My favorite movie critic, James Berardinelli has a fascinating post on the recent apperance of explicit sex scenes in mainstream movies. He doesn’t think this is the beginning of a trend. To wit:
Then there’s the question of how a graphic sex scene impacts a movie. People generally watch porn for stimulation. People watch legitimate films for less primal reasons. Confusing the two can lead to frustration. The conflict is evident. There’s also an issue of pacing. No movie can afford to take a several-minute “timeout” to show a sex scene, unless the movie is all about sex in the first place (in which case it’s almost certainly straight porn rather than art-porn). There’s another issue that Roger Ebert once raised. Graphic sex is documentary in nature. As he wrote in Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, speaking about Norman Mailer: “Mailer, like so many before and since, awaits the cinematic marriage of Sex and Art. I am not convinced such a thing is possible. In traditional fiction films, art involves the filmmakers in creating a fiction about characters whose lives we care about. Sex, to the degree that it involves nudity and explicit detail, brings the whole story crashing down to the level of documentary. The actors lose not only their clothes but their characters, and stand (or recline) revealed only as themselves.”
Here’s the response I e-mailed to him:
I’m afraid I have to disagree with you and with Ebert. It seems to me that you are still stuck in thinking of any explicit sex as porn and not as what we’re seeing — a more explicit extension of the sex scenes that have been in mainstream films since the fall of the Hays Code. A number of the films in your top 100 include scenes that are fairly explicit — albeit mostly in a disturbing context (War Zone or Requiem for a Dream, for example). These would have been considered pornographic — hell, they would have been banned — just a few decades ago even though they don’t “show everything”.
I think our perception of art-porn has been heavily tainted by the disastrous Showgirls foray into this. But just as there is a difference between the soft-porn that shows up on Cinemax and the erotica that shows up in, say, Secretary, I think there can be a similar difference between pure pornography and art-porn. An example that you didn’t mention and doesn’t show up in your archive is Sex and Lucia, a movie which is fairly graphic, although not pornographic, but compelling, interesting and romantic. I don’t see that the movie would have come to a screeching halt had it been slightly more explicit.
I think the word we’re both scrounging around for is “tasteful”. There is a way to make porn tasteful, but the political situation in our country has branded all explicit erotica — and most non-explicit — as evil. But films like Secretary and Lucia show that it can be done.
Of course, there’s always Sturgeon’s Law. Most movies that blur the line between art and porn will be crap, because most movies are crap anyway. And the best talent will shy away from “art-porn” because of the stigma — which is why we’re seeing the new wave emerging in countries like France and Spain, which aren’t as hysterically puritanical as we are.
Back to blog-Mike:
Sex and Lucia is a movie I have a lot of arguments about. Some people think it’s just a skin flick. I enjoyed it. Not that those two things are mutually exclusive, of course. But I do think any trend that breaks us out of “sex bad, sex evil, violence OK” mentality that has gripped his nation for the last three centuries is a good thing.