Last week, actress-auteur Sarah Polley revealed that she had discovered that the dad she grew up with was not her biological father. The ensuing and conflicting interpretations of her now-deceased mother’s infidelity are the basis of Stories We Tell, Polley’s new documentary. In a sense, the premise seems like a tabloid-ready sex-scandal (although the film surely won’t be: Polley is a sensitive, smart director), but it does indicate a sociocultural transition how sex is depicted in art.
Of late, in fact, a scattered but growing and diverse set of young and youngish Canadian filmmakers, writers, musicians and visual artists are directly contending with sex in their work, often oriented toward visceral and transgressive sex, inclusive of the violence and control of BDSM; explicit and plainspoken desire; crude emotional and financial transactions; physical pain; racial exoticizing; visual tropes made familiar by porn; and naturalistic, no-wave-ish accounting of acts and partners. Infidelity ain’t the half of it.
This head-on approach to sex pulses through much recent Canadian art. In Polley’s second feature film Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a 28-year-old who is coming of sexual age as her marriage withers. Seth Rogen plays Lou, her cookbook-writer husband, whose benign neglect and simple ambitions don’t keep Margo from falling for their artist neighbour. It’s a dreamy fable and an explicitly sexual film, saturated with sweat, shower steam and thick city air, and the sex peaks in a scene that is all words and no action, just filthy talk across a table. In a phone interview, Polley says “I wanted to make [the verbal foreplay] as drawn out and as excruciating and as loaded and thrilling as I could.”
Where recent dark-sex-stories from the U.S. are shot through with humour (FX’s Louie; HBO’s transcendent Sex and the City inversion, Girls), bending comedy to the will of the most disgustingly, perfectly human, artists here approach sex like a loaded gun, earnest and serious (read: Canadian). Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s newest book, How Should A Person Be?, is a hymnal of vomit-inducing, deep-throated blow-jobs and casual sadomasochism. Heti says: “I was trying to portray every aspect of a certain character’s life … There would have been no justification to leave [sex] out.” Tamara Faith Berger’s recent book Maidenhead is about a virgin’s aggressive sexual entrée (in 2005, Clement Virgo directed an adaptation of Berger’s all-sex Lie With Me ).
Cartoonist Chester Brown’s latest is a detailed graphic novel called Paying For It, about ending his relationship and starting to see prostitutes. Director Claire Edmondson’s music and fashion video work looks and feels like the most beautiful, haunting softcore, and has been called “dark and porny.” And it goes on: Austra, whose music has been described by Pitchfork as able to “change the air in the room,” characterized more by its apparent erotic tension than in lyrics like “I came so hard in your mouth”; Diamond Rings’ hot drag and flat baritone; Drake’s literalist songs about vulnerability, alienation and the salve of sex, featuring clips of voicemail messages from the girls he gets with, and nods to the number of times a week he has sex.
The difficult sexual themes emerging as a pattern now have done so before, but only in pieces. Two of the best-known Canadian directors, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, have worked with uncomfortable sexual content, like incest and fetish. Bruce LaBruce makes gay porn that doubles as art film. The Degrassi franchise invented grim teen-issues TV.
As the independent art got sexier, especially as queer content made its way into the hipster consciousness, Toronto’s indie music scene changed. The Hidden Cameras made explicit, hilarious “gay church folk music;” Broken Social Scene deviated from the twee sexlessness of its shaggy-flannel genre with songs like I’m Still Your Fag (“I swore I drank your piss that night to see if I could live”) and “Lover’s Spit” (“All these people drinking lover’s spit / Swallowing words while giving head”). And Peaches was a maelstrom of pubic hair, clitoral references and gender-screwing. Around the same time, artist and party genius Will Munro (who died of brain cancer in 2010) made serious art from old, used underwear and curated Vazaleen, a sexually manic club night that successfully embedded gay culture, and fun generally, into a mostly straight downtown scene. As usual, newness began in the margins.
It is all sex, real and ugly and difficult, and it’s very far removed from what is generally considered a Canadian aesthetic. Across forms (especially the straighter, whiter forms of art), any kind of sex has been largely absent. “Certainly in comics there is a tradition of explicit sexuality; going back to the stuff Robert Crumb and his friends were doing in the ‘60s,” says Chester Brown. “All my cartoonist friends [in Canada] love Crumb, but that sexual content doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on anyone.” Brown thinks it might be different with French-Canadian comics, “but as far as English Canada goes, it seems very staid.”
Karen Stanworth, a professor of visual arts and education at York University, says that the history of Canadian art “has tended to authorize a vision of [itself]” that is founded in the pastoral, in works such as The Stone Angel and Surfacing, in the Group of Seven.
The infrastructure of support for Canadian art remains more comfortable with that tradition. Sheila Heti says: “Obviously there’s some prudery and there’s some embarrassment and there’s some nervousness.” Claire Edmondson, whose brand film for Canadian designer Jeremy Laing features the hemlines of loose coats breezing up and away to reveal naked, exposed bodies, says “Canada is very safe, and a bit monotonous.” Brown received a government arts grant for Paying For It, but he was already a known Canadian commodity. He promoted his previous book, Louis Riel, on at least six different CBC shows; Brown was invited to appear on the CBC just once for Paying For It.
As cities and secularism grow and regionalism and social standards contract, more mainstream contemporary Canadian art might have little choice but to embrace these sexual themes. The national cultural and artistic identity – rural, pastoral, post-British, not-American – is becoming “very urban, very much about conflicting, shifting identities,” according to Stanworth. Add to this that Canadians should be good at sex, and more at home with it: As a nation, we’re known, to whatever degree it might be true, for being open, welcoming and accepting, which extends to gays, lesbians, trans people, girls and women, the oppressed. Still, the overarching socio-cultural atmosphere in Canada (see Corner Gas; see Chavril) has remained deeply modest, even conservative, and often banal.
I feel the same way about being Canadian that I feel about my parents: forever grateful to have come from a supportive, buoyant, tolerant environment, but alone in the vastness of all that transgressive possibility. Pursuing some of it in my work has been an experience of total freedom and terrifying creative loneliness. I’m close with other Canadian writers who don’t identify with the meek self-consciousness of traditional Canadiana. Edmondson says “there have been many late-night, drunken analytical sessions of what the hell is going on in my work with a few of my close musician friends,” but there is not any cohesive movement toward sexier art.
Slowly, backed by a relatively calm, accepting and pluralistic environment, work about the rawness of sex in its more abject, objectionable forms, is naturally being forged. In his New Yorker review of How Should A Person Be?, James Wood writes that “the hope of such projects,” like Heti’s book, “is that what they lose in grandeur and stateliness they will gain in immediacy and honesty.” Trading the pastoral for the visceral (and all of it’s communicative, instructive, explosive powers) is a good deal, and so much more real. Sarah Polley says: “I almost wonder if the films and art we put out there are our true subconscious.”