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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Sex With Strangers"


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Calvin, Julie and Sarah
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Joe and Harry Gantz are known for the reality-based television series Taxicab Confessions, where hidden cameras are placed in taxis, and passengers are recorded telling intimate details about themselves to the driver. The series has won many awards for documentary, and served to usher in a new and unique way of peeking into people's private lives.

In the film, Sex with Strangers, the Gantz brothers are up to something new again, but this time, it's not entirely clear what it is. I'll explain that in a moment.

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Calvin, Julie and Sarah
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On the surface, the film appears to be a documentary, following three sets of couples who "swing" - that is, have sex with other couples. James and Theresa are classic swingers who aggressively seduce couples wherever they go; their protégé Calvin attempts to share his sexual freedom with two jealous lovers, Sara and Julie; and psychodrama almost displaces sex for Shannon and Gerard, who aren't sure whether swinging is the way to go to preserve their marriage. By embracing a free sexual lifestyle, all of these swingers have to constantly deal with issues of trust, power, intimacy and love.

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James and Theresa
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It's so real, and the plots move along so well, and the dialog is so well chosen that… wait, is this really a documentary? Or, is it really a scripted movie with actors that make it look like one? About 30 minutes into the movie, my attention drew to certain technical details like, "how did they get a camera into that really small space? Oh, and there's another camera angle! Oh, and a third! Wait, that space couldn't possibly fit all those people and all those cameras and still be an authentic scene. Do people really act natural in such settings?" Then I started noticing things in the dialog: too perfect. Words chosen well. There are times when people sort of stutter over their words or stop to think a moment, but not nearly often enough. I've seen a lot of documentaries, and few are as polished as this.

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James and Theresa
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And then there's the climax - the ends of all the stories just come together too well. The scenes appear to be too set up, and the scenarios too concocted. I started feeling "lied to". I went to the production notes and the movie's web site, and my suspicions were raised even higher. Words are also carefully chosen, such as: "Most documentaries search for defining moments... This extraordinary film is filled with such revelations..." Note: It doesn't call itself a "documentary", it calls itself a "film." Reading it carefully, the entire text appears to be chosen in a way that could suggest that they were prepared to be disclosed. If you read the official sites of other, known documentaries, they are overwhelmingly explicit in the background of the film, how they went about it, and many other things. But for this film, it's all very ambiguous.

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Shannon and Gerard
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If I'm right, the film's main problem is that it's relying on a gimmick of lying to the audience much the same way Jerry Springer and all those "talk" shows were. The appeal of those shows was the notion that the "guests" were real people. When it was disclosed that it was all staged, those shows lost their appeal.

I don't care that I'm lied to, but if you're going to do it, there's a lot more intelligent ways to go about it. Championship Wrestling is one example. Everyone knows its fake, but that's part of the fun of it. (I don't particularly enjoy wrestling, but I recognize and acknowledge its appeal to others.)

If I'm wrong, and the film is actually real, I fault the filmmakers for making it too simplistic and not fleshing out more of the culture and environment of the lifestyle and the people behind it.

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Shannon and Gerard
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I don't dispute whether serious research went into this, as the notes indicate. (A year was spent with couples to learn their lifestyle, but it doesn't specifically say that these were the people in the film.) Either way you look at it, the film came across as a soap opera, where the main intent is to taunt the audience with risqué scenes, villains and victims, and the drama of people making clearly stupid choices in their mates. Sex with Strangers positioned itself as a documentary to give serious insight into swingers and their lifestyles, but it didn't - it just showed a few selected couples and tunneled the entire movie into only their lives. While it showed very realistic portrayals, they were all two-dimensional.


Harry Gantz sent me an email regarding my review, defending the authenticity of his movie. (That it was, in fact, real, not scripted.)

The following is my response to his email:


Harry—

I finally got some time to put into a reply to your note to me about my review of Sex With Strangers. Yes, it seems that Roger Ebert and I aren't the only ones that thought the movie was less than authentic, that it might have been scripted. I've had many emails from people who've read my review and had the same thoughts. Nevertheless, I do believe you when you say that it was indeed authentic, not scripted, and that each scene was, in fact, played out according to the actual feelings of the real people involved.

While that's well and good, I think it really misses the true problem with the movie that most of us had, but until now, I didn't realize that it should have been the main thrust of my review. That is, the movie seemed to use the dysfunctional relationships of a few people for "shock value" style entertainment, and failed to educate us about the background of the swinger demographic. To be more precise, I had two fundamental problems with the movie, both of which contributed to the senses that it was inauthentic.

First, the nature of the film was more about specific individuals, not about the culture itself (which I'll get to later). If that's the case, we need to get a sense that the individuals being filmed are, in fact, genuine. I feel the reason for this is the way the movie was filmed. As you well know, documentaries are hard because it's difficult getting people to agree to open their lives up to the camera. This is especially challenging when you get to sensitive material such as "swinging." The more intrusive the filmmaker(s) are with their cameras, equipment and other methods necessary to examine a subject closely, the smaller the sampling size is of those willing to be so finely and intimately scoped. At some point, the sample size gets so small, that the only individuals willing to subject themselves to such scrutiny are those who are more likely to be interested in the limelight than in giving accurate portrayals of their true natures. They may be "real" in some sense, but there is also a sense that they are playing to the camera. I believe this is why it appeared to scripted. They cherished the camera more than the subject. The audience senses this, doubting the subjects' motives, or at least, whether they are truly genuine in their portrayals.

If you were more subtle, withdrawn, and less "in your face" with the camera(s) and other technical proficiencies, then you might have gotten better, more realistic performances from those who were filmed. What's more, you might have also gotten more people willing to be filmed in the first place. This may have also helped the second problem with the movie:

The movie failed to teach us anything about the culture of swingers. Who are they? Where do they come from? What demographic lines does it cross? What OTHER interests they have that we can identify with? Ok, that might not have been your intent when making the film, but without something in this area, you fail to help the audience identify with and care about the characters. The movie suggests (by omission of a broader sample size or a "documentary" style investigation of the subculture that is Swingers) that the only people who "swing" are lower class trailer-park white people that have nothing else to do with their lives. This limited portrayal is not likely to be the sort that your general audiences will identify with and care about. The fact is, swinging crosses a great deal of boundaries: racial, cultural, religious, and social-political demographics. Touching upon that fact would have given the audience more to appreciate and understand. Our neighbors could be swinging, our senators and congressmen, our teachers and other respected members of the community—all of these groups have members that are in the club, as it were, and that would have elevated the audience's interest.

So, while it may be that you gave a technically impressive job at making an improvised documentary "look" like a scripted movie, I think it did more harm than good. This, in contrast with your Taxicab Confessions series, which was fantastic for precisely the reasons noted above: the audience sensed authenticity, and they could identify with the characters that were "confessing" their stories.

Please note: I have followed your work for a while, and I know you have done some good work. Just because I wasn't thrilled with this film does not degrade my respect for your work and efforts in general. I look forward to reviewing your next project.

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