9 Songs

dir: Michael Winterbottom
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The film is exactly 69 minutes long. It consists of a smattering of banal dialogue between two people, they also do some drugs, squabble a bit, and they go to some great gigs. They also fuck. They fuck a lot. The weird thing is, they really are having sex. We see it in all its messy glory.

This isn’t meant to be a porn film. And it’s not a porn film, really. Most porn films have better production values. But their soundtracks usually aren’t this enjoyable. And they don’t usually have scenes from actual gigs at Brixton Academy, the Forum, Hammersmith Odeon, or the Empire in between the sex scenes.

I’ve used this gag many times in my reviews and conversations with people about films, where I say stuff like, “By Lucifer’s beard, the plot of that film was so bad that even porn films have better and more coherent plots”. Now I’m going to officially retire that gag and never use it again. I realised that porn films haven’t had plots for years, and anyone that watches them thinks “What the fuck you talkin’ about, Willis?” whenever I say it in a review.

See, I come from a naïve, innocent time, when “actors” like Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn and John Holmes would chew over some pretty cheesy and sometimes funny dialogue in between getting down and dirty. Porn films these days, from what I gather, predominately have people going at it like coked-up steel rabbits, with barely any time for an introduction or so much as a “how’s your father?”. It’s a production line mentality. Economies of scale. More bang for your buck.

Even then, even then, and this is the last time I’m ever going to use this gag, contemporary porn films have more of a plot than 9 Songs does. Pool boys, mechanics, pizza delivery guys, nurses, sexy secretaries; they’re all entirely absent from here. Which is a shame. I think the film could have done with some characterisation. Some depth.

Which I don’t really think is really that much of a problem. Michael Winterbottom has been a pretty interesting director over the last ten years, at least the films of his that I’ve seen (Butterfly Kiss, 24 Hour Party People, Code 46, Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland) have been pretty damn interesting. So I can respect a guy that refuses to rest on his laurels and wants to keep pushing himself and the entire Cinematic World! in exciting and new directions.

That doesn’t mean 9 Songs works. Not even remotely. Maybe if more of the gigs had involved better bands, or better gigs, for that matter. I don’t think it’s a complete failure, but I can imagine people being pretty bored by it. Even with all the dirty, dirty sex.

I like sex, I really do. It’s pretty grand. I’m also pretty comfortable with seeing naked people. And, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have zero problem watching people having sex either. I’ve seen a fair bit of it in my time, but never on the silver screen. To my knowledge I’ve never been to one of those sticky seated cinemas where nothing but pervs hang out, but then again, I’ve had a few severe blackouts in my life, so it’s possible. Although by that logic I could have also been the fucker on the grassy knoll that took the shot that popped Kennedy’s head at Dealey Plaza, and just not remember it because of booze. The demon booze.

For all my worldliness, there’s still something “odd” about watching this kind of stuff in a cinema. I watched it at the Kino cinema in Melbourne at an early morning session, and the only other people in the cinema were a limping middle-aged woman, a businessman on some kind of break, two old, hideous crone biddies and two strange looking guys sitting as far back from the screen as the seating allowed and at opposite ends.

The two old clucking biddies had been before me at the box office getting their tickets. Having been in a similar position several times before when I’ve been about to go into a theatre to see something pretty transgressive, I worried about their weak hearts and replacement hips.

There are people old and naïve enough out there who make film viewing choices based on film names alone. I’ve seen it countless times. “Oh, this film is called “Happiness”, it must be a comedy. Let’s see that,” or “Well, this one over here is called “Romance”, and I feel like a bit of Barbara Cartland. Let’s have a few sherries and then shuffle on in.” Add to that list films like From Dusk Til Dawn, Dawn of the Dead, Salo, Bloodsucking Freaks, Bloodlust; you name the transgressive film and I was in the audience with some very confused old women looking on in abject horror.

With these old women in particular, for some reason I was more concerned than usual. I actually said to them before the film started “Excuse me ladies, but do you know what this film is all about? What they’re going to show?”
“Yes, yes of course we do. It’s a musical. And no, we don’t have any money to give you for your opium. Get a job, young man. Don’t be hanging around the pictures being smart, go out and make something of yourself.”

Fuck it, at least I’d tried. About ten minutes into the film, when there was a 10 foot vagina on the screen with a guy giving the girl a severe tongue lashing, these old broads moved with a speed not seen since they were trying to get their hands on ration stamps during the war. It was like someone had told them there was a pokie machine nearby paying off big time. I laughed out loud, I had to, as they scrambled from the cinema, clucking like offended hens all the while.

Vagina is really not that scary. It’s pretty wonderful, really. I remember reading a guy say (of the first screenings of Deep Throat the film, not Deep Throat the guy who just outed himself as Woodward and Bernstein’s source on Nixon’s shenanigans, W. Mark Felt) that the first time a porno theatre started up business and projected a woman’s gynaecological bits onto a massive screen in front of an audience, it was probably the day a lot of people realised that religion was bullshit and that this was the only god they were ever going to see in their lifetime. When you’re confronted with the Source of all life and pleasure (not to exclude our gay brothers, but they had to come from somewhere at least) on such a scale, it’s hard to go back to the Mother Church, V neck jumpers and Ovaltine.

In a way the director in 9 Songs is reclaiming onscreen sex from its porn ghetto. For us, the people. Even if it doesn’t work as a film, there’s something intellectually valid about it. In most crappy films there’s usually a cringe-worthy and totally token sex scene between two people who couldn’t stand each other. Here the actors (and they are legit actors, as opposed to some guy covered in prison tattoos and some girl from a backpacker hostel around the corner) have to be able to actually have sex and seem like they’re two crazy kids involved in some kind of love affair that stretches over a year. I know, that’s what actors do all the time, but actors aren’t usually expected to give head on the big screen.

Hypothetically at least it’s interesting. Showing people actually have sex, voyeuristic as it is, is a way of telling the story. We see the various stages of Matt (Kieran O’Brian) and Lisa’s (Margo Stilley) relationship through the sex they have, the way it changes over time and their different responses to different situations. We get to know next to nothing about them, apart from the fact that Matt works as a glaciologist and Lisa is an American student studying in London, so the sex is the only way we get to see any changes in their relationship.

Their scenes are usually shot in naturalistic ways, except for one at the start which is contrived but still is the only scene that could genuinely be called erotic. Lisa leans back whilst sitting up and receiving head, and where they are allows the scene to be lit by natural sunlight across their bodies coming through a curtained window. It’s a beautiful scene, but not particularly special.

Lisa herself can be pretty annoying, though she is pretty and kooky. She also has the elongated torso and bony frame of a former model, which is not to say that it matters, since this flick isn’t supposed to be stroke material for future generations. Matt is a kind of brutish looking guy; to quote Homer Simpson “Yes, he is handsome. In an ugly kind of way.” He’s got it where it counts though, and doesn’t fail to deliver. I’m sure he hasn’t lost any fans from being in this flick either. They make an incongruous couple, which I liked.

The natural seeming dialogue between them is apparently improvised, and it shows. These two characters don’t have a lot going on upstairs. But if you look at the film as almost a covert keyhole into the lives of two people, as if they’re not supposed to know the camera is there, it makes a kind of sense. Most people, I don’t care how scintillating and witty the couple is, talk banal shit when they’re just sitting around in between drinks and curries. Sure, it doesn’t make for compelling cinema, but there’s a genuineness to it that adds something to the overall experiment.

The gigs look pretty good. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gets two bites of the cherry, starting and finishing the film off. I can’t stand The Dandy Warhols so I can’t say if their dull gig footage is decent or not or whether they’re always that limp. Though not a fan of Primal Scream, their gig looked like a lot of fun. Franz Ferdinand rock like it’s 1978 and look awfully nerdishly contrived, but they do all right.

The gigs are meant to be mostly joyous. The stuff of life. Like the sex. The gigs aren’t meant to mirror what’s going on in the story, because there is no story. But they are meant to represent a definite peak of sensation and feeling. I may not think the film is that great, but the director’s simple point does resonate with me. He makes it through these little narrations that Matt gives regarding the isolation and barrenness of Antarctica: life without sex, life, joy is barren and empty.

At 69 minutes the film is barely around long enough to outstay its welcome, though it does go on a bit. It’s probably a short film masquerading as a feature film, and whilst I wouldn’t advise anyone to rush out and see it, I can’t imagine anyone waiting for it to come out on DVD. In trying to escape from one ghetto, I think Winterbottom created one of his own.

In five year’s time no-one is going to remember this film alongside other fairly decent classics like In the Realm of the Senses, Intimacy or Last Tango in Paris. Because they were good films that had plots and characters. Not like this, Winterbottom, oh no, not like this.

Interesting, but not really crucial.

5 perverts furtively and covertly masturbating in an arthouse cinema out of 10, as opposed to the thousands that wait to do it openly in bars and pubs afterwards.

"ugh, ugh *sploodge*, ah..." - 9 Songs