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February 17, 2003

Safe Bets -- Hard Core?

Friedrich --

I don't know why it's taken me this long to develop this hunch, but in any case I've finally gotten around to it. Here it is. Forgive the lengthy setup -- I can't figure out a way to get to my point without going through some preliminaries.

Remember how, decades ago (centuries ago!), back when putting nudity and sex onscreen seemed new and exciting, it wasn't uncommon to hear that what many directors really wanted to do was shoot a real movie -- real script, real techies, real budget -- starring real, recognizable actors that was also a hardcore sex film? Here and there, a few directors got close to that goal, with pictures like "Last Tango," "The Last Woman," "Going Places," "In the Realm of the Senses"... Actually, "In the Realm of the Senses" was a hardcore art/sex movie, although I don't think the actors were well-known. (I recall that the girl was really good and that the guy was pretty bad.) But, as can be deduced from such recent movies as "Romance," "Eyes Wide Shut," "The Center of the World," "Baise-Moi" (hardcore indeed, but the art side of the equation was weak), "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and "Lies," the dream lives on. Will it never come to pass?

I'm betting that it will, and any day now. Why? I think the answer to that question has to be "Why not?" What with the supercharged eroticism of the mass media, the easy availability of porn, the web, the "empowerment" of girls and young women, the ease and cheapness of the new digital tools -- how could it not happen, and soon?

Heck, with projects such as Jennicam, Isabella @ Home (which I recommend, and which can be seen here), Grownup Girl (also recommended, and here) and Natacha Merritt's Digital Diaries (sample-able here, buyable here), these kids these days are more than halfway there already. Come to think of it, why should anyone -- particularly edgy digital youth -- care about a big, dumb, overexpensive medium like the movies anyway? That's a place to do action, animation, and stars, not to take chances. Though I'm told that Natacha Merritt wants to become a director. I wonder what kinds of movies she's hoping to make.

Isabella, Grownup Girl, Merritt: In charge, and why not?

Still, this is the generation for it. Kids today seem almost bizarrely uninhibited. They're square in many of their attitudes, but sexual matters seem to them to be little more than a hoot, just another set of buttons to be pressed and icons to be clicked on. Sex? Hey, it's about horsing around, posing for the camera, acting out fantasies from ads and videos, and feeling hot.

Which also suggests that sex may simply not mean all that much to them. All the old religio-artistic significance? Finito, as far as I can tell. The taboos have been lifted once and for all, everybody's "in charge of" their own sexuality, whatever the hell that means, eroticism has become de-sacralized, everyone's a performance artist. Even crotches have been groomed and made media-ready...

The question to my mind becomes, in fact, not when or whether hardcore movie art will ever happen, because it clearly will sometime soon. Somebody's going to step up, say, "What's the big deal? Watch me!" and just do it. It is going to happen. (And I'm betting that it'll be today's hearty and assertive young women rather than the new larval, unformed young men who'll make it happen.) No, the question becomes, Will it mean anything when it does happen?

OK, will it mean anything to me? Fond though I am of gratuitous, energetic, and excessive displays of pumpy young flesh (hey, if young people aren't showing off sexually, of what use are they?), I remain attached to the way that eroticism can be a big deal. I like all the old artistic-religio overtones; they're what keep me interested -- both in sex and art. Youth and high spirits, alas, pass pretty quickly. Snap! Crackle! Pop! and they're gone.

What are you betting we're likely to see? And what are your feelings and thoughts about this vital topic?



posted by Michael at February 17, 2003


The problem with hardcore sex in fictional films for me is that--with my sensitivities, good or bad--it injects a discordant note into the game of "let's pretend." I grant you that there's no objective line being crossed between having sex in a movie and Fred Astaire doing dances all in one take so you can tell he really can dance that well, but it crosses a subjective line for me. I don't want to feel sorry for actors or actresses in a movie, and as I've gotten older I find nudity, etc., often makes me fell like an innocent bystander while various individuals have their privacy invaded. I remember Pauline Kael getting irritated in print at Jean-Luc Godard for actually killing a goose on camera in the movie "Weekend" for what I suppose are similar reasons. Now, if women want to take their clothes off as personal exhibitionism--thus taking responsibility for their own actions--I have no problem with it. Heck, I'll even buy them a beer.(Men should feel free to do so as well, but don't count on me to provide the liquid refreshments.) But having actresses or actors doff their duds under the direction of a script--that can bother me, if I think they're being exploited or abused in any way. Can you think of any way for a fiction film to signal the actor/actresses' ownership of their nudity?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 18, 2003 12:01 PM

Yeah, I gotta second Friedrich's opinion. I've only counted three movies out of the hundreds I've seen where the nudity really had anything to do with the movie, and would have been less of a movie without it. I have nothing against nudity if the actor is OK with doing it, but it almost always distracts me from the story. I'm pulled back into the theatre and out of the illusion.

In case you were wondering, those three to me were:
Body Heat - the movie's about the seduction, so the sex and nudity are part of the fabric
Witness - Kelly McGillis exposing her breasts as an invitation to Harrison Ford was the best, and about the only way to present that situation. It's very moving.
Coming Home - not that I enjoyed the view of Jane Fonda being, uh, explored, but it did removed unequivocally the doubt they could be lovers even though he's paralyzed.

Atlantic City is almost on my list, but it could have gotten by with the framing of the scene where Burt Lancaster is watching Susan S. doing the lemon thing having been framed without exposing her, and we still would have gotten the point (rather than the points - har har).

Again, I do enjoy some of the nudity I see, but it does distract if it's gratuitous at all. "Sweet Home Alabama" will be hard enough to watch when my lovely wife rents it, but it would be worse if I had to sit through Reese Witherspoon clearly getting boinked when I know she's got a husband and children at home.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 18, 2003 12:28 PM

I've visit Jennicam once in a while, just to check out any possible "caught naked" pics. She appears to have a "womanly" figure, which I like, a la Kate Winslet. Looking at photos of nude young women in provocative poses is not unlike watching strippers in bars. A dancing, naked woman does not turn me on, nor does a posing, naked woman. When I was a callow 18, I enjoyed the novelty of it. I find the nude young women in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs to be more enjoyable to look at. Perhaps because they are posing naturally. And, if they're smiling, all the more enjoyable. Any young woman who enjoys being seen naked is OK in my book. And I will gladly oblige them by gazing upon them!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on February 18, 2003 12:38 PM

Hey Friedrich, hey Yahmdallah -- Easy to understand how onscreen nudity and fucking would put you off, or make you feel uneasy, or mess with your sense of what's real and what's fiction. Onscreen nudity and fucking just do all that, don't they. Which is exactly what I like about 'em, myself. We take different directions, but at least we're standing at the same crossroads.

I always thought De Palma made a good point ... Hmm, let me rephrase that. I always agreed with De Palma when he defended his use of violence and nudity. He said something like, they're two very vivid and extreme colors on my pallette. As long as I use them in ways that enhance the quality of the work, why not? Do you guys buy that?

I confess that I worry less than you do about the performers, who I tend (perhaps cavalierly) to assume are there and taking part for their own reasons, good or bad. They don't have to do the scene, and they didn't have to take the role, so I figure they've made their own conscious choice.

But actors are funny creatures. On the one hand, they can be very shy; on the other, they're necessarily exhibitionists. ("Shy exhibitionists" is how I tend to think of them.) Part of their job is to bring you into their privacy, or at least into the privacy of their characters, and to use their voice, their skills, their emotions and their bodies as their tools. And most of them aren't uptight about their bods (or about displaying their bods) in the ways we civilians are. An acting-teacher friend of mine laughs when he hears people say that actors shouldn't be forced to take their clothes off. "Forced?" he says. "I have to work hard to get them to keep their clothes on!"

But there's often an ambivalence there, you're absolutely right. I guess you find it off-putting. Those moments when your feelings get scrambled -- am I feeling for the actor or the character right now? Is the emotion I'm currently having to do with the film or the documented situation I'm witnessing? Me, that's when I get especially fascinated by movies, especially when the documentary overlaps in some way with the "fictional" characters and situations, and my feelings about the actors overlap with my feelings about the performers. Plus, I find that a performer's desire to reveal and her ambivalence about doing this -- this mixture -- can be very touching and beautiful. It's why a nude scene that functions well in a story is so much more interesting (for me anyway) to watch than a titty film. The actress in the first is unveiling something of herself in order to illuminate (or so she hopes) a character and enhance an artwork. The girls in the second are just showing flesh for money.

We laugh about the way actresses will undress for some projects and not for others, but I do understand why. Did anyone see the "Inside the Actors Studio" interview with Juliette Binoche? One of the better episodes. At one point she talked about how much she likes doing nude scenes. Why? Because she sees her job as being about revealing -- revealing emotions, and feelings, and why not the body too? But she clearly had projects somewhat more elevated in tone than "Pom Pom Girls 3" in mind.

Michael Serafin raises an interesting point too about the life in a person or a character. Do you guys find anything similar holds in art classes? I always found it fascinating the way that a nude model could be both beautiful and utterly boring to draw. While a saggy old nude model might be fascinating. It can be partly a matter of the sags being visually and technically interesting. But, as far as I can tell, it also has to do with the presence of life in his/her body. How and where it comes from, I dunno. But you can certainly tell when it's there and when it's not. I feel much more engaged as a drawer when it's present. And I feel much more engaged as a spectator when the nude person onscreen has life too.

Do you guys have any thoughts about this? Michael's example of Kate Winslet is an apt one, I think. Isn't it fascinating the way she's become such a star, and such a favorite of so many, despite the unusual ("womanly") figure? I think it's partly because she's got the guts to be her fleshy self, and to use that fleshy self expressively, and also partly because she almost always has a lot of life in her eyes and her flesh onscreen. She ain't the greatest actress, but who cares? She's got the glow.

Hey, how come no women have left comments here?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 18, 2003 11:22 PM

Good points all, and I agree with them. And I think you are right in your assessment of the motives of the actresses and actors.

One of the last parties I attended in college was hosted by my mentor and student advisor. He had all of his graduating advisees at the party, and for some reason I was the only guy that year. The party definitely had a female cast to it - which was interesting and eye opening in its own right. Anyway, later that night, when we had all had a few glasses of wine, somehow nudity in films and Playboy got brought up (I think one of the girls joked about posing for PB before her career took off, for seed money and for the sheer hell of it). Well, at that point in my young life I had not overcome the shadow that gender feminism had thrown onto my life. I had been indoctrinated, and that's the word I mean - it was heavy handed and dire - into the brittle, mean world of gender feminism in a couple classes ("dead white males, and living ones, are the cause of all that's evil and wrong with their gaze, beer guzzling, and flatulence, so every women owes it to her sisters to be a lesbian). So, I opened my mouth and said the party line on exploitation, objectification, etc. - none of which I believe now, btw - and received a good minute-long cold stare from all the women at the party. My mentor (male) just found places on the ceiling and walls to examine, a pained expression on his face. Evidently these women had avoided the indoctrination classes, bless their hearts (this was back when all this identity politics stuff was just beginning, so only a few of us got exposed to it back then - I saw one of our best Shakespeare teachers go from a jolly scholar to a bitter hen in the course of one semester). Much to my shame, but thank God in retrospect, these women lectured (and I do mean lectured) me for about the next half hour about how wrong I was. What business was it of mine if they posed for Playboy? Who was I to judge it as something less than respectable? Just who did I think I was? Didn't I like the female form? Etc. What a wonderful lesson I learned. I recovered from my indoctrination shortly thereafter. And renewed my Playboy subscription (actually, it was a present from my Grandma that year - she liked the interviews (I stayed with my Grandma between semesters)). For the most part, I think the folks who bare all in the media do it because they want to, and probably enjoy it, as you pointed out.

As for our current discussion, I'm talking about a personal reaction entirely, so I'm projecting and not really thinking about what the actress or actor felt about performing in the buff. *I* would find being nude on film for all to see, including my mother and friends, one of the pinnacles of humiliation. Therefore, when I'm watching a film and nudity happens, especially if it's just to show us the actress'/actor's pink parts, I grow uncomfortable. I think a lot of what movies are about is taking us to places we ourselves can't go or won't go, letting us live vicariously. That's why we typically enjoy a film more if we have a character to relate to - they are our avatar. So when something happens in the movie to yank me out of my spell, I'm back in the theatre noticing how much popcorn I have left. Most nude scenes do that to me. Yes, I must be somewhat of a prude. I consider sex very private - perhaps the most private thing besides one's relationship to God. So public sex, unless it's got a really good reason to be there, just embarrasses me. Oh well.

Oh, one more for the list on nudity that served the plot of the movie: "Brainstorm." This device records other people's sensations and plays them back for you so you see, hear and feel what they did. Naturally, someone records having sex (the nude/sex scene), and another guy gets "hooked" on the tape. It's a cool subplot.

As for Michael's point about a real "womanly" figure, and natural poses, I couldn't agree more. Real women doing real things is incomparably better than the stick figure thin, androgynous clothes-hangers the fashion and style industries foist at us, typically in some bratty or gymnastic pose. Most of the image makers and designers who control that world are gay men and older women, whose tastes run to sexless or even masculine women, and it shows. The folks who run Playboy these days are wondering why subscriptions are falling off. They blame it on the web, and they are right, but not for the reasons they think. Most nude pictures of women on the web are of real women, and Playboy offers nothing but synthetically enhanced, tightbody fake blonds with little Hitler pubic hair patches. Real women have curves, pubes, and cute smiles. (Ever noticed most of the models in Playboy never smile?)

Btw, you might be thinking, "Wait ... nudity in films embarrasses him, but nudity in Playboy or erotic on the web is OK? Isn't that a contradiction?" Not really, if you consider my view that sex is private. When you read Playboy or view an erotic web site, it's a private act (though typically with me, my wife is either on the couch with me or at the other computer), and the model is posing for explicitly erotic intent. It is a private act. In a movie, we hop along in a cop flick, suddenly we're in a stag film, then we're back on the street blowing people up. Since I'm typically sitting in a theatre for a movie, it's a public thing. I don't enjoy strip clubs either. I don't like getting a boner in public. It's just one of my quirks, I guess.

(apologies for the length of this post)

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 19, 2003 12:12 PM

Have you ever given something a lot of thought, expressed those thoughts, walked away feeling you've said what you had to say, only to have it occur to you a couple hours later you were mostly full of sh!te?

Well, I was correct about how I feel about nudity with sex in the movies, but as I thought more about it last night, it occurred to me that nudity as a lark or a joke, in other words truly gratuitous nudity, is just fine with me, and it's the kind I like.

I kept thinking in the context of sex alone when I wrote the previous posts, and it just comes down to the fact I don't like seeing mainstream actresses and actors doing softcore, let alone hardcore.

But, for instance, when Meryl Streep flashes her boob at Kurt Russel in "Silkwood," or when the anonymous boobs jiggle by in "Airplane!" when the whole craft is shaking, I love it!

I sit corrected by myownself.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on February 20, 2003 10:14 AM

Quick! Name five male nudie scenes in American movies of the last six years.

Nudie means scenes clearly showing parts that men don't show in public.

Harvey Keitel and Sam Rockwell are the only naked men. Meanwhile, the short list of actresses is those who've never gone wild.

Posted by: j.c. on February 23, 2003 2:52 AM

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