Friday, June 6, 2008

Sex and the City -- "Just Say No" to Commodity Porn

If you have no desire, ever, to see the 'Sex and the City' movie, but would enjoy some schadenfreude at the pain I suffered last night ("life is short -- why am I here?), then read on.

Women came to New York for Love and Labels

Carrie opens the new Sex and the City movie with that line, claiming that's how it all started when she arrived 20 years ago. But in my memory as a confessedly avid watcher, labels weren't so important in the early, banter-rich, go-girl seasons.

Sex and the City challenged the sexual double-standard in a light-hearted, comedic, "go girl" way that first made you laugh, and then made you think (apologies to my pals). This brought me along to root, cheer, and forgive it its other excesses. Samantha unabashedly appropriated traditionally masculine sexual privileges. Miranda counted up her sexual partners, and came up with a number over 40. The girls giggled, cried and chortled over their orgasms -- how many, how often, how reliable, and the men who gave them good or didn't. The show was creative in its discussion of dating: what happens when you meet your boyfriend's mother -- and you click more with her than him? What if you've been without sex so long that you decide to accept the offer cat-called by a construction worker -- and he turns tail and runs in fear? You're trying to climb the corporate ladder, but your boss's wife thinks you're a lesbian, and she so wants a real live lesbian in their social circle -- act the part, or come out as a heterosexual? Should you give up the great sex because the guy is a recovering alcoholic who probably won't actually recover? Is it okay to pass around a guy to your girlfriends because he's really good in bed but otherwise not a keeper? How should you react when your fun one-night stand leaves greenbacks on your bedside table? And myriad timely issues: infertility and adopting a baby from China; breast cancer and chemotherapy; having a child as a single mother and handling a high-end corporate lawyer job; marrying and being the primary breadwinner.

Sure, I recall cringing when the Manolo Blahniks got big in the show, but shoe time and expensive clothes were a quirk, not the main point. The focus on glossy material possessions was slight enough in the TV shows that I could skip over them like annoying ads in a magazine.

But the movie upped the ante, and 20 minutes in, this gal wanted to fold and get out. There's no skipping the ads when the magazine is Vogue. Imagine your eyelids are taped open while an entire Vogue issue pans before you, pages turned in slow-motion.

And as if the conspicuous consumption wasn't bad enough ... consider the, uh, "story line."

In fictional romances, the two lovers must be kept separated during most of the story to build tension and uncertainty about the outcome: will they finally get together? How? How much suffering will they endure before being united? Authors must contrive devices to maintain separation between the lovers. Pride and Prejudice maintained suspense for an entire book because of a misunderstanding that could have been resolved with a simple conversation. In Sex and the City, I writhed in my seat in annoyance over the contrivances that kept Carrie and Big from having the simple conversation that would have saved viewers 2 hours of Carrie's tear-stained, crumpled face.

The reward of romantic union requires the build up of uncertainty. So darn, how to break up the happy cohabitating couple? Let Big get a a few hours of cold feet, and Carrie be so fragile that she over-reacts and flips out.

Being left at the altar -- the disaster of our life?

At the rehearsal dinner, Miranda is recovering from her pain at her spouse's infidelity, and snarls at Big, "You're crazy to get married -- marriage ruins everything!" Third-time groom Big is spooked and calls Carrie for reassurance in the middle of the night, gets it, but remains unsettled.

On the day of the wedding the precious flower girl, enamored of cell-phones, covets and hides Carrie's phone.

Big can't be really bad, because then reunion can't be possible. We've got to string everyone along on a momentary confusion, compounded by over-reaction.

Big calls Carrie repeatedly asking for a chance to touch base. He just needs to see her, he says. With his limousine at the wedding, her veil drops over her face as, not seeing him, she mounts the stairs. Cars honk for him to get rolling out of the way, and he is so agitated he tells his driver to leave the scene. Twenty minutes late, he finally gets Carrie on the phone. He starts to explain, saying something to the effect that he showed up at the venue, but needed to see her and now he's left, but he just needs to talk to her --- Carrie freaks out, taking this as news that he has jilted her at the altar, and faints. Her entourage carts off the wounded bride. Big tries valiantly to explain that he's ready now, but Carrie won't hear that message, and in pain over the assumption that his feet are frozen, she stuns him with her bouquet and the car roars off.

It takes six months for the two to finally talk. The writers' contrivances were pitiful: When Carrie is finally brave enough to go through her voice mail, the sound of Big speaking on the day of the wedding is so painful that she tosses the phone into the beautiful ocean at the lush Mexican resort where she and the girls are spending the paid-for honeymoon. What about letters and emails? At the first news that the cad send her an email, she asks her computer savvy personal assistant to make all messages from him disappear into cyberspace. Because of her huge emotional would, she is too distraught to open physical mail and it piles up in her PO box.

The two finally meet when Carrie has learned that the apt they bought together will be sold and the locks changed. She can't miss out on $400 never-worn shoes, and goes to the apt -- to find Big there with the same thought, cradling the shoes in his hands, looking pained.

They realize they love each other and, thankfully the film rapidly concludes.

Why why why?

In the final 20 minutes, the film adopts an about-face regarding materialism and consumerism. Instead of the lavish 200 guest wedding with designer label dress, Carrie and Big get married by a justice of the peace and have a simple dinner with friends. Craven, unprincipled Panglossian that I am, I was grateful for those crumbs -- yes, we can all be happy if we just learn (a) to start talking to each other, and (b) that love is more important than labels!

Its a case of titillate and moralize. The good life, the fantasy life whose image most excites the children of capitalism, is the life of buying expensive, dazzling products. But to ensure the images don't cloy, revise it all with just minutes of the game to go, with the smarmy moral message that love triumphs over labels. But how can 10 minutes of justice-of-the-peace wedding triumph over 230 minutes of commodities porn?

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