A History Of Reel Sex

Ev'rybody knows when you go to the show, You can't take the kids along. You gotta read the paper and know the code Of G, PG, and R, and X, And you gotta know what the movie's about Before you even go. Tex Ritter's gone and Disney's dead and the screen is filled with sex!- "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?"Thanks to the introduction of the NC-17 rating, the code you gotta know before you go to the show has grown more complicated since 1973, when the Statler Brothers made this nostalgic little ditty into a hit. At the time, they were riding the crest of a pop-culture wave, of course, one that had lots of entertainers and filmmakers scoring big off the public's uneasy sense that something, somehow, had gone wrong with the way we lived, and that in some not too bygone decade we might have led better and happier and more upright (does that mean less horizontal?) lives. Or at least have dressed better. These were the double-knit, blow-dried '70s, after all, and the fashions of the times might have provided an additional incentive to take refuge in a natural-fiber era. And that's one of the things we did at the movies. Among the films of '73 nominated for Best Picture Oscars were the denim-chinos-button-down classic American Graffiti and the straw-hat-striped-shirt-braces classic The Sting. Or if nostalgia wasn't your thing, perhaps you could take refuge in undress. Among 1973's films not nominated for Best Picture - though it did garner nominations for acting Godfather Marlon Brando and new kid on the block Bernardo Bertolucci - was the X-rated Last Tango in Paris, one of a long line of films so notoriously, trail-blazingly explicit that the puritanically inclined could confidently damn it without having seen it. Last Tango not only renewed the long-standing polarization between culture-warriors and the avant-garde; it initiated many moviegoers into sexual practices they hadn't seen before, bathing common household substances in a new erotic light. While Robert Altman wondered how he'd ever dare to make another movie after Bertolucci's display of show-all honesty, demure diners-out wondered whether they'd ever again dare ask their neighbors at table to pass the butter. But when Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called Last Tango "liberating," she sounded a note that reinforced what a lot of us had come to believe: that official culture's selective denial of sex, and the chilling effect that this denial had on the lives of millions of people, served to uphold a carefully maintained hierarchy of race, class, and gender that seemed at odds with the American genius for democracy. Going to a show wasn't likely to topple the pyramid of power, of course, any more than sitting cross-legged in a circle and chanting was likely to levitate the Pentagon. But it was worth a try. And after all, what have the movies always been, even before they were the movies, if not a glorified peep show, a tantalizing means of escape from the numbing drudgery of the industrial age, the loneliness of the crowd, and the forbidding glare of the authorities? Back in the days of the nickelodeons and store-front arcades, when film first declared its independence, becoming something more than just another number on a vaudeville bill, the first exhibitors' "Bibles" instructed industry neophytes in the art of choosing a neighborhood in which to launch a successful business: You wanted an area with a solid working-class population, a minimum of ethnic conflict, and as few churches as possible. (One of the earliest complaints about the store-front theaters was that they were open on Sunday afternoons.) True to its roots in the more vulgar forms of entertainment that flourished in the 1800s (and indeed right up to the time that the movies themselves became the first of the mass entertainment media to transform the popular culture of our century), the promise of film has always been to show us the forbidden, to "go all the way," as the promos for Paul Verhoeven's soon-to-be-released Vegas expose Showgirls suggest this latest NC-17 film will. Full (or at any rate increased) exposure - that's what audiences have been expecting in film ever since the heyday of the silents. There are topless participants in the Babylonian orgy in D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance. What brought folks to the movies was a hope not too different in kind from the one that inspired daring souls to turn off the midway and slip into the gents-only sideshows that were still a part of the county fairs of my youth. The promise held out by those shows was that they'd feature an exotic dancer or two who'd bare their all for the admiring crowd. Sure, those shows were basically a big tease, but their failure to go all the way was compensated for by the thrill of sneaking in, doing something forbidden -- to say nothing of the bragging rights conferred or the sensations that might be triggered afterward merely by the mingled odors of sweat, sawdust, and perfume. How skillfully have the movies, heirs to the sideshows, learned to manipulate the shifting rhythms of expectation, substitution, compensation, and satisfaction that carry us from that first encounter with a one-sheet, through the ticket line, and on into the dark, again and again. And again it was Pauline Kael who said it best, capturing the sexual overtones of moviegoing in a single telling phrase: "There is nothing like that moment when the lights go down... " There's always been a covert allance between the forces of repression and the prurient interests seeking to outwit them. Prohibition itself is a tease, a means of titillation, and any "thou shalt not" that's explicit and detailed enough to do its job has to name the very things it's trying to protect us from, and hence starts doing the enemy's work for him. Time was when religious booksellers stocking the manuals used by priests to guide their hearing of confessions had to check their customers' clerical IDs. The manuals were so explicit, it seems, that it was feared reading them might lead to impure thoughts on the part of mere laymen. Pity the poor censor who has realized that just about every word, image, or gesture can take on a sexual meaning if it's given the right inflection, seen in the right light. There's a story from the golden age of television about the network official who blue-pencilled a reference to avocados in a comedy skit. When the writers asked what was wrong with the line, the official indignantly replied, "Have you ever seen an avocado?" You wonder how the poor man survived a walk through the produce section of his neighborhood supermarket. For that matter, there's something equivocal about the Statler Brothers song lamenting the passage from the screen of good clean family entertainment (or at least what we took to be good clean family entertainment before the watchful eyes of the morals police pointed out that some malign force had written "S-E-X" in one of the background clouds in the animated Aladdin). The words and music of "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?" are plaintive, but at the end of the first verse, it's hard not to hear a ringing tone of affirmation in the singers' voices as they hammer down on the last word: "...and the screen is filled with sex!" Hooray for that! they seem to be saying; it's what we'd wanted all along from the movies. And anyway, what was Randolph Scott really up to when he was "riding his horse alone"?Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race. Note, for example, the healthy reactions to healthful sports, like baseball, golf; the unhealthy reactions to sports like cockfighting, bullfighting, bear baiting, etc. Note, too, the effect on ancient nations of gladiatorial combats, the obscene plays of Roman times, etc. - The Motion Picture Production Code (1930)In the eyes of the censors it wasn't just working-class prurience that threatened, through creating a market for "wrong entertainment," the moral purity and social well-being of America; it was that convenient, elastic scapegoat, foreign influence. Consider the lists of "healthful" and "unhealthy" sports that figure in the passage from the Motion Picture Production Code cited above. In the former camp were two WASP inventions, the national pastime and the leisurely, gentlemanly sport that Mark Twain once called "a good walk spoiled." In the latter, along with the sport that led to the creation of that indispensible English national icon, the bulldog, there were a couple of blood sports that took their origin from somewhere to the south, in the Mediterranean basin (and one of these, be it noted, had a highly suggestive name). And how else could this passage end but with the obligatory glance at history's most lurid example of national depravity and decline, Roman decadence? Nor have the descendants of the ancient Romans been slow to keep up their interest in the dark side of sexuality. Starting with Boccaccio's (a literary masterpice whose raunchier bits were given an explicit treatment in Pasolini's 1970 film), Italy gave birth to the very best of Renaissance erotica, and in the 18th century Casanova's scandalous memoirs found eager readers all over Europe. Closer to our own time, in the early 1900s, Italian filmmakers used Biblical and near-Biblical epics to justify the same mixture of preachment and gratification that D.W. Griffith went for in Intolerance. And after the bloody collapse of Mussolini's Imperium Romanum Redux, directors like Fellini and Antonioni created films that showed just how far Roman decadence could go even without an empire to subsidize it. In 1960, the same year that saw the creation in America of the birth-control pill and hence the beginning of what would later be known as the sexual revolution, Federico Fellini earned the right to be considered the first collector of Eurotrash with the international cast and expose-style sensationalism of La Dolce Vita. Anita Ekberg and Lex Barker weren't merely playing characters in Fellini's film; they were there as pop-culture icons, as signs of the times, the Swedish sex kitten and the jungle man minus his loincloth, and Fellini's camera paid extravagant homage to Ekberg as she climbed the dome of St. Peter's and cavorted in one of Rome's celebrated fountains. What Ekberg, Barker, and the other Beautiful People in La Dolce Vita signified was the arrival of an age in which sexual desire no longer served the interests of sacred or secular powers (represented in the film by effete noblemen and empty churches) and hence no longer need be presented as something off limits, mysterious. Desire in the contemporary world was simply one more demand to be satisfied by an all-encompassing market economy, and anyone who could pay the price, either with hard currency or a time-honored title or a celebrity's face or an intellectual's reputation, was entitled to a piece of the action. For Fellini, shooting a film was a process akin to dreaming, a waking wish-fulfillment that was more like play than work, and his most memorable images carry a symbolic charge that's never without an erotic component. Whether we're being shown the broad black-clad back of Saraghina singing lustily to herself on the beach in Fellini's 8 1/2 or the heavy breasts of the carved sphinxes flanking the entrance to the house where Giulietta Masini confronts her buried desires in Juliet of the Spirits, we're aware of Fellini the dreamer, imagining it all and taking delight in the play of his imagination. At the end of the '60s, Fellini paid tribute to the decadence of old Rome with Fellini Satyricon, a film whose hybrid title evokes the extent to which Fellini's personal approach to filmmaking has caused him to forsake any mere adaptation of his source, a satiric novel penned by the Emperor Nero's adviser on matters of taste. Extravagant in its celebration of the fantastic and the grotesque, Fellini's film almost succeeds in making the Satyricon unintelligible; the most straightforwardly scatological or sexual scenes are transmogrified into something as slow and stylized as Kabuki. I remember seeing Fellini Satyricon when it first came out in this country, at an art theater near a college campus, and the film was nearly over when a student in the audience suddenly called out, "Hey! Dese guys are fairies!" It seems as though he should have noticed what the young protagonists of the film were up to several reels earlier. Fellini's ambivalence seems positively old-fashioned alongside the minimalist eroticism of his contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni. The latter's L'Avventura came out in 1960, the first in a trilogy of films that came close to embodying that bugaboo of the moral watchdogs, meaningless sex. In the last of these films, L'Eclisse, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, who've embarked on an affair, agree after a night of passionate love-making to meet the next day, same time, same place. The next afternoon, the camera takes us to their meeting place, a lonely bench by a lonely lamppost, to await their arrival. Neither shows up. The trilogy that included L'Avventura and L'Eclisse brought Antonioni a mixture of rave and hostile reviews that secured his place in the avant-garde, but it was the 1967 film Blow-Up, the director's first foray into English-language filmmaking, that secured him a place in the history of sex in the movies, thanks to its blend of metaphysical mystery (did photographer David Hemmings accidentallly shoot evidence of a murder, or didn't he?) with nearly gratuitous sex that symbolized the liberation of swinging London. But while many viewers found Blow-Up's supreme titillation to lie in the scenes of Hemmings cavorting with two naked teenage girls who'd come to his studio to get modeling jobs, others were moved by the eerie sensuality given off by Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman who comes to the studio to get back the possibly incriminating pictures Hemmings has taken. Redgrave sways and stumbles as she crosses a room, as though she's sleepwalking or otherwise under the spell of an unconscious compulsion. She's like an addict who can't even put a name to the drug she's hooked on, and the mixed attraction and repulsion with which she approaches Hemmings alludes grandly, provocatively, to the presence of sexual bondage beneath the film's cool, detached, mod surface.Love as it exists in society is nothing more than the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two epidermises. - Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort (1741-1794)Stuart to Eddie in Threesome as they're on the verge of getting busy: "There isn't going to be any intimacy." Eddie to Stuart: "That's okay. The empty sex will be fine." For many of us, then, the '60s were a time when we went to the Italians for our schooling in sexuality. They were the logical choice among the dread foreign influences. The Swedes, who sent us the two I am Curious films, were too simple, and the French were too complicated and full of sentiment. And as the '60s ran their course and turned into the '70s, the curriculum toughened and diversified. The lesson had an especially political feel in Pasolini's Teorema, which came out in that revolutionary year 1968, when it seemed as though the youth of the world were all going on a general strike. In Teorema a young man (Terence Stamp, who'd previously been paired with Antonioni's ennui poster girl Monica Vitti in Joseph Losey's sexy spy spoof Modesty Blaise) seduces one by one all the members of a stuffy middle-class family, destroying them in the process. The film seemed important, challenging -- I recall one member of the audience sitting just ahead of me who said, "Yeah, unh-hunh, got it," after every seduction, as though the film really were the mathematical demonstration implied by its title -- though in reality its message boiled down to something like this: If you don't recognize and act on your sexual impulses, they'll take distorted forms and you'll end up a catatonic, a pervert, or a levitating saint (think of it as a simple inversion of the notion that if you masturbate you'll go blind). A few years later, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was telling us that sex is one hell of a way to get through a mid-life crisis. This may be where the fears of the censor converge with those of the sensualist: the point at which sex ceases to be a place where desire and power come together and becomes just another bodily function. Chamfort, a countryman and contemporary of the Marquis de Sade, reduced the whole complicated business of sex to the activities of just two organs: the head, which spins out fantasies, and the skin, which acts as the site of neural stimulation. In the '60s, we had a name for people who took up this radically simple view. They were polymorphously perverse, setting at naught the complicated, easily disturbed mechanisms summed up in the Latin jawbreaker genitalia, ignoring as well that distinction between male and female on which so much sexual anxiety depends. All that remained to do on this view was to come up with the satisfying fantasy, the right other skin. To some, Chamfort's position seems dangerously subversive (if widely accepted, it would have the incidental effect of driving most psychoanalysts out of business), but it does provide an elegant account of what matters in most people's sex lives. Is there, finally, any news about sex that moviegoers need to be told? In 1969 American screens seemed to explode with such news. Consider Midnight Cowboy, whose X rating meant police in the theater aisles when it was shown in Boston, but nonetheless managed to achieve box-office success and a Best Picture Oscar. The big news in that film (aside from the fact, not widely noticed till then, that Dustin Hoffman could act) seems to have been that there were hustlers along 42nd Street -- as even casual visitors to the Big Apple had known for some time. Non-nominees for the Best Picture included Lindsay Anderson's If..., with its revelation that sexual activity went on in English boarding schools, and two counter-culture classics, Alice's Restaurant and Easy Rider. At the close of the Academy Awards telecast, Bob Hope pleaded with viewers not to take the protagonists of the year's honored films as models for emulation ("I need a gun quick; my girlfriend and I are entering this dance marathon, see, and..."). From time to time since the turbulent '60s, moviegoers and protestors have again met at the barricades, often in response to a film perceived to demean a sexual minority, sometimes in response to one that offends religious sensibilities. Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (in many ways a throwback to the films of the '60s) brought out the demonstrators in force despite its scrupulous adherence to the letter of Hebrews 4:15 (Jesus resists the temptation represented by the fantasy in which, renouncing crucifixion, he opts for a long, happy life of practicing family values with Mary Magdalene). As long as the ties linking sex to power and mystery can be maintained, so long will skirmishes like this one take place in the culture wars of our time. And after that, who knows? Maybe Chamfort will finally have his day, and sex find its rightful place among life's ordinary, uncomplicated pleasures.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.