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Sex in the Movies
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.

In those early days, film stock and equipment was rare and expensive, so access to a screening of a rare and forbidden clip of film was like entering, as Walter Kendrick calls it in the title of his history of porn, The Secret Museum. "Pornography names an argument, not a thing," writes Kendrick, contending that the fluid and ever-evolving definition of porn is a tool used by those in power to forbid access to something for those who aren't. Could be. What we do know is that these early, sexually explicit films were most often projected in private clubs or homes for a men-only audience. Imagine such a screening, and you can well understand why the films were called "smokers" in the beginning: a bunch of men sitting around in the dark puffing away their nervous energy on smoldering cigars. French director Jean Renoir is rumored to have considered making one of these "smokers" himself in the 20s, but backed down due to "moral considerations."

By the 1950s, these films were being referred to more often as "stags" since they were shown at men-only "stag parties." Luke Ford, in his book A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film - an extraordinarily frustrating piece of work; poorly written, misogynist through and through, and yet weirdly useful - quotes William Rostler's outline from his 1973 book, Contemporary Erotic Cinema, tracing the common plotlines in these early flicks that would be played out again and again for decades:

  1. A woman alone becomes aroused after handling a phallic-shaped object. Masturbation follows. A man arrives, is invited inside, sexual play begins.
  2. A farm girl gets excited watching animals copulate. She runs into a farmhand, or a traveling salesman, and sexual play begins.
  3. A doctor begins examining a woman and sexual play begins.
  4. A burglar finds a girl in bed or rapes her or vice versa.
  5. A sunbather or skinny dipper gets caught and seduced.

Recently, there's been an interest in rediscovering these vintage films and collections have appeared with names such as Olde Time Erotica, Antique Erotica, Authentic Antique Erotica, Vintage Erotica - Anno 1930 and Vintage Erotica - Anno 1940. What surprises many expecting to see something rather tame and sepia-toned is the revelation that our grandparents and great-grandparents did just about everything we thought we come up with on our own. But after all, sex is sex.

Sexploitation and the Grindhouse

In the early and mid-20th century, there existed a fascinating limbo between mainstream movies, most of them coming out of Hollywood, of course, and no-holds-barred porn. The "sexploitation" phenomenon in the US has its roots in the 1910s, with the big stand-out year being 1913. That was the year of Traffic in Souls and The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, both promising to reveal the lurid underbelly of the world of prostitution (and here, it's interesting to note that the original, literal definition of "pornography" is "writing about prostitutes"). The second is notable for having been made by a former Director of the Secret Service, Samuel H. London, who appears on the screen in the first moments of the film to warn viewers that they may well be alarmed by what they are about to see, but rest assured, it's all "For Educational Use."

"White slave pictures are hardly shocking by today's standards," writes Greg Merritt in Celluloid Mavericks: "The exploitation racket was always about the promise of the forbidden... Once projected, many 'SHOCKING TRUTH!' movies such as the innocuous Damaged Goods (1914) or The Sex Lure (1917) proved to be nothing more than tepid melodrama." Nevertheless, if the "SHOCKING TRUTH!" is defined merely as nudity, there was surprisingly quite a bit of it in the cinema of the 'Teens. DW Griffith himself didn't think twice about including a bathing scene in Intolerance (1916), for example, and Merritt describes "a lost classic," Purity (1916), in which a nude Audrey Munson is depicted in the context of various works of art: "Because the production recreated classic paintings, censors were not eager to ban the Italian Renaissance, and Purity slipped into theaters. Box offices were crowded with men who'd never heard of Botticelli but knew a naked dame when they saw one."

Over the following decades, as cinema rapidly evolved to become America's real favorite pastime, newer, bigger, better and more technologically advanced theaters were required to accommodate demand, leaving some of the old nickelodeons and theaters behind as a sort of second or third-tier circuit for films made on the cheap that would promise unprecedented sex or violence or both. This usually amounted to depictions of life in nudist colonies, such as Garden of Eden (1957), or on tropical islands where semi-nude natives (usually homegrown out-of-work actors in threadbare costumes) cavort and get chased by carnivorous monsters, "educational" films addressing such natural phenomena as birth or venereal disease and so on. Often, the films would deliver little that the posters promised, but before word got around, they'd be off to the next town. The theaters they played in became known as grindhouses and a solid account of their heyday is Eddie Muller's Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of Adults Only Cinema.

A documentary inspired by the book, Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001), focuses on two icons of the grindhouse, David Friedman and Dan Sonney, following their long careers from the relatively harmless days of "nudie cuties" through their more daring and darker "roughies," in which women would not only get naked but abused as well. Mau Mau director Ted Bonnitt tells us in our interview, "As far as the misogynistic aspect of their work goes, I can count maybe on one hand a few women I know who were offended and didn't like it as a result. I said, 'That's what it's about. I'm not selling these guys. I'm portraying them. Definitely, this went on, and it's weird.'"

According to Luke Ford, Friedman made one of three breakthrough sexploitation flicks to appear in 1959: his Adventures of Lucky Pierre, Ted Paramore's Not Tonight, Henry and Russ Meyer's The Immoral Mr. Teas. All three broke new ground in terms of what could be shown "above ground," but as Paramore tells Ford, "You were only allowed to shoot girls in bikinis, and then in pasties, then nudes. But you couldn't show pubic hair." Paramore, the son of Hollywood screenwriter Edward Paramore, began his career making erotic film loops as mild as he describes; Not Tonight, his first feature, tells the story of Hank Henry, who fantasizes about having sex with the likes of Cleopatra, Pocahontas and Lucrezia Borgia.

For decades, Russ Meyer has practically been an industry unto himself. Returning home after World War II unsure of what to do with his life, a friend asked him, "'Why don't you start shooting girls?'," he tells Kenneth Turan and Stephen Zito in their 1974 book, Sinema: American Pornographic Films and the People Who Make Them. "And so I did, and I dug it, I really dug it. I had a kind of bombastic style, very mild by what's considered strong today, but I got into it hammer and sickle." Mr. Teas is a bachelor who can inexplicably see through women's clothing. Shot for $24,000, the film pulled in over a million during its initial run. Through the 60s and 70s, Meyer would share his taste for big-breasted, take- charge women, probably most famously in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966).

Honorable mention must be made of two more unique and remarkable careers. Ed Wood is known the world over for his no- budget, so-bad-they're-good sci-fi flicks, such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956), but one aspect of his life played down in Tim Burton's biopic was his dabbling in porn, specifically in the form of novels he hammered out with gusto and his hardcore film loops and features, such as Necromania (1971), a film he claimed in his book, Censorship, Sex and the Movies, "exemplifies the trend toward better entertainment in X-rated films." Meaning, of course, sex in coffins.

Radley Metzger, who claimed Max Ophuls and Orson Welles as influences on the films he made from the 60s through the mid-80s, attempted to raise the bar a bit and is known primarily for his softcore "Euro-erotica." As Gary Morris writes in Bright Lights Film Journal, he is also the best of a "meager lot" of "porn's pioneers who took the sexual revolution seriously and did bring more authentic gay and bi imagery into their 'straight' films." If it took a "Golden Age" to get mainstream society to formally recognize the existence of porn, it would take just as long for most of the porn world to face up to its own underground, gay porn. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Continue to Part 2...

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