance of love. Or at least, so it seems.

For the film decides to damn Phil even further by telling us that he is into frotting – i.e. sex without penetration – something that Garrett and Erin catch Phil and Corinne doing at the film’s climax. In other words, the film projects on to Phil and Corinne the refusal of intimate contact that in fact lies at the heart of Erin and Garrett’s own relationship – this in spite of the fact that Phil and Corinne ostensibly have a child (I think played by Taylor Schwenke) – i.e. despite the fact that they obviously have had ‘real’ and reproductive sexual relations.

The phone sex scene can round off my thoughts about this film. While the film in general is cute, charming and often amusing, the refusal to perform phone sex (even though Dan must have heard Garrett wanking in the past – and vice versa, given how thin their walls are) seems odd. This surely would be precisely the kind of performance of sex that Erin and Garrett are into. Well, no. And the reason is because Erin and Garrett are into performing sex instead of enjoying each other – but only when they do not have to admit that their love-making is just a performance. For this reason, when faced with the obvious fact that they are performing sexually for each other, everything breaks down and they refuse to finish themselves off.

Or rather, if Garrett really has blue balls and if Erin really is turned on, one suspects that they happily finish themselves off – but not telephonically in front of the other person (even if Garrett will do so in front of Dan). What is it about the contemporary condition that people prefer to masturbate – or, in the case of Garrett and Erin’s sex, projected on to Phil and Corinne, to masturbate mutually – as opposed genuinely to making love with the other person?

We can turn this around: when was sex ever about genuine shared enjoyment as opposed to the reflected glory of masturbating into another human being in front of other people? But I’d probably stick to the first way of phrasing this conundrum, because masturbation definitely exists, it is an intensely private pastime, and one that few people, I mean couples together, manage to address. By which I mean to say: as humans seem to pursue ever greater lengths to pleasure themselves alone (check here for a recent shocking example, complete with a link to a photo that I did not dare to look at), few seem to be able to achieve the supposed satisfaction from love making that one would seem to get from wanking and other solitary sexual activities.

Perhaps it has always been thus and to hypothesise that it has ever been otherwise is to romanticise a mythical past in which things were different.

But if film has any influence on us at all, then the solitary act of fantasising about images, which is part and parcel of how the film industry seems to want to work with regard to audiences, cannot help to make this romantic and presumed superior notion of genuine contact any the more real. Film wants us to want images, not people. To get (to) a person, one has to go a distance further than simply a geographical distance, as happens in this film. In the same way that Erin and Garrett never go the sexual distance in the film, nor do they go anywhere towards love.

Perhaps they know this when they both say that they want to marry their best friend (i.e. Dan?). But one feels sorry for Corinne and Phil for giving it a go and for having the film mock them from start to finish for not being cynical hipsters in the Erin/Garrett mold.

Indeed, credit to Corinne and Phil: it might seem dysfunctional, but paradoxically it is more intimate of them to share their masturbatory practices with each other than it is for Garrett and Erin to refuse to acknowedge that this is what they are doing, preferring instead to hide the performative nature of their sexual relations. That Corinne and Phil do it on the same dining room table might suggest that both want to be like Garrett and Erin, in fact – but the film would of course not want them to be the happier couple and so that they are forced to engage in their own (mocked, unfairly) sexual practices in the same place as Garrett and Erin engaged in their ostensibly more real but paradoxically more dysfunctional relations is to be expected from this film.

A final note: Erin and Garrett get together at a gig performed by a band (The Boxer Rebellion) managed by Garrett. Performance brings this couple together – but in nothing like the provocative and ultimately quite destructive if productive way that Michael Winterbottom’s under-rated 9 Songs (UK, 2004) does, with its immensely graphic representation of sex. That film, Winterbottom’s, really does go the distance (and one wonders that Going the Distance even knowingly copies Winterbottom’s digitally shot film during a dinner sequence also shot on digital camera – by the looks of it – and in which Justin Long performs one-liners to Drew Barrymore wearing a Playboy-esque bow tie – what else?)…