Article – Sex in Movies

Naughty Bits

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, March 2005)

Sex! I knew that would get your attention. The cinema has long exploited our basest needs but how far are we willing to put up with this? All the way, perhaps?

British film 9 Songs is the sort of movie guaranteed to get people annoyed. It features 35 minutes of unsimulated sex, including masturbation, full penetration and oral sex. But what may be more offensive are the uncensored live performances from the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Elbow and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Must our kids see this filth?

Hilarious musical observations aside (like I’ll be only one making that joke), what’s so surprising about 9 Songs is not that the British Board of Film Censors passed the film uncut, or that Anne Widdecombe is up in arms (“It is not the board’s role to allow pornography to enter the mainstream”) but that the idea that pornography can be in any way contained still exists. When images so disgusting they can put you off sex for life can be sent to you in emails without asking, why should we be so fearful of two youngish people having a bit of rumpy pumpy to get the image of Bobby Gillespie out of their heads?

Suprisingly, the history of sex in the cinema would seem to back this up. Not long after the Lumiére Brothers first exhibited their invention, people were making Kinographs of winsome young ladies in states of undress. Marilyn Monroe’s first films (recently uncovered, as it were) featured her baring all. It was hardly an underground thing either. Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr made her name in the 20s with a German film called Ecstasy which featured full frontal nudity. Not that people always got away with this. The notorious story of Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw is more concerned with the furore it caused in post-war straitlaced America, rather than the relatively tame gyrations of buxom star Jane Russell.

For the most part sex in the cinema has often been about exploitation. Italian director Tinto Brass can have all the muff shots he wants in his films, but fellow Italian Bernardo Bertolucci can garner far more publicity if he shows no less a star than Marlon Brando taking Maria Schnedier up the Gary Glitter with the aid of a nob of butter. Last Tango in Paris, like a lot of Bertolucci’s work, is a slight piece of nonsense with sex scenes. But a lot of critics have gotten caught up defending the film’s controversies, which suits the likes of Bertolucci far more than if they’d just commented on the film’s dubious merits as a piece of celuloid.

During the 70s, plenty of people wanted to get sex in the cinema, even if most people weren’t actually that bothered about seeing it. One exception was the American film Deep Throat, which earned the distinction of becoming the most profitable film of all time, despite being banned virtually everywhere. With money like that to be made, it’s no surprise that the world was suddenly flooded with tamer fare. In Britain we had the Carry On and Confessions excretions, which tried to pretend they were comedies. Elsewhere they were going the arthouse way. Looking back at once-notorious films like Emmanuel and it feels more like a Michael Palin travelogue of Thailand that a piece of erotica. In Japan, they simply released In The Realm of the Senses and claimed it was an art film, despite the main character liking to have his hardboiled eggs warmed in the nether parts of his good lady wife.

It was still a risky affair trying to see these films, but that was all gotten away with in the eighties when porn hit the big markets. Leading the way was Dutch emigré Paul Verhoven, who cheerfully showed us Sharon Stone’s private parts in the very mainstream Basic Instinct, although his attempt to do a full on sex film in Showgirls is still rightly regarded as one of the worst films ever.

That’s the trouble with sex in the cinema, who exactly would want to see it? Since the rise of video, if you want full-on porn you only need to have a word with your local video club and you can enjoy it at home. The internet has even done away with that. The reason why Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is still thought to contain one of the great sex scenes is that it doesn’t feel explicit. So why has Michael Winterbotton made 9 Songs? A cynical person might think it was to wind up the moral guardians and get a lot of people talking about what sounds a very insubstantial film. Just get over it Michael (oo-er).

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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