9 Songs

Art? Porn? Art porn? Henry K Miller's not so sure if Winterbottom's newest is any of them.

By Henry K Miller

The reaction of the British censors to 9 Songs is revealing. "It was a question of intent," says the BBFCs Director of Communication. "The intent of a sex film is sexual arousal. That is not the intention behind this film." The board has also ruled that the scenes of unsimulated sex were "exceptionally justified by context," and thus the film is officially in the "music, romance genre(s)". There's a lot to unpack here – if the film itself is a washout, the brouhaha surrounding it is well worth the proverbial price of admission for the insights it provides into English puritanism this side of the millennium: god forbid that mainstream films might aim at sexual arousal!

Music, as per the board's otherwise idiosyncratic classification, is certainly a major part of the film, which begins with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performing a song titled, hopefully with the ‘intention’ of irony, 'Whatever Happened To My Rock 'n' Roll?'. No conceivable context could justify the inclusion of a second BRMC track at the close of the film, but then the all-too-relativist BBFC "doesn't make moral decisions, because what is morally wrong for one person is not morally wrong for another". Of the intervening seven songs, by bands including Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, and the Dandy Warhols, most of them recorded at the Brixton Academy in inter 2003-4, the following judgement seems the fairest: "for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like."

The romance poses more of a problem. 9 Songs in some ways belongs to the continental art-porn tradition from Last Tango in Paris (1972) to Intimacy (2001). In the genre's typical plot trajectory, the shifting power relationship of the central romantic couple is acted out in the sex scenes. Explicit sex is the selling point, but generally these films also make an (invariably pessimistic) comment on the nature of relationships. This seriousness of intent is at the heart of the BBFC's double standard: a moral-cum-aesthetic judgement is being made as to whether the content of the films 'justifies' their explicit sex scenes. "It's not good because it's rude; it's good because it looks like it's good because it's rude" is one way of understanding how 9 Songs passed the test.

Unfortunately 9 Songs is at its weakest in the non-fucking, non-music scenes. Winterbottom's failure on this score flows from his process-oriented conception of film-making: here he's opted for unlit, handheld cinematography and encouraged his actors to improvise – presumably for that bleeding-edge 'Dogme 95' look (ask your dad). Neither actor is up to the task, and the result is a series of banal exchanges which wouldn't actually be out of place in a porn film. (Umberto Eco: "If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic".) 9 Songs as a whole is curiously affectless – hardly something that could be said of Festen, or indeed It's All About Love – and while it's not really arousing enough to pass as porn, neither does it justify the BBFC's faith in its redeeming qualities. It only looks like it's good because it's rude.
bohemian posted 6 January 2009 (11:10:12)
this film is truly baseless. watch it just for the sake of explicit sex scenes.
Henry K. Miller posted 30 June 2007 (11:53:22)
weak
sd posted 1 July 2010 (07:27:38)
sd
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