Temptation: a cheap and cursory pop culture examination

Risky Business still
Temptation isn’t a topic to be treated lightly. It is, after all, the darker side of desire; the sensation of needing something we know we shouldn’t have. It struggles with our conscience, mocks our good intentions, and it’s a stronger man than I who has never succumbed.

I’m not talking about the temptation ice-cream commercials carelessly flaunt, and as far I’m concerned it has nothing to do with cupcakes or chocolate. Instead, I’m thinking of the ungovernable force of nature that leads to illicit affairs, broken dreams and disillusionment. The temptation that leads us down a dark path we later wish we had never found.

Few songs express temptation’s conflicting emotions better than Neil Finn’s tortured Into Temptation. “The guilty get no sleep, in the last slow hours of morning,” Finn sings. “Experience is cheap … I should’ve listened to the warning.”

Not many musicians can compete with this. In The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, for example, Eric Burdon may caution against visiting whorehouses but when he smoothly intones how the experience ruined him it somehow lacks conviction.

Almost every novel features temptation, from War and Peace to The Devil Wears Prada, but the most obvious example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which suggests that everyone possesses an evil side that, once tapped into, can overwhelm their conscience with the giddy delight of vicarious debauchery. (The most interesting modern interpretation of this is, bizarrely enough, Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor – when his usual nerdy persona transforms into a suave and violent arsehole, the movie becomes surprisingly dark and compelling. I must admit I’ve never seen the Eddie Murphy remakes, and until I sell my soul and end up in hell I doubt I ever will).

The whole notion of selling your soul was popularised by Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus, in which the title character becomes a servant of the devil. Not surprisingly, this leads to an even more dire result than getting hammered by drinking Long Island Iced Teas. It was Dr Faustus that inspired the 1967 Dudley Moore film Bedazzled, and the remake starring Elizabeth Hurley, of which the less mentioned, the better.

In J.M. Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning novel Disgrace, a middle-aged university lecturer becomes, in his own words, “a servant of Eros” rather than of the devil. This leads to an affair with one of his students and although he knows what he’s doing is wrong – at one point he admonishes himself by thinking “No more than a child! What am I doing?” – he feels like he has no control.

Lust, needless to say, is the motherfucker at the heart of most of our temptations. Far before Bridget Jones ever put pen to paper there was Tom Jones, who in Henry Fielding’s famous novel was a character at the mercy of his libido. Despite being kind and noble, Jones was also a pants man and constantly bedded various women despite his undying love of the beautiful Sophia. After each dalliance – well, most of them, anyway – he finds himself racked with guilt and self-hatred, yet is unable to stop himself from making the same mistake repeatedly.

But enough with the sex-ridden classics: let’s get back to the 80s, or more specifically to the dark teen comedy Risky Business. Here Tom Cruise plays Joel, an upper middle-class high school kid obsessed with going to college. When his parents leave him with the house he doesn’t give temptation a second thought as he raids his parents’ liquor and takes the Porsche out for a spin. Yet when his best friend suggests he take things a step further by hiring an escort he’s faced with a tougher decision. On one hand he knows it’s far worse than drinking his father’s whisky plus, in his twisted whitebread mind, he’s worried it may somehow affect his chances of getting into college. On the other hand, he could get laid.

You may be wondering why I chose a teen comedy over, say, The Graduate or Lolita or even Moonstruck (in which Nicholas Cage’s Ronnie implores Cher’s Lorette to cheat on her fiancée with him by telling her that, unlike the moon, humans aren’t meant to be perfect. “We are here to ruin ourselves!” he cries.)

Yet it’s Joel who most obviously displays the full, and often pathetic, anguish of temptation. When he picks up the nerve to call for a prostitute he does so while cowering against a corner of his room, hiding behind a catcher’s mask, scared by what he’s doing. When Lana the prostitute (played by Rebecca De Mornay) steals his mother’s precious crystal ornament, triggering a series of events that lead to his high school record being ruined (along with his father’s Porsche), we then see Joel panic – and eventually become devastated – as his worst nightmare unfolds before him.

Of course, Joel’s temptation wasn’t on the same scale as Faustus’s but then that’s what makes it believable. In reality we’re often driven to our mistakes by sleazy, sordid and tacky desires, while whatever pleasures we glean are rarely worth the subsequent torment. As Neil Finn reminds us, experience is cheap – and unlike Joel, we don’t always get a happy ending.

2 Comments Temptation: a cheap and cursory pop culture examination

  1. Emma

    Ahhh but is it tacky and sordid to pursue what our instincts drive us to? Should we always fight against our nature or should we accept that temptation is a vehicle to satisfying our deepest needs? I’m not suggesting anyone should give in to the desire to rape and pillage and murder (and fortunately for most of us, we don’t have that desire to begin with) but in the tiny insignificant lives of humans, is a little bit of sexual folly really that bad?

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