Lights, camera, seduction
Film critics ponder the aesthetics of the erotic, from 'Belle de Jour' to 'Bye Bye Birdie'
The X List: The National Society of Film Critics' Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On
Edited by Jami Bernard
Da Capo, 330 pp., $17.50
Film critics, standing between us and the onslaught of movies breaking out of the starting gate every Friday, are our representatives in the dark, serving as movie buffs' research assistants, Consumer Reports equivalents, and overall stand-ins. Film critics must offer the illusion of objective judgment while remaining, as we all are, entirely, hopelessly subjective. Part of the role of criticism is in conflating the personal and the collective -- in the critic's work, ''I," ''we," and ''you" become equivalent terms. This balancing act breaks down entirely, though, when considering the notion of sexuality. After all, one man's idea of a good time is another woman's turnoff, and vice versa. How do critics talk about sex without coming off as prurient horn dog or tweedy professor type? How can critics objectively approach as subjective and thorny a topic as sex?
''The X List," the latest volume of essays published by the National Society of Film Critics, has the audacity to tackle criticism's foremost blind spot head-on, with the introduction noting that ''in many cases, we lift the veil of critical distance and bravely go naked before you with our personal turn-ons." This is mostly a good thing, although viewed from another perspective, it may be an opportunity to learn (substantially too much) about the sexual peccadilloes of your favorite film critics.
As Jami Bernard, the volume's editor, points out, in a lesson not always taken by ''The X List" 's contributors, ''movies turn us on for reasons we can't always intellectualize." Film critics being notorious intellectualizers and explainers, journalism's equivalent of college professors, this is not necessarily an easy lesson to swallow, and leads to a lot of careful stepping, and jittery writing. Gerald Peary leads readers, very gingerly, through his rationale for appreciating the French shock-core film ''Baise-Moi," and justifies his interest in porn star Annabel Chong by helpfully pointing out that she ''hasn't started wars or backed dubious coups d'etats." While the clarification is helpful, Peary would perhaps have been better off admitting that desire and critical logic do not always flow in the same direction.
Other essays are simply offensive, taking the subject matter as an excuse for an entirely rancid brand of frat-boy juvenility regarding matters sexual. The worst offender is Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, whose writing manages to include all of the following phrases: ''boing factor," ''hot lesbo action," and ''the Citizen Kane of kink."
Most contributors, though, dive right in, embracing the opportunity to reveal themselves on the page. The push and pull between exposure and coyness is a constant here, and a primary reason so many of the personal essays in ''The X List" return to the obsessions of youth. The yearnings of adolescence allow critics to engage the intersection of their own lives with the films they loved, while drawing a tasteful scrim over the embarrassingly recent. James Verniere contributes a piece on the Italian horror film ''Black Sunday" and its role in blowing the mind of a sexually frustrated 1960s Catholic schoolboy, and Desson Thomson explicitly sheds his critic's garb for that of a horny teenager, pining for Dominique Sanda in ''The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and boldly declaring what is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a movie -- that his passion for a film character influenced his reaction to the plot. Thomson is to be commended for so thoroughly interrogating his own lustfulness, stepping down from the pedestal of Olympian objectivity to reveal just another lovelorn boy with an overwhelming urge to spend a single night with the Finzi-Continis' Micòl.
''The X List" alternates between turn-ons of the sexual and cultural varieties, being approximately two parts the latter to one part the former. Of the less immediately personal contributions, some choose to till familiar ground (Marlene Dietrich, ''Belle de Jour," Julie Christie); yes, Christie was a shining beacon of languorous sensuality in the late '60s, but why the abiding fascination, nearly 40 years later? Other critics realize that neither heavy panting nor egghead theorizing is a fully appropriate response, and that to best capture the elusive charms of the films they discuss, they must glide easily from erotics to aesthetics, and back again. J. Hoberman artfully picks apart the vengeful sexuality of ''Basic Instinct," and David Edelstein discovers the surprisingly reactionary political and sexual messages of some of his favorite childhood horror flicks. Best of all is Charles Taylor's unapologetic tribute to the charms of pornography, which analyzes the influence of the classic Hollywood musical on the heretofore unbeloved ''Talk Dirty to Me." Taylor goes boldly where few other contributors choose to stray, straight into the heart of the film industry's smutty shadow, and emerges with his honor unscathed, having successfully managed to write calmly and honestly about the nature of porn's hold on its audiences, and its architectonics of desire.
As best evidenced by Nathan Lee's superlative essay on the gay male erotics of the Portuguese film ''O Fantasma," the best work in ''The X List" is from writers who know they cannot relax in the assumption that everyone already knows why the film under discussion is good, or hot -- that the sex needs no translation. With film criticism so thoroughly the province of straight men, it should come as little surprise that the male gaze is almost always privileged, often to the exclusion of its female counterpart. The women of ''The X List" contribute many of the best essays here, ranging from Bernard's superb erotic deconstruction of the family-friendly ''Bye Bye Birdie" to Sheila Benson's paean to the eroticism of married life as seen in ''Don't Look Now." What these contributions share is a desire to find sexiness in surprising places, and surprise in sexy places. ''The X List" 's female critics know they must prove their cases, not merely state them.
Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York City. He is currently at work on a history of music videos.