Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sexual Attraction in Film and Fiction by Catherine Czerkawska

Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
A few weeks ago, I came across an excellent blog post by Emma Darwin on writing about sex. It’s something I’ve been pondering a good deal recently, (I know, I know) because I’m in the middle of reworking an old idea and central to it is the theme of an intensely physical and virtually irresistible sexual attraction. Emma makes the very valuable and astute point that erotica, while often deemed to be ‘literarily unrespectable’ is just like any other kind of writing and subject to the same demands, the same constraints – not of what’s depicted, but how the writer exercises his or her craft. ‘What is it about writing sex which makes both writers and readers regard it as a wholly different business from anything else?’ she asks. 

If you decide to leave the bedroom door firmly closed in a novel about relationships, it always seems to me as much of a cop out as - for example - leaving out the dialogue just because you find it hard to manage. (Believe me, I've seen writers attempt to do just this!) If you can write about everything else – and it’s an important part of your story - why not write about the sex too?

Emma’s post was opportune in that it helped me to focus on what I was really trying to achieve in a new trilogy of novels, mostly set in the Canary Isles: Orange Blossom Love (due for publication soon) Bitter Oranges (Christmas) and Hera’s Orchard (next year – if all goes according to plan!) I’ve always enjoyed writing about physical attraction. Let’s face it, so much within our lives can be transformed by it and not always for the better. Sometimes it happens in spite of warnings from our more rational selves and that’s always interesting and dramatic for a writer to explore - although perhaps not so enjoyable to live through. Also there are differences in perception between men and women. There’s the uneasy suspicion that – in literature and perhaps in life too - what men find sexy tends to be treated with far more seriousness than whatever interests women.

I found the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon fascinating. Sometimes it seemed that half my friends were scoffing at it and the other half were admitting that they had read it. Some of them (when pressed for opinions) admitted they had really enjoyed it in spite of all those tiresome inner goddesses. Women friends, of course. And I saw a great many women reading it in coffee shops and on trains. Never quite found out what the men thought about it. If they read it they weren’t talking. Or only to scoff. Of course publishers immediately jumped on the erotica bandwagon as though it had never occurred to them before that women might want to read it. I think one of the reasons why I hesitated over my Canary Isles trilogy was the thought that I didn’t want to be judged to be doing the same thing. But then I had lived with these characters on and off for years. They were mine, I loved them and this time, I wanted to get it right.

The trilogy was originally inspired by a short story of mine called Sardine Burial - first written and published way back when I was living aboard a boat in the Canaries. In Sardine Burial, I turned the usual holiday romance on its head. The woman in the story meets a Spanish waiter who isn’t quite what she expected, but then she can’t cope with the way in which her expectations are cheated by this unstereotypical man. This idea has had several outings, including one version as a radio play, but I felt that I had never quite got it right. Now, I’ve got more elbow room, more experience of fiction but perhaps most important of all, more experience of life. I realize that I want to write a detailed cross-cultural love story. It’s more about marriage than courtship, as much about the man as the woman. And of course it’s also a story about a place, an enchanting landscape. With me it always is. But mostly it’s about an intensely physical relationship coming at exactly the right moment for the couple involved. And even so, it’s not without its problems.

In the middle of writing and rewriting, I’ve been watching a whole string of movies starring Antonio Banderas. It’s a bit obvious, I know. But I needed to find some way of characterizing the kind of raw Spanish sensuality – more than that, the duende - he seemed to exude in his earlier films and all while being - somehow - unthreatening.

But Pedro Almadovar’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down gave me real pause for thought. Superficially, this is a deeply incorrect movie, and I believe it caused something of a stooshie (good Scots word) when it was released in the US which didn’t stop it from being very successful. Kidnapping the woman you love and holding her prisoner in the belief that she will fall in love with you is inadvisable at best. And yet this manages to be a breathtakingly sensuous movie.Or that’s the conclusion I reached, anyway. I know that I’m supposed to be offended by it but I wasn't. And that’s the truth. 

I loved it. I found it funny, clever, moving and - watching it more than once - I realized that the whole movie could be interpreted as an extended metaphor for courtship and marriage. I loved Victoria Abril's 'how on earth did this happen to me?' astonishment, even at the end. And then there is the somewhat notorious scene involving a woman and a clockwork diving toy in a bath which also caused such a stooshie in the US when it was first released. I'm genuinely amazed that among so many films featuring people knocking seven bells out of each other in all kinds of hideous ways, this scene should have caused so much offence to so many!  It’s funny and warm and utterly believable unlike all those deeply aggravating movies - and a few books too - where a woman alone in her bath soaps herself with totally implausible sensuality for the benefit of the (male) audience. Maybe that’s it. The scene with the woman in the bath seems to be filmed only for her, not for us. 

Helene Fourment
She’s self absorbed, and we’re in her head rather than watching her in some voyeuristic fashion. It seems to me to be very European and it reminded me of that picture of Helene Fourment (Mrs Rubens) in her fur cloak in which the dialogue seems to be an intimate interaction between the artist and the woman he loves and hardly anything to do with the person viewing the finished picture at all. 

In the same way, the very explicit sex scene between Ricky and Marina in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is so real, so moving, so (literally) painful and so very funny that I would have found it impossible to be offended by it. Especially Marina's sudden exclamation of ‘Now I remember you!’  If you don’t get this, then it’s not for you. If you do, you’ll know exactly what I mean. 

There are no firm conclusions. But I found something of what I was looking for in that movie, something inspirational about the depiction of an intense and possibly inadvisable physical attraction, and the accommodations that have to be made between two people for the subsequent relationship to work. That’s the ‘tone’ I’m aiming for in the novel. But I’m pretty sure not everyone on here will agree with me. What do you think?

6 comments:

Reb MacRath said...

Hi, Catherine. Splendid post. This isn't the first time that our timing's been in synch--and this time around the timing proved most helpful. I'm reworking my first book, The Suiting, in which the hero disintegrates relentlessly...thanks to a suit he has stolen. Though the book did not contain any prolonged graphic sex, I found that I still wanted to tone down what I had--oddly enough, to preserve the book's erotic heart. Flashes of the twisted still okay, but nothing too explicit. We'll see if readers like the change.

Dan Holloway said...

I absolutely agree with you and Emma that sex should never be "set apart" as though it's less a normal part of life than eating or going to work. That is dangerous in so many ways - both in devaluing pleasure, and conversely in the exclusive linkage of patriarchy and violence to sex, ignoring its myriad other insidious forms.

As for !Atame! I watched it at a late night screening when it first came out, and it was the film that introduced me to Almodovar. I think the thing that has characterised his career in contrast to many directors is his nuanced portrayal of complex female protagonists, and it's that attention that enables him to tackle subjects that many directors couldn't

Bill Kirton said...

Terrific post, Catherine. Necessary, too, in that it confronts the issue from the point of view of professional craftmanship (craftwomanship?). I think one of the problems may be that, if one's writing erotica, there's a tacit writer/reader agreement to adjust values accordingly right from the start, but when conveying physical love/desire and its manifestations in the context of a 'normal' novel, the transitions into the erotic sequences need very careful handling.
The problems posed are fascinating - the overwhelming, even frightening intensity of desire; the paradox of physical actions expressing and realising a spiritual state; the juxtaposition of surfaces and depths; the 'otherness' of the sexual experience. And within each of those, the complexities introduced by individual appetites. I look forward to reading your handling of such moments.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Bill, that's it precisely. And that's why we do tend to approach this kind of writing nervously - as perhaps we should. I suppose we approach other intensely emotional scenes in the same way (or if we don't - again perhaps we should!) I know I did towards the end of The Physic Garden - without giving anything away - in another intensely physical and emotional scene. But I do remember thinking, this could be a disaster in entirely the wrong way. It's interesting to think about and debate isn't it? I'm always uneasily aware that when we try to teach people 'how to write' we tend to over simplify things that are really very complex processes.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Bill, that's it precisely. And that's why we do tend to approach this kind of writing nervously - as perhaps we should. I suppose we approach other intensely emotional scenes in the same way (or if we don't - again perhaps we should!) I know I did towards the end of The Physic Garden - without giving anything away - in another intensely physical and emotional scene. But I do remember thinking, this could be a disaster in entirely the wrong way. It's interesting to think about and debate isn't it? I'm always uneasily aware that when we try to teach people 'how to write' we tend to over simplify things that are really very complex processes.

Elizabeth Kay said...

Interesting post,Catherine. I've written two erotic novels and several short stories under a pseudonym - not telling, either - and one more literary one under my own name. This was some years ago, and times have changed. It seems to me to be a reflection of the increasing violence that we see on screen, on TV, and read about in detective novels. Sex has gone the same way. If there's no S&M, it seems, no one's interested any more. I really don't understand. I cannot believe that the majority of people either want to hurt someone else, or be hurt by them. I've written some pretty way-out stuff because my publisher wanted it, but I never felt comfortable and in the end we called it day. For me, the biggest challenge was to write something humorous that managed to be erotic at the same time...