Sex in the Movies Guide

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By David Hudson

The story of sex in the movies is really two stories. For all practical purposes, they begin at the same moment - the invention of motion pictures - but take off running in parallel universes. One is the story of a very public debate over how much of the reality of human sexuality can be shown, discussed or even implied in movies meant for general audiences; the second is the story of an entire industry thriving along underground yet rarely even mentioned in polite company until the 1970s.

In The Cut

That said, many may wonder if we aren't beginning to see these two storylines merge. It's hardly any wonder when you've got - just as one of many examples - Hollywood cutie-pie Meg Ryan strutting around naked and settling down for a two-minute bout of onscreen cunnilingus, courtesy of Mark Ruffalo in In The Cut (2003). While boundaries are blurring, though, there remains a thin line of difference: In The Cut director Jane Campion hasn't ever told an audience, "Come see my film - it's got lots of hot sex!" At least not overtly; covertly, of course, that's very much what's going on. But Campion, like countless directors before her, will put the proper face on it: This is an erotic thriller about a woman's control over her own life and the explicitness of the sex is absolutely necessary for the sake of the story. Director Paul Thomas, on the other hand, will be more than happy to tell you that narrative and just about anything else takes a back seat to the sex in Dangerous Games.

In that first parallel universe, sex is icing on the cake. In the second, it is the cake.

Porn before its "Golden Age"

At a time when porn comes tumbling in front of your face via email, when it's displayed in independent video rental outlets and newsstands, when it's immediately viewable at the push of a button in most hotel rooms or in private homes via cable, it can be hard to remember or even imagine a time when the stuff was not only not available but downright illegal - a time when glimpses of a naked body, never mind one engaged in any sort of sexual activity, were extraordinarily rare.

Except maybe in art. But even in that hallowed realm, the body has always been a battlefield for all sorts of religious and political wrangling. The most famous of these battles was probably fought in the 16th century when, ten years after Michelangelo had completed his epic portrayal of the Divine Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an artist known now to history only as "the breeches maker" was hired to paint flowing robes over the naughty bits. And so it went, on into the 20th century when, for example, in 1933, a British philosopher by the name of Samuel Alexander could still write, "If the nude is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires appropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals." In other words, if the artist turns you on, bully on him.

Nonsense, countered art historian Kenneth Clark in The Nude twenty years later: "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals." Because erotic desire is an inextricable part of human nature, or, as David Byrne sings in the opening line of his Rei Momo album, "Now and then, I get horny." And by the 1950s, it was socially acceptable for even an Oxford professor like Clark to admit it.

Many things, though, like the explicit depiction of sex, weren't as socially acceptable. In any medium. Which is a funny thing, considering that just about the first thing we humans do with any new medium we come up with is test its ability to arouse. The cave painters had their depictions of fertility rites, the Bible had its Song of Solomon, and what many consider the world's first novel, Lady Murasaki's 11th century Tale of Genji, is, among other things, an erotic journey. It wasn't long after the first photo was snapped, in the 1820s, that people were getting undressed in front of these newfangled cameras.

Historians quibble over who actually invented the motion picture and when, but let's just go with the most popular version for the moment: Auguste and Louis Lumire staged the first public screening of a film in December 1895. Less than a year later, so the legend goes, actress Louise Willy stripped for the French film Le Bain (The Bath). While similar films were being shot all over Europe, the term "French films" in the early 20th century denoted the same thing "Swedish films" did in and around the 1960s: skin and lots of it.

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