Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Can sex work as a plot device?

I have watched two very interesting films about sex recently.  They weren't particularly titillating, but that wasn't their purpose.  What made them so enjoyable was the way they actually used sex to tell a story.
Sex and Death 101 is a black comedy starring the delicious Simon Baker as Roderick, the enviably successful businessman with a beautiful fiance.  To put it bluntly, he has it all.  And, as is the trope in modern comedies, if the story begins with the main character having the perfect life, then said life will soon be turned upside down.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
On the eve of his wedding, Roderick receives an anonymous email containing a list of every woman he has ever slept with.  The last name on the list that he recognises is that of his current fiance.  But strangely, the list continues, comprising a total of 101 names.  A series of comedic and fateful accidents lead Roderick to believe he is predestined to sleep with every name on the list.  At the same time, a serial killer by the name of Death Nell is working her way through the sexist, misogynistic population.
As Roderick's journey unfolds, he learns a few precious lessons about the difference between having sex and making love, and as he draws inevitably closer to name number 101 on his list, he begins to fear that once he has bedded this last woman, his life will end.  The sublimely ridiculous commentary from Alpha, Beta and Frank, the so-called Fates of this story, act as shamelessly obvious exposition.  And yet the narrative is not ruined.
Now I'm not saying this film is a deep look at gender roles or the nature of free will.  But it struck me as a wonderful concept, that one's love life could be mapped out and tracked in such a way.  Similarly engaging was the backstory of the femme fatale Death Nell, whose own experiences with the opposite sex led her to become a predator.
Easy A has a slightly more conventional plot.  Olive Pendergast, a witty and attractive teenager, tells a small lie about losing her virginity.  Almost immediately, rumours about her are spreading like wildfire and she is branded a harlot by her high school's Christian youth group.  Embracing her newfound reputation, Olive takes her cue from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and sews a red 'A' onto each item in her new, revealing wardrobe.
A surprising business opportunity arises, as the local geeks come to Olive and offer to pay her in exchange for a claim that they had sex, making them seem less like losers and further propelling her into the slutty stratosphere.
Throughout the entire tale, Olive in fact remains a virgin, and it is only when the consequences of having such a loose reputation come back to bite her on the behind that she decides enough is enough.  But convincing everyone that the town bike is, in fact, still pure, is nigh-on impossible.
While part of me found it hard to believe that the idea of a seventeen year old having sexual relations would cause such a scandal, Easy A was still a hugely enjoyable film.  Emma Stone is pitch-perfect as the sardonic, invisible student who jumps at the chance for notoriety, and I fell in love with her far-too-modern parents and their recollections of an adventurous, misspent youth.
I've been struggling recently with Eli, one of the lead characters in my paranormal novel Little Death.  He is the offspring of a human mother and a father with unknown origins, and ever since adolescence he has been possessed with a sexual appetite that leads him to believe he is an incubus.
In the original draft of this story, the incubus fed through physical contact, namely intercourse.  My problem with this was, how do I tell his story without making him seem unsympathetic?  He wants to remain faithful to his lover, but can't satisfy his cravings at home without causing harm.  So he casts a wider net, all the while hating himself for doing so.
This didn't satisfy me.  So I researched the incubus myth a little more thoroughly, and realised that they are more commonly linked with erotic dreams.  There was my solution; something that, I felt, elevated Eli above a ravenous imp with a taste for the pleasures of the flesh.  It also opened a million doors for my story - if the monster of your story resides in the world of the subconscious, doesn't that make anything possible?
This new approach enabled me to write Little Death as a Gothic tale with erotic elements, as opposed to a piece of erotica with endless scenes of the incubus feeding.  This theme was far too similar in my mind to the latter half of Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series, in which the previously celibate heroine is consumed with otherworldly passions that must be sated at any given opportunity. 
The films discussed above provided an alternative, light-hearted insight into how such a salacious subject can be broached, and I praise their imagination and humour.

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