Hollywood Boners Y Tu Mamá
Believe it or not, there's a scene in 40 Days and 40 Nights that represents the entire American film industry. Matt (Josh Hartnett), a dotcom casanova, has sworn off sex because his girlfriend dumped him. He now believes, in a typically feather-brained Hollywood way, that only via abstinence can he truly fall in love. It's the thirty-ninth day of Lent, and Hartnett, having just been propositioned by two hotties for a threesome, walks into an important business meeting sporting a boner. He runs from the room, but we know Josh's suffering will end soon. After all, this is Hollywood, and we expect, as they say in the massage parlors, a "happy ending."
I suppose it's not surprising that the studios would leave no stone unturned in their zest for the comedy of physiology, but it's more the boner itself that serves as a movie-industry metaphor: pleading, aching for a purpose, striving for victory at all costs.
You could call it the cinema of the unrequited boner -- contemporary films are driven by the manic desire to come, then roll over and fall asleep. Nowhere is this desperation more resonant than in the seemingly endless dribble of teen sex comedies. Whether it be 40 Days, or the entire Jason Biggs oeuvre, every story beat must end with either an orgasmic laugh, or an orgasm -- and promotions go to development executives who can make these happen simultaneously.
But it's not just frantic pace and packing that gives these films a needy mood. These guys are my generation, and their lives, dreams and desires all revolve around finding a place to stick it -- the single act of gettin' laid is as important as destroying the Death Star. The portrayal of teenage sexual longing started with great films like Splendor in the Grass and Carnal Knowledge and proceeded, like most Hollywood genres, to turn jokey and high-concept when executives realized there was money to be made. Little Darlings begat Porky's which begat Losin' It as any attempt at thoughtfulness was squeezed out in favor of a sexy poster and ambiguity-free ending. Teenage guys like to see their contemporaries get laid -- it gives them hope -- and they don't like any emotional junk to get in the way of a good time.
The irony, of course, is that for all of this fascination with sexual maturation (or, rather, losing your V-card) none of these movies has a clue. So I look South for inspiration. From Amores Perros to Central Station, the best films of recent memory have emerged from below our borders. And now comes Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n, a work that feels intentionally subversive of all Hollywood machismo storytelling, and is much closer to the real sexual awakening of most men I know than the entire output of the American Pie posse combined.
The story follows two Mexican teenagers on a road trip with an older woman. We first meet Tenoch (Diego Luna) screwing his girlfriend, quickly and clumsily, on the night before she leaves for the summer. (Wait! Shouldn't this end the film?) Meanwhile, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), is pumping a fast one with his girlfriend while her unsuspecting parents wait downstairs. This is real teenage sex -- lusty, unromantic, a quick sprint; not at all like the idealized, starry-eyed Chris Klein/Mena Suvari union that ends American Pie or the "caressing each other with a flower is better than all that fucking" sequence in 40 Days. The boys in TambiÃ©n think they've got it down -- they know the talk, the moves, and they think they know the rules.
But if this is a teen sex comedy, and these guys are already getting laid, what next? As the story progresses, however, it becomes The 400 Blowjobs -- a series of revelations about the true nature and consequences of sex. (Beware, spoilers ahead.) Their mutual desire to seduce the older woman (a fantasy also executed, giddily, in American Pie) becomes the mechanism by which their friendship begins to crack, a competition that ignites a series of one-upsmanships. Previous relationships are tarnished when they learn they screwed each other's girlfriends. Even masturbation loses its allure when the older woman, Luisa, tells them it's affecting their staying power. And late in the film, a sexual encounter is the only way a certain love dare speak its name.
This is a far cry from our own homegrown teen comedies, where the end is always a happy dance in laid-land. In Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n, we imagine our boys might never enjoy sex in the same easy way again. (Like most of us in the real world, it brings up memories of the past.) When Julio sees Tenoch in bed with Luisa, the movie tells us in voiceover that he feels the same pain as when he caught his mother and godfather in each others' arms; when Tenoch learns that Julio slept with his girlfriend, it's the same pain as when his father was indicted in a political scandal. Suddenly, sex comes with baggage -- spontaneity has a price with consequences other than pleasure. But, of course, that's not funny -- and an American teen sex comedy that included this denouement would be impossible to market.
So Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n is complex and sophisticated -- but isn't that to be expected from art-house movies? Perhaps; certainly American directors also deal with mature ideas about sexuality. In the past couple of years, for example, Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz have introduced us to characters whose sexual adventures reveal deeper human issues.
But there's a dichotomy in American films: either it's cheap, full of gags and "Hollywood;" or it's brooding, cynical and dark. That's not to say these films aren't well-crafted and interesting, but for me, the magic and uniqueness of Cuaron's film (and similarly, last year's Nico and Dani, from Spanish director Cesc Gay) is its sense of joy and sense of humor as the medicine goes down. The majority of American indie directors wallow in their themes. Bleakness is rarely tempered with moments of tenderness.
Yet for all their attempts to break taboos, what makes Americans most uncomfortable is the portrayal of intimacy between men. Cuaron's film depicts two straight best friends whose every interaction together -- from masturbating on country club diving boards to forming a manifesto that rules their relationship, is an act of love -- an emotion not allowed in the American buddy code. This love fills every scene: they laugh (constantly!) and finish each other's sentences, and tumble and punch. It's strange to think this is the stuff of subversive filmmaking, but it is.
But Cuaron directs with such ease and naturalness you never sense he's pushing an agenda. In this context, unembarrassed nudity and sexuality feel completely organic, part of something greater: joy (the boys swimming together), lust (Julio diving into his girlfriend's crotch) or fear (when Luisa orders Tenoch to drop his towel and "touch himself"). American movies about sex never actually show it. Here, you can't sell anything that hints of homoeroticism -- even if it is as tame as boys showering and swimming nude together. American Pie would be a much different beast if the guys were all sharing the same pie.
All the frat-house homoeroticism in Hollywood movies (guys obsessed with each other's sex lives, guys watching their friends get it on) is subtext. Yet there's something creepier and more exploitative about the tits and ass in 40 Days and 40 Nights than the cornucopia of body parts that forced Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n to be released without a rating. Everything feels so restrained, planned and controlled in films like 40 Days that when you see a stray nipple, you know that the actor's agent negotiated how much nipple, how erect, and through what gauzy fabric it would be shot. And you begin to wonder if you're getting your nipple's worth.
This calculation is at the heart of the cinema of the unrequited boner. It thrives on not asking real questions about sex because if you do, the occasional naughty shots aren't titillating.
At the end of 40 Days and 40 Nights, Josh Hartnett gets the girl he loves. His boner has a place to go. His anxiety is relieved. Y Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n ends on a different note -- two young boners are led to the heart, and are left with desperation of a different sort.
Ultimately, it's a little unfair to pit serious work like Y Tu MamÃ¡ against fluff like 40 Days. But society gets the movies it deserves, and I wonder if, as Americans, we watch Y Tu MamÃ¡ and see exactly how uptight we really are. The audience at my theater squirmed and laughed nervously throughout -- the language of the movie was foreign in more ways than one.