Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.2
JM rating: 9.0
This “dialogue review” of Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit!, a new Norwegian teen-sex comedy, is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. Funny and refreshingly honest, Turn Me On, Dammit! centers on Alma, a sex-obsessed teenage girl who becomes a pariah in her town after she claims that Artur, a popular boy at her high school, poked her with his dick at a party. The film opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
JM: This film was written and directed by two separate women. Given that you are a writer and director, what is your take on a female voice/female voices?
MGS: This is a provocative and complex question. I have to say that most of the time I don’t think about such things but when I was watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I certainly did. For instance, I thought it was totally bizarre that a fifteen year old girl would call a phone sex line. My first reaction was “There’s no way a fifteen year old girl would do that!” But then I remembered that the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel by another woman and then thought “Aw, hell, I guess they would know better than me.” I also thought that the scene where we see Alma masturbating was interesting. I’m sure you agree that there was nothing titillating about the scene. It was just there to establish her character and yet . . . if we watched the exact same scene believing it had been directed by a man, it would have been disturbing, no? On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that the reason why Helene Bergsholm gave such a convincing performance as Alma is because she felt more comfortable being directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen than she would’ve had she been directed by a man. Also, it’s possible that only female writers/directors would feel that confident portraying a girl that young as a sexual being. What do you think?
JM: What puts my answer into perspective is that I have no idea what is involved in a young man’s coming-of-age life. The concept of what a guy goes through when he becomes a man eludes me, and I think that only someone who has walked in those shoes knows the answer. Alternately, a man cannot know what a young girl goes through, even if he has daughters or sisters, though that would give him a little more insight than if he hadn’t. A man knows a man’s body, and a woman knows a woman’s body. She can remember her own experiences and tap into that firsthand knowledge.
To answer your question concerning a man’s take on the masturbation scene, I can only imagine it failing miserably. In sex scenes, or even nude scenes, where women are directed by a man, I feel that the vast majority of them are from what a man desires, or what he thinks a woman wants or needs, which pretty much always leaves me shaking my head because they are so opposite of what I find to be even somewhat believable. To illuminate my point further, during the filming of your second movie, At Last, Okemah!, you were filming a fight between the main character and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was supposed to act frustrated because she wasn’t getting the attention that she believed she deserved, and you were having some trouble getting her to react appropriately. One of the male crew members blurted out, “act like you haven’t had sex in months and you really want to get laid.” It took about every fiber of my being to keep from saying, “man, you don’t know anything about women.”
Going back to your station as a male director, do you feel that you have a particularly male perspective when writing and/or directing?
MGS: I’m sure that I do but I don’t think it plays that big of a role. I mean, I’m sure I also bring to my work a white male perspective and an American perspective and a thirty-something perspective and so and and so forth. I try not to think about those things when I’m working because that kind of thinking can be crippling for an artist. I think it’s best to operate more instinctively and not think about how your background might be manifesting itself when writing and directing. Same thing for writing a blog post, actually.
I think that you, Jillian, probably bring a more explicitly gendered perspective to your blog because of your women’s studies background and also because “teasing out feminisms” is the theme of your blog. Or would you disagree?
JM: My background definitely shapes what I think and put out on the page and I write from all those points of view. I agree that we are all a conglomeration of different selves: gay; lesbian; mother; father; high school education; etc., and I do pull from my own given the occasion, just as the writer and director of Turn Me On, Dammit! pulled from different areas of their past lives, such as being a teenage girl, being a girl growing up in a small town, et al. I can also say that I don’t write for a particular audience but for myself, what interests me and is on my mind, as opposed to writing for a particular audience in mind.
Do you think that a mirror of this movie could have been made by a male writer/director about young, coming of age boys?
MGS: Absolutely. I think that kind of movie has been made many times in America (that’s how I’d describe a lot of contemporary teen-sex comedies, of which Superbad is a prominent recent example) but it has rarely, if ever, been done well. What’s great about Turn Me On, Dammit! is its frankness about teenage sexuality, but I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with a male or female perspective. I think Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is the closest good male equivalent that is coming to my mind right now but, on the other hand, that movie does a lot of things aside from explore adolescence. For instance, even though Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are great, the scenes with Jeff Daniels as their novelist/professor father are probably the most interesting in the film. Turn Me On, Dammit!, by contrast, doesn’t show much interest in the adult word, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
JM: When watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I thought back to when I was in high school and I could definitely identify with a lot of what the girls, especially the main character, were going through. Specifically, life during high school and the “mean girls,” awareness of my own developing body, inflated and unrealistic ideas about love and sex, to name a few. Watching this movie as a man, did you feel any sense of alienation or could you identify with what these girls were going through?
MGS: I didn’t feel alienated at all. The film evokes a lot of emotions that I think cross gender lines – adolescent boredom, loneliness, sexual frustration, wanting approval from the cool kids, etc. Having said all that, no one ever poked me with his erect dick at a party! But there were moments where I could relate to Artur as well – like when he pretends not to be interested in Alma and lies to her about having another girlfriend. He was afraid of taking an emotional risk and I could relate to that.
JM: The girls in this film were born and bred in a small Norwegian town. Given that we both grew up in small towns up until after high school (me Villa Park, Illinois and you, Charlotte, North Carolina), do you see any parallels?
MGS: Well, Charlotte had a population of about half a million people when I was growing up there (and it’s gotten considerably larger since) so I think my experience was different than the characters in the film. They live in a truly rural area. However, I could relate to the desires the characters had about wanting to move away. I certainly never had the hostility towards Charlotte that they do towards their town. I wouldn’t flip off signs of my town like they did, but I did feel like I needed to get away and move to a bigger city and expand my horizons a bit. I guess I felt a bit like Saralou wanting to move to Texas. You’ve always stayed close to home though so I’m assuming your experience was different.
JM: It is true that I’ve always wanted to stay close to family, but suburbanites in Illinois are lucky enough to be able to move to Chicago, which is as different in many ways from Villa Park as you can get. It’s amazing, though they’re so close, how far to the right, politically speaking, towns can be right outside of larger cities. My own experience is almost identical to what Alma experiences as she takes a trip to a bigger city, and seems somewhat of a small town/big city universal.
MGS: I’d like to conclude by saying that even though Turn Me On, Dammit!‘s focus on sex is going to be the main thrust of every review written about it, I think it also does a few other things extremely well. It feels very real and evocative in its portrait of what it’s like to be a kid working a dead end job in a small town grocery store, to ride the same bus to school with the same kids every day, and to escape for a magical weekend to a big city to hang out with college kids who have their own apartment. Finally, in Saralou’s anti-capital punishment crusade, which is arguably the funniest part of the movie, Jacobsen absolutely nails the very specific way in which teenagers can get overzealous about something. I thought Turn Me On, Dammit! was a very pleasant surprise when we caught it last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m glad that its getting a fairly wide release now, even if, absurdly, it was recently banned in Tuscaloosa. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?
JM: If you were ever to make a movie that was the male bookend to this, would you have had the same “poking” story as the young man in the movie? Let’s hope not…
MGS: My male bookend to this would involve a nice guy like me receiving the equivalent of a “female poking” from a feisty gal like you.