Plot New Jersey, Present day. Twentysomething bartender Jon enjoys masturbating over online pornography, which he finds more satisfying than sex with the women he picks up while out on the town. When the attractive Barbara gives him the brush-off, however, it makes him determined to pursue her. The two start dating, and it becomes obvious that Barbara is interested in serious commitment, her values moulded by social norms and Hollywood romance. Restraining his ardour, she only sleeps with Jon after he starts taking computer evening classes, but is horrified when she subsequently catches him watching porn on his laptop. He mollifies her by agreeing never to look at it again, and their relationship proceeds over the following months until she checks his browser history, realises he’s still visiting porn sites and walks out. He can’t bear to reveal the break-up to his parents or friends, though in the meantime he has befriended classmate Esther, an unconventional older woman who’s emotionally volatile yet sexually accommodating. Esther makes Jon confront his porn addiction, while her revelation that she lost her husband and son brings them closer and helps him connect emotional intimacy with sexuality for the first time. When Jon finally tells his family about Barbara, his sister’s response that she was controlling him strikes a chord. Jon walks away from a lunch date with Barbara. His relationship with Esther develops day by day (adapted from Johnston 73).
Film Note While (500) Days of Summer (2009) used quirk and whimsy to explore the changing cultural values of modern men and women, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut uses porn. Don Jon is closely tied to the contemporary workings of independent filmmaking, wherein its production, marketing, and distribution allude to new kinds of digital strategies for the industry. The film acts as a contemporary reworking of the contemporary romantic comedy, utilising the conventions of the genre to explore contemporary relationships. With the prominence of proud feminist Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon attempts to capture masculinity in the digital age.
Indiewood progression Don Jon brings together an amalgamation of independent production companies, including the first appearance from Gordon-Levitt’s own HitRecord, the more established Voltage Pictures and recent mainstream Hollywood breakthrough, Ram Bergman Productions. The film was sold at Sundance Film Festival to Relativity for $4m, alongside a $25m Prints and Advertising commitment. Robert Marich argues that independent producers “can’t gallop into the theatrical market because of a lack of funds” (271). For Don Jon to command such an expensive P&A commitment, however, suggests that Relativity thought the film would be a success. Don Jon worked out profitably, and can be deemed a model of how future studio releases might work.
Zachary Wigon examines the way in which the notion of “scalability” functions in Hollywood. Wigon views films like Don Jon, or the equally financially successful The Way, Way Back (2013), as exemples of a “scalable business model ripe for utilisation within a volume distribution strategy.” Wigon argues that if films continue “reasonable” acquisition prices, then why should Hollywood “bother to make smaller pictures for […] $15-30m when they can buy them at festivals for significantly less?” It is financially worthwhile to purchase a cost-effective product with no production risks. Even if a number of these films were not economically successful, the loss would still not be detrimental and the strategy would eventually generate higher profits over a shorter period of time. Films like Don Jon or The Way, Way Back offer distribution companies easier roads to success, existing as finished films as opposed to initial scripts, and including recognisable casts, palatable story lines and noticeable tropes.
Don Jon was particularly successful in its cost-efficient marketing, focusing on its target audience and choosing their marketing platforms wisely. The film utilised online marketing techniques, creating a Twitter persona for the eponymous Jon, using Reddit Ask Me Anythings (AMAs) and, most notably, advertising through PornHub. Advertising through porn sites was also used for 21 and Over (2013) and the anthology comedy Movie 43 (2013), both also distributed by Relativity. Corey Price, vice president of PornHub, states that “the cost of advertising on adult traffic is significantly lower than on big mainstream sites” such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, and that “PornHub alone attracts 60 million unique visitors a day”, reaching a total of 21.2 billion visits in 2015 (qtd in Marshall). PornHub agreed to not only take part in the film but also to help the filmmakers “find adult clips to use in the movie from our content partners like Brazzers, Mofos, Digital Playground and Twistys” (Price qtd in Suebsaeng).
For more liberal films, adult sites offer access to a large, online audience and, specifically for Don Jon, a cheap database of content and collaborators. Advertising through these sites can be effective in gaining a response, garnering some form of media attention or controversy amongst more conservative outlets. There may also be a psychological and physiological advantage in triggering a feeling of arousal whilst advertising on adult sites, stimulating either a heightened attentiveness, becoming fixed in the viewer’s mind, or generating some form of attachment. As Erik du Plessis (xii) argues, advertising seeks to release dopamine because the related emotional attention ensures continued engagement with the product. The release of the pleasure-inducing hormone dopamine (thanks to sexual arousal) at the same time as the viewer is made aware of the film, means that it is reasonable to assume that the film might become associated with feelings of intense joy.
Don Jon is also connected to the digital through its production and distribution. The film was co-produced by Gordon-Levitt’s own company, HitRecord, interlinked with the homonymous open-collaborative website, www.hitrecord.org. This website is a space for creatives to upload their work, already with the consent for the community to remix and reuse it; if Gordon-Levitt takes notice of a certain project, he will produce it on a larger scale, splitting the profits equally between HitRecord and the contributing artist. Although Don Jon is credited as a HitRecord production, it was not directly created by the site’s collaborators. However, Gordon-Levitt has stated in the description of a youtube video about the film that he “could not have done [Don Jon] without all of the experience […] on hitRECord”, and will use the success of the film to aid in “future endeavors as a production company” (2013).
Meanwhile, Don Jon’s distributor, Relativity Media, signed a five-year agreement in 2010 whereby their films would be distributed via Netflix’s online streaming service. The contract marked the first time that theatrical feature films were streamed so quickly after their theatrical release, unlike pay TV agreements with traditional broadcasters like HBO or Showtime. With Hollywood buying fewer independent films at festivals, sites like Netflix or Amazon seem to be changing the patterns of film releasing. In 2016, however, Relativity Media sued Netflix for in excess of $1.5bn, claiming that “Netflix breached its agreement to stream the mini-studio’s films and did so much damage that it undermined Relativity’s financial underpinnings” (Rainey). Although Don Jon reflects a success in the possible paradigm shift towards the digital, the 2016 Relativity bankruptcy appears to signify an unease between traditional release and digital intervention.
“They give awards for porn too” The film’s advertisements on PornHub in comparison to its televised trailers gave their respective audiences different expectations. Whereas the television adverts often portrayed the film as a traditional romance-comedy, placing significance on Jon and Barbara’s relationship, the adverts on PornHub emphasised Scarlett Johansson’s Barbara and her sex appeal, highlighting scenes in which she rubs her body against Jon to seduce him. Don Jon met neither of these audience’s expectations. Similar to Gordon-Levitt’s role in (500) Days of Summer, the characters and story in Don Jon counter the classic tropes of the romance genre. When asked in the film’s Reddit AMA, Gordon-Levitt acknowledged the scope of Don Jon’s marketing, proclaiming “we’re also advertising on ‘chick flick’ stuff and on the NFL. All of which are media that is featured in Don Jon. It’s a movie about media culture, it should be in the media.”
Don Jon looks at the surface of relationships, making an overt comparison between romance films and pornography, exploring the similarity of objectifying people in both mediums. As Gordon-Levitt states, “the pornography aspect will grab people’s attention […] but it’s not what the movie is about, no more than another film I was in, 50/50 , about a cancer sufferer, was actually about cancer” (qtd in Jones). The film does not condone pornography and instead utilises its artistic style to break down the illusion in both the romance genre and pornography, making the two synonymous. The film’s repeated soundtrack, with a harmonious harp, twinkling bells and a cumbersome beat culminate in a Hollywood orchestral melody with a club rhythm. Towards the end of the opening montage, the music becomes distorted and the stark, black and white title “Don Jon” begins to lose focus and contort; evoking either a computer screen glitch or a film reel flicker.
The first image of Jon shows him alone in his room, explaining his process of watching porn. The signature Apple start-up sound triggers a closeup of Jon’s face, illuminated by the computer screen. This image is repeated later when Jon and Barbara go the cinema. An extreme closeup of Barbara shows her smiling, tear stained face – as in shots of Jon when he watches porn, she is shown as overcome with pleasurable emotion, while quickly intercut images of the romance (or, in Jon’s case, the porn) highlight the intensity of these images. Jon explains his disdain for such films in voice-over, complaining that he “must be missing something” he lists the tropes of the film, and finally notes: “everyone knows it’s fake, but they watch it like it’s real fucking life.” When the couple come out of the screening, Barbara wistfully sums up the film’s meaning for her: “he gave up everything for her, it was just meant to be.” This is the epitome of Barbara’s relationship expectations: like Jon’s addiction to pornography, it is one-sided and subservient. Don Jon emphasises the distortion of reality caused through media perception, as these closeup shots seem to foreground a sense of narcissistic regression where the only person important in Jon or Barbara’s relationship is themselves, a regression prompted by the gendered media forms of internet pornography and cinematic romance respectively.
Jon doesn’t give up pornography for Barbara. Yet, he does so for Julianne Moore’s Esther. The two female protagonists in Don Jon are significant in understanding how the film attempts to counter classic tropes of the romance genre. With Don Jon being from a male perspective, however, the exploration of female objectification can be problematic. Tamar Jeffers McDonald notes Hollywood’s “re-gendering” of the romantic comedy, terming masculinised rom-coms “homme-coms”, films which place “emphasis on the importance of sex and the body in all its messiness” (148). Although focused on males, there is still a need to question how females are portrayed in homme-coms. Don Jon, while fully formulating the growth and development in Gordon-Levitt’s character, leaves Barbara one dimensional. It can be argued that Barbara’s lack of complexity follows the nature of a typical homme-com. Gordon-Levitt explains the choice to use Johansson specifically, with her status being recognised more so due to her beauty rather than talent, acting as a “powerful presence […] because she’s an acute example of what the movie’s about.” Yet, if the film claims to be a commentary on the media-induced psyche, by not allowing time for Barbara to go through any transformation, in itself the film is too reliant on generic tropes.
On the other hand, the redeeming nature of Moore’s role is particularly significant. Esther, at a glance, fits film critic Nathan Rabin’s term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Rabin defines this as a character “that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Esther does appear to serve Jon, helping him pursue his own happiness and essentially fixing him of his addiction. Arguably, however, this description is too simplistic. Esther exists beyond Jon’s hardship, she is not the “psychotically chipper” woman that Rabin deems Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown (2005). Moore’s character is often more vulnerable than Jon himself, and is shown to be in the process of dealing with the loss of her husband and son, having an emotional breakdown at her night class and possibly using marijuana as a coping mechanism. Esther is not a fantastical character. As Don Jon’s score producer Nathan Johnson explains, “when Esther enters the movie, everything gets more real […] the camera goes handheld,” her scenes are “really raw, really stripped down.” Don Jon counters the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as Jon and Esther help each other. Jon learns there is more to a woman than her body and Esther learns how to understand her feelings.
The film doesn’t provide the Hollywood ending in the most typical sense. In the end montage, Jon and Esther enjoy one another’s company. Jon admits he loves Esther but “not I love her, I want to marry her. I’m definitely not thinking about that shit.” Esther feels the same: she is shown visibly breaking down on the street’s steps, and Jon continues “she’s not either. She can’t.” For Moore, the film “doesn’t assume that there’s a ‘happily ever after’ […], it just says, ‘let’s see what happens.’ This is what it is for now […]. This is just what’s happening” (qtd in Arbeiter). Don Jon doesn’t give the audience an absolute to the future of Jon and Esther’s relationship. Instead, the film is grounded in immediacy, providing an open and honest dialogue about unrealistic mythologising and media entrapment in modern day relationships.
Digital corruption Julianne Moore’s significance also extends to her role in an earlier Hollywood film about pornography, Boogie Nights (1997). Don Jon can be seen referencing Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout film through Moore herself, the theme of pornography, and a turning-point for Jon: namely his immersive car karaoke moment, singing Boogie Nights’ Mark Wahlberg’s song “Good Vibrations”. Don Jon’s reference to Boogie Nights is important in the exploration of gender and masculinity. As Linda Williams observes, films that align themselves with “pornography as a genre want to be about sex. On close inspection, however, it always proves to be more about gender” (267).
Don Jon is different to previous films that explore masculinity in the context of pornography, such as The Girl Next Door (2004) or Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), due to the significance of the digital. Pornography has shifted from Playboy magazines and the camcorder era (including the likes of the fictionalised 1970s Danish erotica that Esther gives Jon), and is now monopolised by the MTV aesthetic. The addition of the internet unifies an immediate gratification of the digital era with masculine entitlement. As Dargis explains, the film is “mostly interested in what it means to be a feeling, thinking man in a world in which many of the old certainties have disappeared.” Don Jon recapitulates an existing masculinist culture and attempts to critique it. This digital corruption of masculinity arguably manifests in two ways: how Jon struggles to communicate with himself and how he struggles to communicate with others.
Jon’s self image is defined by the “few things” he “really cares about in life”, including his “body, pad, ride, family, church, boys, girls, and porn” – the epitome of hegemonic masculinity. Jon doesn’t really have a connection to any of these outlets, however, and instead his masculinity is built on the fragility of the aesthetic. In the use of a repeated shot of the isolated Jon sauntering down the gym corridor and past the basketball court, his “body” becomes purely mechanical; also, Jon is noticeably obsessed with surface cleanliness in his “pad”, captured in his multiple attempts to remake his bed or clean the mirror; finally, whilst Jon diligently confesses every week in “church”, these confessions come to be depthless as he unquestionably accepts his Hail Marys.
While exploration into “the crisis theme” of masculinity has been “popular since at least the 1990s, perhaps due to the softer presidency of Bill Clinton and the increasing feminisation of men in the American home” (Shary 7), it is Don Jon’s incorporation of the digital that further cultivates an anxiety surrounding Jon and his self image. Jon’s compulsive behaviour is often depicted after he watches porn, indicating that his compulsions become symptomatic of his addiction. For Jon, watching pornography is a means to assert a sense of masculine control. The masterful “Don” becomes dissatisfied with the usual macho hooks ups: as he remarks “condoms are terrible […] but you gotta wear one, ‘cause, unlike porn, real pussy can kill you” and “missionary is the worst position in all of fucking.” The character even states “real pussy’s good, but I’m sorry, it’s not as good as porn”, capturing his disassociation from reality.
A masculinised digital corruption can be seen as extending beyond Jon’s infatuation for pornography or Barbara’s addiction to Hollywood romance films. The hyper-masculinised media culture emanates into the traditional family structure. The Martello family in Don Jon fit the conventional roles of a nuclear Italian-American family. Jon Sr. bears the stereotypical white vest and gold chain, while Jon’s mother, Angela, is either seen in the kitchen or talking at lengths about marriage. Jon’s sister, Monica, has only one line in the film. Don Jon provides signifiers from the beginning that media culture permeates throughout the Martello family. Through Jon’s early introduction of “family”, the Martellos are seen in their home setting up a family photo. The traditional wood-panelled room, however, is overwhelmed by the monstrous television screen airing an American football game; Monica’s eyes, meanwhile, are glued to her mobile phone.
Later, media culture appears to cause discomfort, underlining Dargis’ suggestion that the film presents “a world in which many of the old certainties have disappeared.” At one point, an ignorance of the digital causes embarrassment and a questioning of Jon Sr.’s patriarchal role. As Shary argues, “while the crisis theme has perhaps run its course [in Hollywood] there remained a certain coherence around issues of patriarchy, especially in relation to fatherhood and family” (9). The family are gathered around the dining table, Jon Sr.’s football game taking centre stage. Jon attempts to explain TiVo to his father, to enable him to pause and replay his football games. Jon Sr. pretends to understand his son, holding onto his pride as he tries to divert Jon’s attention by talking about the game itself. Jon questions his father “you seriously never heard of that?”, and Jon Sr. aggressively retorts “Yes! I’ve heard of it, Jesus fucking – there! Look, his foot’s on the line!” The digital becomes another force to equate masculinity with conformity, becoming a “visual spectacle” as the dinner table dynamic becomes broken (Shary 302).
Similarly to Her (2013), in which the male protagonist has easy, digital access to a seductive female presence (also played by Scarlett Johansson), Don Jon shows the digital suffocation of pornography and the internet’s place in habitual routine and addition. In Her, Theodore only needs to touch an earpiece and Samantha is present. Likewise, the aforementioned repetitive Apple start-up noise in Don Jon signifies how quickly Jon can access pornography. The immediate gratification of the digital nurtures addiction, as this character’s compulsions become habits. The fact that Jon can access porn on his phone adheres to the idea that the “privatisation of fantasy mediated by personalised digital devices” formulates a “world of flat, regenerated meanings” (Kunkle 13). Similar to the advertisement of a half nude model selling burgers during one of the Martello family dinners, the exposure of the hyper-masculine becomes normalised.
Towards the end of Don Jon, however, the audience are offered a resolution into the impact of changing routine. Jon begins to question the priest of his Lord’s Prayers and Hail Mary’s, he sings along to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and he chooses to interact with fellow gym goers and play basketball. Don Jon, though appearing as a typical Hollywood romance, simultaneously critiques it. The film aims to diverge from the norm and regain control of human connection in a world of easy access digital pleasures.
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Suebsaeng, Asawin. “How One of the Biggest Porn Websites Helped Joseph Gordon-Levitt Make ‘Don Jon.’” Motherjones.com, 27 September 2013. Web. 2 December 2016.
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Written by Katy Thompson (2016); edited by Nick Jones (2017), Queen Mary, University of London
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Copyright © 2017 Katy Thompson/Mapping Contemporary Cinema
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