Joseph Gordon Levitt's first film, Don Jon is a surprisingly perplexing film. On the one hand it is one of the first mainstream films in the US to deal with internet porn, but, at the same time, it is not about porn, or even an addiction to porn. Its aspiration is use pornography as an allegory for something, but for what?
To look at this ambiguity more closely. It is worth noting how absolutely direct the film is in dealing with pornography. This is not just a matter of a man hunched over a glowing and moaning laptop, as in Shame. The images of pornography are projected onto the screen, complete with the grain and trappings of internet porn sites. One wonders if pornhub got a product placement deal. While the images are cut and edited to fit within the film's R rating, what is missing in visuals is compensated for by a graphic discussion of the main character, the "Don" Jon of the film's title, porn viewing habits, from browsing for the perfect clip to dispensing with a tissue in the wastebasket (the film's metonymic money shot). Jon's porn habit is discussed in detail and, as the trailer reveals, it eventually leads to romantic conflict. Despite this, the film keeps trying to connect viewing porn with a larger breakdown in social relations. (Some of the more critical reviews have argued that the film is more or less a series of "thesis statements" on porn, relationships, religion, family, masculinity, etc., that never become an argument.)
At times, and in the trailer, the film seems to set up a rather cliched opposition between men who watch porn and women who watch romances. These different mediations shaping and warping their expectations. It is sort of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"as if it were written by Bernard Stiegler. On this reading the film is less about some natural division that pits the sexual appetites of men against the emotional needs of women, but about the mass media production of a male ideal and a female ideal, both in conflict.
The entire relationship between Jon and Scarlett Johansson's character often comes off as the relationship between the most stereotypical media representations of both genres. It is like watching a relationship between an issue of Maxim and Cosmopolitan. As Lacan said, "there is no such thing as a sexual relationship," but he forgot to add that there are sexual advice columns. There are a few points, however, where the film moves beyond almost being a cliché about clichés. For example a scene of Jon's family eating dinner and discussing relationships as a highly sexualized Carl's Jr advertisement comes on the huge television screen, distracting both Jon and his father, does a nice job of subtly drawing out the objectification of women that is the backdrop of our daily life.
"Everything in Jon's life is sort of a one-way street. He is not connecting or engaging with anyone. That goes for the women in his life, that goes for his family, his friends, his church, even his own body. It's an item on a checklist. He doesn't listen; he just takes. At the beginning of the movie, he is finding that dissatisfying because there's the sequence where he brings a young lady home from the bar and he is comparing her to this checklist that he has got of what he likes to see in a pornography video. Obviously, a real human being is not going to map onto that because there is a fundamental difference between a human being and an image on a screen."
From this perspective the absence of a relation is based less on the gender coded norms of sex and romance, but two people who view the other as filling out the parameters of a manufactured image. Moreover, Gordon-Levitt's statement almost exactly mirrors Bifoi's distinction between connection and conjunction. As Bifo writes in Precarious Rhapsody,
"Conjunction is the encounter and fusion of rounded irregular forms that infiltrate in an imprecise, unrepeatable, imperfect, continuous way. Connection is the punctual and repeatable interaction of algorithmic functions of straight lines and points that can be perfectly superimposed onto each other, inserting and detaching themselves according to discrete modalities of interaction...The digitalization of communication processes produces a sort of desensitization to the curve, to continuous processes of slow becoming and a corresponding sensitization to code, sudden changes of state and the succession of discrete signs."
Bifo and Gordon-Levitt see the contemporary situation as prioritizing connection over conjunction. In order for people to meet, for bodies to combine, they must first be airbrushed, sanitized, and sculpted according to established schemas and norms. No wonder Jon prefers the digital copy to a real person that has only strived to copy such a copy. The film does not present pornography as a compensation, as a failure to deal with the norms and ideals of dating--something for losers--but their realization. Only someone who picks up women he rates from one to ten, women that are never more than a face, breasts, and butt, can truly appreciate the reduction of women to the same.
Framing Don Jon through the breakdown of social relations, rather than as statement on gender relations, has the benefit of sidestepping some of its sexual politics. It is less problematic to think of the film's third act ideal of sex as connection, as losing oneself in another, if that can be seen as part of of a larger point about the loss of "conjunction" (in Bifo's sense). (Not to mention the fact that the film has as much trouble as Don Jon does understanding, or even imagining, what women might desire). Moreover, doing so pushes it beyond a kind of "digital dualism." Connection is not just something that happens online, but it already happens in the bar when bodies and faces are ranked and assessed. Or in a confessional when the sins of the flesh become a requisite number of prayers. Conjunction is something that must be struggled for. Although it should be noted that movies rarely represent that struggle, passing this problem off to love at first sight or magic pixie dream girls (or in this case an older variant). Movies generally present connection as conjunction, promising the realization of a relation in what is only its cliché, it is Don Jon's merit to attempt to confront this limit.
*= The title of this post is from a Thatcher on Acid song