Donald Sutherland's Buttocks, or Sex in Movies for People Who Have Sex by Jonathon Lethem

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" — Donald Sutherland's buttocks — " Those were the words that drew my attention from the other side of the table. My wife's friend Pauline was speaking them to my wife. What struck me most wasn't the odd specificity of the reference, nor the muddled thrill of jealousy and delight that lurches through my heart as it does anytime I gather that someone is talking about something sexual with my wife (ensuring the instant obliteration of my attention to any topic I might have been discussing at my end of the table). What struck me then, and what strikes me now, is that I knew what Pauline was talking about, instantly. And so I leaned across and said: Don't Look Now!

    No one who has ever seen it has forgotten the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The scene is characterized by a tension between Roeg's cool, artfully distanced camera and the (apparent) commitment to total disclosure on the part of the unclothed actors, which has led to the legend that what was filmed was something more than a performance. The borderline-explicit sex is edited, too, in a disconcerting series of cuts, with flash forwards to the couple dressing to go out afterwards. This deepens the meaning of the sex scene, adds a note of pensiveness, even sadness. The rest of the film — a supernatural melodrama both tragic and terrifying — seems to tug at the edges of that single scene, making the sex appear in retrospect more poignant and precious. Their beautiful, disturbing, uncannily real fucking will turn out to be the only moment of reprieve for the two characters, the only moment of absolute connection. Even the film's title comes to seem a reference to the intensity of the sex scene. The result is like a brand sizzling into the viewer's sexual imagination. We feel

we've learned something about sex, even as we're certain it required every bit of our own previous knowledge of sex to be in a position to receive and confirm the scene's knowingness, its completely non-verbal epiphanies. And so, when I heard Pauline say "Donald Sutherland's buttocks", I felt with a shudder my memory of this scene instantly recover itself, and I was touched and frightened and turned on again. And I wanted to take my wife away from Pauline and the others and show her the scene, because unlike nearly any other scene of sex I'd ever watched, this one was like a piece of my own sexual past.
    This, to put it bluntly, is what I want. Not Donald Sutherland's buttocks in and of themselves, but films that install themselves this way in my sexual imagination, by making me feel that sex is a part of life, a real and prosaic and reproducible fact in the lives of the characters, as it is in my own life, and at the same time makes me feel that sex is an intoxicant, a passage to elsewhere, a jolt of the extraordinary which stands entirely outside the majority of the experiences of the characters, as it stands in relation to my own experience. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I want the paradox. I want it all.
    Where and how this can come to happen in cinema's future is beyond my expertise — it occurs rarely enough in cinema's past and present that I suspect it is beyond anyone's expertise, that it instead must be discovered, perhaps even scared up sideways, in the midst of operations in pursuit of other truths. (Certainly Don't Look Now wasn't conceived, or received, as a "sex film"— and I've recently learned that the famous scene was in fact an afterthought, shot after the script was exhausted but the director unsatisfied). I didn't meet even a hint of it in Closer or Y Tu Mama Tambien or Henry and June or We Don't Live Here Anymore, but I did in the Israeli director Dover Koshashvili's Late Marriage, a slice-of-life drama both farcical and realistic. In Late Marriage, when the mama's-boy protagonist calls on his secret girlfriend, an older woman, the two unexpectedly devour each other in a long explicit scene that pinballs from annoyance to arousal to boredom and back to arousal, with a pause in the middle to sniff a used tissue for traces of bodily fluids — precisely the sort of Donald-Sutherland's-buttocks moment that makes a sex scene ineffable and lasting, a revelation. I met it for an instant in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, in the expression that crosses Barbara Stanwyck's face, so giddy it almost feels like an actor's lapse out of character, as she says to Henry Fonda: "Why, Hopsie . . . you ought to be kept in a cage!" (Oh, yes, I meet it often when I watch Barbara Stanwyck, and I wonder where our Barbara Stanwyck is hiding . . . might it be Maggie Gyllenhaal? On the strength of Secretary it seems possible . . . but then why aren't today's filmmakers making dozens of Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicles . . . what's their problem?) I met it, unexpectedly, in Miranda July's forthcoming ensemble comedy Me And You And Everyone We Know, where several child characters are portrayed with their sexual curiosities not only intact, but capable of setting up genuine erotic reverberations in the adults, with results that are not only disturbing and funny but also disconcertingly honest. (This is a matter that American films have been too fearful to take up, despite Hollywood's compulsive trafficking in child sexuality as an unacknowledged source of revenue, and as a source of energy in otherwise lifeless product.) I met it in Ralph Bakshi's pornographic animated films, a couple of times — most of all in the crude sequence of sex-in-a-moving-jalopy, set to Chuck Berry's frantic and bawdy "Maybelline." The scene somehow manages to convey a moment of sexual self-discovery in the autobiographical cartoonist character who is drawing the images, ratifying his lust by satirizing it. I met it, of course, in Luis Buñuel's Belle du Jour, when Catherine Deneuve, playing a wealthy housewife slumming as a prostitute, dares herself to look into the mysterious buzzing box presented to her by the enigmatic Asian whorehouse customer. What she sees there intrigues her, and her curiosity pleases the Asian gentleman. We cut to a scene afterwards, where both have been gratified by whatever it was that occupied the strange, buzzing box — we never get to see inside it ourselves.
     Am I calling for a return to reticence, to mystery? No. I'm calling for what I don't know to be calling for, I'm calling for surprise, for complicity delivered in an instant, I'm calling for filmic moments that lure and confuse me the way sex can, at its best. I don't want to choose between scrupulous, grainy, documentary realism (or the new and unsavory hi-definition nudity I've been warned about) and fantasy, imagination, exaggeration, cartoons — I want them both. Give me prosthetics, like Marky Mark's penis extension in Boogie Nights — give me even more like that, give me a whole cinema of actors in fake bodies, like Cindy Sherman's prosthetic pimply butts and swollen breasts in her still photographs. Give me the sex lives of animated characters, and of rotoscoped actors, like the ones in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and his forthcoming A Scanner Darkly — a perfect solution to marrying glamorous and recognizable actors to explicit bodies without disturbing us or the actors by disclosing the actual bodies of actors, a perfect way to keep from rupturing the dream. Give me real bodies, too, of actors I haven't met yet, in scenarios which are stubbornly unpornlike and only half-erotic, like Michael Winterbottom's forthcoming Nine Songs. Let me see what happens if Michael Winterbottom has to show his bottom, and Eliot Winterpenis his penis, and Carla Summertits her tits, and Lucius Springtesticles his testicles, and Delia Solsticeclitoris her clitoris, and so on. And, for that matter, Donald Sutherland is still among the living: let's see how his buttocks are holding up. C'mon, show me something the mention of which will make my head turn at a dinner party thirty years from now. Try and make me blink. Try and make me keep from blinking.

firstworldman (firstworldman), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 22:47 (fifteen years ago) link

that sex scene in dont look now was boring and went on forever!

ryan (ryan), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 22:50 (fifteen years ago) link

hmmm... going to have to disagree. and i couldn't agree more with lethem re: when julie christie smells the sheet... it's intimately romantic and completely perverse = totally erotic. furthermore, they're such natural looking lovers, i'm not surprised at all people thought that the sex was real.

firstworldman (firstworldman), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 23:05 (fifteen years ago) link

Haha my first thought was "ANIMAL HOUSE!!!!!!"

The Ghost of Dan Perry (Dan Perry), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 23:11 (fifteen years ago) link

Buttocks. Gusset. Bicycle saddle.

Ian Riese-Moraine. To Hell with you and your gradual evolution! (Eastern Mantra), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 23:13 (fifteen years ago) link

mine too
xpost

()ops (()()ps), Wednesday, 13 April 2005 23:13 (fifteen years ago) link

thanks for posting that firstworldman, i enjoyed the essay but i have absolutely nothing to say about it :/

jed_ (jed), Thursday, 14 April 2005 00:08 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm mostly on-board w. Letham and want to second his Belle du Jour & Me and You and Everyone sentiments. I disagree w. Y Tu Mama Tambien, however.

Thank you.

The pithy and unprofound

procrastinatory, masturbatory

Remy.

Remy (x Jeremy), Thursday, 14 April 2005 00:23 (fifteen years ago) link

Yes. Well.

Eh, the scene has been so over-reviewed that I doubt there's much left to say.

Girolamo Savonarola, Thursday, 14 April 2005 00:34 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm looking forward to that Miranda July movie. Ebert RAVED about it.

jaymc (jaymc), Thursday, 14 April 2005 03:28 (fifteen years ago) link

me too. i may be going to see it on friday.

i also thought about animal house when i clicked on this thread (i still haven't seen don't look now)

joseph (joseph), Thursday, 14 April 2005 05:09 (fifteen years ago) link

i've seen both.

recent tv edits i've seen of "animal house" (look, i was bored and at my parents', okay?) have digitally-added pants.

hstencil (hstencil), Thursday, 14 April 2005 05:11 (fifteen years ago) link

NO WAY

j blount (papa la bas), Thursday, 14 April 2005 05:20 (fifteen years ago) link

that may just be the normal tv version (no crazy cgi), i know they shot different version of the scene where belushi peeps thru the sorority window.

j blount (papa la bas), Thursday, 14 April 2005 05:23 (fifteen years ago) link

haha - "I Don't Believe It!"

j blount (papa la bas), Thursday, 14 April 2005 05:24 (fifteen years ago) link

yea, i toatally thought animal house. i love the way that scene has but reciprosity, first you get Karen Allen's butt for the lads, then not a moment later the ladies are catered for.

lukey (Lukey G), Thursday, 14 April 2005 07:25 (fifteen years ago) link

i saw animal house, but only once and quite a while ago, could someone refresh my memory?

firstworldman (firstworldman), Thursday, 14 April 2005 08:06 (fifteen years ago) link

I'm mostly on-board w. Letham and want to second his Belle du Jour & Me and You and Everyone sentiments.
I watched the commentary for the former and it was suggested that Severine was sodomized because A) the other employees turned down the Asian man's suggestions, B) the gentleman never removed Severine's top, and C) she's found lying on her stomach afterward and Alice brings the blanket over Severine's derriere. Severine may finally been fulfilled by the violence of the act (mirroring her fantasies about being whipped and whatnot at the beginning of the film) and I found that all curiously interesting.

Ian Riese-Moraine. To Hell with you and your gradual evolution! (Eastern Mantra), Thursday, 14 April 2005 09:28 (fifteen years ago) link

could someone refresh my memory?

Some of the students go round to hip, pot-smoking professor (Sutherland)'s house, where he greets them wearing, I think, an apron. When the camera shows him from behind, we see from his bare buttocks that he has nothing on under the apron.

Markelby (Mark C), Thursday, 14 April 2005 10:24 (fifteen years ago) link

no it is later, when boone finds out katie is cheating on him because the professor is at katie's house. and he's wearing a sweater.

hstencil (hstencil), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:07 (fifteen years ago) link

Porky Pig Style

j blount (papa la bas), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:10 (fifteen years ago) link

Haha my first thought was "ANIMAL HOUSE!!!!!!"

me too Dan, me too.

Miss Misery (thatgirl), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:19 (fifteen years ago) link

Stence, you're absolutely right. I am disgusted at myself for getting it wrong. Fuck.

Markelby (Mark C), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:21 (fifteen years ago) link

it's okay, it's okay, take a deep breath.

hstencil (hstencil), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:21 (fifteen years ago) link

ahhhh... i see. i had no recollection of donald sutherland being in animal house.

firstworldman (firstworldman), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:22 (fifteen years ago) link

My parents being irresposible hippies took me along to see it in the theaters with them, I must've been about five. I had a childhood crush on Donald Sutherland and I blame it on this buttocks scene.

Miss Misery (thatgirl), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:24 (fifteen years ago) link

he's the potsmoking prof who fesses up to milton sucking. rockt the house.

j blount (papa la bas), Thursday, 14 April 2005 16:24 (fifteen years ago) link

five months pass...
Revive...

Lethem just won a MacArthur genius grant.

Elvis Telecom (Chris Barrus), Tuesday, 20 September 2005 03:44 (fifteen years ago) link

"(Oh, yes, I meet it often when I watch Barbara Stanwyck, and I wonder where our Barbara Stanwyck is hiding . . . might it be Maggie Gyllenhaal? On the strength of Secretary it seems possible . . . but then why aren't today's filmmakers making dozens of Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicles . . . what's their problem?)"

this statement is inexcusable and wrong

_, Tuesday, 20 September 2005 06:18 (fifteen years ago) link

Haha my first thought was "ANIMAL HOUSE!!!!!!"

-- The Ghost of Dan Perry (djperr...), April 14th, 2005.

same here!

latebloomer (latebloomer), Tuesday, 20 September 2005 18:47 (fifteen years ago) link


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