9 horribly boring songs

Yesterday morning, my partner and I watched Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs. It kind of ruined the rest of the day. I spent most of it transcribing a long interview, which may be almost as zesty an activity as the sex scenes that buttress the movie’s low-grade concert footage. I recommend it to no one. It may also strengthen the argument that Winterbottom is a misogynist.

Only boring people are bored--9 Songs' Matt and Lisa; image courtesy of bfi.org.uk

People probably remember this 2004 feature for the unsimulated sex scenes between lead actors Kieran O’Brien and Margot Stilley. It’s about a British climatogolist (Matt, played by O’Brien) and an American exchange student (Lisa, Stilley’s first film role) who meet at the Brixton Academy during a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club concert (already a bad start). Lisa attends the gig with a girlfriend we never see again and launches into a year-long affair with Matt until she moves back to the states. In their time together, they engage in sex that isn’t as kinky as they think it is and see a bunch of bands that mean about as much to them as their own joyless bodies twining together.

I think the concerts they attend clue us in to what kind of people they are. They see mediocre rock bands, almost entirely peopled by white men with the occasional token white woman, that are designed to galvanize A&R men and music publications. These are bands label representatives try to push on college radio and alterna weeklies (true story: when I was at KVRX, Franz Ferdinand’s first record sat on the shelf for about six months until a deejay who spent a semester in England reviewed it). Bands like the Dandy Warhols and the Von Bondies ultimately signify rock’s rebellious energy as much as a Union Jack bath mat from Urban Outfitters represents England. They’re about as connected to rock as Steven Tyler’s leather pants.

At the risk of sounding like a music snob, these bands are made for people who don’t care about music (I remember what Genesis P-Orridge said about the Dandies in DiG! and I hope he’s embarrassed by where he chose to plant his flag). They’re buzz bands that can gather a large crowd in a stately concert hall because the audience knows that one song that was featured in a commercial. Among that throng is the couple in 9 Songs. It’s evident by how little they actually engage with the music. They’re in the back, talking and kissing. They aren’t in the front, singing every word.

It’s also made apparent by what venues they frequent. By my count, there are three concert spaces represented in 9 Songs. All of them are large. I don’t want to suggest that you can only truly experience music in an intimate, dingy club. I don’t believe in an authentic musical experience, regardless of venue size. However, their distance from the stage and their passive reception of the music say a great deal about who these people are and how they cannot engage with people, even when at their most physically intimate. All of this is just something to do.

I’ll pause to mention that tickets to these shows are probably expensive, at least relative to a free house party or a $10 cover at some small club. This speaks to Matt’s economic standing and implies that Lisa, a college student who works part-time at a bar, is probably supported by a family who can afford to finance a twentysomething’s year abroad. It’s also a lot of money to blow on bands you don’t care about. To get snobbier, they’re probably like those SXSW attendees who wave around the badges they bought, only to make out through James Blake’s set.

Setting up my feminist disgust with the movie, it’s important to mention that Lisa is a sex tourist. In one scene, she rattles off a list of international men she’s had, identifying them by country instead of by name. Of her conquests, one was one from Argentina, another from Brazil, and a German when she was in high school. I don’t mention this to slut shame. I bring this up because she’s a white woman who likes to pilfer from the cultural traditions of various racial and ethnic groups and has the means to do so. She plays Salif Keita while snorting cocaine and getting ready to go out. She teaches Matt how to salsa dance, noting that you have to put your ass into it. She would assuredly get defensive if you called her out as a racist for all this jet-set poaching.

I had so many prurient questions for Stilley during my viewing. Principally, I wanted to know what it was like filming the sex scenes with an all-male crew and if the sex itself was at all gratifying. It’s really not my business and I don’t want to assume Stilley felt disenfranchised. However, the power dynamics in place during 9 Songs‘ production are staggeringly out of balance. This was Stilley’s first film role, following a modeling career. O’Brien, however, had been a film actor a few years longer and previously played a supporting character in Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People.

Winterbottom also wrote the screenplay, and thus characterized Lisa as arrogant, flippant, and privileged. She is also written as disloyal and emasculating, wounding Matt with her proclivities for female strippers and vibrators. When you read this into a film career that includes controversial fare like Winterbottom’s recent adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, the suggestion that Winterbottom doesn’t like women is troubling. At the very least he’s clueless about them and unwilling to check his chauvinistic tendencies. The 69-minute running time and the inclusion of a money shot don’t help here either.

Intentionality was my biggest concern during the screening of this disaster. Are we supposed to think this couple is boring? My hunch is that we’re meant to empathize with Matt, the narrator, which only distances us from the villanous, objectified Lisa. But is the sex supposed to be mechanical and alienating? And, if so, what’s the point? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see two people make an initial connection, have exciting sex, but ultimately are incompatible? I’m not sure if incorporating this into the story would improve 9 Songs, but it certainly couldn’t make it worse.

2 comments

  1. Emmitt

    9 Songs has actually gone unseen by me mostly because the idea of Winterbottom doing a straight-up love story–albeit with unsimulated sex (which doesn’t seem like a huge deal to me; Catherine Breillat and Lars Von Trier have spoiled me)–doesn’t really interest me. Winterbottom is, shall we say, a better anthropologist than he is a filmmaker that can punch me in the emotional gut. He’s better at exploring stuff like language or literature. Hence Code 46 being my pick for his best movie.

    I’ll probably get around to watching 9 Songs one day but I fully expect to be disappointed.

    Also people I’ve talked to about this movie always tell me how the money shot just took them right out of it.

  2. Jamie Wright

    I saw 9 Songs in the theater and have rented it a couple of times since. I found it to be a beautiful and emotionally wrenching tone poem.

    The film, to me, was a commentary on the difficulty we all have in truly connecting and just how much we all crave intimacy. The couple was involved in the most intimate moments possible but, still, there was an impenetrable wall between them. Of the two, the man seemed to want a connection more than the woman. She, as you said, was a sex tourist, as are many young people who are privileged enough to travel. Sex is good. Sex is fun. Let’s have as much of it as we can, while we are still young and attractive enough for the casual, no-strings pick-up. Unfortunately, our male seemed to need more.

    As far as being privileged, well, privilege is not a crime. It is a gift. Because she is of a class that allows her the youthful freedom that we all should have, should she deny herself? Should she say, “No. I am not going to go to Europe on a study-abroad trip because my roommate at my undergraduate school had to work two jobs to graduate?” While the jealousy is understandable (I feel it myself), she is not responsible for wealth distribution in the world. Hating her because she is rich and can be frivolous is pointless.

    Arrogant, flippant, emasculating? This exists. Sometimes women can be cruel in small ways and that hurts the men in her life and vice versa — men can be cruel too. Her sins are not big ones. She never promised loyalty. He simply expected more than she was willing to give at the time. That’s real life.

    Lack of diversity in the film is not a crime either. I am Black. I am constantly going to events where I am the only Black person in the crowd. I was just at an event this past weekend which had about 400 people and 3 Black people that I encountered. We live in a segregated world, no longer by law today, but now by interests. So the all-White world painted in the film didn’t strike me as odd at all.

    Overall, the melancholic tone of the film resonated with me. I found myself wishing I could have had, in my youth, the sexual freedom of the female character, and I have, all too often, experienced the longing of the male character.

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