In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen,” Orson Welles once told French film journal Cahiers du cinema. “The realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.”
Both acts had, of course, already been committed to celluloid long before the maestro’s dictum. But the former’s introduction into the realm of mainstream, commercially-exhibited cinema can be reliably traced back only perhaps as far as the mid-1970s, which saw the release of Denmark’s so-called “Zodiac” films, a series of light comedies with instances of hardcore sex sprinkled throughout.
Since that time, inclusions of non-simulated sex acts into otherwise traditional narrative features have remained rare enough to be noteworthy in their occurrence, though increasingly less so in Europe, where relatively libertine attitudes toward sex and artistry in general are reflected in a film industry increasingly tolerant of graphic sexual content in commercial films. Scenes of explicit sex have most notably featured in works from European masters such as Lars von Trier (The Idiots), Catherine Breillat (Romance), Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs) and Patrice Chereau (Intimacy).
The same can hardly be said for America, however, where a culture more predisposed to tolerate cinematic depictions of violence than sex sees that predilection constantly reinforced by the monolithic MPAA ratings board, created and empowered by the major film studios to evaluate, then label, adult-oriented films with either a commercially limiting R, a commercially destructive NC-17 or a commercially ruinous X.
Although directors in decades past have battled the MPAA to win inclusion of explicit material (one notable—and unsuccessful—example being William Friedkin on behalf of his serial-killer-in-the-gay-underworld thriller Cruising), such attempts have been beaten back with enough consistency to make the modern MPAA’s arbitrary delimitations on acceptable sexual content effectively uncontestable.
Although the board has perceptibly relaxed its standards on horror violence over the years (innocuous ’80s slasher films such as Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood were once forced to undergo re-edits to the point of incomprehension to maintain an R rating), most moviemakers would agree that a similar tectonic shift in the sexual realm has yet to occur.
“I was a producer and director in Europe, more specifically in France, and when I arrived in this country I was shocked at the reality of the cliché of sex versus violence,” says moviemaker Philippe Diaz (Heavy Metal 2000). “On all the TV channels there was the most horrible violence—people having their heads cut off and whatever—and the parents would consider it normal for a teenager to watch that. But the minute they show anything sexual it’s an absolute scandal.”
Diaz cites his fascination with this conundrum as having inspired his most recent project, Now & Later, a Los Angeles-based drama centering on an unlikely affair between a fugitive financier (Keller Wortham) and a bohemian Latina (Shari Solanis).
An otherwise traditional narrative feature, Now & Later features scenes of full-frame intercourse as well as unsimulated oral sex, all of which is filmed, edited and acted with care so as to be dramatically resonant, as opposed to the way in which a piece of pornography will typically dispense with a dramatic pretense once its utilitarian function has been fulfilled.
Despite Diaz’s credentials, finding actors for his film proved no easy task. “In the first round of casting, actors were saying ‘Can you change this? We don’t do this, we don’t do that.’ I started to get desperate,” he recalls. “I started to look at porn actors, because I thought maybe there were some who wanted to do something different and high-quality, but that was even worse because porn actors are paid between $1,000 and $2,000 a day!”
Once filming commenced, the director’s challenge became keeping the film’s non-sexual themes foregrounded, lest they be overshadowed by the explicit content.
“You can get porn on the Internet, you know?” Diaz says. “What hadn’t been done, I think, was to link it with a political message. You have this guy who’s a failed banker, who’s very frustrated, and you have a girl who comes from a culture of helping people and taking care of people, one full of music and sensuality. I wanted to define these characters as coming from two different worlds, politically.”
Moviemakers such as Diaz, who thrive on pushing the boundaries of cinema as much as excelling within them, are hardly waiting for the oblivious MPAA to come around to their way of thinking. Instead, they’re relying on the continued maturation of the indie film market and the art film circuit to accommodate their artistic visions.
In the forthcoming short film anthology Destricted, eight moviemakers—including Gaspar Noé, Larry Clark and Matthew Barney—each deliver largely abstract, sexually explicit shorts meant to raise questions about the line between pornography and art.
It’s a broader thesis than can be explored by a narrative feature like Chereau’s Intimacy, for example, which poses the question of whether potentially titillating content inevitably serves as an interruption of drama, and is otherwise exclusively concerned with the success of its story. Although Destricted’s producers gave final cut and no explicit brief to the participating moviemakers, nearly all of them willingly chose an abstract presentation over a narrative one.
Destricted producer Neville Wakefield says that despite the name recognition of the moviemakers involved with the project, and the interest controversy generates, the reaction of institutional filmdom has been one mostly of curiosity.
“I think the film world has tended to be baffled by Destricted, while the art world has tended to embrace it,” says Wakefield. “The film world has narrative expectations that are largely absent from the art world, so I think it makes sense that opinion has been divided along those lines.”
Wakefield is also quick to identify the MPAA as having a potentially deleterious effect on the artistic potential of films released under its strictures, as opposed to the largely regulation-free art world. “The constraints of the art world are very different from those in the film world,” he says. “There is much less regulation.
“There isn’t a rating system and the attitudes toward the depiction of sex are very different. In the film world, there’s a much more permissive attitude toward violence than there is toward sex. You can cut someone open, reach inside them and disembowel them, but you can’t fuck them. Destricted was about exploring some of those tensions.”
“Fucking” is indeed one of the primary no-go areas for a film seeking an acceptable rating from the MPAA, to the point that the limits on sexual congress in an R-rated feature today are not appreciably different from what would have been allowable at the time of Paul Verhoeven’s taboo-busting Basic Instinct two decades ago.
Those limits are, in fact, so culturally ingrained as to be largely unquestioned and without vocal opponents, even in film criticism. The occasional appearance of an indie release such as Vincent Gallo’s much-ballyhooed 2003 film The Brown Bunny (in which director-star Gallo is graphically fellated by former girlfriend Chloë Sevigny) tends to generate conversation only about itself, not about the possibility of such content being one day permitted in studio-generated product.
To be fair, there has been an undeniably relaxed attitude toward on-screen presentation of the penis in recent years, the long-standing taboo having been largely shattered by a succession of Judd Apatow comedies that skirted an NC-17 rating by using the male member as a laugh prop. But regulations on full frontal female nudity have arguably regressed at the same time; such nudity in 1984’s The Woman in Red, which garnered the film a PG-13 rating at the time, would undoubtedly result in an R today.
Diaz believes these to be long-term trends that are not likely to be reversed in the near future. “If you look at the history of cinema, there are always periods of freedom where mainstream movies show more sex, but then it goes backwards again—there’s a political climate change, a cultural change, and it goes back a little bit,” he says.
“I think that true sex will only be portrayed in independent film,” continues Diaz. “There may indeed be more nudity in studio films, but I can’t wait to see a major studio movie that shows a lovemaking scene. When you see a true sex scene in a major film, it tends to be about perversion!”
The implications of being involved in explicit, filmed sex also continue to be severe for a working actor, despite the proliferation of a sex tape-crazed culture that routinely sees low-rung celebrities brushing off sex tape revelations over the course of a news cycle, a truth brought home to Diaz when Now & Later’s actors found trouble booking work on TV shows and other projects after the film, possibly due to their involvement.
Although Diaz says he has no further plans to explore sexuality as a topic in the future, his experience in creating Now & Later is one he says would prevent him from ever again shying away from presenting on-screen nudity or lovemaking scenes if they are integral to a project.
“With a movie I produce or direct, I try to be provocative in a positive sense—to provoke ideas and thoughts and maybe question the way people think, whether it’s about politics or war or whatever it is,” Diaz says, adding that his primary interest as an artist is to do his bit to keep the spark of cinema alive, to prevent it from atrophying under the weight of conventions that ensure audiences continue to be served the same tasteless meal at each sitting.
“We should want to make people think, to make them look at the world differently,” he adds. “I’m interested in movies that challenge me, either artistically or in terms of their content—that’s what’s interesting. When it comes to traditional films and television, as an audience member, I’m bored to death.”
If art films such as Destricted can alleviate some of that boredom by shedding new light on America’s conservative attitudes toward the presentation of sex, Wakefield feels its worth suffering the puzzlement of the mainstream film community (though he notes that the film has already “done very well” on the festival circuit, having been an official selection at the Sundance, Cannes and Edinburgh Film Festivals).
Wakefield is also quick to point out that despite the presence of some European and South American moviemakers among its eight directors, Destricted was an American project; which is something that should give hope to those who feel that U.S. film culture is losing its capacity for inventiveness and boundary-testing.
“We asked a lot of people, and not everyone agreed to do it, but it was mainly an American-driven project,” says Wakefield. “It originated here. I think it’s endlessly fascinating how there’s this great subcontinent of imagery surrounding sex that makes up our culture, so I think anything that brings it to light in gatherings or in theaters, any different kind of consideration is good.” MM