Sunday, November 18, 2012

Happy-face Nipples: or, how Helen Hunt's forehead died

I'll watch just about anything with Helen Hunt in it (or so I've thought up to now), and I haven't seen her in a movie in a long time. So when I heard about that new film called The Sessions, in which she plays a sexual surrogate working with a lonely, virginal quadriplegic man, I just had to see it.

It had "alternative film festival", "warm human drama" and "taboo-shattering exploration" written all over it, but I still had to see it. The "client", a paralyzed 38-year-old man in an iron lung, still has sensation all over his body but can't move his muscles at all. I cannot think of a more torturous situation, especially since he feels strong sexual attraction to women.

The quirky thing about the movie isn't the fact that an immobilized man feels desire and wants sexual contact: it's the fact that he confides all this to a Catholic priest, who at first has pretty grave misgivings about encouraging a young man to "fornicate" outside of marriage.

But after talking to his friend for a while and sensing his loneliness and longing, he begins to experience an attack of the kind of compassion that has felled the career of many a clergyman. Looking up at one of those plaster icons of Christ, he finally sighs and says, "I think he'll give you a free pass on this one."

The fact that the priest, played to craggy, earnest perfection by William H. Macy (a character actor who can play just about any sort of character, from meek to fierce) is by far the best part of this movie, tells us that there are going to be some serious problems. The priest is the best part, in a movie about sex?

But - that's another problem. The movie isn't really about sex. Not sexuality, anyway, not that messy, magnificent sprawl of experience and sensation that expresses itself, whether we will or no, across a huge and riotous canvas all through the course of our lives. In other words, no fucky-wucky here.

The polio survivor who must spend 20 hours a day in an iron lung is played with almost squeaky cuteness by John Hawkes, who does not convey any of the torment of passively watching life go by while trying to write and operate the phone with a stick in his mouth. This isn't a man so much as an overgrown Boy Scout who just happens to have a mobility problem. His constant good-natured quipping to prove how OK he is with everything renders the overly-jokey script kind of tedious. One longs for a little My Left Foot with Daniel Day-Lewis flailing around in rage and despair.

But when the sexual surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, enters his unimagineably isolated life, our expectations rise. Will there be some action - some sparks - something kinky, or just something approaching real erotic awakening?

I remembered Helen Hunt's true-as-blood performance in As Good as it Gets, the authenticity that burned through any kind of stereotype, and I was hoping for more of the same. But it didn't pan out that way. Though Hunt whips off her clothing several times in the course of the movie, even revealing (gasp, shock, horror!) her nipples, and though her nearly-50-year-old body is in enviable shape, something is definitely missing.

What's missing is juice, heat, scents and groans, that which makes sex - sex. What's missing also is the humanity that changes sexuality from the clinical/mechanical, the "insert tab (a) into slot (b)", into something - more. I'm not saying every sexual encounter has to be a supreme act of love between a man and a woman. Hell, I'm not even saying it has to be between a man and a woman (though it would help if they were both the same species.)

But one hopes, at the least, that partners will have the courage to take off their psychic armour along with their clothes and open themselves up to real contact, which can only happen through a kind of mutual vulnerability. But though that is supposed to happen here, I didn't see it.

For one thing, the poor guy keeps ejaculating as soon as he sees her, prompting her to teach him the kind of advanced techniques I haven't seen since How to Really Swing by Tiger Woods.

The ultimate goal of all this, of course, is penetration and "full sexual intercourse". I kept thinking all the way through this: why? Didn't the script-writers realize there's more than one way to skin a cat? The conservatism of staying within the "decent" bounds of a sort of reverse missionary position stultifies the whole enterprise. They aren't having sex: they're rubbing parts of themselves together, and it might as well be their elbows. Nevertheless, this full intercourse bit is held up as the ultimate prize, kind of like winning the U. S. Open (pardon the pun). In fact, he won't really lose his virginity until it happens.

It has to go in; it has to go off. Those are the rules, folks. I guess that means lesbian women must all be permanent virgins, a strange thought indeed.

At one point, a particularly excruciating one, he asks her to have an orgasm. She dutifully complies, though I kept waiting for it to happen. I guess squinching your eyes shut and sighing "ohhhh" passes for an orgasm. Hey, I'm about a million years old and so far past menopause that periods are but a distant nightmare, and even *I* can do better than that. In a heartbeat. That is why my pillow is covered with teeth marks.

(By the way. A movie from a few years ago called Get Him to the Greek features the most convincing orgasm in all of film history. Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame is responsible for it and should have won an Oscar. Made me wonder if she sneaked her vibrator on-set.) 

Even artificial/clinical sex is better than no sex at all, I guess, and disability activists are calling the movie earthshaking because it implies that disabled people MIGHT even be sexual beings (though we still secretly hope they're not). The story, based on real people and events, took place in 1988, making one wonder why it took this long to reach the screen. My suspicion is that it squicked out potential backers too much, visions of disability-related kinks dancing in their freaked-out little heads.

Sex is risky business, always, even between people who've known each other forever. It has interconnecting rootlets that snag so many aspects of ourselves, our pride, our shame, our joy, excruciating pleasure, jealous rage, and horrible despair. It's the thing that makes babies and keeps the human race moving forward, for good or for ill. So how can it possibly be as bland as this -this "Now I will rub your penis against my", etc.?

But that isn't even the worst of it.  The worst of it is
. . . is. . . Helen Hunt's forehead!

There are those who have said Helen Hunt hasn't aged well. I've seen mean internet pictures of her in which her mouth turns down and her neck looks kind of stringy. As the possessor of a stringy neck myself - and a jowly one at that - I can sympathize. If you live so long, it happens.

But what she has done to deal with it makes me quail. She has gone on record to say her face is totally natural, that she hasn't done anything to bugger it up and Joan-Riverize it, to turn it into a House of Wax relic of arrested youth that eventually caves in like the sagging edges of a spent candle. 

Her body, which we saw an awful lot of, was fine, though I don't see how you could tamper much with a body anyway. Her breasts looked like normal middle-aged breasts, refreshingly unperky. The lower part of her face did show some signs of wear and tear, the curse of the slender woman who loses the layer of subcutaneous fat in her face by mid-life.

But I kept wondering what was wrong with her looks. Was she clinically depressed or something? For one thing, her eyes looked so dead. In As Good as it Gets (and even in Mad About You and St. Elsewhere) she was so expressive, so full of quirky passion. But all that was gone now. Her brows were such a straight line that you could have set a ruler along them and joined them up.

Then I realized, to my horror: aaaggghhhhh! It was her forehead!

It had been Botoxed out of all existence. It had died. It was as smooth as the dome of a cathedral, motionless as a statue. Not one line existed on it to prove she had been alive more than 40 years: lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow. All erased. Someone had frozen it solid, so solid that it did not look "young" but merely petrified, maybe even mummified. Then I realized that the strange sense of detachment I felt all through this movie may have had something to do with the total lack of emotion in Helen Hunt's eyes.
If you can't move the upper part of your face, at all, can you show emotion? If you can't show emotion, for fuck's sake, how can you be an actress? Why destroy yourself like that (and lie about it to boot)?

When Botox first burst on the scene, to many people's horror (including my own: botulism toxin injected into your face??), it was pushed very hard at women as the solution to the living nightmare of ageing: wrinkles, sags and other signs of putrid decay. It would prevent the obsolescence that immediately follows the expiration date on the "product" at around age 40. That expiration date has been sneaking up, getting younger and younger by degrees, with the ultimate horrific result: Lindsay Lohan, face frozen stiff, lips blubbed out grotesquely (and I won't get into WHY women want fat, blubbery lips and think that they are at all sexy or desirable. Do men want to kiss a bratwurst?).

I remember hearing some women protest against all this early on, before they all caved in and threw themselves over the cliff like lemmings. I recall some Botox expert going on a daytime talk show and reassuring everyone that it was all good. "But I won't be able to raise my eyebrows!" one woman wailed. The expert looked at her, incredulous, as if she'd said something obscene. "Why would you want to do that? If you want to raise your eyebrows,  just use your fingers."

Maybe Helen Hunt should have used her fingers for something besides the therapeutic grasping of "tab (a)".  She could have raised one eyebrow for shock. The other for arousal. Both of them for revelation. Or maybe when she's having an orgasm? At least then we'd know.


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