Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I picked up this book after I read about it in Dan Savage's July 7, 2010 column.  I've been a big fan of Dan Savage for years now, and when I read what he had to say about Sex at Dawn I dropped everything and started reading.  So in case you feel the same way, here's a quote: 
"Sex At Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior In The Human Male on the American public in 1948. Want to understand why men married to supermodels cheat? Why so many marriages are sexless? Why paternity tests often reveal that the 'father' isn’t? Read Sex At Dawn."
It really is pretty awesome.  It's fun to read, and very well-researched.  As a former anthroplogy major, I felt like I was in familiar territory, and I appreciated that when the authors couldn't discuss a subject in-depth they always cited multiple more comprehensive sources.  This is important, and I mention it first because so many of their claims are pretty incendiary.  

Their basic thesis is as follows: most of human evolution took place in pre-historic, non-agrarian societies.  The standard narratives about human sexuality - about men who try to spread their genes by sleeping around, and women who try to secure the protection of a single male - simply don't fit with what we know about pre-historic lifestyles.  By investigating the sexual habits of our closest genetic relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) and also by analyzing human hunter-gatherer societies past and present with a fresh eye, we can come to a better understanding of contemporary sexual behavior.

Basically: Why do we cling to the idea that human beings evolved to engage in a perpetual "war of the sexes," with men and women in a state of mutual exploitation?   Is there a way of understanding our sexual urges as adaptive and useful, rather than unnatural and dysfunctional?  

And the answer to that last question is: well, yeah, there is.  Unfortunately, it's an answer a lot of people won't like very much.  For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic groups where multi-partner mating was common.  Women are built to accomodate multiple partners at once (sperm competition); men are built to seek variety (exogamy, avoid incest).  Monogamy is not a natural state. And however we behave now, our bodies are still tuned to the old dance.

The authors support their claims with mountains of evidence.  They compare the size and shape of male genitalia among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons.  They describe behavioral experiments involving farm animals.  They discuss Jane Goodall's fieldwork with chimps in Gombe.  They turn to fieldwork on modern hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, in the Amazon basin, China, and Africa.  They mine accounts of early European explorers, from the first English settlers in Australia to Darwin.  They give Hobbes a thorough beat-down.  They talk about declining testosterone levels, Calvin Coolidge, and the smelly t-shirt experiment.  

Personally, I was convinced.  And I really do believe, like the authors do, that understanding and accepting our biological make-up can make us happier, healthier, and more peaceful people.  I very highly recommend this book.  As Dan Savage says: even if you are unwavering in your support of monogamy, at least make the effort to understand why it's such hard work.  

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Daily Show

Last week - on June 29, 2010 - Asit kindly let me tag along with him to a taping of The Daily Show.  It's the first time I've ever gone to see a TV show recorded and it was a pretty interesting experience, though most of the comments I'd make fall in line with general chatter I've heard about what happens when you get too close to the magic of modern media.

Here's the door into the theater (the sign reads: Abandon News, All Ye Who Enter Here - gotta love the Dante reference):

And here are our fancy, high-security tickets into the taping:

They say 25 and 26 but I think they really meant 125 and 126, or 225 and 226...whatever the number, we still got inside.  We had reserved spots but they overbook every show so if you want in, you have to show up early and wait around.  I think we waited for about 2 hours.

We were shown into the theater probably half an hour before taping started.  We settled down and then the self-described "warm up monkey" came out to loosen up our laughing muscles and also warn us that, as the show's only laugh track, it was our solemn duty to laugh loud and often.  The price of entry, as it were, given that admittance was otherwise free.

If you watch The Daily Show, you know that Jon Stewart makes a habit of chatting up his audience before the show starts.  The chatting up is pretty carefully timed - I think it lasts about two minutes - he came out when the warm-up monkey was done and took a few questions.  It's a neat way of going a little above and beyond, being generous with his audience, but also, I think, a way for him to warm himself up.  Our first question was about his favorite cheese, so we mostly got a long monologue on the subject of cheese.  His favorites are semi-soft, and he thinks jack cheese should not be loaded up with foreign objects like pepper.

The thing I noticed most, once taping got started, was how obvious it was that Jon Stewart is acting.  Watching on TV, his manners and gestures always seem very natural to me - of course I know that he's acting, and the shows are very obviously scripted and carefully constructed, but I've always had the impression that I'm watching Jon Stewart more or less be himself.  And maybe that's true, or maybe that's not - clearly I'm not qualified to judge, since I have no standard of comparison - but sitting in the live audience, it was very obvious that his constant gesturing, raised voice, and focused intensity are unnatural.  That it's not at all like having a conversation with a normal person, not on TV, where arm-windmilling and mugging for the camera would be disconcerting instead of hilarious.

I've heard actors say that before, that taking up space and moving your body on and off the stage are different things, and complain that non-actors lack affect.  We don't choreograph our thoughts and emotions with our bodies, or at least we don't do so intentionally.  The result is that "normal" body language looks very dull and wooden on TV, I think.

Other than that, the taping was pretty quick - not surprisingly, it lasted exactly as long as the show does - there wasn't much delay as people or props were ushered on and off the set, or cameras were moved about.  The guest was Helen Mirren, which I found terribly exciting.  She was gracious and gorgeous, and she looked like a breath of fresh air in a sleek black sheath with a little tie-front white shrug on.  The interview, however, seemed pretty stiff to me, and she didn't linger once it was over.

So there you go, a little run down of being an audience member at The Daily Show.  It'd be interesting to  check out a few other live tapings, just to make the comparison, and it was interesting to see the set - it looks just like it does on TV, but somehow less impressive.  Definitely a fun thing to do, and I recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to attend.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I Am Love

I Am Love is an odd movie.  It's full of things that ought not to work.  I kept thinking things like, "Oh no, not another movie about falling in love through the erotic powers of food," or "Really? A lesbian subplot featuring prurient close-ups of hot girls kissing?" and "That twist at the end, so cheap."

There's more, too.  It's shot oddly - there are outdoor night-scenes that are very poorly lit, so that all the actors are dim and grey; there are lengthy close-ups of rain on statues and multiple flat, disposable-camera style shots of buildings passing by from the window of a car.  The movie is lulling, a slow burn rather than a firecracker.  Especially at first, it's hard to really get a grip on what's going on - all the characters are self-controlled, not particularly emotive, and it's a game of reading into their non-reactions as events unfurl.

But it does work, despite all of the elements that would sink a lesser movie.  Because all of the twists and turns that would have evolved into high drama in another film are dulled or blunted here, I Am Love is a film all about subterranean, core-deep tectonic shifts that slowly build up pressure until finally, as the movie nears its conclusion, the cracks that begin to visibly split the family apart really do feel like earthquakes.

After I walked out of the theater, while I was hashing out my thoughts with my cousin, who'd accompanied me, and then later as I read through a few reviews, I realized exactly how well-balanced the movie is.  My cousin asked if I thought it was a movie that glamorized adultery and leaving one's family to pursue the thrill of true love.  And I answered: no, I didn't get that sense at all.  That was what Tilda's character did, yes, but it didn't seem like a victory or a prescription; and there's another sub-plot, about a son who finds a nice girl and settles down with her, who seems perfectly happy to do the expected thing, that's presented with the same lack of judgment.

And the things that stuck me most, which seem to strike everyone the most, are all self-consciously quiet.  A scene when Tilda asks her housekeeper to have dinner with her while they're both doing chores in the laundry room.  A shot when Tilda's character laughs, a rare occurance, while sitting on the toilet.  A tense, absolutely perfect moment between Tilda and her husband near the conclusion, when a scene ready-made to overflow with sturm and drang instead went the way of a silent but shocking nuclear explosion.  The movie is full of scenes that illustrate the power of understatement.

Final note: I just re-read the New Yorker's review of the film (Second Helpings) - it's utterly glowing, beginning with the strict admonition to see the movie in theaters rather than waiting for it to come out on DVD.  The only thing that the author, Anthony Lane, complains about is the scene where Tilda's lover gives her oral sex.  It cuts between the coupling and shots of insects going about their business, and he's right that this is not exactly a fresh metaphor - but the whole movie is like that, full of cliched imagery that still somehow works.  In the same paragraph, even, Lane gushingly describes the film's metaphorical use of the changing seasons, from winter to spring.  If he's willing to enthuse about the weather, his excuse about the bees doesn't hold water.  When I watched the sex scene, I remember thinking about This Film Not Yet Rated, which argues very strongly that the ratings board penalizes movies that show female pleasure and in particular oral sex on women.  Even at the time, I was surprised and delighted to see a filmmaker so clearly and unapologetically go there.  Shame on you, New Yorker critic, for jumping on the bandwagon and telling us that scenes of cunnilingus are unnecessary.  The truth is precisely the opposite.