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Contraception, Bulimia, and Frankenfoods, by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak
If it feels good—stop it! Is that all the Catholic Church has to say about sex? A Saint Valentine Catechism.

Kinsey and Me, by John Zmirak
'Kinsey' distorts history, and makes a lousy date movie, too. The whole idea of eros as a 'science of pleasure' is cold and calculating—and not very sexy.

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Mary and Joseph at the Sex Therapist

The indie-film ‘Unscrewed’ is a poignant, funny mock-umentary about the futility of post-modern, contraceptive sex.


This has been a pretty miserable year for movies, as the Academy Awards made clear. Not even Chris Rock's humor could do more than put a wedding dress on that pig. The most significant and successful film, The Passion of the Christ, was too hot to handle, and so went practically unmentioned. It's apparent that movies can promote killing the handicapped (Million-Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside) and celebrate wife-swapping (Kinsey), but criticizing Caiaphas...that's verboten.

The sleeper hit of the year, Sideways, was a humane and touching film which deserves to be seen—though it was praised to the skies by critics who greeted the appearance of something, anything intelligent on the screen like a pack of hungry rottweilers pouncing on a single, puny rabbit.

Mary casually pops a birth-control pill—a piece of bitter irony, since the couple is miserably celibate.
I didn't bother to see Million-Dollar Baby (they lost me at "women's boxing"), or The Aviator. (How gripping is it to watch a rich kid heroically spend his inheritance cavorting with starlets, producing some silly films and designing failed airplanes?) But I do plan to catch a glimpse of Ray (though perhaps I'll wait for DVD and rent it on St. Lucy's Day).

But there was one movie this year which appeared, briefly, in a few theaters, whose message will stay with me for years. It's probably not showing in your city, but you should look for it soon on DVD. Rent it and watch it with your current or prospective mate; it makes terrific fodder for discussion. Indeed, I think it ought to be shown as part of parish Pre-Cana classes—since it tells more about the Theology of the Body than a dozen well-meaning lectures.

The film is called Unscrewed, and it concerns the absence of sex. Made in the style of Spinal Tap and Best in Show, Unscrewed tells the story of a couple named Joseph and Mary St. John who love each other dearly, still find each other attractive, and are devoted to saving their marriage. They just can't seem to have sex. After six years of wedded bliss, the two have completely lost interest in intercourse—and they don't know why. In fact, it's driving them crazy. Each one still craves sex, but for some reason they can't get it together. So the couple embarks on a quest to find out what has gone wrong in their marriage—and brings us along for the ride, as empathetic voyeurs. The script is mostly improvised by the actors, to painfully plausible effect.

The pair are exquisitely thorough, exploring the material, psychological, and spiritual realms for the source of the problem. The movie intercuts among the various authorities whom the hapless couple consults:

One quickly learns to empathize with Joseph’s impotent rage, and Mary’s ongoing humiliation, made worse by all the rituals, interrogations, and exams they undergo.
A gorgeous, grimly reductionist urologist with a Soviet-sounding accent (played by the film's director, Leslie Shearing). She informs Mary and Joseph that "sex is nothing more than chemicals and clockwork. You get machinery right—you make the happy sex!" She subjects each of the partners to grimly invasive physical exams, plies them with wires and goggles, and sells them thousands of dollars worth of hormones, lubricants and latex toys—as if they were opening a sex-research lab in their bedroom. Not too surprisingly, none of this helps.

–An insightful, well-meaning sex therapist, who interviews the couple repeatedly, asking probing questions about their mutual feelings, prodding them into painful revelations, convincing them to mime their foreplay for him on his office's Murphy bed, while he hovers nearby to critique them—and finally goads them into explosive anger at each other, expressed as they pound on pillows with cushioned bats, hurling curses at each other while he wears a hockey mask. After many months of expensive sessions, he discovers that each of them is, indeed, sexually frustrated, and pretty pissed off about it.
–A band of nebbishy self-trained specialists in Tantric yoga—who look like extras from a Seinfeld episode but dress in exotic Indian getups and lounge on saffron-colored pillows. These for-profit spiritualists ("We do pretty well. It's a good business," the yogi explains) try to create an atmosphere of sacred eroticism, tinkling little bells and shpritzing the couple with incense. They make Mary sit naked on top of a mirror and learn to appreciate her "yoni" ( "a woman's sacred circle"). As for Joseph, these mystics teach him the esoteric pleasures of prostate massage. At the end, the couple come away with a list of contortionist sex positions from the Kama Sutra—which when tried at home result in pulled muscles and damaged furniture.

It never occurs to either one of them that perhaps their relationship was barren because it was sterile.
Like other mock-umentaries—such as A Mighty Wind, and the brilliant hip-hop satire Fear of a Black Hat—Unscrewed is sharply satirical. But it is also profoundly moving. One quickly learns to empathize with Joseph's impotent rage, and Mary's ongoing humiliation, made worse by all the rituals, interrogations, and exams they undergo. These two people really love each other, and all they want is faithful eros—nothing adulterous, nothing kinky, just the sexual connection which brought them together in the first place. They are tender and exquisitely considerate of each other, which makes it all the more painful to watch their futile attempts to reconnect. We wonder along with them—if these people can't keep up the flame, is there hope for anyone?

By the movie's end, the couple have burned through most of their savings, worn out their bodies and run out of patience. (And the audience members are weary from blushing and squirming in their seats.) Attempting to escape from all the science, psychobabble and spiritual flim-flam, Joseph and Mary jump in their car for a weekend in a charming bed and breakfast, out in the countryside. The natural solitude, silence, and stillness exert their charmsand to everyone's surprise, the spouses fall upon each other with hungry affection, achieving at last the ecstatic union they'd sought all along.

Happy ending, right?

The sex is good, and it stays good for months, the film's epilogue informs us. Which makes it all the more puzzling to us that the couple decides to separate. We see each one alone, attempting to explain what finally went wrong. They admit, in the end, that the quest for healthy sex had become the focus of their marriage—"And once we achieved that, there didn't seem to be any further point in staying together. Our relationship wasn't about anything anymore," Joseph explains.

Which brings the thoughtful viewer back to one of the very first scenes in the filma moment which passes quickly, which it's easy to miss. At the movie's outset, Mary opens her medicine cabinet, takes out a dispenser, and casually pops a birth-control pill. It seems a piece of bitter irony at the time, since the couple is miserably celibate. But perhaps there's something deeper going on. At no point in the film does either partner mention the notion of having children; in fact, none of the experts they consult show any awareness that the sex act might have some underlying biological purpose, apart from intimacy and ecstasy. It's as if all the characters lived in one of the mythical, primitive societies which had never learned the connection between sex and reproduction.

Sex deprived of consequence, rendered harmless, is also useless, and finally joyless.
Which brings us back to the reason the partners decided to separate. As they admit, there was no higher purpose to their marriage, no third dimension to give their (hard-won) sexuality any reason for continuing, their intimacy any focus or future. The two lived stuck in an endless, pointless present, exploring their sexual selves like a pair of fumbling teenagersand unsurprisingly, they found that this wasn't enough. In perhaps the single sharpest irony of the film, it never occurs to either one of them that perhaps their relationship was barren because it was sterile. When flowers wither, they turn to seed or fruit—which is the reason the plant bothered to grow them in the first place. The one hopeful passage in Orwell's nightmarish 1984 consists of a meditation on this truth, as Winston Smith gazes on a battered matron, and compares her to a rose bloom that has turned to fruit.

It's always risky to read a theological meaning into a work of art from the outside, but I am tempted to say that this film is a feature length explication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. While I know nothing of the film-makers' beliefs or intentions, it can hardly be an accident that the characters are called Joseph and Mary St. John. Perhaps the choice of names was just a bit of cheap irony, given the explicit subject matter. But I don't think so. On at least some level, the makers of this film understand precisely what the much-maligned Pope Paul VI was saying when he issued the century's single more unpopular document: that sex deprived of consequence, rendered harmless, is also useless, and finally joyless. To repeat a metaphor I've used elsewhere: Looked at biologically, contraception is exactly like bulimia. It transforms the act of sex into a two-dimensional shadow play with no third act and only an anticlimax—like an after-dinner trip to the vomitorium.

These characters certainly learn that, through the course of this filmwhich would certainly have ended differently if Mary and Joseph had found themselves with a new, young life on their hands, even if he wasn't named Jesus.

March 14, 2005

JOHN ZMIRAK is editor of 'Choosing the Right College,' author of the upcoming 'A Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living' (Crossroad, 2005), and a contributing editor of The American Conservative, and GodSpy.

©2005, Godspy Magazine. All rights reserved.

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03.15.05   corazon says:
I enjoyed the article and would very much like to see the movie myself. It could come in useful for some of my friends as their own children approach sexual maturity. However, the reviewer said, as he paraphrased Pope Paul VI, "that sex deprived of consequence, rendered harmless, is also useless, and finally joyless. " I feel sure that he did not intend to allege that sex is generally "harmful" and that when it is rendered "harmless" that this is a bad thing! I think I know what he meant to say but it seems that it could have been said just a little better.

03.15.05   Godspy says:
The indie-film ‘Unscrewed’ is a poignant, funny mock-umentary about the futility of post-modern, contraceptive sex.

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