Joesph Gordon Levitt is an enormously accomplished actor, that much seems certain. He is natural and assured whether he is appearing in the monstrous epics of Christopher Nolan or in small indies, such as Brick or Mysterious Skin. His new film and directorial debut Don Jon is similarly confident, parsing the different ways that one’s culture and our digital world can inform (and distort) one’s expectations. Yet that is only one thread in Don Jon’s thematic tapestry. The others seem at the service of a highly punitive agenda. They promote a conservative vision which myopically relegates porn into something destructive, revealing simultaneously the film’s limited insight into love, sex and relationships.

The film’s myopic, anti-porn agenda is constituted in three different ways. First, Levitt links his character’s disconnection to chronic porn usage, characterizing it solely as selfish and debilitating. Second, he hardly touches on how porn works or how the two sides of Jon’s personality (the disconnection and the porn usage) inform each other. Finally, Levitt simply shows the consequences of porn and does not propose any viable solutions. The film solely advocates for abstinence from pornography, revealing a lack of understanding as to how selfish, individualistic activities can help one define themselves and determine what they want out of a relationship.

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Don Jon sets up its punitive thesis by establishing the repetitive nature of its protagonist’s lifestyle. Over and over again we get identically framed shots which speak to the circular, almost mechanically regimented nature of Jon’s existence. With this aesthetic choice Levitt is able to suggest how uninvested someone like Jon is with those around him. He goes to church, but is clearly unmoved but the spiritual dialogue. He spends time routinely with his family, but squanders it by staring at the hilariously over-the-top advertising beaming down from the dining room’s omnipotent TV set. Even while hanging out with his Jersey Shore bros their conversation is kept superfluous and vapid (“I’m gonna smash tonight BRO!”). As these men pal about nothing of substance is really discussed, which clearly communicates why Jon has trouble talking with one of his friends later about his hang-ups; he just isn’t used to it. This is a man doing things almost purely by default.

Levitt clearly connects this general disconnection to porn usage through visual and audio motifs. His character’s seemingly insatiable need to employ the spank bank is evoked both through the audio motif of his computer powering up, and in the recurring shot of Levitt’s face while he is watching porn. His features are inexpressive, and unknowable during this scene, like a robot, only changing  when they contort with spastic, violent ecstasy.

What this says about the act of watching pornography is that it is inherently a selfish act, involving none of the exchange or the effort involved during a sexual encounter with another human being. Aside from this the film’s only other observation is that consuming pornography can occasionally lead to one being crippled by unrealistic expectations, incapable of enjoying sex that may differ from the delirious, pile-driving hoopla seen on such classic sites as Brazzers and RealityKings. While both observations about pornography are valid they are also fairly rudimentary. The film’s decision to not explore further is to the detriment of the entire production. The film barely delves into the established tropes of the pornographic film genre or shows what it is about the medium (such as the one-sided fixation on the male orgasm or the commodification of the female body) that appeals to Jon’s pathology. The film simply attempts to demonize the activity, crediting Jon’s porn consumption as being what leads him to a disastrous relationship with Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara. This is a relationship where both parties operate under unrealistic expectations informed by the media they consume.

And what is the film’s proposed solution to a world where our human relationships are utterly corrupted by our media? Total abstinence. Now to be fair the actual message is that people need to try their hardest to engage with real people, instead of having their perceptions and actions dictated by the mere abstractions that we see continually in porn, film and advertising. By committing ourselves and giving ourselves or, as Julianne Moore’s character says to Jon, “losing ourselves” to other human beings we can then form stable social bonds and disavow our selfish, egocentric nature.

The fundamental problem with Don Jon emerges here. The film’s disparagement of the ego is pernicious and simplistic, failing to take into account that while human beings need to be a part of a social group, having a private, individualistic fantasy life is also worthwhile. One of Levitt’s many omissions about the complexities of pornography is that while it can encourage the sort of self-absorbed sexual habits and superficial mate-picking that Jon engages in, it can also be a formidable tool. It is a tool that offers sexual expression stripped from any contextual flourish. It  encourages the development of one’s sexual identity or the utilitarian satiating of one of the core human drives, without having to depend on the body of another person.

Additionally the experience of masturbating, which can be augmented and facilitated through pornography, allows one to simply own and indulge in their pleasure. It solely revolves around individual pleasure for pleasure’s sake. There are no metaphysical trappings attached to it. This is probably why it can (for some) be an inflammatory issue. What pornography (and the act of watching it) can represent is the personification of our worst fears: sexuality stripped of any spiritual attribute. The medium deconstructs the different facades that we have erected in order to obfuscate or “dress-up” the act of fucking (such as calling “fucking,” “making love”). It illuminates that, while it can be a purely egalitarian, private act, sex also reflects power dynamics and can be a commodity ripe for producing a financial profit.

Obviously this industry has a darker side to it. It can have a potential for abuse and often displays a frankly boring obsession with certain tropes (like aggression towards women). Still porn is something to be not only tolerated but embraced, and even more openly discussed. Because the truth about pornography is that for many it is nearly inescapable. As the film suggests through the hilarious inclusion of a sexually charged commercial, it’s a ravenous, unstoppable industry (like advertising), which caters to one of, if not the central aspect of our humanity: the need to bump uglies. By encouraging a more open discussion about the act of masturbating and using porn, dismissing certain people’s desire to stigmatize it, and illustrating how important it is to draw distinctions between porn and real life, more people could probably utilize this resource responsibly. Yet, the film squanders the opportunity to have this discussion, choosing to advocate for keeping porn in the shadows, and refusing to show how one could integrate it into their lives in a healthy way

Levitt’s decision to show  Jon stopping cold-turkey and somehow then entering into a relationship with Julianne Moore’s character free from expectation encapsulates this. It is also another instance where his general disparagement of ego-centric behavior mutes the film’s voice regarding how relationships work, or should ideally work. A more truthful film would show that all people enter into relationships with expectations, with lines in the sand, with needs that they expect to have met, and that they should. The trick is learning how to balance those expectations and developing the confidence to engage in self-advocacy for your emotional and sexual needs. There is no evidence to suggest that Jon’s initial complaints about sex (in comparison to porn), which he laments in voice over during the film’s opening scene, will now be ameliorated because he has given up chafing his carrot to Jayden James or Kelly Divine. No, in order to make the ending of Don Jon legitimate Levitt needed to show a change in Jon’s character that is active not passive. I understand that the end of the film is supposed to suggest that Jon has now transitioned into accepting someone like Juliannne Moore’s character for who she really is, yet it is apocryphal whether or not that equates to a more full-realized or mature mindset when it comes to relationships.

Because in the end entering into a relationship is not simply about acceptance, or “losing yourself” in someone (although those things are important). It is not simply about jettisoning your ego-centric nature the moment you make a commitment. The inverse is actually true. Individuals need to take the desires and preferences that they have cultivated through their egotistical, selfish, individual lives and bring them out into the relationship with a sense of honesty and transparency. Through this process of owning who you are and what systematic or cultural forces helped shape you (such as art, media, family and yes porn), you will then be able to make a clear distinction about what you’re willing to accept and who might be a congruent match. Of course this is easier said then done. It hinges upon one having the maturity to also accept compromise, and recognizing that their personal preferences or wants may not be accepted or considered practical by their partner, who will also be bringing their ego-centric preferences into the relationship.

With Levittt failing to recognize the ego as being a legitimate aspect of romantic or sexual pairing his film falls apart. It fails to articulate how one’s individual and coupled lives can be reconciled. Additionally, it leads to his film providing only the most superficial examinations of porn’s pros and cons, ultimately producing a simplistic and frankly puritanical ode to monogamy. By not showing us how porn potentially could lead to Jon’s disconnection in his sexual life, and only showing us consequences with no viable solutions, Levitt’s film reveals its intellectual limitations. By not even entertaining the idea that porn, like any other form of stimuli we take in during our lives, can be a powerful tool in helping us understand our own condition, the film becomes unhelpful, even reactionary. This is a shame because it had the potential to be a progressive piece of art, which disavowed the general negativity towards sexual expression in our culture, and gave social legitimacy and meaning to masturbation. Levitt could have helped further the sexual education of our society, showing how to use porn appropriately and its potential to augment the joy of a relationship. Instead he damned it, leaving those who use it stagnant and alone, beating off furiously in the darkness.

One thought on “You Have to Lose Yourself in People: On the Anti-porn Agenda and Myopic Gaze of Don Jon

  1. I loved this film, I don’t think it had an ‘agenda’ or generalized anything, it was about one guys life and his experiences with porn and real life relationships..

    Maybe a viewer has to have had a porn collection since they where twelve and a history of intimacy issues to see more of what was being said between the lines to enjoy the film as much as I did.

    Mostly I think its a great film because it highlights a massive recent change in human culture from both a users viewpoint and from non-users viewpoints. Internet porn usage came out of nowhere, it grew at an exponential rate over the last two decades and the established society which grew up without the internet who understands little of what is going on is often shell-shocked from what they do hear. Internet porn usage is a cultural revolution still in progress affecting everyone whether they take part or not. It has destroyed marriages, friendships and also brought other people together. It was good to see a part of that revolution on screen.

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