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Don Jon's Glimpse of "Pornified Love": When "Sex Is No Longer Sexy"

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a church-going Catholic who routinely confesses his porn addiction, but can't stop it.

BY Joan Desmond

| Posted 9/27/13 at 11:46 AM

 

Don Jon, a new film that explores pornography's thrall in 21st Century America, is not for "sensitive" viewers, warns Mary Rose Somarriba  in an article in Verily that weaves scenes from the film with the latest information on  the Social Costs of Porngraphy.

For Gordon-Levitt’s first written and directed feature film, Don Jon (which sensitive viewers should know is filled with porn clips) raises a good question: Does our culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn? Has it diminished our view of women, relationships, and sex in general?

Don Jon is a bold contribution to a recent trend in entertainment, giving audiences a real—and grim—snapshot of 21st-century relationships. Call it post–Sex and the City realism. There’s the recent film Lovelace, contrasting the exciting story, as we were told it, of Deepthroat star Linda Lovelace, and the completely un-sexy version as it really was. There’s Girls on HBO, known for showing ugly, lifelike sex scenes. There’s Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, managing to make ultra-risqué performances devoid of any sex appeal. It’s as if sex is no longer sexy in pop culture. What was once a warm and alluring mystery is now a cold, anatomical display. If intimacy is dead, porn may have killed it.

Somarriba acknowledgeds that porn addiction is not the only force resetting our expectations and approach to the "one flesh" union celebrated in Genesis.  

One could easily add possessiveness and jealousy to the list, or impatience with others’ flaws, or the all-too-common temptation to try to manipulate and change the other to our liking. The popularity of pornography has been fostered, perhaps, in part by a larger cultural tendency toward individualism, a perception that relationships are primarily tools used by an individual on his or her solo journey of self-understanding and satisfaction.


Don Jon responds to the question of pornography not through statistics (although, as we have seen, they’re there) but, ultimately, through a simple assertion, powerfully made through the stories of the characters: Like it or not, authentic relationships are not one-sided. “If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. And she has to lose herself in you. It’s a two-way thing.”

The New York Times film review of Don Jon didn't pick up on the cautionary elements of his story, but the reviewer did take note of the protagonist's narcissim. 

all Jon cares about, as he repeatedly claims in a voice-over that sounds like a loop, are ‘“my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn.” That’s a whole lot of me and mine.

Which is directly to the point of this deceptively sincere movie about masculinity and its discontents that Mr. Gordon-Levitt, making a fine feature directing debut, shapes into a story about a young man’s moral education.

Don Jon's life begins to change when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson). He and his friends are clubbing, and after a superficial assessment of her looks, they give her a "dime", ie, a 10 for beauty.  It turns out, as the Times review notes

Barbara has her own addiction, specifically to the kind of storybook romance that, the movie suggests, reduces human relations to commercial transactions as much as pornography does.

What do romantic movies and mass market romances have to do with porn? The combination may seem unlikely, but more than a few observors have noted that romance novels, in particular, are requally addictive (only a click away on Kindle) and have become the female equivalent of porn--the male characters are idealized and instramentalized to fulfill the reader's fantasies. Husbands can seem dull by comparison.  

Back in 2009, amid the darkest moments of the great recession, one publisher told the Times that hardcore romance readers, who gobble up four or  more books a week, are 

"a very dedicated audience who doesn’t see it as a luxury as much as a necessity."

Don Jon may be upfront about the reality of these dual addictions, but will the audience leave the threater prepared to discard their fantasy partners? What does it take to give the "two-way thing" a real shot? 

UPDATE: In an interview with Dig, Gordon-Levitt explained that he was inspired to

"tell a story about how people treat other people more like things,”