Monday 17 June 2013

Appropriate Sex Scenes: Watchmen

  When it comes to sex scenes in mainstream fiction I often find myself disappointed in how shallow and gratuitous they are. That isn't to say there's anything wrong with shallow and gratuitous sex (or else half my back catalogue would be in the firing line!), but there's a time and a place for it. If you're watching porn, it's totally fine for there to be a lack of depth and reasoning behind the sex happening on screen. But if you're watching, say, an action-packed superhero movie, there'd better be a darn good reason for those two characters getting down and dirty with each other.

  So that brings me to today's topic of discussion: sex scenes in the 2009 film Watchmen.
  Now, Watchmen isn't exactly what I'd call a great film. It's an incredibly interesting film, and as a big fan of all-things-storytelling I was thoroughly engrossed by the way this graphic novel adaptation threw the conventional rules out the window, but it has its share of problems. It's not something I'd necessarily recommend to general audiences, but if you're interested in an unconventional take on the superhero genre then it's definitely worth a watch. One of the film's great strengths, however, is that it provides one of the best contemporary examples I've seen of sex being used effectively and appropriately to facilitate the story being told.

  Close to the beginning of the movie we're treated to a bedroom scene featuring two of the main characters; Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre. Dr. Manhattan is perhaps the most complex character in the movie, and his entire arc over the course of the film revolves around how his superhuman powers have left him detached and disconnected from humanity. While he was once a normal man, his ability to manipulate energy has given him a collection of essentially god-like powers, including the ability to have his body in two (or more) places at once doing several different things at the same time.
  During his bedroom scene we first see him teasing his lover with small sparks of electricity from his fingertips, something that surprises her, but that she ultimately enjoys. As the scene goes on, however, it is revealed that Dr. Manhattan is simultaneously continuing his work in the lab while at the same time spending time with Silk Spectre, using two different "bodies" of his to be in both places at the same time.
  This is understandably uncomfortable for Miss Spectre when she realises that she doesn't have her man's undivided attention, leading to a frustrated confrontation between the two of them.

  What I love so much about this sex scene is that it uses all of the emotional baggage we as humans have regarding sex to paint a wonderful picture of Dr. Manhattan in our minds that really drills down to the core of his character. We're all familiar with the idea of a partner being distracted or more interested in focusing on their work/hobbies rather than spending time with us, but the idea of them actually physically being in another place during the most intimate act a couple can share together is an incredibly unsettling one.
  Of course, to Dr. Manhattan this simply isn't an issue. His mind works on such a high level that he's easily able to give his full attention to both his lover and his work at the same time, and limiting himself to just the one task is a waste in his eyes. But Silk Spectre (and we the audience) doesn't see it that way, because the connotation Dr. Manhattan's absence holds to the idea of the "distracted partner" is too strong to ignore.
  The way he is acting -- while completely justified and normal in his mind -- comes across as inhuman and hurtful to a regular person.

  This idea is reinforced several times throughout the movie to demonstrate how Dr. Manhattan operates on a distinctly different level to the average human being, and how his superpowers have left him comparatively unable to function amongst normal society. As a story that revolves around turning many of the classic comic book superhero tropes on their heads, this scene is an excellent introduction to one of the core ideas present in the movie.
  And it does it by using sex appropriately.
  It would have been difficult to evoke the same kind of emotional response during this scene if Dr. Manhattan had been distracted during some other, more mundane couples activity, but the fact that it occurs during the emotionally charged act of sex dredges up all of the innate emotional responses we have towards intimacy, and utilises them perfectly to inform our perception of his character.

  Alongside this example of a well-executed sex scene, however, Watchmen also contains a contrasting example of the exact opposite; gratuitous and unnecessary sex that seems to exist as little more than an excuse for the female lead to get her clothes off again.

  Later on in the movie Silk Spectre finds herself romantically involved with another male member of the cast, Nite Owl (yes, she's a bit of a floozy), culminating in a drawn-out and overtly erotic encounter between the two of them, featuring lots of boobs and latex boots.

  Now, to the movie's credit, this scene does serve a purpose in regards to the characterisation of Nite Owl, albeit a simple one. Earlier on in the film we see him in a despondent, unsatisfied, impotent state, living a mundane life with his glory days of super-heroism behind him. The impotence is quite literal, as his first romantic encounter with Silk Spectre ends in a rather awkward moment of him being unable to rise to the occasion.
  So Miss Spectre and Mr. Owl don their superhero costumes again, kick some butt, save some people from a burning house, and in celebration they decide to screw on the dashboard of the Owl-Mobile.

  It's an obvious metaphor, but the sex here does serve to illustrate in a very visceral manner how Nite Owl has been thoroughly reinvigorated by taking up his superhero mantle once more.
  The problem is that it lasts for several minutes.
  All this scene needed to be was twenty seconds of our hero ripping off his clothes and diving into bed with his lady friend. All that matters here on a character level is that we understand he's gotten over his impotence, so why do we need agonising minutes of nude bodies awkwardly humping in the dark, culminating in a laugh-out-loud moment of climax where one of them accidentally hits the flamethrower button on the Owl-Mobile dashboard?
  The Dr. Manhattan sex scene is filled with almost continuous dialogue and interesting visual quirks that inform us about the scene and the characters involved, while the Nite Owl scene is devoid of dialogue and character advancement.

  For me, Watchmen is an excellent example of how sex can be used both effectively and inappropriately in a movie, but despite the issues with the second sex scene it still does a much better job of incorporating bedroom antics into a story than the vast majority of big Hollywood pictures out there. At the very least there was always a reason for the sex happening, even if it didn't have to drag on for as long as it did.
  There's nothing wrong with a bit of titillation in a story, but if you're not specifically trying to create an erotic narrative then you should be very sparing with how you include it, and make sure that it works in service to the rest of your material rather than serving as a distraction to it.

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