July 22, 2002

From Gerald R. Lucas

Sex and Jesus’ Son

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I watched two fairly unrelated movies last night: Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son. The former I had seen when it came out in 1989, but at that time it did not impress me, the boy viewer who expected more from the title that what the film delivered in the way of nude voyeuristic pleasures.

Seen now, however, Sex seems like technological fetish film: Graham is only capable of sexual pleasure though the third-hand experience of videotaped interviews. Indeed, the attraction is something our culture indulges in, even if it’s not fully understood: the video voyeur in lust with the technology of his desire. The image of the woman is the appeal, not the woman herself. Let’s face it, image is much easier to manipulate than real thing. It talks, but does not talk back.

Yet, ironically, the videotape — something that we might see as somehow less honest then the real thing — becomes the impetus and purveyor of honesty in the film: one cannot hide in front of or behind the camera for long. The eye of the camera seems to compel, if not honesty, then a nakedness we keep clothed in everyday relations with people, even to those we are most intimate with. It’s not sex that brings an honesty; it's a piece of technology run by a stranger.

Graham and Ann end the film with the potential for a healthy relationship precipitated by the camera, but not subject to it anymore.

Based on the novel by Denis Johnson, Maclean’s Jesus’ Son remains faithful to the intriguing novel. Another kind of nakedness is shown in this film, one caused by addiction, or recklessness, or stupidity, or just bad luck. The protagonist, unnamed except for “Fuckhead” — given to him by many of the characters that he interacts with — tells us his story through a disjointed narrative that continually backs up on itself; the result is that the audience becomes as confused about FH’s place in the world as he is.

Georgie, a hospital intern that FH works with, asks FH at one point in the film, “Does everything you touch turn to shit?” Indeed, everything and everyone that the protagonist interacts with takes a turn for the worse, usually involving their demise. There is hope, however, as by the end of the film FH seems to have found his place in the world with people that have it worse than he does. Perhaps this sheds some light on the film’s title: the son of Jesus as scapegoat. He suffers so we, the viewers, do not have to. The irony is significant: unlike Jesus’ healing touch, FH’s is one of death until the latter becomes comfortable with who he is — until he finds his place.

Perhaps that’s how these two films relate: a search for place where we are comfortable in our own bodies. Through touch or technology, we all have our paths to walk strewn with tragedy, mundanity, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of compassion and kindness.