A sweaty palm streaks across a foggy window within the hull of a doomed ocean liner. Two stoic cowboys consummate their forbidden romance atop a mountain in Wyoming. A pair of terrorist-fighting puppets tenderly enact unfettered acts of sexual depravity on one another. Titanic, Brokeback Mountain, and Team America: World Police are just a few examples of Hollywood’s notoriously inconsistent and often inaccurate take on sex. Caught in between the moralistic high ground that punished the 1995 children’s classic The Indian in the Cupboard with a PG rating for “sexy dancing” and the alliterative, yet primitive marketing mantra that “sex sells”, Hollywood never quite seems to get sex right. Enter Lizzy Sanford’s short film “Rubber Heart,” which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and is making its online premiere today on Vimeo.
“Rubber Heart” tells the story of an unnamed couple’s first sexual encounter together, which is almost immediately sent off the rails when one protagonist is visibly startled by the other’s pubic hair. In this scene, the man (Kevin Phillips) is framed between the woman’s legs (Anna Cordell, who also co-wrote the short) in a shot that immediately conjures Mike Nichols’ immortal 1967 comedy The Graduate. Unlike The Graduate, however, Sanford’s film dispatches with the playful sexual tension surrounding Ben Braddock and Mrs. Robinson’s intergenerational tryst in favor of more serious questions surrounding a woman’s body, independence and, well, sex.
This isn’t to say that the film isn’t funny, though. It is. However, the film’s real strength resides in its ability to honestly portray sex in a way that is neither precious nor pornographic. Seldom do sex scenes in movies accurately convey the vulnerability and awkwardness that often characterizes real-life sexual encounters. According to Sanford, “We noticed that sex scenes in most movies often stopped before character development began — cutting away just before one of the most intimate acts a person can experience.” To this end, it could actually be argued that sex is an underutilized dramatic device in cinema. While sex is traditionally used to certify an on-screen romantic relationship and perhaps more often used to simply titillate the audience, less often is it employed as a method to see a character naked, literally, sure, but more importantly metaphorically. In “Rubber Heart,” something as seemingly innocuous as one’s grooming habits lays bare a chasm that the two protagonists will likely never bridge. It’s not simply a matter of pubic hair, but the broader implications of the man’s response that send the pair careening headlong toward incompatibility. Sure, there may be a more G-rated technique to arrive at this same conclusion, but what fun would that be?
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