I’m still feeling very low-energy, plus I’m frantically trying to catch up on the day-job and deadline work I’ve been putting to the side for the last couple of weeks. So today you get something from the archives. I worked a a film critic for years, and one of my favorite gigs was for the adult newspaper The Spectator, using movies as a jumping-off point for socio-sexual analysis of the culture. It was really fun — especially when my job was to analyze silly pop-culture fluff like American Pie. I hope to have a proper new post in the next day or two; in the meantime, enjoy!
Oh, BTW: I give away endings. So if you don’t want to know how American Pie turns out, you may want to skip this review.
Relax. This isn’t going to be another rant about juvenile sex humor. I’ve finally acquired some sort of Zen acceptance about the fact that I’m thirty-seven (well, I was when I wrote this), and movies marketed for seventeen-year-olds may just not appeal to me. And I’ve given up on that particular rant. (At least for this week. No promises for the future.) Yes, the movie does have that somewhat annoying trait of finding gut-wrenching humor in the very existence of sex and other bodily functions; it’s full of anxious, giggly jokes that essentially go, “Sex! Masturbation! Boobies! Toilets! Diarrhea!” upon which it falls all over itself in gales of uncontrolled hysteria. But it’s not mean-spirited about it for the most part; and if I’m going to be fair and honest, I do have to remember that I was once a teenager, awkward and anxious and uncomfortable about my body in general and sex very much in particular, and at age seventeen, I might well have found this movie a laff riot. Yes, I do get bored and irritated at comedy that finds its humor in the very existence of sex; but I’m in a generous mood at the moment, and am willing to acknowledge that not all art has to be aimed at me personally. So I’m not going to rail against it. This week.
No, the odd thing is this. For all of its wall-to-wall sex talk, American Pie is actually something of a sexual morality play. It’s a raunchy, smutty, potty-mouthed sexual morality play, but it’s a morality play nevertheless. The point of the movie (other than “Titties! Jism! Vagina!”) seems to be that there are good reasons to have sex and bad reasons to have sex, and that the bad reasons will be punished while the good ones are rewarded.
Come to think of it, that’s not the odd thing. Sexual morality plays aren’t an odd thing at all in the movies. I see them all the time. Heck, I rant and bitch about them all the time. What’s odd about this one is that I actually found myself agreeing with the moral. For all of its juvenile boobie-humor, I think the movie is pretty much dead-on right about what are good reasons and bad reasons to have sex. And although I do have general issues about the “What have we learned from this, class?” type of movie, I’m completely happy that the teenagers watching this particular movie are getting this particular lesson.
Basically, the deal is this. There are these four guys, high school seniors, all four of whom are still virgins and none of whom are happy about it. Feeling that none of them has the conviction or force of character to change this sad state of affairs on their own, they decide to make a pact: all four of them agree that, come hell or high water, they will get laid by prom night, for the sake of one another and the pact if for no other reason. The rest of the movie follows their trials and tribulations as, with greater or lesser degrees of success (mostly lesser), they try to fulfill their destiny.
Like any good morality play, the characters stand in for virtues and vices. Each of the main characters has a slightly different reason for wanting to get laid, and the consequences of their actions are either reward or punishment for having the right or wrong motivation. Some of the characters’ reasons for wanting sex transform over the course of the movie, and their fortunes rise and fall as a result. Yes, yes, I know. There’s something more than a little annoying about this kind of story. For one thing, it’s awfully damn simplistic; for another, life is nothing like that. There is no reality I have ever experienced, seen, or even heard of in which virtue is promptly and unambiguously rewarded and vice is promptly and unambiguously punished. But I’m not critiquing the existence of morality plays. I’ll do that some other time. I’m critiquing the particular moral of this one.
So what is this pesky moral, anyway? Well, one good reason for having sex, says the movie, is love. That’s what happens to Oz (Chris Klein); in his pursuit of the Holy Grail of Sex By Prom Night, he finds himself unexpectedly and much to his surprise falling in love with Heather (Mena Suvari), the girl whose poontang he’s been chasing. And he finds that being in love with her is better than getting laid, better than having all your buddies think you’re cool; better than winning the big lacrosse game, even. No real surprises there. I’m certainly not going to argue with it, I agree that being in love is a fine and excellent reason for having sex; but as sexual morals go, it’s not exactly breaking any sound barriers.
But another excellent reason to have sex, according to American Pie, is horniness. Sheer physical horniness, the purely carnal desire to get your dick inside a pussy or your pussy around a dick: this is, according to this movie, a grand and fine and noble reason to pursue sex. That’s the fate of Jim (Jason Biggs); he just wants it, by gum, he wants it deeply and desperately and with every boner in his body. And although he goes through numerous excruciating, embarrassing, clumsy comic mishaps on his way, he eventually gets it with Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), a dorky band nerd who’s at least as crazy-horny as he is (and, in my opinion, is by far the cutest girl in the film — she’s Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so if you watch Buffy you totally know what I mean). And boy, does he get it — he gets it good, with overturned furniture and smashed bric-a-brac and a grin on his face afterwards that stretches from coast to coast.
The same is true for Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas). After a mortifyingly failed attempt to spread a false reputation about himself and get girls fascinated with him, he finally gets a dose of pure lust with an older woman who’s never seen him or heard of him before in her life… and he loves every second of it. And this is where American Pie parts company with its fellow cinematic morality plays and goes whipping off into the wilderness. I can’t think of any other mainstream movie that encourages teenagers — or anybody else, for that matter — to go ahead and have sex just because they’re horny.
So if being in love and being horny are the good reasons to pursue sex, then what are the bad reasons? Well, let’s see. Because everyone else is doing it. Because you think everyone else is doing it. Because you want everyone else to think you’ve done it. Because you think it’s what you should be doing, at this time in your life or at this point in your relationship. Because you think being a virgin is dorky and being a non-virgin is cool. Because you think being a virgin is for babies and being a non-virgin is grown-up. Because you want status and prestige and bragging rights. Because you want to cross that line and be on the other side of it.
These are some of the motivations driving Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and his steady girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid) into the sack. For her, it’s not so much that she wants it, as that she thinks she should want it; she and Kevin are going steady, and after all, that’s what you do when you’re going steady, right? And for him, it’s not so much that he wants to do it — it’s that he wants to have done it. He’s got it fixed in his head as a goal, and even though he’s having a grand time playing Everything But with Vicky, he’s got it stuck in his head that fucking is It, the thing that counts for everything. (And he acts like kind of an asshole with Vicky, telling her that he loves her when he doesn’t really know how he feels, in order to get it.) He’s curious, but it’s not the rampant-horny kind of curious, the “What does the inside of a pussy feel like?” kind of curious; it’s the “What will it feel like to have had sex?” kind of curious, the “What is everybody making such a fuss over?” kind of curious. Not surprisingly, when they finally do it… well, it’s sort of a disappointment. Actually, it’s a lot of a disappointment. It just doesn’t live up to the build-up, to the expectation that this will be The Thing, the thing that transforms their identities and bonds the relationship like glue. And while it doesn’t break them up exactly, it does make them realize that their relationship is just a high school thing and isn’t going to last once they leave their hometown.
A similar moral revenge happens with several secondary characters. To a man, the guys who get sex so they can run out and brag about it to the other guys afterwards get some dreadful form of karmic retribution, usually in the form of that most dreaded of all teenage dreads — public humiliation. Interestingly, getting laid or not getting laid is not itself the reward or punishment for having the wrong kind of sexual motivation. After all, Kevin and Vicky get laid — they just get laid crappily. And the asshole guys who pursue sex so they can strut around and act like big men and make the other guys feel puny… well, they do get laid, after all. Their comeuppance just takes other forms. And while it’s not quite clear whether Oz and Heather go All The Way or play the Everything But game instead, it is clear is that it doesn’t really matter to them. They’re totally in love, and whatever they do is fine with them. The reward isn’t sex — it’s good sex, satisfying sex, sex that makes you happy.
“But what about the pact?” I hear you cry. “Isn’t that a pretty stupid reason in itself to have sex?” Well, yes. That is a mind-wrenchingly stupid reason to have sex. And the movie wholeheartedly concurs. In fact, one of the pivotal moments in the story is when the four guys are comparing notes on their success in keeping the pact; Jim, Finch and Oz all agree that the pact is dumb and pointless, and that having sex because they promised their friends that they would is just about the stupidest thing they can imagine. And they all give up on it… leaving Kevin berating them for not keeping their loyalties and sticking to their word. They grow out of it; they go from pursuing sex for the sake of their buddies to pursuing sex for the sake of themselves and their lovers or fuck-partners. And this — not getting laid, but this — is how we know that they’re growing up. This is the real rite of passage.
So basically, the deal is this. Having sex because you really, really, really want to — that’s good. Whether it’s because you love someone and want to share this special and intimate form of blah blah blah, or whether it’s because your body feels like it’s going to bust open at the seams if you don’t get some in the next ten seconds — that’s all good. What’s bad is having sex to fill other people’s expectations, or what you imagine are other people’s expectations. What’s bad is having sex for anybody other than yourself and the person or people you’re having it with.
And I think this is a good moral. In fact, I don’t just think it’s a good moral — I think it’s a true one. Certainly I don’t think it works out in this neat, clean, instant-karma way in real life. But I do think that a whopping portion of the unhappiness in unhappy sex lives comes from doing sex the way you think it should be done; doing things you don’t really like because it’s what you think sex is about, flinching away from the things you do want because you think they’re weird. I think that a happy sex life does have to be based, at least in part, on knowing what you want, accepting what you want, and then damning the torpedoes and going full speed ahead, based entirely on your own desires and the desires of the ones you’re aiming your torpedoes at. And I’m delighted to see a big box-office teenage smash that thinks the same thing.