Why does Joseph Gordon-Levitt seem so nervous? Maybe it’s because we’re four feet away from him, or maybe he’s not nervous and I’m just disappointed that he doesn’t radiate as celebrities obviously should. That sense of pressure and discomfort is colored by Don Jon‘s marketing, which compensated for the taboo subject matter and directorial debut with an emphasis on the rom-com elements. At least I hoped it was the marketing. Turns out the movie is mostly a rom-com, with great performances by everybody, but still not the poppy look at porn addiction I was hoping for. But from the way Gordon-Levitt talks about the film, it’s hard to buy that a raunchy sex comedy was his only intention.
It’s September 18th at the Sunset Sundance theater in West Hollywood. Some press and a few dozen LA Times members are here for the semi-exclusive screening, part of the paper’s Indie Focus Screening Series. Mark Olsen, the Times writer moderating the Q&A, almost immediately wants to know why Gordon-Levitt chose porn addiction. I want to know this, you want to know this, I feel like most people in the theater want to know this, because there aren’t any mainstream movies about porn addiction. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives his thoughts on media, on the interactivity and democratization of 21st-century entertainment. He says the proliferation of creativity might be the biggest development in human history. But why porno, Jojo?
“I wanted to center a story around the way media influences how we see the world, and I think that especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships, we often develop unrealistic expectations based on these fantasies that we see on screen. I thought that, sort of a, funny way of telling that story would be to have a boyfriend and a girlfriend where he’s watching too much pornography and she’s watching too many romantic Hollywood movies, and it’s sort of a comedy of errors. They keep missing each other, they’re not really engaging each other, they keep comparing each other to these fantasies.”
But that’s not honest. It’s intellectually lazy to disguise a ‘Men Be Like This and Women Be Like That’ plot as an examination of media’s cultural influence. Yes, porn and chick flicks are influential, but Gordon-Levitt is banking on a false equivalence. Some people don’t buy the world of romantic movies, but watch them regardless. Porn’s affective power is not the same as being moved by a chick flick. To suggest that they can each stand in for this vague “Media” concept doesn’t work. Porn isn’t even delivered in the same medium as chick flicks, girls watch porn, and guys watch romantic movies.
It’s also not the case in the story. Scarlett Johansson’s character isn’t addicted to romantic movies. We don’t see her routine, her life is not structured around the content of what she’s watching, or the act of watching. One of the best things in the movie was the way it treats the routine of Jon’s addiction. Start with stills, move to clips, full length movies, money shots. Every jizz rag goes in an empty trashcan because he cleans his house so often. Barbara (Johansson) has nothing even close to that kind of neurosis. The addiction occupies a sacred and incredibly fragile place, especially once Barbara shows up. When she first discovers his porn, Jon’s defense is WHO ME?!? despite the fact that Yes You It Defines You. He morally rejects masturbation and pornography even as recreational activities. The “nah why would I look at porn when I have something so great as you?” lie that a lot of couples have offered each other. Is this an essential component to the addiction? Is this unique to porn addiction, like an amplified guilty pleasure? No one asked these questions, and when Olsen suggested that the subject matter could have been just as well—if not better—suited in a drama, JGL got all populist, humble, charming, debonair, the man of your dreams:
“I very much wanted to say something, and put something out there that was meaningful to me. But I also wanted to connect with lots of people. This is a movie about lots of people, and it’s a movie about mainstream culture, and it’s a movie about a sort of, a normal, American guy, and so I wanted mainstream culture and normal American people to see it, and be entertained by it. It’s a movie after all. It’s not an essay; I’m not a professor.” [Though it says here on Wikipedia that he went to Columbia. His certainly-tantric frotship with Columbia MFA grad Vince explains why everyone was so nice to me at this screening.]
Okay, I guess that’s cool, but feel free to be a bit snobby and make a better movie. The whole time I hoped that maybe he just has to sell it like this to get good distribution. I wanted to believe that he was just playing Mr. Mainstream for a project about which he had much more to say, but after the two disappointing answers, the panel spent about ten minutes taking turns crediting each other for the movie.
“Joseph had such a vision.”
“Yes, it was inspiring to see him handle the writing and directing and acting.”
“No, you guys it was a collaboration! We’re all artists!”
“Yes, but you are a good artist!”
“No, we’re all good artists!”
There were some interesting nuggets of information, like the fact that Gordon-Levitt asked composer Nathan Johnson (Looper, Brick) to make the music beforehand so they could edit to the score (SOME MALICK-LEVEL JUNK, Y’ALL), or the revelation that Johansson and JGL pretty much spontaneously co-wrote the pivotal Swiffer scene.
The end. Thanks for coming.
A fan barks out at Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he stands to leave. She wants an autograph from 12 rows back and looks disappointed when he doesn’t understand her genuinely panicked question. Like her life is in danger and she didn’t eat pizza during a free movie. A movie that, I should say at some point, is pretty good.