Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sex & Cinema: When We Have to Watch

The best teacher I ever had in high school taught, among other things, English and literature. He was passionate about both subjects in a way that made you want to be passionate about them, too, and he had a short fuse and violent temper that made you scared to feel otherwise. His classes were alternately strict and loose, intense and hilarious. He was intimidating and sometimes cold-blooded in a way that made you want to succeed just to spite him (think: The Paper Chase), and yet there was also an authentic hipness to him that made him a real-life approximation of Howard Hesseman’s character from Head Of The Class.

One of the things I liked most about him was that he loved movies as much as books. One wall of his classroom was decorated with posters of films based on classic literature, like 1961’s The Pit And The Pendulum. Another wall was covered with posters of horror flicks. At the center of the room stood a lectern wallpapered in a black-and-white James Dean poster, and there the teacher would stand and reference modern movies in order to help his students understand themes in Hemingway or Shakespeare. In this classroom, movie chatter was always a moment away, and frequently it began with my teacher mentioning the film he’d watched the night before while grading essays. One day a student (with much better grades than I had) angrily questioned how our teacher could watch a movie and read essays at the same time. “Easy,” he replied. “I read, and then when I hear a chainsaw or bed springs I look up.”

That’s my decidedly roundabout way of getting to today’s topic, which isn’t essays or chainsaws but bed springs – sex in the movies. Over at the endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking Mystery Man on Film, the blog’s author is seeking reader input for an upcoming article about sex in screenwriting. Specifically, he seeks (1) reactions to the argument that sex in mainstream cinema no longer sells (what with the availability of free porn on the Internet), (2) examples of sex scenes that are “absolutely crucial to the story” and (3) examples of “important” characters who are “asexual.”

The first topic doesn’t interest me. Yes, I realize that what sells at the box office affects what gets made by the major studios, and therefore affects what I see. But unlike, say, comic-book fanboys or George Lucas apologists, I don’t use ticket-sales quantity as an evaluator of quality. As for the third topic: I think the overall pool is too large to provide compelling results. Mystery Man lists Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka as an example of asexuality, and I guess that works. But then so would Anton Chigurh, or any number of villains who are so bloodthirsty by the design of the plot that they don’t have time to be anything else. These characters aren’t so much asexual as incompletely drawn – unless you decide that violence is masculine and therefore sexual. But at that point you could also argue that Willy Wonka’s Peter Pan syndrome trends toward the masculine as well.

All of that said, the second topic piques my interest.

It seems to me that mainstream movie sex most often falls into at least one of three buckets:

1) The sex scenes sell the movie. With movies of this ilk, you can’t discuss the movie in any sort of depth without mentioning its sex scenes, because they are a major component of the film’s allure. An example would be Basic Instinct. Take away the sex and you have considerably less story, as if you’d removed a character or a subplot. But do you have no story at all? Is the sex “absolutely crucial”? Well, considering that Basic Instinct has been edited for regular play on TBS, apparently not.

2) The sex scenes elevate or accentuate the movie. With movies like this, the sex scenes are the rainbow sprinkles on your ice cream. They add flavor, sure. And the movie would be different without them, no question. But they aren’t the main ingredient, and if they were substituted for or left out altogether, you’d still be left with the dessert. Maybe not quite as delicious, but mostly the same. An example of this kind of movie would be Eyes Wide Shut, an intensely sexual film that’s less about what Tom Cruise’s character witnesses than about the reaction it inspires. Is the sex “absolutely crucial to the story”? As an element of the plot, absolutely! But do we need to see it with our own eyes? No. Which is just one of the reasons the Stanley Kubrick digitally obscured some of the sex scenes in the film prior to its release in order to earn an R rating.

3) The sex scenes are just there. Let’s be honest: this is most movie sex. In these cases sex scenes are inserted into the film because they can be inserted. But as gratuitous as the scenes might be, do they achieve anything from a storytelling perspective beyond what Alfred Hitchcock accomplished in North By Northwest with a train and a tunnel? No.

That leaves us with the exception to the rule: sex scenes that are absolutely crucial to the film. As Mystery Man implies, finding movies to fill this smaller fourth bucket takes some thinking. Many films would be damaged by the removal of sex scenes: Eyes Wide Shut, Bound and Basic Instinct, for that matter. But from a plot perspective, sex scenes most often could be significantly muted or altogether axed without injuring our understanding of the characters or their story.

An interesting case study in this regard is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The initial act between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) is revealing, powerful and certainly worthwhile, but I’m not sure it’s essential. I’d have trouble arguing that the scene tells us decidedly more than some awkward kissing might. A later sexual episode, however, between Ennis and his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), exposes feelings from the reserved Ennis that we would have struggled to learn any other way. In this case the mechanics of the sexual act in question are the entire point of the scene. And, yes, you could argue that Brokeback Mountain would survive without it, but I challenge you to think of a way in which the film could have otherwise revealed as much as it does about Ennis as clearly as it does and as succinctly as it does in the existing scene. To me, that sex scene and its frank portrayal are crucial.

But are there cases where sex scenes are so fundamental to a film that the entire story would cease to have meaning without them? Last Tango In Paris comes to mind. For me, though, the best example is another Lee film: Lust, Caution. Off the top of my head, Lust, Caution may be the only movie I’ve ever seen in which I learned as much about the main characters by watching them have sex as I did in the non-sexual scenes. During the sex scenes the characters don’t speak but their sex acts themselves are like dialogue. Slice these scenes from Lust, Caution, which earned a deserved NC-17, and you’d have some kind of story, sure. But you wouldn’t have the same story, and that’s what sets Lust, Caution apart from so many films that exploit sex for thrills and stop short of using sex as a storytelling device.

But I want to know what you think.

So I ask you, Cooler readers, to weigh in on any of the above and to list examples of sex scenes that you think are “absolutely crucial” to their stories. While you’re at it: by any criteria, what are your favorite or least favorite sex scenes?

Don’t be shy. I’ll make the first move:

Sexiest Sex Scene: “In the Hallway at Christmas” from The English Patient: Passionate, sensual, erotic, and it doesn’t even include nudity, I don’t believe.

Favorite Sex Scene: “The Nightmare About Laura and Ray” from High Fidelity: Hilarious, and arguably crucial in its own way.

Least Effective Sex Scene: “Excising the Demons Metaphor” from Munich: I love it when Steven Spielberg apologists try to find the artistry of this ham-fisted sequence.

[Important note: When commenting on the above, including the list of crucial scenes, please leave out rape scenes. Rape, while sexual in nature, is first and foremost a crime, and thus more closely associated with torture than with what we’re discussing here. Having said that, I don’t know where that leaves the stairway episode from A History Of Violence, which is by all means a rape, though David Cronenberg disgustingly portrays it as a rape that becomes enjoyable to the female midway through. Utterly offensive.]


Ed Howard said...

What a great topic. Sex is too often kind of "just there" in movies, as you point out, which makes the rare occasions when it's used well so much more, um, satisfying. The first examples that occur to me are two films I love that, I think, are built completely on the sex scenes -- if you removed them, there would be almost literally nothing left.

The first is David Cronenberg's Crash, which is structured something like a porn movie -- sex alternates with "plot" -- but in which the sex scenes are rigorously deconstructed and grow increasingly weirder over the course of the film. The film is an abstracted meditation on desire and sexuality, and the ways in which sexual feelings can be transferred to almost any kind of experience. The film has been described as "sex plus car crashes," and if you removed the sex, you'd thus be missing half the equation.

My second example, and one of my favorite "sexy" movies ever, is Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia. There have never been more deeply felt sex scenes in a film -- by turns sexy, hilarious, disturbing, and spiritual. They're not just there for filler, for an excuse to show some skin (though there's plenty on display), but form the substance of the narrative and explore the many possibilities of sexuality, as both redeeming and destructive. In particular, the scenes between Paz Vega and Tristan Ulloa are remarkable for the way they capture the sense of fun, connection, and intimacy that great sex can bring to lovers. These scenes, from the playful duelling striptease to the photo session to some just plain ol' hot lovemaking, display a much broader and more emotionally rich experience of sexuality than the rote, mechanical acts of "love" that populate most Hollywood sex scenes.

Evan Derrick said...

I would submit that the three separate sex scenes in The Lives of Others are completely essential to developing the characters.

The first is more along the lines of rape, although it isn't physically violent rape. The minister forces himself on Christa-Maria in the car and she capitulates because she thinks she has no other choice. It is a sexual snapshot that firmly establishes the atmosphere of fear in East Germany, what the government's power is really used for, and what Christa-Maria must do to survive in such a place.

The second is where Wiesler hires the prostitute. Again, I'm not sure any other scene could have so clearly displayed the intense desire for intimacy that Wiesler holds.

The third is when Christa-Maria and Dreyman reconnect after she has chosen to reject the minister's advances. The sex isn't explicit, but if the film had cut away from the moment, the emotional power of these two people finally connecting in the midst of oppression would have been diminished.

Each of the above scenes is about much more than just the sex, so that removing said scenes would dramatically affect the narrative flow of the film and reduce the development of the characters. Which is what you were driving at in your post, Jason.

In screenwriting, everything needs to have a deeper purpose and not simply a superficial one. As you noted, however, sex is most often presented superficially, which likely has more to do with studio control than anything else.

Allison said...

I am at work and therefore need to remain focused. But, I LOVE this post and can not wait to comment. You know I'll have to mention Secretary. Ha!

Richard Bellamy said...

Ed Howard - I totally agree with your comments on Cronenberg's "Crash." What a bizarre film that merges sensuality with the violence of vehicular collisions. The movie is weird and hard to watch - but the sex scenes are certainly integral to the whole.

A film that combines the sensuality of dazzling cinematography and art direction and Gwyneth Paltrow is Alfonso Cuaron's "Great Expectations."

It's most sensual sequence - and one of my favorite sex scenes - involves Paltrow as Stella in a very short party dress, standing in front of Ethan Hawke, who is sitting. Her legs get closer and closer to him. His hand goes under her dress. The rest you have to see.

"Great Expectations" also includes a stunning nude drawing scene. As Paltrow takes off her clothes, which Finn (Hawke) hadn't expected, Hawke draws faster and faster in rapturous fever. Coincidentally, "GE" came out in 1997 - the year of another famous nude drawing scene - the one from "Titanic." As scenes of sensuality and nudity go, that one is my favorite.

One of my favorite sex scenes comes in "Ryan's Daughter" - Sarah Miles and Christopher Jones in the moss-covered woods. Yes, the imagery is trite - the seeds, the branches moving back and forth - but the imagery, the rhythm of the cuts, the silence, and Jones putting his hand on Sarah Miles's breast combine to make it a memorable sex scene.

As for all the above - I sure can't imagine these films with out these scenes.