Best films free to air
repetitive dialogue that’s delivered at top speed by the accomplished cast, faces deadpan as their mouths shoot forth words in a kind of rapid monotone. They don’t really act, or react for that matter — there’s no time — just spout lines at great speed while staring at each other. This is the most unusual series on free-to-air TV, the most accomplished and the most entertaining. THE new Masters of Sex may prove to be just as much fun, however: it is certainly another unusual show, fascinating, highly focused and controlled with a kind of nonfiction factual bluntness that somehow makes it even more entertaining. SBS launches the new 12-part series on Thursday. It’s the story of real-life pioneers Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and fertility expert Dr William Masters (Michael Sheen), whose groundbreaking research into the science of human sexuality kindled the socalled sexual revolution.
Be warned: it’s very risque, as you might expect. It comes from the US cable network Showtime, which has far more freedom than conventional broadcast television channels, regulated as they are by federal rules restricting nudity and graphic content. And there is a lot of that — all in the name of science, of course.
Coming express (they would have liked that) from the US, it’s a kind of biographical account not only of the biological and feminist approach to their studies of the human sexual response but the way all that released libidinous energy inevitably changed their tangled personal lives.
The series is based on the bestselling 2009 biography by Thomas Maier, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love — about the couple who were praised for shedding light on the mysteries of desire and intimacy and their complicated roles in the American psyche. It was created and produced by Michelle Ashford, a writer and co-producer on The Pacific. John Madden directed the pilot. It’s a fine, irresistible, resonant story too.
Together, Masters and Johnson began studying human sexual behaviour in St Louis in the late 1950s, when the subject was shrouded in superstition and misconceptions, unmentionable in mixed company, and sex therapy was almost nonexistent. While Alfred Kinsey had developed a method of inquiry using personal interviews, Masters and Johnson used the so-called ‘‘ direct observation method’’.
Subjects were closely watched as they were engaging in a variety of sexual activities that included masturbation, stimulation of the breasts and sexual intercourse with a partner. They used numerous contraptions to measure muscular and vascular responses to sexual arousal, including a massive, hi-tech, cameraimplanted, one-eyed vibrator. ‘‘ We call it Ulysses, after the Kirk Douglas movie with the giant Cyclops,’’ Johnson informs a severely apprehensive Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), the university administrator who reluctantly underwrote their research, as they are about to christen the object on a shivering female subject.
In 1966 they published Human Sexual Response, a tome weighted with technical jargon to avoid any smutty innuendo, although red-hot sexual the science.
Just as Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male had before it, their book shot up the bestseller list. In no time at all the phrase ‘‘ Masters and Johnson’’ passed into common usage and provided the punchline for a thousand jokes.
Woody Allen led the way: ‘‘ It was I who first discovered how to make a man impotent by hiding his hat’’; ‘‘ I was the first one to explain the connection between excessive masturbation and entering politics’’; and, ‘‘ It was I who first said that the clitoral orgasm should not be only for women’’.
The jokes never stopped. When Virginia Johnson died early this year at 88, syndicated gag writers just couldn’t resist. ‘‘ Without people like her, many men would never have become masters of their Johnson,’’ was one joke that did the rounds of radio stations.
But the series is no joke. It has a cool edginess, a script that bites at the edges and a disquieting sense of humour. When the unlikely pair of researchers first unleash Ulysses, Masters soothes their nervous colleague, about to peer through its camera lens into a female subject, by saying: ‘‘ Just think of yourself as Sir Edmund Hillary leaving base camp.’’ There’s also all that libidinous energy floating around, making everyone involved just a bit anxious.
Masters and Johnson started an affair and later married. What’s more bewildering, though fascinating dramatically, is the fact that Johnson had almost no scientific training. She happened upon sex research largely by accident after a failed career as a country singer, and several husbands.
But as Caplan demonstrates so well, she had empathy and was able to persuade nervous women to explain how their bodies worked, something Masters, as played convincingly by Sheen — pinched, socially awkward and driven by earnest scientific vocation — was incapable of achieving.
He actually begins his work secretly exploring the greater mysteries of human sexuality by convincing prostitutes to let him spy on them through peepholes while they go about their work. ‘‘ You’re just a man standing in a cupboard watching people hump,’’ one prostitute tells him.
The ardent man of science is full of awkward spaces and, like so many of the women he studies, he’s a complete mystery to himself.
‘‘ Why do women fake orgasm?’’ he asks the confident Johnson just after he interviews her for the position. ‘‘ In order to get a man to climax quickly, so a woman can get back to whatever she’d rather be doing,’’ she says with a sweet smile.
Later he’s asked by a male colleague, ‘‘ What does a woman you are sleeping with want?’’ He looks pained. ‘‘ The riddle of life itself can’t get close to the unfathomable mystery of that question,’’ he says with a sigh.
The storytelling from Ashford is nicely restrained for all the nudity and simulated sex — she uses period pop songs as a lovely counterpointing ironic commentary — and both Masters and Johnson emerge as fascinating and complex characters.
For me, more than anything else the series is a salutary reminder of what was happening here as these well-meaning but eccentric people altered consciousness in the US. Most Australians feared sex more than nuclear war, cancer or unemployment. Desire was the blackest of bogeymen, the thing that went bump in the night. The word itself, its moist slippery sibilance, struck terror in the heart of the wowser and the censor. These days it doesn’t seem that long ago.
beneath THE networks love scheduling movies that tie in with cinema releases. I’m sure who benefits — the cinema chains or the channels. There are two motor-racing films on Seven this week and, sure enough, on the big screen there’s Ron Howard’s action spectacular Rush (which I review on page 16). Senna (Saturday, 9.40pm, Seven) is a British documentary about the Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and his rivalry with French champion Alain Prost. It’s a brilliant film, composed entirely of archival racetrack footage and home video clips provided by the Senna family, with no formal commentary. We follow Senna’s career from his debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix to his death 10 years later at San Marino. This moving film was directed by Asif Kapadia. Seven is also showing Pixar’s animated Cars 2 (Saturday, 7.30pm), in which the main Grand Prix contestant is a restored racing car called Lightning McQueen, assisted by a battered tow truck. John Lasseter directed this disappointing sequel to Cars with a voice cast that includes Owen Wilson, Michael Caine and Vanessa Redgrave, of all people.
Marooned (Wednesday, 2pm, 7Two) has been described as Hollywood’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by action specialist John Sturges, it was released in 1969, a year after Kubrick’s masterpiece, and tells a similar story of astronauts stranded in space. (And yes, it coincides with the release in cinemas next week of Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney find themselves trapped in a spacecraft.) Tense and realistic, Marooned won an Oscar for special effects and Gregory Peck delivers a strong performance as the space agency boss doing his best to rescue the astronauts, among them Gene Hackman.
With Baz Luhrmann’s film still lingering in cinemas, or at least in the memory, fans can compare it with the 1974 Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby (Sunday, 1.20am, ABC1), directed by Jack Clayton. It looks sumptuous and remains faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel without quite capturing its power. But I’m sure Baz did, either.
Hunting and Gathering (Wednesday, 11.10pm, SBS One) is a lovely French film from Claude Berri, remembered for those two masterpieces from the 1980s, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. This one is about four people brought together in love and friendship to discover new meaning in their lives. Camille (Audrey Tautou) is a lonely, timid, rather sickly young woman who works as a cleaner in an office building. She shares an apartment with Philibert, a shy fellow with a speech impediment, and his gloomy friend Franck, who is looking after his ailing grandmother. It is wonderful to watch these stunted personalities blossom and strengthen as they get to know one another. Few recent films have touched me more deeply.
Best on show
(M) ★★★★✩ Saturday, 9.40pm, Seven
(M) ★★★ ✩ Wednesday, 2pm, 7Two
(M) ★★★★✩ Wednesday, 11.10pm, SBS One
Sheen and Caplan in