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The Naked Truth About Film Nudity

The Naked Truth About Film Nudity

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There’s a line in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, the film released late last year that Variety dubbed “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside [of] the porn industry,” that says more than the many erect penises, nipples and writhing bare posteriors that saturate Shortbus’ 102 minutes.

Justin Bond, the real-life Brooklyn impresario who hosts the titular “sex salons” where the film’s troubled characters connect, sidles down on the couch next to Sofia (Toronto musician Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm. Surveying his madcap, Parisian-style carnival, where naked friends and strangers are intertwined like a room full of hot-baked pretzels, Bond says, with just a hint of derision, “It’s just like the ’60s. Only with less hope.”

Ouch. In a film that trumpets sexual and creative freedom as a means of personal salvation, one throwaway line can cut so deeply. It dives, like most of Mitchell’s non-professional actors do on-camera, into the most private of regions for American audiences: Seeing themselves, or at least reflections of their culture, naked on-screen.

Shortbus’ nod to the 1960s, cinematic or otherwise, is particularly bittersweet given that 1960s nudity was part of a sweeping sociopolitical movement; for a brief moment in time, Americans (mostly young Americans) felt liberated from everything that had come before, including nibbling on the naked ass of your mom’s best friend. The “sex room” in Shortbus is definitely liberation super-sized, just without the “hope” that there’s anything left to liberate, even its unhappy characters. Bond’s one-liner, at once funny and sad, speaks volumes about why Shortbus was made (and why it made almost $2 million during its four-month U.S. run).

“In the years I was making Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the director explains, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as so many had in the 1960s and ’70s. But I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless.”

Mitchell calls his reams of full frontal nudity a way of using sex as a language to explore his characters’ lives, much like music is the lingua franca of a musical. “Every other art form—photography, literature, theater—has used real sex,” Mitchell observes. “So why not a commercially accessible film?” Mitchell goes on to say it would have been wrong for him to fake the sexuality, as studio movies do, or devalue it, as in porn. “Kids today learn about sex through porn—formulaic and joyless,” he adds. “I wanted to remind people that sex can be very human. I wanted to show the joy and humor of sex.”

That joie de vivre feeling of running naked through life and art is also what Julie Taymor was after when she made Across The Universe, a movie actually set in the 1960s, when “hope” still had some traction. But unlike Mitchell, who spent years workshopping his film on the fringes of the film industry, Taymor was bound by her distributor, Sony Pictures, to deliver a PG-13 movie, a rating she set out to achieve.

A love story about star-crossed innocents Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Taymor’s strikingly original film is set to 33 Beatles songs, all but two of them sung by the movie’s youthful cast. Jude, a Liverpool dockworker who falls in love with Lucy while visiting New York’s East Village, is also a charismatic artist, who, in one gorgeous scene, commits his nude gal pal to paint. The moviemaker knew the Faustian bargain she had struck to get a wide release, but Taymor says she was still stunned by the restrictions imposed on any perceived titillation. “In the painting scene, I was only allowed two long-distance nipple shots of Lucy,” she marvels. “We ended up having three and [the MPAA] made us erase one nipple shot.” Taymor says a rating system that exalts ultra-violence and squashes even the most benign nudie imagery is “disgusting and heinous… We have to do a G-rated airline version with no nudity or drug suggestion… I mean, give me a break. If it were really the 1960s, all of the kids would be naked and my actors wouldn’t have to mime smoking marijuana. It’s pathetic that we have a culture of values that’s become so skewed.”

Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess in Across the Universe. Courtesy of Sony Pictures

In fact, the nudity in Across The Universe, which includes an elegiac underwater scene of Jude and Lucy floating intertwined to the winsome John Lennon ballad “Because” and a group of G-stringed Vietnamese women covered in white clay body make-up doing a contemporary Butho dance, is about as naïve as movies get. Yet Taymor describes how her young stars had to sign “nudity waivers” and carefully position their arms and limbs throughout to avoid showing too much flesh. “All of the nudity in my films is derived from the story, but that doesn’t seem to matter when you’re talking about censorship,” she continues. “One of the most vulnerable and important scenes in Frida is when Salma Hayek’s cast is broken and her breasts and body are liberated. It’s like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. When it plays in middle America on television, that’s all cut out.” Taymor’s Titus, made in 1999 and based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, was one buttock away from an NC-17 when the moviemaker agreed to make cuts in a Roman orgy scene that showed plenty of naked bodies, but no graphic sex. (The film’s horrific violence, faithful to Shakespeare’s gory play, was, Taymor is quick to point out, never an issue.)

While Taymor calls the current environment more “prudish” than ever, director Ang Lee would either beg to differ or just couldn’t care. Lust, Caution, Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain (ravaged by conservative critics for its same-sex romance while earning three Oscars and $180 million worldwide) is being released by Focus Features with an NC-17 stamp that feels like a badge of honor. Of course, for the first 90 minutes, audiences may think they walked into the wrong theater: The film is an elegant and restrained drama set in World War II-era China. When the nudity and sex arrive (and it does take a while) Lee hits a whole new level: Sweaty, explicit and in-your-face—and a wholly believable counterpoint to the personal and political espionage that blankets the characters’ lives. Lust, Caution cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who’s no stranger to risqué content, having shot Brokeback Mountain, Taymor’s Frida, Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, says one of the biggest challenges in filming nudity is simply letting go of your own personal baggage.

“We all bring our own experiences into the room,” Prieto notes. “In my case, a Catholic upbringing growing up in Mexico that had to be put aside to be true to the story and characters. It’s not a natural situation, and there’s always a level of discomfort. That’s why establishing a high level of trust with the actors before the shooting begins is so important.” Prieto says he lit each of the graphic nude scenes, which were shot in two weeks on a Hong Kong stage, with stand-ins. “I was surprised by how far [the sex and nudity] went,” he laughs. “The script basically said, ‘Now they have sex,’ so I wasn’t sure what to expect.” Nevertheless, once shooting commenced, Lee was meticulous. “The first sex scene, where he takes off his belt and whips her, was laid out with this precise move of the camera tilting up and back to catch both their reactions and the whipping motion on her body,” describes Prieto. “Ang was equally precise with the actors, to the point of placing a leg there or a back there, almost like animation.”

Because Lee didn’t want playback on the set, he stayed back watching the monitors and left Prieto alone with the actors. “We never used long lenses or diffusion, and I was very close, trying to track these naked people moving, organically, through the frame,” the DP recalls. “Ang would run up after each take and ask me: ‘What did you see? What didn’t you see?’ And I’d say: ‘I’m not exactly sure. I was just trying to keep them in the frame!’”

Tony Leung and Tang Wei in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Courtesy of Focus Features

Prieto says he wasn’t aware of any contractual issues outlining what the actors would (or would not) do on-screen, and thinks cinema stars in his home country of Mexico would not be reticent to tackle such graphic content, unlike their American counterparts. He cites Jamie Humberto Hermosillo’s 1991 film, La Tarea (The Homework), as a film with explicit nudity that had a healthy run in Mexican theaters without much controversy. Focus Features, a division of Universal, is going against the grain with the release of Lust, Caution, but given that it’s a Chinese language film, with stars unknown in America, it’s not that big of a stretch.

Hong Kong leading man Tony Leung (best known here for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, and hardly a household name) plays a married official in Shanghai’s Japanese-led government. Tang Wei (a newcomer, even to Chinese cinema) plays a theater-student-turned-spy sent to kill Leung for the Nationalist cause. The pair spends much of the movie dancing around their erotic tension, until Leung’s Mr. Yee, who fills up his days torturing Wei’s confederates, finally lets down his guard. He comes to trust Wei, who, in turn, falls in love with her prey. The escalation of emotions allows each sex scene to reflect the changing tenor of their involvement. “I think it’s perfectly right for this movie to carry a label that says: This is for adults. I wouldn’t want my own 13-year-old daughter going to see it,” Prieto comments. “What baffles me is when theaters refuse to show it, or stores won’t sell it, solely because it is NC-17. Lust, Caution is a shining example of how much artistic and cultural value an NC-17 movie can have! If people are not given the opportunity to see it simply because its distributor respected the director’s vision, that would be shameful.”

Shame, according to U.S. studio execs (none of whom would talk on the record), doesn’t factor into it; context does. “American audiences are much less tolerant of explicit nudity in a sex scene than when it’s coupled with violence,” one veteran insider observes. “That’s a sad and terrible statement, but it’s true. Killing a woman with her shirt off is fine; seeing her shirt off during penetration is not.”

Case in point is David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, also backed by Focus Features. While the genre film has only garnered a modest $16 million in U.S. theaters, its now-infamous scene of a naked Viggo Mortensen fighting off Chechen gangsters in a Turkish bathhouse earned merely an R rating. You’d think full male nudity, admittedly an element not seen in American films since, well, Bart Simpson’s full-frontal dash in The Simpsons Movie (a shot which, reportedly, notched a PG-13) would make family values groups holler, especially when it’s coupled with a lusty close-up of a sickle carving into a cornea, held just a bit too long for maximum impact; but apparently not. Taymor says the double standard even extends to the kind of nudity seen on-screen. “When we made Titus, Jessica Lange was naked from the waist-up,” Taymor notes, “and I just thought that was so brave. She’s stunning, of course, but she was in her late forties. Our culture only wants to see nudity if it’s young, beautiful people.”

Helen Mirren in Caligula. Courtesy of Analysis Film Releasing Corporation.

History may provide the last laugh on naked cinema. Early this month, Image Entertainment released a three-disc DVD set of Tinto Brass’ legendary Caligula called “The Imperial Edition.” (Caligula’s last re-release was for its 20th anniversary when, inexplicably, critics like Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert forgot to send flowers; Ebert called it the worst film of all time; Maltin said it was mainly “chutzpah and six minutes of not-bad hardcore footage.”) The press release for the Imperial Edition generously describes Caligula as a “pop-culture phenomenon filled with scandal, rumors and controversy since beginning its checkered production history in 1976.” If you’re too young to remember the fuss, Penthouse founder Bob Guccione spent $17.5 million to make what still stands as the most explicit union of nudity, hardcore sex and graphic violence with mainstream actors—Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Sir John Geilgud and a befuddled Helen Mirren among them. Time hasn’t softened the critical attacks: On his Website, Emanuel Levy says the new release, which includes three different versions, including never-before-seen footage, “fails even as bad porn,” while DVDVerdict.com’s Brett Cullum calls it “a mad cavalcade of sex, violence, ambition and architecture.” “In the end,” Cullum writes, “it all just feels sadistic and dispassionate about everything. Nobody looks like they want to be there.” Other Internet Webzines and bloggers have been a tad kinder, mostly because this latest version includes hours of fascinating behind-the-scenes extras about the whole bloated mess. Perhaps the most telling account of where the emperor of all nudie flicks will be culturally received comes via the DVD commentary by Caligula’s stars some 30 years later. McDowell simply mumbles, “God help us” as the film begins to play, while Mirren is more sanguine: “I think if it was made now, almost as it is,” she says flatly, “it wouldn’t have received half the approbation and scandal.” Hmmm, sounds a bit like an epithet of hope, wouldn’t you say? MM

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