There’s been a ton of talk about penises in Park City during the opening days of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
In director Sebastián Silva’s graphic and weirdly riveting comic tragedy, Rotting in the Sun, the dozens of male organs on display in various states of tumescence and performance are so prevalent that they may remind viewers that fundamentally, they’re looking at a body part, not a mere metaphor. Intercourse, fellatio, and urination however, are mostly of interest to other filmmakers here in Utah for what they say about power—in fact, Fair Play, in which a character’s erectile state is a key plot point sold to Netflix for around $20 million, it was announced Monday.
Before each screening at Sundance, there is a brief pre-roll recap of the previous day’s festival events, showing press line interviews and panel comments. On Sunday, there was a revealing snippet from an unidentified filmmaker discussing an unidentified project: “The clitoris is the hero of this film,” says the filmmaker, continuing their brave and groundbreaking analysis, “But the penis is not the enemy.”
Of course, there is no question that some penis owners do horrible, unforgivable things, especially to women. Cat Person, the powerful cinematic expansion of the viral 2017 New Yorker story by By Kristen Roupenian about a young woman, Margot, and her brief but trauma-inducing relationship with a creep, left many men in the audience squirming. There were parts of the male character, Robert, with which they did not wish to identify. Robert is trying to live up to mainstream images of a “real man.” mostly based on Harrison Ford’s movie roles, and is so terribly in his own head, he has only the dimmest ability to perceive Margot as a person. His overly insistent text messages clearly hit some viewers close to the bone.
Cat Person also boasts the worst kiss in the history of cinema (I feel confident in this assessment), one that male lead Nicholas Braun said led the actors to “laugh in each others’ mouths” while filming it. The audience knows Margot really should bail at that point. She doesn’t.
There is grace and sympathy here towards both main characters in navigating consent. No means no. But here, a spoken yes turns to an unspoken and mostly internal “I don’t know” and then a “best-to-just-let-this-happen” followed by an “I-wish-I-hadn’t.”
Even if most men in real life don’t devolve as far as Robert does (and are better kissers)– Cat Person is a conversation starter. How can humans attempting to connect see and understand each other better? Is the only way to protect ourselves to know how to safely make a quick exit? And even then, even if you’re doing the best you can, sometimes these are perilous waters.
Less nuanced is director and writer Chloe Domont’s Fair Play. The film depicts the turnabout that results from a brilliant, if alcoholic, female New York finance firm broker, Emily, being promoted ahead of her fiance. He doesn’t like it.
A truly great scene early in the movie intertwines their engagement with menstrual blood, showing not telling the intimacies of relationships. It happens amid one of the film’s numerous moments of bathroom sex. Later in the film, Emily denies to a colleague that she’s having a forbidden office romance, declaring, “I don’t shit where I eat.” But she and her fiance do fuck where they shit. Bodies have needs and until we all upload, we’re stuck in these emotional and fragile meat suits.
As Emily gains power, his penis loses it. Think Leaving Las Vegas meets Boiler Room with the noirish high-end revenge catharsis of Taken.
Got that? It’s a lot. And so is Fair Play, which features the expected strutting dickhead Wall Street men. Eddie Marsan’s performance as this film’s Gordon Gecko is compelling because he comes across as an equal-opportunity bastard/mentor. He calls Emily a “dumb fucking bitch” at one point but softens when she pulls off a profitable trade; overall, he seems to treat the men in the office worse.
There’s a lot to like here, but, a friend asked me if Fair Play was an A24 production and I texted back that no… if it was, someone at the prestigious production company would have tried to make script edits. There’s too much time spent elaborating on how badly the fiance reacts to Emily’s ascension. Unlike Cat Person, we never get a convincing moment of the bad man’s humanity. I got the feeling the filmmakers felt very strongly they were making an important film, and I’m just not sure that it is, or that viewership numbers on Netflix will justify the $20 million price tag. The Sundance audience groaned more than once at some of Emily’s late-in-the-game decisions, and 2/3 of the way through, I saw phones light up as viewers checked the time. But who knows, maybe what the world needs now is a female anti-hero who does the best she can to put the finance bros in their place.
These films got me thinking: If there was a National Penis Association, perhaps its motto would be, “Penises don’t kill people, people kill people.” The NPA, funded through a pornography tax, could set up a lounge on Park City’s Main Street alongside the Chase Sapphire activation and host panels on topics such as “Is the Frenulum Innately Evil?” while attendees sip mocktails from phallus-shaped vessels.
Short films in Park City this year are also plumbing sex and power topics. In Sweatshop Girl, director Selma Cervantes, who like Silva, is based in Mexico City, incisively reveals the brutal hypocrisies of men attempting to control women’s reproductive realities. In the animated Inglorious Liaisons, the cruelty of peer pressure clashing with decisions to act on sexual attraction is rendered with characters whose faces are, literally, light switches. What does it take to turn them on?
Back to Rotting in the Sun, another title for Silva’s film could be The Masculine Mystique, because, like Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, it shows a different side of mainstream portrayals of so-called inherent gender characteristics. Here we have orgiastic gay scenes, a fondness for Ketamine holes, and a mix of jubilation, death, creativity, and silliness that manages to contribute to the film’s plot. Kudos to real-life influencer Jordan Firstman, who literally let it all hang out and managed to seamlessly change his pitch from ridiculous to serious as the mystery deepens over what happened to the main character, portrayed by (and also named) Sebastián Silva; the film was shot largely in his Mexico City apartment and features hardcore graphic, if brief, scenes of anal and oral sex.
Would the festival’s jury let in a work that showed such graphic scenes of male-female fellatio or copulation? Maybe with a film that evolves into a hypnotic array of genitals, this wouldn’t happen. Some might say that only the male gaze can be so narrowly obsessed with body parts. Probably such a film focused on female parts, would only be acceptable if it was directed by a woman. But then that’s a limiting view, and one of the great things about film festivals is that these conversations about new films take place when they are new and before interpretations have calcified, while the directors and producers and actors are themselves watching with trepidation, dreaming of glee, at how these first public audiences took in their hard work. Who knows what the next great artist of any gender (or none) will bring to rock our worlds?
After the screening, I asked Silva if my favorite moment was taken from real life. He said yes, that at some point during the pandemic, he had a Zoom meeting with HBO executives. After they shot down an idea because they said he was not right to direct it, he replied, trying to be agreeable to the gatekeepers of the powerful outlet. “Of course, it makes total sense. A movie about a pandemic that only kills men must have a female director.”
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