Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Vault - Choke

Choke (2008)
directed & written by Clark Gregg
based on a novel by Chuck Palaniuk
starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston

At one point in the film Choke the hero, in search of an adventurous sexual experience, meets a stranger on a sex website similar to Adult Friend Finder who wants him to participate in a fantasy rape scenario. This young lady gives him a very particular script to follow -- what to do, what to say, how to disguise himself, how to threaten her with a very particular knife. She insists he "rape" her on a towel on the floor for fear of staining the bedsheets. She threatens him with legal consequences if he deviates from the script. She breaks character mid-scene to criticize his performance, then rushes through everything and gets herself off with a vibrator, leaving her fantasy rapist to his own devices. The scene is a brilliant and hilarious commentary on the yawning gulf that sometimes exists between the sexual fantasy and reality. If only the rest of the movie were so good....

The film is based on a novel by Chuck Palaniuk. I haven't read the novel in question (nor do I intend to now) but I'm familiar enough with the author's work that his M.O. is pretty clear -- Palaniuk likes to create protagonists that are alienated from "normal" society because of a fundamentally different world view, then tell their story with as many plot twists as possible. This technique made him famous because his first novel, Fight Club, tapped into a primal truth, the frustration a lot of young men feel because modern society doesn't let them express their aggressive side anymore. He isn't always so lucky -- his protagonists since Tyler Durden have been crafted mainly for shock value. In Choke, Palaniuk's chock value comes from a sensationalized cast of "sex addicts."

To start out, there are some real problems with the whole concept of sex addiction -- scientists can't agree on a definition and a lot of them don't think it exists at all. There's a question of terminology to begin with: an addiction is usually a psychological need for an outside substance (drugs, alcohol) whereas the need to continuously and joylessly engage in sexual activity is more accurately called a compulson. So why not call sex addiction "sex compulsion"? Because addiction is such a loaded word in our society and the term is mostly used by people who like its unsavory sound. Say addiction to the average American and they imagine degererate junkies, gamblers, alcoholics, over-eaters... and fornicators. The concept of "sex addiction" has been widely popularized by conservative religious organizations that are happy to usher deeply repressed men into quack addiction support groups that reinforce their guilt over masturbating to porn twice weekly. Using the word addiction plays into sex-negative stereotypes.

Choke writer/director Clark Gregg definitely isn't trying to avoid stereotypes. Victor, the film's protagonist, comes out and tells us all the clichés are true at the beginning of the film. His support group includes the guy who masturbates fifteen times a day and the cheerleader who banged the whole football team. But even beyond filmmaker's clear desire to present compulsive sex in the most unrealistic light possible there's the fact that Victor isn't really a sex addict at all. He tells us he has sex every three days, which I think you'll agree is not an unusual amount. He only has casual sex and though he has multiple partners most seem to be people he knows from every day life, as opposed to anonymous encounters, and at least one is an ongoing arrangement. Finally, the sex itself isn't what's makes Victor unhappy -- what makes him unhappy is a deeply messed up relationship with his mother that prevents him from liking the people he fucks and vice versa.

So, to review, the film purposefully buys into a sensational and cliché image of sex "addiction" and then fails to even present that accurately. I'm kinda speechless. As for the rest of the film, the jokes aren't that funny and, much like the fantasy rape victim, the director rushes through the Palaniuk plot twists (TM) so that the viewer hardly feels surprised to learn Victor is a clone of Jesus, and that the doctor treating his mother is actually a mental patient. My recommendation: rent a different movie.

...or maybe just watch the fantasy rape!

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