Thoughts On: Don Jon (2013) & Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
A porn addict who’s never been in a genuine relationship meets his match; a farmer contemplates killing his wife so he may run off with another girl.
Recently I was shown an interesting video by Pop Culture Detective that discusses an idea of ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’. You can see this here:
In short, this video discusses the phenomena in science fiction film that sees female characters like Leeloo in The Fifth Element constructed to be highly sexual and beautiful but equally naive and innocent. The video goes on to suggest that this exposes an anxiety within men, one that wishes to control women and be viewed as someone special (wise and all-knowing; a teacher of sorts) when they are not in the grander scheme of things. The video explores this extensively and concludes that films such as The Fifth Element and Tron: Legacy represent a problem in cinema, one that promotes a depiction of women as inexperienced, vulnerable and easily controlled.
I agree, in part, with all that’s raised in this video essay. I agree with the notion that men use movies like those cited as wish fulfilment and I also would like to see more movies that conform to the idea of more complex female characters that are not naive. However, I don’t agree with the negative attributions that the video states or implies, nor do I think that films like Tron: Legacy are egregious and need to stop being made. This is because of, primarily, the manner in which wish fulfilment functions in cinema. We will get into this momentarily, however. Beyond notions of wish fulfilment, I think the most poignant point that can be made against this video is one that aligns with arguments you can make against people who do not like violence in video games, films and other media. In such, whilst the acts depicted in these forms of media are not idealistic, often not even legal, they do not reduce all teenagers who play games like Grand Theft Auto into into serial murderers. Though this is something of a false equivalency when juxtaposed with concepts of male fantasies of naive women, the same principal of ‘monkey see monkey not do’ comes into play. In such, even though insensitive media is readily consumed by many people, it doesn’t ruin society. To suggest so, to suggest that men and women seeing movies that depict females as naive and innocent, is an entirely negative thing is a condescending notion to both men and women. To say that men are so weak and malleable that movies that act as wish fulfilment will reduce them to cavemen is nonsense. Moreover, to suggest that a woman is harmed or even disrespected by a movie like Tron: Legacy or The Fifth Element suggest, somewhat ludicrously so, that they are so sensitive, naive or weak that they cannot comprehend, accept nor stand up to male fantasies – if they even view them as such in the first place. This all leads up to a notion that people, men or women, are actually readily available and willing to peek into the minds of one another without being offended. We all think, function and feel differently. Why should we shy away from this in both art and entertainment?
The films we’ll be using to delve further into this idea will be Don Jon and, one of my favourite movies ever made, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans.
Don Jon is a movie that dexterously explores concepts of media and its influence on the human mind. In such, it delves into pornography addiction and false views of reality. With great acting, writing, though a loose plot and a few weak minor characters, what makes Don Jon such an interesting film that I’ve seen many times over is the nuance it provides to the idea of media influence. Through Don, this narrative demonstrates a misuse of media to fuel already skewed views of reality within people. For Don, this is an entirely self-absorbed, image-based and self-isolating view of relationships. For figures such as his girlfriend, unrealistic expectations are also put into play through entities such as romance movies.
On the subject matter of this narrative, I think this builds towards a point of how to respect and care about yourself with media as a side-product. And in such, pornography and romance movies are never the antagonists of this narrative – despite characters attempting to frame them as such. Instead, figures such as Don have to grow to take responsibility for their own life and choose to seek out real experiences instead of folding in on themselves with wish fulfilment in the form of pornography. So, ultimately, Don Jon is a film about mentally overcoming your own indulgences when you are using them in a harmful or irresponsible manner.
Despite being a particularly relevant film to the topic of gender and media that we are already discussing, Don Jon is a representative of the first mode of cinematic wish fulfilment. This first mode detects a pattern in many films that depicts an ideal change in reality. In other words, Don Jon implores that the world become less media-centric so that people begin to live life without the constant encroachment of screens and fantasies. This paradigm of subtextual cinema is bound to the idea of social commentary. We see this in countless films such as Requiem For A Dream, 12 Angry Men, Spring Breakers, American Psycho, Rear Window, In Time, The Great Dictator, Network, Salo, Apocalypse Now, 500 Days Of Summer, The Lobster and Bicycle Thieves. All of these films mean to reach out to a audience and shake them into acting or thinking differently through their wish fulfilling depictions of reality. In such, they often speak quite directly to their audience with powerful realism or real world allusions. For example, Requiem For A Dream will function to many people as an anti-drug campaign; Spring Breakers an exploration of the absurdity in the life of the modern teenager; Bicycle Thieves, a light into the everyday struggles of the lower class; The Lobster, just like Rear Window, a subtextual depiction of the conflicts we may have with marriage and relationships. All of these films use traditional structuring to depict a reality that needs to change, one that, by the end of the film, often does (unless we’re dealing with tragedies such as Requiem For A Dream and Bicycle Thieves). With Don Jon we see this through his use of pornography as well as interest and interaction with certain women. He starts the film as an asshole that has dug himself into a miserable hole in which he can only interact with people on a surface level, but leaves the narrative as an open, mature and calm figure that receptively engages with the world.
The function of Don Jon is, in part, to depict the ideals of its makers – the primary person being the lead actor, writer and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In such, it acts as a form of social wish fulfilment for both artist and audience. The mode that this represents is then an active one: active wish fulfilment. When we return to the opening topic, Pop Culture Detective’s video, it’s quite clear that there is a leaning towards this kind of cinema; one that speaks to people and calls for an active change. As implied, I think this is perfectly fine and so would like to see more films that conform to the video’s ideals. However, I do not think that active wish fulfilment in cinema is better than, or should ever replace, passive wish fulfilment. To delve into this second mode, we will be using Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans…
Despite being incredibly simplistic, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema ever constructed. With one of the purest depictions of cinematic romance, this film will sweep you into character-investment like few films can, engaging you with their every conflict and nuance, taking you along the plot with eyes and emotions wrought and bound to the screen.
How Sunrise manages to do this is a subject we’ve covered before. The essence of pure cinema lies in silence; a form of sensory darkness that gives an audience the ability to fill a void with themselves and so step into the shoes of a character to walk through their story. We see this prevalently in books. No matter how much an author describes a person, they will never be able to capture their image like a photo or video can. This works in favour of an author, however, as the reader will use their biases to construct the best visual image of a character. For example, an author may give a character a name, say for instance Charlie, and they may send them on a journey. On this journey, they run into Alex and the two fall in love. Depending on how the author describes this relationship, here we have a very powerful formula for creating a great romance. This is because Alex and Charlie are neutral names, and if we didn’t describe their physique or physical presence in explicit terms, they’d remain shells. If an author fills this shell with distinctive character traits, they would have constructed a great container for a reader to slot themselves into so that they may experience, through fantasy, their ideal view of the world. (Side note: this paradigm is at play even with more explicitly, precisely or intricately described characters as they can never be fully depicted). This is a very self-centric and self-absorbed view of characterisation, but is powerful nonetheless because empathy and sympathy are born of these two concepts as they are both about the relation of others to ourselves – in other words, seeing ourselves in others.
Pure cinema and silence are so powerful because of this function. By not hearing a character, we are given an ambiguous side to their shell which we are allowed to fill with our own ideals. What this, in itself, says about people is that finding a perfectly tolerable person is very difficult – in fact, I’d say it’s impossible. No matter how beautiful, clever or charismatic a person is, they’ll always have something about them that you don’t entirely love; the colour of their hair, the shape of their fingers, the way they dress, the food they like, the sound of their voice. This is just the way of the world and it’s not a bad thing. However, nor is it bad to think of, or fantasise about through cinema, a perfect world (one that revolves around our own head, or is utopian to all). Films and writers then play around this paradigm of an imperfect reality by leaving elements of characters blank. This is, in part, a bit of a cheat – though not in the case of silent films as they simply didn’t have the technology to project speech. Nonetheless, the idea of real people in any form of storytelling is an illusion. No matter how many hours you spend reading a book or watching a film, you’re never going to know a character like a real person. This, in the real world, takes years of knowing a person. Though you may grow to know someone very well in a short period if they have strong characteristics, you will always find yourself learning more and more about them as the years pass and you spend more time with them. By embracing this, books and films allow the strongest traits of a character to be their representative – which is why you can watch a 70 minute Pixar film and fall in love with the characters. For example, why is this scene from Up considered one of the saddest things ever put to screen…
It’s all because Carl and Ellie are characters defined by significant moments in their life and the idea of romance. We never know these characters as truly complex people, this is just an illusion created by the pure cinematics of this scene that allows us to insert all of our ideals of true love and lasting bonds into these two perfectly crafted vessels.
This is the essence of passive wish fulfilment and we see it at play within Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. Not only do we never hear these two characters talk, but we are allowed to (urged to) use romantic stereotypes and our own ideals to bond with characters – just like in the beginning of Up. This is also featured within films such as Tron: Legacy and The Fifth Element. As the video points out, both Korben and Sam, the male protagonists, are lonely guys that fall in love with naive female figures that do no talk much, instead, align with their fantasies. What we then see functioning within these films is almost cinema within cinema, wish fulfilment within wish fulfilment. In such, instead of just the audience seeing characters as shells that they take a part in adding complexity and genuity to, it’s also the protagonists’ task to view and find the perfect partner. This is all then passive wish fulfilment as it is about a film facilitating an audience instead of them coming on the side of the narrative to agree with their social commentary. In other words, passive wish fulfilment films don’t always have such a strong commentary on a wider picture of society and aren’t really connected to wider, political or otherwise, agendas.
However, there is an asterisk that we have to place above these terms, passive and active wish fulfilment, and that is that they often appear in films side-by-side. For instance, in Don Jon, we aren’t only given commentary on the wider society around us in regard to media; this film is also about finding romance and better bonds as an individual. Moreover, we grow to like Don just as we may like a Henry Hill or a Jordan Belfort throughout the first act because there are wish fulfilling aspects to his vapid life – those being his freedom, material objects, confidence and ability to get girls that look like Scarlett Johansson. Also, within Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans we don’t just have passive wish fulfilment as there is also a wider commentary on marriage, trust, loyalty and love.
What all of this ultimately says about the notion that film like Tron: Legacy or The Fifth Element is sexist, misogynist, patriarchal, or negative in any way is that these are needless terms. Whilst it’d be entirely understandable to say that you do not like passive or active wish fulfilment that doesn’t align with your wants and needs in life and in films, I think it’s an overstatement to condemn them. In such, I don’t like some romance movies that are supposed to target female audiences as the characters as well as their motivations and behaviours are just vapid to me. Though I may express why these films suck to me, I always try to hold onto the idea that maybe 50 Shades Of Grey just isn’t for me, and neither is The Notebook, Twilight, the remake of Ghostbusters or films alike. Granted, some of these movies are just terribly made, 50 Shades Of Grey for instance, but some films simply do not resonate with me. A good example of this would be last year’s Moonlight. I was really looking forward to this film, but it simply didn’t resonate with me in a passive or active wish fulfilment manner. This lead me to see its faults, such as weak characterisation, and ultimately I did not enjoy the film. However, that’s just life; I’m not going to like all the movies, just like I won’t like all the TV shows, books, poems, plays, dances, songs… whatevers – even if they’re well made. But, I’m often willing to embrace other perspectives that may not align with mine. For instance, some of my favourite films are romance movies that most would argue are aimed towards women: Gone With The Wind, Amelie, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, Mean Girls, It Happened One Night, The Crowd, Pretty Woman, Bridesmaids, The Lunchbox, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Juno… the list goes on.
The last thing you can then draw from this idea of passive and active wish fulfilment is that it’s not just about singular viewers indulging themselves, but different emotional views and mind sets being expressed. Whilst active wish fulfilment is more about an artist indulging his or her own views that mean to get an audience to empathise with someone that is not often like them, passive wish fulfilling movies are arguably just as poignant and empathy-driven when executed well. This is because passive wish fulfilment centres on self-expression; articulating how you function and feel inside, how you see the world no matter how lurid, self-absorbed or fucked up that is. And this is what sci-fi movies like Tron and The Fifth Element are in certain respects. Whilst Tron is not made very well and the two films are primarily just entertainment, they hold an element within them that, certainly in my view, expresses the romantic and slightly weaker side of masculinity rather than an evil, conspiratorial rage, fear and hatred for real women. What I ultimately see wish fulfilment in cinema to then be can be summed up by an image like this:
Yes, they read different books and have different personalities, internal thoughts, emotions and feelings, but there is still understanding, compromise and unity outside of the fantasy and perceptual realm. Or, am I just projecting my own wish fulfilling fantasies onto a silent image?
Either way, what are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree with the two modes of wish fulfilment? Or rather a differing perspective?
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The Handmaiden – Novel Black Comedy
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