A friend of mine (okay, a fellow PT blogger) who lives in Spain visited his family in Southern California. What did he notice most? How artificially made and buffed up people were, to give the appearance of sexuality, but who actually convey an image of cold self-preoccupation.

"Up In the Air," the current George Clooney holiday season hit movie (it was playing in three theaters at the New York cinema where I saw it, and is showing all over town), conveys the same sense. The movie centers on America's dreamboat, Clooney, and his affair with a long-distance buddy, played by a beautiful and well-toned Vera Farmiga.

They meet and immediately talk dirty and sleep together. Did I leave out an action verb conveying sex? Well, you don't see them having sex. Get your mind out of the gutter! You see Farmiga's ass (or that of a body double), and the upper half of George's chest, and they DISCUSS the rampant sexual gymnastics they engaged in. (Frankly, I can't see George putting out that much effort in real life.)

Later in the movie, Farmiga suggests in a phone call to Clooney that he "rub one out." He suggests she do the same but, she tells him, she already has. "Next time, call me," he says. Now that would be a scene worth seeing! But it will never, ever happen in an American movie (at least involving leading men and women - Janeane Garofalo - not Uma Thurman - did phone sex in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs").

In their climactic romantic scene, Farmiga accompanies Clooney to a family wedding, where they nuzzle and hold hands. THAT is the American sexual ideal!

I have already compared this type of sex to the kind that is often standard fare in European (say Spanish and French) films. Take one recent example, Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" (which is showing on one screen in Manhattan). It opens with a blind man seducing a fantastically beautiful younger woman, including caressing her face and breasts, followed by an active sex scene.

And that's BEFORE Penelope Cruz appears, she of an inherent sexuality that no American actress even pretends to match. When an American exudes her kind of passion and voluptuousness, we'll have something! But I am unfair to our actors - IF an actor did have this quality, American cinema would completely wash it out of them.

Ironically, "Up in the Air" is about the burden of loneliness and isolation. "Embraces" is likewise about an unrealized relationship, and yet it abounds with community and family feelings and relationships, good and bad, without suppressing the characters' sexuality. "Air," on the other hand, portrays nothing so much as America's substitution of artificial for real intimacy.

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Picture: Penelope Cruz because - well - she IS sexy.

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