Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sex in Cinema?

Howdy fellow writers. Today is our second post dealing with Clint Eastwood. You may say; what does Clint Eastwood have to do with sex in cinema? I would say exactly. He is the most prolific star and film maker in America today and has NEVER had an even slightly "risque" sex scene.

In fact the only time Eastwood deals with sex either in front of or behind the camera is "rape." By rape I mean sex that is not exactly consensual and is not meant to be romantic or "pretty."

The first example comes from High Plains Drifter. Eastwood plays his usual role as the mysterious stranger, good with a gun and his hands. This particular film sees him rape a woman who disrespected him. There is no graphic display, but the point is made that sex can be a weapon.

The second example that I will note is The Gauntlet in which Eastwood plays a drunk cop who gets setup to take a fall. In this example Eastwood doesn't have a sex scene but there is an attempted rape on the train. "Forced Sex" is a recurring theme in Eastwood. You won't see the "obligatory" climb out of the bathtub or the slow strip so common in "adult-themed" movies, but still his movies are touching, exciting, sometimes sexy - Sondra Locke is HOT in some short shorts (she got him for awhile) and nearly always profitable and/or award winning.

I think it shows that if you can make good movies about extraordinary people you will ruin it with sex. I can say that The Departed turned me totally off with it's sex scenes. Perhaps I think of women as the same level of protagonist as men and that type of "disclosure" takes away from a strong character.

It can also be very offensive to people as it may strike a chord with their most "intimate" thoughts. The rise of explicit sex and nudity has I think spoiled the ability of female actors to excel as they are told to "act hot"(Bay's words to Megan Fox). This marginalizes these characters as it's hard to take a person serious when they're nude(perhaps why periods of nervousness about being judged are said to be countered by picturing a person "in their underwear").

At any rate, we will begin our analysis of sex in three different arenas: as a movement image, as a time image and as a memory image. These will be disseminated into the various reasons people will have sex in a given scenario. Some of them are money, love, trust, companionship, and of course the opposites of each.

The Movement Image:
This is probably what most film makers aim for with sex scenes - as outdated as it is. The movement image represents the quanta of interpretation through the various stages of the movement image - perception - affection - action and those intermediate steps. We'll concentrate on those as they most closely represent the "idea" of sex in cinema.

The first effective use of the movement image in memory is a recent film that somehow worked a sex scene into it. "300."

If you look at the images of sexuality beginning with the Oracle the movements are abrupt and not pervasive of time but requesting perception and gaining a "reaction to action" through the use of the affection image, such as Leonidas watching the spectacle of the dance unfold. The action image in this case would be the licking of the girl's flesh which, again, is not encompassing time but relating to the movements of the participant for effect. Of course the same effect would have been preserved with non-flowing gown - who wants to see nearly naked men anyway but this is about narrative not pandering.

The only other instance was the scene right after when Leonidas appears to need comforting. We begin with a time image of him standing nude in the archway. This is time image because absorbs the viewer into the duration of his pondering. We then proceed to him on the edge of the bed where his wife (never named which demonstrates the necessary marginalization of the "exposed and vulnerable") awakes to his troubles.

For me, it seemed to limit the range of the character as there's an underlying tinge of maybe she should wear more risque clothing and not talk much. (of course that's a personal opinion and not scientific) The same scene could have been done with him laying his head on her chest or her getting upset at his frustration and throwing him over and giving him a stern lecture.

Our second example is Miami Vice. There is one graphic sex scene with Colin Farrell which is what some might consider well-placed but in terms of the narrative it has no relevance. It is merely a series of movement images which have no affection image or action image. Consider that if they have an attraction that could come back to haunt them this is fulfilled by the scene in the club where they dance together and are filmed. This does provide a memory image of the "passion" but passion is not a narrative except in "negative arc" films such as Fatal Attraction(to be referenced) where it is the narrative and not an "insert."

There are tons more examples and I leave it to the reader to determine when Movement Images are used. It's an interesting challenge.

The Time Image:

This is probably the least used of the images when referring to sex. It's not because it can't be done but because the sex scene has to be encompassed in a secondary passage of time, such as; the progress of a train or other vehicle. This though necessarily moves the emphasis from the actual sex scene and towards the element which does encompass time. Coincidentally, Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" used this technique at the end where as the couple is headed towards coital bliss we view the "phallic" train heading into the tunnel, which fulfills both the Memory Image in that it is linear, and the Time Image which is the movement of the train through the tunnel.

Of course, Hitchcock was never known as the "modern" auteur, using sexuality as a vehicle. He was once quoted in an interview that he didn't work with actors like Marilyn Monroe because he felt they "wore their sexuality like baubles and there is no discovery of their sexuality possible." I agree. Even in Marnie, when the famous "rape" scene happens, there is no actual sex, just the images leading up to it which try to capture the emotional state of the participants. We can then use that memory image as the fuel for the relationship in later scenes.
The falling of her robe represents the use of a time image (would have been more effective in slow-mo) but it more so enters the realm of the action\affection image.

Foreplay scenes are much easier as Marnie implies. One of the more effective Time Images involving foreplay was the elevator oral sex scene in "Fatal Attraction." This film managed to maintain the tenuous grip to the time image while including sexual content, but when examined they all work out to the passion involved in their "foreplay" (evidence of the passion in the narrative). We see them all over her kitchen, knocking things over water spilled; very sensual yet not sexual.

As I scan through the myriad sex-based b- and mainstream movies, I can't find a single instance of the actual sex act translating to a Time Image. You can't encapsulate movement because sex is about stationary movement. Time Images encapsulate movement by revealing displacement. You can actually do it but it has to be the same thing every time: a romp around the room; going from the bed to the dresser to the wall to the closet, etc. But again this is ALSO achieved with no nudity or "implied penetration."

This now brings us to the
Memory Image:
which is perhaps the biggest enemy of sex in cinema. It has probably killed many a career and is an unfortunately inherent aspect of all cinema. It can take a person who is enjoying the fare and turn them into an offended spectator. The reason is that it's impossible to know what a person doesn't do sexually. Offense is rarely caused by something that a person doesn't or wouldn't do, it mostly comes in the form of that MEMORY. Imagine you take a date to the movies and something that you may have done comes on screen out of context. It could be construed as being an invasion or somehow an attack. This could perhaps be why you won't see a lot of women and couples discussing sex scenes.

Another way this Image can be bad for the movie is that the memory image continues throughout the film, so that as was previously stated shows exposure and vulnerability and can affect how viewers respond to shows of strength by said character - unfortunately usually only female due to the stigma attached to breasts and female intimacy. Also, these images can’t be "controlled" as the memory image can be encompassed within the time image or usually the movement image. It is more of an abstract notion as it's again impossible to know what image will strike a chord with what viewer or whether that chord will be positive or negative. Sexual memory images will almost always bring a negative feeling the more graphic it is. It isn't a point of morals or sexual freedom but again intimacy and vulnerability.
Even heroes like James Bond will break down upon orgasm, which may perhaps be why the orgasm is rarely a part of the scene. The one male orgasm I can recall was in The Matrix Reloaded. There was comedic one in Eddie Murphy's Boomerang but I could feel a tinge of discomfort when viewing it.

Now we will turn our attention to other facets of sex in cinema such as the "purported" necessary scene. We will examine several films that will be picked by a fellow writer and perhaps a few that stick out in our minds. I guess the best place to start this section is the ubiquitous creation of Ian Fleming, James Bond. Bond is special in that though he has at least one sex scene in every movie, it's nearly always PG-13 sex, meaning there was rarely any full frontal nudity. His scenes do have the requisite of having a reason other than passion. Normally, he's lured into bed by a femme-fatale who is on the side of the villain. She then proceeds to fall for him and help foil the villain's plans.

Examining how we can manipulate cinema to emphasize these as character motives, we first assume that we will merely encompass the perception\affection\action image pattern. We'll start with "Die Another Day," the last 007 I've seen. The "action" in this installment was provided- on the good guy side by Halle Berry and - on the bad guy side a relative unknown, Rosamund Pike who later steamed up Doom.

At any rate, establishing the sexual tension begins early with Rosamund (Miranda) being briefed by M about working with Bond. Bond then meets Halle (Jinx) on an island and the usual sexual banter ensues. We then nearly cut to a sex scene where there is little nudity and no slow undressing - which usually characterizes James Bond films (perhaps the film makers realize how jarring a graphic sex scene is). The purpose of this particular scene is none, except maintaining the "mystique."
The second "sex scene" is when Miranda has to let James stay in her room as a cover. This gives a reason for a sexual encounter but not the actual sex scene itself. The sex scene can only serve itself as it doesn't and can't forward the story between the missionary position and the doggy style one unless of course the film is about convincing a person to experiment with different positions. And even then, the close-up can enable reaction shots that don't require visible nudity.

As Hitchcock once said, "Once you zoom into the act, where do you go?" This in my mind implies that the master of cinema saw little to no cinematic usefulness in sex acts on screen.

We're now going to pick a few random films with both graphic and non graphic sex scenes to analyze how the increasingly graphic scenes affect word of mouth, box office and critical acclaim.

We've already looked at one of the more acclaimed films, Fatal Attraction. We'll next look at "Showgirls." It was an immediate hit with its under the covers look at Las Vegas and its glittering showgirls. Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon highlighted the tale most famous for its writhing pool moment in which Berkley attempts to set the record for removing water from a pool while engaging in the most fake sex scene ever. The entire film was an exercise of writhing bodies, great for the "pig" in me but seriously lacked a coherent narrative other than a reason to have an exercise of writhing bodies. This was of course interspersed with a plethora of homoerotic images, none of which provided any true insight into the characters. This type of film is always bound in the classic perception/affection/action realm.

Next up is the recent "The Departed:" perhaps the most irrelevant use of sex in the list. When looking at the motives for the psychiatrist character to have sex with both characters, it does perhaps show a conflict of interest, but the inclusion of explicit sex merely cheapens the overall inner turmoil. It nearly reduces the character to a mere McGuffin, needful and confused. It's difficult enough to view the complexities of such a relationship without exposing the intimate details. These will be specifically in the realm of the memory image, which evokes thoughts of betrayal. This does fit in the narrative but need not be specifically viewed to impact it.

Vulnerability can be shown in many ways more cinematic and touching. Sex scenes merely force you to have an intimate personal opinion as per your moral views.

Next we'll look at the recent box office smash, Knocked Up, obviously it has sexual content but even its title evokes an end result rather than the action of sex.

It's what I like to call the fact of sex vs. the act of sex. The fact of sexuality can drive a movie, but once you enter into the realm of "interpretation" it becomes a crap shoot of offending people vs. cinematically realizing sexuality.
There are two sex scenes in Knocked Up, both of which minimized "exposure" and concentrated on what could be considered a time image. If you turn down the sound, you can imagine the passage of time as Rogen's character discusses "hitting the kid in the head." Had there been more exposure, the scene wouldn't have been funny as it would have forced a reaction to the to the perceived vulnerability of the characters.

Next we'll look at Wild Things, rather acclaimed in a cult status way. This included scenes of a homoerotic nature where the women were merely playthings for the pleasure of the antagonist. The narrative was thereby destroyed because the draw was not forwarding of the story but the continued exposure and vulnerability of the main characters. When the audience remembers the movie, they won't think about the plot to steal money but the sexual content. This of course is fine for the purposes of the movie but would not hold up to true mainstream entertainment.

Another similar narrative can be found in Bound with Nina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly (I could use the term usual suspects) which will also be analyzed. The usual frolicking takes place and drowns the narrative. The appeal then becomes the fragility of the contact and not importance of its meaning. The list of these types of movies is rather long but very few ever achieve mainstream status which begs the question - Where does the audience lie? I would say in the home video market where such exposure is more comfortable as there sure fewer other viewers with differing tastes. It's similar to the effect of home video on X-Rated fare. Even with the "relaxed" morals of the late 80's millions of people who would never expose themselves were renting videos for every reason including a desire to experiment with someone else's tastes.

Also, when looking at the participants we can say they are always the usual suspects which begs the question - Why aren't more "modern" women desirous of such romps? Everyone has a voyeuristic nature to some extent, but it's rather hard to see yourself purposefully vulnerable. This may explain why the lure of beautiful women doesn't create more male porn stars.

Looking at the recent "We Own the Night" there was as much press over the fact that Eva Mendez have to have a few stiff drinks for the 10 seconds of genital groping as there was about the excellent cast (I thought the movie fell flat). But if we examine the context of this groping, it was like being dropped into a B-Movie scene on Cinemax as there was no intro of either character; no understanding of their relationship and no real establishing scene. Then the vulnerability and marginalizing occurs in the next scene where a time image shows her progression towards the crowd as an object of sex, complete with the push up and dangling cigarette. The character goes nowhere and later we are jarred by her lack of acceptance of Joaquin's choice. Again a common theme: confusion and shifting "values."

Personal Opinions

Aaaah, yes, it’s that time: the time where we expound on our personal feelings about the uselessness of sex in MAINSTREAM CINEMA. As we have viewed previously the sex scene itself can only ever be a Movement Image, which is contrary to the “cinema of the seer” as the Time Image and its variants came to be known.
Now you may say: “Well you are seeing,” but the point of the designation is that you are drawn in to the STORY over time not the images. I can’t remember a really sexual female character that wasn’t merely a caricature. They usually have no depth other than an outburst or two regarding their “marginalization.” I guess it’s difficult for me to separate the character from the actor. It wouldn’t be an issue but porn stars are not the role models we want for young female thespians. They need to be in touch with their humanity not their sexuality. I guess perhaps I’m taking a huge chance crapping on everyone’s “logic” but hey as soon as you grow huge tits and tend to leak, I’ll pay the slightest bit of attention to you.
With all of the movies I’ve analyzed there are lots more that were even more offensive to me. By offensive I mean I couldn’t imagine my girlfriend or wife in such a position as an actor. Men refuse to even show pubic hair which begs the question: “Are you afraid that you may like testicles on screen?” Either way how are women supposed to be comfortable in what is admittedly a homosexual embrace while males basically sit back and try to look interested?
I really like women who can dance but I can’t watch hip hop videos cause I’m waiting for the rappers to start kissing each other (read: they never seem to ACTUALLY TOUCH the girls).
Now there are those people who say I think sex is dirty or something but I have stories about encounters that could be in Penthouse Letters. I just wouldn’t film it; mainly because I don’t want to see myself exposed like that but partly because of my sense of chivalry. When I view graphic sex I am totally snatched out of the narrative. I don’t care what happens after the scene with the juicy tits. I don’t care how the story ends. I would just watch the tits for the whole movie like in Idiocracy (except I won’t be looking at a guy’s ass).
Anyway none of this is to besmirch those who tend enjoy a writhing experience on the big screen. But I have done more sexual things in the club than most movies with sex. I’m working on actually having sex in the club and I would have if… never mind – not very cinematic.

So we'll call this little diddy to a close and just say to all who care,

Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul.

Just skip the graphic sex and nudity. :-)


Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

1) In fact the only time Eastwood deals with sex either in front of or behind the camera is "rape." Well, in itself I wouldn't exactly see this as a positive. I mean - rape is part of life, so, if a movie manages to both avoid any graphic display and to deal sensitively with the woman's reaction, I'm OK with it in a movie. But actually seeing someone's clothes removed for a rape scene will put me off a movie way more than seeing the same for a consensual sex scene.

2) I don't really see vulnerability as a down side to sex scenes; to me, both in real life and in the movies, it's possible for someone to both be vulnerable and taken seriously.

3) I do think it's bad to use anything as entertainment which leaves you feeling the entertainer is really being degraded. So, any level or variety of sexual explicitness that I'd see as degrading, I wouldn't want to watch. It just happens that the movie rating system tracks what I wouldn't want to see just fine here - most things that are too explicit for me are conveniently marketed as porn, so not hard to avoid them.

4) This included scenes of a homoerotic nature where the women were merely playthings for the pleasure of the antagonist. Homoerotic's actually OK with me if the characters are believably lesbian; if it feels fake and staged for men, not so much.

5) the fact that Eva Mendez have to have a few stiff drinks for the 10 seconds of genital groping That makes me not want to see that movie.

6) I can’t remember a really sexual female character that wasn’t merely a caricature. That's where I tend to draw my lines - if the woman seems like a caricature who's reduced to sex appeal, I don't like it. But to me, that's not so much a matter of how much nudity's shown as how the characters are drawn.

Christian M. Howell said...

Good comments. To sum up:
1) He has never actually shown nudity, which is why I used him as an example. Believe me I could write a scene where you would see the exposure and vulnerability graphic nude sex scenes cause.

2) Look at The Invasion and Untraceable. You have two protags who are exposed and vulnerable and both did little business (and there was no nudity). Vulnerability does not a protag make.

3) That's my point. You can't determine what is degrading or enjoyable because people can't describe sex.

4) It doesn't matter if they are "real" lesbians, it still causes me to lose sight of the narrative.

5) I think that shows that nudity and graphic sex are not easy.

6) I like strong women whether they have a sex scene or not. Sex can be done very tastefully without graphic nudity.

The main point of this post was to show why sex doesn't work in cinema. I hope I gave you lots of food for thought.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Vulnerability does not a protag make, but it doesn't necessarily a protag unmake either; the best protagonists have both strengths and vulnerabilities (though the vulnerabilities don't, of course, need to be sexual).

I think that shows that nudity and graphic sex are not easy. I'm really not sure I have a good sense of when they actually are or aren't comfortable for the actors. I know (online, not in real life) people who work in porn and claim to be comfortable with scenes I can't imagine being remotely comfortable doing; at the same time, it's always possible that some regular Hollywood stuff that I've come to take for granted is uncomfortable for the actors. I figure that I shouldn't watch something that I know either was seriously too graphically sexual for the actors, or would be for me if I were in their place (which to me puts any actual real life genital manipulation right out). On the other hand, I haven't heard that nudity by itself upsets movie actors all that much.

Sex can definitely be done tastefully without nudity; in some stories you can even just imply it (for instance, Brassed Off simply shows the woman asking the man in for coffee, and the man leaving her apartment later, and makes it plenty clear that they had sex). I think how it's best shown to some extent depends on the story.

Rene said...

Christian! It's been a long time, brother. Glad to see you're still blogging and, my, such long posts, too. :)

Hope the new year treats you well. Take it easy.