When you encounter a movie titled "Love & Air Sex" (this week at Facets) the obvious question is what is air sex?
"It started in Japan," said director Bryan Poyser, who comes to town for post-show Q&A's Friday and Saturday.
"Lonely Japanese businessmen would get up in bars and do this" — "this" being air guitar's pervier cousin: fully clothed erotic mime.
Though performed with a wink, the visuals are...yeah. They're gross.
"And embarrassing to watch," Poyser said. "You can't help but laugh because otherwise you just want to scream and look away. And I felt like, for the movie, there was so much potential for uncomfortable comedy."
This exchange early in the film says it all:
"So, you're going to do that in front of hundreds of people?"
A romantic comedy about two sets of couples on the outs from one another during a turbulent weekend in Austin, Texas, the film co-stars former Chicago theater actor Michael Stahl-David. He plays a normal guy nursing a heartbreak while bunking with a group of idiots who are obsessed with l'air du orgasme.
Endeavoring to hump invisible partners ultimately plays only a small side role in the narrative, but the scenes are inspired by a real-deal competition held yearly.
Poyser: "They hit cities like Chicago, for example, and go around the country finding local champions and then bring them to New Orleans at the end of every summer for the world championship." (This year's dates have yet to be announced, but for those interested: airsexworld.com.)
Stahl-David— who starred in 2008's "Cloverfield" as well as the short-lived TV series "My Generation" and "The Black Donnellys" — is spared the worst of it, air sex-wise. Which is just as well. What the film is especially canny about is its use of smart phones and their constant presence in our relationships.
It's about time filmmakers found ways to fold it into the language of a cinema. Big studio comedies tend to avoid it altogether, but there is much potential comedy in the way romance (budding or broken) is conducted via smart phones. Example: The unsolicited photo of one's anatomy. One such pic shows up in the film, and I asked Poyser how they obtained it.
His producer scoured the Internet and emailed a few examples. Then came the awkward conversations. "We would comment on the utility of them — whether or not (the thing pictured) looked right and was big enough to get the reaction we wanted."
In the end, Poyser decided to have a friend to pose for the picture. "Probably the most uncomfortable part of the filmmaking process. It just so happened that the day we needed to take those pictures was the Super Bowl, so we were in the kitchen doing that while the rest of our friends were in the other room watching the game."
That's the crass side of smart phones, but there's also a charming side. A couple who have just met begin to text-flirt with one another. Typing on a phone isn't inherently dramatic, but Poyser found a way to make it work and feel like a virtual conversation unfolding in real time.
It's a moment filled with awkwardness and excitement and risk — sarcastic parries among strangers have a way of being misinterpreted via text.
There's no spoken dialogue in the scene, just the sound of the iPhone pings and the text itself showing up at the bottom of the screen.
"I think we wanted to show, in a way that was still cinematic, how social media and communication through these devices has really become part of every relationship," said Poyser.