I love indie films. I’m a child of the 90s, so folks like Linklater and Smith are my non-Tarantino heroes. With the internet equalizing artistic endeavors and the studio system only giving a shit about movies that will make billions, indie directors are having a credible comeback right now. A renaissance, if you will excuse my using the snootiest of snooty terms. Allow me to introduce you, if you’re unfamiliar, to HitRECord (that’s “hit record” like the button, not “hit record” like the album – inflection is important kids, not just spelling). You know Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he of Third Rock From the Sun and Inception fame. The cute one with all the nice suits. Who inexplicably has a New York-ish accent even though he’s from Los Angeles. Yeah, that one. He’s fantastic. He started this company called HitRECord, and it’s fucking genius. They’re basically crowdsourcing art projects, putting writers and designers and directors and musicians in touch with each other. Building a community to collectively create. Such a great idea. I love it. But that’s not why we’re here.
We’re here to talk about Don Jon, the movie Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. I’d heard about it forever ago when he was doing the podcast circuit for the movie’s release and was stoked about it. Then it got added to Netflix and since Netflix looks completely different on my new computer I remained unaware that it was there. We’re going to have to have a chat, Windows 8. A serious chat.
Basic rundown: seemingly average dudebro Jon is just living his life. He walks the audience through his normal dudebro day, then offhandedly mentions how much he loves porn. The scene takes a hard right turn, devolving into a film-student-level deconstruction of the different kinds of porn then bam, back to the everyday blah blah. This is the first two minutes of the movie, but one already gets the idea that this is how this guy thinks all the time. So he meets a girl. Of course he does. And she won’t have sex with him immediately, which is unusual, so he’s intrigued. Of course he is. And some time goes by, they’re doing the couple thing. Eventually they do sleep together, and one night she catches him watching porn while she’s sleeping at his place (a low-class maneuver, folks – don’t, just don’t). He insists that it was emailed to him as a joke, that he doesn’t watch porn, that he’s not that kind of guy. Proceeding to fall in love and get serious with this lie hanging over his head, he starts to watch porn on his phone and in weird places, including in a class that the girlfriend bitchily manipulated him into taking. Such a junkie move, but it catches the attention of a classmate, a sort of free-spirited older lady who it seems doesn’t even register on his radar as female because she’s not absurdly hot and scantily clad. They become acquainted and he starts to look at the girlfriend in a different light. Unfortunately, friends, the rest is spoilers. I know! I’m so sorry. I hate to do that to you.
It sounds like a pretty stereotypical sort of movie when I write it all out like that, but I assure you that I’m leaving out some juicy nuggets of awesome. It’s well-written and beautifully shot, with a weird, repetitive structure that forces you to play Where’s Waldo? with the changes in his personality. It’s flawed, though, in a few key ways. We can maybe chalk that up to Gordon-Levitt doing the whole project himself and being either overworked or lacking support. Not that I’m blaming him, but it might have been distractingly ambitious. For example, the girlfriend (played wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson) is obsessed with those cheesy romantic movies. There’s one scene when she’s watching one in a theater, and it’s shot like and has the same effects as the scenes when Jon is watching porn. It only happens once, and if you weren’t paying attention you could miss it. But I think this is a massively important plot point that informs her character and everything that happens in the rest of the film. Drawing attention to the analogy could have been done a little more clearly.
Those kinds of chick flicks (sorry if that’s an offensive term, ladies, but let’s be real – it’s accurate) have never been my thing. They’re boring. They’re formulaic. And they’re bloody dangerous. I’m of the opinion that they could, in high enough doses, be worse for us than porn. Besides being brainless, they promote a false idea of what love and relationships are all about, what they look like, how they’re supposed to play out. They’ve created a culture of women looking for the perfect man who fits all of their criteria. He doesn’t exist, y’all. Furthermore, they’ve made the meeting and the chasing and the catching seem like the important aspects of relationships. We’ve focused our attention on that early part, when everything’s new and exciting, and then you get to have the big pain in the ass wedding planning phase, and then your storybook princess dress and blah blah blah. Let me tell you, that’s the easy bit. The hard work comes after all that cute shit is over. And there’s a whole other type of movie that covers that.
I’ve noticed that married men are largely depicted in a certain way in movies: he’s the miserable guy, tied down and pushed around. He tries to talk his buddies out of getting married, right? Tells them to run away, to keep their freedom. Because men like those early chase parts, too, it’s just that their goals are different. We put great emphasis on sex being the endgame for men, and romance or marriage or family being the endgame for women. We want to trap them, apparently. Women are sexualized in advertising and media because we think that’s what it takes to nab a man, because men are just penises with legs. Then we make movies and tv shows about unhappy married men, the implication being that women use sex to their advantage and only to get what they want. This is all fucked up. Really, really fucked up. The truth is that women like sex, and a lot of men are happily married and love being dads. But we’ve set up these very specific expectations, through both of these before and after types of films, and when shit gets real people panic. We’re unprepared. We’re crushed, disappointed, angry, resentful. This is why the divorce rate is so high and tons of people cheat on their spouses, because we were lied to about love.
There’s a nice nod to this phenomenon in Don Jon but, again, you could miss it. The couple is at one of those home improvement-type stores, getting curtains for her apartment. He says he needs to buy Swiffer pads and she goes off on a rant about how a grown man shouldn’t be cleaning his own place, that even talking about it is embarrassing her, that it’s not sexy, that she’s going to send her cleaning lady over for him. It’s an interesting peek into how she thinks about men, manhood, adulthood, home life. Her expectations of how he should act are shaken, and the look on her face is pure rage and mortification. She’s utterly baffled that a man would take pride or pleasure in keeping his space clean, while we all know that the dudes with the nice, tidy apartments get laid more than slobs. Meanwhile, every commercial for cleaning products has a woman in it. Hurm.
But I digress. Back to porn. Personally, I don’t have a problem with people watching porn. As long as everyone in it is sober, disease-free, paid fairly, and over eighteen, I really don’t care. My only problem is, again, it sets up unrealistic expectations about what sex should be like. Especially for young men, obviously. This gap between porn and reality is handled very well in Don Jon. He understands and appreciates the differences and spells them out in excruciating, nuanced detail. The only real reasons normal, non-addict-level porn use would be an issue in a relationship are if, like Jon, one person prefers porn to the real thing or if someone tries to have porn-like sex with their partner and the partner’s not into it. Which is also never addressed in those dumb romantic movies, is it? They’re always perfectly in sync and it’s magical and beautiful and never awkward or sticky. They don’t even show the two seconds it takes to put on a condom. Absurd.
The fact of the matter is that porn has existed since humans figured out how to scratch stick figures onto cave walls. It’s not immoral or wrong, in and of itself. It’s only taboo because of the walls we’ve built up around sex in our culture. Truthfully, I don’t even think we need proper porn anymore. We have music videos and Victoria’s Secret ads shoved in our faces every hour of every day. And we’ve always had the power of our good old imaginations. But you can get addicted to anything. Porn addiction is very real, and it’s about more than orgasms. Much like heroin, the ritual is half of the high. Habitually eliminating the need for consideration of a partner can make people think about sex in a selfish, destructive, or aggressive way.
Which is also a point addressed fairly well in Don Jon. The whole movie is one-sided. It’s all about him. We don’t get to really delve into the girlfriend’s romcom addiction because he honestly doesn’t care where she’s coming from or why she acts the way she does. It’s a good metaphor for chronic masturbation, but it might be too subtle and just come off as gender-biased. That’s why I really love the other female character, the one Jon meets in his class. The brilliant and gorgeous Julianne Moore rocks this part. I like that the two women are so diametrically opposed. She’s older, more sensitive, and more real than any other women he would have even looked at twice. She’s got baggage. She has intelligent, open conversations with him about sex and porn and relationships. She blows his mind, basically, because he didn’t expect her. He would have written her off, she would have just been a background prop in his life. It’s another problem perpetuated by romantic movies, right? The guy falls for the most beautiful girl in the room, every fucking time.
Anyway. It’s a great movie. Fair warning, though, if you have delicate sensibilities, there’s a lot of porn snippets and sex scenes in this one. Proceed with caution. Maybe don’t watch it with your mom. And, while I’m here, a little piece of unsolicited advice: don’t look for a perfect mate. Perfect mates don’t exist because perfect people don’t exist. If you have a checklist in your head of requirements that someone has to meet for you to love them, you’re going to be alone forever. None of us gets to marry Lloyd Dobler or Jake Ryan. That fantasy amalgam porn girl you imagine probably has annoying habits just like anybody else. And while that beginning part is fun, you shouldn’t judge the whole relationship based solely on that initial chemistry. Ask yourself if she’ll make you soup when you’re sick and gross or if he’ll bring you daisies from the side of the road because you hate roses. Would they remember your best friend’s birthday? Would they sneak whiskey into Christmas so you can deal with your crazy family together? Do they love your dog? Just deal with reality, is what I’m saying. It’s all we’ve got.