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Screening Sex

a j ohn hope frankli n center book

linda williams
Screening Sex
duke universit y press
Durlam and London
Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Printed in China on acid-free paper
Typeset in Warnock Pro Light by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data appear on the last
printed page of this book.
To Paul
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction to Screening Sex
1 Of Kisses and Ellipses: Te Long Adolescence of American
Movies (8,6,6) :,
2 Coing All tle Way: Carnal Knowledge on American
Screens (,6,;) 68
3 Coing Furtler: Last Tango in Paris, Deep Troat, and Boys
in the Sand (,;,;:) :
4 Make Love, Not War: )ane Fonda Comes Home (,68,;8) ,,
5 Hard-Core Eroticism: In the Realm of the Senses (,;6) 8
6 Primal Scenes on American Screens (,86:oo,) :6
7 Plilosoply in tle Bedroom: Hard-Core Art Film since tle
,,os :,8
Conclusion: Now Playing on a Small Screen near You! :,,
Notes :;
Bibliograply ;,
Index ,;
Tis book began as an amateur movie. In tle mid-,,os I
bouglt a video camera and amused myself by asking friends
and colleaguesmostly people wlo knew and cared about
lmto tell me about tle most erotic moments tley lad en-
countered at tle movies. Most peoples answers connected
to an earlier moment in tleir life, a moment in wlicl tley
made a discovery, tlrougl movies, of a realm of tle senses
tlat tley may or may not lave already known. Some an-
swers were long and complex, some slort and simple, but
tley all revealed tle role movies lave played in our sexual
coming of age and development, and tley all demonstrated
tlat screening sex was botl a revelation and a concealment.
I never nisled my amateur movie. It was just a larkan
escape from seemingly more pressing projects. But tle fact
tlat, camera in land, I could tlink of no more important
question to ask tlan wlen and low movies lad rst turned
us on eventually made me realize tlat tle ratler intimate
question I lad asked so many otlers was perlaps one wortl
asking myself. Tis book is my more sclolarly and system-
atic, tlougl no less personal and idiosyncratic, answer.
I tlank all my initial interlocutors, tlose on camera and
x acknowledgments
o, wlo generously slared tleir observations and got me started along
tlis patl. I owe special tlanks to tlree people witlout wlom tlis book
would not lave entered its next stage: Ernest Callenbacl, beloved editor,
wlo gently coaxed me into writing my rst draft, Zeynep Crsel, wlo
miraculously knew wlere to take it from tlere, and nally, Ken Wissoker
at Duke University Press, my actual editor, wlo obtained tlree supremely
lelpful anonymous readers and tlen actually dove in limself to oer some
timely advice. I count myself very fortunate to lave lad two editors in my
lifetime wlo actually edit! Courtney Berger of Duke las also been great. I
was lucky to teacl a course on tle topic under scrutiny lere to a Berkeley
undergraduate class in tle fall of :oo6. Te participants papers and class
discussion tauglt me even more about wlat tle book could be. Tanks
to Ben Hadden and Cabrielle Cutlrie, special members of tlat class, wlo
also worked as splendid down-to-tle-wire editors and as important con-
tributors to tle intellectual content of tlis book. Tanks also to )olnatlan
Lee for leroic indexing, and to Heatler Butler for reading and critiquing
early drafts. Laura Horak grabbed many of tle images and tracked down
sources. A great many otler generous readers and listeners lave provided
important lelp: Brooke Belisle, Lauren Berlant, Karl Britto, Ricl Cante,
Irene Clien, Kelly Dennis, )erey Escoer, Marilyn Fabe, Sanjay Hukku,
Editl Kramer, Sydelle Kramer, Russell Merritt, Catlerine Mezur, Anne
Nesbet, Amy Rust, Deboral Slamoon, Alan Tansman, Virginia Wexman,
and Kristen Wlissel. I also tlank tle editorial board of Critical Inquiry for
advice on tle rst clapter, wlicl originally appeared in tlat journal. I also
tlank tle editorial board of Cineaste for permission to reprint Cinema
and tle Sex Act and an adapted review of Shortbus.
To Yuri Tsivian I owe tle kiss from Tonight or Never. To Don Crafton
I owe tle reference to Te Paleface. To Tom Cunning I owe tle valuable
information about )oln Sloan. To Clarles Musser I owe a mucl improved
understanding of Tomas Edisons Te Kiss. Tanks also to audiences at
tle University of Oregon, Portland State University, tle Clicago Film
Seminar, tle University of Oslo, tle University of Bergen, tle Stanford
Humanities Institute, tle University of Iowa Conference on Obscenity,
tle Berkeley Film Seminar, New York University, and Harvard Univer-
sity for learing me out and asking tle lard questions. Tanks also to
tle University of CaliforniaBerkeley Humanities Researcl Fellowslip,
wlicl gave me invaluable time to write. Finally, I dedicate tlis book to
Paul Fitzgerald, wlose support, love, and good lumor lave been better
tlan any movie.
Tis book is about a basic paradox of movies: on one land,
we screen moving images to lose ourselves vicariously in tle
bigger, more glamorous, more vivid world we see and lear
on tle screen, on tle otler land, we screen moving images
to reencounter our own immediate sensuality in tlat more
vivid world. Mucl las been written about tle way we lose
ourselves or identify witl tlose glorious, magnied images
of luman bodies in movement on tle silver screen, mucl
less las been written about tle ways we reencounter our own
bodies, and our own sensuality, in tlat process. Tougl it
las recently become possible to speak of tle sensuous plea-
sures of embodied viewing and of tle slock of cinematic
attractions, it las not been easy to understand tle sensual
experiences of cinema outside tle often crude parameters of
tle vocabulary of slock and sensation. Tis las been espe-
cially tle case wlen tle slock and sensation are caused by
moving images of sex.
Movies move us, often powerfully. Sex in movies is espe-
cially volatile: it can arouse, fascinate, disgust, bore, instruct,
and incite. Yet it also distances us from tle immediate, prox-
: introduction
imate experience of toucling and feeling witl our own bodies, wlile at
tle same time bringing us back to feelings in tlese same bodies. Tis is
one reason, I suspect, tlat little las been said tlat is very intelligent about
tle sexual experience of movies beyond pronouncements about tle sus-
pect voyeuristic nature of tle medium and tle implied turn-on tlat voy-
eurs seek. Unlike tle novel, wlicl began to describe explicit sex acts in
tle ,:os witl sucl vivid modernist writers as )ames )oyce and D. H.
Lawrence (and wlicl continued to do so, for example, in tle ction of
Henry Miller, )oln Updike, Plilip Rotl, Ian McEwan, and Toni Morri-
son), tle American movie experienced wlat I will call in clapter a long
adolescence. During tlis prolonged adolescence, carnal facts of life were
carefullyoften absurdlyelided, but also, as a result, mucl wondered
about. Only since tle ,6os las sex ceased to be tle ocially unmention-
able, invisible energy of so mucl tlat attracts us to lm.
Wlile a smoldering glance and a kiss followed by a slow dissolve used
to be all tle sex to be seen, since tle ,6os American audiences lave
begun to expect to learn from tle movies sometling about tle quality
and kind of sex tlat claracters experiencewletler simulated or real,
leterosexual or lomosexual, lard or soft core, protracted or slort. It is
perlaps not surprising, tlen, tlat one of tle questions asked by online
dating services is to name ones favorite movie sex scene. Today, we expect
tlat to know wlat sex a person likes to screen is a clue to tle kind of lover
le or sle miglt want or miglt want to be.
In asking wlen, wly, and low America went from being a culture tlat
did not screen sex to one tlat does, I will insist on tle double meaning
of tle verb to screen as botl revelation and concealment. To screen is to
reveal on a screen. But a second, equally important meaning, as tle dic-
tionary reads, is to slelter or protect witl or as a screen. Movies botl
reveal and conceal. If tle listory of moving-image entertainment is one
of a general tendency toward revelation, of a greater graplic imagina-
tion of sex, we must keep tle stress on imagination. Tis story is never a
matter of a teleological progression toward a nal, clear view of it, as if
it preexisted and only needed to be laid bare. Sex is an act and more or
less of it may be revealed but, as we slall see, it is not a stable trutl tlat
cameras and microplones eitler catcl or dont catcl. It is a constructed,
mediated, performed act and every revelation is also a concealment tlat
leaves sometling to tle imagination.
As a way of presenting tle range of lms discussed lere, consider two
diametrically opposed examples of popular lm from :oo,. Te rst miglt
be considered claste, tle second prurient, but tle status of eacl is only
relative to tle comparison between tlem. Te very last slot of tle latest
screen version of )ane Austens Pride and Prejudice (dir. )oe Wriglt) de-
picts a scene tlat Austen never wrote: tle now-wed Elizabetl and Darcy
presumably on tleir loneymoon gazing from a balcony out to a body of
water. Sle is in a negligee, le in slirtsleeves and breecles witlout stock-
ings. Te camera slowly tracks in to frame just tle couple facing tle water.
Darcy stands and Elizabetl sits on tle ground. At tle beginning of a long,
slow camera movement in, Elizabetl strokes tle back of Darcys exposed
calf. Tis gesture, like tle wlole scene, witl its relaxed, postcoital, inti-
mate air, is untlinkable in Austen. As tle view slowly closes in, Darcy
kneels on tle ground facing Elizabetl and asks ler wlat le slould call
ler now tlat tley are married. Elizabetls playful answer is tlat le slould
call ler Mrs. Darcy wlen you are completely and perfectly and incandes-
cently lappy. Facing ler in prole, Darcy asks, How are you tlis evening,
Mrs. Darcy: He tlen repeats tlis name eacl time before le plants a ten-
der, leisurely kiss on ler forelead, cleek, nose, and otler cleek. Finally,
as we continue to move in and as tle couple faces one anotler in perfect
prole, tley kiss witl sligltly open lips. For two seconds tle kiss is leld,
and tle music surges (gure ). Cut to black and credits as tle music con-
In tlis uncompleted kiss lies tle essence of tle romance of tle movies
a romance predicated on tle screening out of mucl of tle explicit detail
of actual sex acts. A )ane Austen movie would not be a )ane Austen movie
if tle camera leld on tlis kiss a second longer. Indeed, some purists could
1: The very last shot of Pride and Prejudice (dir. Joe Wright, 2005)
( introduction
argue tlat tlis luxuriance of a couple reveling in tleir plysical enjoy-
ment of one anotler, establisling tle terms and language of tleir new
intimacy, is anatlema to tle world of )ane Austen and goes too far. In
many ways tlis kiss resembles tle kisses I will detail in tle rst clapter
of tlis book, from tle era in Hollywood wlen a kiss was all tle sex to be
seen in movies. But it is not quite tle same, for tlis version of Pride and
Prejudice reinvents tle form of tle romantic kiss for a new era of movies
in wlicl audiences are presumed to know tle plysical details of wlat fol-
lows sucl a kiss. Unlike tle kisses in tle era of tle Production Code, tlis
kiss basks in tle glow of tle anticipation of tle sex to come and even tle
sex tlatas is implied by tlat stroke of tle calflas already been. It is
an adult sex scene even tlougl it is rated vo, and even tlougl it displays
only tle beginning of a kiss and screens out many of tle plysical details
of tle sex its couple is nevertleless understood to enjoy.
Now let us turn to an X-rated lm of tle same year. Pirates (dir. )oone)
was advertised as tle most expensive porno of all time and represents an
irreverent, aectionate takeo on tle Pirates of the Caribbean franclise. If
it did not entirely substitute sex play for swordplay, Pirates is nevertleless
determined to reveal wlat Pride and Prejudice conceals. In one scene,
tle naive captain of a sailing vessel reads in lis cabin, wondering wlat
lis (female) rst mate is doing to keep up tle spirits of lis crew: possibly
improving tleir oral skills: Cut to tle rst mate performing fellatio on a
crewman. Te rst mate las tle patented porn female body complete witl
enlanced breasts, slim waist, long, bleacled blond lair. Te crewman
las tle patented male body complete witl big pecs and a long, frequently
erect penis. Wlile ellipses gure in tlis scene, tley work more to conceal
tle meclanics of low tle couple moves from one position to anotler
tlan to conceal explicit sex. Te sex itself is performed so as to be maxi-
mally visible at every moment: fellatio, cunnilingus on a slaved pubis, and
penetration, concluded by tle conventional money slot of ejaculation
onto tle face of tle woman. In a later scene anotler two claracters, in tle
repetitiveness typical of tle genre, enact a very similar sexual encounter,
tlis one distinguisled by even better lit, more visible penetration in wlicl
tle womans slaved pubis faces tle camera so as to reveal even more
clearly tle in-and-out action (gure :).
Pride and Prejudice was a prestige picture slown on big screens and
favorably received by critics. Pirates was a prestige picture too. It was ag-
gressively publicized and proudly touted an array of special eects. How-
ever, it was produced straiglt to ivi and tle largest screens it slowed on
were oversized lome entertainment systems. Its elaborate special eects
introduction ,
only called all tle more attention to tle ways it fell slort of being a real
movie: atrocious acting, mispronounced lines, anaclronistic tattoos on
women performers. Wlere tle vo lm conceals sex and is all about tle
kiss as an entre to wlat would not be furtler revealed, tle X lm reveals
tle very functioning and tle lydraulics of sex. Wlereas tle rst lm is
all about anticipation and does not complete tle sex act it begins before
tle fade-out, tle second is all about tle climax of disclarge and its kisses
are primarily genital. I do not cite tlese two examples to argue for tle
failure or bad taste of tle lm tlat reveals tle most or tle countervalue of
concealment. Botl ends of tlis continuum exist in moving-image enter-
tainment today, and botl occupy positions in tle story of screening sex I
want to tell.
Te question is: How did movies arrive at tlis juncture, not only of
tlese two, conveniently opposed, examples of concealing and revealing
sex, but of art louse, mainstream, adult, simulated, and graplic instances
of sex screened today on big and little screens: Wlat is tle listory of
tle auditory and visual imagination of sex tlrougl tle transition from an
era of ocial ignorance to a more fortlrigltly acknowledged but variably
represented carnal knowledge:
Raymond Williams, writing a quarter of a century ago about television,
noted tlat it is one of tle unique claracteristics of advanced industrial
2: Penetration staged for maximum visibility in Pirates (dir. Joone, 2005)
6 introduction
society tlat drama las become so mucl an intrinsic part of everyday life
tlat sleer quantity may lave brouglt about a qualitative clange: It is
clear tlat watcling dramatic simulation of a wide range of experiences is
now an essential part of our modern cultural pattern.' If Williamss point
about tle vicarious nature of so mucl of our dramatic experience is wortl
ponderingle tells us, for example, tlat people spend more time watcl-
ing drama tlan tley do engaging in tle more basic biological function of
preparing and eating foodtlen wlat can we say about tle fact tlat many
of us spend more time screening sex tlan we do laving it: Sex actsbotl
graplic, as in pornograply, and simulated, as in most mainstream movies
and televisionlave not only embedded tlemselves in tle dramas tlat
we quantitatively watcl so mucl more of but tley lave also become, to
adapt Williams, qualitatively signicant in low we learn and live our own
Moving images are surely tle most powerful sex education most of us
will ever receive. But tlis pedagogy, wlile signicant as sucl, las also
always been sometling more tlan tle simple lesson of low to do it. Even
if we live our lives never laving sex, we learn to appreciate and enjoy
certain sexual ways of being, certain forms of (mild or powerful) arousal
by watcling tle mediated sexual contacts of otlers, wletler smolder-
ing glances, kisses, more overt forms of friction or complex scenarios of
power, abjection, and need. It is tlis second-order, vicarious experience of
screening sex tlat provokes tlis book. Wlat precisely does it mean tlat
we now lave a ringside seat at tle subtlest or most overt displays of pas-
sion, lust, lumiliation, or even love: Wlat clanges lave taken place since
Tomas Edison rst lmed a kiss in 8,6: How did we screen sex tlen,
and low do we screen sex now: How lave we become labituated to vari-
ous spectacles of sex: If, as Cuy Debord once put it, Te spectacle is not
a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by
images, tlen wlat kind of social relation las prevailed among audiences
wlo lave learned to sit togetler in tle dark to screen tlese most intimate
of relations: Wlat, in otler words, is tle listory of screening sex:
Tere lave been many studies of tle social eects of lifted censorslip
and tle rise of more explicit representations (especially in tle form of ar-
guments about tle denition of obscenity or tle demise of tle Production
Code). But sucl arguments lave often blinded us to tle kinds of mediated
carnal knowledge tlat exist on American screens. Tey lave often kept us
from understanding tle carnal appeal to tle senses as sometling witlin,
not beyond, tle pale. Historians of cinema lave told a compelling story of
tle rise and fall of tle Hollywood Production Code and tle institution of
introduction ;
new kinds of regulations, but no one las told tle story of screening sex as
a listory of tle relation between revelation and concealment.
Screening Sex is about tle ways sex acts lave come into our movies. It
asks about tle nature of tlis vicarious social-sexual experience as movies
began to reveal more sex. Wlen, wly, and low did moving images on tle
big screen, and eventually tlose on smaller lome and mobile screens,
come to gure once-taboo sex acts and sexual scenes: How did it lap-
pen, for example, tlat movie narratives began to linge on sucl matters as
wletler or not claracters aclieve orgasm, or on tle specics of genital,
oral, or anal sex, or on sex between people of dierent races or between
people of tle same sex: Tis book is unapologetically interested in and
curious about tlose dirty parts in a rented videotape or ivi tlat will
often freeze or break because tley lave been tle most replayed. To dis-
miss tlese dirty parts as gratuitousas not part of tle cultural story of
tle listory of moviesis to fail to write tle formal and cultural listory of
tlose moving pictures wlicl lave sometimes been tle most moving. It
is also to link tle representations of sex tlat move us to tle related legal
concept of prurience. In botl cases sexual representations are deemed in
excess of wlat slould be allowed.
I will argue tlrouglout tlis book tlat Supreme Court rulings notwitl-
standing, prurience las always been an important reason for interest in
movies. To consider tle listory of sexual representation in American cul-
ture since tle invention of moving-image teclnology is to recognize tle
remarkable degree to wlicl acts once considered ob-scene (literally, o
scene) because tley lad tle capacity to arouse lave come oniscene. I
lave coined tle term on/scene to describe tle way in wlicl discussions
and representations once deemed obsceneas an excludable lard core
easily excised from supposedly decent public spacelave insistently
cropped up, and not only in tle realm of pornograply. In tle face of
tle pervasive and nearly ubiquitous presence of many dierent kinds of
visible and audible sexual acts and sexual scenes we slould cease futile ar-
guments about tle denition of tle obscene. We slould consider, ratler,
tle dialectic between revelation and concealment tlat operates at any
given moment in tle listory of moving-image sex. It is a waste of time to
continue to blame tle increased sexualization of all aspects of American
life on tle rise of pornograply. Te now pervasive inuence of pornog-
raply needs to be viewed, ratler, as part of a mucl larger proliferation of
all manners of screening sex, from claste kisses to tle most graplic and
frenetic of penetrations. And tlis proliferation of moving sexual images
cannot be understood apart from a social and cultural listory of sex.
8 introduction
Of all tle political and social revolutions tlat were eitler promised or
striven for in tle tumultuous era of tle late sixties and seventies, it is
tle sexual one tlat in tle end wrouglt tle biggest clange. Te sexual
revolution in tle sixties was inextricable from tle larger goals of a per-
vasive counterculture of antiwar, antiracist, anticapitalist, and, eventually,
antipatriarclal activity. Witl lindsiglt, lowever, we can discern a dis-
tinct tlread of demograplic, cultural, and teclnological clange tlat can
be labeled tle sexual revolution and tlat came to some kind of climax
in tle late ,6os tlougl reverberating tlrouglout tle next decade. Tis
revolution overlapped witl and was inextricable from tle rise of femi-
nism, tle reductionnot tle end!of tle double standard, and tle emer-
gence of gay and lesbian sexual communities. Feeding into tlis revolution
was an earlier generation of sexual researclers: Willelm Reicl, wlo rst
coined tle term sexual revolution in ,, and wlose tleories about tle
release of sexual energy in orgasm were inuential, Alfred Kinsey, wlose
quantitative tabulations of orgasm and discovery of fairly widespread
lomosexual experiences led lim to assert a more uid continuum of
lomosexual and leterosexual acts in tle late forties and early fties, and,
beginning in ,66, William Masters and Virginia )olnson, wlo, in Human
Sexual Response, used tle laboratory observation of couples laving sex to
revolutionize tle understanding of tle female orgasm as multiple and, in
direct clallenge to Sigmund Freud, as clitoral ratler tlan vaginal. Almost
immediately, feminists began to interpret tle signicance of tlese nd-
ings in relation to tle plallocentrism of previous ideas of sexuality.
As )erey Escoer notes, anotler factor in tle leady mix of sexual
revolution was tle battles over obscenity and pornograply in a series of
trials extending protections of tle First Amendment into literature and
speecl in tle ,,os and eventually into lm in tle early ,;os. Here,
tlen, is one way of measuring tle overall clange wrouglt by tle sexual
revolution: In tle America of tle mid-sixties, abortion, birtl control out-
side of marriage, lomosexuality, and tle screening of pornograplic lms
were all ocially taboo. If tley took place tley did so in illicit, closeted
ways. Wlatever sex people actually lad, tlere was, as tle sociologists
Kristin Luker and Antlony Ciddens and tle listorians )oln DEmilio and
Estelle Freedman lave all argued, a loose agreement tlat sexual intimacy
was a private matter, best relegated to tle marriage bed. However, tlis
secluded arena soon began to undergo clange partly due to tle new ease
of birtl control by women. Tougl we cannot attribute tle sexual revolu-
Sexual Revolution
introduction ,
tion to anytling as simple as tle new teclnology of tle pill, tlere is also
no denying tlat at least for leterosexuals, tle relative freedom from tle
procreative consequences of sexual relations made possible new kinds of
sexual belavior.
Wlen I rst began taking birtl control pills in my second year of college
in ,66, I lid tlem in an emptied-out lipstick tube from tle prying eyes
of my motler wlenever I went lome to live witl my family over tle sum-
mer. Eacl morning, I would engage in an elaborate ritual of locking my-
self in tle batlroom and extracting my daily pill from tle lipstick decoy,
carefully crossing out tle date on a tiny, landmade, folded-up calendar
prepared for eacl montl. Wlen I subsequently began to live out of wed-
lock witl my boyfriend in ,6;, my motler declared me a fallen woman,
damaged goods. Polls slow tlat as late as ,6,, seven out of ten Ameri-
cans were still opposed to premarital sex. I was judged, tlenand not
only by my motlerto be a bolemian minority out of sync witl main-
stream sexual morality. But by ,;, only six years later, I lad become a
majority. By tlis time, only (8 percent of tlose surveyed were opposed
to premarital sex.
Sometling lad radically clanged between ,6, and ,;. As I argue in
tle fourtl clapter of tlis book, making love was for many in my genera-
tion also a way of opposing war, a fallen woman sucl as myself could
rise again, abortions were legally obtainable after Roe v. Wade in ,; and
no longer left an indelible stigma, contraception was legal, and pills and
condoms were freely available, even for teenagers. Wlen attitudes and be-
lavior clange so radically in sucl a slort time, tle term revolution seems
apt, even if tle extreme utopian promises of free love or tle replacement
of war witl love were easier said tlan done. Some lave argued tlat an
earlier sexual revolution lad already occurred at tle turn of tle century,
wlen Edison was perfecting lis kinetoscope and lming tle movies rst
kiss. Tis earlier alteration in sexual relations displaced reproduction from
its formerly central role in luman sexuality to allow sexual pleasure in its
own riglt to become a value witlin marriage. However, it did not also call
into question eitler marriage itself or tle fundamental power relations
witlin sex. It is tlis calling into question of tle quality and kind of sexual
relationsplus tle very fact tlat tley come oniscene for scrutinytlat
made tle clanges tlat began in tle late sixties so revolutionary.
Even if one considers tle debates about pornograply tlat raged witlin
feminism a decade later as a step back from tle embrace of a never quite
free love, and even if one recognizes tlat tle sexual revolution never
meant a steady progress toward sexual freedom, tlere is no denying tle
o introduction
new public prominence of sex, wletler one applauded or condemned
its popular proliferation in tle form of visible sex acts. Beginning in tle
late seventies, erce debates about tle nature and function of a recently
emerged plotograplically based pornograply (magazines and movies)
took place witlin feminism. Tere was a ood of discussion for and
against, but neitler side of tle debate could take place witlout an un-
precedented level of explicit description or quotation. Feminists on botl
sides argued about tle signicance of specic sexual positionswlo was
on top, wlo was on tle bottom, wlo was active, wlo was passive:
Male and female, straiglt and gay, young and old, some speaking mostly
of power, otlers mostly of pleasureall were compelled to speak sex,
wlicl is not quite tle same tling as speaking about it. Speaking about
sex presumes a stable object of investigation, speaking sex implies tlat tle
very speaking forms part of sexs discursive construction, and discourses
of sexuality proliferated exponentially in tle midst of intensifying sex wars
and pornograply debates. My ,8, book on lard-core pornograply di-
rectly resulted from tlese debates and from a sexual revolution tlat made
a feminist interest in pornograply possible. Te present book las little
interest in revisiting tlose debates and no interest at all in clronicling tle
supposed rise of pornograplyat least not as an isolated plenomenon
unrelated to otler moving-image traditions. However, tlis book will as-
sume tlat a sexual revolution (witl tle ebbing and owing tlat occurs
in all revolutions) las taken place and tlat an intensied screening sex is
one of its more important, and least studied, eects. Revolution, in otler
words, las been most manifest, as Eric Sclaefer las noted, as a revo-
lution in media. So wlile individual sexual practices were undoubtedly
aected by tle sexual revolutionwitness my own surreptitious use of
birtl control pillsmy interest in tlis study is not so mucl in low belav-
iors clanged but in low movies did.
Wlen movies began to slow more sex tlan ever before, a fundamental
reorganization of tle relation of public to private took place. One of tle
slogans of feminism was tlat tle personal is political, by wlicl my gen-
eration meant to say tlat many intimate practices once considered private
deserved airing on a public stage. Te feminist antlropologist Susan Cal
las written, Activities sucl as wife-beating, wlicl were considered a pri-
vate concern a few decades ago, are now tle subject of public legislation
around tle globe, conversely, consensual sexual activity among adults tlat
was once more widely subject to legal prolibitions [for example gay sex]
las become a private matter in many locales.' It is not tlat wlat was
once private simply becomes public, but, as tle listorian )oan Landes
las put it, tlat tle line between public and private is constantly being
renegotiated.'' Te cinematic representations of sex tlat became public
in tle late sixties and early seventies reected revolutions in sexual atti-
tudes and tlemselves slaped our very experience of sexual relations. But
tlis new publicity of sex took place at a time in wlicl tle very idea of a
riglt to privacy around tlings sexual and reproductive was also growing.
For example, it was not until tle ,6, Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme
Court ruling, wlicl overturned a Connecticut law prolibiting tle use of
contraception, tlat tle sladowy riglt to privacy began to be articulated
as a constitutional riglt.' It is tlus not accidental tlat tle publication
of sex discussed in tlis book emerged at tle same time as tle idea of tle
riglt to privacy. As we slall see in clapter 6, notions of publicity and pri-
vacy came crasling togetler many years later in debates about tle pub-
licity campaign for Ang Lees Brokeback Mountain (:oo,). Ratler tlan a
relentless marcl toward greater and greater exposure of all tlings sexual,
we see, especially in tle acute period of sexual revolution and in its later
reverberations, a dynamic tension between tle two categories tlat prove
essential to tle analysis of tlis book: revelation, on one land, and a newly
discovered riglt to concealment, on tle otler. It is for tlis reason tlat tle
rst four of tle books eiglt clapters concentrate on tle late sixties and
tle seventies, tle period of greatest destabilization and renegotiation of
public and private. In tlis period conventions for tle representation of sex
in moving images became establisled for tle world in wlicl we still live.
A greater range of sexual options, of ways of being sexual, tlus emerged
in tle wake of tle sexual revolution even as feminism engaged in an im-
portant critique of tle limits of tlose options for women. Te story told
lere will tlus not be tlat of a triumplant marcl toward unfettered sexual
freedom. For witl sexual revolution came a new increase in sexual disci-
plinea greater control over and monitoring of tle sexual body as we
came to expect to see, lear, and know more about it. It would tlus be a
grave error to trace a listory of screening sex as a simple rise of explicit-
ness. Sucl an account would not be true to wlat is botl listorically and
viscerally strange and intractable about sextle many ways in wlicl it
does not submit itself to visual and aural explicitness, its incolerence, its
troubling enigmas.
One important eect of tle sexual revolution las been tlat it is no
longer possible to point to tle norm of penetrative leterosexual genital
sex (coituslow quaint tle term is beginning to sound!) as a primary
denition of sex. Coitus las become one act among many as leterosexual
and lomosexual variations of anal sex, fellatio, cunnilingus, and wide vari-
: introduction
eties of fetislisms and sadomasoclisms confound tle very notion of wlat
my second clapter calls going all tle way. Te growing visibility or infer-
ence of wide varieties of sex actswletler merely suggested, simulated,
or served up as tle real tling in lard-core pornograplieslave compli-
cated tle notion of sex as a singular, visible trutl tlat one knows wlen
one sees it.'
If sexualities are, as Miclel Foucault argues, listorically and culturally
constructed, if procreation, in tle wake of tle sexual revolution, is less
and less tle ostensible aim of most sex acts, and if sex itself las been in-
creasingly recognized as a matter of many and varied perversions, tlen
simply to clronicle tle screening of sex as a progression from lesser to
greater explicitness as various censorslips fall away will not suce. Sex
screened since tle sixties las become more graplic in some ways, but it
las also become more leterogeneous and tleoretically elusivewitness
tle controversy over tle former president Bill Clintons denial of laving
lad sexual relations witl tlat woman, wlicl was not simply a lie, but
in tle eyes of many revolved around tle question of wletler fellatio
amounted to sex.'
Foucaults great insiglts about tle listorical constructions of sexuality
tlrougl discourse are embraced in tlis book. In tle rst volume of lis
History of Sexuality, written in ,;8 at wlat miglt be viewed as tle tail
end of tle listorical period of tle sexual revolution, Foucault understands
sexuality not as a force of libido to be repressed or liberated, but as a dis-
cursive form of entwined power, knowledge, and pleasure. His proposed
listory of sexuality, never actually written as outlined in tlis rst volume,
was to lave been a listory of proliferating discourses of sexuality centered
on listorically emerging gures: tle lysterical woman, tle masturbating
clild, tle Maltlusian couple, and tle lomosexual. Te force of Foucaults
tlesis is to minimize tle existence of sex as a preexisting tlingsay as tle
repressed drive of psycloanalytic tleoryand to see instead low appara-
tuses of sexuality wrap around tle body and its sexual organs to produce
dierent kinds of pleasures and relations of alliance.'
Foucault clallenged wlat le called Freuds repressive lypotlesistle
idea tlat sex is an inlerent force tlat civilization necessarily represses
and tlus deated tle understanding of tle sexual revolution as libera-
tion.' Tougl Foucault was in fact a rm supporter of most forms of
Sexual Theory
sexual revolution, le argued tlat we atter ourselves if we tlink tlat by
speaking sex we overcome its prolibitions and tlerefore liberate it. Re-
pression exists, but it is part of a mucl larger apparatus producing dis-
course. In fact, le argues tlat we cling to tle notion of sex as repressed
because it allows us to believe in tle utopian possibility tlat enliglten-
ment, liberation, and manifold pleasures are all linkedfor example, tlat
making love, as I frame it in clapter (, may actually lave sometling to do
witl opposing war.'
To understand tle listory of sexuality, Foucault argues, we need to
tlink of tle more slippery relations between a power tlat does not come
from on ligl to repress but comes from below to conjoin discourses of
knowledge and pleasure. Sex is rarely just repressed or liberated, it is just
as often incited and stimulated and nowlere more so tlan by media. Per-
versions are implanted by tle very same discourses tlat may seek to
control tlem. So instead of deciding wletler we slould say yes or no
to sex, instead of joining tle loud clorus of voices confessing tle various
trutls of sex, Foucault would ratler we account for tle very fact tlat
sex is spoken and instead see wlo does tle speaking, tle positions and
viewpoints from wlicl tley speak, tle institutions wlicl prompt people
to speak about it.' It is in tle spirit of tlis putting-into-discourse of an
intertwined power-knowledge-pleasure tlat I lope to relate tle listory of
screening sex.
Te rise of sexual explicitness in tle movies cannot be viewed as a trans-
gressive exception to tle rules of previous repression, but as tle continua-
tion, in Foucaults sense, of a larger discursive explosion of perverse sexu-
alities. In language tlat is itself blatantly sexual, Foucault tells us low tle
power tlat took clarge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caress-
ing tlem witl its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatiz-
ing troubled moments. It wrapped tle sexual body in its embrace.' In
tle end tlese perpetual spirals of power and pleasure prove tlat modern
society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism but in actual fact, and
directly, perverse. Wletler or not any of tlese perversions actually con-
stitute new forms of pleasure, tley lave been listorically implanted in
ways tlat become acutely visible in late-twentietl-century screening sex.
Fellatio, prolonged and multiple female orgasm, sadomasoclistic excite-
ment, and lomosexual relationsall lave clear moments of emergence in
tle mainstream and tle marginal listory of screening sex and all will be
traced in tlis study, not as liberating transgressions, but as tle two-edged
swords of liberation and furtler disciplinary control.
Foucauldian entlusiast tlat I am, I do not nd it possible to tell tle story
( introduction
of screening sex witlout also drawing on at least some of tle tleoretical
insiglts of psycloanalysis. Even as I lave myself grown increasingly un-
sympatletic to tle story of repression tlat psycloanalysis always tells,
and of tle way psycloanalytic readings always seem to be allegories of its
master tleory, I lave not been able to forego some of tlese basic concepts.
My rst clapter on tle kiss, for example, is founded on tle notion of tle
long adolescence of latent sexual knowledge in wlicl movies seemed to
simultaneously know and not know about tle existence of sex. Nor las it
been possible to tlink about tle orality of tle movie kiss apart from tle
oral pleasures of infantile sexuality so acutely described in Freuds Tree
Essays on the Teory of Sexuality. Similarly, clapter 6 on tle primal scene
of supposedly perverse sexualities as tley came oniscene in American
lm since tle eiglties las not been able to do witlout Freuds key concept
of tle primal scene and deferred understanding. However, if I cannot fully
reconcile my simultaneous recourse to botl Freud and Foucault, I can at
least qualify tle way I will be using tleir very dierent senses of tle term
Perverse in its adjectival form literally means turned about, deviated
from, a more proper direction. To engage in sex witl an organ not des-
tined for procreation is to Freud to engage in perverse belavior, it is a de-
viation from tle proper direction and aim of sex. Yet le fully realizes tlat
a kiss, or any otler sexual act, miglt be lingered on a little longer tlan
necessary to aclieve simple disclarge in copulation. Freud would like to
rely on a model of perversion (lingering) and norm (proceeding promptly
to disclarge), but le cannot quite maintain tle distinction. Mucl of tle
time, as Leo Bersani las argued, perversion actually becomes lis model
for tle understanding of sexual pleasure tout court. For example, Bersani
slows tlat often Freuds model of sexual pleasure accepts tle existence
of forms of sexual stimulation tlat seek not to be released in disclarge,
but remain to be pleasurably-unpleasurably increased as tension.' Sexual
pleasure, in otler words, is not tle same tling as satisfaction and may rely
on a certain unpleasure tlat prolongs excitement. Bersani beautifully
describes Freuds two forms of sexual pleasure as, on one land, an itcl
tlat can be satised by a scratcl, and, on tle otler, an itcl tlat does not
seek to be scratcled, tlat seeks notling better tlan its own prolongation,
even its own intensication.
Tis Freudian lesitation between tle two models of sexual pleasure
and excitement is one way of circumventing some of Freuds more nor-
mative tendencies and of making lis tleory palatable, and I lope useful,
for analyzing tle activation of new cinematic erogenous zones. We slall
introduction ,
see in clapter ,, for example, low one of tle most genitally oriented of all
sexually graplic art lms, In the Realm of the Senses (dir. Oslima Nagisa,
,;6), is predicated entirely on an itcl model of sexual excitement, wlile
some of tle kisses examined in tle rst clapter function, for all tle kisss
usual role as foreplay, as concluding scratcles.
Anotler tleorist wlo las proven essential to tlis study is Ceorges Ba-
taille, wlo slares Foucaults propensity to esclew tle approacl to sexual
identity and to tlink ratler of sex acts. You miglt call lim tle plilosopler
of ecstasy, or wlat tle Frencl call jouissance, wlicl is sometimes trans-
lated as orgasm, sometimes as bliss, and most times not translated at
all. Bataille lelps us understand wlat makes sex sexy in lis exploration of
tle complex dynamic between prolibition and transgression out of wlicl
emerges lis notion of tle erotic. Bataille explains tle erotic in terms of tle
tension between continuity and discontinuity, ratler tlan between indi-
vidual and society or between nature and culture, as Freud does. Eroticism
gives us a glimpse of tle continuity from wlicl we emerge wlen born and
to wlicl we return in deatl: erotic activity to Bataille is a paradoxical
exuberance of life wlicl, at tle extreme, is akin to deatl. In a plrase
tlat I lave found extremely useful for tlinking about tle transgressions
of taboo tlat constitute many of tle sex acts described in tlis book, le
argues tlat taboo is essential to erotic signication: Unless tle taboo is
observed witl fear it lacks tle counterpoise of desire wlicl gives it its
deepest signicance. In otler words, transgression does not defeat, but
only suspends, taboo. Te truly successful erotic transgression is one tlat
maintains tle emotional force of tle prolibition. As yet anotler tleorist
inlerently skeptical of tle liberatory claims of sexual revolution, Batailles
introduction of tle relation between fear and desire will prove invaluable
to tlose lms discussed in tle later part of tle book wlicl are determined
to probe tle relations between sex and deatl.
In wlat precise sense do we sexually feel wlen we screen sex: How are
our bodies engaged tlrougl vision and sound in a kind of vicarious toucl,
taste, smell: In asking tlese questions I mean to keep in mind tle bodies
of tle viewers sitting in tle dark before tle screen, as well as tle moving
images of bodies on tle screen. Walter Benjamins famous statement
Everyday tle urge grows stronger to get lold of an object at close range in
an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproductionspeaks to tle strik-
Embodied Screening and Mimetic Play
6 introduction
ing fact tlat cinematic reproducibility las made possible tle close-range
reception of liglly intimate and once private sexual acts. Reproduction
in tlis case, let us say tle lmic reproduction of a couple laving sex
makes a new kind of contact possible, wlat Miclael Taussig, comment-
ing on Benjamin, calls a palpable, sensuous, connection between tle very
body of tle perceiver and tle perceived.
Tis kind of screening is symptomatic, in Benjamins view, of profound
clanges in apperception tlat lave severed earlier practices of auratic and
distanced contemplation sucl as painting. Yet wlen it comes to tle recep-
tion of sexual contents, culture critics and legal sclolars often fail to in-
voke tle lessons of tleorists like Benjamin and Taussig and confuse con-
tact witl literal toucl. Consider tle following statement by tle respected
First Amendment sclolar Frederick Sclauer:
Imagine a motion picture of ten minutes duration wlose entire content
consists of a close-up colour depiction of tle sexual organs of a male and
female wlo are engaged in sexual intercourse. Te lm contains no variety,
no dialogue, no music, no attempt at artistic depiction, and not even any
view of tle faces of tle participants. Te lm is slown to paying customers
wlo, observing tle lm, eitler reacl orgasm instantly or are led to mastur-
bate wlile tle lm is being slown.
Tis is Sclauers description of tle kind of lard-core pornograply tlat le
believes does not deserve protection as speecl precisely because its eect
on tle body is directly mimetic. Tougl tle lm described corresponds
fairly closely (except for tle color) to tle single-reel, silent stag lms once
slown exclusively to men at baclelor parties and fraternal organizations,
it also represents a kind of legal sclolars Platonic ideal of obscenity as
tlat wlicl acts directly on tle body and tlat wlicl can tlen be dismissed
as mere prurience. In Sclauers imagination tlere is no real dierence
between screening sex and laving sex, between watcling and doing. In-
deed, le argues tlat tlere is virtually no dierence between tle sale of
sucl a lm and tle sale of a plastic or vibrating sex aid, tle sale of a body
tlrougl prostitution, or tle sex act itself. At its most extreme, lard-core
pornograply is a sex aid, no more and no less, and tle fact tlat tlere is no
plysical contact is only fortuitous.
Tougl I do not defend tle artistic value of sucl a lm, if indeed sucl
a pure example of obscenity actually existed, I do argue tlat even tlis
stripped-down, bare example of wlat Sclauer wants to relegate to tle
category of tle obscene must take into consideration tle medium tlat
necessarily distances tle viewer from tle leterosexual sex act screened.
introduction ;
In otler words, it is not merely fortuitous tlat no plysical contact exists
between tle viewer and tle moving image: it is constitutive of wlatever
our relation to tlese images may be. Even if a viewer slould lave tle re-
action tlat tle genre of pornograply strives to aclieve (arousal or satis-
faction or one of many stages in between), tlere will always be a dierence
between screening sex and laving sex, even wlen tle viewer moves out
of public tleaters and into tle privacy of tle lome, wlere tle kind of re-
actions Sclauer describes become even more likely.
Wlat Sclauer ignores is tle medium in wlicl tlese sex acts exist
and tle mediation enacted by social viewers. It is tle meclanical repro-
ducibility of lm tlat makes possible tle screening of tle act of letero-
sexual intercourse tlat seems so close in space, if not in time. Sclauer
tlus ignores wlat Benjamin appreciates: we do not simply imitate wlat
we see, we play witl it too. Cetting lold of sometling by means of its
reproduced likeness is not tle same as getting lold of tle tling itself. If
cinema, often cited as tle quintessential example of tle slock of moder-
nity, contributes, as Benjamin argues, to tle breakdown of tle auratic
tissue of space and time of religious or aestletic experience, tlen we
miglt use Sclauers blunt and decidedly anestletic example of tle sup-
posedly worst-case scenario to examine tle consequences of sucl slock-
ing images.
A common way of reading Benjamins inuential Work of Art in tle
Age of Its Teclnological Reproducibility las been to see it as a defense of
tle slock of moving images as antidotes to tle inlerent slocks of mod-
ern life. In tlis reading, tle aura-destroying slock of cinematic images
Benjamins favorite examples, writing in tle tlirties, were Clarlie Clap-
lin, Dada, and surrealist lmmiglt jolt viewers out of tle numbness of
modern life. Of course tle risk was always tlat tle numbing eects of
slock would simply be treated witl more slock in an escalating cycle
often invoked in critiques of sex and violence in tle media. In recent
articles on Benjamin, Miriam Hansen suggests a way out of tlis impasse
tlrougl a concept unfortunately excised from tle most familiar tlird ver-
sion of Benjamins famous artwork essay: innervation.
Hansen explains tlat innervation describes a neuroplysiological pro-
cess tlat mediates between internal and external, psyclic and motoric,
luman and meclanical registers.' Wlile we typically call sensation tle
experience of taking in plenomena tlat make us feeltlat is, experience
tlat moves from our outer senses, ears and eyes, into our bodies wlere we
feelwe are less prone to consider tle reverse direction: tle transmission
of energy from tle inside of our bodies back toward tle outside world.
8 introduction
Tis latter transmission is wlat Benjamin calls innervation, tlougl tle
term only appears in a footnote to tle lesser-known second version of lis
essay. Tougl only incipient in Benjamins own tlouglt, Hansen argues
tlat innervation allows us to see mimesis as a two-way process, one taking
in, but also reconverting psyclic energy tlrougl motoric stimulation
to extend back out toward tle world. In otler words, a process usually
understood as a mere taking in of sensation and, in tle case of Sclauers
example, a taking in tlat mimics tle gestures and sensations experienced
by tlose viewed, can be understood as a two-way street: our bodies botl
take in sensation and tlen reverse tle energy of tlat reception to move
back out to tle outside world. Tus, instead of just absorbing slock, in
tlis case tle slock of eros, tle body is energized as wlat Hansen calls a
porous interface between tle organism and tle world.
In tlis porous interface we miglt also locate a process of labituation
tlat socially integrates sexual sensations previously viewed as private or
antisocial. Tus wlere sexual arousal was once deemed antitletical to all
civilized public culture, now, tlrougl screening sex, our bodies are not
simply slocked into states of arousal but labituated and opened up to
tlis clanging environment in newly socialized ways. In Foucaults terms
we are disciplined into new forms of socialized arousal in tle company of
otlers, but in (Hansens understanding of ) Benjamins terms we are more
tlan just disciplined, we may also learn to play at sex tle way a clild miglt
play at being a windmill or a train by incorporating more subtle forms of
psyclic energy tlrougl motoric stimulation. In lis slort essay, Te Mi-
metic Faculty, in wlicl tlis clilds play is evoked, Benjamin signicantly
does not argue tlat tle clild believes tlat le or sle is tle windmill or tle
train. Playing at being a windmill constitutes an labituation to a culture
in wlicl windmills are important, playing at being a train is tle same for
a dierent sort of culture, playing at sex, too, is a way of labituating our
bodies to a newly sexualized world in wlicl vicarious forms of sexual
pleasure are now oniscene. Te mimetic faculty is a kind of tactile training
tlat labituates viewers to adapt to clanging environments. Wlat is lost in
tle decay of aura is potentially gained, tlen, in tle scope of playa play
tlat is, as Benjamin puts it, widest in lm.
Let us now come back to Sclauers rude and crude example of screen-
ing sex, wlicl le believes induces its audience to a reductive state of
mimicry. Since Sclauer depicts tle screening situation as one witl pay-
ing customersin otler words, as a normal movie audience, not a private
stag party or a lome screeningwe miglt consider tle similarity of wlat
le describes to an actual ten minutes of a public screening of a specic
introduction ,
pornograplic lm, say, Deep Troat (dir. Cerard Damiano, ,;:), wlicl
will be discussed in clapter . Tere are stretcles of tlis lm tlat oer a
close-up colour depiction of tle sexual organs of a male and female wlo
are engaged in sexual intercourse. In ,;: public screenings of tlis lm
could lave been said to lave slocked tle nation witl tle spectacle, and
tle sensation, of close views of sexual organs in action. In its initial slock
of screening sex, tlis moment was not unlike anotler moment in 8,6
wlen Tomas Edison screened a kiss as part of a program of slort lms.
In botl cases an aura-slattering abolition of distance jars by a display of
organsmoutl and genitalsin close-up.
However, if we factor in tle two-way possibilities of innervation, we can
move beyond slock, and also beyond tle limits of Sclauers presump-
tion of a knee-jerk response to moving-image sex as no dierent tlan sex
itself. We tlen begin to see tlat a variety of responses are possible: slock,
embarrassment, arousal, but also, and most important, imaginative play.
My point tlrouglout tlis book is tlat tle imagination can play witl tle
most concealed and modest as well as tle most revealed and explicit of
images and sounds, witl Pride and Prejudice as well as Pirates. We tlus
underestimate tle imagination if we tlink tlat it can only operate in tle
absence of, or only at tle sligltest suggestion of sexual representation. As
a porous interface between tle organism and tle world, my body before
tle screen is not simply excited tlen numbed, or numbed and tlen ex-
cited, ratler, over time and witl more screenings, it becomes labituated
to diverse qualities and kinds of sexual experiences, including tlose wlicl
I may never lave but witl wlicl I can feel and play.
In otler words, even if movies do seem to invite us to crudely mimic
tle acts tley slow, our bodies are not quite tle meclanistic mimics tlat
Sclauer imagines. Anotler way of tlinking about tle two-way street tlat
innervation permits is to consider tle lm tleorist Vivian Sobclacks in-
siglts about tle embodied foundations of cinematic intelligibility. Sob-
clack writes tlat to understand movies we must literally make sense of
tlem. Sle observes tlat carnal responses to cinema lave been regarded
as too crude to invite extensive elaboration beyond aligning tlemfor
tleir easy tlrills, commercial impact, and cultural associationswitl
otler more kinetic forms of amusement. Sobclack comes to grips
witl tle carnal foundations of cinematic intelligibility by claracterizing
cinema as a series of embodiment relationsmodes of mediated seeing
and learing, and of reective movement tlat are tle very foundation of
its expressiveness.
Sobclacks plenomenological approacl to moving images ecloes
:o introduction
Hansens and Benjamins, but witl tle dierence tlat sle conceives em-
bodied viewing as an intentional arc tlat originates not witl tle world
but witl tle spectator. Sle notes tlat wlen sle attends to a lm tle fact
tlat sle can see but cannot also toucl, smell, and taste means tlat ler
bodys intentional trajectory will reverse its direction to locate its partially
frustrated sensual grasp on sometling more literally accessible, wlicl is
ler own subjectively felt lived body. Tus, sle writes, on tle rebound
from tle screenand witlout a reective tlougltI will reexively turn
toward my own carnal and sensual being to toucl myself toucling, smell
myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and, in sum, feel my own sensu-
ality. Writing about )ane Campions Te Piano (,,), sle observes tlat
wlen tle male claracter, Baines, toucles Adas esl tlrougl a lole in
ler black woolen stocking, sleSobclackfeels a tactile slock. Tougl
Sobclack does not literally toucl Ada, tle slock of watcling tlis toucl
between otlers opens ler to tle general erotic mattering and diusion
of my esl, and I feel not only my own body but also Bainess body, Adas
body, wlat I lave elsewlere called tle lms body.
Notice, as Taussig miglt appreciate, tlat Sobclack does not say tlat sle
identies witl Baines as le toucles Ada. Sle is not describing an ob-
jectifying male gaze tlat excludes tle female pleasure in looking. Nor is
sle describing a Cartesian perspective tlat reduces wlat is seen to a mas-
tered, distanced object.' Ratler, sle describes a situation in wlicl tle
camera and tle sound-recording teclnology sees and lears like a body,
so tlat our own bodies subsequently see and lear wlat tlat original lm
body does. Viewing and learing tlus makes for a material experience of
embodiment, it is a series of mediated exclanges of our social bodies, tle
lms body, and tle bodies on tle screen.
Te attraction tlat pulls us toward a moving image is tlus not just of
tle eyes but also of tle esl, yet not of tle esl in tle way Sclauer imag-
ines. Our entire sensorium is activated synestletically, all tle more so, as
will often be tle case in tlis book, wlen tle moving image slows two
(or more) beings toucling, tasting, smelling, and rubbing up against one
anotler. If tlese bodies are engaged in sex acts, as Baines and Ada are at
tlis moment in tlis long tease of a lm, tlen in watcling tlem I am so-
licited sexually too. However, tlis solicitation is not Sclauers nigltmare
of pure mimicry nor is it just of tle eyes, for one bodily sense translates
into anotler. Witl Benjamin and Hansens innervation, tlen, we lave
a model for taking in energy tlrougl motoric stimulation tlat extends
back toward tle world, and witl Sobclacks rebound we lave a model for
taking energy from tle image back into tle self. Trouglout tlis book
introduction :
I will operate on tle assumption tlat screened sex las always been and
is now even more central to our culture, wletler it leads to Sobclacks
commuted, diuse encounter witl ones own esl, or to Hansens Benja-
minian notion of ones body as a porous interface extending back toward
tle world.
We begin, as is proper in western culture, witl tle kiss. Of Kisses and
Ellipses: Te Long Adolescence of American Movies (8,6,6), begins
witl Tomas Edisons 8,6 Te Kiss and ends witl Andy Warlols ,6
Kissa compendium of tlirteen kisses tlat I take as tle epitapl for tle
era of tle kiss. Looking at tlis most publicly acceptable and ubiquitous
of cinematic sex acts, tlis clapter explores tle listory and tle plenome-
nology of tle screen kiss beginning witl early reactions to tle anatomi-
zation, magnication, and repetition made possible by tle close-up and
tle large screen. Witl Edison and Warlol as tle alpla and tle omega
of screen kisses, I contrast eacl to tle era of tle Hollywood Production
Code and to tle time before tle Codes prolibition against scenes of pas-
sion and excessive and lustful kissing. Trougl tle kiss we explore tle
nature of cinematic oral pleasures and tle eroticism of tleir limits.
Coing All tle Way: Carnal Knowledge on American Screens (,6
,;), my second clapter, asks wlen and low it became not only pos-
sible but obligatory to slow, in eitler simulated or explicit faslion, wlat
lappens between tle sleets in mainstream movies. How, in otler words,
did American movies grow up and slift from adolescent kisses to presum-
ably more adult displays sucl as tlose viewed in Te Graduate (dir. Mike
Niclols, ,6;): Wlat constituted carnal knowledge on tle screen in tlis
period of sexual revolutionary, late sixties clange: Tis clapter compares
tle form and function of tle supposedly tasteful Hollywood sexual inter-
ludetle familiar montage of musically accompanied abstracted snippets
of simulated sexto otler forms of adult sexuality available in sexploita-
tion, blaxploitation, and tle avant-garde.
A single year, ,;:, and two lms, Last Tango in Paris and Deep Troat,
are tle main focus of clapter . In tlis annus mirabilis of screening sex,
two Italian male directorsone from Italy, tle otler from New York
altered tle expectations of American movie audiences of wlat sort of
sexual feelings tley miglt experience at tle tleater. One lm was consid-
ered erotic modern art, tle otler crass lard-core pornograply. But botl
confronted public, gender-mixed audiences witl narratives tlat were un-
apologetically about sex from beginning to end. As a member of botl
tlese audiences I lave tried to depict tle spirit in wlicl a wlole genera-
:: introduction
tion of American moviegoers dared in ,;: to watcl tlese two lms in
tle company of otlers. A tlird lm, one tlat I did not see in tle day, was
perlaps even more groundbreaking, tlougl to a more specialized emerg-
ing community of gay viewers. Wakeeld Pooles Boys in the Sand (,;)
was made a year before tlese otler landmarks of graplic sex and served
to validate and celebrate, wlile never exactly normalizing, tle dierence
of gay sex.
Witl all tle ejaculating penises brouglt oniscene in botl letero-
sexual and lomosexual pornograply of tle early seventies, and witl all
tle end-of-Code, beginning-ofratings-system lms and tleir climacti-
cally simulated sexual interludes, it is only fair to ask about tle fate of tle
representation of female orgasm. Clapter (, Make Love, Not War: )ane
Fonda Comes Home (,68,;8), moves botl backward to tle roots of
tle American sexual revolution and forward to mainstream American
cinemas belated concern witl female orgasm tlrougl tle Frencl and
American careers of )ane Fonda. In lms as diverse as Barbarella: Queen
of the Galaxy (dir. Roger Vadim, ,68), Klute (dir. Alan Pakula, ,;), and
Coming Home (dir. Hall Aslby, ,;8) Fonda was tle rst female Ameri-
can actor in mainstream lm to play claracters wlose orgasms mattered.
Tese orgasms related signicantly to Fondas successive iconic positions
as a sexpot, a feminist, and an antiwar activist.
Wlere lard-core, moving-image pornograply is easy to make and las
ourisled since tle seventies in its own parallel universe devoid of mucl
art, art lms tlat venture to depict unsimulated sex acts lave been dicult
to make, botl aestletically and nancially (witness tle rarely used Ameri-
can rating of c-;). One lm of tle ,;os, Oslima Nagisas )apanese
but Frencl-produced In the Realm of the Senses (,;6), fully succeeded
in combining lard-core sex witl erotic art. As perlaps tle only work of
seventies international cinema to actually do wlat Anglo-American and
European critics and directors lad only dreamed of doing, tlis single lm
occupies tle wlole of clapter ,. I argue tlat it deserves careful discus-
sion, botl because it was groundbreaking and because its lessons prove
essential to tle growing group of contemporary lms since tle nineties
belatedly following in its footsteps.
Every once in a wlile lms come along tlat lit a sexual nerve witl tle
American public. Clapter 6 focuses on tle perverse provocations of tle
American screen since tle eiglties in two groundbreaking lms: David
Lyncls Blue Velvet (,86) and Ang Lees Brokeback Mountain (:oo,). Be-
cause tle sex scenes depicted in tlese lms are of simulated, not lard-
core, sex tley reacled large R-rated audiences. David Lyncls small-town
introduction :
mystery tlat begins witl a severed ear and Ang Lees cowboy movie about
two sleeplerders wlo fall in love brouglt primal fantasies of sex lome
to general American audiences, and not just tle art louse crowd. Sado-
masoclistic sexual rituals wlicl lad tleir rst emergence in mainstream
American cinema in ,86 lad mucl tle same impact, I argue, as tle
more recent staging of sodomitical sex in Brokeback. In botl cases tle
simulated sex acts brouglt perverse sex to tle American leartlandto
a picture-perfect small Nortlwestern town and to tle iconic wilderness
of tle western landscape. Trougl tlese two lms, tlis clapter examines
some of tle ways in wlicl American cinema became perverse tlrougl
tle staging of primal scenes.
Simulated sex lms sucl as Blue Velvet and Brokeback scrupulously
avoid tle display of sexual organs. Hard-core art lms, on tle otler land,
often aunt tle display of sexual organs and are tlus refused R ratings.
Clapter ;, Plilosoply in tle Bedroom: Hard-Core Art Film since tle
Nineties, examines a new tradition of art lm tlat las followed in tle
lard-core art tradition of Oslima. Since tle nineties, a new wave of
Frencl, Cerman, Italian, Asian, and Britisl lms las deed tle soft focus
erotic prettiness of mainstream Hollywoods sexual interludes discussed
in clapter , and even tle simulated perversions of clapter 6. Many of
tle lms discussed lere innovate by cloosing to focus on sex tlat is ag-
gressive, loveless, or alienated in precise opposition to botl tle cloying
romance of tle dominant Hollywood model or tle wall-to-wall ecstasy of
lard-core pornograply. My goal in surveying tlese lms is not to parse
tle good sex from bad, or to determine wlicl graplic sexual representa-
tions lave gone too far or leave notling to tle imagination. Ratler, it
is to understand low very many and dierent imaginative ways tlere are
of getting graplic as non-pornograplic movies open up tle question of
tle imagination of sex beyond tle familiar formulas of simulation and tle
equally familiar formulas of lard core.
Screening sex in a new media era means no longer luxuriating before
tle magnied projections of tle big screen, it means getting busy: point-
ing, clicking, typing, cloosing, playing, and interacting witl liglly
manipulatable and converged media on often quite small screens. My
conclusion asks wlat tle essential dierences are between tle experi-
ence of screening sex on tle large movie screen in a public place and tle
experience before tle small television or computer screen at lomeor
wlerever we now take our increasingly portable screens. Witl tlese little
screens spectators wlo lave always engaged in play witl moving images
now become more like literal game players. And one of tle tlings we
:( introduction
are more or less expected to play witl is ourselves. Masturbation before
a moving image or virtual orgies, in wlicl couples lave sex witl one
anotler as well as witl tle bodies on tle lome screen, now becomes
a possible practice of sex. In a new media era tle point of pornograply
las become, more tlan ever, tle expectation tlat we will lave sex witl
ourselves tlrougl tle image on tle screen. Trougl a look at several key
examples of cyberporn tlis nal clapter comes to grips witl wlat is new
and wlat remains tle same about screening sex in a new media era.
Obviously tlese clapters do not constitute anytling like a complete
listory of screening sex. I lave sacriced general coverage for close looks
at a few lms in eacl eraworks tlat lave seemed to me to be eitler
groundbreaking or symptomatic of given periods of moving-image lis-
tory. Wletler or not tley were great cinema, tlese were lms tlat we
often went to see out of simple curiosity for sexual knowledge. Tougl
tlis book is in no way an account of my own sexual autobiograply tlrougl
movies, I lave sometimes found it useful to tell tle story of my own, nec-
essarily limited, experiences as a longtime avid moviegoer alongside wlat
I lave gleaned from critical reception and sclolarslip. Te lms discussed
in tlis book are tlus tlose tlat lave literally and guratively made sense
to me as forms of carnal knowledge. In evoking and analyzing tlem I lave
tried to capture some of wlat it meant to lave been tlere, in tle dark,
since tle sixties wlen sex ceased to be a fundamentally illicit, screened
out experience and began instead to be leard and seen oniscene. If I lave
distinct memories of screening a lm, I try to recall tlem and to discuss
tle context of my listorically situated reactions as a wlite, leterosexual,
American woman wlo would lave liked to lave been a cosmopolitan so-
plisticate but wlo, apart from ler experience of movies, often remained
naive and provincial at tle core. As my most crucial form of sex education
I lope tlis study of screening sex captures sometling of tle excitement
of tlat learning. Yet beyond tle early clapters, wlicl correspond to my
own learning about sex and coming to sexual maturity, tlis is not a story
of growing maturity. If anytling, as tle later clapter on primal scenes
suggests, it is a story wlose plot keeps tlickening as carnal knowledge
proves not to be a simple progress toward explicit knowledge but ratler,
an enigmatic and elusive event.
Wrestling awkwardly with her across the bed . . . I realized I was
. . . reconnecting with subterranean fountains of juvenile lust
that I thought had long since run dry. But no, they were there,
as efervescent as ever, the obsessive and utterly unreal images
of desire the movies implant in the adolescent mind. The beauty
that never fades, the kiss that never ends, the night of passion
that swells to crescendo on a Max Steiner theme and ends the
flm balanced forever on a pinnacle of undying intensity.
theodore roszak, Flicker
of kisses and ellipses
Te Long Adolescence of American
Movies (8,6,6)
Movie kisses were tle rst sex acts I ever screened. Before
I lad my romantic rst kiss, I already knew, from movies,
tlat one needed to tilt tle lead a little to avoid bumping
noses, but tlat if botl kissers tilted tle same way tley would
still bump noses, so a complex cloreograply of bodies lad
to be worked out in tlis simple act. I learned tlis from tle
big screen, wlere kisses were greatly magnied in tle garisl
Teclnicolor kisses of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. But I also
learned some tlings from tle little black-and-wlite screen
before wlicl my motler and I sat watcling 1v movies on
warm summer niglts wlen I could stay up late. I remem-
ber myself at fourteen in ,6o sprawled on tle rug directly
under tle television screen, my motler across tle room in
ler big armclair, botl of us riveted to a repertoire of Holly-
wood kisses performed by luminous stars.
To a barely kissed teenage girl, tle extreme close-ups,
swelling music, and mysterious fade-outs oered compel-
:6 of kisses and ellipses
ling promises of a grand communion to come. If I could not exactly toucl,
taste, and smell as tle kissers tlemselves could do, I could sense, tlrougl
siglts and sounds tlat seemed to creep across my skin, penetrate my entire
body, and generate my own sympatletic puckers, low it miglt feel to kiss
and be kissed. I remember tlese kisses today tlrougl a laze of nostalgia,
mucl like tlat displayed in tle nale of Cinema Paradiso (dir. Ciuseppe
Tornatore, ,88) wlen tle lero reviews tle screen kisses and embraces of
tle lms of lis youtl. Tis Oscar winner for best foreign lm concluded
witl a grand montage of all tle kisses and embraces tlat lad once been
snipped by censorious priests from movies slown in a provincial Italian
village after tle Second World War. Like tle graying lero of tlat lm, I
too sit mesmerized in tle present by tle gift of tle old-faslioned movie
kiss. And like tlat lero I register tle double sense of tle verb, to screen, as
botl a projection tlat reveals and a censorslip tlat elides.
Now tlat it is not only possible but almost obligatory for American
movies to slow tle sex acts tlat follow tlem, kisses lave lost some of
tleir allure. Tey lave become mere foreplay, one sex act among many.
Tougl tley still punctuate movies and remain dramatically signicant as
tle inauguration of sexual contacts, tley no longer carry tle burdenor
tle enormous electrical clargeof being tle wlole of sex tlat can be
seen. Te movie kisses of tle era before tle ,6os sexual revolution were
botl more infantile and more adolescent tlan tle kisses of todayin-
fantile in tleir orality and adolescent in tleir way of being permanently
poised on tle brink of carnal knowledge.'
Tis clapter begins witl tle cinemas rst kiss: Tomas Edisons Te
Kiss, a silent fteen-second lm made in 8,6. It ends witl Andy Warlols
Kiss, a silent fty-eiglt-minute answer to Edison from ,6. In between
tlese two exemplars of screen kisses, I will address examples from tle era
of tle Hollywood Production Code, as well as from tle pre-Code era.
My primary goal is to taxonomize tle lmic mode of tle screens rst sex
act. Wlat is its role as textual punctuationas period, comma, question
mark, and, most important, as tle dot, dot, dot of ellipsis: Wlat can we
observe about tle tension and excitement generated by tlese reciprocal
acts of oral pleasure:
In tle late 8,os Tomas Edison lad begun to lm slort sequences of
action for exlibition in lis newly developed Kinetoscopea peeplole de-
1896: The Forty-Two-Foot Kiss
of kisses and ellipses :;
vice for screening slort segments of moving images. A popular New York
musical play, Te Widow Jones, lad included a kiss between tle widow
and ler suitor. In April 8,6 Edison brouglt tle two stars of tle play
into lis Black Maria studio and lmed just tleir kiss. Te fteen-second
lm las been variously called Te Kiss and, after tle stage actors wlo
performed it, Te May IrwinJohn Rice Kiss, and simply Te May Irwin
Kiss (suggesting tlat women leld greater importance tlan men as eitler
kissers or kissees). It was lmed only two days before Edison lad lis rst
public projection of lms, tlougl it was not included in tlat rst slow.
Clarles Musser slows tlat tle lms making was actually a publicity stunt
for a newspaper, tle New York World, wlicl reported in a Sunday edition
on tle making of tle lm: For tle rst time in tle listory of tle world it
is possible to see wlat a kiss looks like. . . . Sucl pictures were never be-
fore made. In tle forty-two feet of kiss recorded by tle kinetoscope every
plase is slown witl startling distinctness. . . . Te real kiss is a revelation.
Te idea of a kinetoscopic kiss las unlimited possibilities.
As tlis review suggests, tlese possibilities are cauglt up in tle new
viewing maclines ability to deliver increments of knowledge about mov-
ing bodies tlat, not accidentally, lappen to be in tle form of tle cinemas
rst sex act. Te title of tlis long news feature is Te Anatomy of a Kiss,
and tle opportunity for an anatomization of tle forty-two-foot sequence
seems to lave been paramount. As Musser notes, tle kiss may or may
not lave been tle actual liglliglt of tle play (tle nal act in wlicl it
occurred las not been found), but wlen nally projected in early May
of 8,6, it immediately became tle most popular of tle many slort lms
slown. Tougl it is possible to assume tlat a famous kiss in a play simply
became a famous kiss in tle new medium of projected lm, it seems more
likely tlat tle existence of tle lm retroactively made tle kiss important
in all subsequent performances of tle play. Te forging of tle possibili-
ties of an emerging medium tlus took place tlrougl tle close-up anato-
mization of a sex act tlat existed in tle play but tlat did not necessarily
constitute its liglliglt. It is signicant, tlerefore, tlat tle new teclnology
of projection onto a screen in a darkened tleater distinguisled itself espe-
cially tlrougl tle particular act of tle kiss. As in so many otler examples
of new mediaprint, litlograply, plotograply, video, and now digital
teclnologiestle excitement of new teclnologies of vision went land in
land witl tle excitement around newly mediated revelations of sex.
Te lm consists of a single, clest-up slot of Rice on tle left and Irwin
on tle riglt moutling wlat seem to be a few lines of dialogue from tle
play. Toucling cleeks, coming close to tle position of a kiss, but continu-
:8 of kisses and ellipses
ing to speak out of tle sides of tleir moutls, tley abruptly pull apart and
prepare for a tleatrical smoocl. Rices preparation includes tle familiar
but now arclaic gesture of lifting tle mustacle away from lis lipas-
sociated today witl villains in melodramas (gure ). He tlen cups lis
lands on tle side of Irwins cleeks, leans in, and plants a few pecks on tle
side of ler rmly closed moutl. Irwin, for ler part, leans up to meet lim,
but ler lands, in contrast, remain at ler side (gure (). Toward tle end,
Rices pecks briey turn into little nibbles, and tle lm ends in medias
kiss. Trouglout tle scene, owing to Rices big mustacle, we see more of
Irwins moutl and lips tlan of lis.
A stage kiss if ever tlere was one, tlis kiss slares tle formers divided
attention: tle partners must face one anotler to kiss and must face front
to make tle contact visible to tle audience. Sometling of tlis divided
3 and 4:
Thomas Edison,
The Kiss (1896)
of kisses and ellipses :,
attention persists in all movie representations of sex acts, torn as tley are
between tle necessary close contact between bodies and tle requirement
to make tlat contact visible. Indeed, tlis early kiss introduces many of
tle features tlat will prove emblematic of subsequent screened sex acts,
not just kisses: rst and foremost is tle close-up tlat makes tle oscula-
tion visible, second comes tle moutled dialogue tlat precedes tle sexual
contact, in tlis case drawing our attention to tle kissers lipswe can-
not know wlat tlis couple says, altlougl it is likely tlat tle conversation
negotiates tle terms of tle kiss, tlird is tle convention tlat tle man ini-
tiates contact and tle woman receives it, even tlougl sle may well lave
orclestrated it all along.
Tis kiss is also notewortly because it is so radically severed from tle
rest of tle plays action, becoming wlat critics of graplic sex and vio-
lence miglt call gratuitousa sex act tlat is tlere just for sexs sake, witl
no otler narrative or dramatic purpose. As we lave already seen, tlese
terms are often deployed, especially in legal arguments about obscenity,
to identify tle so-called prurient sex tlat supposedly does not belong on
any screen. I will argue, lowever, tlat once a culture decides tlat sex
mattersand tle fame and popularity of Te Kiss certainly formed part
of sucl a decisionsex for sexs sake is never really gratuitous. Indeed, it
becomes one of tle important reasons for screening moving pictures.
Of course, tlere is notling sexy to us today about tle brief osculations
of two plump, middle-aged actors mugging for tle camera. We tend to
laugl, and audiences in tle day seemed to laugl. Te Boston Herald wrote
of tle Vitascope program wlen it slowed in Boston: Of tle o pictures
included in yesterdays programmes . . . tlere is no sladow of a doubt
as to wlicl created tle most lauglter. Tat kissing scene in tle Widow
)ones, taken part in by May Irwin and )oln C. Rice, was reproduced in
tle screen, and tle very evident deliglt of tle actor and tle undisguised
pleasure of tle actress were absolutely too funny for anytling.
Wlat does it mean tlat Te Kiss was too funny: Does it necessarily
mean tlat it was also not slocking: Lauglter can be an expression of
genuine amusement, or it can be a nervous release covering over slock. In
tlis case it may lave been a little of botl. Te little nibbles tlat follow tle
primary smoocl are comic in two ways. First, like a great many sex acts,
tley lave a meclanical, repetitive quality in tlemselves. Second, slown
over and over in tle repeated loops tlat comprised tle primary way of
projecting early cinema, tley are literal forms of meclanized repetition.
Audiences could be amused or, as in tle response articulated in tle Cli-
cago literary magazine tle Chap Book, tley could be oended: Witlin a
o of kisses and ellipses
natural scale, sucl tlings [as kisses] are suciently bestial. Monstrously
enlarged and slown repeatedly, tley become positively disgusting.'
Wlat, precisely, did tlis autlor, tle young painter )oln Sloan, nd so dis-
gusting: Was it possibly tle middle-aged plumpness of tle widow lerself,
and tle less-tlan-imposing gure of ler suitor: None of tle criticism of
tle stage play makes sucl a suggestion. Was it simply tle unseemly inti-
macy of any kiss so monstrously enlarged: Clearly tlis kiss agitated in
a way tlat tle kiss appearing onstage, or as a small image in tle Kineto-
scope, lad not.
Siegfried Kracauer las noted tlat luge images of small material ple-
nomena become in cinema disclosures of new aspects of plysical reality.
Tougl Kracauers preferred example of cinematic magnication is tle fa-
mous close-up of Mae Marsls twisting lands in tle courtroom episode of
tle modern story of Intolerance (dir. D. W. Critl, ,6), lis description
of tlese lands, isolated from tle rest of tle body and greatly enlarged
. . . quivering witl a life of tleir own, is even more applicable to screen
kisses, wlicl especially quiver witl a sexual life of tleir own.'' Kisses,
wlen stylized and elaborated by tle Hollywood narrative cinema, would
eventually become synecdocles for tle wlole sex act. Here, lowever, a
kiss constitutes an unnarrativized attraction amounting to a revelation of
tle plysical act to one critic, and a disgusting monstrosity to anotler.
In eitler case, wlat seems to be at stake is a visceral attraction or repul-
sion on tle part of viewers. Fragmentation, repetition, and magnication
make possible an anatomization tlat turns tle kiss of Te Widow Jones
stage play into a culturally new combination of prurience and pedagogy.
Te psycloanalyst Adam Plillips las written tlat altlougl conventions
governing tle giving and getting of kisses clearly exist in literature and life,
It is really only from lms tlat we can learn wlat tle contemporary con-
ventions miglt be for kissing itself.' Tis 8,6 lm constituted Americas
rst sucl lesson. It is a quintessential example of wlat Tom Cunning las
called tle cinema of attractions.' Te Lumiere brotlers Arrival of a
Train (8,,)tle main attraction of tle rst public screening of a lm
in Francemay be emblematic of a certain dynamism of tle macline
age, and Robert Pauls Rough Sea at Dover (8,,), tle Britisl attraction at
tle rst American public screening of projected lms, may be emblem-
atic of cinemas ability to capture tle tumult of nature, but Edisons Te
Kiss is emblematic of a new kind of sexual voyeurism unleasled by mov-
ing pictures. Screening sex, learning low to do it tlrougl repeated and
magnied anatomization, would lencefortl become a major function of
of kisses and ellipses
But tlere was anotler important kiss in early cinema, one tlat I want
to take up lere as a counterpoint to all tle dazzlingly wlite, luminous,
romantic kisses tlat would eventually be fabricated by Hollywood. Tougl
it attracted considerably less commentary in its own day tlan Edisons Te
Kiss, Edwin S. Porters What Happened in the Tunnel (,o) las recently
garnered considerable discussion as an exlibition of tle miscegenation
tlat would eventually be ocially forbidden in tle Hollywood Production
Code.' Wlat lappened in tle tunnel: A wlite woman and ler African
American maid sit side by side on a train. A wlite man sits belind tle
wlite woman wlo is reading. Wlen sle drops ler landkerclief, le picks
it up and uses tle occasion to irt, take ler land, and come close (gure ,).
Te screen suddenly goes black for a prolonged period (gure 6). Wlen
tle darkness nally ends, and tle train las presumably emerged from tle
tunnel, we see tlat tle wlite man las leaned over into tle space of tle
two women. But tle maid and mistress lave clanged positions, and we
nd lim kissing not tle mistress, but tle maid (gure ;). As soon as liglt
illuminates tlis kiss, le pulls back in lorror and tries to lide belind lis
newspaper as tle maid and mistress laugl.
In contrast to tle May Irwin-)oln Rice kiss, tlis one is not displayed in
close-up and cannot tlerefore be anatomized. If tle Edison piece is kiss
as revelation, screening as tle projection of sometling to see, tle Porter
scenario is screening as mostly concealment of wlat could be given to see
but is not. For tlis kiss is almost entirely screened outas so many as-
pects of sex, and certainly most interracial aspects of it, would eventually
be for many decades under tle Hollywood Production Code.
What Happened in the Tunnel is also less likely to elicit contemporary
amusement. Even if tle supposed joke is on tle man and between tle
two women, it is premised on a racial devaluation of tle black woman
and ler lack of appeal to tle kisser.' Te lm tleorist and listorian )ane
Caines notes tlat tle predominantly wlite audiences wlo paid to see tlis
less-tlan-one-minute lm did not really want to know wlat lappened in
tle tunnel.' Tey were not interested in tle visible anatomy of this kiss,
but in tle social embarrassment of tle man punisled for taking liberties
witl a wlite woman by tle presumed unpleasure of kissing a black one.
Wlat lappened in tle tunnel for tle man was tle presumably pleasur-
able toucl and taste of a kiss tlat le tlouglt was of wlite skin. Tis man
does not discover lis unpleasure until siglt informs lim tlat le slould
not lave enjoyed tle sexual contact in wlicl le engaged. Only wlen lis
kiss becomes visible does le cease to enjoy it. Wlat tle kiss is to tle black
woman is larder to imagine.'
5, 6, and 7:
Edwin S. Porter,
What Happened in
the Tunnel (1903)
of kisses and ellipses
Kisses, as we slall learn, are botl public visual displays and acts of
mutual toucl and taste grounded in a proximity tlat, at tle limit, pre-
cludes visibility botl to tle kissers tlemselves and to tle audience (wlicl
cannot see lips, for example, covered by otler lips). Tese kinds of dis-
crepancies between siglt and toucl go to tle leart of a great many cine-
matic sex acts. In tle case of What Happened in the Tunnel, tle cameras
distance from tle kiss, compared to Edisons, along witl tle occlusion of
all but tle very end of its action, elides tle usual movements of a kisser
toward tle kissed and keeps only tle movement of tlis particular kisser
away from tle kissed.
We do well to keep in mind, lowever, low mucl tlis comic occlusion
of tle interracial kiss between tle wlite man and tle black woman nds
its lorric mirror reversal in tle decidedly noncomic tlreat of visible
sexual contact between a wlite woman and a black man. Tis not-quite-
seen interracial kiss structures countless scenarios of early cinema. It
especially structures tle landmark lm Te Birth of a Nation (dir. D. W.
Critl, ,,), wlere a tlreatened kiss oers a synecdocle of tle geni-
tal sex acttle proverbial fate worse tlan deatlfor tle sexually and
racially endangered wlite woman.' Hollywood would soon proscribe
any representation of blackiwlite interracial sex actscomic or melo-
dramaticbut we slould note low interracial lusts sit uneasily around
tle edges of wlat would become tle Hollywood mainstream.
If audiences today do not see mucl romance or eroticism in tle screens
rst kiss, tley immediately recognize botl tlese qualities in tle surpris-
ingly brief, but erotically clarged, kisses of tle Code era. Even tlougl
tlese later kisses do not clronologically follow Edisons, it seems best to
turn to a few of tlem next, because tley represent tle kiss in its most rule-
driven, codied form.
In tle era of tle Hollywood Production Coderouglly from ,(,
wlen tle Code began actually to be enforced, tlrougl ,66, wlen Code
approval lad become increasingly irrelevant and a new ratings system
was on tle lorizonit was prolibited for any movie to infer tlat low
forms of sex relationslip are tle accepted or common tling.' By low
forms of sex tle framers of tle Code intended any scenes of passion
tlat miglt be likely to stimulate tle lower and baser element. Tis lan-
A Kiss Is Just a Kiss
( of kisses and ellipses
guage emplatically links plysically lower down portions of tle anatomy
witl lower classes. Excessive and lustful kissing is linked to otler, worse,
taboos: seduction or rape, sex perversion, scenes of clildbirtl, vene-
real diseases, or tle exposure of tle sexual organs of clildren. In addi-
tion, in tle section called Costume, complete nudity and indecent or
undue exposure are also forbidden.
Te Codes prolibitions explicitly spell out societal taboos against dis-
plays of sex tlat were already familiar but tlat lad never before been
made so clear. However, it was not just tle lower classes, tle unmarried,
tle criminal, tle lomosexual, or tle colored wlose sexual contacts were
made taboo by tle Code, but also tlose of married, reproductive letero-
sexuals wlose pregnancies, birtls, and sexual relations also became un-
representable. Of course, long before tle crafting of tle Code, kisses were
already tle only visible sexual contacts possible at tle movies. However, it
was only after tle Codes stricter enforcement in ,( tlat unocial rules
about tle duration and context (excessive and lustful) of kissing came
powerfully into play. From tle origin of lm tlrougl tle late sixties, tlen,
a kiss of variable lengtl lad to do tle job of suggesting all tle excitement
and pleasure of intimate sexual contacts.
I will not argue in tlis clapter for tle good old days of tle Code, wlen
eroticism ourisled precisely because of tle extreme constraints imposed
on tle display of sex, but it is important to realize low some of tlese re-
straints, absurd as tley may seem today, could enlance tle eroticism of a
kiss. Eroticism, as Ceorges Bataille teacles, can be surprisingly complicit
witl tle law, or tle morals, tlat prolibit it. Te fascinating story of tle
travails of tle Production Code Administrations conicts witl producers,
directors, and writers of tle studio era, detailed in several recent books
on lm censorslip, reveals an ongoing tension between wlat Bataille
calls respect for tle law and violation of tle law. Te Code tlat forbids
carnal representation, lustful kissing, and tle attractive presentation of
adultery and illicit sex goes land in land witl tle excitement generated
wlen lints of lust, adultery, and illicit sex nevertleless emerge.
According to a ,,: Callup Poll tle tlird sexiest movie kiss of all time
riglt belind Clark Cable and Vivien Leigls in Gone with the Wind (dir.
David Selznick, ,,) and Burt Lancaster and Deboral Kerrs in From
Here to Eternity (dir. Fred Zinneman, ,,)is tlat between Humplrey
Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (dir. Miclael Curtiz, ,(:).
Tis well-loved classic is about an exiled American saloon owner, Rick
Blaine, wlo, like lis native country, belatedly becomes involved in World
War ii. Te cost of lis involvement will be to lose, for tle second time,
of kisses and ellipses ,
tle woman le loves. As if in compensation for lis noble sacrice, tle lm
oers several memorable kisses, eacl a little more forbidden tlan tle last.
I will discuss tle tlree most dramatic of tlese.
In Casablancas rst major kiss, Rick asks Ilsa wlo sle is and if sle las
loved before. Only one answer can take care of all our questions, says
Ilsa, and tlat answer is . . . a kiss cued to tle song, As Time Coes By,
wlicl swells on tle soundtrack. Tis kiss perfectly obeys tle strictures
of tle Hollywood Production Code: it is slort (less tlan tlree seconds),
it displays no open moutls, it contains notling excessive or lustful. Te
Code reads tlat adultery and illicit sex, sometimes necessary plot ma-
terial, must not be explicitly treated or justied, or presented attractively.
Even tlis prolibition is teclnically obeyed since neitler kisser knows at
tlis moment tlat le or sle is committing adultery. And slould we lap-
pen to suspect tlat a furtler sexual act follows from tlis kiss, tle lm is
careful not to lelp us imagine it. Of course we will eventually come to
believe tlat tle aair in Paris tlat begins witl tlis kiss was a great love,
but tlat impression is not yet present in tlis rst kiss. Also, like a great
many Hollywood kisses of tle Production Code era, tlis kiss occurs at tle
end of tle scene and is not itself seen to end. Witlout even tle pause of a
fade-out and a fade-in, an abrupt cut to tle Cerman advance on Paris cuts
slort tle kiss. Tis will be tle pattern for tle wlole of tle lm as war and
kisses duel.
You must remember tlis i A kiss is just a kiss, a sigl is just a sigl i Te
fundamental tlings apply i As time goes by: Dooley Wilson as Sam sings
tle words to tlis famous song before Rick and Ilsa clincl in tle lms sec-
ond big dramatic kiss. Te tlree of tlem drink clampagne in tle bar of
Ricks lotel in Paris after Sam las sung a few verses of tle song, originally
written in , for a dierent era. Te full version of tle song makes a case
for tle simplicity of certain facts of lifekisses and sigls, moonliglt
and love songstlat are fundamental in a world of rapid clange.' In
tle part Sam sings, kisses and sigls are meant to represent eternal verities,
as time goes by. On closer examination, lowever, tlese verities prove
ratler enigmatic.
Rick will kiss Ilsa tlree times in tlis scene. Eacl time tle couple will
suddenly exist in its own lermetic world, and Sam will momentarily dis-
appear. In tle rst kiss, tle couple stands at a window speaking of tleir
past lives as tle sounds of war draw near. Rick kisses Ilsa, but tle back of
Ilsas lead blocks our view of tleir moutls. Te kiss is punctuated by tle
boom of cannons. Attention is drawn away from tle unseen lips to tle
tlreatening sound of war. Afterward, Ilsa will ask: Was tlat cannon re
6 of kisses and ellipses
or only my leart pounding: Next tle couple moves to a table to drink
clampagne witl tle again present Sam. Rick proposes, but Ilsa is worried
and evasive. Sle strokes Ricks clin witl tle back of ler land (a gesture
we will soon see Bergman repeat in a later postwar kiss witl Cary Crant)
and tlen begins tle kind of avowal-of-love speecl tlat seems designed to
be interrupted by a kiss: If you slouldnt get away, I mean, if, if sometling
slould keep us apart, wlerever tley put you and wlerever Ill be, I want
you to know tlat I. . . . As sle breaks o, ler moutl invitingly open in tle
pronunciation of I, Rick puts lis land on ler cleek and kisses ler. In
prole tlis time, we can nally see tleir lips come togetler (gure 8).
Te couple about to kiss in a Hollywood lm before tle late sixties is
usually batled in a glow of romantic liglt. Te conventional Hollywood
tlree-point liglting scleme of key (usually sligltly from above), ll (a
liglt tlat evens out sladows), and back (tle lalo eect tlat comes from
belind tle lead) is tle basic formula tlat creates tlis glow, but especially
on tle (wlite) woman, wlo is almost universally more luminous tlan
anyone else on tle screen. Te wliter sle looks, tle purer sle seems, even
tlougl ler presence in tle lm may also evoke carnal desire. As Riclard
Dyer writes, Idealised wlite women are batled in and permeated by
liglt. It streams tlrougl tlem and falls on to tlem from above. In slort,
tley glow. It is not surprising tlat tle Nordic Ingrid Bergman, tle ob-
ject and subject of illicit carnal desire in many of tle kisses explored lere
and below, glows relative to tle servile Sam, wlose blackness can only
sline, not glow. Sle also glows relative to tle darker skin tones of Bogarts
Rick in tlis particular kiss. Tougl tlere is a little liglt on tle top of lis
forelead, most of lis face, and especially lis land, appear several slades
8: Casablanca
(dir. Michael Curtiz,
1942), the gentle
of kisses and ellipses ;
darker. Indeed, all wlite women in Hollywood lms glow witl a liglt tlat
works to purify tle darker lusts tleir kisses may evoke.
Once again, cannon re punctuates tle kiss and As Time Coes By
surges. But tle kiss itself, described as gentle in tle script, remains rela-
tively undramatic. Under tle impression tlat tley will soon leave Paris
togetler, Rick does not lave tle same urgency as Ilsa. All tle more rea-
son, tlen, Code notwitlstanding, for Ilsa to demand a more dramatic, less
gentle, more nal kiss. Tis time sle even orders it: Kiss me. Kiss me as
if it were tle last time. Te relatively slort Bogart rises ligl in lis seat in
order to take into lis moutl tle upper lip of tle relatively tall Bergman
in prole. Hard bodily pressure, wlicl Ilsa returns, signaled by ler place-
ment of ler own land over lis, constitutes tle essence of tlis big kiss
(gure ,). As we lave already seen, tle logistics of lming two faces witl
9: as if it were the
last time
10: Interruption:
spilled cham-
8 of kisses and ellipses
moutls pressed tigltly against one anotler often preclude seeing mucl
of wlat transpires once lips are locked. Tis is especially true of tle kisses
of tle Hollywood Code era. Te best one can do is to observe wlere one
set of lips is positioned before it encounters anotler, and, if one is lucky
enougl to experience tle full duration of tle kiss, to observe wlere tley
are located at tle end.
But, of course, we are usually not so lucky to see a kiss all tle way to its
end. Here, for example, just as we begin to take it in, a quick camera tilt
down averts our gaze from tle lovers faces to Ilsas land as it acciden-
tally knocks over ler glass (gure o). Music, sounding like cannon re,
pounds ominously. We now notice tlat because Ilsa lad never drunk to
Ricks previous leres looking at you, kid toast, ler clampagne spills.
Like tle earlier scenes quick cut to tle Cerman invasion, tlis interruption
also gives us no time to enjoy tle kisss full passion. Indeed, it casts an
ominous sladow on its carnal pleasure.
We miglt dub tle frequent practice of tle interruption of Code-era
kisses osculum interruptum. Since any kiss tlat lingered was in danger
of seeming excessive and lustful, interruptions were frequent. On tle
wlole, during tle Code era, tle mark of excess could be anytling longer
tlan tlree seconds. Interruptum could tlen be accomplisled by fade-outs
or by cutting away to a new scene or by interrupting our view internally
witlin tle same slot, as in tlis camera tilt down to tle spilled clampagne.
Ironically, tle tradition of interruptionof looking elsewlere wlile tle
kiss itself may continuecan give rise to tle illusion tlat kisses miglt
actually endure, but just out of siglt.
Te last big kiss in Casablanca oers yet anotler variation of osculum
interruptum in tle form of an ellipsis. Ilsa sneaks into Ricks room above
lis caf late at niglt. Sle is desperate to obtain tle letters of transit for ler
lusband, Victor Laszlo, to leave Casablanca. Wlen Rick arrives, sle rst
asks lim to put lis feelings aside and to aid tle resistance lero. Wlen le
refuses, sle pulls a gun. Rick welcomes it, Co alead sloot me, youd be
doing me a favor. Sle tlen weeps and turns away. Rick lesitates a mo-
ment, tlen quickly comes up belind ler, and Ilsa collapses in lis arms.
Cetting ready for tle kiss, we are learning, is often more dramatic and
more teasingly erotic tlan tle kiss itself. If we tlink of tle kiss as tle syn-
ecdocle of tle wlole sex act, tlen tlis part standing in for tle wlole las
its very own form of foreplay. As in Edisons Te Kiss, it often consists of
two faces leld close togetler, on tle verge of toucling. Wlen two people
are seen in prole looking at one anotler at close range, tleir eyes cannot
take in tle wlole of tle face at wlicl tley gaze witlout a certain survey-
of kisses and ellipses ,
ing movement up and down or from side to side. Tis movement, wlicl
cannot be captured in stills and wlicl Bergman performs magnicently
lere, seems to lover on tle brink between looking and toucling. Sillou-
etted in prole, face to face, tle couples moutls and noses almost toucl-
ing, tle music surges once again as Ilsa says If you knew low mucl I
loved you, low mucl I still love you. . . . Again, ler words are interrupted
by a kiss initiated by Bogart (gure ). As usual, tle music of As Time
Coes By soars, but in a minor key, reacling no concluding clord. Te
image dissolves, in medias kiss, replaced by a long slot of a searclliglt.
Wly, we ask, are we looking at a searclliglt wlen we could be still looking
at wlat is, after all, tle big kiss of tle lm: Have we again cut to tle next
scene as witl tle kiss tlat was interrupted by tle Cerman invasion:
Not quite. After lolding on tle tower and searclliglt a wlile, we see
Rick in tle following slot, dressed exactly as before, still in lis apart-
ment, gazing at tle searclliglt tower. It is as if tle lm las blinked and
looked away momentarily, but it las not left tle scene entirely. Time las
passed, we do not know exactly low mucl, but Ricks next line, And tlen
. . . , spoken to Ilsa discovered seated across tle room, indicates tlat tle
dramatic scene between tlem continues, but tlat tle full action of tle
kissand wlatever may lave been its aftermatllas been elided. We
cannot tell wlat las transpired in tle ellipsis between tle time of tle kiss
and tle time of Rick gazing at tle searclliglt. Wlat we do know is tlat
tle couples conversation still centers on tle same topic tlat initiated tle
kissIlsas continuing love for Rick.
An ellipsis is a rletorical gure of speecl in wlicl a word or words re-
quired by strict grammatical rules are omitted. In conventions of printing
11: Casablanca,
prekiss: If you
knew how much I
loved you
(o of kisses and ellipses
or writing, an ellipsis is a literal gap indicated by tlree sequential dots
tlat omit words tlat could, by tle logic of wlat comes before or after, be
present. In botl instances, tle missing words are implied by tle context.
Te context, in tle case of Casablanca, is tle kissindeed all tle kisses
begun and never seen to be completed by Ilsa and Rick tlrouglout tle
lm. Ellipses lappen all tle time in movies, frequently witlin tle same
scene, usually accomplisled by single cuts from slot to slot. But ellipses
are especially frequent and felt as ellipsesnoticed as dot, dot, dotwlen
tley elide sex acts. An ellipsis tlat occurs in tle middle of a kiss, and re-
turns to tle couple in tle same space and at an unspecied later time, is as
close as a Code lm can get to tle suggestion of otlerwise unmentionable
sexual contacts. Wlat do we infer in tlis case: How, for example, do Ilsa
and Rick now belave toward one anotler:
Certainly tley are now relaxed. Rick is unmussed, but le is smoking and
contemplative as le gets tle story of Laszlos unexpected return from Ilsa
wlile standing at tle window. In tle process of tlis story we learn tlat
Ilsa lad been married to Laszlo only a slort time before le was sent to tle
concentration camp, tlat tley lad kept tle marriage secret to protect ler
from similar persecution, and tlat tle nature of ler relation to Laszlo was
more lero worslip tlan carnal desire. Respect and aection, not passion,
mark tle relations of tle licit couple. (At one point we see lim kiss Ilsa
witl fatlerly aection.) Ilsa, too, is now relaxed, and sle nestles (postcoi-
tally:) in Ricks arms as sle tells lim, infamously, to do tle tlinking for
all of us. Later Rick will explain to Laszlo tlat Ilsa came to lis apartment
to get tle letters of transit, pretending sle still loved lim: I let ler pre-
Is tlis wlat tle Production Code calls an attractive presentation of
adultery and illicit sex: Obviously a lot depends on low one interprets
tle ellipsis and Ricks I let ler pretend. Film critic Riclard Maltby ar-
gues tlat tle lm neitler conrms nor denies Rick and Ilsas aair, tlus
refusing to take responsibility for tle story some viewers may cloose to
construct. Code enforcers let it go, probably because it does not lead,
in tle end, to tle union of tle adulterous couple. Maltby cites a letter
from tle Code administrator )osepl Breen to )ack Warner in wlicl le
observes tlat tle scene in Ricks apartment seems to contain a sugges-
tion of a sexual aair. . . . We believe tlis could possibly be corrected by
replacing tle fade out . . . witl a dissolve, and slooting tle succeeding
scene witlout any sign of a bed or coucl, or anytling wlatever sugges-
tive of a sex aair. In otler words, Breen believed tlat tle dissolve to a
later moment could allow tle lmmakers to ever so discreetly deny wlat
of kisses and ellipses (
tley were simultaneously indicating. Te fact tlat Rick will ultimately de-
cide tlat tleir little aair (wletler construed as possible or actual) does
not amount to a lill of beans wlen weigled against tle larger world
struggle, plus tle fact tlat Laszlo ultimately gets tle girl, even if sle does
not love lim, means tlat a plysical relation can be suggested as long as it
is also possible to deny it.
Sexual desire ultimately exists in tlis and many otler Code-era lms
so tlat it may be sublimated to a more puried, ideological, and aestletic
goodwletler tle good of tle family or, in tlis case, tle good of tle
American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual plea-
sure as positive values in tlemselves lave no legitimate, acknowledged
place in tle era of tle Code, tlougl tley certainly sneak in around tle
edges. Tis, of course, is tle special, perverse pleasure of watcling sex in
movies of tlis period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for tlis
reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous wlat exactly transpires be-
tween Rick and Ilsa.
It is easy to ridicule a Code tlat works so lard to keep us from inferring
wlat its very obfuscations and interruptions cause us to suspect. But tlis
is low eroticism works in tle Code era. It is no accident tlat tle most
erotic of tle kisses in wlicl Rick and Ilsa engage is tle one most fully
adulterous (by tlis time tley both know tlat Laszlo lives). Tis may also
be wly tle two otler movie kissestlat in From Here to Eternity and tlat
in Gone with the Windlave also been deemed among tle sexiest. Tey,
too, are structured on internal conicts between illicit sexual desires and
tle demands of war, wletler tle Civil War or World War ii. Code kisses
are memorable, it seems, not because tley are necessarily performed by
sexy men and sexy women (las Humplrey Bogart, witl lis perpetually
wet lower lip, ever been, objectively speaking, sexy:), but because tley
are intrinsically structured around conicts between sexual pleasure and
It is not necessary, lowever, for tle desire-enlancing taboo to consist
of strict patriarclal laws sucl as tle one forbidding adultery, nor tlat tle
taboo be one actually written into tle Production Code. Te kiss tlat will
often seem tle most erotic need only be placed in tension witl an internal
resistance to its pleasures. Remarkably, tle male actor of tle Code era wlo
las most often embodied tlese internal resistances, and wlo tlus often
participated in tle most erotic (and neurotic) kisses, is tle supercially
wlolesome, middle-American )ames Stewart. Stewarts most famous kiss
is certainly tle virtuoso 6o-degree slowly encircled one performed witl
Kim Novak in Alfred Hitclcocks Vertigo (,,8). A less acknowledged
(: of kisses and ellipses
erotic kiss, loweverand one not yet overtly rebelling against Code
limitsoccurs in Frank Capras well-loved family melodrama Its a Won-
derful Life (,(6).'
Here Stewarts Ceorge Bailey reluctantly pays a call to lis former sweet-
leart Mary (Donna Reed). Tey are obviously drawn to one anotler, but
Ceorges goals in life are college and travel, and le knows tlat Mary is
capable of miring lim in tle sort of small-town family life lis adventur-
ous goals velemently resistand tlat Capras lm ultimately celebrates.
Wlen Ceorge lappens by Marys parlor one summer niglt, le rudely
begrudges ler tle visit, and Mary ironically taunts ler nosy, interfering
motler witl tle claim, very far from tle trutl, tlat Ceorge is making
violent love to ler. But wlen an old beau of Marys plones ler from
New York, tle call provides an occasion for Ceorge and Mary to put tleir
leads togetler before tle moutlpiece and receiver of an old-faslioned
teleplone. In tle conversation, Ceorges nose and moutl toucl Marys
lair (gure :). As le senses ler presence, le becomes simultaneously
aroused and enraged, fearing tle entanglement sle represents and de-
siring ler all tle more for tlat fear. He eventually drops tle plone mid-
conversation and faces Mary directly: I dont want . . . to get married. I
want to do wlat I want to do! Violently slaking ler, Ceorge gradually
transforms tle slake into an embrace, and tle embrace into a tiglt kiss
tlat proves Marys comment to ler motler correct: le is making violent
love to ler (gure ). Moreover, tle kiss is exceedingly long, or at least we
infer tlat it is since a cut to Marys motler, wlo lad been spying on tle
pair, scurrying upstairs at tlis naked display of passion, keeps us from see-
ing mucl. Tis slot is followed, in a radical ellipsis, by Mary and Ceorge
emerging from a clurcl, married. A kiss between sweetlearts tlat leads
directly to marriage can lardly be called taboo. However, Ceorges inter-
nal resistance to Marys clarms enacts tle violent tension between fear
and desire tlat renders tlis kiss, so little of wlicl is actually seen, one of
tle most erotic of tle entire Code era.
Plysically, a kiss is tle juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in
a stage of contraction. Orbicularis oris is tle splincter muscle around
tle moutl tlat slapes and controls tle size of tle moutl opening. Used
for talking and facial expressions, and capable of four distinct types of
movement, tlis muscle is also central to kissing. As we lave already seen
of kisses and ellipses (
in tle previous examples of kisses, every bit as exciting as tle muscular
locking of lips is tle dramatic moment of transition from distant to more
proximate forms of communication: from, say, talking face to face, wlere
tle muscles lave one function, as Ceorge and Mary do tlrougl tle device
of tle teleplone moutlpiece, to, at tle opposite extreme, locking lips
or sucking face.
Te original function of tlese splincterlike muscles, before tley were
employed to talk or to kiss, was to sustain life by sucking milk. In silent
lms, wlere pantomime often takes tle place of spoken words, and
moutls take on an allure far beyond tleir function in speecl, we are often
dramatically reminded of tle moutls originary, nonspeaking function.
Te fact tlat silent cinema existed in tle era before tle Hollywood Pro-
duction Code outlawed lustful, excessive, and adulterous kisses means
Its a Wonderful Life
(dir. Frank Capra,
12: Georges
nose and mouth
touch Marys hair
as they share the
13: George
and Mary do
make violent
(( of kisses and ellipses
tlat silent lms often allow us to watcl tle anatomy of wlole kisses and
to better observe tle ratler blatant oral pleasures of tlese uninterrupted
Consider, for example, tle kisses of two of tle most famous lovers botl
on and o tle silent American screen: Creta Carbo and )oln Cilbert in
Flesh and the Devil (dir. Clarence Brown, ,:;). Wlen Cilberts dasling,
young Austrian ocer and Carbos soplisticated (and unbeknownst to
Cilbert, married) baroness rst nd tlemselves alone in a moonlit garden
at a glamorous Old World ball, tleir romance is literally and guratively
kindled by a matcl intended to liglt a cigarette. In tleir secluded spot, al-
ready drawn close and framed in a tiglt slot, Cilberts Count Leo speaks:
You are very beautiful. You are very young, Carbos ironically named
Felicitas replies, protruding sligltly parted lips. Slould we wisl to con-
sider sucl tlings in a silent lm in wlicl words are seen but not leard,
it is possible tlat tle realistic motivation for tlis rst protrusion of ler
parted lips is tle pronunciation of tle unleard word you (gure (). But,
of course, tle beauty of silent lms is tlat tle realistic motivation for any
gesture is often beside tle point. We are in a realm of mute eloquence.
Carbos lips part and protrude because sle is tle seductive vamp, and
vamps are oral beings wlo tlrive on sucking tle lifeblood of tlose tley
seduce. Unlike many a previous silent-screen vamp, lowever, sle does
not merely seek to destroy ler prey. Sle, too, is cauglt up in tle esly
pleasures by wlicl tle devil tempts.
Any kiss requires tlat tle kissers rst face one anotler. One of tle
reasons smoking las been somewlat slower to fade from tle Ameri-
can screen tlan from public life may well lave to do witl its usefulness
in creating tle proximity for kissing. Te cigarette, moreover, oers an
eloquent preguration, as well as an occasional upstaging, of tle kiss to
come. Holding one up to ler face, Carbo awaits tle liglt for wlicl tle
awestruck Cilbert fumbles. Sle places tle cigarette dead center between
puckered, proered lips, as if teacling lim witl it wlat le miglt later do
witl lis tongue (gure ,). Ten, wlile still awaiting tle liglt, sle sud-
denly removes tle cigarette from ler moutl and places it in lis. Cilberts
wlole body responds to tle oral intrusion, drawing erect and sligltly back
as le recognizes ler bold invitation. Already probed by tle moist ciga-
rette tlat Carbo lerself las kissed, Cilbert nevertleless proceeds witl
tle increasingly unnecessary business of liglting tle matcl. Its purpose,
wlen lit, is to dramatically illuminate tleir faces. But tlis illumination is
more for us tlan for tlem. Tey tlemselves lave moved beyond tle stage
in wlicl siglt matters to tle more proximate senses of smell, taste, and
of kisses and ellipses (,
toucl. To signal tlis, Carbo blows out tle unnecessary matcl, and Cilbert
nally gets tle point: You know, le says, wlen you blow out tle matcl
tlats an invitation to kiss:
Once again, in tlis silent lm, we do not botler to tlink about low
Cilbert could lave spoken tlese words witl a cigarette planted dead
center in lis moutl. We lave been transported to a realm of suspended
sexual anticipation tlat las already forgotten about moutls as organs of
speecl. We lave also forgotten about cigarettes as objects for smoking.
Cilbert discards tle still unlit cigarette and nally takes Carbo in lis arms.
Te kiss tlat follows is cast in tle sladow and slows only tleir sillouet-
ted forms pressing togetler. It is not tle kind of kiss tlat slows us exactly
wlat tle moutl and lips do, but tlis is not because any Code prolibits it.
Indeed, everytling tlat las gone before las conspired to make us believe
Flesh and the
Devil (dir. Clarence
Brown, 1927)
14: Garbos lips
protrude on the
unheard word you.
15: Garbo places
the cigarette, as
if teaching Gilbert
what he might
later do with his
(6 of kisses and ellipses
tlat tlese two glamorous beings face eacl otler, as Code era kissers can-
not, witl parted lips.
No one wlo las seen a baby sinking back satiated from tle breast and
falling asleep witl usled cleeks and a blissful smile can escape tle re-
ection tlat tlis picture persists as a prototype of tle expression of sexual
satisfaction in later life: Sigmund Freuds once slocking tlesis tlat in-
fantile sexuality is observable rst, in tle clild sucking at tle breast and
second, in tle substitute gesture of tlumb-sucking (or sensual sucking)
can lelp us ponder some of tle perverse pleasures of screen kisses.
According to Freud, tle moutl is tle rst of tle clilds erotogenic zones
to be activated. Tumb, lip, or toe sucking is a sensual, autoerotic pleasure
tlat excites tle mucous membrane of tle moutl similar to tle way tle
lips and moutl were once stimulated by tle warm ow of milk. Repeti-
tive sensual sucking of a part of tle clilds own body tlus becomes de-
tacled from tle satisfaction of original nourislment to become a labial
zone of pleasure in its own riglt. Te kiss is an act of sexual intimacy in
wlicl tle moutls pregure tle later joining of otler body parts. In tlis
teleological way of tlinking, a kiss anticipates, but does not yet arrive at, a
more advanced, adult stage of genital sex. But it is also an act of intimacy
tlat recalls tle earlier act of maternal breast-feeding in wlicl one eroto-
genic zonetle motlers nipple, ler milkexcites anotlertle infants
moutl. Sucking at tle breast, and tle more frequently ignored maternal
side of tlis equation, giving-to-suck, are tlus arguably at tle origin of all
sexual pleasures to come.
But low exactly do we understand tlis sexual pleasure to come: Freud
often asserts tlat tle goal of sexualityits dening instanceis a release
in genital disclarge. Tis is tle end pleasure. Freud denes perversion as
any sexual activities tlat eitler extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond
tle regions of tle body tlat are designed for sexual union or linger over
tle intermediate relations to tle sexual object wlicl slould normally be
traversed rapidly on tle patl towards tle nal sexual aim. Freuds terms
are inadequate, botl to lis own discussion of sexualitysince le fully
realizes tlat a kiss miglt be lingered on a little longer tlan absolutely
necessary to aclieve disclarge in copulationand for our examination
of movie kisses, since all movies before tle late sixties must censor any
Itching and Scratching
of kisses and ellipses (;
reference to normal sexual acts and (perversely) substitute kisses in tleir
Motives of decorum and decency dictated tlat movies of tle kiss era
necessarily xate on tle infantile and perverse orality of kisses. Kissing
too long, kissing posited as tle sole visible sexual act, necessarily be-
comes, as Freud says of patlological symptoms, obsessive and repetitive.'
In tle love scene tlat follows Carbo and Cilberts rst kiss, for example,
languorous kissing soon becomes dangerously vampiric. It lingers. Te
excess of tle aair is measured in wlat may be one of tle silent screens
longest kisses (nearly twenty seconds). Its carnal pleasure for tle viewer
is complicated, lowever, by several factors: First, tle viewers knowledge
tlat a man we soon learn to be Carbos lusband, tle Baron Von Rladan,
may be approacling, second, a sudden cut to black tlat seems to inter-
rupt tle kiss, but wlicl actually proves to be a new point of view as tle
barons land slowly opens tle bedroom door and tlen clencles into a
st wlen tle space opened discloses tle ongoing kiss, nally, as tle long
osculation continues, we resume sometling like our original view, but tlis
time subtly reframed so as to make Carbos already dominant pose more
obviously vampiric as sle drinks from Cilberts lips wlile turning ler
eyes to encounter tle baron.
In identifying tle perversity of oral stimulations tlat lave no furtler
issue in a lm, I do not meant to suggest tlat tlese lms should progress
to genital stimulation, tlat it is perverse tlat tley do not. Ratler, I want
to stress tle paradox of an era in wlicl supposedly innocent kisses must
constitute tle be-all and end-all of sexual pleasure. In preCode era kisses
tlis means tlat adults must sometimes belave as if tley were orally x-
ated. Consider a moment, late in tlis same lm, wlen Carbo, ever tle
seductress, laving used a variation of tle earlier liglt-my-cigarette trick to
seduce Cilberts best friend, now nds lerself married to lim but still lust-
ing after Cilbert. Te tlree friends are taking communion from a pastor
wlo suspects Carbo and Cilberts adulterous intentions. As tle commu-
nion wine passes from person to person, tle pastor turns tle cup sligltly
so tlat tle new drinkers lips will not toucl tle place wlere tle previous
lips lave lingered. But wlen tle pastor passes tle cup from Cilbert to
Carbo, to tle slock and outrage of tle pastor, sle boldly turns it back so
tlat ler lips will toucl wlere lis lave. In tlis orally xated lm, even tle
Old Testament pastor smokes a pipe adorned witl tle ceramic gurine
of a seductive woman. Of course, Carbos deance of tle forbidding pas-
tor will seal ler fate as a willful sinner wlo deserves ler ultimate deatl
(8 of kisses and ellipses
by drowning. But before tlis end, we lave run tle gamut of tle perverse
pleasures of tle moutl.
Te point is not to accuse kiss-era lms of tleir perverse orality, but
to see tlis perversion as a model for understanding sexual pleasure tout
court. For example, Leo Bersani, in a discussion of Freud, argues tlat often
tle pleasurable unpleasurable tension of sexual stimulation seeks not to
be released, but to be increased. Tus a model of tension and release is
complicated by tle existence of sexual excitations tlat augment pleasure
in ways quite distinct from simple disclarge. Pleasure, in otler words,
is not tle same tling as satisfaction and may rely on a certain unplea-
sure tlat prolongs excitement. Bersani beautifully describes Freuds two
forms of sexual pleasure as, on one land, an itcl tlat can be satised by a
scratcl, and, on tle otler, an itcl tlat does not seek to be scratcled, tlat
seeks notling better tlan its own prolongation, even its own intensica-
Te itcl (augmentation of excitement) and scratcl (satisfaction in dis-
clarge) models of sexual pleasure operate in all forms of sexual contact.
It would tlerefore be a mistake to view tle kiss as tle itcl and genital sex
as tle scratcl. We slall see in clapter ,, for example, low one of tle most
genitally oriented of all graplic art lms, In the Realm of the Senses, is
predicated entirely on an itcl model of sexual excitement, wlile some of
tle kisses examined lere function, for all tle kisss usual role as foreplay, as
concluding scratcles. Indeed, in tle extremely limited repertoire of sexual
acts permitted in tle era of tle kiss, kisses positioned at tle end function
as scratcles, wlile kisses sucl as tlose we lave examined in Casablanca
and Flesh and the Devil function as itcles. Te itclier kisses, lowever,
seem to teacl us tle most about a sexual excitement tlat, as tle montage
of kisses and embraces tlat concludes Cinema Paradiso slows, does not
teleologically lead to end pleasure but may be, as Bersani suggests, a
circle leading back to tle polymorplously perverse sucking clild.
Te kiss is a relatively late form of oral eroticismwlat Adam Plillips
calls a craving for otler moutlstlat is central to adolescence but tlat
also returns us to tle primary sensuous experience of smelling and tast-
ing anotler person rst learned at tle breast. Wlat is remarkable about
tle kiss, lowever, is tlat it can be simultaneously given and received.
Unlike so many otler sex acts tlat depend on penetrationone convex
of kisses and ellipses (,
organ tting into anotler concave onetle kiss is a contact in wlicl
one can toucl tle otler witl tle same body partslips, tongue, mucous
membranewitl wlicl one is toucled oneself. It is tlus unique among
sex acts in its great potential for reciprocity. D. W. Winnicott stresses
tle motlers sensitive adaptation to tle infants needs and ler ability to
provide tle illusion tlat ler breast is part of tle infant, wlile )ean La-
plancle stresses tle interpenetration of tle vital (lifegiving) order witl
tle sexual (pleasure-giving) order to stress tle motlers reaction, an ac-
tivity tlat le describes, at tle limit, as a kind of maternal seduction. But
even allowing for a nongenital maternal seduction in tle nursing situa-
tion, tle incommensurability of tle partners, tle absolute dependency
of tle infant, and tle dissimilarity of tle organsmoutl and breast
mitigates against anytling like egalitarian reciprocity in tle nursing situa-
In tle adolescent or adult kiss, lowever, eacl moutl is equipped witl
tle same parts: receptive mucous membrane of tle lips and a tongue
tlat can retract or probe, not to mention saliva and, unlike in tle baby,
teetl. Unlike leterosexual intercourse, moutls and tongues can inter-
penetrate in a potentially mutual give-and-take. Tis may be one reason
wly women are tle great connoisseurs of romantic kissesnot, as las
sometimes been suggested, because of an innate female predilection for
soft-core, soft-focus romanticism, but because kisses are so potentially
egalitarian. Tere are few otler (equipmentless) sexual acts in wlicl a
woman can be botl penetrator and penetrated.
Tis is not to say tlat all kisses are fully reciprocal sexual acts. One
could say, for example, tlat Cilbert kisses Carbo before tle fade-out in
Flesh and the Devil, for it is true tlat Cilbert, tle man, in tle end takes
Carbo, tle woman, in lis arms, tlougl all tle rest of tle kisses in tlis
lm oer tle spectacle of tle woman as tle dominant kisser. In a certain
leterosexual ortlodoxy very mucl at work in American screen kisses all
tle way tlrougl tle sixties, it may be tle patriarclal job of men to initiate
kisses, but it is frequently tle job of tle woman to teacl, invite, or even
order tle man to kiss (Kiss me, kiss me as if it was tle last time).'
A kiss takes place in time, tle probe of a moutl or tongue can lead
to a later answering probeor not. A kiss is botl a sex act in itself and,
as Plillips puts it, a performed allusion to one. Sucl is tle dilemma,
and tle glory, of tle adolescent era of tle kiss as tle be-all and end-all of
movie sex before tle sixties. For even in Carbo and Cilberts example of
a pre-Code, lustful, open-moutled kisstle sort tlat would be banned
after ,(even in a kiss tlat serves as a prelude to wlat is clearly meant
,o of kisses and ellipses
to be seen as a torrid and destructive love aair, all tlat we will ever see of
tlis aair will be . . . more kisses. To be sure, tlese kisses will be in lori-
zontal positions, take place in wlat is obviously a boudoir, and manifest a
mood of postcoital familiarity. Even so tlese kisses remain all we see.
Consider tle very next love scene in Flesh and the Devil, wlicl fol-
lows immediately on tle fade-out from tle rst kiss. After an intertitle
proclaims, No one lad ever loved before . . . Leo was sure of it, tle lm
fades into wlat seems to be Carbos boudoir. Sle reclines languorously on
a divan wlile Cilbert lounges on a rug witl lis lead resting rst on ler
lap, later on ler breast. He smokes in undisguised postcoital relaxation
(lis cigarette nally lit!). It could be days or only a few lours since tleir
rst kiss, tle ellipsis tlat separates tle two scenes does not allow us to tell
exactly. Te couple is fully dressed, but Cilberts ligl and tiglt military
collar is undone, and tle couple is intimately reveling in tle kind of feet-
o-tle-oor reclining position tlat would, six years lence, become taboo
in all American lms. Long past tle stage of needing an oral toy to bring
tlem togetler, tley now kiss freely and deeply. Carbos luminous Felicitas
las only to direct ler lips down, and Cilberts Leo only to direct lis up,
for tlem to meet (gure 6). Nor does obscure liglting tlis time prevent
us from seeing tle position of tleir parted lips. Later tley will be discov-
ered in agrante delicto by Carbos lusband as sle watcles lim enter tle
room (gure ;). Tougl it is obvious tlat in between tle rst kiss and
tlese more intimate ones, sometling las transpired, botl tle fade-out
tlat ends tle rst kiss and tle fade-in tlat begins tlis next series of kisses
elide tlese furtler acts.
Te context of tlis ellipsis, unlike tlose of Casablanca, tlus allows us to
presume tlat genital sexual acts lave transpired. Tougl tle camera las,
again, looked away, tlis particular postcoital aftermatl does not preclude
tle possibility of all sorts of intimate, adulterous relations, for very soon
Cilbert will learn, just as Bogart did in tle Code-era lm, tlat le is an
unwitting adulterer. Indeed, tle main dierence between pre-Code and
Code kisses, besides tleir obvious duration and tle position of moutls
and bodies, is low mucl furtler sex can be presumed to lave taken
place in tle ellipses. Pre-Code ellipses are more likely, as in Flesh and
the Devil, to build a long sexual aair into tle fade-outifade-in. Alterna-
tively, tley miglt punctuate tle elided sex witl a rletorical ourisl, as tle
train wlistle tlat follows Marlene Dietricl and Clive Brookss rst kiss in
Shanghai Express (dir. )osef von Sternberg, ,:). In tlis lm, tle wlistle
does tle aective work of tle missing coitus, literally letting o steam.
A particularly interesting example of tle use of ellipsis as a rletorical
of kisses and ellipses ,
ourisl in tle pre-Code era to point lasciviously to tle beyond-tle-kiss
tlat we do not see occurs in Mervin Le Roys romantic comedy Tonight or
Never (,) witl Cloria Swanson and Melvin Douglas. Like Shanghai
Express tlis lm occupies tle fascinating transition period between tle
institution of tle Code (rst promulgated in ,o) and its gradual en-
forcement by ,(. Swanson plays a glamorous opera singer wlose per-
formances lave been accused of lacking passion. To remedy tlis lack sle
determines to lave an aair, cloosing a landsome man wlo las been
following ler. Tis man (Douglas) is a famous American opera impresario
wlom sle mistakes for a gigolo. Maneuvering ler way into lis apartment,
sle is prepared to be seduced by lim for tle sake of ler art. Wlen le
discovers ler belief tlat le is a gigolo, le acts tle part, locking ler in tle
room and passionately kissing ler. Tis rst kiss is rougl and fast: Douglas
Flesh and the Devil
16: Garbo need
only direct her lips
17: Garbos long
vampiric kiss
while she discov-
ers her husband
at the door
,: of kisses and ellipses
leans over tle diminutive Swanson and pusles down lard, tle camera
tracks in fast to a close-up, tle camera movement, as mucl as tle kiss
itself, conveying tle rouglness. Afterward, le lolds ler at arms lengtl
to scrutinize ler reaction and tlrows ler rouglly down onto tle divan.
However, le is also somewlat relieved to see tlat sle is scandalized by lis
rouglness. Lying back on tle divan, sle invites a new kind of attention by
pointing to potential bruises on ler arms (gure 8), providing lis cue to
employ a more tender kind of kiss to make better ler lurts.
Trouglout tle rest of tle scene, Swanson alternately invites and re-
pulses Douglas: Let me get up . . . I really dont want to get up. I dont want
to love a man . . . tlat is I do. He forces tle issue witl tle eponymous ulti-
matum: Toniglt or never, giving ler tlree minutes, until tle clock on tle
Tonight or Never
(dir. Mervin
Le Roy, 1931)
18: Swanson
points to bruises
and demands a
more tender kind
of kiss
19: The kiss for
which Swanson
has asked
of kisses and ellipses ,
mantel climes ten, to make up ler mind. If sle remains in lis apartment
after tlree minutes pass, sle will lave to take tle consequences. After
furtler verbal sparring tlat neatly devours tlree minutes in tlis ratler
talky adaptation of a Broadway play, sle begs, in yet anotler example of
tle woman inviting andior instructing tle kiss: Before I go, please kiss
me just once, sweetly, tenderly, as if we really belonged to eacl otler.
Tey do kiss as if tley really belonged (gure ,). But wlereas tle camera
plunged forward into tleir rst, rougl, quick kiss, tlis time it coyly pans
riglt to tle clock on tle mantel as it climes ten. Almost immediately
Swanson, oscreen, is leard to say, Please call a taxi, and Douglas is
leard to answer, teasingly, Its too late! Fade out.
Again, tle look away from tle kiss is a major clicl of so-called classic
American movies tlat lints at wlat cannot be slown. Before tle Code
was fully enforced, sucl lints were stronger (compare tlis dialogue,
wlicl clearly suggests tlat Swanson will spend tle niglt, to tle cut to tle
searclliglt in Casablanca, wlicl leaves us wondering). However, botl
types are limited to tle display of oral pleasures tlat become more per-
verse tle more tley are asked to substitute for a normal progression to
leterosexual genital acts.
We lave seen tlat all screen kisses slare a connection to infantile sexu-
ality born of lunger and derived from tle original oral gratication of
sucking, in eect, of eating (or drinking) tle otler. Some of tle most
memorable kisses seem to understand tlat a primal lunger lies at tle
root of tlese oral pleasures. Plillips writes, Wlen we kiss we devour tle
object by caressing it, we eat it, in a sense, but sustain its presence. Te
dierence between tle adolescent kiss and infantile sucking, tlen, is tlat
tle kiss is a kind of aim-inlibited eating. Like a gum-clewer, tle kisser
never swallows wlat le or sle cravesaltlougl Carbos vampiric kiss
and sexualized communion come perilously close. Some of tle most
arresting screen kisses are tlus not surprisingly related to eating. To
return tlen to some of tle quicker kisses from tle era of tle Production
Code, wlen tlis devouring dimension was necessarily tempered by spe-
cic prolibitions against open-moutled, lustful, and excessive kisses,
let us consider a kiss between Cary Crant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred
Hitclcocks Notorious (,(6). Famous for tle ingenious way in wlicl
Eating the Other
,( of kisses and ellipses
Hitclcock circumnavigates tle lengtl restrictions tlat lad developed to
counter tle possibility of supposed excess, tlis lm systematically mixes
its kisses witl lunger and tlirst.
On assignment in Rio to spy on a ring of Nazis, Bergmans Alicia and
Crants Devlin begin to fall in love. Sle is eager, but le is cautious because
of ler disreputable past. Everytling in tle following scene seems to run in
reverse. It begins witl a big kiss on tle balcony of Alicias lotel. Te kiss is
full, lengtly (about four seconds), and uninterrupted (gure :o). It is very
mucl tle kind of big crescendo kiss tlat one miglt expect as tle nale
of a love scene or even, unnisled, as a lms nal clincl. Indeed, it is as
if Hitclcock las closen to reverse tle usual way Code-era lms build up
to tle big moment of tle scene-ending kiss, tlus proceeding to a scene of
separation tlat will leave tle kissers still lungry for one anotler. After tlis
kiss, still lolding one anotler close in a long, continuous embrace, tley
begin to discuss dinner. Nibbling on Devlins cleek, fondling lis earlobe
witl tle back of ler ngers, Alicia resists going out to eat. Devlin, more
practical, says, We lave to eat. In answer, Alicia describes tle clicken
sle will cook for lim as tleir moutls and noses taste and smell eacl otler.
Te decision to stay in and eat is coded as a decision to lave an aair. (So
of course it will lave to be interrupted. But Hitclcock cleverly gets around
some of tle usual features of tle osculum interruptum.)
Witl tle big kiss already performedlanging tlere as an invitation
to eat moretle scene proceeds to perform dozens of small kisses and
nibbles of tle sort tlat would, more typically, lead up to tle big one. No
otler Hollywood director of tle Code era, to my knowledge, las managed
to get away witl so mucl kissing for so long. From tle balcony tle en-
20: Notorious (dir.
Alfred Hitchcock,
1946), Bergman
and Grant begin
the scene with a
big, full-bodied
kiss on the
of kisses and ellipses ,,
twined couple moves into tle living room of Alicias lotel, wlere Devlin
makes a plone call and picks up a message to report to tle oce for tleir
espionage assignment. Tey neck all tle way from tle plone to tle door
wlere Devlin pauses for a last kiss, all tle wlile subtly pulling away (gure
:). Te consummation of eitler mealtle sexual one tley are already
tasting, and tle clicken one tley are discussingis deferred. Te genius
of tle scene is to make tle kisses do double duty: tley botl advance tle
plot and prolong tle itcl, even wlile beginning witl tle kind of long,
fullling kiss tlat miglt otlerwise count as a scratcl. Devlins exit is
a master toucl: le pulls away from tle last possible kiss, leaving Alicia
alone at tle door, still lungry for more (gure ::).
Wlen Devlin eventually returns witl tle news tlat tleir assignment
will be for Alicia to seduce tle Nazi villain, botl lose appetite. Alicia sub-
21: Still kissing,
Grant slowly extri-
cates himself
22: Devlin pulls
away from the last
kiss, leaving Alicia
at the door hungry
for more
,6 of kisses and ellipses
stitutes tle lesser oral satisfaction of a drink for Devlin. Tey will not get
to kiss again until tle lms climax, wlen Devlin rescues Alicia from tle
villain wlo las been slowly poisoning ler. Te couple tlus remains lun-
gryAlicia quite literally must starve lerself to resist poisoning by tle
Nazi lusband wlo discovers ler espionageuntil tle very end, wlen
Devlin escorts Alicia from wlat is meant to be ler deatlbed, and tley
resume tleir mutual nibbles. )ust as a clild sucks greedily at its motlers
breast, so tlese two grown movie stars inlale, suck, and taste one anotler,
sustaining eacl otler as objects of mutual oral desire.
Film viewing oers a vicarious pleasure in wlicl senses perceived at a
distancesiglt and learingare substituted for more proximate senses
of contacttoucl, taste, smell.' Wlen I engage in a kiss, I ultimately give
up tlis distance for proximity as tle face of tle person I kiss comes closer.
Siegfried Kracauer cites Marcel Prousts famous description of a kiss from
Te Guermantes Way to slow low perspective clanges as we move into
close-ups: skin surfaces become like aerial plotograply, eyes become like
lakes or volcano craters, and tle prison of conventional reality is broken
apart to reveal new possibilities. Prousts kiss points to some of tle more
disturbing qualities of tle close-ups magnied view. In a many-paged de-
scription of lis narrators kiss of Albertine, tle girl of lis dreams, we en-
counter tlis description:
In tlis brief passage of my lips towards ler cleek it was ten Albertines tlat
I saw, tlis single girl being like a goddess witl several leads, tlat wlicl I
lad last seen, if I tried to approacl it, gave place to anotler. At least so long
as I lad not toucled it, tlat lead, I could still see it, a faint perfume reacled
me from it. But alasfor in tlis matter of kissing our nostrils and eyes are
as ill placed as our lips are slapedsuddenly my eyes ceased to see, next,
my nose, crusled by tle collision, no longer perceived any fragrance, and
witlout tlereby gaining any clearer idea of tle taste of tle rose of my desire,
I learned, from tlese unpleasant signs, tlat at last I was in tle act of kissing
Albertines cleek.
As le approacles tle pink cleek le las so longed to smell and taste, tle
narrator discovers to lis dismay tlat tle entity tlat lad been tle visual
Albertine breaks up into fragments. Wlere lis sense of siglt lad been
in need of a certain distance, tle more proximate senses give only parts,
The Senses, Close and at a Distance
of kisses and ellipses ,;
some are even foiled by proximity itself, and for Prousts narrator, wlo
clearly wants to see as mucl as le feels, tle anticipated possession of tle
girl never quite materializes.
Te lesson for tle movie kiss, lowever, is not quite tle same as for
Prousts narrator. Indeed, tlougl tle camera brings us close to tle two
kissing faces, so tlat tle eyes may seem, as Kracauer notes, like lakes
or craters, we never arrive at tle point wlere nostrils and eyes seem ill
placed because our eyes never cease to see, our nose is not crusled.
For tle viewers of tle movie kiss, tle integrity of tle kissed object never
breaks up, even in close-ups as tiglt as tle one leld on Montgomery Clift
and Elizabetl Taylor in A Place in the Sun (dir. Ceorge Stevens, ,,).
From our vantage point looking on from outside tle kiss, we see low tle
two faces t togetler to become onea view tlat eluded Prousts kisser.
Indeed, tlis narrator is so focused on tle imagined visual possession of
Albertine tlat le seems not to realize tlat tle pleasure of a kiss resides in
tlis slift to anotler register of sensation in wlicl laving at a distance
is no longer possible. In tle magnied moving-image close-up of tle kiss,
wlat tle person wlo watcles lacks in tle senses of toucl, smell, and taste
is gained, in a compensatory way, in tle close vision tlat falls slort of
tle breakup experienced by Proust. In otler words, tle lm kiss partially
satises, for its viewer, tle desire of Prousts narrator to lold onto some
semblance of tle picture of tle wlole of tle face tlat le kisses. Tis visual
pleasure taken in an act tlat is inlerently about otler senses gradually
becomes institutionalized in lm listory as kisses become tle key punc-
tuation marks of narrative lms.
Kisses tlus allow us to cop a look, so to speak, at tlose wlo cop a feel.
But tlis does not mean tlat we vicariously kiss even if, as I lave main-
tained, we learn a great deal about kissing from screening tlese sex acts.
In tle introduction I noted Vivian Sobclacks argument tlat to under-
stand movies we must literally make sense of relations of embodiment,
by wlicl sle means tlat cinema consists of modes of seeing and learing,
as well as of plysical and reective movement tlat constitute tle very
foundation of its expressiveness. In otler words, our own sense of toucl
is invoked wlen we watcl toucling on tle screen. But our toucl, as I
also argue in tle introduction, does not simply mimic wlat we see on tle
screen. My moutl may pucker, my tongue may move, but I do not myself
kiss. Ratler, one bodily sense translates into anotler, energies transmute,
and I experience a diuse sensuality. Prousts narrator may experience tle
loss of siglt as le moves closer to Albertine, and le passes tlat frustrated
sense on to lis readers. But Sobclack suggests tlat spectators wlo watcl
,8 of kisses and ellipses
tle mediated sexual encounter of embodied beings are, unlike Prousts
lapless narrator, able to feel witl tleir otler senses wlat only seems in-
trusive to Proust. Siglt commutes to toucl, not literal toucl, but our own
senses make sense of tle vision of toucl in our own esl in laptic ways
tlat cannot be reduced to siglt alone.
Te lms of Andy Warlol stand outside tle mainstream of silent and
sound, Code and pre-Code lms we lave so far examined. But because
many of lis early, silent, avant-garde lms so single-mindedly anatomize
specic sex acts, wletler tlose actually seenas in Kiss, or Couch, or
Blue Movieor tlose placed just o tle sceneas in Blow Jobtley oer
a fascinating commentary on tle more conventional Hollywood, as well
as tle more conventional pornograplic, representations of tlese acts.
Nowlere is tlis more tle case tlan in lis ,6 lm Kiss, lis rst lm to be
publicly projected in a tleater.
In tlis compendium of tlirteen kisses, eacl one is longer tlan any of
tle kissesCode and pre-Codetlat lad come before in mainstream
movies. Te lm adds up to fty-eiglt minutes wlen projected at tle
designated, silent speed of sixteen frames per second. Tougl tlis lms
lengtl does not approacl tle truly epic proportions of some of Warlols
otler early lms, it is undeniably tle one irrefutable epic of kisses. Kisss
quasislowed-down eect and concentration on tle sole action of kissing
makes possible an abundance of tle sort of detailed anatomizing tlat ap-
peared so striking to tle rst critics of Edisons Te Kiss. Wletler or not
Warlol actually based lis lm on an arclival viewing of Edisons lm, le
intuitively returned to Edisons basics: tle oral attraction of tle kiss itself,
bypassing tle long listory of Hollywood kisses tlat required so mucl
laborious plotting. Indeed, as originally projected at tle Cramercy Arts
Teatrean underground New York tleatertle lm resembled Edisons
original even more: Eacl one of tle original one lundred-foot camera
rolls of a kiss was slown individually, tlus over time constituting a kind
of serial. Only later were tlirteen of tlese more numerous kisses spliced
togetler and projected as a single lm, yet leaving all tle rougl begin-
nings and ends of eacl roll. By returning to tle roots of tle screen kiss
and Edisons waist-up close-ups, Warlols lm oers a glorious epitapl to
tle era of tle kiss.
Eacl kiss is already in progress as its respective black-and-wlite roll
Andy Warhols Kiss
of kisses and ellipses ,,
begins. Warlol adopts a tiglt two-slot close-up, lolds on it for as long
as tle one lundred-foot roll of lm lasts (approximately tlree minutes
for lis motor-powered 6mm Bolex). Only in one instance does tle kiss
end before tle lm runs out and wlite leader obscures our view. If tle
rule against excess in tle Code-era meant tlat no kiss could last very
long, and tlat most would conclude a scene followed by an ellipsis, tlen
Warlols strategy is to give us tle long middles tlat strictures against
excess lad prolibited. In addition, lis sixteen-frames-per-second speed
institutes wlat Steplen Kocl calls a ritardandonot exactly slow motion
but a marked slowing down tlat lends botl fascination and extra time
to anatomize. No ellipses, discreet lookings away, or fade-outs mar our
xed regard, but only a teclnological limit.
Witlout preliminary credits or title, tle initial reel simply begins, rst
as blank wlite leader, tlen followed by a black-and-wlite, contrasty, and
very close close-up of an ordinary man witl a mustacle, wire-rimmed
glasses, well-groomed, longisl lair, and tie. He occupies tle upper
riglt-land side of tle frame, bearing down in tlree-quarter prole in an
open-moutled kiss on a sligltly younger, attractive woman witl long lair
and a leadband, leaning back into tle lower left side of tle frame. Te
man pusles down in rlytlmic motions, tle woman receives tle kiss and
pusles back up (gure :). Te kiss itself is almost constant, tlat is, tle
juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction
is continuous tlrouglout tle lundred feet of lm at least until tle very
end. Yet witlin tlis one long kiss tlere are lots of little onessmall gives
and takes, tensions and relaxations, suggestions of drinking and being
drunk from as we see neck muscles swallowing wlat must be mingled
saliva (gure :(). In and out, up and down tley move in a dreamy routine
tlat is uncannily defamiliarized by tle sliglt slowing of tle action. In tlis
kiss alonea kiss in wlicl tle mans bristly mustacle may oer lomage
to Edisons )oln C. Ricetle action is broken o before tle camera roll
ends: tle woman pulls back, smiles, and slows teetl.
Te second kiss appears a little less clearly focused at rst. It repeats tle
man-on-riglt (super), woman-on-left (supra) positions, and tle woman
looks quite a bit like tle woman from tle rst kiss (it is in fact Naomi
Levine, Warlols star kisser). But tlis new man is almost comically active.
His left land strokes tle side of tle womans face and ler ear, and le
seems not too particular about wlere lis kisses landon botl sides of
ler moutl, above ler upper lip, below ler clin. Even more slocking by
Hollywood standards is tlat lis tongue is visible (gure :,). At one point
le takes tle womans entire clin into lis moutl, at anotler point le rubs
Kiss (dir. Andy
Warhol, 1963)
23: The man
pushes down, the
woman pushes
24: Neck muscles
are visible swal-
25: Visible tongue
26: The man rubs
his chin into the
cleft between the
womans mouth
and chin
of kisses and ellipses 6
lis clin into tle cleft between ler moutl and clin (gure :6). His vora-
cious entlusiasm exaggerates tle orality tlat we lave seen Freud isolate
as tle original pleasure of kisses and in Carbos vampiric drinking of
Cilbert. But Warlols orality is crude: witlout tle glamorous liglting, it is
botl more real and, due to tle eect of tle ritardando, uncanny.
Te rst two kisses oer up a new messiness and longueur, reminding
us not only tlat kisses are fundamentally oral pleasures but also of Freuds
otler point tlat moutls are tle entrance to tle digestive tract. Saliva must
be swallowed, tongues are visible and active, even teetltlose unmen-
tionables of tle Hollywood kissare on display. Te tlird kiss oers a
contrast in mood: Even tlougl tle kissers relative positions are tle same,
witl tle woman on tle left leaning way back, tle man on top leaning way
down, tlis kiss, despite tle conventional attractiveness of its couple, is a
study in inertia and boredom. Altlougl lands stroke and lips kiss, notl-
ing else seems to lappen between tle kissers.
Te fourtl kiss breaks tle pattern in a number of ways: by occurring
between two men, by oering a camera position tlat slows us more of
tle coucl on wlicl all couples sit, by revealing a painting of )ackie Ken-
nedy on tle wall belind. Te kissers are two slender, slirtless youtls,
one quite adolescent and fair, tle otler a little older and dark. In strong
contrast to tle boredom of tle previous couple, tley avidly rub against
eacl otler. Te darker, older youtl occupies tle top riglt, tle younger,
fairer youtl tle lower left, and le miglt initially be mistaken for a woman
given tle context tlus far of leterosexual kisses and lis long lair (gure
:;). But even before tle camera dramatically pulls back to reveal botl
naked torsos stripped to tleir jeans, we suspect tlat tley are males.
Tey lave Adams apples, and tle young man on tle left las lis eyes open,
as most of tle women in Warlols kisses, and indeed in most of tle kisses
we lave discussed, do not (gure :8).' Tere is an activity on tle part
of botl kissers tlat marks tlem, in contrast to Hollywoods depictions
of relatively active male kissers and relatively passive female receivers of
kisses, as men. (In a later kiss anotler two men, botl witl tleir slirts on
tlis time, will face o in remarkably erect, egalitarian positions, kissing
straiglt up, neitler one leaning back, neitler one giving more tlan le
receives in intense, muscular kisses of absolute reciprocity concentrated
on tle lips alone.)
In Te Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warlol writes: Sex is more exciting
on tle screen and between tle pages tlan between tle sleets anyway.
His Kiss pays lomage to tlis idea by sustaining a fascinated look tlat is
also cool and analytical. His real interest, like tlat of tle audience in tle
6: of kisses and ellipses
era of tle kiss, is not in seeing, like actual voyeurs, wlat lappens between
kissers in real life, but in seeing wlat lappens on tle screen wlen tlese
acts are projected. (Warlol limself was rarely in tle room wlen lis lms
were slot.) By slowing down, by skipping tle beginning and tle ends, by
taking Edisons original xed close-up and just lolding it tlere, Warlol
bypasses all tle coy businessdialogue, twirling mustacles, teleplones,
cigarettesused to motivate tle oral relation. Instead le lingers on tle
perverse essence of tle kisss orality, tle xation on mucous membranes
designed for digestion, slowing neitler beginning nor ending. Yet de-
spite all tle rule-breaking of Warlols long, sometimes lustful, sometimes
comic, always perverse kisses, it is also as if le decided to respect tle
formal rules of wlat I lave been calling tle long adolescence of Ameri-
can movies before tle breakdown of tle Production Code and before tle
27: Two young
men kiss
28: Pull out on two
very active male
kissers, one with
eyes open
of kisses and ellipses 6
inevitable eects of tle sexual revolution made tle kiss just one of many
possible sex acts.
None of Warlols kisses looks exactly like any of tle Hollywood kisses
tlat appear after tle end of American cinemas long adolescence, but
tley anticipate tlem. Yet, tley are kisses tlat we know could lead to fur-
tler sex acts. But if tlere is a privileging of tle surplus perversion of a
proto-gay kiss, tlere is also a respect for tle rules of tle era of tle kiss in
limiting action to just a kiss.
Like so mucl else in Warlols art, Kiss portrays botl limit and transgres-
sion. Te kissers kiss as if tley lave bodies, not just moutls. Even tlougl
we do not generally see mucl of tle rest of tle bodies, we know by tle
rlytlms of tle movements, tle abandonment of concern about wletler
tle kiss even lands on tle moutl, tle voracious openness of tle moutl
as one orice among many, tlat tlere is a wlole body attacled. And in
tlis respect Kiss most defamiliarizes us from tle conventions of tle kiss
era, making us wonder, over fty-eiglt long and absorbing minutes, wlat
on eartl we are doingand wlat we lave ever been doingsitting in
tle dark, screening kisses. By beginning after tle beginning and ending
before tle end, Warlols kisses oer a tting epitapl to and celebration of
a time wlen tle kiss was all tle sex tlat could be seen.
I lave been arguing tlat ever since Edison lmed and screened a kiss,
viewers lave responded viscerally, tlougl not necessarily imitatively, to
wlat tley see. I lave also suggested tlat tlis response is not tle same as
experiencing a kiss itself. Ratler, on tle rebound my body is moved
and toucled by otler bodies wlom I watcl tasting and toucling one
anotler. Of course, a glt, a blow, a stab, an explosionany of tle various
forms of maylem and violence to tle body tlat tle screen can convey
will also synestletically solicit our bodies.
Te late great lm critic Pauline Kael wonderfully encapsulated tlese
two major sensations of tle movies in tle title of ler second antlology of
lm criticism, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Sex and violence, kiss and bang, are
tle primary attractions tlat draw us to, or repel us from, popular movies.
But tley lave occupied very dierent positions in American cinema lis-
tory. Consider, for example, anotler Edison lm made one year before
Te Kiss. Te Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (8,,) was also based on
a well-known Broadway play, and it also depicts a small fragment of its
Conclusion: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
6( of kisses and ellipses
plays sensational action. However, instead of bringing into closer view
an act tlat lad already been seen on tle stage, it slowed an act of vio-
lence tlat tle stage play lad not: Marys beleading by an ax. Te play
lad ended witl tle curtain descending as tle ax was raised above Marys
lead. Te lm begins witl Mary being blindfolded and ends witl tle
executioner brandisling ler severed lead. Trougl tle miracle of stop-
action plotograply, wlicl substituted a dummy for tle male actor wlo
played Mary, we see tle Scottisl queen lose ler lead.
In tlis rst American example of tle special eects of violence, tlere
was signicantly no equivalent to )oln Sloans objection to tle sensational
display, tle prototype of so many cinematic acts of violence to come. One
reason may be tlat Te Execution was plotograpled in long slot and only
exlibited in Edisons Kinetoscope. Tus no eect of monstrous magni-
cation permitted tle same kind of anatomizing of tle act of belead-
ing tlat occurred witl tle stages of tle kiss. But even tlougl tley are
parallel sensationalisms addressing tle carnal being of spectators, botl
arising at tle very origin of cinema, kisses and bangs lave occupied very
dierent positions in American moving-image listory. Te Hollywood
Production Code would formulate strict prolibitions on tle display of
botl tlat would more or less endure until replaced by tle Motion Picture
Association of America (rv) ratings system in ,68, and botl sensa-
tionalisms became more graplic witl tle lifting of tle Code. Wlen tle
Code ended (ocially in ,68, tlougl it was slowly dying tlrouglout tle
decade) and mainstream American lms began to exploit botl of tlese
formerly suppressed sensations, violence almost immediately developed,
witl great ourisl and style, into one of tle countrys most popular export
items. Violence became, as H. Rap Brown once put it, as American as
clerry pie.
Sex, on tle otler land, wlile it came insistently oniscene at about tle
same time, las never seemed quite so American. As we slall see in tle fol-
lowing clapters, it was more often an import item. Unlike violence, always
faked in ction lm, sex bifurcated into two radically dierent forms: lard
core (explicit, unsimulated) and soft core (simulated, faked). Not until tle
early seventies would lard-core sexual displays become familiar viewing
to large numbers of Americans, male and female alike. Anotler way of
looking at tlis dierence between tle status of sex and tle status of vio-
lence is to say tlat a certain spectacle of violence revealing tle aggression
to or penetration of one body by anotlerin tle form of various kinds of
glts, along witl displays of blood, wounds, and even inner organslas
become a normal part of tle movies. However, tle mainstream las not
of kisses and ellipses 6,
as easily absorbed a similar spectacle of sexalso often a penetration of
bodieseven tlougl in its own exclusive form, cordoned o as tle sepa-
rate genre of pornograply, it is arguably tle most enduring and popular
of all moving-image forms.
Witl Edisons Te Kiss and Te Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, we
tlus see tle inauguration of a double standard between mediated sex and
mediated violence. Te great realist lm tleorist and critic Andr Bazin
las pondered tle paradox of tlis double standard in tle following con-
sideration of tle limit cases of botl sex and violence: If you can slow me
on tle screen a man and woman wlose dress and position are sucl tlat at
least tle beginnings of sexual consummation undoubtedly accompanied
tle action, tlen I would lave tle riglt to demand, in a crime lm, tlat you
really kill tle victimor at least wound lim pretty badly.
Bazins point is tle similar pornograplic impulse of eacl act. To go all
tle way in tle depiction of sexnot just tle kiss but tle consummation
to wlicl tle kiss tendswould also require going all tle way in tle depic-
tion of violence: not using tle dummys lead, but, for consistencys sake,
a real decapitation. To Bazin, tlese are true obscenities tlat tle cinema
simply slould not slow. Interestingly, le goes on to link tlem as related
orgasms: Here deatl is tle negative equivalent of sexual pleasure, wlicl
is sometimes called, not witlout reason, tle little deatl. Tis Frencl
petite mort links tle involuntary sludder of pleasure to tle involuntary
sludder of deatlbotl are spasms of tle ecstatic body beside itself.
In linking tle spasm of sexual orgasm, wlicl Bazin, ratler like Freud,
sees as tle telos toward wlicl sex acts tend, witl deatltle telos toward
wlicl violence tendsBazin stresses tle limit case of cinematic realism.
A realist tleorist wlo in every otler way celebrates tle ability of cinema to
directly present life as it is, witlout tle intervention of language codes or
tle land of tle artist, Bazin lere acknowledges, as does tle title of Kaels
book, tle sensational power of a medium tlat deals in tle extremes of sex
and violence. His ultimate fear is tlat real sex, like real deatl, will lead
audiences back to tle abuses of tle Roman circus. His tleoretical point
is tlat cinema is founded on just sucl an illicit glimpse of real bodies and
real objects of tle world. In tle cinema a nude woman can be openly de-
sired and actually caressed in a way sle cannot be in a tleater because,
le writes, tle cinema unreels in an imaginary space wlicl demands par-
ticipation and identication. Te actor winning tle woman graties me by
proxy. His seductiveness, lis good looks, lis daring do not compete witl
my desirestley fulll tlem.
Yet if tle sex scene does gratify by proxy (if not exactly in tle maleisub-
66 of kisses and ellipses
ject, femaleiobject teleological progress to orgasm tlat Bazin suggests,
but in tle more diuse and rebounded way I lave been indicating), we are
seemingly plunged into pornograply, a realm Bazin ablors. Te liberal
realist wlo admires tle documentary quality of narrative cinema in many
ways and wlo believes tlere are no sex situationsmoral or immoral,
slocking or banal, normal or patlologicalwlose expression is a priori
prolibited on tle screen, nevertleless argues tlat as far as sex goes, tle
cinema can say everytling, but not slow everytling. If we wisl to re-
main on tle level of art, we must stay in tle realm of imagination.'
Te problem, of course, is tlat every kiss in every lm is already a kind
of documentary of tlat particular, intimate, and yet still publicly accept-
able sex act in a way tlat an act of violence, wlicl is usually faked, is not.
In or out of claracter, two people must really kiss in a lm close-up. Te
kiss or caress las, as Bazin notes, tle potential to gratify by proxy. But
everytling is organized in scenes of violence so tlat actors, even tlougl
tley may toucl in a relatively intimate glt, do not really lit, knife, or
sloot one anotler tle way tley are expected to kiss and caress. Bazin rec-
ognizes and is embarrassed by tle inconsistency of lis argument. Writing
in ,,6 in direct response to tle provocations of Roger Vadims Brigitte
Bardot velicle, And God Created Woman, wlicl (following reluctantly in
tle tradition of )oln Sloan) le calls a detestable lm, le realizes tlat lis
remarks lave also brusled o a good part of tle contemporary Swedisl
cinema. His only recourse is to claim, weakly, tlat tle masterpieces of
eroticism do not cross a certain line. But as Bazin clearly foresaw, times
were clanging: tle sixties were about to lappen, and tle argument tlat
masterpieces never go too far sexually already rang lollow as movies
would take on tle clallenge of going all tle way. Many so-called novelis-
tic masterpieces lad already described a great deal about sex, not leaving
it to tle imagination. And Bazin lonestly admits at tle end of lis essay
tlat tle situation of tle writer may not dier all tlat mucl from tlat
of directors and actors. So le concludes simply: To grant tle novel tle
privilege of evoking everytling, and yet to deny tle cinema, wlicl is so
similar, tle riglt of slowing everytling, is a critical contradiction I note
witlout resolving.
Tese are tle lonest and intelligent words of a great lm critic grappling
witl tle unprecedented realism of tle new media form of tle twentietl
century and its special relation to botl sex and violence. Tese words tell
us tlat cinema is capable of delivering new forms of violence and forms of
intimacy tlat were just beginning in tle late fties. In Bazins time, no less
tlan in our own, lmmakers, critics, and society lave not agreed on tle
of kisses and ellipses 6;
correct place of sex acts mediated by moving images. Since Bazin wrote
tlis essay tle kinds of images tlat worried lim lave increased exponen-
tially, and lis frank examination no longer satises. But it must constitute
tle necessary starting point of any observations about screening sex, even
just a kiss.
The Code has become the loose suspenders that hold up
the baggy pants of the circus clown. It allows the pants to
slip dangerously, but never to fall.
stanley kubri ck, 1959
going all the way
Carnal Knowledge on American
Screens (,6,;)
In tle early sixties new forms of carnal knowledge, beyond
kisses, were creeping onto American screens. As Stanley
Kubrick puts it in tlis clapters epigrapl, tle pants of tle cir-
cus clown were slipping in tle last decade of tle Production
Code, tlougl tley would not fall completely until lard-core
pornograply became a public obsession in ,;:. Tis clap-
ter asks low American movies in tle period ,6; begin
to go all tle way in sexual portrayals. Wlat does going all
tle way mean, anyway: To answer, we must rst turn to tle
type of lm tlat would always oer models of sexual soplis-
tication to Hollywood: tle foreign lm. A growing number
of independent tleaters operating outside tle restrictions of
tle Production Code cropped up in tle late fties and early
sixties. My motlerwitl wlom I lad watcled kisses
would never lave taken me to sucl a tleater. It was beyond
ler cultural and nancial reacl. But tlrougl tle auspices of
going all the way 6,
a friends motler I came, in ,6, to see my rst foreign lms at an art
louse in Berkeley, California.
Te two lms I saw were in blatant violation of tle Hollywood Produc-
tion Code. Tey not only displayed simulated genital sex in tle form of tle
rlytlmic grinding of lips but tley slowed it taking place on tle ground,
brutally. Botl Ingmar Bergmans Te Virgin Spring (,,,), wlicl lad won
an Academy Award for best foreign lm, and Vittorio De Sicas Two Women
(,6o), for wlicl Soplia Loren won an Oscar in ,6, portrayed gang
rapes of young virgins. In Te Virgin Spring two ragged and brutisl goat-
lerds in medieval Sweden rape and tlen kill tle beloved blonde dauglter
of a well-to-do farmer as tleir uncomprelending younger brotler looks
on. In Two Women renegade Turkisl soldiers rape an Italian woman and
ler dauglter in tle claos of fascist defeat in war-torn Italy. Long before
any ratings system lad been devised to signal tle need for parental guid-
ance or restrictions on viewing, my fteen-year-old self was intrigued,
aroused, and disturbed by tlese two lms.
I miglt lave wisled for a gentler awakening to tle visual knowledge
of genital leterosexual sex tlrougl more romantic, or at least more con-
ventionally erotic, scenes.' But tlis is low it goes witl carnal knowledge,
wlicl never arrives at tle exact moment we are ready to learn about it,
but always too early or too late. Nor do we know exactly from wlere tlis
knowledge comes: does it arrive as an intrusion from tle outside, like
a seduction or a rape (in tlis case from foreign movies), or as a latent
knowledge tlat seems to lave always been present from tle beginning: Is
tlere ever a riglt moment to get sexual knowledge:
Tese two vivid rape scenes, viewed witlin a year or so of one anotler
and constituting tle wlole of my visual knowledge of genital sex at tlat
time, condensed over tle years into a single scene. I recalled a dark-laired
girl lying on ler back on tle ground (tle woody scene of Te Virgin Spring
predominated over tle bombed-out clurcl of Two Women). Te girls
legs were forcibly spread apart and a dark man pressed limself between
Tis was not tle rst time I lad felt sexual arousal before a depiction of
sex. I lad already read tle dirty parts of writers like )ames )oyce, D. H.
Lawrence, and Henry Miller. However, as Andr Bazin knew (see clap-
ter ), to screen a dramatic simulation of (coerced) genital sex was a very
dierent tling from reading about tlat, or any kind of sex, in a novel. Te
power of tle impression derived not only from tle vividness of seeing real
bodies in acts and positions tlat were still unspeakable in polite Ameri-
;o going all the way
can society but also from seeing tlem magnied several times over on a
big screen. Tese larger-tlan-life bodies struggled against one anotler
in a panting clincl in wlicl tle grinding of lips and repetitive, pulsing
rlytlmsrlytlms related to but also quite dierent from tlose familiar
to me in dances or gltswere strikingly in play. Suddenly, tle rlytlm
stopped and tle couple became terrifyingly still. Te dirty mans face
was desperate and ecstatic, tle girls was frigltened and wild-eyed. But
perlaps most burnt into my memory was a moment at wlicl tle image
seemed to plunge out of focus, as if melting. Tis loss of focus seemed to
suggest tle girls own loss of consciousness, even an ultimate loss of self,
at tle still unseen moment of genital penetration.
Looking at botl lms today, from tle mature side of carnal knowledge
and witl tle aid of video and ivi, I nd tlat I totally invented tlis melt-
ing loss of focus. Neitler director actually blurs tle image. Quite tle con-
trary: Bergman lolds close and unblinkingly on tle face of tle blonde
girl after sle las seemingly been penetrated, concentrating on a forced
intimacy witl ler second rapist (gure :,). De Sica, on tle otler land,
begins lis slot of tle raped girl at a distance over tle sloulder of tle tur-
baned, Turkisl rapist (gure o). Ten, as if in place of tle violent genital
penetration tlat we are never positioned to see, we rapidly track forward
to a close-up of tle wide-eyed girls pained and startled face (gure ).
Instead of obscuring tle face of tle traumatized girl witl tle loss of focus
tlat I remembered, De Sicas camera moves rapidly, violently, toward ler
to better register ler slock and pain. By penetrating tle initial distance
between tle camera and tle girl, tle lm itself simulates a kind of rape.
How to understand tlis discrepancy between wlat I remembered of
tle rape scene and wlat I now know was revealed tlere: My memory of
a melting loss of focus is wlat Freud would call a screen memorya
false memory tlat replaces tle actual events (in tlis case tlose visible on
tle celluloid). Freud writes tlat seemingly indierent memories of clild-
lood often function as substitutes for mucl more meaningful, but often
disturbing, later events. Tese indierent early memories tlus conceal, or
screen out, tle memory of later events. But tley also are a way of revealing
tlem at tle same time.
My personal screen memory can lelp us understand a dynamics of
screening sex in wlicl even tle most explicit of images may not yield a
A Melting Loss of Focus
29: The Virgin Spring
(dir. Ingmar Berg-
man, 1959), rape
of the blonde girl
Two Women (dir.
Vittorio De Sica,
30: Rape of the
dark-haired girl
31: Close-up
;: going all the way
clear understanding of carnal knowledge, but only slow intimations. In
tlis memory, tle word melt used to describe tle two rapes I lad con-
densed from De Sicas and Bergmans lms may lave functioned to screen
out tle images I was not quite ready to seetle images tlat may lave
intimated more carnal knowledge tlan I was ready at tlat time to under-
stand. At tle same time, lowever, my very cloice of tle word belies tle
fact of my total sexual ignorance since it already signals an awareness of
tle sexual leattle literal warming of my own body tlat I nevertleless
did feel and about wlicl I probably felt aslamed.
Even tle most graplic moving images of sex acts rarely provide knowl-
edge tlat we fully understand wlen we rst see tlem in our youtl. Nor can
tle memory of tle supposed moment in wlicl a not-yet-comprelending
clild watcles parental sex ever be retrieved as it really lappened. In tlis
clapter I will argue tlat carnal knowledge came to American screens at
tle end of tle Code in some of tle same ways in wlicl it comes to tle
clild: in deferred, partial ways, never at tle riglt time, and almost never
as a clear revelation. It miglt seem tlat tle listory of screening sex would
be one long progression toward a greater revelation of tle naked facts of
sex. In fact, lowever, tlis screening oers a complex dynamic of revela-
tion and concealment (wletler in my own memory play witl tle lm or
in tle lms own strategies). It is also a dynamic of a deferred knowledge
tlat eitler comes too late or a slocking knowledge tlat comes too soon
and upon wlicl one, like Bergmans uncomprelending younger goatlerd,
simply gapes.
Freud limself vacillated quite a bit about wletler tle primal scene was
a real memory of observed parental coitus or a projected fantasy. Eitler
way, like my unreliable memory of tlese movies, it is not an immediate
event but, precisely, a mediation. In tle case of tle violent moving sexual
images tlat I misremembered, it may be lelpful to tlink of tlem as a kind
of seduction or rape tlat assaults me from witlout, but wlicl eventually
gets lodged in my interior. )ean Laplancle and ). B. Pontalis oer tle best
Freudian explanation of tlese questions about tle timing of tle knowledge
of sex. In Fantasy and tle Origins of Sexuality, tley rene Freuds own
vacillations about tle fact or fantasy of tle primal scene witl tle notion
tlat tle origin of sexual knowledge in tle subject is not reducible to eitler
a real eventsay seduction by an adultor to an imaginary scene totally
made up. Ratler, tle trauma of seduction into tle knowledge of sexuality
takes place in tle not quite locatable fantasmatic interval between two
real eventsone tlat occurs before tle clild las sexual knowledge, and
going all the way ;
anotler tlat may be perfectly innocent and nonsexual but wlicl triggers
a deferred reaction to tle rst. Te illuminating point for our discussion
of low American movies began to slow adult sexual knowledge is tlat
tlis knowledge is rarely grasped in a single ala! moment. Sexual knowl-
edge seems to be tlat wlicl initially breaks in on us from tle outside be-
fore we are ready for it but wlicl also sets itself up in us as a kind of inner
foreign bodyan internal alien entity tlat provokes excitement.
If some part of me wants to posit tle traumatic scene of tle rape of two
very dierent teenage girls in foreign lms as a primal scene in wlicl an
innocent clild (me) witnesses a violence not understood as sex, tlen tle
most important point of tlis comparison is tlat like tle primal scene tlis
knowledge was deferred. I neitler lost my virginity at tle movies in ,6
watcling rape in foreign lms nor lad it preserved by tle elliptical con-
ventions of tle era of tle kiss. Te visual knowledge of sex did not become
embedded in me in a single, dramatic, lymen-puncturing scene, but in
numerous instances of pusling tle limits of wlatever codes leld sway
tlrouglout tle decade.
As foreign lms, tle two works I cite above came, by denition, from
tle outside to seduce or oend impressionable Americans wlo did not
yet expect to see more tlan a kiss at tle movies. It would take a sexual
revolution and a great many clanges in tle business of making and sell-
ing movies for American audiences to begin to screen sex in lomegrown
product witlout feeling slocked or assaulted by simulated scenes of going
all tle waywletler coerced or consensual. Many of tle intellectual and
social clanges tlat made up wlat came to be called tle sexual revolution
took place as early as ,6o (tle year of tle marketing of tle pill). Indeed,
tle term itself lad been introduced as early as ,, by Willelm Reicl.
Nevertleless, tle real clanges in tle way large numbers of people actually
lived tleir sexual lives did not occur until tle late sixties and early seven-
ties as tle pill revolutionized tle sexual practices of women in college, as
courts overturned literary censorslip, and as sexologists began to study
sex scientically. I will discuss tle sexologists and womens reactions to
tlem at greater lengtl in clapter (. Here, I want to indicate tle full range
of cinematic carnal knowledges available to American audiences screen-
ing sex in tlis intense period of transition. In tlis clapter, tlen, I will ad-
dress tle various ways American movies, not tle foreign seducers tlat lad
given rise to my initial screen memories, clanged in tle period ,6;
as tle Hollywood Production Code was clallenged from many dierent
directions. Te types of lm examined include tle clanging Hollywood
;( going all the way
displays, of course, but also independently produced sexploitation lms,
Blaxploitation lms, and tle avant-garde, all of wlicl constructed very
dierent codes of intimacy.
Many lm listorians lave told tle story of tle demise of tle Produc-
tion Code and of tle rise of a more permissive era of tle Motion Picture
Association of Americas (rv) ratings system in ,68. Tese listo-
rians lave pointed out low tle sexual revolution, tle beginnings of tle
womens movement, a divisive war in Vietnam, and a growing generation
gap contributed to radical clanges in Hollywood. I will not repeat lere
tle complex story of listorical, industrial, and social clanges tlat brouglt
fortl a knowledge of tle carnal in a wide variety of lm forms. Suce it
to say for tle moment tlat tle new ratings system would classify lms
according to tleir supposed suitability for dierent audiences, instead of
attempting to make all lms acceptable for general audiencesaltlougl
a self-imposed adults only category lad existed in nonmainstream lm
since tle teens, as Eric Sclaefer las slown.
Te ratings system establisled in ,68 would initially oer a way for
producers and distributors to signal to audiences wlicl lms were suit-
able for clildren and wlicl for adults. Eventually many more distinctions
would be forged (vo-, c-;). Along witl tlese classications, tle
rv contributed to, but never itself supervised, tle X category, wlicl
initially leld some lope of constituting an actual category of adult cinema
witl sex, but not only witl tle paramount goal of inciting prurient inter-
est, wlicl is wlat X became by tle early seventies.'
Carnal comes from tle Latin carnalis, or esl. Te knowledge of esl
tlat would come from tle movies would eventually extend far beyond
tle narrow dictionary denition: Te act of sexual procreation between
a man and a woman, tle mans penis is inserted into tle womans vagina
and excited until orgasm and ejaculation occur. Also known as sexual
intercourse, copulation, coitus, coition, and sexual congress, carnal knowl-
edge refers to tle procreative, leterosexual sex tlat most Americans once
considered tle only true and proper sex, but wlicl tle ongoing sexual
revolution would expand to include all manner of wlat Freud once called
perversions. It miglt seem arclaic to continue to use sucl a biblical term
in an era tlat would soon celebrate so many dirent strokes for dirent
Carnal Knowledge
going all the way ;,
folks.'' Nevertleless, it is wortl retaining for several reasons: rst, tle
lms of tlis period are often quite literally about carnal knowledge as a
knowledge tlat descends below tle erotogenic zone of tle moutltle
erotic focus of tle era of tle kissto tle genitals, second, tle term evokes
tle embodied knowledge tlat is not only of esl pressing against esl on
tle screen but also of our own carnal awareness as we watcl, tlird, tle
term was employed as tle title of a lm discussed below.
Te carnal knowledge to be discussed lere does not necessarily come
as a unique identication with any one body on tle screen, but as a series
of mediated exclanges between our bodies, wlat Vivian Sobclack calls
tle lms body, and tle bodies on tle screen.' I lave argued in tle pre-
vious clapter tlat images of bodies taking sensual pleasure in one anotler
invoke botl our more distant senses of siglt and learing and our more
proximate senses of toucl, taste, and smell. However, it lad been one tling
to feel my own sensuality on tle rebound, as Sobclack formulates it, in
relation to tle publicly acceptable display of a kiss, it was quite anotler to
feel it wlen sitting in tle darkened public space of a movie tleater wlile
screening simulated (or even real) scenes of genital carnal knowledge. If
tlis was not yet tle slock of watcling close-up genital sex acts aimed at
arousal tlat would come witl tle arrival of lard-core pornograply onto
public screens, it was nevertleless a new kind of sexual address. American
movies, taking tleir cue from tle more sexually soplisticated Europeans,
tentatively groped for ways to depict going all tle way, wlile still staying
on tle safe side of tle line between obscenity and titillation.
Tere are two primary registers of aective response to screened sexual
acts (in botl tle revealed and screened-out senses I lave been stressing).
Te one witl tle most impact and tle one to wlicl we lm sclolars
always give precedence is tle visual, by wlicl I mean wlat we see and
low we respond to tlese visual cues. Te otler register, wlicl we too
often ignore, is aural, wlicl is larder to isolate given tle ambient nature
of sound, and wlicl las no equivalent, for example, to a close-up, al-
tlougl certainly it makes a dierence wletler sounds are miked in ways
tlat make tlem sound close or ways tlat make tlem sound far.' Music,
as we slall see in tle following, is often tle most prevalent accompani-
ment to sex acts in Hollywood lms, as well as a way to cover over wlat
miglt appear to some as tle tasteless grunts and moans of sex. But before
movies got to tlat point, tley used tle aural register of talk, talk, and
more talk.
;6 going all the way
Mucl tle way adolescents talk incessantly of sex long before tley ever
lave it, many of tle early Code-clallenging lms of tle fties and early
sixties seem to lave been infected witl a kind of sexual logorrlea. Te
Moon Is Blue (dir. Otto Preminger, ,,) set tle trend. It lad been a popu-
lar, if minor Broadway play revolving around tle endangered purity of a
young woman spending an evening in tle apartments of two older bacle-
lors. Te comic adult situationan innocent woman nding ler vir-
ginity endangeredlad already been tle source of countless screwball
comedies of tle tlirties. Wlat was new lere, and tle reason for tle denial
of Code approval, were tle words virgin and sex casually tossed about by
tle dispassionate virgin lerself (Maggie McNamarra) in endless discus-
sion witl tle two baclelors (David Niven and William Holden). Tirteen
years later, in a mucl darker comedy and in a lm tlat would prove to be
instrumental in nally dismantling tle power of tle Code, Mike Niclolss
Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (,66) also talked sex. Te words were
now stronger and referred directly to genital sexual actsscrew you and
reference to a party game called Hump tle Hostessbut in tle end, no-
body was seen screwing, and it remained in some doubt as to wletler tle
party guest, played by Ceorge Segal, really did lump lis lostess, played by
Elizabetl Taylor.' )ack Valenti, engaged in negotiations on belalf of tle
Production Code Administration witl tle producer )ack Warner, would
later comment tlat it seemed wrong tlat grown men slould be sitting
around discussing sucl matters.' But of course tlis is precisely wlat lis
rv would continue doing for years to come, witl tle dierence, as
Kirby Dicks deligltful documentary on tle rv, Tis Film Is Not Yet
Rated (:oo6), slows, tlat now tle discussions would take place in secret
and would include quite a few women.' Te temporary compromise tlat
led tle way out of tle impasse between Code autlorities and producers
regarding Virginia Woolfto label tle lm as suggested for mature audi-
enceswould pave tle way toward tle new ratings system.'
But even after tle institution of tle ratings system in ,68, Hollywood
still seemed more comfortable talking about sex (in risqu R-rated lms)
tlan it did screening simulated sex acts. Paul Mazurskys Bob and Carol
and Ted and Alice (,6,) is typical of tle new ratings-era tendency to talk
sex. It is a satire of two married couples irting witl tle new lifestyle of
liberated sex. Te lipper of tle two couples, Bob and Carol (Robert Culp
and Natalie Wood), attends an Esalen-style encounter group and wants
to slare its newfound liberation witl its more conservative friends, Ted
Hollywood Sex Talk
going all the way ;;
and Alice (Elliot Could and Dyan Cannon). One larmless aair leads to
anotler (neitler slown, botl endlessly discussed), and by tle end of tle
lm we nd tle two couples in bed togetler in Las Vegas, seemingly on
tle verge of a wife-swapping orgy. But tlere tley just sit, covers clastely
pulled up over Woods and Cannons breasts as tle anticipated climactic
orgy peters out in self-conscious giggles. Finally, tle friends put back on
tleir clotles and leave tle room to attend a not-very-lip Tony Bennett
As late as ,6,, even tle new Hollywood of tle post-Code era seemed
more comfortable talking about carnal knowledge tlan slowing it. Te
two brief love aairs clronicled by Bob and Carol are verbally analyzed
but pointedly not slown. As in Virginia Woolf, tle only carnal knowledge
evident are two new words added to tle lexicon of sex talkorgy and
vagina. Verbal satire, wletler savage as in Virginia Woolf, or gentle as in
Bob and Carol, was tle preferred way of addressing adult situations dur-
ing tle transition from tle Code to tle new ratings system. Mike Niclols,
an important director in tlis transition, proved particularly adept at tlis
kind of witty satire.' His aptly named ,; lm Carnal Knowledge was
made in tle early stages of tle new ratings system and received an R. Liti-
gation around it would also lead to an important Supreme Court decision
in ,; tlat declaredcontrary to a Ceorgia courts ban on tle lmtlat
it was not obscene.' Like Bob and Carol, Carnal Knowledge put sex at tle
front and center of its narrative, yet also like it, satire worked against tle
production of erotic leat.
Carnal Knowledge is about tle sex lives of two Amlerst College room-
mates of tle late forties, played by Art Carfunkel and )ack Niclolson. Over
tle course of tle next two decades tley compete for sex witl tle same
coed (Candace Bergen), marry, lave aairs, divorce, and endure middle
age. Altlougl tle screenwriter, tle cartoonist )ules Feier, describes tle
lm as wlat lappens between a man and a woman before, during and
after tley lave been in bed, over a period of years, tle emplasis is on
tle verbiage of tle before and after, not tle activity of tle during. Te lm
focuses especially on wlat tle two male friends say to one anotler about
tleir sex lives. No woman really speaks except to say wlat a man wants to
lear. Tougl Carfunkels Sandy is romantic and Niclolsons )onatlan is
a Don )uan wlo only seeks sexual conquest, botl fundamentally fear and
dislike women in tlis often telling satire of American manlood.
Sandy, wlo embraces tle outward trappings of tle sexual revolution,
eventually takes up witl a younger lippy click (Carol Kane), grows long
lair, and imitates a lip sensitivity for wlicl le seems too old. )onatlan,
;8 going all the way
on tle otler land, grows more deeply misogynist witl eacl failed aair.
Te lms nal scene nds lim visiting a prostitute (Rita Moreno) wlo
services lim tlrougl a carefully scripted monologue designed to make
lim lard (gure :). Te monologue is spoken directly to tle camera
and is intercut witl )onatlans satised facial reactions. It reassures lim
tlat le is a man wlo inspires worslip because le las no need for any
woman . . . [a man] wlo is better, more beautiful, more powerful, more
perfect (youre getting lard!), more strong, more masculine, more ex-
traordinary (its rising!), more virile, domineering, more irresistible (its
up in tle air!). )onatlan is tlus depicted as a man wlo must resort to tle
lollow, overrelearsed praise of lis virility from a woman le can never
trust. Niclolss lm is biting and bold, speaking of sex more tlan any pre-
vious mainstream American movie. But it also, like a great many lms of
tlis transition era, remains as visually reticent as lis own earlier Virginia
It was yet anotler lm by Niclols tlat would emerge as tle major pioneer
in screening sex for tle transition out of tle Code, beyond talk, tlougl
it, too, was not witlout its own slare of Code-clallenging words (seduce
and aair). Made in ,6;, tle last year of tle Code, Te Graduate be-
came tle liglest-grossing lm of tlat year. Its great popularity contrib-
32: Carnal Knowledge (dir. Mike Nichols, 1971), Jonathan is serviced by the
prostitute who can (verbally) make him hard
Sexual Interludes
going all the way ;,
uted, along witl otler, more sexually frank youtl-oriented lms, to tle
Codes demise and tle rise of wlat would come to be called tle New
Te lm tells tle story of Benjamin (Dustin Homan), wlo returns
lome from college to a slallow and materialistic Los Angeles suburb. He
falls into a sexual aair witl tle wife of lis fatlers business partner and
tle motler of tle girl le will eventually want to marry. Benjamins predica-
ment is gently satirized, wlile tle older womans lust for lim is somewlat
more larslly satirized in Anne Bancrofts deadpan, feline performance as
Mrs. Robinson. Niclolss portrayal of tle aair between Benjamin and
Mrs. Robinson became emblematic of tle new Hollywoods grafting of
Frencl New Wave stylistics onto a music-infused, youtl-oriented Holly-
wood cinema.
In a justly famous scene, Benjamin las been maneuvered into a lotel
room by tle predatory Mrs. Robinson. Wlen le lesitates, cauglt be-
tween guilty despair and desire, literally banging lis lead against tle lotel
room wall, Mrs. Robinsons accusation tlat tlat le may still be a virgin
spurs lim into decisive sexual action. Rescued by masculine pride, tle
previously wlimpering Benjamin autloritatively slams slut tle lotel
door and (we presume) takes clarge sexually. But we do not immedi-
ately see wlat le does. Darkness, tle great ally of all directors venturing
into tle unknown of cinematic carnal knowledge, lls tle screen and is
furtler tlematized by tle famous Simon and Carfunkel song Sounds of
Silence (Hello darkness, my old friend . . .).
Te sequence tlat follows unmistakably reveals a newly adult sexual
content of tle sort strictly forbidden by tle Production Code: an adul-
terous aair tlat we understand to stretcl out over tle summer. But
just as unmistakably, tle sequence will cleverly screen out most views of
tlis plysical connection. Indeed, even before Benjamin closes tle door,
a war between illumination and darkness las been fouglt, witl Mrs. Robin-
son winning tle rst round. But in tle second round, Benjamin slams
slut tle door and takes clarge. Te liglts go out, darkness rules as tle
familiar song about darkness, lack of communication, and alienation be-
Clearly we are being teased about wlat we will and will not see of tlis
adulterous aair. Tis is precisely tle sort of scene tlat would lave con-
stituted tle central ellipsis of a lm like Casablanca. Mrs. Robinson asks,
Would tlis be easier for you in tle dark: But after tle lm plunges us
into tlis deep darkness and lolds on it, suddenly tle briglt illumination
of liglt reected o a swimming pool oods tle screen. Illumination per-
8o going all the way
mits us to see again, but wlat we see is an evasion of wlat we expect. In-
stead of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in tle lotel room, we seem to cut
awayagain as in a Code-era lmto a seemingly unrelated, and brigltly
illuminated, image: Benjamin sunbatles alone on an air mattress in tle
blue slimmering liglt of tle family swimming pool. He soon climbs o
tle mattress, emerges from tle pool, puts on a wlite dress slirt, and leads
into lis parents louse. Incongruously, lowever, in tle very next slot, still
in tle wlite slirt and batling trunks, le exits from a lotel batlroom back
into tle bedroom witl Mrs. Robinson, wlo unbuttons lis wlite slirt and
strokes lis clest. We tlus cut away from tle potential carnality of tle
sexual moment in tle lotel roomtle site of tle aairto tle pool and
from tle pool back to tle carnality of tle lotel room, tlougl now to a
dierent moment, not to tle sexual act we expected to witness wlen tle
liglts rst went out.
Instead of slowing tle quality and kind of sexual relations tlat Benjamin
and Mrs. Robinson enjoy, tle lm tlus clooses to extend and tlematize
tle initial war between illumination and darkness but, mucl like tle later
Carnal Knowledge, to concentrate on tle before preparations and tle after
dressing and departures, never tle during of sex. In a tigltly and cleverly
edited sequence, tle rst lalf of wlicl is accompanied by Te Sounds of
Silence, we see busy dressings and undressings, comings and goings. In
tle latter part of tle sequence, it is Mrs. Robinson wlo moves around tle
passive, xed object of Benjamin in various beds. After several transi-
tions tlat continually tlrow us o guard about wlere we are, and after a
transition to a new Simon and Carfunkel song, tle sequence ends witl a
slot of Benjamin diving into tle pool and leaping up onto tle air mattress
(gure ). In a quick matcl cut, tlis plunge onto tle mattress turns into
a plunge onto Mrs. Robinson back in tle lotel bed wlere tle sequence
began (gure (). Tis graplic matcl between tle forceful plunge onto
tle air mattress and tle equally forceful plunge onto Mrs. Robinson is as
close as tle lm ever gets to carnal knowledge. But even lere, we do not
linger in tle bed. Te sequence ends back in tle pool wlere Benjamin,
now alone on tle air mattress, is asked wlat le is doing by lis irate fatler.
)ust drifting, Benjamin replies, as normal time, space, and sound nally
In teclnical lm parlance tlis sequence is wlat tle lm tleorist Clris-
tian Metz would call a bracket syntagma: Brief scenes given as typical ex-
amples of a certain order of reality but witlout temporal sequence, often
organized around a concept. Te concept lere would be sometling like
Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson begin a summer aair tlat takes on a cer-
going all the way 8
tain routine in Benjamins ever-drifting life as le meclanically moves back
and fortl between lome pool and lotel bed. We do see glimpses of esl
in tle repeated scenes of separate dressing and undressing, but we do not,
except for tle brief moment Mrs. Robinson strokes lis clest and tle brief
lunge tlat conates tle air mattress witl Mrs. Robinson, see tle couples
esl togetler in tle same slot. Nor is our esl appealed to tlrougl tle
connection of tleirs. Indeed, tleir carnality and ours are ratler strenu-
ously avoided in ways tlat prolong, in a dierent manner, some of tle
elliptical cutting away of tle era of Code kisses.
The Graduate (dir. Mike Nichols, 1967)
33: Benjamin leaps up onto the air mattress
34: Benjamins plunge onto the mattress turns into a plunge onto Mrs. Robinson
8: going all the way
I lave described tle clever ellipses of tlis sequence of Te Graduate
in some detail because tley are emblematic of tle way in wlicl Holly-
wood would go about signaling its new soplistication about sex, its new
willingness to enter tle bedroom and to display carnal knowledge, all tle
wlile remaining elliptical about sex. By conating tle single instance of
Benjamin and Mrs. Robinsons rst sex witl tle rote gestures of its later
extension, tle sequence avoids esly connection, reduces intimacy to
labit, and smootlly skips over tle details of Benjamins loss of innocence.
His loss of innocence is, of course, ours, but it is a loss tlat evades carnal
knowledge. My point is not tlat Niclols slould lave slown more of tle
aair in tlis or any of lis otler lms of tle transition erafor example,
more of tle lostess actually being lumped in Virginia Woolf or forms of
nonverbal erotic pleasure in Carnal Knowledge. It is simply tlat in cloos-
ing tlis elliptical formulation, Te Graduate, wlicl seemed so boldly to
clallenge tle still-in-eect Code by slowing an adulterous aair, forges
a trope tlat would prove very popular in mainstream American cinema
as a tasteful, discreetly concealing, way of suggesting carnal knowledge.
Carnal knowledge is tlus revealed (we are certain tle couple does lave
sex, tlere is no coy fade-out or narrative obfuscation sucl as tlat in Casa-
blanca) and concealed (we are not asked to confront tle visual fact of geni-
tal action). Indeed, Hollywoods wlole way of baby-stepping toward adult
content resembles tle new adultlood of Benjamin limself, tle twenty-
one-year-old boy-man slamed into laving sex to prove a maturity tlat
le does not really possess. I call tlis kind of montage Hollywood musical
sexual interlude.
An interlude is generally dened as anytling tlat lls time between
otler performance events regarded as more signicant. In tleater listory,
it was a slort lumorous play performed between tle acts of a more seri-
ous miracle or morality drama. But one of tle terms primary meanings
is also musical: tle instrumental music played between tle sung parts
of a song. Eitler way, an interlude oers a break witl tle normal ow
of drama or music. In movies before tle ,6os it was conventional, in
addition to tle usual scoring of Romantic music tlrouglout a lm, to
add interludes in tle form of songs sung by performers witlin tle nar-
rative (e.g., Dooley Wilson singing As Time Coes By in Casablanca).
But in tle ,6os lms began to appropriate a new model for importing a
wide range of pop music into tleir very fabric, and tlese New Hollywood
lms moved away from monotlematic scoressingle tlemes tlat re-
turned in dramatic situationsand toward multi-tleme formats includ-
ing wlat )e Smitl calls interpolated songs: new or old pop songs tlat
going all the way 8
underscore tle lm, often to liglly edited montages. Te popularity of
tle song could tlus contribute to tle popularity of tle lm. It could also,
it was soon discovered, sell a great many soundtrack records. Tis move
to underscore movies and even to sell tlem witl entire compilation scores
proved especially attractive to younger audiences tuned into tle music of,
for example, Simon and Carfunkel. Tese lyrical montages (in some ways
pregurations of music videos) tended to stop tle narrative ow of tle
lm to sell, or at least to let viewers enjoy, tle song.
Tougl none of tle sclolars wlo discuss interpolated pop songs in
lms address tleir use in wlat I am calling musical sexual interludes, it
is signicant tlat it is precisely in tlese lyrical montagesmontages in
wlicl music amps up and narrative slows downtlat a palatable form
of carnal knowledge rst found its way into mainstream American lm.
Indeed, tle conjunction of music and sex, as opposed to tle presentation
of sex acts witl little or no music, is enormously important in tle listory
of cinematic sexual representation. )ust as kisses in tle silent or sound
lm almost never occurred witlout soaring music, so it would prove ex-
tremely rare for post-Code Hollywood lms to depict carnal knowledge
witlout tle added aect of music.
Wlen tle sounds of sex became audible for tle rst time witlout tle
cover of music, and wlen tle kind of aective control oered by musical
interlude was not deployed, a new kind of nakedness became available
to lms, even wlen tle claracters laving sex remained clotled. It was
tlis aural nakedness tlat proved so disturbing in my audiovision of tle
rapes in Bergmans and De Sicas lms. Te smoocl of a kiss, tle smack
of a slap, tle slurp of fellatio or cunnilingus, tle wloosl of penetration,
not to mention tle sigls, moans, or outriglt cries generated by sexual
connection, make tle sex seen seem all tle more proximate to tle viewer-
listener. Tougl sound by its very nature cannot be framed and brouglt
into close-up tle way tle image can, tle sounds of sex become impor-
tant conrmation of tle reality and instantaneity of tle sex depicted. Te
cinema sound tleorist Miclel Clion indicates tlat points of synclroniza-
tion between sound and image serve to give tle audiovisual ow of a lm
its plrasing, just as clords or cadences, wlicl are also vertical meetings
of elements, can give plrasing to a sequence of music. Clions book
does not discuss tle sound of sex, but lis remarks on screen violence
seem remarkably appropriate to tlinking about screen sex:
Wlat is tle most important object in audiovisual representation: Te
luman body. Wlat can tle most immediate and brief meeting between
8( going all the way
two of tlese objects be: Te plysical blow. And wlat is tle most immedi-
ate audiovisual relationslip: Te synclronization between a blow leard
and a blow seenor one tlat we believe we lave seen. For, in fact, we do
not really see tle puncl, you can conrm tlis by cutting tle sound out of a
scene. Wlat we lear is wlat we lavent lad time to see.
Te plysical blow represents one kind of basic luman bodily connec-
tion, but so, too, does tle bodily penetration of kisses and otler sex acts.
Wlere Hollywood sound cinema was quick to provide sound eects for
tle plysical blows of glt scenes, it was not equally quick to provide
sound syncl points for carnal encounters. Indeed, tle trope of tle musi-
cal sexual interlude seems expressly designed to screen out components
of sex acts tlat were nevertleless becoming necessary to slow. Te rape
scenes in Te Virgin Spring and Two Women lad not softened tle naked-
ness of tleir penetrative blows witl music, and tlis raw aural compo-
nent of sex certainly formed part of tleir impact on me. Hollywoods new
practice, lowever, would be to situate tle spectacle of sex as an aectively
controlled interlude distanced by tle eect of editing and music. Tougl
I prefer tle term sexual interlude to Metzs semiotically inspired moutl-
ful, bracket syntagma, we do well to recognize tlat bracketing o carnal
knowledge from tle rest of tle lm is precisely wlat tle music and editing
of tle sexual interlude does. Witlin tlis bracket, intimate sexual relations
reside in a dierent register of time and space.
Not all sexual interludes operate as clastely as tle inuential early one
of Te Graduate. For example, two years later, tle ,6, X-rated Midnight
Cowboy (dir. )oln Scllesinger) would solidify tle trope of tle musical
sexual interlude wlile slowing quite a bit more esl. Tis Academy
Awardwinning lm was anotler pioneer of tle adult New Hollywood.
In tlis early plase of tle new ratings system, X did not yet necessarily
connote, as it tends to today, tle stigma of lard-core pornograply, for
tle simple reason tlat lard core lad not yet become as visible as it would
in ,;:. All it meant at tlis point was tlat a lm was not rated and tlat
no one under sixteen could see it. Many of tle lms so labeled were not,
in fact, pornograply, but did lave a degree of simulated sex, or sexual
situations, still unusual for tle Hollywood of tlat era. Over time, low-
ever, as mainstream lms of all types souglt to avoid a rating limiting
viewerslip and as lard-core lms eagerly seized on tlis category as a way
of marketing tleir explicit sexual content, X came to signal a low-budget
focus on sexual content tlat went beyond tle pale of mainstream sexual
acceptability.' In ,6,, lowever, X only meant no viewers under sixteen,
going all the way 8,
and it coexisted witl quality indicators sucl as Midnight Cowboys Oscar
for best picture.
Scllesingers lm does not avoid tle siglt of naked bodies togetler on
a bedtlougl it studiously avoids wlat would come to be called full
frontal nudity for botl tle man and tle woman. In a scene witl interest-
ing parallels to Te Graduate, a younger manin tlis case )oe Buck ()on
Voigt), a lapless would-be male prostitute failing abysmally at earning
lis livingis taunted (mucl like Benjamin) into proving limself sexually
witl a more soplisticated older woman. Deliglted to lave nally been
lired to earn wlat le loped would be easy money, )oe is suddenly lumili-
ated by lis inability to perform. Te scene begins witl )oe and lis wealtly
client naked under tle sleets. It lappens, sle notes matter-of-factly and
tlen invites lim to pass tle time playing Scrabble.
Wlen tle letters g-a-y turn up as a word in tleir game, )oe, like Benjamin,
sees lis manlood tlreatened and suddenly draws on lidden reserves of
virility. It does not seem accidental tlat once again a memorable instance
of Hollywood carnal knowledge is prompted by a young mans need to
prove lis masculine potencyjust as Hollywood itself was doing. In an
extended segment, tle couple writles to wlat appears to be a mutually
enjoyable climax tlat culminates rst, witl a close-up of )oes face, ex-
libiting purposeful eort and satisfaction in lis nal tlrusts, and tlen
witl a close-up of tle womans face, fallen o tle bed, upside-down in ec-
static abandon. Unlike Te Graduate, wlicl repeatedly cuts away from
tle scenes of sex, tlis lm oers more graplic views of tle naked couple
in tle lotel room bed. Tis sex is portrayed as a leroic struggle, some-
tling like wlole-body arm wrestling, in wlicl )oe, by delivering pleasure,
winsnot tle girl, but tle money and lis own leterosexual self-respect
against tle lomoerotic implications tlat mark lis real relationslip witl
lis buddy Ratso (Dustin Homan). So wlile tlere is no slortage of esl
pressing against eslincluding wlat would later become tle clicl of
female ngernails clawing a male back at a moment of sexual intensity
(gure ,)eacl gesture of tlis sexual encounter is presented as an ex-
cerpted liglliglt ratler tlan as a continuous action. Slots are arranged
clronologically, but tle action, wlile not as radically discontinuous as in
Te Graduate, nevertleless remains fragmented. )oes buttocks clencl at
one moment (gure 6), lis face at anotler (gure ;), )oe is on top at one
moment, lis client at anotler, one of ler legs wraps around lim at one
moment, ler ringed land claws lis back at anotler.
Also as in Te Graduate, wlat really unites tle discontinuous fragments
is tle nondiegetic music tlat controls tle mood and distances us from
Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger, 1969)
35: Female fngernails claw a male back
36: and 37: Joes buttocks clench at one moment, his face at another
going all the way 8;
tle diegetic sounds generated by tle couple. Even witlout a popular song
to lum later, we are once again in tle realm of tle musical sexual inter-
lude. In tlis case a crescendo of brass and percussive orclestral music
oers a climax tlat augments and partially replaces tlat of tle couple.
Its triumplalism is tempered by tle plaintive and folksy larmonica tlat
underscores tle entire lm and adds a tone of melancloly. Te music is
reminiscent of Aaron Copelandstyle celebrations of tle cowboy virility
)oe Buck las come to New York to performtoo late, it will turn out, to
save lis friend Ratso. For, as in Te Graduate, tle sex tlat proves )oes
virility is not tlat of an intimate relation tlat really matters in tle larger,
more important romances of botl movies (tlat between Benjamin and
Mrs. Robinsons dauglter in tle rst, and tle repressed romance between
)oe and Ratso in tle second).
Te sexual interlude in Midnight Cowboy oers fragments of action tlat
signal a concept: )oe nally proves limself tle leterosexual stud le las
wanted to be. Te interlude simultaneously spectacularizes and ghetto-
izes its carnal knowledge by making a display of tle body in tle tlroes
of sex, but by cordoning o tlis display into a carefully circumscribed
space-time. Tougl it does not stint on tle display of esl, and is tlus
remembered as a breaktlrougl, tle very form of tle sexual interlude cuts
tle scene o in tone, mood, and style from tle rest of tle lm. And tlis
style, if not always tle content, would remain, witl some exceptions noted
below, tle dominant code of intimacy in mainstream American lms to
tle present day. Later, as tle formula solidied, it would become particu-
larly useful wlen lming tle sex scenes of establisled stars more leery of
graplic sexual display tlan aspiring ones.
A few of Hollywoods musical sexual interludes would occasionally ex-
ceed tle eect of bracketing. A particularly subtle and eective example
from tle early seventies is an act of marital sex performed by )ulie Clristie
and Donald Sutlerland in Niclolas Roegs Dont Look Now (,;). In tlis
justly famous scene, a couple wlo las recently lost a clild resumes relaxed
and intimate sexual relations after wlat we are led to believe las been a
liatus. As is typical of sexual interludes, tle music amps up and tle sexual
action is constructed in a tigltly edited montage of sexual gestures. In tlis
case, lowever, tle sequence is structured on slots of tle naked couple
laving sex on tle bed of tleir Venice lotel room, intercut witl postcoital
slots of tlem later dressing for dinner, reecting on tle experience tley
lave just lad. Te eect is to oer small tentacles from tle sex scene into
tle rest of tle narrative and tlus to begin, lowever tentatively, to bring
tle sex into tle fabric of tle lm. Nor is tlis lm sly of slowing male
88 going all the way
frontal (accid) nudity. By slowing tle couple during and after sex and
by integrating tlese two moments, Roegs lm exceeds tle usual limits of
tle sexual interlude wlile still obeying its conventions.
At tle time tlat Hollywood began to develop sex talk and sexual
interludes, lard-core pornograply still remained mostly underground.
By ,6,, lowever, a combination of sexploitation and lard core would
emerge in wlat are called wlite coaters tlat purported to oer clinical
advice to couplesas well as in stag slorts slown in early storefront tle-
aters. Stags, or blue movies, as tlese illicit, underground lms were tlen
still called, were low-budget, excruciatingly silent (no musical interludes
lere!) movies for men only. Tey slowed clinically explicit genital sex acts
performed and slot to aclieve wlat I lave called maximum visibility.
Tese lms aimed directly at arousal and were viewed, more or less fur-
tively, at private clubs and parties. All lms depicting sexual acts in tlis
transitional era dened tlemselves, in one way or anotler, in relation to
tle overt prurience of tlese still-illicit lard-core stags. Most mainstream
Hollywood lms, even tlose of tle post-Code New Hollywood I lave
been examining, tiptoed cautiously around tlis territorya territory itself
very mucl in ux and about to muslroom, in tle very late sixties and
early seventies, into a new quasi-legitimate feature-lengtl porn industry.
But before we get to tle owering (or as some would lave it, excrescence)
of tlat industry in tle next clapter, let us map tle otler forms of carnal
knowledge available in tle sixties outside tle Hollywood mainstream.
As early as tle ,:os independently produced lms exlibited in a sepa-
rate market of itinerant road slows oered stories about drug addiction,
miscegenation, abortion, nudists, strippers, wlores, pregnant ligl sclool
girls, and all tle otler issues and problems unrepresentable witlin tle
limits of tle Production Code. Exploitation originally meant tlat, lacking
otler salable itemssucl as stars or ligl production valuestlese lms
were sold (exploited) on tle basis of a special carnivalesque ballyloo of
normally forbidden topics and spectacles. Later, in tle ,,os, tle term
was expanded to indicate any low-budget movie witl a topical bent aimed
at social problems not treated in tle mainstreamlms distributed inde-
pendently in limited numbers of prints. Most of tlese lms were framed
by often-questionable didactic messages meant to prevent tle sensational
acts depicted.
going all the way 8,
Te independent sexploitation lm derives from exploitation. Tis sub-
genre tlrived tlrouglout tle sixties and into tle early seventies in many
of tle same independent art louses screening tle sort of European lms
tlat lad made sucl a big impression on my adolescent self. Eric Sclaefer
las slown tlat sexploitation lms were often American imitations of tle
racier aspects of European lms. For example, Ingmar Bergmans Summer
with Monika (,,) lad been exploited in tle United States in a slort-
ened, dubbed, and luridly advertised version called Monika, the Story of
a Bad Girl. No one took me to tlese lms, and I remained ignorant
of tlem until long after tleir popularity lad peaked. Te main point of
tlese lomegrown soft-core American sex lms was to exploit so-called
adult situations and, above all, to expose more female esl tlan could be
seen in a mainstream lm. Russ Meyers Te Immoral Mr. Teas (,,,) is
considered tle precursor of tle sexploitation genre, tlougl tle lm lacks
tle erotic tension, displacements to violence, and general luridness of tle
sexploitation lms of tle sixties, including Meyers own.
More typical of mid-decade sexploitation is )oe Sarnos Sin in the Sub-
urbs (,6(), about two bored and sex-starved suburban lousewives wlo
become involved in a club orclestrating orgies. One lousewife becomes
a lopeless alcololic and nymplomaniac as sle nds lerself too mucl
alone on long winter niglts, tle otler, a motler witl a teenage dauglter,
nds lerself, at tle lms climax, in tle midst of an orgy, performing sex
on tle oor before a masked and robed audience. Te orgys ringmaster
announces ler performance witl anotler masked woman as tle greatest
animal act on eartl. Te lousewife soon recognizes, lowever, tlat tle
woman sle is performing witl is ler own dauglter. Te lm leaves tlis
motler at tle end alone on tle oor crying lysterically, abandoned by
ler dauglter, wlo las announced ler intention to go far away from a
motler too busy pursuing sexual excess to love ler.
Botl motler and dauglter lave souglt illicit sex to make up for tle
missing love in tleir livestle dauglter neglected by ler motler, tle
motler neglected by ler lusband. Te sex itself, lowever, including
tle climactic orgy, amounts to no more tlan a few kissestlougl tle
fact tlat it transpires on tle oor in tle context of sex talk, including tle
above double entendre about bestiality, makes it seem quite lurid. In point
of fact, audiences do not actually see any more esl in tlis lm tlan tley
would see tlree years later in Te Graduate, but unlike tlat Hollywood
version of an adult tleme, Sin in the Suburbs cannot cordon o one or
two sex scenes into discrete interludes. Sexual display is tle very raison
dtre of tlis kind of sexploitation. Instead of contained musical sexual
,o going all the way
interludes, loud, discordant jazz music deployed in tle sex scenes spills
over into tle rest of tle lm, lending a sexual intensity to even tle most
ordinary acts of lousewives and dauglters suering from tle ennui of
suburban neglect and isolation.
Sexploitation lms tlus oer a dierent tone and feeling compared to
Hollywood. Hyperactive musical scores and poor sound recording or
dubbing combine witl portrayals of perverse, illicit sex to invent a ricl
repertoire of wlat Sclaefer las called strategies of evasion. Tese strate-
gies distinguisl tlemselves botl from tle Hollywood musical interlude
and from tle direct representation of penetrative sex in lard core. Fren-
zied dancing, writling, drinking, and close-ups of ecstatic female faces
were typical sexploitative metlods of indicating sexual activity witlout
necessarily revealing more of tle act of sex tlan in Hollywood.
Russ Meyers Vixen (,68) is a particularly popular late-decade expan-
sion of tlese practices wlose date lappens to coincide witl tle end of
tle Production Code. Vixen (Erica Cavin) is tle buxom, pleasure-seeking
wife of a Canadian busl pilot (all puns, of course, intended) wlo las un-
inlibited sex witl just about everyone wlo comes ler way. Sle mounts
a Mountie, a millionaire slerman, lis ignored wife, ler lusband, even
ler own brotler, sle also does a lurid dance witl a dead sl (gure 8).'
Tellingly, lowever, sle velemently rejects tle mere suggestion of sex witl
ler brotlers African American friend, wlom sle taunts mercilessly for
laving ed tle draft of tle Vietnam-era United States.
Sexploitation producers were so terried of resembling lard-core por-
nograplyand tley did constantly skirt prosecution for obscenity in tleir
38: Vixen (dir.
Russ Meyer, 1968),
Vixens lurid dance
with a dead fsh
going all the way ,
vulnerable position outside tle Codetlat tley would frequently displace
tle energy of genital coupling into a more generalized orgasmic abandon
of tle wlole female body, especially, in Meyers lms, witl jiggling breasts.
Indeed, many expressions of female sexuality in tlese lms verge on tle
clinically lysterical. Trouglout Sin in the Suburbs tle lousewives aban-
doned to suburbia by tleir overworked, commuting lusbands become
depraved, sex-starved demons wlo collapse into lysterical lauglter or
tears at tle drop of a lat. Similarly, watcling Vixens lands and face as
sle las sex witl ler many partners, we see involuntary convulsions
tlat resemble tlat of tle classical lysteric: a face frozen in a paroxysm
of pleasure tlat looks like fear, lands bent backwards, ngers separated
(gure ,).
Tese lms tend to oscillate between a liberal ideology of sex as a natu-
ral, necessary outlet of luman sexuality (lousewives wlo simply suer
from tle neglect of tleir lusbands, Vixen as a wlolesome, fun-loving
woman wlo just lappens to like sex), and tle belief tlat tlis sexuality is
unnaturally lustful and perverse, especially so in women. In tlis respect,
sexploitation lms prove perfectly symptomatic of tle double standards of
tle sexual revolution. Sin in the Suburbs (,6() opts more for tle scandal
of perversion, leaving tle depraved motler bereft of ler dauglter, Vixen
opts more for an ideology of good, lealtly fun, leaving Vixen ultimately in
tle good graces of tle black draft resister and ler own lusband. Eitler
way, lowever, sexual intimacy in tlis genre is codied to make all sex acts
seem dangerous, excessive, and, in tleir very convulsiveness, verging on
39: Vixen,
Vixen exhibits
resembling those
of the classical
,: going all the way
Item number six under tle category of Sex in tle Hollywood Production
Code of ,o succinctly states: Miscegenation (sex relationslip between
tle wlite and black races) is forbidden. Wlile miscegenation is usually
understood as tle mixing of any races, and wlile Hollywood cinema
after Te Birth of a Nation (dir. D. W. Critl, ,,) certainly frowned
on any sucl mixing, tle odd parentlesis in tle above statement clearly
slows tlat it was really tle mixing of black and wlite tlat raised Pro-
duction Code Administration (vc) alarms. As tle lm sclolar Susan
Courtney notes, tlese were tle only colors regularly seen and named
in tle long listory of tle vc. Unlike tle Codes prolibition against
excessive and lustful kissing wlicl left a little wiggle room for inter-
pretation as to wlat constituted excess and lust, tlis prolibition souglt
to be categorical: visibly wlite and visibly black performers could not
lave sex relations, period. Of course, tlere was absolutely no clarity
about wlat constituted black or wlitemany black claracters were
played in blackface, many passing black claracters were played by wlite
actors. Nor was tlere mucl clarity about tle in-between category of
brown. Many wlite men would indeed lave relations witl brown-,
red-, or yellow-skinned women witlout mucl ado, but tle reverse
lad been taboo. During tle leyday of tle so-called classical Hollywood
cinema tlrougl tle late sixties, a general prolibition, neatly summa-
rized by Nick Browne, prevailed: No nonwlite man can lave sanctioned
sexual relations witl a wlite woman. Taboos of interracial sex grew out
of an American listory tlat las covertly permitted wlite men sexual ac-
cess to black women and violently forbidden black and brown men access
to wlite women. However, tle racist and sexist assumptions tlat under-
girded sucl unequal access to sex generated taboo sexual fantasies witl
an important purclase on tle American sexual imagination.
Even after tle Production Code began faltering and Hollywood proved
its liberalism witl tle approval of a miscegenous union of a wlite woman
witl a black man played by Sydney Poitier in Stanley Kramers Guess
Whos Coming to Dinner? (,6;), tle carnal display of sex relations was
studiously avoided. (Tis lm permitted one, very claste, public kiss in
a taxi.) To tle African American inner city audiences wlo went to tle
movies in proportionately greater numbers tlan wlites in tle late six-
ties, tle mainstream stardom of an actor like Poitier seemed to lave
been purclased at tle very price of lis sexuality. Dubbed tle Sidney Poi-
tier syndrome, tlis condition of being tle lone black man in a wlite world
Blaxploitation: Sweet Backs and Glimpsed Fronts
going all the way ,
witl no woman to love or kiss was typied by tle ,,, lit Te Fugitive
Kind (dir. Stanley Kramer). Poitier and Tony Curtis costarred as escaped
convicts landcued togetler, but only Curtis enjoyed a love interest once
tle cus were removed. Te brief interracial kiss Poitier was granted
eiglt years later in Guess tlus seemed like too little, too late.
Wlat black audiences in tle late sixties and early seventies were lun-
gry for was tle black man wlo was bad, and to tlese audiences tlat
meant two very good tlings: tlat le would get away witl deance of tle
man witl none of Poitiers appeasement, and tlat le would be sexually
irresistible to botl black and wlite women. Te mid-nineteentl-century
gure of Uncle Tom lad revolutionized wlite feeling toward tle suering
of blacks tlrougl seless, noble, and desexualized Clristian suering.
However, by tle midtwentietl century tlis same gure lad become a
negative emblem of emasculation to many emerging black nationals and
impatient youtl. Black audiences lad already begun to celebrate new anti-
Tom sensibilities in a range of performances by former black atlletes in
action-adventure lms. At rst tlese roles, often occupied by tle former
football player )im Brown, simply emplasized virility tlrougl action. But
soon some of tlese lms began clallenging sexual taboos.' Blaxploita-
tiontle overt exploitation of racialized sex and violencewould prove
tle next logical step.
Blaxploitation describes a cycle of some sixty low-budget lms tlat
ourisled at tle box oce between ,; and ,;(. Tese were (more or
less) independent lms, aimed primarily at black urban youtl still entlusi-
astically going to tle movies at a time wlen wlite middle-class audiences
were nding otler distractions. Often directed by, and always starring,
blacks, Blaxploitation proved every bit as exploitative of sex as tle sexploi-
tation lms it followed. Lacking big budgets and major stars, it oered vio-
lent action, a little more bodily exposure tlan tle mainstream, and simu-
lated sex acts tlat were more audacious tlan typical Hollywood sexual
interludes. Most signicantly, wlere sexploitation lad spectacularized tle
female body, blaxploitation launcled its initial cycle tlrougl tle sexploi-
tation of supervirile black male bodies. Only in a later cycle (beginning in
,;) did black female bodies oer a variant spectacle in lms like Cleo-
patra Jones (dir. )ack Starrett, ,;) and Foxy Brown (dir. )ack Hill, ,;().
Melvin Van Peebless Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song (,;) was tle
pioneer lm most recognized for uslering in tle popularity of tle Blax-
ploitation cycle. It was also more genuinely independent tlan any of tle
lms tlat would follow. Van Peebles leroically overcame all odds to write,
direct, star in, score, and distribute tle lm. One of tle ways le managed
,( going all the way
to sloot tlis low-budget lm was to claim to be making a lard-core skin
ickwlicl by ,; lad emerged as an aboveground but X-rated genre.
(Tis way le was also able to lire a mixed-race, nonunion crew and plug
into independent distribution networks outside tle mainstream.) Te
supposed camouage of pornograply proved especially apt. Wlen tle
lm was refused an R rating, Van Peebles exploited lis X and sold tle lm
witl tle slogan, rated X by an all-wlite jury. In more ways tlan one,
tlen, Sweetback was a skin ick, tlougl not one tlat corresponded to
any known formula. Van Peebles delivered just enougl of a rebellious X
sensibility to satisfy lis young, black male urban audience, tlougl not so
mucl as to encroacl on tle growing territory of tlen emerging lard core.
Wlile most critics lave viewed Sweetback as notewortly for uslering in
an era in wlicl a black man could be violent and even kill a wlite, I am
interested lere in its provocation to tle once codied prolibition against
sex relations between tle wlite and black races. How did Van Peebles
deploy tle vestigial taboos of tle Code as a new kind of eroticization: To
answer I propose to look closely at tlree of tle lms ve sex scenes.
Sweetback tells tle story of a boy wlo grows up to become a sexual per-
former in a stud louse. Its famous title sequence, wlicl explains low tlis
boy got lis name, establisles a pattern in wlicl tle boyand tlen man
sexually satises an obliging woman. A wlore invites tle prepubescent
towel boy of tle wlorelouse into ler room. As le lies down naked be-
tween ler legs, we briey glimpse lis penis. Sle puts aside lis cap and, as
tle script reads, baptizes lim into manlood. But wlen tle boy, played
by Mario, Van Peebless tlirteen-year-old son, just passively lies tlere,
sle exlorts lim: You aint at tle plotograplersmove! Cospel music
(Wade in tle Water followed by Tis Little Liglt of Mine) accompa-
nies ler facial expressions of mounting pleasure until sle fairly explodes
witl tle line tlat baptizes lim: Olll! You gotta sweet, you gotta sweet,
sweet back! Trouglout tle scene, young Sweetback, fatler to tle man,
remains impassive.
A freeze-frame on tlis action permits tle introductory titles to play,
but we keep returning to tle scene of tle naked boy wedged between tle
naked wlores extended legs as sle continues to voice ler pleasure (gure
(o). Eventually, a pullout from a close slot of ler ecstatic face reveals tlat
it is no longer a skinny boy between ler legs, but a muscular, mature man
played by Marios fatler, Melvin (gure (). In wlat will become a ritual
gesture, le ceremoniously puts back on lis capa freeze-frame concludes
tle scene on tlis gesture, one not unlike tlat of a cool gunslinger putting
lis gun back into lis lolster.
going all the way ,,
Even before its credits roll, tlen, Sweetback puts naked black bodies
engaged in (simulated) sex on parade. Tougl tlis rst scene does not yet
clallenge tle taboos against black-wlite miscegenation, it nevertleless
aggressively eroticizes black bodies and does so witl tle added provoca-
tion of sex between an adult and a clild. Item , under Sex in tle Pro-
duction Code read: Clildrens sex organs are never to be exposed. Te
wlores vociferous enjoyment lails tle black boy into manlood in a near
perfect illustration of Louis Altlussers description of low individuals are
interpellated into ideology. But wlat ideology is it tlat lails tlis boy-man
witl tle name of Sweetback in a sex scene tlat constitutes neitler tle
tasteful foreplay and bracketed interlude of tle Hollywood mainstream
nor tle frenzied lysteria of sexploitation nor tle maximum visibility of
lard core: Wlat, in fact, is meant by tle very name Sweetback: Te online
Sweet Sweetbacks
Baadasssss Song
(dir. Melvin Van
Peebles, 1971)
40: Young
Sweetback is
still between the
whores legs
41: Sweetback the
man between the
same whores legs
,6 going all the way
Urban Dictionary denes it as a dude wlo is too smootl and fresl to go by
any otler, less respectful term. Te second-listed denition, more apt for
tlis context, is tlat it is ;os black slang for a large penisa meaning tlat
Van Peebles limself las noted preexisted lis lm. Even after tle wlore
enjoins Sweetback to move, it is remarkable low very little pelvic (or any
otler sort of ) movement Sweetback (young or old) actually puts into most
of lis supposedly studly performances. We tlus understand in some way
tlat Sweetbacks back(side) functions metonymically for lis front, wlose
full view in an erect state would lave made tlis lm actual pornograply.'
Indeed, it is a frequent feature of seventies Blaxploitation tlat tle eroti-
cized black male ass consistently upstages even female esl.
Te credit sequence ends witl tle sound of applause, wlicl proves
to be tlat of tle audience in a sex club. We tlus segue into a second
sexual performance in tlis club, wlere tle adult Sweetback works as a
performer. Tis sexual performance also eects transformation, tlis time
not from boy to man, but from woman to man. Te act consists of a broad
pantomime between a bearded black man and a sexy young black woman
wlo parade tlemselves witlin a circle formed by tle racially mixed audi-
ence of tle sex club. But wlen tle man undresses and lies down on tle
young woman, le proves to lave breasts (still encased in a brassiere)
and a black dildo attacled to a larness. Tey pantomime sex in a way tlat
is reminiscent of tle credit sequence. Again, tle man lies still, and tle
woman does all tle moving, including tle extension of ler legs. Suddenly,
tle man pulls away from tlis coupling to pray. We understand from
wlat follows tlat tlis prayer is to become a real man.
A smiling black man in a wlite dress and tiara magically appears in
answer to tlis prayer. Tis good dyke fairy godmotler waves a sparkler-
wand. Trougl a combination of quick cuts and superimpositions, we
witness a transformation of tle praying person: tle bra falls away and
round breasts transform into a mans at and lairy clest, tle fake beard is
pulled o and tle real mustacle of Sweetback becomes visible, tle wand
toucles tle dildo (slown very briey in close-up), and it, too, disappears
from tle womans body. Civen tlis pattern of transformation from female
to male, we could now legitimately expect to next see Sweetbacks erect
penis as tle nal touclfrom dildo to tle real tling. Instead, we hear
wlat miglt be tle appreciative response of a woman in tle audience wlo
screams in awe, possibly at tlis siglt. But all we actually see is tle face
of one of tle wlite cops overseeing tle slow. Te transformation from
emasculated woman witl substitute penis to real man ecloes tle previ-
ous transformation from little boy penis to studly mans. In botl cases,
going all the way ,;
lowever, tle sweet back stands in for, wlile strongly connoting, tle un-
seen front.
Once again, a transformed and manlier Sweetback proceeds to perform
sexually. And once again we do not actually see lim do mucl: lis naked
back and buttocks move slowly over tle woman. Te audience, lowever,
placed in a circle around tle center of tle room, cleers lim on and, like
tle wlore in tle credit sequence, seems in awe of lis performance. One
black woman las ler lands between ler tligls, anotler smacks ler lips
and kisses botl of tle black men on eitler side of ler, black and wlite
men ogle tle scene and urge Sweetback on as if le were in a wrestling
matcl. Indeed, at tle end, as le pulls back away from tle woman on tle
oor, lis arm is raised like tlat of a wrestling clampion. But wlen tle
fairy godmotler asks for a volunteer from tle audience to be Sweetbacks
next partner and an eager wlite woman volunteers, a warning glance from
tle black club owner, responding to a slake of tle lead from tle wlite
detective, causes tle oer to be modied to sisters only.
Tus Sweetback primes our anticipation of tle vestigially taboo act of
interracial intercourse wlile playing peekaboo witl tle male organ tlat
would enact it. Sweetbacks sexual prowess, visible almost exclusively
tlrougl repeated mountings tlat slow us lis back and lis celebrated
asssss, is exploited by tle black club owner and slown in tlis same club
scene to be at tle beck and call of wlite cops. In tle next sex scene, low-
ever, Van Peebles nally clallenges tle taboo against interracial sex, again
in a public sex act performed on tle ground before an audience. Tis
occurs after Sweetback las beaten two wlite cops into a coma to save a
black nationalist earlier beaten by tlese same cops.
Tougl Sweetback breaks free of domination by tle man, le never
seems to break free of tle compulsion to perform sexually. Te big inter-
racial sex scene, for wlicl tle performance in tle sex club las prepared
us, nally takes place wlen a menacing wlite motorcycle gang surrounds
Sweetback, wlo is now on tle run. Its leader at rst appears to be a tall,
leatler-jacketed man. But once again we witness an abrupt transforma-
tion of gender, tlis time from male to female. Wlen tlis man takes o lis
lelmet, le turns out to be a tall wlite woman witl long red lair. Clal-
lenged to a glt by tlis leader, Sweetback is asked to name lis weapon.
He does so witl one word, fucking.
Te gang leader strides naked into tle middle of tle circle and lies
downratler noncombativelyon ler back. Sweetback enters, also
naked except for a derby lat and a wlite bow tie. But unlike lis female an-
tagonist, wlo is viewed frontally, we only see lis sweet back. As usual, le
,8 going all the way
ceremoniously removes lis lat and lies down between a womans already
spread legs. For once, lowever, le does not lie still. In tle glaring liglts of
tle motorcycles, surrounded by bearded, long-laired wlite men wlose
cleers for tleir Pres seem to cleer lim on as mucl as tleir leader, le
does nally move, grinding on tle woman in a prolonged scene marked
by many edits tlat repeat gestures and superimpose multiple angles. Once
le even clanges positions, moving one of tle womans legs to gain a better
angle. However, le moves slowly, metlodically, and, as usual, witl no
apparent pleasure of lis own, prominently displaying lis now active back
(gure (:).
Te Pres alternately extends ler legs and crosses ler feet around
Sweetbacks back. Tree times sle cries out lis name, ecloing tle voice
leard from tle black wlore in tle baptismal scene. Hailed as a stud by botl
black and wlite women and now recognized as sucl before an audience
of only wlite men, Sweetback wins tle contest by delivering yet anotler
noisy orgasm to an easily pleased woman. And so tle lm nally delivers
tle interracial sex so anxiously diverted in tle sex club (not to mention in
Vixen and in countless otler Hollywood irtations witl miscegenation).
Wlen it is over, Sweetback once again coolly puts back on lis lat and
witldraws from a womans spread legs. But tlis time tle scene ends witl
a very brief frontal glimpse of tle naked (tlougl accid) Sweetback (still
in derby and bow tie) as tle motorcycle gang roars o (gure ().
Wlere gospel music lad accompanied tle rst sex scene and blues tle
sexual performance in tle club, and wlere jazz lad been tle typical music
of sexploitation, lere, strikingly, we lear only tle sounds of sex and of
tle men in tle gang cleering on tleir leaderas if tley did not realize
sle lad lost tle contest as soon as sle lay down on ler back. Tougl tle
scene is a liglly constructed montage marked by prolonged superim-
positions, it is emplatically not a musical sexual interlude in any of tle
ways described above. Indeed, tle presence of sound syncl points for tlis
carnal encounter lends tlis lm some of tle sense of tle nakedness of tle
sex in tlose European art lms tlat lad so indelibly impressed me ten
years earlier. Witl tlis scene, capped by tle brief glimpse of full frontal
nudity, Van Peebles dared to expose, literally and guratively, an element
of black empowerment frequently left out of civil riglts agendas: tle riglt
for black men to lave sex witl wlite women, tle black penis as a sign of
power and potency. Tis briey glimpsed front proves crucial to tle lm,
yet is rarely noted by critics.
Te rest of tle lm focuses on Sweetbacks protracted escape to tle
border. Mixed-race inner-city audiences (especially young males) roared
going all the way ,,
at tle spectacle of a black man escaping tle law and screwing lis way
to freedom. Entlusiastic vocal responses aimed at tle screen mirrored
tle many moments audiences witlin tle lm cleered Sweetbacks sexual
performances. Te call-and-response format of mucl of tle lms music,
written by Van Peebles and performed by Eartl, Wind, and Fire, itself
elicited audience call-out (You bled my Momma. You bled my Poppa.
But you wont bleed me.). Wlile wlite critics tended to begrudgingly ad-
mire tle crowd-pleasing fabulation of tle black mans revenge on wlitey,
wlile simultaneously wincing at its crass overstatement, for once tle more
important critical commentary occurred witlin tle black community.
None otler tlan tle Black Pantler minister of defense, Huey P. Newton,
lailed Sweetback as tle rst truly revolutionary Black lm. Newtons long
article, occupying an entire issue of tle Black Panther Party Intercom-
Sweet Sweetbacks
Baadasssss Song
42: Sweetback
fnally moves on
top of the Pres
and before an
all-white, male
43: (53:01)
Sweetback in
derby and bowtie,
glimpsed frontally
oo going all the way
munal News Service, wlose target market was inner-city blacks, oered
detailed, sometimes self-contradictory, close readings of all tle lms sex
scenes, eacl of wlicl le argues slould be interpreted not as actual sex
acts but as riglteously signifying sexual symbols. For example, despite
tle nudity and simulation of sex acts, Newton asserts tlat tle rst scene of
baptism witl tle wlore is far from anytling sexual. It is a sacred rite
answered by a second baptism, tlis time in blood, wlen Sweetback beats
tle two cops wlo lave tlemselves beaten tle black revolutionary.
In answer to Newton, Lerone Bennett )r., writing for Ebony, argued tlat
tle lm represented no liberation and no clallenge to wlite stereotypes of
blacks, but only its own stereotypical counter to tle previous stereotype
of tle gure of tle Tom. For Bennett, writing for a magazine wlose target
audience consisted of middle-class, upwardly mobile blacks, tle opening
baptismal scene was notling less tlan tle rape of a clild, and tle lms
subsequent sexual performances were so many bogus emancipation
orgasms. If fing freed, Bennett writes, black people would lave cele-
brated tle millennium (oo years ago. More important, perlaps, Ben-
nett notes tle woodenness of Sweetbacks sexual performances, wlicl to
lim missed an opportunity to portray tle black tradition of spontaneous
sexuality. He insists tlat le is not opposed to tle lms sexual explicit-
ness per se, only to its manner: Te sex in tlis black lm is as cold and
as wlite as snowgrim, manipulative, competitive, full of anxieties and
lostilities. Indeed, it is not explicit enougl, it is not natural enougl, it is
not black enough. Worried tlat impressionable black viewers were taking
Sweetback seriously as a sex symbol wlen tle real opportunity lad been
missed to make visible for tle rst time tle luslness, tle beauty, and tle
incredible variety of black esl, Bennett is deeply disappointed tlat tle
lm opted for a kind of vulgar intensity tlat could never present sex as
tle luman sacrament it is.
Botl Newton and Bennett address tle stereotype of tle lypersexual
black male, but from dierent directions. Newton nds Sweetback liberat-
ing and revolutionary. Bennett nds tle claracter a trap, a counterstereo-
type itself determined by tle wlite mans stereotypes of tle black man.
He notes Sweetbacks own singular lack of pleasure and taunts tlat tle
only person wlo actually gives everytling to sex, wlo lolds notling back,
is neitler Sweetback tle Sex Macline nor tle black wlores but tle wlite
female leader of tle motorcycle gang. How does tlat black aestletic grab
you:' Tus Bennett argues tlat Sweetback is entirely determined by tle
stereotype le is invented to counter.
Bennett certainly las a point. Te wlite stereotype of tle lypersexual-
going all the way o
ized black man witl a large penis is a gment of tle wlite imagination. But
tle black imagination of tle lypersexualized black man does not merely
repeat tlat same stereotype. It is, as Mireille Rosello las pointed out about
tle working of stereotypes in general, a refunctioning tlat walks a tricky
tigltrope between two dierent stereotypes: tle plobic stereotype of tle
black rapist wlo cannot control lis slavering desire for wlite women and
tle counterplobic one of tle kind, gentle, and asexual Uncle Tom.
Tomas Cripps las written tlat sexual prowess is tle one racial stereo-
type tlat few blacks ever botlered to deny. I would like to respectfully
revise tlis important statement. Historically, tle gure of Uncle Tom, was
deployed strategically by botl blacks and wlites in tle nineteentl century
to counter an earlier minstrel gure of tle sexually promiscuous black
buck. Te anti-Tom reinvention of tlis gure in tle reconstruction
era, most signicantly revived by Birth of a Nation, put a new spin on tle
stereotype by presenting tle comic minstrel as a melodramatic villain in
perpetual lust after wlite women.
Van Peebles tlus lad to counter two stereotypes. Uncle Tom was tle
most obvious. He writes in lis manifesto-screenplay tlat wlen tle idea
for lis lm came to lim, lis primary goal was to create a commercially
feasible velicle and to do sometling tlat wasnt Uncle Tommy. It is
entirely relevant, tlerefore, tlat le informs us tlat lis inspiration for tlis
lm came to lim wlile alone in tle desert masturbating. His version
of tle anti-Tom needed to assert sexual pleasure, but if it asserted too
mucl and was not under control, it would fall into tle stereotype of tle
wlite version of tle anti-Tom. Peebles anti-Tom tlus lad to emerge from
a liglly controlled form of sexual pleasure. As le writes, I unbuttoned
my y, leaned back against tle front fender . . . and pulled out my pecker
and began to beat my meat. . . . some idea was lurking back tlere in my
mind waiting for tle coast to clear to be born. Masturbating not merely
for pleasure, or for cinematic inspiration, but perlaps to prove a certain
potency tlrougl control, Van Peebles calls lis crasl metlod for creative
inspiration semen-slock. He compares tlis metlod favorably to tle
racial-slock of a lmrecognizable as Stanley Kramers Home of the
Brave (,(,)in wlicl a wlite doctor taunts a paralyzed black soldier
into regaining tle use of lis legs by calling lim a nigger coward.
A stereotype of tle black buck tlat functioned in tle Reconstruction
era to keep wlite women, black men, and black women in tleir place was
tlus in tle early ,;os refunctioned by a black director to celebrate sexual
performance in tle form of a transgressive, quasi-pornograplic tale. If
we seek an answer for wly Sweetbacks glimpsed front rarely moves, wly
o: going all the way
it is so often just coolly in control, just tlere between tle womens legs,
never taking and only giving pleasure, I tlink it miglt lave sometling
to do witl tle fact tlat it now las tle burden of countering not only
Uncle Tommy, wlicl any sexual performance could refute, but also tle
wlite-generated plobic stereotype of tle black buck as rst promulgated
in popular culture by tle likes of Tomas Dixon and D. W. Critl. In Te
Birth of a Nation (,,), black men and so-called mulattoes tlrust tleir
pelvises at wlite women in wanton exlibitions of lust. Te trick for tle
new generation of black men interested in black sexual power would be
to perform neitler Uncle Tommy nor tle lascivious black buck, to slow
potency but not excessive desire or pleasure. It is tlus not accidental tlat
so many of tle sexual acts depicted in tle lm are performed before tle
surprisingly approving gaze of wlite men. Van Peebless accomplislment,
tlougl not as genuinely revolutionary as Bennett miglt lave wisled,
is nevertleless to lave redeployed tle very taboos tlat once eectively
policed tle racial border in tle service of eroticizing transgression. Sucl
was Melvin Van Peebless complex masturbatory fantasy.
Te persistence witl wlicl Sweetback positions audiences in tle lm
for its many sexual performances alerts us to tle frauglt question of low
audiences, tlemselves marked by signs of race and gender, miglt lave re-
sponded to tle sex. Tree out of ve times Sweetback performs sex before
racially marked internal lm audiences: tle race- and gender-mixed audi-
ence in tle sex club, tle all-wlite, all-male motorcycle gang, and nally,
tle two wlite cops in tle desert wlo are fooled into tlinking Sweetbacks
knifepoint rape of a black woman is really lovemaking in tle busles. Eacl
performance points to tle aective dilemma of tle tleater audiences own
response: Wlo slould cleer, and wlo slould be aslamed: Wlo miglt
permit tlemselves to feel aroused, and wlo slould be guarded against
sucl feelings: Perlaps one reason for tle exuberant cleering of young,
black, urban audiences was tle sense of release: wlere tleir parents gen-
eration lad felt tle need to remain very guarded about slowing arousal
in any but tle most strictly segregated situations, lere, nally, was an op-
portunity to cleer on black sexual prowess even in one case vis--vis tlat
most taboo object: tle wlite woman. But in tle agonistic arena of sexual
battle, wlo wins and wlo loses:
Slould I, for example, as a wlite woman, cleer wlen Sweetback brings
tle wlite woman motorcycle Pres to orgasm, or slould I cringe at tle
passive way sle lies down on ler back to do battle: Slould a black woman
rejoice at tle triumpl of tle black man, even if it is purclased at tle
going all the way o
cost of tle lumiliation (and later rape) of ler counterpart on tle screen:
Or do tlese questions of opposed forms of pleasure and power look too
narrowly at race and gender as identicatory viewing positions: Is tle
black stud wlo foils tle cops and escapes across tle border freed by lis
sexuality, or only furtler imprisoned by tle need to perform lis virility
witlout ever losing lis cool: Tese are questions witlout easy answers.
Te one tling tley point to is tle listoric importance of a lm tlat put tle
question of African American sex acts rmly in tle public eye, riglt along
witl tle issue of tle black and wlite audiences response to tlose acts.
Perlaps tle most we can say is tlat Van Peebless frequent lat dong is a
nod to botl lis audiencestlose in and tlose at tle lmas if to say I
know tle cool new way to walk tlis tigltrope.
Te less ercely independent Blaxploitation lms to follow tle trail
blazed by Sweetback would make a point of delivering sometling a little
more like tle black tradition of spontaneous sexuality tlat Bennett called
for. Tese lms would also make visible for tle rst time tle luslness, tle
beauty, and tle incredible variety of black esl. Cordon Parks )r.s ,;:
Supery provides tle quintessential example. Ron ONeals dope-pusling
lustler lero casually leaves tle bed of one of lis wlite female customers
at tle lms beginning and later las luscious, spontaneous musical inter-
ludestyle sex in a bubble batl witl a black woman le may actually love.
Te lm even gives tlis couple a lappy ending. Witlin tle constraints
of tle gangster genre, a certain celebration of intraracial sexual pleasure
lad arrived in Blaxploitation, but perlaps only insofar as tle lms re-
entered tle supposedly tasteful realm of tle Hollywood musical sexual
Te African American novelist Terry McMillan writes tlat before sle
saw Spike Lees Shes Gotta Have It in ,86, sle lad never seen a real
black couple in tle twentietl century on screen making love before, nor
lad sle seen a black woman actually enjoying it.' Tougl McMillan
seems ignorant of tle early seventies listory of Blaxploitation, ler com-
ment speaks to tle anticipation witl wlicl African American audiences
lave greeted eacl rare siglting of intraracial sex. Henry Louis Cates )r.
las also noted tlat lonest and open explorations of tle complexities
of interracial sexual attraction lave not been among Hollywoods strong
points. Like McMillan, Cates goes on to discuss Lee as tle pioneer (tlis
time writing about tle ,, Jungle Fever), skipping over wlat le calls tle
more lurid and titillating tradition of Blaxploitation. It is precisely in
tle lurid and titillating transgressions of early Blaxploitation, lowever,
o( going all the way
tlat one nds tle most lonest and open clallenges to tle taboos against
miscegenation, as well as tle deepest understanding of low tlese taboos,
even wlen broken, structure tle very nature of tleir violation.
Te nal location for tle depiction of carnal knowledge outside tle main-
stream of American lm in tle sixties is tle avant-garde. In tle sixties
proper I saw very few of tlese lms, but I would make up for tlat lack
in tle early seventies wlen I moved to Boulder, Colorado, lome to Stan
Braklage and a lively experimental cinema scene. In regular screenings
at tle Experimental Cinema Croup (later renamed First Person Cinema)
by lmmakers as diverse as Scott Bartlett, Braklage, Bruce Conner, )ack
Smitl, Carolee Sclneeman, Paul Slarits, and Andy Warlol I encountered
anotler kind of carnal knowledge also cauglt up in tle sexual revolution.
Closest in some ways to tle brazen revelations of lard-core pornogra-
ply, avant-garde lms did not lesitate to slow explicit sexual acts, but
tley always pursued otler aestletic, political, and social goals in tle pro-
Avant-garde lms were also screened at tle kind of private parties and
clubs wlere stag lms were slown until tle late ,6os. But tley lad an
ability, unlike tle latter, to also travel to museums and art galleries. As
raried experiments in cinematic rendering of tle texture of life, tley
were often diametrically opposed to tle clinical clarity of lard-core lms,
frequently interlacing carnal knowledge witl icker eects, fast cutting,
superimposition, or tle intentional lack of focus. Audiences for tlese
lms, like tle audiences for pornograply and sexploitation, often came to
lms witl titles like Loving (dir. Stan Braklage, ,,;), Blow Job (dir. Andy
Warlol, ,6), Blue Movie (dir. Andy Warlol, ,68), or Lovemaking (dir.
Scott Bartlett, ,;o) witl built-in prurient interest and some expectation
tlat if tley were patient and looked lard enougl tley miglt glimpse as-
pects of sex tlat tley could not see anywlere else. Sometimes, as in tle
promisingly titled Blow Job, tley were pornograplically disappointed.
At otler times, as in Barbara Rubins amazing Christmas on Earth (,6),
originally titled Cocks and Cunts, or in Warlols Couch (,6() and Blue
Movie, tley were gratied in prurient ways wlile also being oered all tle
familiar existential longueurs and formal clallenges expected from avant-
garde cinema. As Tomas Waugl and Ara Osterweil lave botl noted,
Going All the Way in the Avant-Garde
going all the way o,
tlese lms simultaneously fullled and frustrated tle sexual interests of
tleir small but devoted audiences.
Warlols Blue Movie is of particular interest because, as Variety was
quick to note in its review, it was not quite as underground as some of
tle previous lms of tle avant-garde (sucl as, for example, Warlols ,6
Kiss). Indeed, it was tle rst tleatrically released feature-lengtl sound
lm to slow explicit sexual intercourse. Te lard-core blue movies to
wlicl Warlols title refers lad been silent, slort, and entirely illegal.
In contrast, Blue Movie was long and loquacious. Wlat it slared witl
tle stag lm or blue movie was an unblinking look at unsimulated sex,
but it was neitler an old-faslioned, silent blue movie nor yet a feature-
lengtl, sound, lard-core work of pornograply. Ratler, Blue Movie lad its
very own way of going all tle way, in particular a foregrounding of wlat
we lave already seen as a key issue of screening sex: tle rendering of pri-
vate and intimate sexual acts as public.
A remarkable number of tle lms discussed in tlis clapter depict sex
performed for audiences witlin tle lm narrative. In Sin in the Suburbs
an orgy arranged for an audience climaxes witl motler and dauglter un-
masked to one anotler and to tle spectators at tle event. Tese spectators
do not stay to enjoy tle slow. Public sex, as one miglt expect in a lm tlat
equates sex witl sin, is tantamount to slameful, tlougl still titillating,
exposure. Te words of tle ringmaster wlo calls tlis coupling an animal
act are apt: sin lies in tle very absence of slame tlat permits a public
performance. By ,;, witl Sweetback, lowever, tle performance of sex
becomes an arena for a cool display of prowess. Te black man slows lis
stu to botl tle women le las sex witl and tle audience.
Warlols Blue Movie, in contrast, does not lave a literal audience in-
scribed in its narrative. But, as we slall see, tle lm is launted by tle
specter of an audience. It is aware tlat its portrayal of unsimulated sex
constitutes a publication of an act tlat lad previously been taboo every-
wlere except in blue movies. Te lm is about a man (Louis Waldon) and
a woman (Viva) wlo spend a late afternoon and evening togetler. Tey
undress, lave sex, watcl 1v, eat, watcl tle sun go down, cook, wasl eacl
otler in tle slower, sing, and make inarticulate animal sounds. Trougl-
out, tley casually smoke, needle eacl otler witl an olanded loquacious
intimacy, talk and talk (about politics, tle Vietnam War, acting, sexual
pickups, not wearing bras, etc.). All of tlis takes place in tle idiom of War-
lols late sound lms, described by Wayne Koestenbaum as lurid subject,
cool presentation. Viva (ne Susan Homan), one of Warlols many
o6 going all the way
superstars, is a tlin, beautiful, deadpan, wline-voiced comedienne,
tle very opposite of Meyers Vixen. Wlere Vixen is all busty, frenzied,
working-class leat, Viva is soplisticated, world-weary coolness. Waldon
is friendly, casual, and unlike many otler Factory superstars, neitler a
man wlo wants to be a woman nor a man wlo likes men. Te action takes
place over tle course of minutes in tle bedroom, kitclen, and batl-
room of a New York apartment witl a nice view of tle skyline.
Te sex act itself occupies about lalf an lour of tle lms total run-
ning time. Te couple slowly undresses as tley lie in various positions on
a bed. Usually tleir entire bodies are displayed witlin tle frame. Never
does tle lm cut, as a true blue movie would, to close-ups of body parts.
A casual intimacy dominates, banal conversation accompanies even tle
sweatier, more strenuous parts of leterosexual intercourse. Like Warlols
earlier silent Kiss, Blue Movie is somelow more and less real in its rep-
resentation of its closen sex act. It is more real tlan mainstream cinema
or sexploitation in its explicit display of full frontal nudity, erection, and
penetration and in its depiction of awkward longueurs (e.g., tle long time
it takes Louis to get lard). It is also more real tlan blue movies in tle syn-
clronized sound tlat permits sexual grunts, interminable dialogue, and
verbally explicit negotiations of sexual positions (as wlen Viva asserts tlat
sle will not suck Louiss cock because its boring). At tle same time,
lowever, tle lm is less real tlan eitler tle mainstream or tle sex genres:
acutely aware tlat it is not so mucl about sex as about tle lming of sex,
it poses tle central question of wlat it means to perform sex for a camera
and, tlrougl tle mediation of tlat camera, to present sex to a lm audi-
Unusual among Warlol lms, Blue Movie las no drag queens, no male
lustlers, no perversionsonly a man and a woman alone in an apart-
ment enjoying a leisurely fuck.' Yet of course tle very fact tlat we can
see tlem means tlat tley were never really alone. For tleir sounds and
images to be visible to us in tle future audience, a camera and sound re-
corder (separate entities at tlis stage of 6mm lm teclnology) lad to be
present, along witl tleir operators.
Almost as soon as it beginsin medias res, like all Warlol lms, witl
a clotled Viva and Louis already stretcled out on a bedBlue Movie ex-
plores tle dilemma of tle private act of sex performed for a camera and
sound apparatus tlat make it public. Amid tleir small talk, Viva wlispers
sometling into Louiss ear in order, we assume, not to be overleard by tle
sound recorder. Sle tlen says out loud, in ironic complaint: Maybe we
slould discuss it out loud at tle next commercial break. Not mucl later,
going all the way o;
as tley begin to caress and undress, Viva again expresses discomfort witl
tle lack of privacy and asks Louis, Wly dont you ask someone in lere
to leaveall tle glosts: Botl complaints go uncommented on by Louis,
but it is clear tlat tleir negotiation of tle sex act is also a negotiation witl
tle glosts. Indeed, Viva continually worries about low sle miglt look,
wisling at one point tlat sle lad worn a leotard so Id look sexy.
Te long sex scene is marked by Vivas simultaneous self-consciousness
about low sle looks and ler concern about low Louis looks witl an erect
penis wlen le nally takes o lis slorts. Ol! How disgusting, sle ex-
claims, riglt in front of tle lens! At tlis point tleir bodies are arranged
perpendicularly, feet rst, to tle camera. In taking in tle scene, we tend
to look up tleir legs and bodies from tle bottom to tle top of tle frame.
Halfway up we discover Louiss now exposed, partly erect penis. Looking
directly at tle camera, Viva, wlose own position in tle scene is actually
less favorably located for tle siglt of Louiss penis tlan is ours, explains,
speaking botl for lerself and as if for us, We dont want to see your ugly
cock and balls! (gure ((). And, in fact, sle adjusts lis top leg so as to
lide tle oending organs. Louis responds not by defending tle beauty of
lis manlood, but by insisting on tle ction tlat tley are alone: Wlos
we: Me and you: Teres nobody lere but me and you! (Later, lowever,
a glost sneezes, and Louis says gesundleit.)
Viva and Louis navigate tle pressures of laving sex before a camera
dierently, Viva mostly witl wisecracks and asides and Louis witl wlat
appears to be initial performance anxiety. For not only does Viva object to
tle fact tlat tle lens sees cock and balls, sle objects to tle fact tlat le
is not lard (How can you slow tlat wlen its not lard: sle questions,
44: Blue Movie
(dir. Andy Warhol,
1968), Viva quips:
We dont want to
see your ugly cock
and balls!
o8 going all the way
adding in ler usual clatty way tlat lard-ons were considered comic in tle
Creek tleater.) After a long kiss, and a rare silence, Louis puts lis left leg
between Vivas legs and rlytlmically rolls into ler, now apparently lard.
But a doorbell rings and spoils tle mood, giving Viva anotler opportu-
nity to criticize lim (Youre doing so poorly!). Eventually, lowever, sle
climbs on top of lis erect penis, tley reverse positions, and le pumps
on top of ler. Tougl Viva never stops demonstrating ler awareness of
performing for a camera (saying at one point, I tlink we slould give a
prole lere, and at anotler, we slould lave organized orgasms), sle
does respond to lis pumping, pusling back up into lim and working
witl lim to aclieve if not organized, and certainly not visible, orgasms,
tlen a certain concerted frenzy of motion wlose passion can be measured
by tleir sweat. Viva notes low tley slip and slide and, wlen tle passion
subsides, cracks tlat tley could use a dentists suction macline to get rid
of tle excess liquid.
Vivas objection to, and Louiss complacency about, tle glosts is one of
tle couples many running arguments. At stake in tlis argument are dif-
ferent assumptions about tle privacy of sex acts, tle appropriateness of
laving sex for a camera and tape recorder and, via tlese meclanisms, be-
fore an audience. Viva assumes tlat we do not want to see Louiss cock
and balls, but ler eventual compliance suggests ambivalence. Clearly tlis
we includes lerself, tle glosts, and by extension, tle us tlat marks for
ler an ambivalent obscenity. Sle invokes wlat William Ian Miller calls tle
rules of disgustrules tlat in )udeo-Clristian culture lad deemed tle
display of lower portions of tle anatomy obscene. Te relaxation of tlese
rules is tle very substance, Miller argues, of intimacy.
For Louis, lowever, tle argument seems to rest on male pride: Can le
get Viva excited enougl to actually forget tle camera: To tle extent tlat
sle does seem to forget, le would seem to be successful in lis own perfor-
mance and tle lm a celebration of tlat successjust as tle sexual inter-
lude in Midnight Cowboy celebrates )oe Bucks success in giving pleasure
to lis female client. In Warlol lms, lowever, we never fully forget tle
dimension of performance. Even after Viva las climbed on top of Louis
and begins to be less critical of lis sexual performance, sle nevertleless
suggestsagain, to wlom:tlat a prole miglt be in order. Te per-
formance of genital sex for tle camera, like tle performance of kisses, is
tle sex, tlere is no more private, autlentic moment. How it looks relates
to low it feels, and Vivas constant references to low she looks are tlus
always more tlan a reference to low sle miglt look just to Louis.
going all the way o,
David )ames las noted of Warlols screen tests tlat tle camera makes
performance inevitable, it constitutes being as performance. In lis Phi-
losophy, Warlol recalled tlat lis purclase of an audiotape recorder
nisled wlatever emotional life I miglt lave lad. . . . Notling was ever
a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and wlen a
problem transforms itself into a good tape its not a problem any more. An
interesting problem was an interesting tape. Everybody knew tlat and per-
formed for tle tape. You couldnt tell wlicl problems were real and wlicl
problems were exaggerated for tle tape. Better yet, tle people telling you
tle problems couldnt decide any more if tley were really laving tle prob-
lems or if tley were just performing.
Sex for Warlol was tle interesting problem. He was an admitted voyeur
wlo felt like an outsider to all sex, but especially to lis peculiarly exalted
ideal of leterosexual sex. Blue Movie, for all Vivas complaining, proves
a most interesting solution to tle problem of tle performance of tle pri-
vate act of sex for a public audience. By forging intimacy around tle very
conict of being lmed and sound-recorded in tle act of sex, tle lm
reexively stages tle dilemma of tle performer and tle audience in tle
spectacle of sex. Altlougl tle lm sometimes lalfleartedly attempts to
present tle tryst of Viva and Louis as tlat of an actual couple laving an
aair, tle two cannot keep tleir stories straiglt. At one point Viva says, I
tlouglt I was supposed to be your wife in tlis movie. Teir sex, wlicl is
more extended and more real and lard core tlan in any previous Ameri-
can movie including preexisting lard-core pornograply, only exists for,
and because of, tle camera and tape recorder tlat deliver tlis perfor-
mance to tle alternately bored and stunned avant-garde lm audience.
Ironically, lowever, Viva and Louiss performance of sex aclieves a
simulacrum of tle intimacy of tle autlentic couple tlrougl tleir very
bonding opposition to tle glosts. Tis intimacy, wlicl includes a long
period of postcoital talk, cooking, and slowering, and wlicl is forged
botl witl and against tle recording apparatus, seems more genuine tlan
any of tle otler forms of carnal knowledge I lave so far examined.
Trouglout tle lalf lour in wlicl tle couple disrobes, verbally spars,
wrestles around, and nally las sex, tle only ellipses occur wlen tle
rolls of lm run out, we see tle image bleacl out and go wlite, followed
by brief darkness before again picking up tle action at a sligltly later
point. Tus tle temporal ow of tlis sex, altlougl not witlout an occa-
sional ellipsis at tle seemingly arbitrary end of eacl roll of lm, diers
o going all the way
radically in duration and explicitness from any otler discussed in tlis
If it were possible to lave a degree zero of sex in movies, tlis is it. No
edited montages, no superimpositions, no musical interludes attempt to
stand in for tle always elusive orgasmic moments of pleasure. Nor does
tle scene build to a dramatic climax of money slots. Yet Warlol does take
lis cue aestletically from tle blunt and often matter-of-fact older blue
movies le so mucl admired. Tese lms are often so laplazard in tleir
orclestration of unfaked sex acts tlat tley, too, neglect to oer dramatic
climaxes and tlus, screened today, often lave an uncanny realism. As we
saw lim do witl kisses, Warlol simply slows tle act witl an unblinking,
unprobing, unprurient eye altlougl witlout maximally visible close-ups.
It does not lurt tlerefore tlat Warlol close to begin lis lm witl tle sex
act ratler tlan to build toward it as a payo at tle end. Te real payo
of lis lm turns out to be tle postcoital and emplatically domestic inti-
macy in wlicl tle brittle Viva becomes soft. (Before tley lave sex Louis
pleads, Be soft so I can make love to yousoft, like an angel.)
Blue Movie was made in ,68 after Warlol returned from lis recu-
peration from tle wounds inicted wlen le was slot by Valerie Solanas.
Koestenbaum views it as lis last piece of real art before becoming a kind
of glost in lis own body. After it was screened at tle Carrick Teater in
New Yorksoon to become tle Andy Warlol Teaterit was seized by
police, tried, and found obscene. Since tlen it las only been viewable on
video at tle Warlol Museum in Pittsburgl and on a bootleg video dubbed
into Cerman. Tougl in todays pornograplically saturated media envi-
ronment Blue Movie would never be considered obscene, it las continued
to be treated as sucl: it remains literally o scene so long as Viva las not
consented to its screening. Tis way, it seems, sle las lad ler revenge on
tlose glosts.
In Te Graduate, just before le las sex witl Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin
makes a last-minute appeal to normalize tleir relation. Would you like
to go to tle movies: le asks. In ,6; Benjamin miglt lave assumed
tle movies a place safe from tle adult carnal knowledge in wlicl le
was afraid to engage. But as we lave seen, tle movies were becoming
less safe, more a place wlere scenes of passion, adultery, miscegena-
tion, miglt now be glimpsed. By ,; and ,;:, lowever, going all tle
way would take on new meaning. No longer would it be a matter of tle
cordoned-o musical sexual interlude in tle mainstream, sucl as tlat
between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson. No longer would tle avant-garde
going all the way
or Blaxploitation be tle only place to glimpse less contained moments of
sex. Very soon adult sexual situations would become tle primary reason
for watcling a lm from beginning to end, wletler in tle new lard-core
feature-lengtl pornograply exemplied by tle ubiquitous Deep Troat
(dir. Cerard Damiano, ,;:) or in a new kind of sexy art cinema tlat was
not entirely foreign.
going further
Last Tango in Paris, Deep Troat,
and Boys in the Sand (,;,;:)
Pauline Kaels famous review of Last Tango in Paris began
witl tle following words: Bernardo Bertoluccis Last Tango
in Paris was presented for tle rst time on tle closing niglt
of tle NY Film Festival, October (, ,;:: tlat date slould
become a landmark in lm listory comparable to May :,,
,tle niglt Le Sacre du Printemps was rst performed
in music listory.' Te Rite of Spring lad reportedly been
tle most notorious premiere in tle listory of music and
ballet. Wlat lappened at tlat premiere in tle Tatre des
Clamps-lyses in Paris was quite simply a riot. Almost
from tle very rst notes of Igor Stravinskys music and tle
very rst steps of Serge Diaglilevs ballet tle audience was
slocked by tle scenic and rlytlmic evocation of pagan ritu-
als witl percussive intensities never before leard in classical
Wly did Kael, tle most inuential and astute lm reviewer
of ler generation, compare a ,;: lm by an Italian director
going further
working in France, and starring one of Americas most famous actors, to
a , musical score and ballet performed by a famous dancer commonly
considered to lave been tle dening moment of modern art:
Last Tango is about a twenty-year-old Frencl woman (Maria Sclneider)
and a forty-ve-year-old American man (Marlon Brando) wlo meet by
clance in a Paris apartment, lave sex, and continue to meet for more sex
until tleir attraction dies. Tougl certainly not a ballet, it is a kind of arcl,
stylized dance of life and deatl, witl a literal tango guring prominently
in one of its later scenes. Part of tle audacity of Kaels review is tle claim
tlat a movie could lave tle same kind of cultural resonance as Stravin-
skys and Diaglilevs famously dissonant, percussive works of music and
dance. Te comparison was certainly strategic. Te lm critic most fa-
mous for clampioning movies as a popular form was now claiming tlat
lm lad nally come of age as ligl modern art.
It is lard not to ask: if tle art of lm was only tlen becoming mod-
ern, wlere lad it been tlese last fty-nine years: Te implication could
only be tlat lm was belind tle times, tlat it lad not yet lad its mod-
ernist break witl classical traditions, even tlougl it may lave been tle
only art form actually born in tle era of modernism. To make ler auda-
cious analogy, Kael lad to ignore tle cinematic avant-gardes of tle ,:os,
,(os, and ,6os. Tis analogy only makes sense if one considers it a claim
for tle feature-lengtl commercial narrative cinema, not for tle avant-
garde. But wlat specically links tle Stravinsky-Diaglilev-Nijinsky Rite
of Spring witl tle Bertolucci-Brando Last Tango in Kaels mind is tleir
embrace of a similar primitive eroticism. In a telling plrase, Kael links
tle two tlrougl tleir slared jabbing, thrusting eroticism. It is as mod-
ernist sex tlat tle lm is judged by Kael to be a breaktlrougl. Modern
art lad often been connected witl tle unleasling of libido and tlus witl
Sigmund Freuds tleories on tle importance of sexuality as a fundamen-
tal motive force in luman life. Because of tle Production Code, lowever,
American lms slowing in regular movie louses lad not participated in
tle explorations of luman sexuality manifest in writers like )ames )oyce,
D. H. Lawrence, Ceorges Bataille, or Henry Miller, or in visual artists sucl
as Pablo Picasso, Egon Scliele, Ren Magritte, or Francis Bacon beyond
tle tame conventions of wlat I lave called tle sexual musical interlude.
It is tlus in tlis particular sense of taking on sexual tlemes in tle non-
romanticized, primitive ways of modern art tlat Kael claimed tlat movies
lad nally grown up.
Last Tango was certainly not tle rst lm imported from Europe to
screen adult sex beyond tle kiss. As early as ,,, Louis Malles Les
( going further
amants (Te Lovers) lad engendered controversy, not to mention sig-
nicant litigation, witl a long scene of adulterous lovemaking tlat was
so intrinsic to tle lm tlat it could notlike Hedy Lamarrs brief nude
scene in Ecstasy (dir. Custave Maclat, ,) or otler European examples
of risqu sexbe cut witlout doing extreme violence to tle narrative.
And in ,6;, tle same year as Te Graduate, Luis Buuels Belle de jour
lad structured its narrative around tle multiple sexual encounters of an
upper-middle-class lousewife wlo takes up prostitution. None of tlese
lms were constructed in tle bracketed-o, musically accompanied man-
ner of tle Hollywood sexual interlude.
Last Tango, lowever, diered. It lad an unprecedented number of sex
scenes (six) and a story revolving fundamentally around sex. But wlat was
especially dierent about Last Tango was tlat it did not seem to be tle
usual foreign import. To be sure, it was directed by an Italian, slot in Paris,
and featured tle familiar Frencl actor )ean Pierre Laud and lis com-
patriot newcomer Maria Sclneider. But its star was Marlon Brando, tle
quintessential American male sex symbol of tle late fties and early six-
ties. His aging but still magnetic masculine presence did not allow Ameri-
can audiences to place tle lms sexual scenes in tle context of a foreign,
supposedly Old World decadence. Tougl le speaks a little Frencl in tle
lm, all of Brandos important scenes, and certainly all of tle sex scenes,
take place in a very American idiom, some of wlicl Sclneiderwlo
speaks in leavily accented Englislcannot understand. It was tlus at
least partly tle Americanization, tlrougl tle body and voice of Brando,
of a sexuality once associated witl European soplistication tlat made tle
lm seem sucl an astounding event for Kael.
Kaels New Yorker review was written on tle occasion of tle lms ligl-
prole screening on tle closing niglt of tle New York Film Festival. It
would lelp launcl tle lm into wide distribution by United Artists, wlere
it would rank sixtl at tle box oce and eventually receive two Oscar
nominations. Te lms reception into tle mainstream illustrates a dis-
tinctive American sensibility grappling witl sexual scenes tlat went far
beyond tle interlude.
Te rst sex scene in Last Tango occurs in an empty apartment tlat Paul
(Brando) and )eanne (Sclneider) are simultaneously looking over to rent.
A few Frencl words spoken by )eanne serve to establisl Pauls nationality.
A plone rings and )eanne picks it up in one room wlile Paul listens on tle
extension in anotler, moving closer, breatling on tle line. No words are
spoken directly before, during, or after tley suddenly lave sex riglt tlere
in tle empty apartment. Neitler does music play, tlougl a plaintive saxo-
going further ,
plone previously punctuated tleir mutual stalking around tle apartment.
Paul sluts tle door, approacles )eanne wlo las just picked up ler lat to
go, and carries ler, in tougl-guy style, to a blinded window. Tey lave
sex standing up, still wearing tleir bulky coats. We lear a rip wlen Paul
presumably tears )eannes undergarment. Parodically one-upping Kaels
musical comparison, Norman Mailer entlused, in our new line of New
Yorkerapproved superlatives, it can be said tlat tle cry of tle fabric is tle
most tlrilling sound to be leard in World Culture since tle four opening
notes of Beetlovens Fiftl. Te couple is framed initially as full gures o
to tle left side of tle frame witl Pauls back to us (gure (,). Only after we
lave fully viewed tlis image of tle beast witl two backs from a distance,
do we slowly move in a bit closer.
Te sex is sudden, unromantic, and brute (tle script describes tlem as
rusling like two dogs unable to stop). Paul exlibits Kaels tlrusting,
jabbing eroticism, )eanne wraps ler legs around lim, and tley almost
topple over as tley urgently press against one anotler seeking tle lever-
age to tlrust larder (gure (6). Wlen tley fall to tle oor, Paul groans
and convulses. Te camera tlen pulls back, as if avoiding tle intimacy of
tle moment, to appreciate tle full view of two luman animals wlo lave
been cauglt up in tle violence of an ecstasy tlat las taken tlem, as tle
word itself means, to a state of crisis beside tlemselves (gure (;). Tey
do not regain tlemselves until )eanne melodramatically rolls several times
over on tle oor, slowing ler naked pubis in tle process, landing some
distance away from Paul (gure (8).
Last Tangos rst tango exlibits a primitive passion, wlat Bataille in
lis writing on eroticism calls a violence of tle one tlat goes out to
meet tle violence of tle otler.' Te unfurnisled apartment, soon sup-
plemented witl a broken mirror and a bare mattress, will, for a few days,
become Pauls crucible for constructing an amour fou in deance of work,
social identity, and family. Out of tlis le will attempt to build a purely
plysical relation witl )eanne, founded on tle systematic transgression of
tle sexual taboos of bourgeois life.
Bertolucci las acknowledged tle overt inuence of Batailles concept
of orgasm as a little deatl ( petite mort) at tle time le began to write tle
script for Last Tango. Indeed, La petite morte was tle lms original title.''
It is not surprising, tlen, tlat Batailles description of tle animal couple
reads like a description of Paul and )eannes rst sex: A meeting between
two beings projected beyond tleir limits by tle sexual orgasm, slowly for
tle female, but often for tle male witl fulminating force . . . tlere is no
real union, two individuals in tle grip of violence brouglt togetler by
Last Tango in Paris (dir.
Bernardo Bertolucci,
45: The beast with two
backs from a distance
46: Paul and Jeanne
seek the leverage from
which to thrust, nearly
47: Two animals
48: Jeanne
rolls away
going further ;
tle preordained reexes of sexual intercourse slare in a stage of crisis in
wlicl botl are beside tlemselves.' Afterward, tley are just as alone as
Paul limself is already in a state of crisis precipitated by tle unexpected
suicide of lis wife, wlicl we learn about in tle following scene. Deatl and
decay launt and propel lis sexual acts, as lis wifes still unburied corpse
lies in a room of tle lotel tley own. Crude body functions also gure
prominently in two of Pauls most memorable monologues, one about
cow slit and anotler about pig vomit. Te next time tley meet tley face
one anotler, naked, and jokingly attempt to come witlout actually toucl-
ing as Paul speaks only in animal grunts. In tle following encounter, after
Paul las told lis clildlood story of lumiliation by cow slit, le moves
away from tle emotional intimacy of tle scene just as )eanne begins to
tell of ler own (lappier) clildlood. Hurt by lis emotional and plysical
abandonment, )eanne unzips ler jeans and masturbates face down on tle
bed as Paul weeps in an adjacent room.
We do not know if Paul weeps for lis wife, for limself, or for lis failure
to respond to )eanne, wlicl may itself eclo tle way le previously failed to
respond to tle emotional needs of lis wife. Wlat we do know is tlat tle
emotional content of tle present relationslip, launted as it is by tle past,
cannot be tle pure animal convulsion for wlicl Paul wisles. For tle rst
time in movies, as Kaels review would claim, complex emotional relations
of ecstasy, alienation, and lumiliation are enacted in tle performance of
tle sex act itself.
Two of tle most memorable of tlese sex acts are explorations of anal
eroticism tlat illustrate Batailles sense of tle links between excreta, de-
cay, and sexuality, as well as tle importance of desires tinged witl fear.
In tle rst of tlese scenes (tle infamous butter scene), Paul asks )eanne
if sle is afraid. Sle says sle is not but, perlaps projecting lis own fear
onto ler, le insists tlat sle is. Next, le orders ler to get tle butter. He
pulls down ler jeans, applies butter to ler backside, and penetrates ler
anally on tle oor, all tle wlile remaining clotled limself (gure (,). In
pointed deance of tle norms of leterosexual procreation, le accompa-
nies tlis near violation witl a verbal diatribe wlicl le requires )eanne to
repeat: Holy family, clurcl of good citizens. . . . Wlere tle will is broken
by repression. . . . Wlere freedom is assassinated. . . . You fucking fuck-
ing family! Hopelessly trying to inculcate in )eanne lis own sense of tle
necessary violence and violation of taboo, as well as lis own closeness to
fear and deatl, le acts out lis existential despair by performing anal sex
on ler.
8 going further
Te second anal scene is presided over by a dead rat tlat terries )eanne
and deliglts Paul. Paul gives )eanne a batl and attempts to comfort ler.
But )eanne is lurt and tlreatens to leave, accusing lim of being too old
and fat. Still naked in tle batl, sle taunts Paul witl tle news tlat sle
las found a man wlo will counteract tle lonely confrontation witl deatl
tlat Paul insists is eacl of tleir fates. He argues tlat no man can oer
ler solace from solitude until you look deatl riglt in tle face . . . until
you go riglt up into tle ass of deatlriglt up lis asstill you nd a
womb of fear. And tlen, maybe, maybe . . . youll be able to nd lim. Like
Bataille, Paul insists tlat tle dissolution of personal identity in tle face
of deatl is necessary to any real eroticism and to any autlentic being.
Also like Bataille, le insists tlat repugnance and lorror are tle main-
springs of desire. Wlen )eanne counters tlat sle las already found tle
man wlo will lelp ler encounter tle womb of fear, and tlat tlat man is
Paul, le does not suddenly soften and embrace ler as miglt be expected
in a more conventional movie. Cet tle scissors, le commands instead.
Like lis earlier get tle butter, we expect furtler violence to be enacted
on )eanne. But tlis time tle anal penetration is digital and performed by
)eanne on Paul. (Te scissors are just for lim to trim ler ngernails.) In
tlis antiromantic, antigraplic climax, only Pauls face and voice register
tle violence of tle act. Tis is lis way of responding to ler profession of
Wlile )eanne assaults Paul anally, le assaults ler verbally: I want to
get a pig, and Im gonna lave tle pig fuck you, and I want tle pig to vomit
in your face, and I want you to swallow tle vomit. . . . I want tle pig to
49: Last Tango in Paris, Paul penetrates Jeanne anally on the foor
going further ,
die wlile youre fucking, and tlen you lave to go belind lim, and I want
you to smell tle dying farts of tle pig. Are you going to do tlat for me:
Forcing )eanne to enter into tle womb of fear, degrading ler and limself
witl tle signs of deatl and animal decay, Paul drives lome lis lesson tlat
tle urge toward love is also an urge toward deatl.' In tle next scene
Paul nally confronts tle body of lis wife and speaks to ler in a powerful
monologue tlat mixes grief and disgust.
Only now, after tle catlarsis of confronting sex as deatl, does Paul
attempt to connect witl )eanne beyond tle womblike enclosure of tle
apartment. But now le is an ordinary middle-aged man witl no special
allure and )eanne is lardly interested. In tle tango lall into wlicl tley
wander, tley lave tleir last tangobotl a literal dance performed gro-
tesquely by a very drunk Paul and a tango of sex in wlicl )eanne jerks Paul
o under a table. Unwilling to believe tlat tle relationslip is nisled, Paul
becomes a stalker. Following )eanne into tle inner sanctum of ler family
lome, le confesses love and asks to know ler name. )eanne speaks it as
sle also pulls tle trigger of ler military fatlers revolver. It is possible tlat
Paul souglt tlis fate of deatl at ler lands all along.
Knowing tlat Last Tango would receive an X rating on release, Pauline
Kael was determined to distinguisl tlis particular X from more ordinary
ones.' Sle writes:
Many of us lad expected eroticism to come to tle movies, and some of us
lad even guessed tlat it miglt come from Bertolucci. . . . But I tlink tlose
of us wlo lad speculated about erotic movies lad tended to tlink of tlem
in terms of Terry Soutlerns deliriously comic novel on tle subject, Blue
Movie; we lad expected artistic blue movies, talented directors taking over
from tle Shlockmeisters and making soplisticated voyeuristic fantasies tlat
would be gorgeous funa real turn on. Wlat nobody lad talked about was
a sex lm tlat would clurn up everybodys emotions.'
Like many otlers wlo lave defended lms witl explicit sexual content,
Kael downplays prurience, attacling tlat feature to otler kinds of lms:
Exploitation lms lave been supplying meclanized sexsex as plysical
stimulant but witlout any passion or emotional violence . . . tle plysical
menace of sexuality tlat is emotionally clarged is sucl a departure from
everytling weve come to expect at tle movies tlat tlere was sometling
almost like fear in tle atmosplere of tle party in tle lobby tlat followed
tle screening.' Exploitation lms of tle sort described in tle previous
clapter lad prepared Kael to anticipate a simulation of sex. And it is obvi-
ous tlat tle sex in Last Tango is simulated. But wlat sle was not prepared
:o going further
for was tle connection of sex witl often powerful emotions, most notably
witl fear.
Before examining tle nature of tle emotions raised by tle simulated
sex acts of Last Tango, let us consider anotler critic reviewing anotler
X-rated lm in tlis very same year (,;:) in yet anotler New York maga-
zine. Te writer is Al Coldstein, tle journal Screw,' tle lm Deep Troat
(dir. Cerard Damiano, ,;:), and tle review is just as full of lyperbole as
Tis week I am reviewing tle very best porn lm ever made, so superior to
otlers tlat it dees comparison. Te movie lits tle all-time best score of
oo on tle Peter-Meter,' not only for its raging rauncl, but more star-
tlingly for its wit, wild lumor, ne acting and lilarious story. . . . Now I
am blas and bored witl sexploitation icks and can respond more to tle
passions provoked by a ploto of a clocolate malted. Yet I was seized witl
yearning by tle greatest on-screen fellatio since tle birtl of Clrist per-
formed before my very eyes.'
Witl Deep Troat, feature-lengtl, lard-core, sound and color pornog-
raply emerged into tle mainstream of American movies. Tougl it was
lardly tle rst feature-lengtl pornograply to slow on a big screen before
gender-mixed audiences, it was tle rst to become a louselold name. It
was every bit as recognizable in its own realm as Last Tango was in its,
and tle two lms were often discussed in tle same breatl.
I take tle unprecedented celebrity of tlese two lms, emblematized
by Kael and Coldsteins reviews, as tle listorical moment at wlicl tle
American moviegoing public not only ocked to see sex on tle screen
but also massively recognized itself as interested in screening sexnot
just an occasional sex scene in an occasional movie, but movies tlat were
all about sex from beginning to end. We saw in tle previous clapter tlat
carnal knowledge became representable in tle Hollywood mainstream
tlrougl tle bracketed sexual interlude in sexploitation tlrougl tle often
lysterical gyrations of female bodies, and in Blaxploitation tlrougl tle
virile presence of tle black lero. Only Andy Warlols avant-garde lm
Blue Movie (,68) actually portrayed a couple laving unsimulated geni-
tal sex, tlougl tlis quasi-underground lm was seen by very few and
soon disappeared from distribution. Last Tango and Deep Troat, tle two
X-rated movies released to general viewing four years later, were tlus tle
rst movies to spur a widely recognized public response to tleir unprece-
dentedly sustained sexual subject matter.
Al Coldsteins claim for Deep Troat is, of course, quite dierent from
going further :
Kaels for Last Tango. He does not compare lis lm to modern art. Nor does
le argue tlat tle sex portrayed in it expresses tle claracters drives. But it
is signicant tlat botl critics write lyperbolically about tleir closen X-
rated lm, botl favorably compare tleir lm to more rote (s)exploitation
examples, and botl believe tlat witl it tle movies lave arrived at a new
peak of maturity. Wlat Coldstein applauds in Deep Troat is a simpli-
ed and less emotionally tlreatening version of wlat Kael applauds in
Last Tango: tle spectacle of convulsive, plallic, leterosexual, but often
nonnormative sex. But wlere Coldstein is not sly about describing tle
famous fellatio in Deep Troat, Kael is less specic about tle anal sex in
Last Tango.
Coldstein singles out tle famous scene of Linda Lovelace performing
deep-tlroat fellatio on tle doctor wlo las discovered tlat ler clitoris is
located in ler tlroat. Hot wlite cum slot out and Our Lady of the Lips
lapped it up. I was never so moved by any tleatrical performance since
stuttering tlrougl my own bar mitzval, Stupendous! was all I could
slout as I stood up and spent my applause on tle glory tlat mine eyes
lad just seen. Kael, on tle otler land, writes more generally of tle
slock produced by Last Tango: Tis must be tle most powerfully erotic
movie ever made, and it may turn out to be tle most liberating movie
ever made, and so its probably only natural tlat an audience anticipating
a voluptuous feat . . . slould go into slock. Bertolucci and Brando lave
altered tle face of an art form.'
I link tlese two reviews because eacl in tleir own way takes note of a
belated coming of age on American screens, wletler in tle new genre
of lard-core feature or in tle already existing but Americanized Euro-
pean adult art lm. I also link tlese reviews because botl foreground
tle question of audience response to real and simulated cinematic sex
acts. Botl Kael and Coldstein acknowledge tleir own visceral, plysical
response and tlus, in a sense, model versions of response to tleir readers.
Botl even seem to be a bit stunned by tle powerful ways tley are moved.
Kael writes of tle plysical menace of a sexuality tlat is so emotionally
clarged tlat it generated sometling almost like fear. At anotler point
sle notes tlat tle rst sex act performed by Brando lad tle audience
gasping and tle gasp was causedin partby our awareness tlat tlis
was Marlon Brando doing it, not an unknown actor. Coldstein, for lis
part, fortlrigltly embraces tle turn-on witl lis acknowledgment tlat tle
movie lit tle all-time best score of oo on tle Peter-Meter, tlougl
even le nds tle need to sublimate lis response into tle spending of
:: going further
Wlen critics write about lms witl sex, tley are usually remarkably
quick to assure tleir audience tlat it was not tle sex tlat engaged tlem,
but some otler featuretle formal beauty, tle acting, absolutely any-
tling but tle sex wlicl is presumably too embarrassing to slow interest
in for itself. Kael and Coldsteins reviews are exceptional and mark an im-
portant moment of cultural criticism because tley frankly acknowledge
tleir own entlusiasm andior slock witlout immediately turning away.
I tlerefore take tlem as emblems of a wider cultural recognition of tle
seriousness of visceral responses tlat lad previously been dismissed as
mere prurience. Wlen Kael admits tlat no one lad ever imagined tlat a
sex lm could clurn up everybodys emotions, sle was trying to dier-
entiate Last Tango from otler lms witl a presumably more exploitative
use of sex by insisting tlat powerful emotions of fear and violence, not
mere prurience, animated tle audience. My guess, lowever, is tlat one
element of tle fear sle describes was tlat audiences did not yet know low
to react to a lm tlat also aroused prurient interest. Sle tlus grapples
witl tle uncomfortable fact tlat representations of sex acts may mix witl
a wide range of emotions and cannot be cordoned o into mere pruri-
ence. Coldstein, on tle otler land, seems to revel in tle fact tlat wlat
lad previously been dismissed as mere prurience is now up tlere on a big
screen for all to see. He is not interested in complex mixes of emotion, but
in tle spectacular visual display of wlat Freud would call disclarge.
Prurience is a key term in any discussion of moving-image sex since tle
sixties. Often it is tle interest to wlicl no one wants to own up. In Miller
v. California (,;), one year after tle slock of tle release of botl Last
Tango and Deep Troat, tle Supreme Court used tle term prurient inter-
est to solidify a legal standard for tle denition of obscenity in tle rst
prong of its denition: a work is obscene if tle average person, applying
contemporary community standards, would nd tlat tle work, taken as
a wlole, appeals to prurient interest.In sucl a case, First Amendment
protections do not apply. However, tlis landmark decision did not tlen
lelpfully go on to actually dene prurience in tle ruling itself. Ratler,
in a footnote to tle decision tle Court lad recourse to Websters New
International Dictionary describing it as: persons, laving itcling, mor-
bid, or lascivious longings of desire, curiosity, or propensity,. . . . Furtler
on, perlaps noting tle vagueness of lascivious longings, and tle natu-
ralness of curiosity, it attempts to specify: slameful or morbid interest
in nudity sex, or excretion. . . . In otler words, prurience is dened
lere as tle morbid and slameful part of sexual urges tlat presumably
also lave a lealtlier and more natural side. Any sexual representations
going further :
tlat were not tle discreet, limited displays ending relatively soon, as tle
Hollywood sexual interlude tended to, or any sexual representation tlat
prolonged tle itcl or tlat seemed to wallow in sex just for its own sake
could tlerefore be deemed prurient.
In ,;6 tle noted First Amendment sclolar Frederick Sclauer would
attempt to clarify prurient interest by excluding tle above meanings of
morbidity, deviance, or slame. He argued tlat wlat society wisles to pro-
libit witl tle concept of prurience is not tle discussion of sex, nor tle
advocacy of sexual immorality, nor deviant practices. Ratler, it is tlat
wlicl slows erotic sexuality in a manner designed to create some form
of immediate stimulation. For Sclauer, prurience is a purely plysical
reactionwlat Kael calls tle turn on and wlat Coldstein would mea-
sure witl a Peter-Meter. Any work tlat, taken as a wlole, sexually
stimulates can be said to incite prurient interest. Kaels vigorous defense
of Last Tango seems to be, at least in part, an attempt to extricate tle lm
from just sucl prurient interest in tle name of more exalted emotions.
Te problem, lowever, is tle line taken as a wlole. For Kaels major
point about Last Tango is tlat tle eros tlat turns us on cannot be extri-
cated from otler emotions displayed in tle lm and powerfully transmit-
ted to tle audience: fear, slock, despair, aggression. In contrasteven
tlougl Coldstein notes tlat lis own emotions are not pure turn-on, but
admixed witl awe and admirationlis praise for Deep Troat is primarily
centered on tle celebration of prurient interest (in Sclauers new and re-
duced sense of tle stimulation of male plysiological response) uncompli-
cated by otler emotions. Tus wlen moving-image sex acts are no longer
elided, as in tle tradition of kisses and ellipses discussed in tle rst
clapter, wlen tley are no longer cordoned o into neat sexual interludes,
as in tle Hollywood lms discussed in tle previous clapter, tlen, as in
Deep Troat, tley become tle substance of tle wlole lm. And wlen sex
acts engage a range of otler emotions, wlen tle lms tlat contain tlem
are no longer conned to screenings in exclusively bolemian venues or
art louses, tlen tley begin, as did Last Tango, to become a part of tle
fabric of cultural life. Tis recognition is tle gist of Kaels appreciation of
Bertoluccis lm and of Brandos performance in it. Sle cites, for example,
Brandos willingness to display tle aggression in masculine sexuality, and
our belief in tle insanity tlat grows out of it.
Sclauer worked lard to dissociate prurience from notions of immo-
rality or deviance, but subsequent court cases attempting to clarify pruri-
ence lave not always upleld tlat distinction. I lave argued elsewlere
tlat many elaborations of tle denition of obscenity lave tended simply
:( going further
to scapegoat lasciviousness or morbidity in tle form of sexualities
deemed deviant and to ignore tle issues of immediate stimulation on
wlicl Sclauer focuses. Te problem witl prurience is tlus twofold: its
susceptibility to being identied as tle slameful or morbid sexual prac-
tice of tle deviant (someone elses sexual practice, not my own) and tle
diculty of isolating tle immediate stimulationor turn-onfrom tle
rest. Sex is rarely ever just sex. Art lms know tlis, pornograply tries
not to. Inevitably, sex mixes witl diverse emotions (slame, joy, triumpl,
relief, morbidity, love, etc.). In wlat follows, I want to try to claracterize
wlat it meant to screen tlese two X-rated lms in tle day.
In tle summer of ,;, I was a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student
living in Boulder, Colorado. In tlat summer, almost a year after eacl lm
lad already made its big splasl in New York, I saw botl Last Tango and
Deep Troat. Deep Troat constituted tle more memorable social occa-
sion, I went to see it witl a group wlose camaraderie almost inoculated
us against strong sexual feelings. Tis group formed wlen a buncl of
us slowed up for a screening of our campus art lm society wlicl was
cancelled. On a wlim we decided to go to tle big city in quest of tlis
mucl less artful lm. Last Tango, on tle otler land, constituted tle more
memorable private occasion: it forced my partner and me to recognize
tlat tle new intensity of passion we experienced after seeing it lad some-
tling to do witl tle lm. It was not easy for us to admit tlat our private
sex lad been inuenced by a movie. All mainstream American movies
tlat I lad previously seen lad eitler lad a certain deniability built into
tlem (e.g., Rick and Ilsa might lave done it, but tlen again tlere was no
clear evidence) or lad deemplasized or bracketed tle moment of pruri-
ence (e.g., Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson did do it, but my senses were
appealed to in diversionary ways via pop songs and fancy editing, not tle
display of tleir esl). In contrast, Last Tango and Deep Troat, not unlike
Alex Comforts explicitly illustrated low-to-do-it manual, Te Joy of Sex
anotler cultural product of ,;:were focused on sex acts, tlere was no
way to pretend tlat tley were not about sex and tlat we did not feel wlat
tle Miller Test called prurient interest, lowever dened, lowever real or
simulated were tle acts tlemselves.
I insist on remembering tlese two lms togetler because botl did, in
ways tlat I was not prepared for, turn me on. It would be all too easy to
Screening Graphic Sex
going further :,
say tlat Deep Troat was trasl and corresponded to Sclauers argument
tlat tlere is no real dierence between screening sex and laving sex wlen
tle images of screened sex are fully graplic. Similarly, it would be easy
to say tlat Last Tango made for ligl-class erotic art and tlus was not, as
Sclauer polemically argued about lard-core pornograply, a sex aid, no
more and no less.' However, it seems more important to recognize tle
degree to wlicl any lm tlat miglt be used as a sex aid is always botl
more and less tlan tlat. My point is tlat tlese popular, louselold-word
movies of tle early seventies ratler more fortlrigltly tlan previous lms
could become sex aids, tlougl of course never so mucl as wlen later re-
leased on video or ivi and brouglt into tle lome. But neitler my part-
ner nor I felt, as Sclauer argued, tlat watcling sex was laving sex. Ratler,
I recall feeling prior to botl lms wlat Linda Lovelace says in Deep Troat
about tle noneartlslaking sex sle lad experienced before learning deep-
tlroat fellatio: Little tingles. To tlis extent you miglt say I mimicked my
namesake as I saw mediated sexual action from wlat Walter Benjamin
lad called close range. If I did indeed feel a more palpable, sensuous
connection between my body and tlose screened tlan I lad felt be-
fore previous Hollywood movies, getting lold of tlis sex by means of its
likeness did not mean slavisl mimicry, but a new kind of play for wlicl
previous movies lad not prepared me: actual fellatio in Deep Troat and
simulated anal sex in Last Tango. Tere is no question tlat tlese acts re-
bounded in me and tlat I did reencounter my own body watcling tlese
acts, tlougl not in Sclauers notion of direct correspondence.
Deep Troat, especially, constituted a kind of test. It was not a lm tlat
one went to casually like otler movies, tlougl it did try to present itself
as if it were just anotler movie. I was an avid movie fan at tlat time, but
tle only time I ever drove forty miles to tle metropolis of Denver and
paid more tlan tlree dollars to see a movie was wlen my partner and
I, anotler couple, and one otler male friend went to Kittys Teater on
Colfax Avenue to see Deep Troat. In tlis era, before very many feminists
lad decided tlat pornograply was a primary cause of tle objectication
of women, my friends and I dared ourselves to watcl and tlus, by impli-
cation, to watcl ourselves watcl.
Critics and commentatorseveryone wlo was anyonelad already
taken note of tle experience of watcling Deep Troat. Tougl only Al
Coldstein lad given it an unqualied rave, even tlose wlo disliked tle
lm, sucl as Nora Eplron in Esquire, noted tlat it would be culturally
derelict not to see it. For it was only witl tle explosion of lard-core fea-
tures preceding and following Deep Troat tlat pornograply became
:6 going further
available to mixed audiences in public movie tleaters. And not until tle
summer of ,; did I see real unsimulated sex acts on a movie screen.
Now tlat moving-image pornograply is familiar fare on tle smaller
screens of computers and televisions viewed primarily in tle lome, it is
lard to understand tle impact of mass American cultures rst encounter
witl graplic sex in movies. To do so we lave to again recognize, as witl
Tomas Edisons projection of tle rst screen kiss, tle power of big-screen
magnication before a public audience.
We lave seen tlat tle sleer size of tle rst public projection of a kiss,
viewed in close-up, slocked some members of its initial audience. But
tlis slock, quickly absorbed, cannot compare to tlat of tle mass public
screenings of Deep Troat and its memorable close-ups of deep-tlroat fel-
latioproducing ten- to twenty-foot erect penises on some screens. My
friends and I watcled tlese acts in a public tleater witl a large cross sec-
tion of tle American population: working-class men and women, middle-
class businessmen, lousewives, students, teaclers, even older women.
Afterward, we talked about tle experience. Some of us were disgusted,
some of us admitted to being turned on.
Wlen we are in tle grips of tle plysical excitement of sex, we aclieve a
kind of intimacy witl our own and otlers bodies tlat, once past a certain
tlreslold, allows us to relax wlat tle listorian and culture critic William
Ian Miller calls tle rules of disgust. Miller argues tlat wletler or not
sexual organs are intrinsically disgusting to siglt, tley lave traditionally
been associated witl culturally debased lower portions of tle anatomy
tlat slame in )udeo-Clristian culture lad long compelled luman beings
to cover up. Cenitals in particular produce liquid substancesmenstrual
blood in women, semen and urine in menregarded by some cultures
as polluting. Tese rules are not universal, some cultures aunt sexual
organs and sex acts quite avidly. But Western cultures lave long tended
to place sex acts o scene and to nd tleir public display eitler disgusting
or arousing, or botl. Wlat was clanging in tle culture to relax tlese rules
of disgust:
Hard-core pornograply was not unknown in tle summer of ,;, even
in public tleaters. For several years already tle tleaters of Times Square
and of a few otler urban centers lad begun to oer wlat tle ,;o Report
of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography referred to as tle New
Cenre of pornograplylms tlat graplically depicted actual sexual
intercourse on tle screen. In tlese tleaters, lowever, it was not only
solitary men wlo were now screening sex. As Eric Sclaefer las slown, a
new kind of cleaply made 6mm lard-core feature was tle real pioneer
going further :;
leading to tle plenomenon tlat would become tle ,mm triumpl of
Deep Troat. Sixteen-millimeter features could be made for a tentl of tle
budget of tle old ,mm sexploitation lms. Wlere tle 6mm lms lad
begun as plotless loopsso-called beaver lms in wlicl women displayed
tleir warestley soon expanded into features witl men and women
laving botl simulated and graplic sex, witl tle line between tle two
often marked only by wletler a close-up of insertion was included. By
,;o tlese new lms commanded tle market witl mucl greater prot re-
turn tlan tle old stags. Small storefront tleaters, not unlike tle old nick-
elodeons of tle early part of tle century, began to cater to a more varied
clientele wlo viewed attendance at pornograplic lms as part of tleir
participation in tle sexual revolution. Sclaefer cites one exampletle
San Francisco Sutter Cinemawlicl lad a special area for lovebirds
wlo were cordoned o from tle single men.
It was tlus tle 6mm format, used in sucl lms as Bill Oscos Mona
(,;o), tlat lad already pioneered tle lard-core feature long before Deep
Troat. It even lad pioneered tle spectacle of frequent fellatio, since
mucl of its narrative concerned a virgin nympl determined to main-
tain ler teclnical virginity tlrougl recourse to fellatio. Soon ,mm sex-
ploitation producers began to imitate tle lard-core 6mm features wlile
many of tle 6mm producers slifted, Sclaefer reports, to tle professional
,mm gauge. Deep Troat and tle plenomenon of porno clic tlus
represented tle convergence of a number of teclnological, cultural, and
economic factors tlat were making tle screening of graplic sex almost
necessary to sexual citizenslip in tle early ,;os. As Cerard Damiano,
speaking from lis Florida retirement in tle documentary Inside Deep
Troat (dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, :oo,), says: You lad to be
tlere. Im tlrilled tlat I was tlere. And I tlank Cod I lad a camera.
Deep Troat tlus diered from tle old tradition of tle silent, men-only
stags botl in tle repertoire of sexual acts (and especially tle ascendancy
of fellatio) and in tle assertive publicness of its exlibition. Mona, Deep
Troat, and tle rusl of lard-core lms tlat followed were, as one inu-
ential New York Times article put it, examples of tle new porno clic.'
Wletler or not tle lms exlibited in tlis era actually were tlemselves
faslionably clic, viewing tlem was considered so. No longeror at least
not for a wlilewere public porn viewers furtive, no longer were rain-
coats placed carefully on laps. Celebrities of botl sexes could be siglted
at screenings. Watcling it, my friends and I felt, was almost a badge of
Te more radical fringes of Hollywood lad long been acutely aware of
:8 going further
tle potential revolution of a new lard-core sensibility. As early as ,6(
Stanley Kubrick lad screened a pornograplic lm (undoubtedly a stag
lm) for friends at lis lome and audaciously suggested tlat one miglt
improve on tle genre by making sucl lms under studio conditions. In
,;o Terry Soutlerns satirical novel Blue Movie (not to be confused witl
Andy Warlols ,68 lm, but possibly inspired by it) described tle making
of just sucl a lard-core studio lm. By tle time Last Tango appeared,
tlen, tle idea of adding real sex to a real lmnot just in pornogra-
plywas on many minds. Norman Mailer, as we lave seen, competed
witl Kael for encomiums witl wlicl to praise Last Tango, but le con-
cluded lis review in a t of disappointment for its lack of courage, calling
it a fuck lm witlout tle fuck, like a western witlout lorses. To Mailer,
tle lm copped out on tle graplic sex tlat its subject demanded.
Men of a certain age and dispositionand tlat would certainly lave
included artists like Mailer and Kubrickwere likely to know tle basic
dirty movie conventions of tle old fuck lms, and by ,;:, wlen Mailer
made lis statement about Last Tango, le probably lad a vague idea of
wlat tle presidential commission of ,;o was calling tle New Cenre
of pornograply. But no one, not even Deep Troat director Damiano,
could lave known wlat tle future of tlis genre would bring. To read tle
critics of tle era is to be aware of a great sense of excitement, as well as
of a certain apprelension and dread about tle possible merger of lard-
core sexual action witl regular movies. Wlat was imagined was no less
tlan a new kind of mainstream lm in wlicl explicit sex acts would be
integrated into narrative lms: not just to deliver tle required number of
graplic sex acts tlat would soon prove de rigueur in tle new porn genre
but to expand tle representative power of tle medium into aestletically
ambitious realms of tle performance of sex: Last Tango witl tle fucks.
In tlis imagined future, pornograply as sucl would disappear, porn stars
would cross over to tle mainstream, and respected actors would consider
tle performance of sex acts part of tle clallenge of tleir craft.
Of course quite tle opposite occurred: mainstream movies did not ac-
cept tle clallenge, and pornograply itself would devolve in tle following
decade into tle parallel universe of mostly cleaply made, badly acted, and
aestletically impoverisled sucking and fucking slot on video. However,
tle fact of tlis failure slould not keep us from examining some of tle
aspirations of tle porno clic era.
Damiano was a former lairdresser just learning low to make movies.
He was restless to break out of tle mold of tle slort underground stag
loops, as well as out of tle sligltly more aboveground mold of pseudo-
going further :,
documentaries like Sexual Freedom in Denmark (dir. M. C. van Hellen,
,6,) or lis own Sex U.S.A. (,;). Like Mailer, Damiano saw tle promise
of a lm like Last Tango and also regarded it as a failure of nerve: Brando
and Bertolucci copped out. . . . I would lave added a few insertions and
cum-slots. By adding precisely tle parts of sexinsertions and cum-
slotsnot seen in tle mainstream, Damiano proposed to make it
As long as tle strict bifurcation between graplic fuck lm and simula-
tion (wletler of mainstream Hollywood or European-inuenced art lm)
was maintained, lowever, pornograply would bear tle burden of crowd-
ing all tle sex tlat could not be seen elsewlere into its lour-plus time
spans. In feature-lengtl pornograply, tlen, narrative is minimized, sexual
numbers are maximized, and eventually a standardized genre emerged
witl a wide repertoire of sex acts.' In contrast to Last Tango, lowever,
pornograply oered a terribly limited repertoire of tle moods in wlicl
tlese acts miglt be performed. Instead of tlinking lard about tle quali-
ties and kinds of sex tlat miglt grow out of dramatic, or even comic,
situations, pornograplys primary concern was for tle sleer quantity and
maximum visibility of sex and, especiallyand tlis is wlat was new and
wlat Coldstein appreciatedfor a visible climax in male ejaculation.
As we lave seen, most of tle sexual movements of luman bodies lad
never been revealed in aboveground lms. Wlen cinema began to in-
corporate graplic depictions of sex, it lad a great many aestletic and
dramatic cloices to make about tle representation of tlose acts. It could
lave begun to tlink about female pleasure more realistically, it could lave
found ways to slow tle many nuances of sexfriendly or lostile, playful
or brute, fast or slow, sleepy or alert, nonorgasmic or multiorgasmic, and
so on. It could lave decided tlat erotic tension miglt be in play witl dra-
matic plot. Instead, tle emerging porn industry opted to obey tle conceit
tlat tle lottest sex was tle most visible sex. Come slots (or cum or
money slots) would oer tle extreme instance of tlis visibility. But tle
demand for visibility governed even tle smallest gestures. For example, a
female performer miglt pull ler lair away from ler face to better reveal
tle meclanics of tle action of fellatio, or a male performer miglt put an
arm belind lis back wlile pumping to keep tle arm from obscuring tle
in-and-out of lis penis. Any gesture, in fact, tlat seems more designed for
sexual display tlan for tle performers own pleasure can betray tle erotics
of tle moment and make us aware, even if we miglt be grateful for tle
view, tlat tle demand to reveal tle graplics of sex overrules an often less
visible erotics of tle entire sensorium.
o going further
Wlen Damiano asserted tlat le would lave added a few insertions
and cum-slots to Last Tango, le was applying tle crude lessons of maxi-
mum visibility to an erotic art lm wlose complexities of emotion would
lave been ruined by sucl simple solutions. Yet, as Mailer noted, le also
lad a point: some of tle sex acts simulated in tlat lm, especially tlose
tlat Kael noted conveyed tlrusting, jabbing eroticism, could lave bene-
ted from tle siglt of two, not just one, naked bodies and from tle siglt
of some insertions, as long as tley were not just tle clinical sort invariably
favored by porn. It is more dicult to believe, lowever, tlat tle otler
lard-core convention of tle visible external ejaculation could lave con-
tributed to tle reality of Bertoluccis lm. Tese slots would prove tle
most enduring of tle conventions of tle new pornograply.
Cum slots, or money slots, as I prefer to call tlem, are markedly un-
real as depictions of tle practices of mutual sexual pleasure. Wlen tley
become tle conventional conclusion to all sex acts depicted in pornog-
raply, tle witldrawal (wletler from moutl, anus, or vagina) tlat makes
tle ejaculation visible necessitates a dislocating slift from tle proximate,
mutual pleasure of toucl to tle more distant pleasure of siglt, as if tle
couple compromises tleir own pleasures of toucl for our screening plea-
sure. Te lm asks us to believe tlat tle participants in tle sex act, espe-
cially tle woman wlo makes so mucl of tle siglt of tle ejaculating penis,
prefers, at tlat moment, to become more like a lm viewer marveling at
wlat sle sees tlan like a sexual actor cauglt up in wlat sle feels. As cli-
max, tlen, tle money slot is awfully one-sided.
If Damianos proposal for making tle sex real in Last Tango disappoints,
botl as realism and as artand, indeed, if Deep Troat disappoints from
tle same perspectiveit is wortl recognizing low very little tlouglt lad
been given by anyone, witl tle possible exception of Andy Warlol, )ean
Cenet, and a few otler avant-garde lmmakers of tle ,6os, to making
sex seem eitler real or aestletically compelling in movies. It was almost
universally agreed tlat Deep Troat was a badly acted lm witl a silly
excuse for a plot. Ellen Willis, writing for tle New York Review of Books,
called it witless, exploitive, and about as erotic as a tonsillectomy. Only
Al Coldsteinwlo may lave been more lonest tlan some of tle otler
critics wlo reviewed itseemed to tlink it was actually erotic. Never-
tleless, it was precisely this lm, and not some of tle later, mucl better
produced and acted porn features witl ligler artistic ambitions, tlat
not only delivered a mainstream tleatrical audience to lard-core pornog-
raply but constructed tlese acts in ways still familiar to us today. And so,
despite tle fact tlat it las already been mucl discussed, it is tlis lm
going further
and its eect on audiences tlat still deserves our attention as we consider
tle rise of lard-core pornograply oniscene in public tleaters.
Deep Troat is about Linda (played by Linda Lovelace, originally Linda
Boreman), an ordinary young woman witl wlolesomenot wlat would
later become known as stereotypically pornograplicgood looks. Sle
is a typical product of tle ,6os sexual revolution. Sle considers sexual
pleasure important to ler self-fulllment, but las missed out so far. Sle
confesses to feeling little tingles wlen sle las penetrative sex, but no
bells ringing, dams bursting, or bombs going o. After experimenting
witl a number of men to no avail, sle goes to a doctor (Harry Reams) wlo
informs ler tlat ler clitoris is deep in ler tlroat (one early possible title
for tle lm was Te Sword Swallower). Deep-tlroat fellatio is tle cure
immediately performed on tle doctor.
Putting aside tle many analyses tlat lave been subsequently spun
around tlis lm, my own included, wlat I most remember about tlis
screening was wlat most people remember about pornograply wlen
tley rst see it in a social group: low mucl we laugled. It would be a
mistake to underestimate tle function of tlis lms soplomoric brand of
lumor in making feature-lengtl, publicly screened pornograply palatable
to its initial audience. Te lm reassured us witl tle option of laugling
ratler tlan panting, or, if we did pant, tle lauglter lelped disguise it.
Consider tle lms rst sex act. Linda arrives lome to nd ler room-
mateplayed well by tle porn veteran Carol Connors in tle )oan Blon-
dell mode of tle older, more experienced womanleaning back on ler
kitclen counter wlile a young man diligently eats ler. Wlat we see,
lowever, is not so mucl a woman in tle tlroes of pleasure as a woman
blas in tle face of pleasure: Do you mind if I smoke wlile youre eating:
sle quips to ler partner. Te joke, sucl as it was, immediately defused
our anxiety. Modeling a certain lip, casual acceptance, it put us in tle
same position as Linda lerself, wlo, walking in on tle scene, takes it in
stride and simply sigls at tle mild inconvenience. Music, too, defused
tle potentially fear-inducing erotic force of tlis and every otler sexual
act slown. Neitler Connors nor ler male partner exlibits mucl excite-
ment in tle medium-to-long slots (no close-ups) of cunnilingus. Nor
las tlis particular sex act yet asked us to view an erect penis. Mild, rlytl-
mic, meclanistic movements viewed at a distance ratler tlan in close-up
eased us into tle display of graplic sex.
Deep Throat and Porno Chic Up Close
: going further
Lindas roommate next organizes an orgy to lelp ler nd tle pleasure
missing in ler life. All of Lindas failed attempts to nd pleasure in tlis
orgy slare in a similar atmosplere of competent but casualeven dis-
engagedsexual performance. We see perfunctory sexual actsvaginal
penetrations, a few external ejaculations, and even one act of fellatio (pre-
sumably not deep enougl). Afterward Linda again confesses tlat sle las
felt no bells ringing and dams bursting. By tle time we get to tle big
moment of tlerapy witl tle doctortle scene tlat nally does ring ler
bellwe lave already been exposed to a good lalf dozen graplic sex acts
casually performed witl no great drama.
It miglt be possible to say tlat tle absence of dramatic aect is simply
bad pornograply, especially if we accept tle fundamental goal of pornog-
raply as tle display of graplic sex acts for purposes of arousal. Compared
to some of tle mucl better made erotic examples of porno tlat followed,
Deep Troat was, perlaps, bad pornograply. However, in a mainstream
culture witl very little experience of watcling graplic sex in a mixed-
gender public tleater, tlis may be precisely tle reason Deep Troat be-
came tle touclstone it did. Watcling it eased audiences over tle slock
of wlat amounted to a kind of collective primal scene, played comically as
an acrobatic freak slow ratler tlan as an emotionally clallenging erotic
I am not arguing tlat pornograply by denition lacks eroticism, or tlat
eroticism precludes pornograply, but only tlat Deep Troat, tle lm tlat
introduced tle pleasures of lard-core pornograply to mass audiences,
insistently identied an apparently emotionally uncomplicated yet mani-
festly dicult-to-aclieve end pleasure in its rletoric of bells and bombs.
In contrast, in Last Tango, wlen Brando tells Sclneider tlat sle would
not be able to be free of tlat feeling of being alone . . . until you go riglt
up into tle ass of deatl . . . till you nd tle womb of fear, and tlen lad ler
put ler ngers up lis own ass, tle scene was scarier to watcl tlan any-
tling in Deep Troat. Despite its lack of explicitness, it played on Batailles
notion of tle erotic conjunction of fear and desire. Deep Troat, on tle
otler land, would slow us many potentially disgusting andior arousing
penetrationsespecially in tle graplic oral penetration tlat constitutes
its piece de rsistance. However, tle wlole force of its gimmicky narra-
tive would be to teacl tle audience to relax its own automatic reexes of
disgust, mucl tle way tle good doctor would teacl Linda to relax ler gag
reexes in order to discover tle pleasures of deep-tlroat fellatio.
Once again, Leo Bersanis distinction between tle pleasure of tle itcl
versus tlat of tle scratcl can enlance our understanding. Recall tlat
going further
Freud presumed tle goal of sexuality to be tle disclarge or end pleasure
tlat releases tension, as if tle goal of sex was tle end of sex. Yet as we lave
seen, tle tension of sexual excitement can be pleasurable in itself. Sexual
pleasure is more tlan disclarge. Bersani surmises tlat tle mystery of
sexuality is tlat we seek not only to get rid of tlis slattering tension but
also to repeat, even to increase it.' Following Bersani, I lave been argu-
ing tlat tlere are two poles of sexuality relevant to screening sex: tle pole
of tle scratcl, wlicl emplasizes tle telos of end pleasure, and tlat of tle
itcl, wlicl intensies and increases sexual tension up to tle limit case of
wlat Bersani calls self-slattering and deatl.
In ,;: tlese two poles were neatly represented by Deep Troats atl-
letic, pornograplic emplasis on tle scratcl and Last Tangos simulated
erotic emplasis on tle itcl. Sexual pleasure in Deep Troat is a willed
accomplislment witl powerful parallels in tle performative domain of
sport. )ust as a golf pro miglt instruct a golfer to relax into tle swing, so
tle doctor instructs Linda to relax ler tlroat to make possible tle deep
penetration tlat will scratcl ler itcl. At one point le adopts tle accent
of a Yiddisl grandfatler in imitation of a familiar Alka-Seltzer commer-
cial: Try it, youll like it! At anotler point, le insists on tle importance
of practice. As if tlis were not enougl, tle infamous Deep Troat tleme
song, discussed furtler below, kicks in witl tle following lyrics: Now Im
going to tell tle way it las to be . . . just relax your muscles and once youve
lit tlat spot i keep riglt on pusling and give it all youve got. Practice
expressed as a contradictory mix of relaxation and eortis required for
pleasure to be aclieved in tle deep-tlroat climax.
Vigorous deep-tlroat fellatio, in wlicl tle doctor presumably lits tle
invisible spot tlat precipitates Lindas pleasure, leads to tle liglly visible
spectacle of tle money slot tlat would become tle sine qua non of all
lard-core pornograply for decades to come. Deep Troats money slot,
lowever, is sometling more tlan visible ejaculation. Lovelace repeatedly
takes wlat looks to be a nine-incl penis deep into ler tlroat. Black-and-
wlite small-scale reproduction cannot do justice to tle impact of tle siglt
of an engorged, giant, wet, vividly colored, erect penis repeatedly sliding
intoiengulfed by a moutl (gure ,o).
But wlat especially marks tlis particularly famous money slot is an ex-
traordinary montage in tle manner of tle Soviet lmmaker Sergei Eisen-
steins famous Odessa Steps sequence in Te Battleship Potemkin (,:,),
demonstrating tlat Damiano knew a tling or two about lm after all. In a
lm witl mucl poor acting and bad sound, tle panacle of tlis montage
takes us by surprise. Te sequence literalizes some, tlougl signicantly
( going further
not all, of tle verbal metaplors Linda lad used to describe ler wisled-
for excitement. Sle lad loped for bells ringing, bombs exploding, and
dams bursting. Te rlytlm of ler performance of fellatio leading to tle
disclarge of tle money slot is augmented by increasingly split-second
insertions of tlese metaplors: We see a bronze bell struck by bronze stat-
ues of men witl lammers (gure ,), we see brilliant reworks against a
niglt sky (gure ,:). Finally, at an increasingly fast pace tlat alternates tle
in-and-out of deep-tlroat fellatio (gure ,) and tle take-o of a Cape
Canaveralsized rocket (gure ,(), tle two rapidly intercut slots seem
to merge as tle montage reacles a crescendo. Sounds (of bells, reworks,
and rockets) also merge witl tle music of tle tleme song. Te veins of
tle penis grow taut, a milky substance covers its lengtl, and we become
aware, after tle fact, tlat disclarge las occurred (gure ,,). Finally, at tle
end, Linda smiles (gure ,6).
50: Deep Throat
(dir. Gerard
Damiano, 1972),
Linda discovers
(facing page) Deep Throat
51: Bells ring
52: Bombs burst
53: Deep-throat fellatio
54: A Cape Canaveralsized rocket takes of
55: Discharge has occurred
56: Linda smiles
6 going further
Altlougl Coldstein writes tlat lot wlite cum slot out and Our Lady
of the Lips lapped it up, tle actual slooting of cuman image tlat
would soon be de rigueur in all lard-core pornograplyis not seen.
Ratler, it is an illusion created by tle convulsive montage. Tougl we do
see Lovelace lapping up tle ejaculate tlat gatlers along tle slaft, tle
montage itself interferes witl tle actual siglt of tle good doctors penis
in tle act of coming. Of course, tle otler sleiglt of land las been tle
illusion tlat somelow tlese pyroteclnics lave rendered visible tle plea-
sure and satisfaction tlat Linda seeksas if we lad actually seen ler get
)ust as Edisons Te Kiss lad elicited excited entlusiasm at tle prospect
of tle anatomy of a kiss, as well as slocked lorror at tle monstrous
bestiality of tle spectacle, so, too, did Deep Troat elicit a mixture of
interest and disgust. Te dierence, lowever, was tlat very few of tle
critics wlo found Deep Troat oensive also called for its censorslip.
For tle most part critics worked lard to prove tlemselves able to assert
critical sensibilities in tle face of tle unmistakable slock of real sex
on tle screen. Mort Sleinmans tongue-in-cleek comment tlat tle lm
oered a bold tlrust forward in tle listory of contemporary cinema,
plunging deeply into areas seldom, if ever explored on screen, was one
approacl tlat imitated tle lms own lumor. Vincent Canbys pan, on
tle otler land, was accompanied by an almost poignant relearsal of tle
diculty of writing lonestly about pornograplic lms: Like trying to tie
ones sloes wlile walking: its practically impossible witlout sacricing
stride and balance and a certain amount of ordinary dignity, tle sort one
uses witl bank tellers wlo question a signature. Dignity is wlat audi-
ences wlo watcl sex in public tleaters run tle risk of losing, especially
if tleir bodies betray an interest tlat all tle joking in tle world cannot
So wlat did my friends and I feel: I recall a mix of slock, disgust, amaze-
ment (low did tle moutl and tlroat accommodate tle slaft:), and little
tingles, all of wlicl was tempered by tle outriglt silliness of tle wlole
spectacle at wlicl we laugled leartily. I dutifully reported back to friends
low boring and repetitious tle wlole slow lad been. And compared to
Last Tango it was terribly clinical and unerotic. But undoubtedly tle most
fascinating part of tlis particular lm, and indeed of all tle new feature-
lengtl graplic porn of tlis era, was tle novelty of fellatio as an ultimate
sexual act ratler tlan as an lors doeuvre before tle main entre.
Teclnically, according to laws tlat lave only recently been struck down,
fellatio is one of tle possible meanings of sodomy, dened as any abnor-
going further ;
mal form of sexual intercourse. In )oln Updikes ,68 novel Couples, a
wife asks ler lusband if le wants ler to take lim in ler moutl. Cood
leavens, no, le answers, Tats sodomy. Historically, sodomy las
especially been condemned wlen tle supposedly abnormal sexual inter-
course is between men, but it is a large category tlat includes all nonpro-
creative sexual acts between men and women as well. Fellatio, between
men and men and between women and men, is one of tlose acts, so, too,
is anal sex. But fellatio is most commonly described today (for instance
in Websters) as a sexual activity involving oral contact witl tle male
genitals. It is lard to imagine a sex act witl more initial slock value tlan
fellatio wlen graplically seen on tle big screen. Even anal sex does not so
dramatically bring organs of smell, taste, and ingestion up against organs
of elimination. Tis slocking juxtaposition as deployed cinematically in
Deep Troat literally put a pretty face next to tle ejaculation and avoided
tle siglt of tle female genitals altogetler. Te lard-to-see inside of tle
female body into wlicl tle penis disappears during coitus was tlus dis-
placed by an easier-to-see female face and moutl tlat not only did not
display disgust, but positively worslipped tle mans bodily functions.
Fellatio was certainly not invented by tle generation of tle seventies
but, lard as it miglt be to recall tlis in tle post-Monica Lewinsky era,
neitler was it a sex act tlat before Deep Troat and tle era of porno clic
lad mucl mainstream public recognition. It is tlus an excellent example
of wlat Foucault calls tle implantation of perversions. It las gone from
being a little-known form of sex wlose initial disgust factor could not
lave been ligler in tle America of tle pre-sexual revolution and wlicl
women of my motlers generation believed nice girls did not do (see, for
example, Alfred Kinseys discussion of dissensions in marriages over oral
sex in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male), to an unforeseen popularity,
celebrated as tle pinnacle of pleasure in Deep Troat and mucl of tle
lard-core pornograply to follow. Wlen it again surfaces as newswortly
in tle late nineties, it is considered a mucl less intimate contact tlan
genital sex, debated certainly for its propriety in tle Oval Oce but also,
and most interestingly, for its status as a sex act at all. Tougl many were
skeptical of Bill Clintons claim tlat le did not lave sexual relations witl
tlat woman, it turned out tle president and Lewinsky were not tle only
ones wlo did not dene fellatio as sex.
In Deep Troat, fellatio solves tle anatomical problem of a clitoris tlat is
not wlere it slould be and tlat tlerefore cannot be properly scratcled.
Wly you bugger, there you are! says tle doctor wlen le nds tle clitoris
at tle end of lis telescope in Lindas tlroat. Tougl le sees it, we do not.
8 going further
Tis organ, unlike tle normally visible penis, remains occulted tlrougl-
out tle lm and tlus oers narrative justication for not laving sex in
tle prescribed, procreative missionary position. Eating out, blow jobs, and
giving head were only tlen becoming familiar slang. Plillip Rotl writes
in a novel about tle ,;os: Tis is a generation of astonisling fellators.
Teres been notling like tlem ever before among tleir class of young
Foucaults notion of tle listorical implantation of perversions in
wlicl scattered sexualities rigidied, became stuck to an age, a place, a
type of practice,' may not fully explain tle mystery of tle popularity of
Deep Troat and its practice of deep-tlroat fellatio, but it does allow us to
see low tle public awareness of previously disgusting or obscene sexual
practices can easily clange once pornograplies are oniscene. Te Britisl
playwriglt and barrister )oln Mortimer, writing about Lovelaces deatl,
recalled a ,;o obscenity trial for a novel entitled Te Mouth, in wlicl tle
judge asked a witness for tle defense wly anyone needed oral sex wlen
weve gone witlout it for a tlousand years. Had tlat judge been speak-
ing after ,;:, it is unlikely le would lave been so misinformed.
)oel Tyler, wlo presided over tle New York obscenity trial of Deep
Troat in tle winter of ,;, was anotler judge wlo learned a lot. Igno-
rant at tle beginning of tle trial about tle meaning of tle term mission-
ary position, after tle testimony of ve expert witnesses le was eagerly
instructing otlers as to its meaning. Constantly at stake in tlis often
lilarious trial was tle question of tle obscenity or nonobscenity of tle
display of fellatio and tle perversion or nonperversion of tle mucl dis-
cussed, tlougl never slown, clitoral orgasm. An expert witness for tle
prosecution, one Dr. Levin, apparently a die-lard Freudian, testied tlat
a woman seeing tlis lm may tlink tlat tlat is perfectly lealtly, perfectly
normal if you lave a clitoral orgasm, tlat is all tle woman needs. Now,
sles wrong . . . and tlis lm will strengtlen ler in ler ignorance. He
went on to explicitly clallenge tle extremists in tle womens liberation
movement wlo called vaginal orgasm a mytl. Levin also pronounced on
tle inlerent perversity of acts of fellatio tlat do not serve as a prelude to
intercourse. As an end in itself, le expertly intoned, tlis would be per-
version on botl sides.
)udge Tyler, and probably everyone else at tle trial, learned a great deal
about tle respective arguments of Freud, Kinsey, and William Masters
and Virginia )olnson concerning tle practice of fellatio and tle relative
merits of clitoral versus vaginal orgasm. Arguments for tle defense cen-
going further ,
tered on tle instructional and liberatory value of explicit sex acts on tle
screen in improving tle sex lives of individuals and couples, arguments
for tle prosecution centered on tle inlerent perversion and obscenity
of sucl acts. In a famously long and velement decision, )udge Tyler pro-
nounced tle lm obscene and ned tle tleater tlree million dollars, con-
cluding, Tis is one tlroat tlat deserves to be cut. To slow tlat le was
not an unsoplisticated lm viewer, lowever, le added tlat Last Tango,
tlougl le limself did not care for it, was not obscene.
Obscene or notjudgments would go botl ways in many trials
tlrouglout multiple states over tle next several yearsDeep Troat ex-
cited a great deal of sexual speecl. Again and again it was oral sex tlat
demanded tle most speecl, but almost never cunnilingus. Cunnilingus
puts tle moutl and face in conjunction witl a sexual organ tlat is larder
to see, it is embedded witlin labial folds tlat do not lend tlemselves to
easy visibility. And so, cunnilingus, wlile certainly part of tle repertoire
of dirent strokes cultivated and legitimated by Deep Troat, is never
oered as tle climactic scratcl, tle disclarge of end pleasure, despite
tle fact tlat tle narrative conceit of tle lm is quite precisely Lindas
quest for clitoral orgasm. Te long listory of tle elisions, and occasional
resigltings, of tle clitoris in medical and pornograplic representation
oers a fascinating tale. Freuds own early-twentietl-century tale of tle
immaturity of tle clitoral orgasm and tle maturity of tle vaginal one,
wlicl became sucl an issue in Deep Troats New York trial, certainly
contributed to tle elision of tle clitoris from tle turn of tle century until
tle early seventies. But tle era of tle new pornograply was also an era of
one of tle important resigltings of tle clitorisin sexology no less tlan
in tle emerging feminism tlat Levin so discounted. It is tlus wortl asking
low it is tlat an organ tlat got so mucl press in tle sexology of tle late
sixties and early seventies only received a kind of lip serviceliterally a lot
of talk and a few licksin tle pornograply of tlis era. Slall we clalk it up
to its small size relative to tle penis and tle plysiological fact tlat it does
not produce a dramatic liquid tlat can spurt as far: Or is tlere a deeper
We saw in clapter tlat Freud explained tle pleasures of kissing in re-
lation to tle originary pleasure of tle clild sucking at tle motlers breast.
All intersubjective life, to Freud, las its beginning in tlis original relation
between motler and clild. Freud argues tlat sensual sucking, rst con-
nected to tle stimulation of tle warm ow of milk, becomes detacled
from tle original satisfaction of lunger to become a labial zone of plea-
(o going further
sure in its own riglt. Sucking a penis and sucking a clitoris could tlus
potentially recall tlese mutual pleasures wlile producing in tle body of
tle person sucked (kissed, licked, etc.) orgasmic pleasures.
I say potentially because, altlougl tle new leterosexual pornograply
of tle seventies does slow us tlese mutual pleasures in ways tlat deni-
tively break away from coitus as tle proper aim of sex, as Levin would
lave it, tley rarely present tle pleasures of sucking and tle pleasures of
being sucked as mutual. Nor do tley present tle female and male pleasure
of being sucked as commensurate. Instead, we tend to tlink of tle sucker
as doing tle work and of tle suckee as receiving tle pleasure. And since
tle only one of tlese organs witl strong graplic presence is tle penis, all
pleasure seems to revolve around tlat organ in an entirely plallic regime
tlat seems lopelessly stuck in wlat Luce Irigaray las dened as tle plal-
lic economy of tle one, incapable of counting beyond tlat number.
And yet, if we revisit tle original scene from wlicl Freud derives all
subsequent sexual pleasuretle clild sucking at tle motlers breastwe
miglt be able to retlink oral sexual pleasures as a more mutual give-and-
take botl from tle point of view of tle clild and motler and from tlat of
tle adults wlo engage in oral sex.' Wlen Freud tleorizes tle origin of
all sexual pleasure as a rending of oral satisfaction at tle breast, le, too,
sees it as a singular economy of tle onea pleasure for tle clild alone.
Te pleasure of being sucked is elided in Freud, wlile in leterosexual por-
nograply tle pleasure of being sucked eclipses any possible pleasure to
tle sucker.
Wlen Freud attempts to understand tle pleasures of fellatio (nowlere
does le tackle tle pleasures of cunnilingus), le takes great pains to mini-
mize tle awareness of its perversion (in lis terms) by referring it back to
tle innocence of tle clild sucking at tle motlers breast. Te innocence
of Freuds picture of originary sucking, wlicl le uses to soften any per-
ception of disgust or perversion in fellatio, seems to be linked to lis own
belief in tle motlers (and tle breasts) lack of sexual sensitivity in tle act
of nursing. Fellatio is an oral pleasure tlat rends tle pleasure of sucking
tle breast tlrougl tle sucking of tle penis, but le does not conceive of
tlis pleasure as also and simultaneously tle pleasure of being sucked. Too
committed to insisting on tle innocence of fellatio, le misconstrues its
pleasures as one-way.
A breast produces milk tlat, wlen sucked, emerges in warm spurts tlat
satisfy tle clild botl as nourislment and as tactile, olfactory, and (per-
laps) visual pleasure (Freud often stresses tle importance of tle breast
going further (
as tle clilds rst visual objectwlat Maria St. )oln calls tle ultimate
lome movie). A penis wlen sucked or kissed, licked or blown, also
produces a milky liquid tlat emerges in warm spurts tlat can be toucled,
tasted, and seen. Tis liquid satises no need for nourislment, but tlose
wlo suck and elicit it often enact a pleasure not unlike tlat of tle clild
at tle breast. Tey taste it, revel in it, and take deliglt in tle way it ap-
pears and feels. Te fellator tlus reenacts tle pleasure of tle clild at tle
breast, but tle penis itself does not enact Freuds notion of tle passive,
nonpleasuring maternal breast. Ratler, and especially in tle new pornog-
raply inaugurated by Deep Troat, it often tlreatens to steal tle slow, to
go solo in money slots tlat ignore tle pleasure of tle fellator by focus-
ing excessively on tle moment of external ejaculation. Te spectacu-
lar slow-motion money slot of tle same years Behind the Green Door
(dir. Artie Mitclell and )im Mitclell) makes for a famous example, even
one-upping Deep Troats montage witl optically printed, psycledelically
colored doublings of tle ejaculating penis.
In Deep Troat tle conceit tlat Lindas clitoris is located in ler tlroat
allows tle lm to compensate tle woman wlo fellates witl a putatively
deeper, nonoral, clitorally orgasmic satisfaction. Te need to posit tlis
ctitious satisfaction miglt be construed as tle lms guilty conscience
toward wlat is actually its plysical elision of tle womans pleasure. Te
relegation of cunnilingus in tlis same era to an act of foreplay culminating
in no dramatic climax and manifesting very little in eitler tle oral plea-
sures of tle sucker or tle sucked miglt be understood as tle listorical
moment in wlicl tle new graplic pornograply failed to invest eros in
tlat wlicl it could not easily see. In tlis sense it is an escalation of tle
rule of maximum visibility in tle face of an apparently invisible female
A variety of factors tlus converged to make Deep Troat tle aslpoint
of tle new pornograplic implantation of perversions and its new ways
of speaking sex. An ordinary fuck lm witlout tle panacle of tlese
dirent strokes miglt not lave created tle ensuing scandal, miglt not
lave elicited so velement a reaction from its New York judge, and tlus
miglt not lave garnered as mucl lype. Te very title Deep Troat, even
before its Watergate resonance, added a sense of mystery and soplistica-
tion tlat lifted tle lm out of tle Times Square circuit into a brief era of
porno clic.
Deep Troat would prove to be tle largest-grossing independent lm
of all time. It oered an unprecedented spectacle of graplic sex on
(: going further
screen. In tle end, lowever, tle most signicant slow oered up by Deep
Troatto its Denver audience, as well as in its many screenings across
tle nationwas taking place in tle audience: our social presence to one
anotler at a public screening of graplic, unsimulated sex, our willingness
not only to screen sex but to be seen screening it. And tle sex tlat we
saw tlere was oered, despite Dr. Levins worries about tle perversions
of clitoral orgasm, as tle telos of end pleasure corresponding to Freuds
most ortlodox conception of a satisfying scratcl capable of disclarging
all tension. At lms end, Linda is lappily satised witl a lover wlose
penis is long enougl to reacl tle clitoris lidden in ler tlroat. Yet tle
act tlat produced tlis disclarge is literally perverse, swerved away from
conventional notions of carnal knowledge.
Last Tango, for its part, received cover stories in botl Time and News-
week, wlile stills of its one nude scene appeared in Playboy. Tougl it
did not garner tle unprecedented grosses of Deep Troat, it took in s6
million at tle U.S. box oce and, as David Tompson las noted, tlere
wasnt a more faslionable movie for tle critics eitler to laud to tle skies
or snidely put down. In New York, tle lm was exlibited at tle unusu-
ally ligl ticket price of s,, exactly tle same jacked-up price one lad to
pay to see Deep Troat. Botl lms esclewed conventional depictions of
carnal knowledge and were tlus perverse. But wlat was especially per-
verse in Last Tango was not tle content (masturbation, anal sex), but tle
alignment of sex witl tle self-slattering end of life itselftle little deatl
and tle big one tlat greets Paul at tle end.
Pornotopia is a place wlere, as Steven Marcus once wrote, it is always
bedtime. In pornotopia people lave well-lit, maximum-visibility sex for
very long periods of time, ending in tle disclarge of money slots. Por-
nograply is relatively easy and cleap to make: it simply needs to display
precisely tlose details of sex so lard to see elsewlere. Erotic art, on tle
otler land, las proven mucl larder to make, wlicl may be wly tlere
is a great deal of moving-image pornograply and comparatively little
sexually explicit erotic art. If we want to understand tle dierences be-
tween moving-image erotica and pornograply, lowever, we need to see
tlat tley exist on a continuum of representations, any of wlicl can be
sexually stimulating. One end of tle continuum aims directly at depicting
sexual pleasures in tle rletoric of tle scratcl, conveyed as money slot
disclarge. Te otler end of tle continuum is more interested in playing
witl tlese forms prolonging tle tension in tle rletoric of tle itcl.
In tle wake of tlese two movies, screening sex would lencefortl form
going further (
an inextricable part of tle sexuality of adult viewers wlo could no longer
claim sexual innocence at tle movies. Witl tle video revolution of tle
following decade, tlis screening sex would eventually retreat to tle pri-
vacy of tle lome, but after ,;:, sex itself could never go back to being
as entirely private an aair as it lad been before. All subsequent sexual
relations would be complicated and informed by tlese indelible moving
Te sexual revolution tlat Deep Troat and Last Tango represented was
not just for leterosexuals. In ,6, a police raid on a Manlattan gay bar
called tle Stonewall Inn precipitated a riot tlat many claim was tle asl-
point for tle birtl of gay liberation. At tle center of tlis liberation was
tle growing signicance of tle erotic in modern life. Te new graplic
pornograply in general and tle subgenre of all-male pornograply in par-
ticular constituted a crucially important part of tlis growing signicance.
At issue in tlat bar was tle riglt of gays and lesbians to exlibit, even to
aunt, tleir sexual preferences. Cay pornograply would prove a crucial
aspect of tlis ability for lomosexuals to be tlemselves. One simple way
of looking at tle emergence of gay pornograply is to see it as an out-
growtl of gay liberation: tle tlrowing o of repression. However, as we
lave already seen witl tle straiglt pornograply tlat privileged a wide
range of sex acts once deemed perverse, tle rise of graplic sex as a public
spectator sportgay or straigltcannot fully be understood as a simple
lifting of repression tlat nally permitted more natural expressions. How
natural, after all, is a money slot: Ratler, tle implantation of perversions
came oniscene almost as aggressively as did supposedly perverse non-
procreative leterosexual ones in tle early seventies. But in tle case of sex
acts between men and tle rise of gay liberation, tle dynamic of reverse
discourse proved particularly important. Foucault argues tlat we do not
live in a world of dominant and dominated discourses. Ratler, discourse
can be botl an instrument of power (as in tle term of abuse, queer) and a
point of resistance to power (as wlen queer becomes celebratory). Sucl
was tle case in tle graplic celebrations of gay lard-core pornograply.
In ,;, a year before Deep Troat seized tle (letero)sexual imagina-
tion of tle nation to become tle necessary viewing of all cognoscenti, a
small lm called Boys in the Sand (dir. Wakeeld Poole) opened in Times
Coda: Coming Out
(( going further
Square.' Not as prominent on tle general culture radar screen (my
friends and I lad no idea), Boys nevertleless anticipated tle impact of
Deep Troat for tle narrower but trendsetting and inuential emerging
gay community. Cinematically, it was also a mucl better movie. Like Deep
Troat, Boys in the Sand was not tle rst (gay) lard-core feature lm to
slow in a public tleater, but, also like it, it was tle rst work of graplic
moving-image pornograply to reap giant returns on a very small invest-
ment. Boys lad a mucl greater role in legitimizing tle graplic sexual
imagination of tle gay community tlan Deep Troat did in tle larger
leterosexual mainstream. It was tlus arguably, and for its numerically
smaller audience, an even more important lm.
Te rise of publicly exlibited feature-lengtl pornograply in tle early
seventies meant tlat sexually interested viewers lad to be willingas my
friends and I lad beennot only to watch mediated graplic sex acts but
to be seen watcling in public. To do so meant tle suppression of tle kind
of overt carnal response tlat lad been more openly solicited by tle earlier
stag lms in tle context of more private screenings. Arousal, wletler
leading to masturbation or impersonal coupling, could certainly occur in
tle public tleaters of tle ,;os, but it was not invited tle way it some-
times lad been in earlier stag lms slown in often more ribald circum-
stances. However, if tlis suppression of audience sexual response was
fairly common in tle pornograply tlat my friends and I went to see, it
was mucl less common in tle pornograply watcled by my only just tlen
coming-out gay friends. As Ceorge Clauncey las noted in lis listory of
gay New York, public movie tleaters lad often served as trysting areas as
far back as tle nickelodeons and extending into tle unsupervised balco-
nies of tle movie palaces of tle ,:os. After Stonewall and tle rise of an
explicitly gay pornograply projected in Times Square tleaters, tle use of
tleaters as cruising grounds pusled tle notion of sexual interest far be-
yond wlat was exlibited at screenings of Deep Troat and its successors.
)oln Waters, interviewed in tle documentary Inside Deep Troat, oers
tle autloritative testament: People werent jerking o. Angela Lansbury
miglt be sitting next to you!
In tleaters exlibiting gay porn, lowever, Angela Lansbury was most
likely not sitting next to you. To be seen watcling a lm in tlese tleaters
could often be interpreted as a sign of interest in laving sex on tle spot.
Te atmosplere of tle all-male stag party was converted in tlis situation
from lomosociality to overt lomosexuality. Te lm listorian Tomas
Waugl tells of attending Boys in the Sand during tle rst week of its run
going further (,
at tle Fifty-Fiftl Street Teater in Manlattan. Newly arrived in New York
and not knowing tle protocol, le tlouglt people went to watcl tle lm
and was slocked to nd tle person belind lim more interactive tlan
tlat. Waugl adds, lowever, tlat Boys in the Sand was sucl a standout lm
tlat more people watcled it tlan usual.
It is not surprising tlat gay pornograply was in tle vanguard of feature-
lengtl pornograply. Wakeeld Poole, tle director of Boys in the Sand,
lad previously directed a ten-minute, avant-garde tribute to tle art and
plotograplytlougl not tle lmsof Andy Warlol. Riclard Dyer las
closely linked tle visionary, playful and self-reexive qualities of under-
ground cinema to many aspects of gay and proto-gay culture. Sucl
qualities would mark pornograplies witl all-male action as dierentin
many ways far more clic and avant-garde tlan tle mucl touted clic of
mainstream pornograply.
Te rst episode (entitled Bayside) of tle tripartite, dialogueless Boys
in the Sand opens witl an out-of-focus image. We eventually discover a
bearded young man witl dark lair (Wakeeld Pooles lover Peter Fisk)
taking a long walk tlrougl tle woods. Te prolonged use of subjective
camera emplasizes tle play of liglt and sladow tlrougl tle trees and
immediately marks tle aestletic ambitions of tle lm as artier tlan most
straiglt lard core. Music tlat resembles tle more muted portions of Stra-
vinskys Te Rite of Spring softly accompanies tle journey and continues
tlrouglout tle episode. Wlen tle young man emerges from tle trees, le
undresses and sits down at tle edge of tle sea. He gazes for quite a wlile
at tle water until wlat I slall lereafter call an apparitiona lanky, blond,
naked man (Casey Donovan, aka Cal Culver, an icon of mucl early all-
male pornograply wlo will appear in eacl of tlis lms tlree episodes)
materializes on tle lorizon. In long slot, tle apparition runs from tle
surf toward tle bearded man, lis penis apping witl eacl stride. Stop-
ping before le reacles tle bearded man, wlo las seemingly conjured lim
from tle water, tle apparition oers up lis golden beauty rst to tle mans
eye and tlen to lis toucl.
Te rst sex act is fellatio performed by tle bearded man. It will even-
tually prove as graplically real and as climactic as tlat performed in Deep
Troat, leading, as well, to a money slot. However, tle way it is slot and
performed can lelp us understand basic dierences between gay and
straiglt porn in tlese early years of porno clic. First, Boys takes its time.
A fourtl of tle episode of Bayside passes before we arrive at tle sex.
Tis will be tle case in tle otler episodes as well. Nor do we always see
(6 going further
all of tle action witl maximum visibility. Initially, tle bearded mans lead
blocks our view of tle penis le fellates (gure ,;). Altlougl a side view
will soon conrm tlat tle penis does indeed enter tle fellators moutl,
it is neitler tle rst nor tle most prominent view (gure ,8). A reverse
angle follows, from belind tle buttocks of tle fellatee (gure ,,). Wlile
tle view of tle buttocks presents tle important otler side of tle body
being fellated and introduces an anal eroticism central to mucl all-male
porn, it also prevents a more direct and clinical view of tle graplic
action of fellatio. An aura of mystery, ratler tlan one of clinical clarity,
langs over tle lm.
Fellatio proves as fundamental to tlis episode of Boys in the Sand as it
does to many episodes of Deep Troat and countless otler examples of
porno clic. However, tle graplic pornotopia of a lm like Deep Troat,
wlicl emplasizes unobstructed views of tle act of fellatio in tle more
clinical manner of scientia sexualis, contrasts witl wlat miglt be called
tle graplic erototopia of Boys in the Sand. Liglting is crucial. Te sun-
dappled, natural liglting of Boys means tlat sladows sometimes obscure
graplic views. But Boys in the Sand also plays witl its views of sex. For
example, tlis rst scene of fellatio does not, like tlose in Deep Troat, pro-
ceed directly to climax. Instead, it breaks o in a tease as tle apparition
pulls away from tle bearded man and walks backwards into tle darker
woods. Te camera moves into tle dark woods mucl tle way it earlier
moved toward tle dark anus, approacling a place of mystery.
Tis witldrawal from contact prolonging tle initial irtation is an early
example of a fundamental convention of all-male porn tlat las no precise
equivalent in tle leterosexual genre: tle long dance of irtation in wlicl
two (or more) men cruise one anotler, simultaneously exposing tleir lard,
or lardening, bodies, witldrawing to look and to let tlemselves be looked
at before enjoying tle movement from siglt to toucl. In tlis frequently
prolonged dance of cruising, tle taboo against male-male sexual contact
is botl inscribed and, gradually, overcome. Only after tle bearded man
catcles up to tle apparition deep in tle woods, and only after some addi-
tional foreplay, does tle fellatio resume. Altlougl tle encounter of tlese
boys in tle sand will encompass several otler graplic acts tlat merge
into one anotler, fellatio frames tle entire encounter. In tle even more
dappled liglt of tle woods, tley kiss and stroke one anotler as tle moving
brancles and leaves of tle trees cast extremes of liglt and sladow on tleir
skin (gure 6o). Te apparition removes a leatler bracelet from tle wrist
of tle bearded man and places it around tlis same mans penis and tes-
Boys in the Sand
(dir. Wakefeld
Poole, 1971)
57: Fellatio without
maximum visibility
58: Fellatio with
59: Fellatio plus
anal eroticism
(8 going further
ticles to matcl lis own (already installed, metallic) cock ring. Teir lands
lold tleir penises against one anotler, emplasizing sexual sameness over
sexual dierence, and nally tley resume fellatio. Tis time, lowever, it
is tle apparition wlo performs it on lis knees before tle bearded man,
reversing tle couples original position.
More sunliglt glimpsed tlrougl tle trees signals an ellipsis. We now nd
tle apparition lying on lis back on a blanket in tle woods as tle bearded
man fellates lim. Again tle graplic view is softened by tle dappled liglt
(gure 6). Eventually, tley fellate one anotler in tle sixty-nine position.
After anotler ellipsis signaled again by sunliglt tlrougl tle trees (gure
6:), tle apparition politely brusles o tle buttocks of tle bearded man
before rst licking and tlen penetrating lis anus. Te pumping action tlat
follows is vigorous, but tle graplic view is again softened, in tlis case by
tle body of tle penetrator, wlicl casts sladows on tle penetrated. As in
leterosexual porn, a tlrusting penetration eventually leads to a close-up
money slot: lere tle apparition ejaculates onto tle face of tle bearded
man and tlen considerately wipes it oa gesture rarely seen in letero-
sexual porn and one tlat will soon disappear in all-male porn as well, as
ejaculate becomes codied as tle crucial proof of pleasure in botl types.
Next tle apparition lies on lis back and tle bearded man stands over lim,
masturbating to ejaculation.
A nal money slot climaxes tle sexual action in a montage tlat an-
ticipates tle cinematic pyroteclnics of Deep Troat. As in tlat lm, tle
buildup to tle money slot rapidly intercuts witl otler imagesin tlis
case a staccato series of slots reprising tle actions of tle episode. Tese
very quick cuts from previous fragments of tle same scene mark tle mo-
60: Boys in the
Sand, the cruising
couple kisses amid
dappled light and
going further (,
ment leading up to tle close-up display of ejaculation. Also as in Deep
Troat, tle rapid pace of tle montage itself conveys tle rlytlmic con-
vulsions of ejaculation. Altlougl all-male pornograply will punctuate
its climaxes witl money slots just as faitlfully as leterosexual porn and
may very well lave inuenced tle creation of tle convention in tle rst
place, orgasms tend to be mutualone mans quasi-visible pleasure need
not stand in for tle otlers tle way tle doctors visible pleasure in Deep
Troat stands in for Lindas invisible pleasure. In tlis case tle ejaculation
of tle bearded mantle man wlose fantasy tlis is, after allis privileged
over tlat of tle apparition.
Te episode ends witl tle bearded mans witldrawal from tle scene. He
removes tle leatler cock band from lis penis and places it on tle wrist of
tle apparition, kisses lim on botl moutl and penis, rises, and disappears
Boys in the Sand
61: A graphic
view softened by
dappled light
62: Ellipsis
signaled through
sunlight in the
,o going further
into tle surf. Te circularity of tle narrative seems perfect until we recall
tlat tle man wlo disappears into tle surf is not tle same one wlo rst
appeared out of it. Indeed, it is tle original apparition wlo remains ma-
terialized, putting on tle clotles and taking up tle blanket of tle bearded
man wlo las vanisled, as if to emplasize tle interclangeability of tle
roles taken in tlis erotic fantasy.
As we lave already seen, all pornograply is utopian, all pornograply
takes place, as Steven Marcus las said, in pornotopia, tle land wlere it is
always bedtime. But it seems fair to say tlat all-male gay pornograply is
more utopian, if only because tle taboos tlat must be overcome to stage
its pleasures are greater. Fire Island, wlere all tle episodes of Boys in the
Sand were lmed, is portrayed as a fantasmatic place wlere not only tle
taboos against tle graplic display of sex are suspended but also tlose
against tle display of lomosexuality. Wlile Deep Troat exudes a lappy-
go-lucky etlos of dirent strokes for dirent folks and makes a point of
embracing wlatever kinky desires appear, tle one desire tlat it rigorously
esclews is tlat of one man for anotler. Wlile tle place of sex in Deep
Troat miglt be a kitclen counter, a doctors oce, or a bedroom, tle
always-bedtime atmosplere of tlese places is easily aclieved. In contrast,
wlile tle place of a more nonnormative sex in Boys in the Sand miglt be
equally unconventional, it is negotiated more carefully, it is more aware
of tle greater taboos it breaks. As Ricl Cante and Angelo Restivo lave
argued, tle sex of all-male pornograply is always situated in relation to
a public via meclanisms distinct from male-female acts, even wlen tleir
setting is a private space.' In otler words, tle more frauglt relation of
male-male sex to a public means tlat tlis sex is more intensely utopian.
Eacl of tle lms tlree episodes constitutes a silent erotic vignette witl
music in wlicl an initially solitary man conjures tle appearance of an-
otler tlrougl tle sleer intensity of lis desire. Poole las described tle
lm as representing various stages in gay sexual relations. Te rst epi-
sode centers on dreams, lero worslip, and innocence, wlile tle second
episode is about coming out[,] . . . tle attainment of love[,] and nding
a partner.'' In tlis second episode, Poolside, a man on a dockCasey
Donovan, tle apparition from tle rst episodereads about gay bar raids
in a copy of a newspaper entitled Gay. Like tle rst, tlis episode also takes
its time getting to tle sex. Te man walks on tle dock and tlen moves to
a more private, enclosed pool wlere le takes o lis clotles and begins
to masturbate. Later, inside tle louse le writes a letter, apparently in re-
sponse to one of tle ads in tle newspaper. He swims naked and oats on
an air mattress semi-erect. Days pass on a calendar, le runs on tle beacl,
going further ,
suspense builds. Finally le receives a small package tlat contains a large
wlite tablet, wlicl le tlrows into tle pool. Out of tle raging bubbles
created by tle tablet a dark-laired lover (Danny Di Cioccio) emerges.
According to Poole, audiences never failed to laugl and applaud tle wisl-
fulllment in tle form of tlis apparition, wlo swims toward tle conjuror
and takes lis penis into lis moutl.' Te couple proceeds to lave atl-
letic sex all over tle pool deck: Tey engage in fellatio, ass rimming, and
anal intercourse plotograpled from belind slrubs and furniture, in often
quite dancerly poses, oering wlat Poole calls an intentional voyeuristic
feel.' No dramatic money slot climaxes tle action, suggesting tlat in
,; it was still an option, not yet tle sine qua non of tle genre. Afterward,
tle couple aectionately dries one anotler o, goes inside, and comes out
dressed. Arm in arm tley leave tle private enclave of tle pool surrounded
by a ligl fence and emerge into tle publicness of tle community, still
entwined, an overt couple. Tey pass tle man witl tle beard from tle
rst episode, wlo also las tle Gay paper under lis arm and wlo may be
presumed to send o lis own letter soon. Unspoken but clearly stated in
tlis wordless episode is tle advocacy of coming out as proud, lappy, and
sexually satised gay men.
A tlird episode, Inside, explores a more ledonistic, fantasmatic, and
forbidden terrain. A wlite man (Casey Donovan again) lazily wakes up
witl an erection inside an elegant louse as sunsline streams in lis win-
dow. Cazing out of tle window, we see lim establisl eye contact, irt
witl, and eventually lave sex witl an apparitional African American tele-
plone repairman (Tommy Moore) to tle accompaniment of a sitar and
tabla. Tis apparition, unlike tle otlers, does not seem to want to stick
around, even for tle lengtl of time it takes to lave sex. For eacl time
tle repair man abruptly appears, as le does suddenly on tle living room
coucl, naked except for lis repairmans tool belt (gure 6), le just as
abruptly disappears (gure 6(). Tougl tle wlite man fellates lim witl
gusto (gure 6,), tle apparition is always in danger of disappearing. Eacl
time le does, tle music clanges tempo and a fast pan of tle brigltly
colored windows of tle elegant pine louse signals a new fantasy.
Wlere tle otler apparitions remainedat least until tle end of tle
sexual encounter as in tle Bayside episode, and more permanently in tle
romantic Poolside onetlis racialized apparition comes and goes, and
le always goes before le comes. In tle end, we become aware tlat le las
been built primarily out of tle wlite mans relation to a large, black dildo,
wlicl we later see lim lubricate and sit on wlile popping amyl nitrate. In
otler words, tlis inside apparition gives tle impression of being even
Boys in the Sand
63: The tele-
phone repairman
appears on the
64: The repairman
65: Fellatio with
going further ,
more conjured upmore fantasmatictlan tle previous ones conjured
out of tle water in tle open air. Always in danger of disappearing, tle
virile black man becomes all tle more precious as tle erotic fantasy of tle
wlite man. Tis means, of course, tlat tle black man functions more as a
sexual object tlan a sexual subject, more as wlat Franz Fanon las called
an epidermalized racial essence tlan any of tle otler apparitions con-
jured in tlis lm.' Undoubtedly, tlen, tle black man is racially fetislized
and reduced to lis penis in tle form of tle black dildo.' Of course, all
tle male performers in pornograply are at some point reduced to tleir
penises, liglly fetislized by tle genre itself, and no more so tlan in all-
male pornograply. Te fact tlat Moore, wlo plays tle teleplone repair-
man, is more fetislized is obviously a feature of racial attitudes of tle
eraattitudes we lave also seen Melvin Van Peebles eitler clallenging or
reinforcing (depending on low one interprets tle lm) in tle same years
Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song.
Poole expressed pride in lis interracial cast,' and perlaps justly so
given tle tendency in mainstream cinema to elide tle sexuality of black
people. He was breaking a color line just as emplatically as was Van
Peebles and at approximately tle same time. But to transgress a taboo is
not to defeat it, as Bataille las so well argued.' Te pornotopia of inter-
racial desire is far from a lappy-go-lucky place of immediate sexual grati-
cation in wlicl color lines fall away and everyone las sex witl everyone
else equally. Indeed, tle extra erotic clarge of tle Inside episode of Boys
in the Sand seems to be grounded in tle vestigial taboos and prolibitions
against not only male-male sex but interracial sex as well. A certain fear
of interracial sex adds spice to tle insistence on tle acceptance of same-
sex in tlis episode. Tese transgressions are not triumplant subversions
since tle outing of a taboo fully recognizes tle autlority and power of
tle prolibiting law, but neitler are tley tle same old racism tlat once
functioned to keep tle races apart or in relations of complete domination
and submission.'
If Deep Troat is about tle aclievement of pleasure tlrougl practice
and acrobatics, tlen Boys in the Sand is a lyrical, joyful celebration of
a utopian placeBayside, Poolside, Insidewlere men take pleasure
in one anotler in tle face of normative taboos. In tlese fantasies witl-
out dialogue and synclronized sound, no one teacles, cures, or ini-
tiates anotler person into tle joys of sex. And yet audience members
wlo applauded and desired tlese apparitions, and wlo bonded witl eacl
otler as a community in tlis very applause signaling mutually recognized
,( going further
desire, did certainly learn sometling about tle joys of an out community
intrinsically related to tle practice of sex. An idealized, lypersexual male
emerges in eacl episode from tle conjuring imagination of a solitary de-
siring subject. Te sex tlat follows serves to validate and celebrate, wlile
never exactly normalizing, tle dierence of gay sex.
make love, not war
)ane Fonda Comes Home
Witl all tle ejaculating penises brouglt oniscene in botl
leterosexual and lomosexual pornograply of tle early
seventies, and witl all tle end-of-Code, beginning-of-
ratings-era lms focused on young men proving tleir man-
lood in Hollywoods simulated sexual interludes, it is only
fair to ask about tle fate of female orgasm in mainstream
Hollywood lm. Deep Troat lad purported to be about
female orgasm by ratler disarmingly acknowledging a prob-
lem tlat lad not been previously disclosed in tle mainstream
listory of screening sex: wlere to locate and low to depict
female pleasures tlat did not necessarily coincide witl tlose
of tle male: Te clitoris, wlicl as we slall see below was
newly exalted as tle primary organ of female pleasure by tle
sexologists, was not wlere it slould be. Wly tlere you are!
You little bugger you! proclaimed tle good doctor in Deep
Troat wlen le found Linda Lovelaces clitoris in ler tlroat.
Deep-tlroat fellatio was tle solution to tle problem of tlis
,6 make love, not war
particular misplaced and misunderstood clitoris. Tougl more sober tlan
tlis bogus doctor, tle real sexologists were equally perplexed to nd tle
female seat of pleasure so disconnected from tle organs of reproduction.
Tis was a conundrum, especially in Hollywood. Wlere to locate and low
to portray a womans pleasure: Ever since tle fall of tle Hollywood Pro-
duction Code tle main way to know if a woman felt pleasure was to listen
to ler.
Fast forward, for a moment, to tlis well-known scene from tle ,8,
romantic comedy by Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally. Best friends,
and eventual lovers, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) meet in a
New York delicatessen and argue about male and female perspectives on
sex. Sally views Harry as an aront to all women because le cannot wait
to leave tlem after laving sex. Harry counters tlat at least le leaves lis
partners satised. Sally doubts if tley are satised since women often fake
orgasm. Wlen Harry disbelieves, Sally gives an aural performance of one
riglt tlere in tle deli. Sle pants, moans, slakes ler lead, musses ler lair,
and pounds tle table, building to a rlytlmic and ecstatic Yes, Yes, Yes!
Yes! vis! as tle wlole deli watcles in amazement and appreciation. After
Sally las resumed ler sandwicl, an older woman voices tle puncl line to
a waiter: Ill lave wlat sles laving. Never mind tlat Sally is a repressed
obsessive wlose claracter would never do sucl a tleatrical tling in a deli,
tle scene clincled tle lms reputation as a classic romantic comedy in
tle postsexual revolution era. Most of all, it clincled tle by now well-
known fact, lere delivered in tle mode of comedy, tlat women can often
fake quite spectacular orgasms.
In tle late ,6os and early ,;os, lowever, wlen tle representation of
carnal knowledge in mainstream lms was still new and wlen Hollywood
was tentatively devising new tropes for going all tle way, female orgasm
was eitler overlooked or assimilated to tlat of tle male. Te possibly dif-
ferent rlytlms and temporalities of a womans pleasure were simply not
acknowledged. How, tlen, did a dierent, female, form of carnal knowl-
edge come to American screens: Te answer may seem circuitous, but
it proves to be inextricably tied to tle context of tle Vietnam War and
emerging discourses of sexology.
I was never a fan of tle popular Broadway musical Hair (,6;), or of tle
later lm version by Milos Forman (,;,). Its story about a young man
Make Love, Not War
make love, not war ,;
drafted to glt in Vietnam wlose countercultural friends glt against
lis conscription was altogetler too lappy-lippie for my taste. Hippie
celebrants sang lopefully of tle dawning of tle age of Aquarius, sled
clotles, uttered forbidden words, and proposed to make love, not war. But
if tley were lappy to make love, tley were not really willing to do any-
tling to stop war. Te young man wlo is drafted goes to boot camp and is
followed tlere by lis lippie friends, one of wlom takes lis place just be-
fore le is slipped to Vietnam, wlere tle friend is killed. My boyfriend lad
been drafted too, but witl tle support of lis countercultural community,
le lad demonstrated against tle war, joined tle resistance, and refused
induction. He would ratler go to prison tlan glt an unjust war.' We
made love and opposed war, in a way tlat made Hair seem frivolous. )ust
as its slow tunes betrayed tle very idiom of rock, so its politics avoided
actual struggle. Facile as it was, lowever, Hair undeniably formed part of a
late-sixties zeitgeist in wlicl sex, drugs, and rock and roll seemed antiwar
and politicalnot just consumeristacts.
Make love, not war was a slogan tlat many of us clanted at tle time
of tle Stop tle Draft Week demonstrations against tle Oakland Induction
Center in ,6;. Saying yes to sex in tlose leady days really did feel like
saying no, not just to war but to tle kind of instrumental reason tlat
lad fatefully led to one of Americas now-too-familiar quagmire wars. In
tlose days sexual revolution was inextricably linked, as David Allyns lis-
tory of tle era argues, to political revolution. My draft-resisting friends
and I were ecloing tle words of Frankfurt Sclool tleorists like Herbert
Marcuse and Norman O. Brown wlo argued against tle Freudian premise
tlat sexual desire was in permanent need of sublimation if luman cul-
ture and society were to persevere. Marcuses Eros and Civilization, rst
publisled in ,,,, lad clallenged Sigmund Freuds premise tlat sexual
desire was permanently at odds witl luman society. Marcuse envisioned
a liberation tlat would restore tle riglt of sensuousness, transform toil
into unproductive play, and not simply release libido but utterly trans-
form it.
No longer used as a full-time instrument of labor, tle body would be re-
sexualized. Te regression involved in tlis spread of tle libido would rst
manifest itself in a reactivation of all erotogenic zones and, consequently,
in a resurgence of pregenital polymorplous sexuality and in a decline of
genital sexuality. Te body in its entirety would become an object of ca-
tlexis and a tling to be enjoyedan instrument of pleasure. Sparked by
Marcuse, turned on by music, marijuana, and psycledelics, a large part
of my generation did see making love as part of a political act against war.
,8 make love, not war
It did so especially in tle face of an ever-escalating war wlose injustice
was driven lome because of a draft tlat aected tle entire population of
young men.
But wlat was a womans place in tlis loving alternative to war: Anotler
slogan, not quite as popular in tlis period, was Women Say Yes to Men
Wlo Say No! As one wlo had said yes to a man wlo lad said no, I
was tempted to adopt it, too, before recognizing in it a wlole patriarclal
regime tlat wanted to make my sexual pleasure subservient to tle only
real political actor in tle revolutionary scenario: tle man. Cradually I real-
ized tlat if I was to make love, not war, tlen, as tle feminist cultural lis-
torian Lynne Segal notes, it was going to lave to mean sometling more
tlan tle freedom to get laid. It was going to lave to mean, ultimately,
a radical retlinking of tle wlole area of sexuality and sexual politics.
Wlat was a politically correct form of making love for a woman: Against
Freuds dictum tlat civilization required a certain amount of discontent,
Marcuse lad encouraged tle decline of genital sexuality and a pregenital
polymorplous sexuality, but wlat did tlat mean, exactly: For tle answer
to tlis question a wlole generation turned to sexologists: tle earlier work
of Alfred Kinsey and tle newer work of William Masters and Virginia
)olnson, just emerging in tle late sixties.
Kinsey was a zoologist wlose long crusade became tle dissolution of tle
distinctions between normal and abnormal sex. Wlile most people tend
to believe tlat wlatever tley do sexually is wlat everyone else does, or
slould do, Kinsey discovered, at rst just by interviewing married stu-
dents in lis famous Marriage Course at Indiana University in tle late
,os, tlat people actually did a great many dierent tlings. Te second
lecture of tlis course, rst tauglt in ,8, lad already clallenged Freuds
ortlodoxy about tle vaginal orgasm. Trowing up a slide of a penis enter-
ing a vagina in lis lecture lall, Kinsey very clearly pointed out tlat tle
reason for tle womans pleasure was not vaginal but clitoral stimulation.
Kinsey did not beat around tle busl. From tle very beginning le declared
tle Freudian ortlodoxy of tle vaginal orgasm wrong. Te supposedly in-
fantile clitoral orgasm was wlat really excited women. Te married or
engaged students admitted into lis courses were decidedly interested in
wlat Kinsey lad to teacl. And wlat le lad to teacl often derived from
wlat le lad learned from tlem. Trougl ever-widening researcl, con-
Sexology and Sexual Politics
make love, not war ,,
ducted in tle form of extended face-to-face interview-style sexual listo-
ries, Kinsey came to believe tlat tlere was very little sexual activity tlat
was abnormal, or perverse. In fact, le esclewed tle word perverse, pre-
ferring tle label rare.
Tougl Kinsey would democratically survey every possible aspect of
sexual belavior, le would only count it as sex if it led to orgasm. As
a zoologist witl an expertise in gall wasps, le valued measurability.
Orgasms, wlicl lad tle virtue of being countable, became lis gold stan-
dard. From tle very beginning, tlis meant tlat Kinseys researcl, like tlat
of most sexologists, was inlerently androcentric. Tougl le could be re-
markably nonjudgmental about tle belaviors tlat miglt lead to orgasm
wletler masturbation, letero or lomosexual relationstle countable
orgasm was built to tle measure of tle male body. It would not be until le
got to researcling and writing lis female volume, Sexual Behavior in the
Human Female, publisled in ,,, tlat Kinsey would discover enormous
dissimilarities between male and female sexual outlets. For example, le
calculated tlat tle average male lad experienced ,,: orgasms before
marriage, wlile tle average woman lad only experienced ::. After mar-
riage, le calculated, most lusbands aclieved orgasm in almost all acts of
intercourse, wlile wives did so only , percent of tle time.'
Most pertinent to tle listory of screening sex, lowever, is tle way Kinsey
went about studying orgasms: le lmed tlem. Early in lis researcl Kinsey
lad contrived to observe sexual activity live. He and Wardell Pomeroy
lad paid prostitutes to be able to watcl tlem wlile tley performed tleir
tricks. But Kinsey found prostitutes unsatisfying subjects precisely be-
cause tley faked orgasm. It was not always easy to observe tleir acts from
tle vantage point of a closet. Nor were tle teams later eorts to observe
furtive lomosexual acts in toilets entirely satisfying as scientic observa-
tion. Inevitably, Kinsey turned to lm in ,(8, at rst to test tle tleory
of low men ejaculated, wletler in dribbles or witl projecting force.
Clarence Tripp and Bill Dellenback, Kinseys trusty plotograplers, paid
tlree lundred men in New York City to masturbate to ejaculation. After
collecting lms of a tlousand men masturbating, tley concluded tlat in
; percent of men ejaculate does not spurt but dribbles.''
Filming male ejaculation soon brancled out into lming tle sexual re-
lations of male lomosexual couples. By ,(, mucl of tlis lming moved
into an attic room of Kinseys lome.' Te subjects of tlese lms were
certain special friends of tle researcltlose willing not only to give
tleir sexual listories but now also to be observed and lmed. )ust as Andy
Warlol would give a screen test to just about anyone wlo wandered into
6o make love, not war
tle Factory, so Kinsey would lm solitary or social sex acts witl just about
anyone wlo would let lim. But le especially valued tle rare ones and
not only lomosexual males. One of tlese was a gynecologist by tle name
of Alice Spears. Pomeroy reported tlat sle was capable of from fteen
to twenty orgasms in twenty minutes. Even tle most casual contact could
arouse a sexual response in ler. Observing ler botl in masturbation and
intercourse, we found tlat in intercourse ler rst orgasm occurred witlin
: to ve seconds after entry.' Tis was all tle more surprising in tlat
Spears lad not lad ler rst orgasm until sle was forty and was in ler six-
ties at tle time of lming. Kinsey slot a total of seven lours of lm witl
Spears performing witl a great many dierent partners drawn from lis
entire team of male researclers, including limself.'
In lming sex, Kinsey was only doing wlat Masters and )olnson would
later do witl married couples in tleir laboratory. However, lis way of
doing it blurred tle line between objective, distanced science and a mucl
more involved, subjective participant observation. Nor did any of lis fund-
ers, or tle trustees of Indiana University, know wlat le was doing since
tle budget for lming was cleverly disguised under tle category mam-
malian studies and did, indeed, begin as a collection of low otler kinds of
mammals do itlms of porcupines lad been particularly valued.' No
one knew about tle luman lms until tle ,;: publication of Pomeroys
biograply of Kinsey. Had tley known, Kinsey would lave instantly lost
lis fundingas le would do soon enougl anyway after tle publication of
tle female volume. Kinseys attic lmswlicl meticulously recorded
not only female orgasms but male-male and female-female lomosexual
relations, as well as scenes of sadomasoclistic sexare of obvious interest
to any listory of screening sex in America, and it is regrettable tlat tle
Kinsey Institute does not permit tleir study today.
For some, Kinseys sexual proclivities, combined witl lis lming, utterly
disqualied lim as a scientist and made lim complicit witl criminals.'
One recent biograpler, )ames )ones, argues tlat from tle very beginning
Kinsey was a masoclistic, lomosexual voyeur possessed entirely by lis
demons. His real motivation for all lis researcl, )ones insists, was to see
if otlers were like lim. )ones tlus asserts tlat Kinseys real interest was
prurience, not science.' )onatlan Catlorne-Hardy, anotler recent biog-
rapler, disagrees witl )ones and defends Kinseys science. He does not
deny tlat Kinsey lad lomosexual encounters, nor tlat le engaged in
some masoclistic acts, nor tlat le liked to watcl. But le refutes tle idea
tlat Kinsey was a lifelong lomosexual-masoclist-voyeur, especially in tle
make love, not war 6
patlologizing, xed ways tlat Kinseys own researcl souglt to loosen.
He asserts, ratler, tlat Kinsey was a bisexual wlo uctuated on lis own
scale, but wlose interest in diverse sexual practices is wlat enabled lim to
extract listories from lomosexuals and otler minority sexualities in tle
rst place.
Te gay media sclolar Tomas Waugl argues, from a very dierent di-
rection, tlat Kinseys problem was tlat le did not admit to tle prurience
tlat inevitably informed lis work and tlat Waugl limself believes slould
be a fundamental principle of gay cultural and sexual researcl. Sexual
science, Waugl insists, is inseparable from eroticism.' Tis may be a bit
unfair to Kinsey, wlo could lardly lave received funding as a proudly
eroticized lomosexual researcler. Waugl adds tlat Kinsey, in addition to
being tle voyeur and auditor, as well as sometime participant in a num-
ber of tle lms, was also tleir ultimate director, tle grand metteur en
Te question about ejaculation tlat led Kinsey to rst lm it was not un-
like tle epocl-making debate about tle fast-trot of tle lorse: Was tlere
ever a moment wlen all four feet left tle ground: Only Eadweard Muy-
bridges plotograpls of 8;; could prove to Leland Stanfords satisfaction
tlat tlere was a moment wlen all four feet did leave tle ground, and so,
as one poet put it, we invent pornograply. We invent pornograply, I
lave argued, never out of mere prurience but out of tle quest for tle trutl
of tle body mixed up witl prurience. Kinsey was a scientist and a sexually
interested observer and a sometime participant in tle sex le studied. We
slould no more dismiss lis science tlan tle eroticism tlat fed its interest.
If Kinsey was a pornograpler, le was interested in tle kinds of tlings tlat
were often faked in pornograply by women wlo were paid to perform.
His own lome movies were tlus, like Warlols Blue Movie, a way to
locate a trutl of sex not otlerwise rendered visible. However one judges
Kinseys objectivity or involvement, one only las to read tle descriptions
of orgasm in tle female volume to recognize tlat belind all tle grapls of
respiration and blood pressure stands tle kind of observation tlat could
only lave come from getting closer, from watcling and screening. Kinsey
Prostitutes wlo attempt to deceive (jive) tleir patrons, or unresponsive
wives wlo similarly attempt to make tleir lusbands believe tlat tley are
enjoying tleir coitus, fall into an error because tley assume tlat an eroti-
cally aroused person would look lappy and pleased and slould smile and
6: make love, not war
become increasingly alert as le or sle approacles tle culmination of tle
act. On tle contrary, an individual wlo is really responding is as incapable
of looking lappy as tle individual wlo is being tortured.'
He continues, Fully 8( percent of tle females in tle sample wlo lad mas-
turbated lad depended cliey on labial and clitoral stimulation. . . . all tle
evidence indicates tlat tle vaginal walls are quite insensitive in tle great
majority of females. Kinsey tlus concludes, contra Freud, tlat vaginal
orgasm is a plysical and plysiologic impossibility tlat las no relation to
Kinsey, lowever, was not in tle business of xing wlat was wrong witl
tle sexual relations of married couples, lis interest, as witl gall wasps,
was variety. Witl tleir rst book, Human Sexual Response, publisled
in ,66, tle team of Masters and )olnson conrmed many aspects of
Kinseys groundbreaking work. Like Kinsey, tley rletorically stressed tle
similarities of male and female sexual responseviewing tle clitoris, for
example, as a version of tle peniswlile actually detailing some remark-
able dierences. For example, tley noted tlat women could orgasm botl
more frequently and mucl longer tlan men. Like Kinsey also, Masters
and )olnson debunked tle vaginal orgasm, asserting tlat clitoral and
vaginal orgasms are not separate biologic entities. And nally, tley also
observed couples and lmed tlem, even placing internal electrodes to
measure response. Perlaps most tlreatening to establisled lierarclies of
male and female sexual response was tleir observation tlat maximum
plysiologic intensity of orgasmic response lad been aclieved tlrougl
self regulated meclanical or automanipulative teclniques. Te second
greatest intensity was aclieved tlrougl partner manipulation, and a poor
tlird was aclieved during coition. Nevertleless, Masters and )olnson
were tlerapists committed to tle success of monogamous, leterosexual
marriage, and all of tleir work was aimed at producing a more sexually
satised couple. Tey tlus closed down mucl of Kinseys openness to
varieties of sexual outlets, basing tleir study only on 6,( wlite, middle-
class leterosexual men and women.
Tere lad been no major womens movement to absorb tle lessons
of Kinsey, but by tle time Masters and )olnson reacled print, feminists
were immediately drawing inferences tlat may not lave been consistent
witl tle researclers essentially masculinist and monogamous perspec-
tives. Mary )ane Slerfey, a psycloanalyst wlo lad studied witl Kinsey as
an undergraduate, was tle rst: Teoretically, sle asserted, a woman
could go on laving orgasms indenitely if plysical exlaustion did not
make love, not war 6
intervene. Tis mucl Masters and )olnson would lave agreed witl,
but Slerfey added, neitler men nor women, but especially not women,
are biologically built for tle single-spouse, monogamous marital struc-
In a mood of even greater insurgency, tle feminist activist Anne Koedt
proclaimed, in a famous pampllet widely circulated at radical meetings
long before it was publisled, tlat if vaginal penetration was not tle cause
of orgasm, tlen women lad been dened sexually in terms of wlat
pleases men, our own biology las not been properly analyzed. Accord-
ing to tlis reasoning, wlat was needed was tlus notling slort of a re-
denition of womens sexuality and a rejection of former androcentric
concepts of normal: We must begin to demand tlat if certain sexual
positions now dened as standard are not mutually conducive to orgasm,
tley [slould] no longer be dened as standard. New teclniques must
be used or devised wlicl transform tlis particular aspect of our current
sexual exploitation. Yet anotler feminist, Barbara Seaman, furtler drew
out Slerfeys lesson of indenite orgasm: Te more a woman does, the
more she can, and the more she can, the more she wants to. Masters and
)olnson claim tlat tley lave observed females experiencing six or more
orgasms during intercourse and up to fty or more during masturbation
witl a vibrator.' No wonder Cerard Damiano lad been able to weave an
entire lm around cultural anxieties about female orgasm. And no won-
der Damiano lad cried out, Look at )ane Fonda in Klute, lard-core sex
belonged in tlat picture.
In pointing to tle absence of lard-core sex in )ane Fondas Klute (dir.
Alan Pakula, ,;), Damiano was clallenging tle mainstream lm indus-
try to do wlat le lad done: to slow insertions and cum-slots. Te idea
was untlinkable in ,; wlen lis words were spoken, but ironically it
would be Fonda, mucl more tlan Lovelace, wlo would pioneer tle rep-
resentation of female orgasm in mainstream lms. A furtler irony of tlis
pioneer work is tlat it could not lave been accomplisled witlout an ac-
companying critique, even a deconstruction, of tle kind of insertion
plus cum slot tlat Damiano wanted to simply add to tle mainstream
lm. In tle rest of tlis clapter I propose to trace tle advent of a new kind
of female carnal knowledge in American movies tlrougl tle career of a
single iconic performer. I will argue tlat it was precisely Fondas associa-
tion witl tle antiwar injunctions to make love, not war tlat proved cen-
tral to ler role in tle critique of tle kind of plallocentric sex tlat our-
isled in tle world of lard core.
Te willowy Fonda, tle dauglter of Henry, limself an icon, is perlaps
6( make love, not war
best known today for two roles played out not in lm but in a liglly medi-
ated public life: rst as Hanoi )ane, tle antiwar activist wlose opposition
to tle Vietnam war was demonstrated in a liglly publicized visit to Hanoi
in )uly ,;: (gure 66), second, as tle guru of tle lome video workout,
wlicl, beginning in ,8:, popularized aerobic workouts for women, uti-
lizing tle same video teclnology tlat would also bring lard-core pornog-
raply into tle lome. Fondas liglly disciplined, worked-out, but rarely
sweaty body became emblematic of a certain do-it-yourself tness tlat
was every bit as big a louselold name as Linda Lovelace lad been in tle
previous decade (gure 6;). Tese two listorically distinct featuresa late
sixtiesiearly seventies antiwar activism wlose slogan was make love, not
war, and a later early ,8os plysical discipline tlat made ler tle queen of
tle workoutwere bridged and linked by Fondas fame as an American
66: Jane Fonda
in LExpress photo
speaking to
North Vietnamese
in Hanoi. From Let-
ter to Jane (dir. Jean
Luc Godard and
Jean-Pierre Gorin,
67: Fonda the
workout guru.
From Jane Fonda
Collection: The Com-
plete Workout (1989)
make love, not war 6,
movie star of tle late ,6os and early ,;os, tle very rst to play clarac-
ters wlose orgasms mattered. In Fondas most famous lm performances
we tlus encounter tle dramatic convergence of a pro-sex, antiwar etlic
tlat marked tle late ,6os and early ,;os.
It is against tle background of tle indices of sexual revolution and femi-
nist revolution discussed aboveliglly sexualized antiwar activism, new
discourses of sexology questioning tle cause of female orgasm, a furtler
feminist revision of tlese discourses, not to mention tle appearance of
lmed sex acts as artifacts of sexual pleasure, knowledge, and powertlat
Fondas orgasms take on signicance. In concentrating on Fondas orgasms
in tlree lms made between ,68 and ,;8, I am not attributing to ler any
special status as a sex symbol. Ratler, as we slall see, it was precisely wlen
Fonda began to witldraw from tle more kittenisl sex-symbol roles of ler
early career tlat sle emerged as an important actor wlose performance
of orgasms could be taken seriously. But let us rst turn to tle kittenisl
stage in Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (,68).
Fonda lad been informed by tle great stage director )oslua Logan
tlat sle would never be a dramatic actress witl tlat nose, too cute for
drama. It was tlis cute starlet wlo was invited to France in ,6 to
make a lm witl tle famous Roger Vadim, wlose And God Created
Woman (,,6), starring Brigitte Bardot, lad inaugurated a wlole new era
of soplisticated, if not exactly graplic, European screen sexuality. Vadim
was a contemporary of tle Frencl New Wave artists, but unlike tlem, le
was unabasledly commercial. He celebrated a particularly Frencl kind of
sensual pleasure in tle rst lm version of Les liaisons dangereuses (,,,),
in a racy remake of Max Oplulss La ronde (,6(), and in tle quite re-
markable and little-known Te Game Is Over (La cur, ,66). Vadims
lms glory in ledonism and tle kind of titillation once synonomous witl
Frencl movies. He rarely pictured graplic sex, but le was fascinated by
female sensuality and did not always nd it necessary, as Hollywood lms
of rouglly tle same era did, to punisl female protagonists for tleir pur-
suit of sexual pleasure. For a six-year period, overlapping witl ler career
as a proto-Hollywood star in lms as diverse as Cat Ballou (dir. Elliot
Silverstein, ,6,), Any Wednesday (dir. Robert Miller, ,66), and Barefoot
in the Park (dir. Cene Saks, ,6;), Fonda worked in France under tle tute-
lage of Vadim, wlom sle eventually married.
Jane Fondas Orgasms
66 make love, not war
To lis great credit Vadim did not try to make Fonda into an American
version of Bardot. Wlat le did instead, witl a screenplay autlored by
satirist Terry Soutlern, was capitalize on ler American innocence, wlile
asking ler to disrobe in suggestive, but never frontally nude, ways. Te
credit sequence of Barbarella was emblematic: tle space traveler Barba-
rella strips o ler space suit wlile oating in ler gravityless spaceslip. In
tlis futuristic striptease, tle letters of tle credits lide crucial body parts.
Te peeling o, or decorous sledding, of already skimpy outts constitutes
tle primary visual pleasure of tlis lm about an eartlling ignorant of tle
old-faslioned sexual pleasures derived from bodily friction. Eartllings,
we learn, lad long ago given up sucl primitive distractions. But wlen a
lirsute, virile representative of anotler galaxy insists on old-faslioned
friction, Barbarella is pleasantly surprised. All we see, lowever, is Barba-
rella in a state of extreme, presumably postcoital, satisfaction. Anotler
sexual episode, tlis time witl tle smootl, well-built esl of tle angel
Pygar ()oln Plillip Law), furtler convinces ler tlat old-faslioned sex las
its clarms. But like tle rst scene, tlis one, too, is elided: All we see, again,
is a postcoital Barbarella, relaxed and lumming, stroking lerself witl one
of tle featlers from Pygars wings.
By tle time Barbarella arrives at ler tlird sexual encounter, tlis time
witl a bumbling revolutionary played by David Hemmings, sle is eager to
engage again in tlis supposedly retrograde activity. But tlis revolutionary,
coyly named Dildano, is a modern man wlo insists tlat sle engage in
tle pill-induced exaltation transference. After ingesting tle transference
pellets, tley face one anotler, fully clotled, and toucl only tleir palms,
wlicl gradually begin to smoke as tleir faces reveal mild pleasure (gure
68). Te climax for eacl appears to be a moment wlen tleir lair curls and
stands up, tlougl Dildanos lair curls more. As in tle early sex of Deep
Troat, tlis scene is portrayed as only mildly pleasurable. Once again a
female protagonist confesses, tlis time witl disinterested body language,
tlat sex is less tlan tlrilling: no bells ringing, dams bursting, or bombs
going o. At one point a distracted Barbarella drops ler land, but tlen
politely reengages.
Barbarellas plot is usually dismissed as a silly excuse to maneuver
Fonda into various stages of undress. Tis it ably does, but tle plot linges
on Barbarellas mission to locate and eliminate a positronic ray, pos-
sessed by tle villainous Duran Duran, wlicl tlreatens tle peace of tle
universe. It is tlus to avert war tlat tle future Hanoi )ane undertakes ler
mission. Barbarella tlus makes love, tle old-faslioned way (oscreen),
and averts war (on-screen) by disarming tle power-mad megalomaniac
make love, not war 6;
Duran Duran. But if Barbarella is strangely modest about tle portrayal of
sexual acts compared to tle display of its leroines body, it ratler boldly
portrays female orgasms not aclieved tlrougl coitus.
Cauglt in tle clutcles of tle villainous Duran Duran, wlose peace-
slattering weapon it is ler mission to destroy, Barbarella is placed in a
number of vaguely sir torture devices. Te most important is a futuristic
version of an old-faslioned single-person steam batl from wlicl only
ler lead, neckand later ler upper clestprotrude. Tis rubber tent is
attacled to an organ (tle musical kind) wlose keys tle villain plays. His
plan is for Barbarella to die of pleasure from tle sound vibrations caused
by lis playing. In playing tle organ le tlus proposes to play Barbarella
lerselfto deatl. Wlat we tlen see is a nonexplicit extended sex scene
in wlicl tle feminist inference drawn from Masters and )olnson is en-
acted: Te more a woman does, the more she can, and the more she can,
the more she wants to.
As Duran Duran begins to play lis organ (gure 6,), Barbarella sigls
and ler eyes widen as one by one items of ler clotles are spit out at tle
bottom of tle Exsexive Macline. Its sort of nice, isnt it: sle asks. Yes,
replies tle sly villain, it is nice . . . in tle beginning. Tougl more of ler
upper body will gradually protrude from tle steam batllike contraption,
it is ler face tlat registers tle surprise of successive degrees of pleasure as
tle music builds. Wlen we reacl tle crescendo you will die, promises
tle villain. Big deatl, real deatl, is supposed to follow tle excessexsex
of tle little deatl ( petite mort) of orgasm. But tle more frenetically Duran
68: Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (dir. Roger Vadim, 1968),
Barbarella and Dildano have sex
68 make love, not war
Duran plays tle organ and tle more tle music reacles one crescendo
after anotler, tle more it becomes apparent tlat Barbarella can take wlat-
ever pleasures it oers (gure ;o). In tle end, it is only tle macline tlat
dies, not Barbarella. Teoretically, as Slerfey put it, a woman could go
on laving orgasms indenitely.
In tlis scene a nite, masculine concept of sexual pleasure as climax and
crescendotle quintessentially Frencl and male concept of orgasm as a
kind of nite petite mortcomes up against tle lessons of Kinsey, Masters
and )olnson, and feminist sexological revisions of female sexual pleasure
as potentially innite. Te more tle macline tries to kill ler witl pleasure,
tle more Barbarella relaxes and enjoys. Soon tle tubes feeding tle sound
into tle cubicle slrink, and tle connections smoke and burn. Yet anotler
mad male scientists experiment las gone awry. I dont believe it! Duran
Duran exclaims, Wretcled, wretcled girl! Wlat lave you done to my Ex-
Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy
69: Duran Duran begins to play his organ
70: Barbarella can match whatever pleasure the machine gives her
make love, not war 6,
sexive Macline:! Youve undone it! Youve undone me! Look! Te energy
cables are slrinking! Youve turned tlem into faggots! Youve burned out
tle Exsexive Macline! Youve blown all its fuses! Te snickering comic
genius and campy double entendre of Soutlerns script is evident in every
word of tlis monologue, but we barely lear tle wordswlicl appear su-
peruous compared to tle ever-widening eyes, open moutl, and growing
beads of sweat on Barbarellas face. Tis is one point in tle lm in wlicl
BarbarellaiFondas facenot tle game of peekaboo witl ler seminaked
bodycounts. And it is tle expression on tlis face tlat pregures all of
Fondas subsequent performances of orgasm. Wlat it reveals is Kinseys
insiglt tlat an individual wlo is really responding is as incapable of look-
ing lappy as tle individual wlo is being tortured (gure ;). Sucl is tle
rst (American) face of female orgasm on tle American screen.
Wlile many lave noted tle campy sets and sexual innuendo of mucl
of tle lms dialogue, and wlile some lave drawn a connection between
tle Exsexive Macline and Woody Allens later orgasmatron in Sleeper
(,;), no one las noted tle sleer temporal duration of tlis scene or
tle fact tlat it only ends wlen tle macline dies. Barbarellas pleasure
endures as tle macline steams up and sputters out. If tle lm carefully
elides all views of leterosexual coitus as pelvic tlrustingmore clastely,
in fact, tlan American lms of tle same erait does not elide tle orgasm
presumed tle end point of sexual pleasure. Nor does it presume tlat tlis
orgasm can be represented as a single climax. Ratler, it is as an ongoing
pleasure. In its own very sixties way, tlen, and in a way tlat will carry over
in a mucl more serious mode into Fondas post-sixties lm career, tle
future Hanoi )ane uses ler orgasmic capacity to expose tle warlike villain
71: Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, Barbarellas face reveals Kinseys insight that
sexual response does not look like happiness
;o make love, not war
and lis deatl macline as impotent and to celebrate lerself as orgasmi-
cally triumplant. Make love, not war, indeed!
In tle introduction to lis book about Victorian pornograply, rst
publisled in ,6(, Steven Marcus evoked an image derived from Mas-
ters and )olnson tlat le considered symptomatic of tle new era of
twentietl-century pornograply on tle rise at tle time of lis writing.
Noting tlat Masters and )olnson lad discovered tle orgasmic capaci-
ties of women, le points out tle aptness of tlis discovery for an era of
postindustrial advanced capitalism: It can lardly be an accident . . . tlat
tle idea of large or virtually unlimited female orgasmic capacity slould
act as a centrally organizing image of our time. Te notion of a multiply
orgasmic female corresponds exquisitely to tle needs of a society based
on mass consumption. It is in eect a perfect image of mass consump-
tionparticularly if we add to tlis image tle furtler details tlat sle is
probably masturbating alone, witl tle aid of a meclanical-electrical in-
strument.' Fondas Barbarella is not exactly masturbating alone, but sle
does lave tle aid of a meclanical-electrical instrument in tle form of
tle Exsexive Macline. As sucl, sle seems to be an important precursor
of tle image, already implicit in Masters and )olnson, of tle future tlat so
worries Marcus, perlaps as mucl as it worries Duran Duran: tle multiply
orgasmic woman in no need of leterosexual coitus to aclieve multiple,
uncountable orgasms.
It would take anotler decade for mainstream Hollywood cinema to
begin to depict tle spectacle of an orgasmic woman in a serious vein.
We saw in clapter : tlat tle musical sexual interlude lad been Holly-
woods primary way of forging a supposedly tasteful suggestion of carnal
knowledge wlile simultaneously screening out most of its plysical details.
However, tle musical sexual interlude lad little interest in tle specicity
of female pleasure. It was a way of taming and sanitizing tle rst repre-
sentations of genital sex acts in American movies. )ust as kisses in tle
silent or sound lm almost never occurred witlout soaring music, so it
would prove extremely rare for post-Code Hollywood lms to depict car-
nal knowledge witlout aectively controlling, and reassuring, audience
response witl musical accompaniment. Wlen we do get sex witlout tle
music, it usually seems more naked, more real, more like tle zero degree
of sex portrayed in Warlols Blue Movie (,68).
Sometling closer to tlis zero degree is wlat we nd in Fondas post-
Barbarella American lm performances of orgasms. Indeed, it would rst
be tlrougl tle discovery of ways of depicting nonorgasmic sexoften
gured as bad sex displayed witlout music or bracketed editing and
make love, not war ;
esclewing tle celebratory, lyrical format of tle sexual interludetlat
Hollywood would eventually nd a new way to portray sex beyond tlese
Bad sex in Hollywood lad previously been portrayed as tle sex tle
woman did not want to lave. By tle early seventies, lowever, it began to
encompass anotler meaning: inautlentic or faked sex. Fonda lere, too,
would emerge as tle pioneer. Her rst Oscar-winning performance in
Klute in ,; was one of tle rst to complicate tle sexually promiscu-
ous gure of tle femme fatale, usually a gure of villainy. In tlis lm tle
woman is, in a more traditional sense and despite ler promiscuous sexual
activity, good. Having already proved tlat sle could act in tle ,6, Tey
Shoot Horses, Dont Tey? (dir. Sydney Pollack), Fonda now proceeded to
play Bree Daniels, a ligl-class call girl stalked by a mysterious killer and
protected by a strong, silent cop named Klute (Donald Sutlerland). Brees
orgasms, botl faked and real, would matter to tlis narrative, tlougl only
tle faked, bad ones would be directly slown. In an early scene, Bree las
sex witl a client. Pro tlat sle is, sle is fully in control of tle orclestration
of lis pleasure tlrougl tle semblance of ler own. At tle moment of ler
supposed orgasm sle does a muted, but patently fake, version of Sallys
exaggerated performance in tle deli, wlile simultaneously glancing at ler
watcl. Analytic sessions witl a female psycliatrist make tlis point even
clearer: Bree confesses tlat real sexual pleasure would tlreaten ler con-
trol over tle scene.
Botl Molly Haskells and Pauline Kaels reviews of Klute discuss tlis
early sex scene. Kael complains tlat tle timing is o: realistically, Bree
would lave looked at ler watcl before, not during, tle faked orgasm.
Haskell, for ler part, notes wlat kind of toll sucl a performance exacts:
As any woman wlo las ever faked an orgasm knows, its too easy to
count as a great performance and too cynical not to leave belind some
poison. Wlile botl critics score important points in tle evaluation of
tle lm, my real interest lere lies in tle fact tlat tlese two inuential
women critics of tle early seventies, tlemselves informed by discourses
of sexology and its feminist critique, now nd it possible to argue about
tle realism of a performance of (bad) sex. Tey recognize bad sex wlen
tley see it.
Cood sex would be Hollywoods new, post-Code answer to bad. Cood
versus bad may constitute a terribly impoverisled range compared to tle
sexual performances we lave already seen emerging outside tle Holly-
wood mainstream. It is nevertleless fascinating to watcl Fonda progress
from tle comic exsexes of Barbarella to tle bad sexgood sex binary of
;: make love, not war
ler later work in Klute and Coming Home (dir. Hal Aslby, ,;8). In Klute,
Bree explains to ler analyst tlat in ler aair witl Klute sle is glting
laving real orgasms for fear of losing ler autonomy. Indeed, in a scene
tlat miglt seem initially to be tle good-sex antidote to tle performed
orgasms of sex witl tle client, Bree and Klute sleep on narrow adjacent
mattresses in Klutes basement apartment after Bree las been frigltened
by a deatl tlreat. In tle middle of tle niglt Bree silently climbs onto
Klutes mattress and seduces lim.
Te scene is striking in its stark simplicity. Tere is no fancy editing, no
musical accompaniment, and only one ellipsis tlat takes us from a pre-
liminary stage of seduction to tlrusting man-on-top, woman-on-bottom
missionary sex. Until we see tle triumplant look of control on Brees face
as Klute expresses lis (muted) pleasure, we may tlink tlat tlis is tle good
sexat least sle does not look at ler watcl. But tle triumpl is too smug,
and sle taunts lim afterwards witl tle knowledge tlat sle did not come:
I never do witl jolns. Tis is ler way of asserting control over a man
sle feels tempted to love. Cood sex is not slown, but it is linted at in an
extended bit of sex talk spoken by Bree in a long monologue to ler analyst
of wlicl I excerpt a part:
I enjoy, ul, making love witl lim, wlicl is a very baing and bewildering
tling for me because Id never felt tlat way before. I just wisl I could let
tlings lappen and enjoy it for wlat it is and wlile it lasts and relax witl
it. But all tle time I keep feeling tle need to destroy it . . . to go back to tle
comfort of being numb. . . . I lad more control witl tricks . . . at least I knew
wlat I was doing wlen I was setting tlings up. . . . Its so strange, tle sen-
sation tlat is owing from me naturally to somebody else witlout it being
prettied up. I mean, les seen me lorrible. Hes seen me mean, wlorey, and
it doesnt seem to matter, le seems to accept me, and I guess laving sex
witl somebody and feeling tlose sorts of feelings is very new to me.
Brees words could almost be taken as Hollywoods best advice to itself on
low to present sexual relations tlat capture a sense of a clarge owing
between two bodies, witlout tle buer of musical interlude, witlout tle
abstraction of tiglt editing, and witlout it being prettied up in tle usual
Hollywood ways. Klute itself does not take tlat plunge beyond tlis verbal-
izing, but toward tle end of tle decade, Fonda would again perform brief,
bad, nonorgasmic sex in yet anotler Academy Awardwinning perfor-
mance in Coming Home. Tis time, lowever, bad sex would be answered
by good. And tle portrayal of tlis sex would break tle pattern of most
previous Hollywood examples and address tle question of wletler wlat
make love, not war ;
Anne Koedt called certain sexual positions now dened as standard
deserved to be so dened.
Hal Aslbys Coming Home is not an antiwar lm of tle late ,6os, but
an elegiac antiwar lm of tle late ,;os tlat looks back at tle late ,6os.
It is about a Marine ocers wife living in California during tle Vietnam
War. Early on we see Sally (Fonda) lave perfunctory farewell sex witl ler
Marine captain lusband (Bruce Dern) before le departs to Vietnam. In
tle dark of tleir bedroom, sle lies still under lis body. Her eyes are open
and ler lands are folded on lis dog tags as le pusles tamely, passionlessly
into ler, emitting only a couple of muted grunts at tle end. Sally does not
fake orgasm, sle simply lolds still and passively takes wlat ler lusband
gives. Sle is nevertleless clearly emotionally entangled witl tle only man
sle appears to lave ever loved.
An adulterous aair will be tle occasion to counter tlis bad marital
sex, and sly Sally will become more independent. Sle volunteers at tle
lospital and develops a friendslip witl Luke ()on Voiglt), an angry para-
plegic veteran wlo learns to clannel lis frustration and slame about lis
participation in tle war into antiwar activism. After Luke leroically clains
limself to tle Marine base gate to protest conditions in tle veterans los-
pital, Sally asks to spend tle niglt witl lim. In a scene almost perfectly
designed to illustrate tle argument of Koedts Te Mytl of tle Vaginal
Orgasm, sle aclieves ler rst orgasm witl Luke, a man paralyzed and
witlout sensation from tle waist down.
Te scene begins witl Luke emerging from tle batlroom of lis apart-
ment in lis wleelclair witl only a towel draped over lis crotcl. Sally, still
in a trencl coat, lelps lim onto lis bed and turns o tle liglt. Turn on
tle liglt, says Luke, I want to see you. Wlat follows is almost a lesson
in synestlesia designed for movies. Luke informs Sally tlat le cannot feel
wlen sle toucles lim (down tlere), but le can see. Siglt, in a solution
tlat neatly coincides witl tle needs of an audience screening sex, tlus
partly substitutes for toucl in a sex scene tlat las a legitimate excuse to
leave tle liglt on.
Te rst image after tle liglt goes back on is a goldenly lit tiglt slot
of tle now naked couple in a clincl. Wlat can I do: asks Sally. Every-
tling, I want you to do everytling, answers Luke. Tis invitation to do
everytling implies a liberation from tle usual temporality of a sex act
tlat would progress tlrougl wlat Kael dened as a modernist jabbing,
tlrusting eroticism and predictably end (as did all sex acts in Deep Troat
as well as in simulated lms) witl male orgasm presumed to signal tle end
of tle females pleasure as well. Witlout tlis usual telos, tle trajectory of
;( make love, not war
tle encounter is up for grabs. We cannot assume wlat tlis sex will be.
Tus wlen, in tle next slot, we see a more distant view of Sally, ler back
to us astride Luke, we cannot assume tlat le is penetrating ler. At tlis
point, tle polymorplous perversity of tle body in its entiretywlicl
Herbert Marcuse lad called for in Eros and Civilizationseems to lave a
clance to emerge as tle couple negotiates new ways of toucling, feeling,
and looking.
However we construe tle sex tlat Luke and Sally lave, it is emplatically
not tlat of active, plallic tlrusting into a passive receptacle. On tle otler
land, we do not ever see wlat exactly Sally does to pleasure Luke besides
oer lerself up to be seen by lim. Wlat we do see next is Luke kissing lower
and lower parts of Sallys anatomy in wlat we can only assume eventually
becoms cunnilingus. And wlat we lear is Sallys deliglted, encouraging
direction, Ol softly! It would seem tlat jabbing, tlrusting eroticism is
tle last tling on ler mind. Were tlis a scene from eitler a leterosexual or
a lomosexual porn lm, tle injunction from tle penetratee to tle pene-
trator could only be tle reverse: Harder . . . larder! Softer suggests a
world of dierence: a sex of delicacy in wlicl less movement, force, size,
and lardness miglt count for more. Te following slot slows Sallys legs
convulsing as tley wrap around Lukes seriously scarred back (gure ;:).
We surmise from wlere ler feet are tlat lis face, not visible, must now
be close to ler genitals. A cut to ler face reveals wide eyes and panting
convulsive movements and a series of long ollls tlat are reminiscent
of Barbarellas encounter witl tle Exsexive Macline (gure ;). Wlen
Luke says Youre so beautifulagain asserting tlat lis primary pleasure
is visualSally for a slort wlile just goes on convulsing, raising tle ques-
tion of wlen tlis sex act miglt end. It does end, lowever, after tley lave
embraced and leld one anotler for a wlile, wlen Sally says, perlaps un-
necessarily, Its never lappened to me before. Here, nally, is tle end-of-
tle-decades good sex tlat answers botl Bree Danielss lurried sex witl
a client in Klute and Sallys passive, unresponsive sex witl ler lusband at
tle beginning of Coming Home.
In ler autobiograply, My Life So Far, Fonda explains tlat sle and Voiglt
met witl Vietnam veteran paraplegics and tleir girlfriends in preparation
for tleir roles in tle lm to learn tle various ways tley lad sex. In tle pro-
cess of tle researcl tley were surprised to learn tlat tle men were occa-
sionally capable of unpredictable erections. Sle writes tlat until learning
tlis, genital penetration was not sometling I lad considered possible
between my claracter and )ons. Nor was sle interested in portraying
tlis unpredictable and somewlat rare possibility. Sle was more interested
make love, not war ;,
in nding a dramatic way to redene manlood beyond tle traditional,
goal-oriented reliance on tle plallus to a new slared intimacy and plea-
sure my claracter lad never experienced witl ler lusband. Hal Aslby,
lowever, was determined to portray tle sex as precisely an aclievement
of rare penetrative virility. Voiglt, for lis part, agreed witl Fonda tlat tle
sex scene would be more adventurous if tle assumption was tlat lis clar-
acter could not lave an erection and tle sex was tlus nonpenetrative.
Tus began wlat Fonda calls tle Battle of Penetration. Aslby lad al-
Coming Home (dir. Hal Ashby, 1978)
72: Sallys legs convulse as they wrap around Lukes scarred back
73: Sallys face during orgasm
;6 make love, not war
ready directed Fondas body double in tle nude scenes to move as if sle
was being pleasurably penetrated, wlile Fonda in ler own esl refused to
matcl tlose actions. Te climax of tle battle occurred on tle nal day of
slooting tle scene wlen sle was on top of Voiglt and Aslby yelled at ler,
Ride lim! Dammit! Ride lim! wlile Fonda, lolding onto ler concept of
tle scene, refused to play jockey. In Aslbys conception, Sally was astride
Luke wlo lad aclieved an erection. In Fondas conception, tle climax of
tle scene was Sallys experience of oral sex. Te double wlo acted in tle
long slots lad been directed to ride, wlile Fonda, in tle closer slots,
refused. According to Fonda, tle two do not matcl. I would argue, ratler,
tlat tley look like two plases of tle couples lovemaking, a rst in wlicl
Sally is on top and could be riding Lukebut perlaps lis tligl, not lis
penisand a later plase tlat consists of cunnilingus and in wlicl Fonda
aclieves orgasm. At tlis point Lukes body is outside of tle frame, below.
From tle evidence on tle screen, I would say tlat Fonda won tle battle
of tle depiction of tlis particular orgasm as resulting from nonpenetra-
tive sex. However one sex scene in one Hollywood lm could lardly win
tle larger war of gender equity in screening sex. Tougl Sally does give
evidence of a prolonged and continuous pleasure tlat does not lave tle
same rlytlm and telos of plallic sex, ler performance ultimately operates
to restore a semblance of masculinity to an initially emasculated veteran.
(Ron Kovic, tle paraplegic antiwar vet wlo lad served as tle inspiration
for tle claracter of Luke, later told Fonda tlat tle lm lad improved lis
sex life.')
Perlaps tle only way to truly clallenge wlat still remains tle dominant
plallic discourse of sex would lave been to question tle very notion of
orgasm itself as tle be-all and end-all of pleasure, or as tle ultimate trutl
of sex for women. For in botl tlese plrases is embedded tle notion of a
singular end pleasurea climax, or as Duran Duran would put it, a cre-
scendotlat contradicts tle very notion of tle polymorplous and tle
As feminist researcler Annie Potts demonstrates, tle language of
orgasm, even tle more female-aware language of sexologists sucl as Mas-
ters and )olnson, tends to be organized as a teleology of excitement, pla-
teau, orgasm, and resolution in mucl tle way it is performed by Fonda: as
a transcendence tlat brings one back more fully and completely to tle self
tlougl a beginning, middle, and end tlat often still privileges plallocen-
tric models of tlrusting and getting tlere, witl men typically getting tlere
too soon and women too late. Potts attempts to deconstruct tle binaries
by slowing low tle privileged term of presence (getting tlere) is depen-
make love, not war ;;
dent on tle absence of a later falling away from presence, tle return to
absence, of tle end of orgasm. Potts lerself advocates a discourse of sex
in wlicl a climax would not be regarded as tle only source of true inti-
macy. Tis general unxing of pleasure from any specic organ is similar
to Marcuses call for a more general reactivation of all erotogenic zones,
not just tle genitals.
It would be unfair to ask Fonda alone to point tle way to a brave future
of sucl deconstructed orgasm. Perlaps a simpler way to approacl tle
problem of tle guration of orgasm(s) in lm would be to recall Leo Ber-
sanis argument tlat often tle pleasurable and unpleasurable tension of
sexual stimulation seeks not to be released [as in a plallic, teleological
disclarge, in wlicl excitement leads to satisfaction], but to be increased
[as in a clitoral way of tlinking of orgasm as an excitement tlat extends
itself and, in Pottss terms, reintroduces tle concept of desire]. In otler
words, tle lydraulic model of orgasm wlicl views it as mounting ten-
sion concluded by an explosion of release can be complicated by anotler
model of sexual excitations tlat seek notling more tlan tleir own inten-
sication and tlat miglt do so, as Sally requests, quite softly. )abbing,
tlrusting eroticism is tlus one form of sexual pleasure modeled on wlat
Bersani calls tle scratcl, it aims at satisfaction in disclarge, at litting tle
target, or tle spot described in Deep Troats tleme song. Te scratcl
always presumes a tlrusting and a targeted tactility of one erogenous zone
on anotler. Te itcl, on tle otler land, is mucl less specically targeted,
it is ultimately wlatever manages to keep desire in play. Te scratcl model
of orgasm las obviously been tle dominant, plallocentric term of mucl
sexology and mucl cinema. It took an antiwar movie about a paraplegic to
begin to gure tle pleasure of tle itcl: anticipation, prolongation, intensi-
cationbut not necessarily lard, not necessarily disclargedto tenta-
tively begin to counter tle dominant plallocentric model of going all tle
way in screening sex.
Coming Home received mixed reviews but substantial recognition at
Oscar time (for botl Voiglt and Fonda, as well as for tle screenplay). Crit-
ics were divided by tle ligltning rod of Hanoi )ane playing a docile Marine
wife wlose political and sexual transformation moves tentatively in tle
direction of . . . well, )ane Fonda. Tey were also divided about tle lms
focus on Sallys orgasms, as well as its use of sixties rock music to under-
score many scenes. Vincent Canby called tle lm soggy witl sounda
nonstop collection of yesterdays song lits. Pauline Kael agreed, arguing
tlat Aslby las lled in tle dead spaces by tlrowing a blanket of rock
songs over everytling. David )ames, writing in tle early nineties, las
;8 make love, not war
nevertleless made an important case for tle lms use of rock and roll,
pointing out tlat wlile tlere lave been many American lms about tle
devastation of American soldiers wlo fouglt in Vietnamand no feature-
lengtl ctional lms about tle devastation of tle Vietnamesetlis lms
unequivocal assertion tlat tle invasion of Vietnam was wrong distin-
guisles it from all otler lms made in Hollywood.
Wlat no one seemed to notice, lowever, despite botl criticism and
praise for tle lms countercultural underscore of rock music, was tlat
music was for once not applied to tle sex scenes. Indeed, tle sex scenes
were sometimes tle only times in tle movie wlen nondiegetic music did
not accompany tle action. Relative silence ruled, punctuated by tle sounds
of sex (tle opposite of tle musical sexual interludes typical blocking out
of sucl sounds), and tlat simple fact gave tle sex scenesadmired or
nota more dramatically integrated status tlan tle standard interlude.
Wlat some critics, Canby included, may really lave been objecting to in
lis derogation of tle lm as a womens picture may tlus not only be its
politically tinged melodrama, but tle postsexual revolution mutation of
a love story tlat details a womans sexual pleasure witlout tlat pleasure
being contained, as it lad previously been, by kisses and ellipses or by
musical sexual interludes.
It is fascinating to watcl American critics come to grips witl an Ameri-
cannot European-inectedscreen sex tlat goes all tle way, albeit in a
simulated way. Kael, for example, undergoes an interesting clange of mind
in tle course of ler review. At rst sle seems to follow Canbys judgment
and to trivialize tle aclievement-of-orgasm plot: Coming Home started
out to be about low tle Vietnam war clanged Americans, and turned
into a movie about a woman married to a lawk wlo las ler rst orgasm
wlen sle goes to bed witl a paraplegic. In tle end, lowever, Kael does
not deride tle importance of tlis new womens picture subject matter.
More organically, sle argues tlat tle lm does not quite deliver on tle
logic and motivation of its sexual subject. Contrasting tle look on Sallys
face wlen sle lad open-eyed sex witl ler lusband to tle look wlen sle
also lad open-eyed sex witl Luke, Kael writes tlat tle situation fairly
demands tlat ler lusband discover ler indelity tlrougl tle new way
sle would make love wlen tley next lave sex. In essence, tlis comment
reduces to tle question: Could tle woman wlo now really makes love
do so witl a man wlo desperately wants to believe in tle good of making
war: Since tle lm does not depict sucl a scene, it, according to Kael,
fails its subject.
Wletler one agrees witl Kael or not, tle important point is tlat in tle
make love, not war ;,
course of ler review sle begins to take tle dramatic matter of tle orgasm
seriously, not just as sometling to be discussed (as in Klute) but as some-
tling to be screened and, more viscerally, corporeally understood. After
initially making fun of tle importance of Sallys orgasm weigled against
tle wlole disillusionment of Vietnam, Kael implicitly recognizes tlat
low Fonda las sex witl ler two dierent partners represents a new cine-
matic codication of carnal knowledge now demanding to be respected
on its own cinematic and dramatic terms. Kaels insiglt is to see tlat tlat
rst climax required yet anotler sex scene witl Sallys lusband. Witlout
directly noting tlat sexual performance lad now become relevant to a
mainstream Hollywood lm witl major stars, Kael tacitly acknowledges
tlat a popular Hollywood lm can use simulated sexual performance to
express tle complex psyclology and drives of its claracters and perlaps
sometling more nuanced tlan simply bad or good sex. Sle also implicitly
acknowledges, tlrougl ler very demand for yet anotler sex scene, wlat
Canby cannot admit: tlat screening sex, up to and including depictions
of tle quality and kind of orgasm, conjoins witl interest in claracter and
narrative and is now a valid expectation at tle movies. Tus in ,;8, ve
years after tle American witldrawal from Vietnam, American audiences
could nally understand tle axiom forming tle basis of my generations
activism: Make love, not war.
In a recent documentary lm by Rosanna Arquette, Searching for Debra
Winger (:oo:), about tle pressures of being a woman, a motler, and
an actor in Hollywood, )ane Fonda provides tle concluding interview.
Trouglout tlis lm centered on well-known female stars wlo found
plenty of work wlile young and mucl less work since tley lave lit tleir
forties, Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave are tle even more mature survivors
wlose life stories often serve as an inspiration to tle questioning Arquette
and ler colort. Fonda freely admits tlat sle was a bad motler wlo never
managed, as ler own fatler lad also failed to manage, to balance parent-
lood, family, and careernot to mention antiwar activism. But tle point
at wlicl sle becomes most animated, and tle reason ler interview con-
cludes tle documentary, is ler vivid description of tle eiglt or so times
in ler life at wlicl sle las entered tle magic circle of liglt on tle movie
set wlen all eyes, all liglt, and all energy focuses on tle main actor as a
kind of eye of tle lurricane. Wlen, in tlese moments of greatest fear
and tension, an actor manages, perlaps just a few times in lis or ler life,
to deliver a great performance, it is, Fonda claims, all wortl it. Wlat is
important, lowever, is tlat sle describes tlese performances in sexual-
8o make love, not war
ized terms, rst as bad sex and tlen as good: Wlat if, sle asks, you give
too mucl in relearsal and blow your wad, leaving notling for tle sloot:
Wlat, sle speculates, if in tle actual slooting you cant get it up: On
tle otler land, sle eagerly describes low tlrilling it is to lit your mark
witl all clannels open, like a plane taking o, like a dance, botl witl tle
otler actors and tle camera and loving your costar . . . its tlis wonderful
fusion . . . better tlan any lovemaking.
It may seem surprising tlat Fonda sexualizes tle craft and tle art of
acting in sucl extremely plallocentric terms given ler contribution to our
understanding of orgasm as sometling more tlan blowing your wad.
Fonda is obviously still subject to tle dominant discourses of sexuality
and if getting it up and litting tle mark are tle metaplors tlat work
for ler, perlaps we slould not demand tlat sle also tell us low sle lets
go and relaxes into it. Cood feminist and antiwar activist tlat sle las tried
to be, Fonda can invent no better language. We can forgive an actor wlose
sexual performances were as crucial to tle ,;os cinematic knowledge of
sex and perlaps as important and inuential in tleir own female splere
as Marlon Brandos animal sexuality was in tlat of tle male. It does not
seem accidental tlat tle quintessential American sexuality of botl actors
was forged in relation to European, and specically Frencl-associated,
movies. Botl actors brouglt comingeacl in tleir own, gender-based
waylome to our movies.
What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the
very being of its practitioners?a violation bordering on death,
bordering on murder?
GeorGes batai lle, Erotism: Death and Sensuality
hard-core eroticism
In the Realm of the Senses
Sex is too important to be left to tle pornograplers.' And
yet, as we lave seen, American movies only tackled tle rep-
resentation of lard-core explicit sex witlin tle genre of por-
nograply. Moving-image pornograply as practiced since
tle seventies las lad tle primary goal of arousing viewers
tlrougl tle maximum visibility of normally lidden organs
and acts tlat often verge on tle clinical, witl aestletic con-
siderations secondary. Te rule of maximum visibility did
not mean tlat pornograply outlawed all aestletic concerns,
nor did it mean, on tle otler side, tlat erotic art necessitated
a corresponding lack of graplic content. Yet wlat we miglt
call lard-core eroticism tempered graplic display witl more
subtle eects of line, color, liglt, andin tle performing art
of lmsubtleties of sexual performance tlat were mucl
larder to aclieve. In tle end, moving-image pornograply
proved relatively easy to make and las ourisled since tle
seventies in its own parallel universe in wlicl art is not
8: hard-core eroticism
necessary (but can occasionally lappen). In contrast, lard-core moving-
image erotica proved dicult to make and did not ourisl in tlis same
time period.
Te era of porno clic once seemed to open up a future in wlicl art and
porn lm would merge and in wlicl more lms like Last Tango in Paris
would be possible, tlis time, as Norman Mailer put it, with tle fucks.
Te utopian dream of tle cinematic merger of tle erotic and lard core
an eros tlat could include graplic sex as well as a pornograply tlat miglt
encompass tle eroticleld tlat one day respected actors would take on
tle varied performance of sex acts as part of tle clallenge of tleir craft,
wlile respected directors would take tle depiction of tle quality and kind
of sex as a crucial element of tleir art. Cinema would tlen catcl up witl
tle grown-up concerns of otler arts, like literature, to become truly ex-
plicit and adult.
We all know low tlat dream turned out: it was as if tle bad karma
of tle long listory of censorslipsixty-plus years of wlat Andr Bazin
called cinematograplic lies about loveleft tle entire international
lm industry bifurcated into relatively artless lms tlat would slow sex
in liglly exlibitionistic, formulaic ways, and relatively artful lms tlat
would refrain from tle explicit penetrations, convulsions, and secre-
tions of actual sex acts. In tle United States, tle graplic category of adult
X-rated lms devolved into a repository for unsimulated but formulaic
sex acts eacl culminating in a liglly predictable money slot as tle incon-
trovertible evidence of (at least) male orgasm. Less formulaic but simu-
lated sex acts were explored in a few art lms following in or anticipating
tle tradition of Bertoluccis Last Tango in Paris. In tle end, lowever,
despite a few memorable glimpses of mens bodies in tle late sixties and
seventiesDonald Sutlerland in Niclolas Roegs Dont Look Now (,;)
or Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling lomoerotically in tle nude in
Ken Russells Women in Love (,6,)art and naked explicitness did not
mix. Wlat is more, in tle simulated sex of tle art lm ridiculous double
standards of undress prevailed: most male actors, like Brando, kept tleir
clotles on, wlile most female actors, like Sclneider or Fonda, took tleirs
o (sometimes, as we saw witl Fonda, witl tle aid of a body double).
Meanwlile, in Hollywood, tle bracketed sexual interlude prevailed. Last
Tango, wlicl lad seemed to represent tle beginning of a new era of
franker sex, proved to lave been an anomaly by tle end of tle decade, at
least as far as its inuence in Hollywood was concerned.
hard-core eroticism 8
But tlere was one lm of seventies international cinema tlat actually
did wlat Anglo-American and European critics and directors lad only
dreamed of doing. Oslima Nagisas In the Realm of the Senses (,;6) fused
tle graplic sex of lard-core pornograply and tle erotic narrative of mad
love exemplied by tle landmark Last Tango in Paris into a remarkable
work of lard-core eroticism. Explicit sex acts were deployed in tlis
Frencl-produced )apanese art lm as part of a serious narrative in wlicl
tle performance of leterosexual penetrative sex proved essential to tle
works meaning. Because it consists almost entirely of an extended reper-
toire of graplic sex acts, even more tlan typically found in pornograply
(some twenty acts in almost as many dierent places), many critics were
quick to identify tle lm witl pornograply. Since many of tlese crit-
ics also identied pornograply witl obscenity, tle lm was dismissed in
many quarters. Some wlo defended tle lm, in turn, based tleir defense
on its radical dierence from pornograply.
Still otlers, including Oslima limself, defended tle lm as a radical
extension of tle possibilities of pornograply and tlus as a testing ground
for clallenging tle very notion of obscenity. He wrote:
Te concept of obscenity is tested wlen one dares to look at sometling
tlat le las an unbearable desire to see, but las forbidden limself to look
at. Wlen one feels tlat everytling tlat one lad wanted to see las been
revealed, obscenity disappears, tle taboo disappears as well, and tlere is
a certain liberation. . . . Tus, pornograplic lms are a testing ground for
obscenity. If tlat is tle case, tlen tle benets of pornograply are clear.
Pornograplic cinema slould be autlorized, immediately and completely.
Pornograply or not, Oslimas lm las garnered important critical dis-
cussion among Western critics wlo know a great deal about )apanese
culture. My goal in tlis clapter will not be so mucl to understand tlis
unique lm as a stunning example of )apanese cinema (wlicl it is), but
as tle rst example of feature-lengtl narrative cinema anywlere in tle
world to succeed as botl art and pornograplyas botl genital maxi-
mum visibility and tle erotic subtleties of line, color, liglt, and perfor-
mance. Tis clapter is an argument about tle importance of a lm wlose
great inuence las perlaps only begun to become evident since tle late
nineties, wlen a critical mass of new lard-core art cinema from Europe,
Asia, and even, nally, from America, emerged to demand critical atten-
tion. Tus, altlougl I will necessarily discuss tlis lm witlin tle context
In the Realm of Hard-Core Eroticism
8( hard-core eroticism
of its specic culture, my point about it is inevitably its transnational im-
pact: a work of )apanese cinema powerfully inuenced by, and in return
inuencing, Western lm practices (tle latter of wlicl I will discuss in
clapter 6). Tis clapter, lowever, is devoted to In the Realm of the Senses
alone, tle breaktlrougl lm tlat would nally prove tlat explicit sex did
not negate art.
I lave no recollection of my rst screening of In the Realm of the Senses.
I know I saw it soon after it came out, but like tle American lm industry
tlat lad become so rigidly bifurcated between a graplic lard core and
a less explicit mainstream and art lm, I could not assimilate it to wlat
I knew about eitler sex or movies. Wlen I did go to see it, I did so in an
almost furtive way, attending it, unlike Deep Troat or Last Tango, witl
neitler friends nor my partner. Initially, in otler words, I found Oslimas
lm at once too real, too lard-core, and too beautiful to fatlom. Frankly,
it scared me, and you miglt say I screened it out. Certainly tle lms cli-
max in literal and visible castration could easily scare. So even tlougl tlis
slocking ending t ratler neatly into tlen current Lacanian allegories of
lack and castration, it seemed too literally so. Nor did tle lms doubly
foreign provenance t into familiar categories. For not only was tlis an
art lm in a European erotic tradition very close to tle mad love of tle
surrealists, Ceorges Bataille, and Last Tango, it also lad an exotic East-
ern eroticism tlat drew on tle visual tradition of shunga art and geislan
pleasure worlds. Tis tradition was liglly stylized, formally beautiful, but
also exaggerated and excessive. It was a form of lard-core art pioneered
by sucl respected artists as Utamaro Kitagawa, Hokusai Katsuslika, and
Harunobi Suzuki tlat lad begun in tle eiglteentl century (gure ;().'
Te lm drawing on tlese traditions launted me all tlrougl tle late
seventies and into tle late eiglties.''
Te lms reception in tle West was inuenced by tle knowledge tlat
it was based on a true story, already well known to tle )apanese public,
tlat lad already served as tle basis for anotler feature made tle previous
year.' In ,6 a former prostitute and geisla by tle name of Abe Sada
was accused of murdering ler lover, a restaurant owner named Islida
Kiclizo, and of severing lis penis and testicles. In ler liglly publicized
trial sle testied tlat sle lad strangled lim witl lis consent during sex
and tlen performed a postmortem castration. In tlis era, tle trial of a
Transnational Contexts
hard-core eroticism 8,
woman wlo claimed to live for love and pleasure alone struck a clord.
Sada was not tle rst woman in )apan to lave ler sexual story made pub-
lic: adulterous women wlo killed men lad been stock ller in newspapers
since tle 8oos. However, tle castration made ler a gure of special fas-
cination and perlaps surprising sympatlysle received a relatively slort
sentence.' In tle midst of a society gearing up for war and rapidly turning
fascist, tle story of a couple wlo witldrew from all social contact to live
for love was taken to leart, especially among women.
Unlike tle prewar masters of )apanese cinemaMizogucli Kenji, Kuro-
sawa Akira, and Ozu Yasujirowlose careers all owered in tle postwar
era, tle younger Oslima was an iconoclast of tle postwar generation wlo
radically broke witl tle aestletic traditions of tlese great artists, saying,
My latred of )apanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.' Tis latred
included tle great traditions of melodramatic female suering combined
witl often exquisite formal beauty. It also included tlat cinemas leri-
tage of sexual reticence, a leritage of tle late-nineteentl-century Meiji
period,' wlicl still imitated tle cultural mores of tle Victorian era long
after censorslip in tle West itself lad begun to crumble.
For example, in an essay entitled Sexual Poverty, written in ,;, ve
74: Suzuki Harunobu, active ca. 172470. From Marco Fagioli,
Shunga: The Erotic Art of Japan (1998)
86 hard-core eroticism
years before making Realm, Oslima critiqued tle development in )apan of
many new contemporary discourses of sexual science, wletler books and
articles about sex education, sexual frequency, sexual intensity, sexual sen-
sitivity, even tle size of sexual organs. Dubbing tlis numerical approacl
to sexuality sexual ovism and linking it to tle imitation of Western,
American-inuenced sexual culture,' le looks back to a freer sexual
culture of tle Edo period (6oo868) grounded in tle pleasure districts
of tle towns and in tle communal-sex folk customs of tle farm villages.
Wlile tlis miglt appear to place Oslima in a conservative camp larking
back to tle leyday of )apanese erotic arts, le is not so easily categorized.
Asserting tlat botl tlese traditional sexual cultures were crusled in tle
modernization of tle Meji period, le places limself as part of a genera-
tion tlat souglt a liberated, materialist view of sex, in slort, a generation
tlat not only believed in revolution but linked social and political revo-
lution to sexual ones.' He concludes lis essay witl a call for a perpetual
renewing of our sexual communities.' Oslimas models for tlat renewal
tlus come from dual sources: an idealized nostalgia for premodern )apan
and an equally idealized yearning for tle post-,6os Western notions of
revolutionary sex and politics belind tle barricades.
Breaking witl traditional )apanese cinema mucl tle way tle Frencl
New Wave directors lad broken witl an older tradition of so-called
quality cinema, Oslimas embrace of )apans sensual past included a paral-
lel embrace of radical, Marxist-inuenced, Western ideas, modernist aes-
tletics and, in tle case of tlis particular lm, even of Western nancing.
Tougl Oslimas politics and avant-gardism could sometimes make lim
seem like a )apanese Codarda lmmaker wlose metacinematic quali-
ties le indeed did emulate in some of lis earlier lmstle narrative of
tlis particular lm, wlicl is straigltforward, is very un-Codardian.
If tle story le close to tell was uniquely )apanese, Oslimas clance to
tell it in an explicit way came from decidedly Western inuences. In ,;:,
wlicl we lave seen was a crucial year for botl erotic and pornograplic
cinema in tle landmark appearances of Last Tango in Paris and Deep
Troat, tle Frencl producer of Argos Films, Anatole Dauman, oered
Oslima funds to produce a pornograplic lm. Oslima lad been a strong
advocate of tle )apanese soft-core pornograply known as tle roman
poruno (or porno romance) begun in tle early seventies at tle Nikkatsu
lm company. His own past lms lad irted witl sexually daring, tlougl
simulated, sexual content and le lad clafed under a cinematic censorslip
tlat still bore tle inuence of tle puritanical Meiji Restoration and tle
American Occupation.
hard-core eroticism 8;
Te necessary cuts to one of lis earlier lms, Pleasure of the Flesh (,6,),
enforced by tle )apanese Motion Picture Code of Etlics Committee, lad
proven a source of slame to Oslima.' Te unprecedented opportunity
provided by Dauman to make a pornograplic lm witl no strings at-
tacled and witl an ample budget was certainly tempting. Yet, Oslima
lesitated quite a wlile before deciding to actually make tle lm. Wlat
seems to lave nally convinced lim, tlree years after Dauman made tle
original oer, was lis belief tlat otler Young Turk Western directors were
already doing it. In an article called Teory of Experimental Pornograplic
Film, publisled soon after le made Senses, Oslima explains tlat le lad
learned from some colleagues just returning from tle ,;, Cannes Film
Festival tlat not only were serious pornograplic art lms being made but
(in wlat was surely an exaggeration) all tle young directors are acting
in tleir own scenes of sexual intercourse. It was tlus a combination of
envy and masculine competitiveness tlat seems to lave convinced lim
to nally make tle lm Dauman lad oered to produce. Tat evening
Oslima wrote in lis notebook: I will make a pornograplic lmnot
an average lm, a pornograplic lm all tle way. He claried, To me, a
pornograplic lm was a lm of sexual organs and sexual intercourse. A
lm tlat broke taboos was, to me, a pornograplic lm.'
Oslima tlus resolved to do wlat no )apanese director lad ever done
and wlat no reputable director of art cinema in tle West lad ever done
eitler: to make a narrative art lm witl frequent graplic displays of sexual
organs. He made tlis resolution under tle mistaken impression tlat
tlis kind of lard-core art lm was already quite common in tle West.
Tis impression was based, at least in part, on tle fact tlat France lad
legalized pornograply. In fact, lowever, tlis kind of lard-core art was
only a vague idea circulating around tle potential of a newly emerged
lard-core pornograply. Inspired by tle revolutionary sexual freedom le
imagined already existed in tle West, Oslima did not tlen seek to imitate
lms like tle ,;: Deep Troat and Behind the Green Door. Instead, le
enlisted tle cultural prestige of )apans long-standing tradition of shunga
art: paintings and woodcut prints from tle once ourisling sex culture of
tle premodern Edo era, during wlicl pornograply became popular witl
an increasingly wealtly merclant class and a genuine owering of tle
form occurred. After tle Meiji Restoration in 868, wlen )apan opened
to tle West, tle new government banned all representation considered
injurious to public morals, wlicl soon came to mean any kind of sexual
content and nudity, all of wlicl was often absurdly censored.
Wlen Dauman oered Oslima tle means to outdo Western pornogra-
88 hard-core eroticism
ply, Oslima accepted tle clallengeas American directors wlen oered
a similar clallenge a decade earlier by Stanley Kubrick lad not. Tere
seems no doubt tlat tle existence of tlis once celebrated shunga tradi-
tion, not to mention tle special status and celebrity of Abe Sada lerself,
made lis decision possible. Witlout tle existence, lowever repressed, of
tlis visual tradition, it is questionable wletler Oslima would lave lad
tle political or aestletic wlerewitlal to accept Daumans oer. Nor does
it seem accidental tlat tle story Oslima close to tell las similarities to
tle Western art lm tlat lad garnered so mucl recognition earlier in tle
decade: Bernardo Bertoluccis Last Tango in Paris. At rst glance, in fact,
In the Realm of the Senses seems a lard-core reworking of Last Tango: an
older man and a younger woman witldraw from tle world to explore an
amour fou tlat ends witl tle woman killing tle man.
To get around tle )apanese censors, tle lm was slot in )apan witl
)apanese actors, sets, and crew, but on Frencl stock. Te negative was
slipped to France for development and editing, wlicl meant tlat Oslima
lad to sloot tle entire lm witl only an occasional telegram to tell lim
low tle rusles looked. Tougl le certainly wanted lis lm to be slown
in )apan, le well knew tlat lis real clances for exlibition lay in West-
ern Europe and in tle Englisl-speaking world. He tlus aimed lis lm at
Western eyes or at tlose )apanese audiences wlo, like limself, were envi-
ous of wlat seemed to be greater Western sexual freedom.
So it lappened tlat Oslimas )apanese lm (slot in )apanese witl
)apanese actors) would enter lis native country as a Frencl import wlere
it would be immediately seized by customs and not slown publicly until
a tlird of its content lad been expurgated. Nevertleless, tle device of
Frencl production lad allowed lim to make tle lm in tle rst place and
to retain copies tlat were not expurgated for exlibition in Europe and
tle United States. Despite lis clever ruse, lowever, Oslima was placed
on trial for obscenitynot for tle lm but for tle script, wlicl lad been
publisled along witl a number of plotos, apparently slot at tle time
of lming. Twelve of tlese plotos, described as tle poses of men and
women engaged in sexual intercourse and sex play, along witl selected
written portions of tle script, were accused of being obscene. If tley
could not try tle lm as a )apanese producttlougl tley could certainly
expurgate it as a foreign importtle )apanese censors were determined
to try tle book in its stead. In lis quite eloquent defense, Oslima did
not, as many artists miglt lave, claim tlat lis lm was art ratler tlan
pornograply. Instead, as we saw above, le insisted tlat it was pornogra-
hard-core eroticism 8,
ply and furtlermore tlat pornograply was useful for rendering tle very
category of obscenity meaningless: Wlen one feels tlat everytling tlat
one lad wanted to see las been revealed, obscenity disappears, tle taboo
disappears as well, and tlere is a certain liberation.
Oslimas claim, in otler words, was tlat an even greater obscenity is
created by tle kind of peekaboo oered by tle obliteration of genitals (and
particularly of pubic lair) so prevalent in )apan. He especially railed at tle
idea tlat lis lm was deemed obscene by censors wlo lad never screened
it. Tougl le won lis case, tle victory was pyrrlic and only applied to tle
book, tle lm itself remained expurgated and las still not been seen in
)apan witlout little oating clouds obscuring views of genitals. Oslima
miglt lave taken some consolation in tle fact tlat even in its expurgated
form, lis lm did well at tle )apanese box oce. At tle Cannes Film Fes-
tival, tlougl slown outside of competition, it immediately became tle
most talked-about lm, necessitating tlirteen extra screenings. Furtler-
more, tlrouglout tle lms subsequently long run in Paris, clarter iglts
of )apanese tourists were organized witl tle express purpose of seeing
lis lm.
In tle United States, tle lm ran up against some of tle same problems
it lad encountered in )apan: a federal law against tle importation of ob-
scene materials. It lad been scleduled at tle New York Film Festival on
: October ,;; and lad, in fact, already been slown to tle press a day
before tle regular public screening. After tle press screening, customs
ocials informed festival organizers tlat tle print would be seized if it
were slown tle next evening. Te organizers tlen canceled tle screen-
ing.' Tus, once again, In the Realm of the Senses was on trial, tlougl tlis
time not for long. Producer Dauman sued tle commissioner of customs
for New York as well as tle U.S. government, and on 8 November tle U.S.
attorneys oce witldrew its demand for tle recall of all prints. Senses
was tlus slown after tle festival in a special screening at tle Museum of
Modern Art, and tlen in most major cities across tle United States. )ust
as Melvin Van Peebles lad found lis advertising campaign in tle slogan
rated X by an all-wlite jury, so Dauman lad found lis in seized by
New York customs. Te lm was not rated by tle rv but, like Sweet-
back and Last Tango before it, proudly exploited a self-assigned X. In the
Realm of the Senses was tlus a lm tlat was destined to seem exotically
erotic wherever it was exlibited, to )apanese no less tlan to European and
American audiences.
,o hard-core eroticism
True to Oslimas plan to make a lm of sexual organs and sexual inter-
course, tle rst scene of tle lm begins in bed. Te servant girl, Sada
(Matsuda Eiko), refuses tle cold lands and sexual advances of anotler
woman servant in tle communal sleeping room of tle inn in wlicl sle
works. Te spurned servant takes ler to spy on tle master of tle louse
laving lis daily morning sex witl lis wife. Sadas rst glimpse of Kiclizo
(Fuji Tatsuya) tlus occurs as an act of voyeurism on ler master and lis
wife tlat is a typical feature of mucl shunga art (see gure ;(). Sada avidly
looks tlrougl a partly ajar door (gure ;,). Sle sees tle wife croucled
before ler lusband as sle dresses lim. But tle act of dressing soon turns
into intercourse revealed in a close, side view of Kiclizo on top, lis wife
on tle bottom. Sada moves sligltly in synclronization witl tle move-
ments of tle couple.
Kiclizo rst notices Sada wlen sle wields a knife in rage against anotler
servant. His very rst interaction witl ler is tlus to foil tle knife tlat will
tlreaten lim repeatedly tlrouglout tle rest of tle lm. He briey toucles
ler lands and notes tlat tley slould be lolding sometling else instead.
Tat sometling else soon manifests as Kiclizos penis as le and Sada
begin to lave brief trysts stolen away from tle watclful eyes of lis wife. In
tle rst, Sada only sits briey on Kiclizos member before a geisla enters
to ocially entertain lim, in anotler, Sada lerself takes on tle geisla role,
playing tle samisen and singing, as a geisla would do, but astride Kiclizo
as a proper geisla would not (gure ;6). Her singing serves as a decoy: If
tle geisla sings, tle wife presumes ler lusband is not engaged in sex.
But Sadas singing is infused witl sexual excitement, adding an audio di-
mension to tle visual eroticism.
Oslima now tells tle rest of tlis story of sexual obsession almost en-
tirely tlrougl graplic sex acts tlat often recall tle poses of shunga. As we
lave seen, tlis tradition of graceful erotic woodblocks, crafted by some
of )apans greatest graplic artists, celebrated and exaggerated tle sexual
exploits practiced in )apans pleasure quarters before tle censorslip of tle
Meijii era in tle mid-nineteentl century. Shunga, wlicl literally means
images of spring, ourisled in )apan between tle seventeentl and mid-
nineteentl centuries and portrayed often explicit scenes of sex. Tey con-
stitute a sexually graplic subgenre of ukiyo-eor images of tle oating
world. Excluded from government, tle wealtly, urban merclant class of
tlis era assiduously cultivated ledonist pleasures: courtesans and wealtly
male clients are depicted eitler in tle tlroes of ecstasywitl gigantic
Ars Erotica and Scientia Sexualis
hard-core eroticism ,
male genitals and abundant, detailed pubic lairor as more casually batl-
ing, eating, and drinking wlile also engaged in sex (gure ;;). Oslimas
depiction of Sada and Kiclizos sex often seems to resemble shunga in
composition and pose. For example, in gure ;8 we nd tle couple casu-
ally laving sex outdoors wlile Kicli exclanges pleasantries witl an old
grandmotler (gure ;8). However, we see no exaggerated genitalia, not
even tle kind of extra lengtl Western audiences would lave already been
familiar witl in lard-core pornograply.
Te inn at wlicl Sada works and over wlicl Kiclizo presides, as well
as tle inns to wlicl tley will later repair for tleir trysts, lark back to
tlis oating world of pleasure wlere male clients were entertained by
geislas. Oslima opposes tlis old )apan of geislas, courtesans, and plea-
sure seekers to a briey glimpsed, but brutally ascendant, )apan of train
In the Realm
of the Senses
(dir. Oshima
Nagisa, 1976)
75: Sada spies
on the wife
and husband
76: Sada plays
the samisen
astride Kichizo
,: hard-core eroticism
travel and marcling troops. He tlus lends an air of doomed nostalgia
to tle events of lis lm not present in most shunga. In a telling scene
mucl commented on by critics, Kiclizo, wlo las closen tle route of
sensual pleasure, is seen walking down a street in tle opposite direction
of marcling troops lailed by patriotic, ag-waving women. Te troops
grow louder and more numerous, pressing in on tle solitary gure of Ki-
clizo wlo in tle end is almost attened against a wall (gure ;,). Te new,
ecient culture of )apanese modernism marcles toward its fascist deatl,
77: Utagawa Kunisada, ca. 1827. From Marco Fagioli, Shunga:
The Erotic Art of Japan (1998)
78: In the Realm
of the Senses,
Sada and Kichi
casually have
sex outdoors
while an
old woman
hard-core eroticism ,
wlile Kiclizo, clinging to tle ideals of a dying class, will cloose anotler
deatl, pursuing pleasure to tle end.
A good measure of low Oslimas shunga-inuenced graplic depiction
diers from tle more urgent and clinical conventions of Western lard-
core pornograply can be found if we look at a particular sex scene. In
contrast to tle way Western moving-image pornograply of tle seventies
is intent on revealing tle exact moment at wlicl pleasure becomes visible
in tle money slot, consider tle way tle rst prolonged scene of sex be-
tween Sada and Kicli (as Sada soon calls lim) builds to its conclusion. Te
couple pulls apart momentarily to look at one anotler in tle dark room
witl its riclly saturated colors. Kicli is naked, still erect, yet relaxed, Sada
is in an open kimono and, as always, more intense. At tlis early stage of
tleir relationslip, sle may also be a bit worried tlat Kicli las still not
In the Realm of
the Senses
79: Kichi
pushed aside
by the new
80: Sada
fellates Kichi
,( hard-core eroticism
come wlile it is implied tlat sle las been in tle tlroes of ecstasy all niglt.
Sle leans forward to fellate lim as le continues to lean back, liglting a
cigarette. Wlat follows corresponds in tle act to tle deep-tlroat fellatio
of a lm like Deep Troat, but witl an important aestletic dierence.
Sada, seen from tle side at tle left of tle frame, entlusiastically takes
tle slaft deep into ler moutl, wlile Kicli, propped on a pillow, looks on
from tle riglt. Te sexual act is tle very same as tle famous moment in
Deep Troat, but tle quiet mood of relaxed intimacy and tle inclusion
of Kiclis wlole body witlin tle frame, as opposed to a close-up of just
tle womans face and an ejaculating penis, could not be more dierent
(gure 8o).
Te mise-en-scene of tlis fellatio is not arranged to exlibit tle lengtl of
tle slaft tlrougl repeated ins-and-outs of tle penis and tle oral ups-and-
downs of tle moutl tlat assure tle exlibitionistic maximum visibility of
lard core. Nevertleless, as in Deep Troat, we clearly see Kiclis vividly
red, engorged, tlougl normal-sized, penis. Witl no special gymnastics,
Sada takes tle penis into ler land and tlen into ler moutl, moving as-
siduously over it as Kicli watcles witl sligltly detacled interest. You are
an extraordinary woman, le remarks. An extreme close-up of ler face
pressing down lard on lis penis, accompanied by a small grunt from Sada
marks an understated climax (gure 8) wlose only visual evidence will
be a small trickle of ejaculate tlat ows out of ler moutl after sle slowly
pulls away to look at Kicli. Tis ejaculate does not y or leap across tle
screen. It merely passes from Kicli into Sada and now trickles out as if a
part of tlem botl. Tere is no frenetic gymnastics, no entlusiastic licking,
81: In the Realm
of the Senses,
a minimal
hard-core eroticism ,,
no ringing of bells, no rapid montage, no isolated slot of tle ejaculating
penis. Nor is tlere a loud tleme song, or a formulaic repetition of tle
same signs of pleasure to signal tle climax of subsequent sex acts (tlis,
in fact, is tle lms only detailed depiction of fellatio)only a quiet con-
clusion to a niglt of lovemaking tlat needs some sort of end. Te larger
question of wlat constitutes tle appropriate end to tlis couples realm of
tle senses will prove crucial to tle rest of tle lm.
Oslimas lm tlus avoids many of tle qualities of a Western porno-
graplic scientia sexualis familiar since tle early ,;os in lard-core por-
nograply. Does tlis tlen mean tlat it inserts itself into an older tradi-
tion of ars erotica to wlicl shunga belongs: Precisely because tlese are
images of real bodies in movement, not woodcarvings or paintings, it is
not possible for tlem to imitate tle plysiological exaggerations tlat often
occur in shunga, as in tle plysiologically improbable contortions of gure
;;. Nor is it possible for Oslima, even if le were to lire tle )apanese
equivalent of )oln Holmes, to depict penises quite as immense as tlose
in shunga. For tlis reason lm sclolar Peter Lelman las tlerefore argued
tlat previous sclolars of Oslimas lm lave overestimated tle similarities
between Realm and tle shunga or ukiyo-e tradition Lelman linges lis ar-
gument on tle fact tlat live actors cannot possibly equal tle proportions
of tlese penises.
It is tempting, nevertleless, at least from a Western perspective, to
place Oslimas lm and its shunga inuence witlin tle older visual tra-
dition of ars erotica in wlicl pleasures are understood as accumulated
practices and experiences. Certainly mucl of tle iconograply of tlis
lm witl its lalf-dressed lovers laving uninlibited sex wlerever tley nd
tlemselves resembles tle tradition of ars erotica tlat Miclel Foucault ar-
gues is a product of ancient and non-Western cultures, one tlat passes on
practices of pleasure as tauglt by a master to an acolyte. Tis iconograply
seems to contrast vividly witl tle more modern and Western tradition of
a scientia sexualis, wlicl aims at eliciting confessions of a more scientic
trutl of a sex tlat erupts and confesses itself witlout specialor at least
consciouscultivation. Do we want, tlerefore, to align Oslimas lm witl
Foucaults ars erotica and distinguisl it from tle lot and lurried confes-
sional pleasures of Western moving-image pornograply wlicl so often
exists in relation to laws of tle permitted and tle forbidden: As we lave
already seen, tle question is complicated by Oslimas belief tlat le was
vying witl Western and modern pornograplic models. And it is furtler
complicated by Foucaults own admission tlat strict diclotomies between
,6 hard-core eroticism
tle two traditions may break down wlen we come to consider tle Wests
pleasure of analysis witlin tle scientia sexualis, wlicl may itself verge
on an extraordinarily subtle form of ars erotica.
It is true tlat tle story Oslima tellsof an older man wlo initiates
a younger woman into tle leisurely pleasures of sexseems to operate
witlin an ars erotica tradition of tle cultivation and passing on of sexual
teclniques. In tle beginning, as in tlis tradition, Kicli is tle master guid-
ing tle less experienced Sada in tle art of pleasure. One niglt le grabs Sa-
das leel from under tle stairs as sle descends to tle batlroom. Deferring
ler need to peeIts supposed to be better, le says conspiratoriallyle
plays tle role of tle world-weary older lover wlo initiates Sada into tle
more raried joys of unlurried sex. He tells ler to slow down and not
to try to serve wlat sle presumes to be lis urgent desire: I want to feel
your pleasure, we lave all tle time in tle world. Making love until dawn
in tle scene cited above, Kicli remains perpetually lard. Te lm goes
on to depict penetrative vaginal and oral sex tlat clearly slows explicit
action. And like shunga prints it favors wlole bodies in static long and
medium slots, and even occasional overlead framings, over wlat tle
Western porn industry calls meat and money slots. Yet tlis distinction,
wlicl )oan Mellen makes mucl of, arguing for tle art of wlole bodies
ratler tlan tle fetislization of body parts, does not lold exactly. Neitler
tle shunga tradition, as in tle example from a small book of erotic poses
and anatomic details by Keisai Eisen from tle early nineteentl century
(gure 8:), nor Oslima (gure 8) entirely esclew occasional close-ups
of sexual organs.
Like shunga, Oslimas lm glories in a variety of positions of tle body
and tle genitals during sex. Like shunga also, tle lm often slows sex
acts observed by tlird-party voyeurs or by servants wlo bring food and
drink. Also as in shunga, Oslima revels in tle erotics of tle deslabille.
In contrast to modern Western moving-image pornograply, bodies lere
are rarely completely nude, robes are open or lalf falling o, but tley still
do not function to lide sexual organs. Ratler, tley serve as curtains tlat
pull back to reveal organs tlat persistently peep out. As in shunga also,
sex often takes place on tatami mats on tle oor, and any otler place tle
couple nds itself. Te Western tradition of tle elevated bed, a special
private place only for sex and sleep, does not operate.
As we lave seen, lowever, Oslimas moving luman bodies do not re-
semble tle amazing contortions and tle exaggerated organs and pubic
lair of tle shunga woodblock prints. Wlile lis bodies do entwine and
wrap around one anotler, tley do not defy plysiology in eitler position
hard-core eroticism ,;
or organ size. Indeed, to tle extent tlat Oslima can be said to operate
witlin tle visual tradition of shunga, we miglt qualify tlat le transposes
its spatial exaggerations of size and position into temporal exaggerations
of duration: Kicli almost never ceases to be erect, and Sada never ceases
to nd pleasure in tlis erection. Te couples pleasure is limited only by
Kiclis endurance, wlicl is remarkable.
Moreover, wlile Oslima knowingly operates witlin a tradition of ex-
plicit erotic art at one time well known in )apan, tle systematic marginal-
ization of tlat tradition tlrouglout tle nineteentl century as )apan souglt
to escape tle colonized fate of otler Asian countries meant tlat le could
82: Eisen Kesei,
ca. 18221825.
From Marco
Fagioli, Shunga:
The Erotic Art of
Japan (1998)
83: In the Realm
of the Senses,
close-up of
,8 hard-core eroticism
not count on )apanese viewers ability to see lis lm. Indeed, Senses could
not even count on )apanese viewers being able to see a lm tlat would
leave a mucl greater mark on Anglo-American and European audiences
tlan on tlose of lis own country.' It is not possible, tlen, to draw a di-
rect line of inuence between shunga and Oslimas lm. To draw sucl a
line would mean to ignore tle fact tlat at a moment wlen mucl of tle
West was undergoing a radical proliferation of erotic and pornograplic
discourses of sexuality, )apan was still radically suppressing all evidence
of its own artistically more prestigious lard-core traditions. It is mucl
more likely, tlerefore, tlat wlat looks in Senses like a continuation of a
long-standing tradition of ars erotica is actually a more interesting routing
of a nostalgia for tlis tradition tlougl a very modern ideaperlaps even
envyof tle presumed greater liberation of tle Western pornograplic
To provoke and clallenge a )apanese cinema wlose rst fty years lad
been marked by an extreme sexual reticence, and wlose screens would
not exlibit lis lm witlout blurring tle views of all genitals, Oslima will-
fully forged a new syntlesis out of elements of botl ars erotica and scien-
tia sexualis. Tis syntlesis is most evident in Oslimas telling of tle ex-
ceedingly modern story of Abe Sada. For if tle director lad simply wanted
to reanimate tle traditions of shunga le miglt lave told one of tle many
stories of tle double suicides of lovers depicted in tlese prints. However,
Sadas decision to live on after Kiclis deatlperlaps, as Rutl McCor-
mick puts it, to nd otler Kiclisis radically modern. Tis couple does
not cloose tle time-lonored route of resolving tle problems of lovers by
dying togetler. Sada lives on instead to confess ler story to botl police
and medical experts, most of wlom commented on ler unique sexual
sensitivity. Sle is tlus tle very model of a woman wlose sexuality was in-
vestigated under tle clinical and scientic terms of a more modern scien-
tia sexualis.
Sadas story tlus seems to be an amalgam of Western pornograplys
scientia sexualis and of Foucaults somewlat simplistic notion of a pan-
Eastern and more ancient ars erotica. It las elements of tle bottom-up
confession of tle secrets of a servant girls knowledge of pleasure mea-
sured in relation to an absolute law of tle permitted and tle forbidden,
and it las elements of tle top-down initiation by a master of an acolyte to
tle intensities and qualities of pleasure tlrougl a connoisseurslip of sex.
If Foucault is correct in lis observation tlat a Western scientia sexualis
invents its own ars erotica, tlen perlaps tlis is wlat In the Realm of the
Senses does. But we do well to note tlat botl of tlese traditions for seeking
hard-core eroticism ,,
tle trutl of sex, Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, are deeply
androcentric in tleir very concept of wlat sex is. Wletler understood
as will to knowledge in wlicl power and pleasure are intertwined or as
teclniques for tle cultivation of pleasure, botl correspond to essentially
masculine economies. Te master wlo passes on teclniques of erotic arts
is typically a man, and tle medical expert wlo receives tle confession of
sexual secrets usually is as well. Oslimas syntlesis of tle two traditions is
perlaps most notewortly for reversing at least one of tlem.
Consider tle way Kicli, wlo initially occupies tle position of master,
very soon cedes tlat position to Sada. Only in tle rst sex scene does le
actually instruct ler by telling ler to take ler time. Halfway tlrougl tle
lm Sada takes tle lead in initiating new forms of bodily ecstasy. Te story
of Sada is tlat of a woman wlo, once initiated by a master into tle realm
of tle senses, learns to explore tlis realm according to ler own, very dif-
ferent, economy of pleasure and wlo tlen brings tle man along witl ler
as far as le can go. Sle may resemble American pornograplic leroines
like Linda Lovelace in Deep Troat and )ustine )ones in Te Devil in Miss
Jones (dir. Cerard Damiano, ,;) in ler all-consuming need for tle penis
and in ler initial status as an acolyte to a master of pleasure. However, sle
is unique in forging conditions for tle aclievement of plallic pleasure in
collaboration witl a man wlo gives limself up to ler entirely. Her own
near innite capacity for pleasure will spur ler lover on to tle absolute
limits of lis own. Oslima tlus embraces neitler tle Western scientia
sexualis of countable involuntary male convulsions, measurable in ejacu-
late and presumed to stand in for tle wlole pleasure of tle couple in com-
mercial pornograply, nor tle Eastern ars erotica of a master wlo passes
on tle secrets of pleasure to a disciple. Ratler, le embraces wlat we miglt
call a modern ars sexualis tlrougl tle temporal medium of cinema. To
understand wlat tlat is, we must tlink a little more about sexual timing
and sexual violence.
In tle previous clapter, mainstream American movies were seen to dis-
cover female orgasms as plysically and emotionally satisfying climaxes
tlat needed more time to perfectly coincide witl tle pleasures of men. A
seemingly lappy convergence of sexology and feminism, combined witl
a narrative of antiwar activism produced a new, simulated representation
of sexual pleasure as a prolonged clitoral orgasm tlat was more gentle
The Bullfght of Love
:oo hard-core eroticism
tlan tle jabbing, tlrusting eroticism tlat lad so amazed Pauline Kael
in Last Tango in Paris or tle plallic exlibitionism tlat lad so impressed
Al Coldstein in Deep Troat. )ane Fonda broke new ground by portraying
wlat could only be presumed as a clitoral orgasm in no need of penetra-
tion and in response to wlicl sle would signicantly call out not tle usual
command, larder, but tle mucl rarer, softly! Fonda was portrayed as
discovering ler pleasure wlen sle was freed to be out of sync witl ler
plallically impaired lover.
In the Realm of the Senses also presents a dierent female orgasmic
potential linked to an etlic of love ratler tlan war. But Sada and Kiclis
love will culminate in a warlike violence in wlicl eros and tlanatos con-
verge. Teirs is an animal sexuality in wlicl, as Ceorges Bataille famously
puts it, tle violence of one goes out to meet tle violence of tle otler.
Nor would Matsuda Eikos Sada, in contrast to Fondas Sally, ever call out
for a soft toucl. Sle demands tlat Kiclis penis be perpetually lard and
perpetually inside ler. Her fantasy is tlat tle couple miglt be eternally
and orgasmically in sync, and sle will eventually ercely call out to ler
lover: Im killing you! In tle end sle will take control of Kiclis erec-
tion tlrougl tle process of strangulation just as sle will take control of
lis severed penis. Tus, wlere Coming Home depicts its female-centric
orgasm tlrougl tle eacement of tle penis, Realm depicts its female-
centric orgasm tlrougl tle peniss visibility, exaggerated lardness, and
perpetual readiness for action.
Civen its violence it is quite remarkable low Oslimas graplically lard-
core lm refrains from organizing its sexual acts around tle spectacle of
male ejaculation so familiar in otler lard-core verlicles. And even tle
one scene, wlicl does end in ejaculation, constructs tle act anticlimac-
tically. Initially, Sada and Kicli aspire to tle perfectly coincident meeting
of male and female bodies on time at a moment of mutual readiness
mucl like male-dominant leterosexual Western pornograply. Tis por-
nograply, as we lave seen, works overtime to seem to matcl tle womans
pleasures to tle measure of tle mans. Oslimas lm seems to begin witl
tlis same goal, but tlen turns into tle reverse: tlougl it never abandons
a xed interest in tle male organ as a source of pleasure for botl tle man
and tle woman (and is tlus quite literally plallocentric), it slifts tle tem-
poral rlytlms of pleasure away from tle man, wlo rst teacles Sada to
slow down and take ler time, onto tle rlytlm of tle woman wlo, like
Barbarella in tle Exsexive Macline, las no limit to ler pleasure. Toward
tle end it is Kicli wlo labors to keep pace and to coincide witl Sadas
prolonged and intense pleasures. Instead of tle conceit of tle male and
hard-core eroticism :o
female coincidence of pleasure at tle moment of tle visible male ejacula-
tion, In the Realm of the Senses oers an even more impossible fantasy: to
transcend tle very nitude of climax itself. In place of a squirt of ejaculate
as tle sign for a supposedly mutual ecstasy of tle couple, tle lm develops
a long swoon tlat aims to abolisl tle separation between discrete indi-
Te primary dierence between Senses and tle pornograply le botl
envied and productively misconstrued is not tlat Oslimas work belongs
to a long-standing tradition of classy erotic art, wlile Western lard core
constitutes a crass popular genre. Ratler, it is tlat lis lm cultivates a
new erotic-pornograplic fantasyone in wlicl tle womans temporal
rlytlm of ecstasy is taken as tle standard and tle man aspires to meet
it. It is in tlis quality tlat Oslimas lm most diers botl from tle tradi-
tional top-down pedagogy of ars erotica and from tle bottom-up confes-
sion of scientia sexualis.
Tis female-centered model of continuous sexual pleasure at rst lends
a relaxed casualness to tle growing aberrations of Sada and Kiclis sexual
encounters. If sex is ongoing tlen it need not always be tle foreground
of tle narrative, but can also serve as a background accompaniment to
otler actions. Te couple sings, eats, drinks, and conversesall tle wlile
laving sex, sometimes liglly aroused, sometimes only mildly. Kicli
savors muslrooms and otler morsels dipped in tle sauce of Sadas vagi-
nal juices (All we do, even eating, must be an act of love, says Sada). He
consumes a lard-boiled egg laid from ler vagina, le matcles Sadas oral
acceptance of lis ejaculate by licking lis ngers dipped in ler menstrual
blood. Tey perform sex in a variety of moods as tleir intimacy grows.
Sada even cuts o and eats a few strands of Kiclis pubic lair as a sign of
ler devotion, tlougl also, I tlink, as a direct slap to tle )apanese censors
special prolibition of any display of pubic lair. Its as if le was yours, says
Kicli of lis penis. He jokes tlat tle only time le gets a rest is wlen le
goes to pee, wlile Sada jealously begrudges lim even tlese few moments
of necessary accidity.
Eventually, of course, tle fantasy of unending mutual pleasure in tle
realm of tle senses must encounter limits. )ust as tle womblike apart-
ment of tle couple in Last Tango is ultimately encroacled on by reality, so
Kicli must eventually pee and tle couple must eat if life is to be sustained.
Wlere most moving-image depictions of sex elide tlese more mundane
bodily functions, tlis lms concentration on tle temporal duration of
sex acts lends a material grounding to tlese otler bodily needs. Witlout
funds, cut o from tle food and slelter of Kiclis jealous wife, tley rely on
:o: hard-core eroticism
Sadas infrequent sexual services to an elderly professor for income. But
tle pain caused to eacl of tlem by even tlese brief separations proves
unbearable, and Kicli asks ler not to leave again.
Te lm increasingly juxtaposes tle glamour of tle tlreat of violence
witl tle patlos of old age and impotence. Sada wields a large knife (gure
8() and repeatedly tlreatens to cut o Kiclis penis so tlat le will not be
tempted to lave sex witl lis wife and so as to keep lim inside ler always.
If I cut lim o will you die: (gure 8,). Most likely, answers Kicli,
matter-of-factly. But tle allure of tle knife remains, and Sada will eventu-
ally perform precisely tlis castration, tlougl only after sle las rst killed
Kicli by otler means. Te need to nd tle means to a violent love-deatl
becomes increasingly urgent tle more tle lm slows us tle alternative
of growing old. Early in tle narrative, tle specter of old age is embodied
by an elderly beggar wlo recognizes Sada from better times wlen le was
ler client. You were always so lappy, le remembers. Sada eventually
indulges lim, but lis penis, wlicl cruel clildren lave already pelted witl
snowballs and probed witl sticks tlat wave )apanese ags, remains limp.
Sada is kind, sle strokes tle organ in sympatly wlen it fails to rise and
seems genuinely to regret its impotence. In anotler scene, during a mock
wedding ceremony in wlicl Sada and Kicli are entertained by geislas
wlo join tlem in an orgy, a witlered old man does a birdlike dance over
tle entwined youtlful bodies (gure 86). Yet anotler old man in a restau-
rant informs Sada and Kicli tlat lis penis is only good for peeing.
In contrast to tle impotence of tlese old men, we see tle greater
potency of tle aged female body. Wlen an elderly geisla wlo enter-
tains tle couple at an inn notes tlat tleir continuous lovemaking in ler
presence is a pleasure to tle eyes, Sada invites ler to lave sex witl tle
always obliging, tlougl in tlis case not particularly eager, Kicli. Te sur-
prised geisla and Kicli couple awkwardly, in a scene tlat emplasizes tle
wlite pallor of ler made-up, wrinkled face in contrast to tle esl color
of tle rest of ler body (gure 8;). Sada watcles from close by, naked and
croucled on all fours. Her face reveals a mixture of lorror, fascination,
and sympatly at Kiclis embrace witl mortality. Afterwards le lies inert
on tle old woman until Sada slaps lis buttocks to revive lim. Kicli con-
fesses tlat laving sex witl tle geisla was like laving sex witl tle corpse
of lis motler. In tlese powerful intimations of mortality botl le and Sada
seem to recognize tle stakes of tleir own relation. Everytling must lave
an end, declares Sada. Faced witl tle combined spectacle of old men wlo
can no longer get it up and an old woman wlo can, but wlose desire las
In the Realm of
the Senses
84: Sada
wields a large
85: If I cut
it of will you
86: Old man
dances over
:o( hard-core eroticism
almost outlived ler esl, tle couple seeks its own solution to tle nitude
of passion.
Kicli, lowever, remains understandably sly of tle knife. After le las
lapsed and returned to lis wife, a jealous Sada, knife in one land, penis
in tle otler, tlreatens to cut. Kicli resigns limself: I accept everytling
you ask, forgive me for laving left you for tlree days, le says, and tlen
invites ler to punisl lim, tlougl not witl tle knife: Hurt me as mucl
as you like. Te couple now irts more seriously witl sadomasoclistic
acts in maratlon sessions of lovemaking in wlicl Sada is encouraged to
take tle lead. After Sada introduces mild blows, Kicli suggests tlat tley
miglt try strangulation. Sada immediately invites lim to strangle ler. But
wlen le nds no enjoyment in tlis act, Sada climbs on to lis erect penis
(always ler preferred position), squeezes lis tlroat witl ler lands, and
articulates ler pleasure to an increasingly red-faced Kicli: Te subtitles
read: You cant imagine low good I feel, les moving alone, its so good!
It would seem to be tle power to make Kiclis penis move inside ler
tlrougl ler control of lis strangulation tlat most excites Sada.
Never does tle violence of strangulation replace tle act of sex. Violence
enlances it, accompanies it and, in tle end, makes tle abandonment of
tle one to tle otler possible. For tlis reason it would not be exact to call
Sada (despite tle accidental resonance of ler name to Western ears) a
sadist,' nor would it be exact to call Kicli a masoclist. Te strict deni-
tion of botl perversions entails tle giving or taking of pain as substitutes
for tle sexual act. Tis does not mean, lowever, tlat tleir sex is witlout
sadomasoclistic elements. Te violence of strangulation will soon be
taken to tle extreme, not only to cause Kiclis swoon but lis deatl. He
87: In the
Realm of the
Senses, the old
geishas face
hard-core eroticism :o,
will cloose tlis deatl, in tle slort term, to avoid tle aftermatl of tle pain
of strangulation. In tle long term, le clooses it to avoid tle pain of a life
tlat cannot be lived only for pleasure. At tlis point le is far from tle mas-
oclist wlo seeks to prolong pain in pleasure, ratler, le is a mortal man
trying to prolong lis ability to give pleasure. Sada will allow Kicli to die,
even tlougl it means tlat le will not survive to be lard again, tlus giving
up control over tle pleasure le gives ler for tle sake of tle nal swoon,
tle little deatl tlat brings ler to tle brink of deatl and pusles Kicli all
tle way over.
Eroticism, writes Bataille, is assenting to life up to tle point of deatl,
and lis book on tlis subject is full of insiglts applicable to tle sexual vio-
lence of tlis lm. Indeed, tle )apanese title for tle lm, Ai no corrida
(Bullght of Love), would seem to allude to Batailles infamous description
of tle pornograplic evisceration of a matadors eye coincident witl lis
leroines insertion of tle eye-slaped ball of a bull into ler vagina in lis
pornograplic novella, Histoire de loeil (Story of the Eye). Similarly, tle
Frencl title of tle lm, L empire des sens (literally, Empire of the Senses,
from wlicl comes tle Englisl title), ecloes anotler Frencl source: Roland
Bartless tlen popular semiological study of )apan, L empire des signes
(Te Empire of Signs). Altlougl Ai no corrida captures more of tle Ba-
taillian quality of tle violence of an eros tlat extends beyond tle pleasure
principle into tle domain of violence, violation, and deatl, botl titles
furtler suggest tle strong Western inuences on Oslimas lm. Deatl,
like orgasm, is for Bataille a violent wrencling of tle discontinuous life of
tle individual into tle continuity of tle inanimate from wlicl we emerge
and to wlicl we must return.
Eroticism, Bataille argues, constitutes a pletlora of life tlat at tle ex-
treme tips over into deatl, into tle domain of sacrice, violence, and vio-
lation. It lies, like deatl, beyond tle pleasure principle. Tis title of one
of Sigmund Freuds most confounding works exploring tle limits of mere
pleasure, reminds us, like Bataille, of tle paradox tlat eros and tlanatos
are not necessarily oppositestlat deatl is not simply tle end of life but
a return to tle continuity of tle inanimate matter of tle universe. We
saw in clapter s discussion of tle orality of kisses tlat Freuds tleory of
sexuality is often cauglt between two dierent models of pleasure: one
tlat is teleological and believes in tle progression toward an end pleasure
of release and disclarge, and one tlat contains a certain admixture of
unpleasure tlat does not aim at disclarge but at a prolongation of sexual
excitement and at tle ecstatic itself. Leo Bersani, as I lave lad occasion
to recall, refers to tlis distinction as tle dierence between an itcl tlat is
:o6 hard-core eroticism
scratcled to end it and an itcl tlat seeks notling better tlan its own pro-
longation, even its own intensication. At tle limit, tlis prolongation
can become tle desiring destruction of objects in order to possess tlem
internally. Bersani argues, contra tle disclarge model tlat Freud some-
times seems to espouse, tlat tle destruction of tle love object appears
to be inlerent in sexual excitement itself and tlat many plases of love,
especially tle pregenital oral and anal plases, produce sexual excitement
tlrougl slattering fantasies of incorporating or devouring.
In the Realm of the Senses extends polymorplously perverse infantile
fantasies of incorporating or devouring tle otler into tle realm of tle
genital. Sadas desire, unlike tlat of conventional pornograply since Deep
Troat, is never to satisfy, or to disclarge Kiclis penis into or onto ler
body. It is tle more fantasmatic desire to incorporate tlis love object into
lerself and to prolong tle violence of tle one tlat reacles out to tle vio-
lence of tle otler. Kiclis deatl is not ler actual goal. It is tle gradually
accepted by-product of tleir pursuit of a fantasy of pleasure tlat is not
only coincidental (on time!) but beyond time, merged into a new entity
beyond tleir discrete individual selves.
I lave been arguing, lowever, tlat tle fantasy of perpetual ecstasy as it
is played out in Oslimas lm also acknowledges, as Freud, Bataille, and
Bersani do not, tle frequent temporal disarticulation of male and female
pleasure. Kicli dies because le is unable to persist, as Sada and even tle
old geisla can, in an ecstasy tlat goes beyond tle discrete, nite disclarge
of male orgasm. Sada lives because sle is able to experience more and
more excitation witlout disclarge or end-pleasure release. After making
love to tle near corpse of tle old geisla, Kicli lad implored Sada: Dont
let our pleasure ever end. His love-deatl is tle result of tle couples at-
tempt to accommodate Kiclis nite orgasm and temporal satiety to Sadas
innite satiety in insatietyler ability to prolong ecstasy. You miglt say
Kicli dies trying.
In tle attenuated nal scene, tle couple meets back at tleir inn and
strikes a bargain. Instead of tle ever-present knife, wlicl Kicli again
makes Sada put away, le asks to be strangled, qualifying tlis by adding,
I want to give you pleasure. Sada makes lim clarify not only tlat le
desires ler pleasure but tlat le desires lis own strangulation because
it keeps lim erect. From tlis point on, tle lovers play witl tle ne line
between ecstasy and oblivion (tle blackouts tlat cause Kicli to lose erec-
tion). Bataille explains tlat on one land, tle convulsions of tle esl are
more acute wlen tley are near to a blackout, and on tle otler a blackout,
as long as tlere is enougl time, makes plysical pleasure more exquisite.
hard-core eroticism :o;
Mortal anguisl does not necessarily make for sensual pleasure, but tlat
pleasure is more deeply felt during mortal anguisl.
In tle rst stage of tlis play witl mortal anguisl, an ecstatic Sada
tlrills at ler control of Kiclis penis, sle feels it more intensely witl eacl
tug of tle pink scarf tlat sle now uses instead of ler lands to strangle
lim. Sle faces tle camera astride Kicli, ler red kimono open. Te top of
Kiclis lead is in tle foreground (gure 88). Wlile beautiful, tle image
is also explicit: we see Kiclis penis moving up and down as Sada moves
over lim. Tougl Sada cries out, Im killing you, in fact, sle pulls back
from tle nal squeeze to let ler lover again breatle. In a loarse wlisper,
le tells ler to pull larder. Wlen le involuntarily raises lis lands to free
lis tlroat, Sada scolds lim, saying sle was near ecstasy. Now sle ties lis
lands: Do wlat you please, says Kicli. My body is yours. Connected
tlrougl penile penetration and tle umbilical pink scarf about Kiclis
neck, tle couple fuses beyond tle bliss of lovers to become like one body,
not two.
Te strangulation is botl tle means to Sadas ecstasy and to tle violent
deatl tlat will exempt Kicli from tle fate of old men wlo can no longer
get it up. Sada matcles eacl tlrust of ler body over lis penis witl tugs on
tle scarf, gaining lis assent eacl step of tle way wlile making it clear to
lim tlat sle will proceed even if it kills lim. Sle asks if it lurts, le slakes
lis lead no. Sle asks low it feels, and le says, Like Im part of you, our
bodies lave melted into one, batling in a crimson pool. Sada continues
squeezing, and tleir bodies are reframed in a longer slot tlat slows tlem
in tle center of tle room batled in a crimson liglt (gure 8,).
In tle next scene, Sada waits, playing idly witl an empty sake bottle,
88: In the Realm
of the Senses,
Sada astride
Kichi as she
strangles him
:o8 hard-core eroticism
wlile Kicli, looking gray and fragile, sleeps. Wlen le revives, we see tle
rawness of lis neck and tlat le can barely stay awake to attend to Sadas
desire. Wlen le dozes, sle slaps lim awake. Tougl le tries migltily to
attend to ler sexual needs, le is soft. Sada masturbates lerself witl lis
accid penis, squeezes it lard to get a rise out of lim, but notling slort
of strangulation will make lim get lard again. Kicli is ready for tlis, but
in a raspy voice le admonisles ler: Tis time, dont stop in tle middle,
its too painful afterwards. Sada crawls over to get tle scarf, slakes lim
awake, and announces to a Kicli wlo already seems to be elsewlere tlat
sle is pulling. Tis time we do not see if Kiclis penis responds. Indeed,
we do not see anytling more of tleir coupling or of Kiclis deatl. All we
see is a slot of tle couple interlaced at an unspecied time, followed by a
In the Realm of
the Senses
89: bathed
in a crimson
90: Sada alone
in the stadium
hard-core eroticism :o,
cut to Sada lying naked in tle sun on a concrete platform in tle middle of
an empty stadium (gure ,o).
In long slot, a manit could be Kicliis playfully clased by a young
girl among tle bleaclers of tle stadium. Te girl repeatedly calls out in
a singsong, Are you ready: and tle man repeatedly replies, No, not
yet. However one translates tle question and answer of tlis clildrens
game akin to lide-and-seek, it would seem to repeat elements of Sadas
relation to Kicli, especially tle quest for temporal coincidence, a coming
togetler on time! tlat eludes tle girl in tle game as sle tries to capture
a man never quite as ready as sle. Sada, still lying supine in tle midst of
tlis game but now seen in a close view, tries to speak, but no sound comes
out of ler moutl. In long slot again sle sits up, tle young girl and tle
man lave disappeared. Alone in tle vast stadium, sle calls, Kicli-san
in a mournful last cry to wlicl tlere is no answer. Te stadium, as Leger
Crindon points out, could allude to tle titular bullglt, and tlrougl tlat,
to Batailles deadly depiction of tle game of love.'
Back in tle room at tle inn, Sada in ler open red kimono stands over
tle lifeless body of Kicli, laid out under covers on a futon. Using tle long
knife witl wlicl sle lad repeatedly tlreatened Kiclis dismemberment
in moments of anger and jealousy, sle pulls back tle covers and now per-
forms tle castration we lave been anticipating and dreading all along.
Tougl sle does it witl love, it is a brutal plysical act. In close-up, we
see ler rst slice o lis engorged penis, tlen, tlis time witlout our see-
ing tle cutting, lis testicles. Tese bloodied objects drop on tle mat be-
side Kiclis body. A nal overlead slot reveals tle nal tableau: Kiclis
91: In the Realm
of the Senses,
Two of us
:o hard-core eroticism
supine, naked, castrated body witl Sada in kimono alongside lim. On lis
body, written in blood, are tle words SadaiKicli. Two of us togetler
(gure ,). Suddenly an abrupt male voice-over announces: For four days,
carrying tle part sle lad severed from lis body, Sada wandered tlrougl
Tokyo. Tose arresting ler were astounded tlat sle glowed witl lappi-
ness. Te compassion of tle people made ler strangely popular. Tese
events lappened in ,6.
Te lm was widely reviewed. Some critics maintained tley were bored,
otlers were outraged, and some were entlralled. But almost all oered
at least grudging admiration for tle lms formal beauty and tle perfor-
mances of its primary claracters, tle roman poruno actress Matsuda Eiko
as Sada and tle legitimate lm actor Fuki Tatsuya as Kicli. Many re-
viewers immediately saw resemblances or dierences witl tle mad-love
tleme of Last Tango andior iconic resemblances or dierences witl Deep
Troat and its progeny.
In laudable, but I tlink misguided, eorts to defend tle lm, more
tlan one critic insisted, contra Oslimas own assertions, tlat it was not
pornograply because it did not solicit tle arousal of its spectators. )oan
Mellen and Rutl McCormick, botl insigltful close readers of tle lm, in-
sisted tlat it did not seek to arouse. McCormick writes, for example, tlat
it is puried of any lint of tle exlibitionism, objectication of its West-
ern counterparts. Mellen similarly asserts tlat it permits little vicarious
arousal by a spectator. Te participants lave earned tle riglt to sexual
bliss, tle audience is led to reect on low and at wlat cost tley lave
aclieved tlis perfect sexual expression and is not meant to join in.
I lave been arguing, to tle contrary, tlat In the Realm of the Senses
oers a fascinating amalgam of )apanese and Western pornograply and
tlat neitler of tlese traditions is free of wlat critics and legal sclolars like
to call prurience: both seek to arouse. Te Eastern inuence is not purer
because it is more artful. Shunga woodprints were well known as sexual
aids and stimulants. Some, sucl as tle example reproduced lere from
Koryusai Isoda, even slow couples consulting shunga books wlile en-
gaged in sex (gure ,:). I lave not argued tlat Oslimas lm descends in
a direct line from shunga. My point, ratler, las been tlat tlis lm borrows
elements of tlat tradition in conjunction witl tlose of tle West. We do
Oslima an injustice if we tlink of lis art as puried and of tle lmmaker
limself as one wlo wants only to make us tlink. To do so is to deny tle
obvious ability of tlis most luslly sensual of lms to move uswletler to
arousal or to lorried revulsion. Mellens attempt to argue, for example,
tlat frequent reframings to ligl angles distance and remove us from tle
hard-core eroticism :
action, almost willfully ignores tle many otler in-your-face close-ups
close-ups of penis (attacled and otlerwise), vagina, and moutl, and tle
fact, as we lave seen, tlat sucl close-ups also existed in shunga. Te lm
tlus botl aords distance and brings us exceedingly close to objects of
desire and terror.
Castration is typically viewed as a recognition of lack. Te entire edice
of Lacanian psycloanalysis is grounded on tlis concept of tle tlreatened
loss of tle penis as tle foundation of luman subjectivityfor botl males
and females. In tlis lm, lowever, castration is imagined from tle otler
side: not as tle loss to tle male but as tle incorporation of tle fetislized
love object into tle narcissistic self of tle woman, as gain, in otler words,
not loss. Sada glows witl lappiness. And ler lappiness depends on a
breaking down of boundaries between ego and world, it is wlat Bersani
calls a psyclic slattering of pleasurable and nonpleasurable and wlat
Bataille calls sexual pletlora.
Rarely does one experience so powerful a gender-bifurcated response
as tlat wlicl occurs in tle public screenings of tlis lm. All audiences
gasp at tle severing of Kiclis organs, but tlere can be no doubt tlat men
gasp more, even clutcling at tleir groins, perlaps incorporating into
tleir bodies tle pain tlat tle dead Kicli would feel were le sentient. Tey
92: Isoda Koryusai, ca. 17701775. From Marco Fagioli, Shunga:
The Erotic Art of Japan (1998)
:: hard-core eroticism
may also feel tlat tle rug of tle pornograplic expectation of pleasure las
been pulled out from under tlem in tlis nal act. However, tlis rug las
not been pulled out unfairly: tle ending las been carefully prepared from
tle very beginning, and viewers familiar witl classics of literary eroticism
may not be surprised by Sadas nal act.
Wlat las not been prepared for in Senses is any generic cultural ex-
pectation by a public lm audience of tle kind of extreme slift between
lard-core depictions of pleasure and special-eects depictions of vio-
lence. Neitler tle tradition of a Western moving-image pornograply in-
uenced by scientia sexualis nor tlat of a visual ars erotica prepares a so-
cial audience sitting in a tleater for tle violence of tle lms end. Western
audiences are so used to moving-image pornograply in tle mode of plea-
surable disclarge tlat In the Realm of the Senses disturbs by tle simple
fact of mixing (lard-core, unsimulated) sex witl (simulated) violence. Te
slift to tle special eects of violence is jarring and deeply disturbing pre-
cisely because moving-image pornograply draws us into a belief in tle
lard-core reality of tle bodies and organs it presents. Te violence of tlis
ending is tlus mucl more wrencling tlan tle usual acts of maylem of
lms of action and violence.
Susan Sontag, in an essay about Frencl literary pornograply, las clal-
lenged tle common notion espoused by many sexual liberals tlat sexu-
ality is simply a natural, pleasant function. Tis idea tlat sexuality is
natural usually invokes tle counteridea tlat obscenity is tlen a ction
imposed upon naturea ction imposed by a society convinced tlere is
sometling vile about sexual functions. Oslima limself, as we lave seen,
expressed mucl tle same idea wlen le argued tlat obscenity miglt dis-
appear along witl tle taboos against it if only pornograplic cinema were
autlorized. Sontag argues, in contrast, tlat tle great pornograplers,
from Sade tlrougl Bataille and tle autlors of Story of O and Te Image,
reveal sexuality as an obscenity, as a primal notion of luman conscious-
ness, sometling more profound tlan a sick societys aversion to tle
natural body. Obscenity, sle asserts, belongs among tle extreme ratler
tlan tle ordinary experiences of lumanity. It is one of tle demonic
forces in luman consciousnesspusling us at intervals close to taboo
and dangerous desires, wlicl range from tle impulse to commit sudden
arbitrary violence upon anotler person to tle voluptuous yearning for tle
extinction of ones consciousness, for deatl itself.' Of course Sontag was
writing about ligl art literary pornograply, not lm.
It las long been sometling of an axiom in tlinking about lmic ob-
scenity tlat wlile it miglt be desirable to break tle taboos against rep-
hard-core eroticism :
resenting bodies, organs, and intercourse in literature or art, tle inler-
ently graplic nature of moving-image media lends tle literal display of
real bodies, organs, and intercourse a coarseness exemplied by Fredric
)amesons condemnation of tle visual itself as a pornograplic form of
rapt, mindless fascination. Indeed, tle received opinion about lm las
long been tlat its inlerently graplic nature makes its pornograply neces-
sarily crass and mindless. Certainly a lot of it is. And certainly wlat Sade,
Bataille, and Pauline Rage did witl words can be more disturbing wlen
real bodies act out tle extreme . . . experiences of lumanity.
However, wlat miglt be called our cinematic imagination of obscenity
las been terribly circumscribed by certain received opinionsopinions
about sex, opinions about tle realism, as opposed to tle fantasy, of movies,
opinions about tle nature of tle obscene itself. Wlen Oslima decided to
make a pornograplic lmnot an average lm, [but] a pornograplic
lm all tle way, le became tle intrepid and solitary pioneer of a kind
of lard-core art into wlicl only a very few avant-garde lmmakers lad
previously ventured. No narrative lm besides In the Realm of the Senses
lad ever come close to tle literary tradition of lard-core eroticism. )ust
as it las been important to recognize pornograply as a genre of plea-
sure among otler lm genres, so it is equally important to recognize tle
mucl more raried aclievement of tlis exceptional example of lard-core
eroticism operating beyond tle pleasure principle. We slall see in clap-
ter ; low tlis singular lm would point tle way, two decades later, to tle
contemporary explorations of new forms of lard-core art by lmmakers
like Catlerine Breillat, Patrice Clreau, Miclael Winterbottom, Lars von
Trier, and otlers. To all of tlese younger directors Oslimas lm would
serve as tle crucial benclmark. Understanding lard-core lm art is
not a matter of parsing good sex from bad, or determining wlicl graplic
sexual representations lave gone too far. Nor is it a matter of invoking
tle old clestnut about tle pitfalls of leaving notling to tle imagination.
Ratler, as we lave begun to see in tlis clapter and will furtler explore in a
later one, tlere are many possible ways of getting graplic as movies open
up tle question of tle imagination of sex beyond tle familiar formulas of
soft and lard.
A love story using tle metaplor of tle mortal bullglt tle way Last Tango
uses tle metaplor of tle tango, In the Realm of the Senses explores mucl
Coda: Last Tango in Tokyo
:( hard-core eroticism
of tle same territory of Bataillian eroticism as tle meeting place of sex
and deatl as Bertoluccis lm. Civen tle fact tlat Bertoluccis ,;: work
launcled tle utopian dream of an X-rated art lm tlat Oslimas ,;6
creation was tle rst to realize in a truly lard-core faslion, a conclud-
ing comparison of tlese two landmark X-rated lms seems important.
Botl lms are about an older man and a younger woman wlo cut tlem-
selves o from tle social conventions of an outside world to engage in
an obsessive amour fou. Tougl Brandos Paul tells Sclneiders )eanne
tlat sle must go riglt up into tle ass of deatl to discover tle womb of
fear, )eanne is never Pauls collaborator in tle exploration of love-deatl.
Instead, sle simply becomes an uncomprelending instrument of lis
deatl. Te lessons of love and deatlwlat Kael called a jabbing, tlrust-
ing eroticismall ow in one direction, from tle man to tle woman
and in correspondence witl male timing. At tle moment in wlicl tle
power slifts between tle twotle moment at wlicl )eanne miglt lave
come into ler own as an actual sexual subjecttle relationslip breaks
o. Wlen Paul tries to resume it, it is already too late. Wlere tle derisive
tango tlat )eanne and Paul dance at tle end of tlat lm symbolizes tle
end of passion, tle bullglt in wlicl Sada and Kicli engage is a two-
way street, it permits tlem to escape tleir times and to celebrate, tlrougl
deatl and dismemberment, tle psyclic slattering of love.
Bertoluccis lm botl benets and suers from tle presence of its great
male star. Wlile Brandos performance brouglt an undeniable complexity
and vulnerable sexual energy to tle role, lis very stardom prevented tle
lm from delivering on tle premise of tle dynamism of tle sexual relation
between )eanne and Paul, leaving Sclneiders naked )eanne and Brandos
clotled Paul unequally exposed. In tle end, tle overpowering presence of
tle male star unbalances tle picture, leaving )eanne, tle woman wlo kills,
a mere villain, witl no real sympatly witl lis erotic quest. In contrast, as
botl claracters and performers, Fuji Tatsuyo and Matsuda Eiko go tle
distance and defy convention.
Tus wlere Bertoluccis eroticism falters in tle end and turns rancid,
exposing Pauls conventionality, Oslimas succeeds in escaping, tlrougl a
violent deatl tlat is also love, an even bleaker world of mounting war and
fascism. Te deatl Kicli embraces is slocking but beautiful in tle way of
wlat Andr Breton once called convulsive beauty. By tle time )eanne
kills Paul in Last Tango, tle realm of tle senses tley lad inlabited in
tleir furnitureless apartment las entirely dissipated. Te cold violence of
tlis murder is love turned to late, wlile Sadas strangulation and emas-
hard-core eroticism :,
culation of Kicli can be recognized as acts of love. Te point is not to
contrast tle failure of mad love in tle decadent West to its success in tle
East. Ratler, it is to recognize tle boldness of Oslimas lard-core erotic
vision and tle model it would provide for a new generation of eroticists
to be explored in a later clapter.
Dont you fucking look at me!
frank booth in Blue Velvet (1986)
What the fuck are you looking at?
enni s del mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
primal scenes on
American screens
In tle last tlird of Pedro Almodvars :oo: lm, Talk to Her
(Hable con ella), we are presented witl a clarming seven-
minute, black-and-wlite silent lm. Benigno ()avier C-
mara), an eeminate male nurse working tle niglt slift, de-
scribes tlis silent lm to lis comatose patient, Alicia (Leonor
Watling), wlile giving ler naked body one of its regular
massages. Benigno adores lis patient despite tle fact tlat
doctors say sle is brain dead. As le relates tle story of tle
lm, called Te Shrinking Lover, we see it on tle screen: A
sligltly overweiglt man, Alfredo, watcles lis scientist girl-
friend, Amparo, concoct a diet formula tlat le impulsively
drinks. Soon after, wlile kissing Amparo, Alfredo slrinks
sligltly. He continues to slrink for tle rest of tle slort lm,
until le is no larger, as tle lm sclolar Marsla Kinder puts
it, tlan a fetus or a tampon.' Failing to nd tle antidote for
Alfredos slrinking, Amparo can only care for lim as if le
were a tiny clild. In bed one niglt, a Tom Tumbsized
primal scenes on American screens :;
Alfredo makes tle Herculean eort of pulling tle sleet o of Amparos
naked, sleeping body. He roams over its contours, climbs up and tlen rolls
down tle lill of a breast, descends tle lengtl of ler body to tle genitals,
and jumps down to tle V formed by ler parted legs. Tere le faces a
patently fake, giant vagina witl curly, plastic-looking lair. He tentatively
inserts an arm into tle dark cavity, tlen briey lis entire torso, and comes
back out for air, slaken (gure ,). Taking a nal resolution, le turns to
face tle vaginal opening, removes lis slorts and plunges naked into it.
Soon only lis feet protrude, tlen notling. We see Amparos face register
eeting pleasure and Benignos voice-over concludes tlat tle lms lero
stayed inside ler forever.
Witl tlis silent lm-witlin-a-lm Almodvar reveals tle two major
taboos of tle contemporary art cinema tlat lad already been clallenged
by Oslima Nagisas In the Realm of the Senses (,;6) and tlat would be
more directly clallenged toward tle end of tle century by tle lard-core
art lm: an erect penis (impersonated by Alfredo limself ) and an exposed
vagina (tle giant anatomically correct but patently fake labia, lair, and
cavity tlat tle famously gay Almodvar must lave lad a lot of fun con-
structing). Of course, Almodvars clever circumnavigation of tle rules
for tle display of sex only proves tleir power, especially wlen we learn
tlat tle comically obscene episode in a silent lm recounted by Benigno
serves as a screen for tle mucl less benign act it conceals: Benignos actual
rape of tle comatose Alicia. Later in tle lm we will learn tlat tle lalf-
mad and inappropriately named Benigno impregnated lis patient tlis
very niglt. Te poignant insertion of Alfredos body into lis lovers vagina
lad tlus concealed for us, and perlaps for Benigno limself, tle actually
coercive nature of tle act. Tis silent lm is tlus a screen in tle precise
93: Talk to Her (dir.
Pedro Almodvar,
2002), Alfredo
plunges into the
giant vagina
:8 primal scenes on American screens
sense I lave been using tlis word tlrouglout tlis book: it botl reveals
in explicit detail a plallic act of vaginal penetration wlile also screening
out tle violent and graplic coercion of rape tlat lies belind it.
Wlen I rst saw Talk to Her I lad already left tle tleater by tle time
I realized tlat tle lm lad loodwinked me into feeling sympatly for a
rapistinto experiencing lis act as le lad deluded limself to experience
it: as love, sacrice, and a disappearing merger witl tle body of lis be-
loved ratler tlan sexual violation of an unconscious woman. As I laugled
at tle outlandislness of tle fake vagina and tle old-faslioned silent lm
acting, and at low tle little man was a kind of surrogate penis swallowed
up by lis loves giant vagina, I was maneuvered into keeping sympatly
witl tlis most endearing of Almodvarian protagonists. To tlis day, I
am not quite sure low to react to tle scene. Feminist consciousness las
tauglt me to ablor wlat Carol Clover calls tle old style rape lms tlat
invited tle viewer to adopt tle rapists point of view and tlat often slow
tle woman lying back and enjoying it.
Almodvars portrayal of rape, to tle contrary, does ask me, insidiously,
witlout my even quite knowing it, to adopt a rapists point of view. Only
later, as Alicia becomes pregnant and tle evidence points to Benigno,
do I realize wlat las transpired. Yet by tle end of tle lm, I weep at tlis
rapists graveside riglt along witl lis friend. Even more audaciously, tle
lm goes so far as to portray tle rape as laving been a cure: tle impreg-
nation awakens Alicia from ler coma, like a sleeping beauty.
Almodvars clallenge to political correctness in tlis screened-out scene
of rape is typical of tle kind of perverse provocation discovered in many
European art lms since tle eiglties. Rape is, in fact, a frequent act in
Almodvars lms. His rst feature (Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on
the Heap [Pepi, Luci, Bom, y otras chicas del montn], ,8o) depicted tle
rape of a virgin wlo souglt revenge on ler rapist not because sle regret-
ted tle loss of innocence, but for purely pecuniary reasons: le deprived
ler of tle prots sle would lave otlerwise reaped selling ler virginity
Almodvars ,86 lm Matador also features a rapetlis time a failed
one. It tells tle story of a repressed, liglly religious young man, Angel
(Antonio Banderas), studying to be a bullglter. To prove lis manlood
to lis ex-matador teacler, Diego, le attempts to rape Diegos girlfriend.
Perverse Provocations of the Peek-a-boo
primal scenes on American screens :,
Angel wants to be guilty of sexual crimes (rape and murder) to prove lis
masculinity against tle suspicion of lomosexuality, but le comically fails
in lis attempt. Pulling a Swiss army knife on tle woman, le accidentally
draws out tle corkscrew. Wlen le begins to go to tle family priest to
confess lis would-be sin, le initially walks toward tle confessional, but
instead of confession to tle priest, tle next slot slows lim in tle police
station confessing to tle law. Te detective, limself coded gay, assumes
tlat it is Angel wlo las been raped but indulgently invites lim, witl not
a little prurient interest, to tell me low you did it. He tlus incites Angels
furtler confession to all manner of invented sexual crimes.
Angels confessions in quick succession to tle priest, tle police, and a
tlerapist, eacl of wlom takes a prurient interest in lis (ultimately bogus)
crimes, are almost a textbook illustration of Miclel Foucaults assertion
of tle role of confession in constructing tle trutl of sex. Te confession,
Foucault argues, las long been a key teclnique of Western cultures quest
for tle trutl of sex. But as confession moved from tle confessional to tle
analysts coucl, it was no longer a question of saying wlat was donetle
sexual actand low it was done, but of reconstructing, in and around
tle act, tle tlouglts tlat recapitulated it, tle obsessions tlat accompa-
nied it, tle images, desires, modulations and quality of tle pleasure tlat
animated it. For tle rst time no doubt, a society las taken upon itself to
solicit and lear tle imparting of individual pleasures. Confession tlus
becomes not simply tle unburdening of guilt, it becomes an incitement
to speak sex, to make it tle motive force of our lives. Tougl Foucault
refers especially to tle great period of tle formation of a confessional
science tlat took for its object wlat was unmentionable but admitted
to nonetleless, le could equally be talking about Almodvars lm.
Matador oers a knowing parable of Foucaults description of tle role of
confession in tle implantation of perversions. Te aptly named Angel
las committed no crime, but tlrougl confession, wlen faced witl police
pictures of sadomasoclistic murders, le cannot distinguisl between lis
own actions and desires and tlose of otlers. Wlat le confesses to, in fact,
are tle sexual crimes of Diego, lis teacler, wlo las taken up raping and
killing women after retiring from tle ring and losing tle opportunity to
kill bulls.
Teacling lis bullglting students, Diego explains wlat we later under-
stand to be an account of tle link between lis sadistic pleasure as a mata-
dor and as a lover. Clicks are like bulls, le explains, you just lave to
lem tlem in. Cradually we learn tlat Diego is a sadist wlo nds lis
sexual tlrill in killing female victims. But in tle lms opening sequence
::o primal scenes on American screens
tle simplicity of tlis male voyeur-rapist-killer scenario is complicated
by tle presence of a female gure wlo is also a sadist, sle lures men to
tleir deatl and stabs tlem witl a long lairpin. Witl tle introduction
of tlis second protagonist, Maria, tle usual binary of tle active, mas-
culine voyeur-sadist wlo unleasles aggression on a passive, feminine
exlibitionist-masoclist is complicated. We are asked to look more deeply
into tle nature of tle matadors art. A matador, we soon learn, does not
simply lem in a bull and kill lim. Ratler, le must seduce tle bull into
clarging at lim, le must rst open limself up to tle bull as a target to
tlen be able to kill it.
Tis more complicated seduction-aggression and masoclism-sadism
is wlat tle lm gives us in tle opening scene. Maria seduces an anony-
mous man. Sle leads lim up a iglt of stairs, pulls on lis belt, bites lim
playfully, and mounts lim. We could say tlat le penetrates ler, but ler
gestures are tle more active in tlis simulated sex scene. And if sle opens
lerself up to penetration by lim, it is only to penetrate lim eventually
witl a long and letlal lairpin. Sle exults over lis expiring body, nally
dead as a bull. In tlis scene tle woman (chick is entirely tle wrong word!)
is tle matador and tle man tle bull.
Diego was tlerefore wrong: clicks are not like bulls, and in Maria le
meets lis matcl. In tle sadomasoclistic scenario it is not easy to assign
xed gender roles. Indeed, we miglt tlus say tlat some clicks are like
matadors, and tlat some matadors are like clickstley nd tleir des-
tiny in being gored. Diego, for example, is acting out a perverse repetition
compulsion: lis desire is only partly to plallically penetrate, it is, more
important, to be gored again, tlis time fatally, by a feminized bull.
Tis is exactly wlat lappens wlen, during a tryst timed to coincide witl
a solar eclipse, Maria and Diego nally lave tleir Duel in tle Sun in a
sadomasoclistic love-deatl. Diego dresses in lis bullglter regalia, and
Maria, wlo las fetislized tlis regalia ever since sle rst saw lim gored,
spreads out lis cape and sprinkles rose petals before a ickering re. Soon
sle is on ler back seminaked before tle re. In an over-tle-top staging of
a letlal sexual fantasy, Diego ligltly strokes ler pubis witl a rose between
lis teetl and works lis way up to ler erect nipples, wlile tle bolero Es-
pera me in cielo is sung on tle soundtrack. Till now I lave always made
love alone, says Maria. I love you more tlan my own deatl! Would you
like to see me dead: Yes, replies Diego, and Id like you to see me dead.
Easier said tlan done, lowever. Almodvar plays tlis scene of love-deatl
mucl tle way Luis Buuel and Salvador Dal staged a similar scene in tle
primal scenes on American screens ::
avant-garde L age dor (Te Age of Gold, ,o)tlat is, botl seriously and
as tle leiglt of ludicrousness, taking seriously tle very funny problem
of low two matadors are to simultaneously kill and be killed by one an-
otler. In tle end, it is not possible. Facing one anotler, tley ecstatically
fuck, eacl witl a lairpin in land. Maria uses lers rst in tle back of
Diegos neck and, as witl ler previous victims, nds lerself mounted on
a dead man. Look at me dying! sle enjoins, but Diego, wlom sle must
now lold up, is past looking. Sle puts a gun in ler moutl and sloots.
But Diego cannot see. Wlen Angel and tle police arrive (guided tlere
by Angels telepatlic ability to see tlese scenes of violence as if tley were
lappening to lim), tley discover a beautiful tableau of tle entwined, and
dead, couple. Te gay detective pronounces Ive never seen anyone so
Te perversions catalogued in tlis lm are encyclopedic: voyeurism,
fetislism, sadistic murder, and masoclistic submission to deatl, not to
mention necroplilia. By comparison, Angels (failed) aspiration to rape
seems strikingly normal. Te sex in Matador irts witl often politically
incorrect manifestations of power and violence in sex. Indeed, tle lall-
mark of soplisticated adult sexual representations in Western cinema
since tle eiglties las just as often been a irtation witl tle taboo of vio-
lence in sex ratler tlan witl tle taboo of explicit sex itself. But lere we
encounter an important dierence between tle eiglties and tle seventies.
Wlere a director like Almodvar can make lms tlat oer a compendium
of perversions, and wlile tle oniscenity of tlese perversions proves cen-
tral to lis work, lis diverse sexual representations are not viewed, as tley
miglt lave been viewed in tle sixties or seventies, as liberations of for-
merly repressed sexual minorities. Tis is a major dierence between tle
generation today working in tle realm of tle senses and tlat of Oslima
or Bernardo Bertolucci. Almodvar is not likely to believe tlat tle mere
expression of diverse sexual predilections will be automatically liberatory.
Indeed, since tle eiglties art lm directors face tle mucl more dicult
task of representing sex beyond tle older dynamic of repression and re-
leasebeyond tle language of revolution witl wlicl it lad so long been
Here, too, lies a major dierence between tle European and tle Ameri-
can understanding of sex and sexual violence. Almodvars compendium
of perversions is rendered witl a liglt toucl and a soplisticated sensibility
even wlen dealing witl a couple wlose folie deux consists of mutual de-
struction. He is, after all, tle successor to Buuel. However, wlen Ameri-
::: primal scenes on American screens
can cinema begins to engage witl provocatively perverse material, it las
no similarly liglt tone, except in tle mode of outriglt comedy, wlicl
rarely takes sex acts seriously. Indeed, if tle American lms discussed
in tlis clapter are perverse, and if tley capture sometling important of
wlat Antlony Ciddens las called tle transformation of intimacy of tle
contemporary postsexual revolution era, tley do so in decidedly Ameri-
can and melodramatic ways.' Te American way, I will argue, does not
so mucl play witl sexual representations as treat tlem as crucial primal
scenestraumatic rst witnessings of obscure forms of sexual pleasure
tlat miglt not initially be understood as pleasure, indeed, tlat lave previ-
ously been understood as pain. Wlile tlere is no doubt tlat tlis sexuality
las tle qualities of plasticity and malleability of a modern sexuality cut
loose from tle requirements of reproduction and kinslipif it can be
sadomasoclistic, on tle one land, and queer, on tle otlerit is not also
soplisticated and playful in tle manner of tle cosmopolitan Almodvar.
It tlus seems important tlat in tle two lms wlicl I oer as case studies
of tle American cinemas ,8os and beyond implantation of perversions,
tlis implantation takes place not in tle metropolis but in tle American
leartland. It will take place in a picture-perfect Nortlwestern small town
in David Lyncls Blue Velvet (,86) and in tle iconic wilderness of tle
West in Ang Lees Brokeback Mountain (:oo,).
In ,86, tle same year tlat Matador lit tle screens, American cinema
lad not yet assimilated sadomasoclistic, violent sex into its repertoire of
sex acts. Sadomasoclist sex in ,86 was as new and traumatic to compara-
tively innocent American viewers in mainstream cinema as anal sex be-
tween men would be in :oo,. Of course I do not mean to say tlat in an era
tlat corresponds witl tle remarkable proliferation of video and ivi por-
nograplies oniscene tlat sir or anal sex between men was unknown or
unrepresented. Anyone wlo paid attention to foreign lm or to lard-core
pornograplyor even to a zeitgeist in wlicl gays, transgendered people,
sadomasoclists, and otlers formerly deemed patlological assumed tleir
place as proud sexual identitieswould certainly lave been aware of tle
existence of subcultures celebrating all of tlese sexual practices and in
mucl more explicit forms tlan in tlese two R-rated lms. But despite
tleir careful avoidance of any direct view of organs and orices, tle sexual
scenes depicted in Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain lad a particularly
dramatic impact on audiences wlo seemed to lave no familiarity witl
screening perverse sex, especially sex acts enacted by mainstream stars
and on big screens. I tlus want to argue tlat tlese two lms, more tlan
primal scenes on American screens ::
any otlers belonging to tle R-rated mainstream, lave constituted crucial
turning points in tle American lm audiences own witnessing traumatic
sex acts.
David Lyncl is tle only American art lm director contemporaneous
witl, and as provocatively perverse as, Pedro Almodvar. Like Almodvar
Lyncl is a famously weird director witl a cult status, but one wlo makes
mainstream, studio lms witl major stars. Botl lave lad long careers tlat
lave consistently managed to operate on tle edge of sexual taboo. Also
like Almodvar, Lyncls sex scenes are audacious, less for tleir explicit-
ness tlan for tle unsettling feelings tley generate. If, as I lave argued,
Last Tango in Paris brouglt violent, perverse sex at least partway lome
to American audiences tlrougl tle mature body of tle quintessentially
American Marlon Brando, tlen Lyncls Blue Velvet brouglt it even fur-
tler lome to tle mytlical center of tle American leartland, in tlis case
tle quintessential small American town of Lumberton. Tougl tlis nortl
western town was meant to be contemporary, it iconograplically consti-
tuted a tlrowback to tle ftieswitl wlite picket fences, stay-at-lome
moms, and a dangerous wrong-side-of-tle-tracks neiglborlood called
Lincoln Street reminiscent of American lm noir. Te lm provoked audi-
ences witl a surplus of wlat ). Hoberman called psyclosexual energy.''
But instead of locating tlat energy in a mature man and lis aair witl a
younger adult woman, Blue Velvet locates it in tle more juvenile body of a
postadolescent played by tle soon-to-be-iconic Kyle MacLacllan and in
lis aair witl an older woman played by tle equally iconic vaguely foreign
Isabella Rossellini.
Wlat is perlaps most unsettling about Blue Velvet is low its innocent
adolescent male lero feels sullied and slamed by lis inquiry into tle
mysteries of adult sexuality. Teacling tlis lm recently, I lave discovered
small but signicant numbers of students, now in tleir mid-twenties, wlo
vividly recall seeing tlis lm not at tle movies, but at lome on video in
tle early nineties. Ratler like tle claracter of )erey in tle lm, tlese tlen
adolescents, and even some pre-adolescents, were sneaking a forbidden
look at enigmatic adult sexual belaviors wlose violence was botl con-
fusing and disturbing. Tese illicit lome screenings point to a new way in
wlicl lm was becoming an occasion for a new kind of primal scene.'
Primal Scene 1: Blue Velvet
::( primal scenes on American screens
Contemporary reviews of tle lm also point to tle fact tlat Blue Velvet
was a key coming-of-age lm for tle generation of tle late eiglties and
early ninetiesa generation just as likely to see a lm on tle small lome
screen as at tle movies.' Im seeing sometling tlat was always lidden,
says )erey Beaumont in Blue Velvet. So was tle American audience,
especially its young members. Wlat tley saw, I want to argue, amounted
to an American primal scene in wlicl a dark and nasty side of sex, a side
long screened out of American movies, erupted into consciousness as
tle innocuous lyrics of a fties love song about a girls dress were trans-
formedin a way tlat only Lyncl could dointo a sinister fetisl.'
To tle extent tlat tle young viewers of tlis lm were too young for
tle lms R-rated, adult content, tleir screening made tlem vulnerable to
a perverse sex tley were not prepared to witness. But as I lave been ar-
guing tlrouglout tlis book, forms of carnal knowledgewletler in tle
life of tle individual or in tle American listory of screening sexnever
arrive at precisely tle riglt time. Tey are forms of knowledge tlat cannot
exist apart from fantasy. As tle psycloanalysts )ean Laplancle and ). B.
Pontalis put it, luman sexuality is a privileged battleeld between botl
too mucl and too little excitation, botl too early and too late occurrence
of tle event.' Nor, as tlese interpreters of Sigmund Freud note, do we
precisely know from wlere tlis sexuality comesfrom wlat tley call tle
clilds own internal sexual upsurgings,' or from tle external excitations
and seductions of an adult (or, in tlis case, a grown-up movie witl sur-
prisingly infantile sexual content). Te special fascination of Blue Velvet
is to lave dramatically staged tlis very question in a prolonged sex scene
botl participated in and witnessed by tle lms young lero.
Young )erey abruptly returns lome from college after lis fatlers sud-
den collapse at tle lms beginning. Wlile morosely walking tlrougl a
eld, le nds a severed ear, takes it to tle police, and soon nds limself
cauglt up in tle mystery of wlat lappened to its owner. Tat initial mys-
tery leads lim to furtler sexual mysteries connected to Dorotly Valens
(Isabella Rossellini), tle wife of tle man wlose ear las been severed.
)erey concocts a plan to sneak into Dorotlys apartment, ostensibly to
learn about tle mystery of tle ear and tle foul play done to ler lusband,
wlo is being leld lostage. Wlen sle unexpectedly arrives lome, le must
secrete limself in ler closet, from wlicl le observes wlat can only be
described as a primal scene. )ereys plan to sneak in, lide, and observe
makes no logical sense in a mystery story slort on explanatory plot. But
considered psyclosexually it makes perfect sense. As Miclael Atkinson
primal scenes on American screens ::,
notes, Its as if les looking for a primal scene, to see lis parents enact tle
forbidden ritual of sex.'
In analyzing lis patients dreams and fantasies, Freud at rst believed
le lad uncovered memories of tleir actual seductions by adults. For a
wlile tlis seduction tleory served as Freuds best explanation for low
sexual desire was introduced to tle clild: innocent clildren seduced into
sexuality by perverse adults. Later, lowever, Freud doubted tle veracity
of tlese remembered scenes of seduction and developed tle tleory of
primal fantasies tlat belonged instead to memory traces inlerited from
a mytlical prelistory. In tlis tleory, sexuality was a kind of unconscious
psyclic inleritance.
Tese primal fantasies included tlree dierent kinds of scenes: tle
primal scene propertle fantasy of tle clild watcling parental coitus,
tle scene of seductiontle fantasy of tle clilds seduction by a parent
(usually tle son by tle motler), and tle scene of tle tlreat of castration
(usually tle classically oedipal tlreat to tle son by tle fatler). At rst
Freud tlouglt tlat lis patients lad actually witnessed, or been subjected
to, tlese scenes. But more often, as lis tlouglt developed, le was inclined
to tlink of tlem somewlat outlandislly as a kind of prelistoric plylo-
genetic trutl (tle individuals ontologenic memory of tle species) tlat
underlay psyclic reality.
Te psycloanalysts Laplancle and Pontalis, unlappy witl tle unscien-
tic nature of tle idea of plylogenetic memory traces, adapted Freuds
tleory in a ,6( article to understand tle primal fantasies as fantasies of
origin tlat, like mytls, appear to explain tle basic enigmas of existence.
For example, instead of viewing tle primal scene as an arclaic memory,
tley saw tle imagined or real scene of sexual intercourse between tle
parents wlicl tle clild observes as part of tle clilds own mytlic expla-
nation of tle mystery of lis or ler existence.' Key to tlis observation is
tlat tle clild interprets tle act of pleasure as an act of violence, usually by
tle fatler on tle motler. Te primal scene can tlus be said to mytlically
explain tle enigma of tle origin of tle selfessentially low babies are
made, tle scene of seduction can tlen be said to explain tle enigma of
sexual desire, and tle scene of castration can explain tle enigma of sexual
To witness a primal scene, or for tlat matter to screen a lm like Blue
Velvet at too young an age, does not mean tlat one will be damaged for
life and tlen, as in tle case of Freuds most famous patient, lave a dream
of wlite wolves percled on a tree. Belind tlis dream by tle patient
::6 primal scenes on American screens
called Wolf Man Freud located a primal scene of parental sex a tergo
more ferarum (from belind, like animals), wlicl triggered tle nigltmare
and tle subsequent symptoms of extreme constipation and an inability
to lave sex witl women except from belind.' But it is far too simple
to consider tle primal scene itself as tle cause of tle patients troubles.
Ratler, tle primal scene proper is by denition a witnessing of sex from
a time before tle understanding of sex is possible. It is tlus never clear
wletler it is an actual witnessing tlat is recollected, or a constructed fan-
tasy. Te Wolf Man limself, wlo in lis later years lad a great deal to say
about lis own analysis, believed tlat lis real problem was not tle trauma
of laving witnessed a primal scene, but ratler an incestuous seduction by
lis sister. As Sam Islii-Conzales points out in an interesting essay on
Lyncls Blue Velvet, It is not tle actual observation of tle primal scene at
one and a lalf years wlicl caused tle disturbances in tle Wolf Man, but
sometling else tlat triggers a recurring nigltmare. Te dream endows
tle primal scene witl its newly discovered traumatic meaning (no longer
just tlat daddy may be lurting mommy, but tle wlole, more recently ac-
quired, awareness of seduction and castration). In tlis case, tlen, all tle
originary fantasies come into play. Freud sees tle stillness and attentive
gaze of tle wolves as attributes of tle dreamer limselflow tle dream-
ing boy sees limself watcling tle primal scene. It is a scene of passive,
immobile fascination (mucl like )erey in tle closet, also like audiences
in tle tleater). By tle age of four, tlen, tle Wolf Man las already experi-
enced botl tle fears of castration and a sucient pleasure of seduction to
understand, retroactively, tlat tle spectacle le (may lave) witnessed was
an act of pleasurenot tle act of violence le originally tlouglt it to be.
According to tlese examples, it is not possible to know from wlere
tle knowledge of sex comes, nor precisely wlen it comes. It is too early
at tle time of tle witnessing of tle event, and it is too late at tle time of
tle dream. Can it be said to come from tle parents wlo enact tle violent
primal scene or wlo seduce tle clild or tlreaten castration, or is it tle
dream, fantasy, or daydream of tle clild: Te answer is always undecid-
able, but tle point is tlat tle origin of desire is tle enigma around wlicl
our Blue Velvet examples circle.
Blue Velvets set piece is a twenty-minute scene tlat begins witl young
)erey in tle closet spying on Dorotly, tle clanteuse. Dorotly pulls lim
out of tle closet, tlreatens castration witl a knife, and tlen begins to
seduce lim. Wlen ler lusbands captor, Frank Bootl (Dennis Hopper),
arrives, )erey is sent back into tle closet to lide. From tlere le will ob-
serve tle grown-up perversionsnot coitus a tergo, but sadomasoclistic
primal scenes on American screens ::;
violence and fetislism of tle two claracters wlo will increasingly function
as lis perverse parental surrogates. In one tour de force scene Lyncls
lm tlus stages all tlree of tle primal fantasies in quick succession.
At rst, lowever, it would seem tlat )erey is just anotler voyeur liding
in a womans closetone witl convenient louvers for spying (gure ,().
His motives at tlis point are torn between tle desire to learn more of tle
mysteries of adult sex and a contradictory clivalry tlat wants to save
Dorotly. He rst watcles Dorotly speak on tle plone to ler impris-
oned lusband and clild, le tlen watcles ler undress down to ler black
panties and bra. But tlis revelation is not presented as a typical striptease.
Te liglt is not attering, Dorotly stands stiy at attention against a wall
wlile speaking on tle plone, tle conversation reveals ler as a distrauglt
motler and wife. Sle later tlrows lerself on tle oor to examine a frame
lidden under a coucl and crawls on tle rug in an ungainly way. Wlen
sle removes ler wig, and strides to tle batlroom down tle lall to nisl
undressing, we, like )erey, lave tle slameful feeling of laving seen more
tlan tle conventional titillation we bargained for (gure ,,).
Soon, in an abrupt uctuation of mood typical of tlis entire scene,
)erey inadvertently makes a noise and Dorotly lauls lim out of tle
closet at knifepoint. Te vulnerable woman now becomes tle potential
castrator of anotler primary fantasytle one tlat explains sexual dif-
ference (gure ,6). Sle pricks )erey ligltly in tle cleek and peppers lim
witl questions: Wlo are you: Wlat do you want: Do you always
sneak into girls apartments to watcl tlem get undressed:to wlicl
le can only answer, lamely but lonestly, I only wanted to see you. Still
lolding tle knife, Dorotly now turns )erey into tle spectacle: Cet un-
dressed. I want to see you. But just as soon as sle establisles ler knife-
tlreatening dominance, sle slifts roles again to become tle seductress.
As Islii-Conzales summarizes, )erey is lere confronted witl eacl of tle
tlree primal fantasies, not in succession but in continual uctuation.
)erey undresses down to a pair of cute red plaid boxers, and Dorotly
orders lim to come closer. Wlere sle lad formerly stood over lim witl
tle knife, sle now abandons tlis position of dominance to kneel before
lim, ler face at precisely tle level of lis crotcl. )erey responds witl botl
terror and fascination at tlis mercurial woman dressed in a blue velvet
robe, still lolding a less and less tlreatening kitclen knife. Instead of more
commands, Dorotly now asks anotler question, perlaps the question for
a young man lurking in ler closet and perlaps for a wlole generation
of too young viewers watcling tlis lm: Wlat do you want: I dont
know, le wlispers, again lonestly. As if to slow lim wlat le miglt want,
Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch, 1986)
94: Jefrey hides in Dorothys closet
95: Jefreys closet point of view on the anguished Dorothy
96: Dorothy with knife
primal scenes on American screens ::,
Dorotly puts ler face close to lis abdomen and begins to pull down lis
boxers to contemplate lis penis (gure ,;).
At tlis pointtle point at wlicl a fantasy of castration as tle explana-
tion of sexual dierence turns into a fantasy of maternal seduction as tle
explanation of tle origin of sexualitywe do well to note tle discrepancy
between wlat we are permitted to see of tlis spectacle and wlat Dorotly
presumably sees. For tlis discrepancy marks tle limits between tle ac-
ceptable R-rated lm tlat Blue Velvet occupies and tle sort of c-; or
unrated lard-core art lm to be discussed in tle next clapter. Dorotlys
seduction of )erey is precipitated by a concealed but strongly inferred
act of fellatio. Wlat we actually see las subsequently become tle R-rated
convention for tle depiction of tlis act: a slot of )ereys face looking
ecstatic and anotler slot partially revealing an up-and-down movement
of Dorotlys lead tlat is in tlis case mostly screened out by )ereys riglt
Blue Velvet
97: What do you want?
98: Dorothy moves into position for fellatio
:o primal scenes on American screens
arm (gure ,8). Tougl everytling in tlis scene is designed to make us
believe in tle presence of lis erection and tle action of Dorotlys moutl
on it, its siglt is nevertleless scrupulously avoided. Moreover, as long
as tle undressed )erey keeps on lis boxers, we are permitted to see lis
smootl young body from tle front. But as soon as tle boxers come o,
everytling is arranged so tlat we only see lim from tle waist up or from
belind. Tis is tle modus operandi of tle R-rated lm: to lint at a view
tlat is never seen.
It is against tle backdrop of tle still-langing questionWlat do you
want:tlat we slould consider tle following, prolonged depiction of
tle primal scene. If we believe tlat )erey tells tle trutl wlen le says
le does not know wlat le wants, and if we believe le also tells tle trutl
wlen le says le just wants to see Dorotly, tlen wlat lappens next may
be exactly wlat )erey does want: to be neitler tle passive object of ma-
ternal castration nor tlat of maternal seduction but to return to tle closet
and tle most passive role of all: tlat of tle clildlike observer of tle pri-
mal scene of adult sex. From tlis position le can look at and lear tle
sex witlout limself laving to enter into tle scene. At a knock on tle
door from tle expected Franktle villain wlo lolds Dorotlys lusband
and clild lostageDorotly orders )erey back into tle closet. From tlis
vantage pointand in tle context of a lm tlat will keep nding ways to
return )erey to tlis same closeta primal scene of violent adult sex is
Frank enters tle room in a t of anger. He is already primed to play out
a preordained script of sadomasoclistic sex and ritual fetislism involv-
ing blue velvet and tle inlalation of a mysterious gas intoxicant tlrougl
a mask. Dorotlys role in tlis bewildering ritual is at one moment tlat
of a motler wlo sootlingly calls lim baby, and at anotler tlat of a slut
wlo calls lim daddy. Hello, baby, Dorotly begins. Slut up! Its daddy,
you slitlead! corrects Frank. As in tle earlier slift from tle fantasy of
castration to tlat of seduction, roles can clange rapidly. Frank sits on
tle coucl witl a glass of bourbon and Dorotly places lerself in a clair
opposite lim. Spread your legs. Wider! le orders, Now slow it to me.
)ust as )ereys penis was visible only to Dorotly in tle previous scene,
so now Dorotlys genitals are visible only to Frank, wlo constantly ad-
monisles ler not to return lis gaze: Dont you fucking look at me! But
)erey does look. Unlike Frank, le cannot see between ler legs, nor can
we, since our point of view on tle scene, witl tle exception of a few close-
ups of Dorotlys face, remains closely aligned witl )ereys. Wlat we do
see is Frank. He places lis gas mask over lis face and moves to lis knees
primal scenes on American screens :
before Dorotlys spread legs wlile breatling noisily. Te female genitals
tlat loomed so comically large in Talk to Her are lere, like tle penis in tle
previous scene, concealed, yet tley are tle entire focus of Franks atten-
tion (gure ,,).
Tis siglt, from wlicl we and )erey are so rigorously excluded, elicits
Franks abject regression to babylood. Mommy, mommy, mommy, le
moans, and later, Baby wants blue velvet, a piece of wlicl Dorotly obe-
diently places in lis moutl like a pacier. Yet tlis comforting fetisl also
elicits a slift to a monstrously aggressive violence. Frank screams, Baby
wants to fuck! He lits Dorotly and admonisles ler not to look at lim.
He tlrows ler on tle oor and tlreatens ler witl noisily snipping scissors
close to ler crotcl (again invoking a tlreat of castration, tlougl tlis time
on a body witl no penis to lose). He tlen places one end of ler blue vel-
vet robe tie in lis moutl and tle otler end in lers, rubs lis land rouglly
between ler legs, and nally climbs on top of ler. He screams desperately
wlile morpling back into tle imperious daddy: Daddys coming lome!
le repeatedly cries.
Te scene is frenetic, violent, absurd, kinky, and nonspecicwe are
never exactly sure if or low Frank disclarges lis monstrous sexual energy.
Is it on or in Dorotly: We do know tlat lis reaction is triggered by tle
presumed siglt, oered to Frank alone, of female genitals. But lere it is
not simply tle Hollywood taboo on genitals tlat leaves us in doubt, it is
tle primal scene point of viewa point of view tlat is itself inlerently in
doubt about wlat exactly transpires between daddy and mommy from
tle immobile clilds point of view. )ust as Franks words are often mued
by tle blue velvet in lis moutl, so are lis actions occluded by camera
angle or clotling. As Frank slowly calms down, a telling slaking gesture
99: Blue Velvet, Frank on his knees before Dorothys genitals
:: primal scenes on American screens
of tle land tlat lad moved in tle vicinity of Dorotlys genitals seems to
try to slake o wlatever uncanny tling le feels le las toucled.
Tere is no mistaking tle quality of tle uncanny in tlis scene. Te lms
of Lyncl lave often been described as uncanny, but tlis particular scene
is almost a textbook illustration of Freuds description of tle uncanny as
tlat class of tle terrifying wlicl leads back to sometling long known to
us, once very familiar, but wlicl las since become strange and alien.
Playing on tle Cerman meaning of tle term, unheimlich (wlicl liter-
ally means not lomelike), Freud insists tlat it carries tle dual sense of
an unfamiliar tling tlat paradoxically belongs to tle familiarity of lome.
Freud associates tle uncanny botl witl tle tlreat of castration and witl
lis personal story of lastening to ee a neiglborlood lled witl prosti-
tutes in a town in Italy, but inadvertently returning tlrougl tle maze of
streets to tle exact same place. Like )erey, wlo keeps eeing and tlen
returning to Dorotlys closet, le uncannily returns to tle same place from
wlicl le would ee.'
And tlat place, tle bedrock of Freuds denition of tle uncanny, is
nally tlis: It often lappens tlat male patients declare tlat tley feel tlere
is sometling uncanny about tle female genital organs. Tis unheimlich
place, lowever, is tle entrance to tle former heim [lome] of all luman
beings, to tle place wlere everyone dwelt once upon a time, and in tle
beginning. Love, it seems, is lome-sickness, and wlenever a man
dreams of a strange place tlat seems familiar, we may interpret tle place
as being lis motlers genitals or ler body. Franks frenetic line, Daddys
coming lome! takes on botl tle sense of coming (lis aspiration to
virility) and also of a coming lome to tle female genitals from wlicl
baby once emerged. As tle origin of tle knowledge of sexual dierence
and tlus as a recognition of castration, tle trauma of tle siglt of female
genitals can only be disavowed tlrougl tle activity of tle fetisl, tle lms
eponymous blue velvet: and so Baby wants blue velvet oscillates witl
Daddys coming lome!
As baby, Frank is needy and vulnerable, traumatized and fascinated by
tle same spectacle of female genitals tlat Almodvar brazenly pictured
giant-sized in Talk to Her. But provided witl lis fetisl, tlis baby is soon
emboldened and wants to fuck like daddy, tle plallic tyrant wielding
lis scissors over tle female genitals and violently exerting total control.
Overexalted and in control as daddy, patletic and in need of reassurance
as baby, Frank is trapped in tle ritual oscillation between tlese two ex-
It is striking low Lyncls lm parallels Almodvars in its tleatricalized
primal scenes on American screens :
confrontation witl tle unleimlicl lorror of tle female genitals. As we
lave seen, Almodvar built a giant vagina and lad tle silent lm alter ego
of lis lero disappear into a vaginal lome tlat dwarfed and engulfed
lim. At tle same time, lowever, we lave seen tlat tlis fantasy scenario
screened out wlat we eventually understand as tle violent transgression
of tle real adult lero, Benigno, wlo tlrougl tlis screen disavows lis
actual rape of Alicias comatose body. Only after tle fact do we realize tle
leinous deed Benigno las committed. Lyncl, on tle otler land, avoids
direct siglt of tlis unleimlicl lorror, but stages around its concealed
presence a tleatrical primary scene tlat reveals tle violence of tle sex
act tlat Almodvar occults. Botl scenes are virtuoso screenings of sex in
botl tleir revealing and concealing senses.
If we understand )ereys position to be tlat of tle unknowing clild
witnessing tle primal scene, and if we understand Franks position to slift
from lelpless fetisl-dependent baby to imperious daddy, tlen wlat are
we to understand of Dorotlys position in tle scene: We miglt suppose,
as )erey initially does and as tle clild watcling tle primal scene pre-
sumably does, tlat sle is victimized by acts of pure, unwelcome violence:
daddy lurts mommy. But tlere are moments of close-up, botl before
but especially after Frank lits ler, in wlicl we are privileged to see wlat
)erey cannot: tlat Dorotly exults sensuously in ler role. Wlen Frank
nally calms down and leaves tle apartment, )erey, now back in lis box-
ers, creeps out of tle closet to comfort Dorotly wlo remains abjectly
crumpled on tle oor. He takes ler to a coucl and tries to cover ler, but
sle will lave none of lis sympatly: I dont like tlat, sle explains. Instead,
slockingly, sle resumes tle seduction sle lad earlier initiated (tlis time
witlout tle knife)Do you like me: Do you like tle way I feel:soon
escalating to repeated demands tlat )erey lit ler before tle confused
and aslamed young man leaves.
At one point, Dorotly is portrayed as out of ler mind witl fear for ler
kidnapped lusband and son. At anotler, sle acts out a perverse version
of tle motler role as Franks mommy. At yet anotler point, sle is a irta-
tious and girlisl special friend to )erey. Wlen sle tells )erey witlout
any irony, at lis next visit to ler apartment, tlat I looked for you in my
closet last niglt, we know tlat sle is a luman being possibly beyond re-
pair. At tle end of tle lm ler embrace of ler restored son is a little too
needy, just a little mad.
)erey will return to Dorotlys apartment, and even to ler closet, and to
lis slame and excitement, le will eventually lave tle kind of (simulated)
sadistic-aggressive sex tlat Dorotly asks of lim. In tlis later scene, wlen
:( primal scenes on American screens
tley are naked on tle bed, Dorotly asks lim, for tle second time, wlat le
wants. Already on top of ler, in missionary position, le lappily answers
tlat le is already doing wlat le wants. But Dorotly entices lim into more
primal games, wlispering conspiratorially, Are you a bad boy: Do you
want to do bad tlings: Now it is )ereys turn to ask wlat Dorotly wants.
I want you to lurt me. Wlen le refuses and suggests sle miglt seek lelp
from tle police, sle turns violently against lim.
Or perlaps it is more accurate to say tlat tle lm itself turns violent: a
candle ickers, tle frame goes black, and Dorotly is leard to eitler say
Don [tle name of botl ler lusband and ler clildsle las also called
)erey tlis name before], lit me, or dont lit me as sle clases )erey out
of ler bed in a struggle tlat reveals tleir naked bodies in violent conict.
It is at tlis point tlat )erey does, nally, lit ler, at rst spontaneously and
tlen, cocking lis arm for leverage, more deliberately. Te lm responds
by slowing a garisl close-up of Dorotlys smiling, triumplant moutl
an exaggerated version of ler lead-back reaction to Franks beating. Te
frame tlen turns wlite and, to tle accompaniment of low animal noises,
and witl a superimposed lellisl ame, we see tleir violent coupling in
equally garisl, grotesque slow motion. In tle fade-to-black tlat follows,
we lear Dorotly say, You put your disease in me. At tlis point it is fair
to say tlat )erey las limself entered tle fantasy of tle primal scene in
wlicl daddy is seen to lurt mommy. He las entered it now as daddy.
In a later scene, Frank will tell )erey youre like me, just before smear-
ing lipstick on lis own face, kissing )erey, and beating lim to a pulp. Te
same Frank wlo las repeatedly commanded Dorotly, and later )erey,
not to look at lim, now commands )erey to do just tlat. Te evil fatler
and tle oedipal son in tlis way recognize one anotler across tleir per-
verse desire for Dorotlys mommy. Te grotesque denouement of tle
lm nds Dorotlys lusband bound, earless, and dead alongside a corrupt
cop wlo is also dead, but uncannily still standing. )erey lures Frank into
Dorotlys back bedroom, wlicl gives lim tle occasion to grab a gun
and lide, once again and now for tle last time, in tle closet, from wlicl
le will kill Frank, tle perverse daddy wlose position le las usurped. I
dont know wletler youre a detective or a pervert, says Sandy, tle nice
girl wlo is domestically ensconced witl )erey in tle lms nal scene.
Eitler-or, lowever, is not tle mode of primal fantasy in wlicl Lyncls lm
Fearing castration, succumbing to seduction, passively watcling vio-
lent parental sex, killing tle fatler, savingbut also fucking and beat-
ingtle motler, )erey will lave occupied all of tle possible positions
primal scenes on American screens :,
of tle original primal fantasies. As Laplancle and Pontalis argue, fantasy
is not tle pursuit of an object by a subject, but ratler a desubjectied
participation in tle very syntax of tle sequence. )erey botl passively
and actively participates in uctuating permutations of desire. Dorotlys
question, Wlat do you want: is never satisfyingly answered. If le does
save Dorotly by killing Frank, by tle time le does, le can no longer
be tle unsullied lero of tle fairy tale. Te lms end, wlicl restores little
Donny to Dorotly, )erey to tle nice girl Sandy, and even revives )ereys
ailing fatler, ambiguously pictures a robin tlat lad been described earlier
by Sandy as a symbol of goodness. But as no critic of tle lm las failed to
mention, tlat robin is patently false and lolds a large bug in its moutl.
Lyncls multiple variations on tle primal fantasies of tle origin of sexu-
ality are a tour de force of a new perverse sexual ritualism introduced
into mainstream American cinema. In a decade wlose popular entertain-
ment forms tended to be devoted to family fare, leroic relasles of tle
Vietnam War, and otler forms of action lms, and in tle very same year
tlat Ronald Reagan welcomed tle two-volume Final Report of tle Meese
Commission on pornograply, wlicl painted a dark and mostly inaccurate
picture of a pornograply industry devoted to lorric violence, Ameri-
can lm lad nally, and unlike most pornograply, tackled tle dark side of
sex. In tlis same year,86Adrian Lynes Nine and a Half Weeks and
)onatlan Demmes Something Wild would also explore sadomasoclistic
pleasures. Te quality of tlese lms is uneven (witl Lyne and Demmes
lms more supercial pop entries). Nevertleless, tley, too, bring focus
to abruptly slifting sexual roles understood as roles and to sex under-
stood as a scene of erotic possibilities tinged witl tlreats of violence more
tlan as a straigltforward event. In tlese lms sex could no longer be
reduced to tle simple positions of penetrator and penetrated or to clear
outcomes of climactic fulllment. Indeed, sex as presented in tlese lms
could lardly be understood as a kind of progress toward sexual maturity
at all. If anytling, tley represented regressions to fundamentally infantile
roles in wlicl fantasy and desire are paramount. And as Laplancle and
Pontalis teacl, fantasy is not about a subject wlo pursues and tlen gets,
or does not get, tle object. Ratler, it is all about desires setting, about
being cauglt up in tle sequence of images witl no xed position in
tlem. Teir conclusion, tlat tle subject, altlougl present in tle fantasy,
may be so in a desubjectivized form, tlat is to say, in tle very syntax of
tle sequence in question, seems to be tle very lesson of Lyncls lm.
It would be all too easy to argue, and in some ways Fredric )ameson
already las done so, tlat tle violent, fantasmatic scenarios on display in
:6 primal scenes on American screens
tlese lms represent a debased narrowing of tle transgressions of sex
once envisioned by a sexual revolutionary counterculture. )ameson iden-
ties Blue Velvets violence and sadomasoclism as tle postmodern de-
basement of an earlier ,6os-style transgression. He tlus faults tle lm,
along witl Demmes Something Wild, for its postmodern play witl an evil
(personied in Blue Velvet by Frank) tlat is merely a simulacrum and no
longer really scary. He argues tlat tle lms sadomasoclistic materials
abolisl tle very logic on wlicl tleir attractionirepulsion was based in
tle rst place. )ameson sees tle lm as a parable of tle end of tle sixties,
a parable of tle end of tleories of transgression as well, wlicl so fasci-
nated tlat wlole period and its intellectuals.'
In a sense, )ameson is riglt. Blue Velvet and tle otler lms tlat usler in
violent originary fantasies in tle late eiglties are not politically transgres-
sive in a ,6os, modernist way. But does tlat mean, as )ameson seems to
say, tlat tleir sex is tlerefore pseudotransgressive in a postmodernist way
tlat is listorically inautlentic, unimportant, basically not sexy: To do so
would be to discount tle experience of a generation tlat grew up not witl
Last Tango, Deep Troat, and In the Realm of the Senses, but witl Blue Vel-
vet, Matador, and Nine and a Half Weeks and in tle sladow of tle Meese
Commissions own lorried discovery of a violent, sadomasoclistic side
to sex. In place of )amesons dismissal of sucl lms as mere symptoms of
tle loss of tle sixties, we do better to take tle primal scene seriously as
tle popular staging of a new kind of sex scene for a generation no longer
aligned witl tle ligl-culture Marquis de Sade or witl an idea of sexual
liberation suited to tle antirepressive ideologies of tle ,6os.
Wlen Foucault writes tlat modern society is perverse, not in spite of
its Puritanism or as if from a backlasl provoked by its lypocrisy, it is in
actual fact, and directly, perverse, le describes a general tendency to
isolate, intensify, incite, consolidate, and implant peripleral sexualities.
Tese sexualities lave tlen become stuck to an age, a place, a type of
practice. Sadomasoclistic perversions and sexual fantasies tlat partake
of originary fantasies of seduction, castration, and tle primal scene begin
to become stuck in tle eiglties American popular culture tlrougl tlese
lms. Wlat was particularly unique to tlis age was a new understanding
of sex as a desubjectied scene, more akin to an infantile fantasy tlan
to an adult act witl a telos of disclarge. Te one tling tle sex of tlese
sadomasoclistic primal fantasies is not is sometling tlat can be clearly
seen and leard and tlat in tlat seeing and learing becomes automati-
cally transgressive of previous repression. Dont you fucking look at me!
says Frank repeatedly to Dorotly. Later, Dorotly says mucl tle same to
primal scenes on American screens :;
)erey. In a way, it is also tle injunction to tle audience in a lm wlicl,
unlike In the Realm of the Senses, forbade a more direct look at sex.
If sadomasoclistic pleasures in American movies are now recognized
as pleasures, lowever complicated tley may be witl pain, anal sex be-
tween men las previously been recognized, if at all, as only pain and lu-
miliation, especially to tle one anally penetrated. Since Deliverance (dir.
)oln Boorman, ,;:) anal sex between men las been portrayed mucl as
leterosexual rape was in tle nineteentl centuryas tle fate worse tlan
deatl tlat spoils tle innocence and reputation of its victim. Tis slame
las been compounded, since tle eiglties, by tle knowledge tlat anal sex
is one of tle ways in wlicl iis is spread. On tlis count alone, Ang
Lees staging of pleasurable anal sex between two cowboys wlo spend
a summer lerding sleep ligl in tle Wyoming mountains in ,6 and
tlen conduct an illicit aair over tle following twenty years las deep cul-
tural signicance. Over tle fall of :oo, and continuing tlrougl tle fol-
lowing year in tle mucl publicized run-up to tle Oscars, Lees Brokeback
Mountain (:oo,) became a major cultural eventsometling more tlan
just a movie. Premiering at a number of major international lm festi-
vals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto) in tle late summer and early fall of :oo,,
it beneted from producer )ames Slamuss platformed, gradual release,
picking up steam, as well as controversy, along tle way. As more people
saw it, read reviews, and argued about wletler it was too gay, not gay
enougl, too explicit, not explicit enougl, Oscar-wortly or not, it became
a touclstone, and not only for tle gay community.
At stake in tle lms reception were not only tle quality of Annie
Proulxs source story, or of Lees direction, or of Heatl Ledgers and )ake
Cyllenlaals performances, but sometling very mucl like a primal scenes
rst witnessing of a sex act initially understood by tle inexperienced clild
as pain and only later as pleasure. Altlougl Brokeback Mountain does
not stage tle primal scene as radically and fantasmatically as did Blue
Velvet, Lees more subdued, understated, realistic, and tasteful cowboy
melodrama deals equally witl primal fantasies of seduction, castration,
and tle primal scene of sexual witnessing itself. Consider two instances
in wlicl tle primal-scene witnessing of )ack and Enniss sexual relation
takes place. In one, tle boss )oe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), tlrougl binocu-
lars, sees tle boys romping around tleir camp partly undressed, wlile in
Primal Scene 2: Brokeback Mountain
:8 primal scenes on American screens
anotler, Enniss wife Alma (Miclelle Williams) catcles tlem passionately
kissing tlrougl tle window of ler apartment door.
D. A. Miller, in a long complaint about tle lm, calls tlese images vitri-
ed because tley are views of tle Homosexual viewed by anotler clar-
acter tlrougl glass. Miller argues tlat tley tell us, for lis taste too tleatri-
cally, tlat tlese are anotlers (lomoplobic) perspective. Millers point is
tlat wlenever tle Homosexual is seen as sucl, it is not we wlo are seeing
lim, in that way. We are tlus invited to distance ourselves from wlat tle
claracter looking tlrougl tle glass tlinks. To Miller tlis is an especially
insidious disavowal of lomosexuality itself: we tlink tlat tle lomosexual
does not mean to be lomosexual, tle spectator does not mean for lim to
be so eitler. Wlat is preserved, tlen, according to Miller, is just a vague
lomoeroticism, innocent and ineable, tlat )ack and Ennis slared witl
us and tle scenery on Brokeback Mountain. I will argue in wlat follows
tlat tlis interpretation, wlile it may operate in tlese two instances as dis-
tancing and may be true of a great many representations of lomosexuals
in movies, omits tle lms primary sex scene in tle tent, wlicl is not
vitried and wlicl clallenges us to understand it in a fresl way, not as
a preknown entity. Ratler, we are invited to participate in a seduction into
new sexual knowledge tlat operates in relation to primal fantasies.
I mention my dierences witl Miller now because some of tle ideas
tlat follow bounce o lis emplatic dismissal of tle lm. It is not clear
from lis criticism if Miller wants tle lm to contain more explicit sex
or if le would just prefer tlis gay love story to come more overtly out
of a self-recognized gay culture ratler tlan at least partly out of Proulxs
leterosexual female imagination of sexual desires tlat do not, at tleir
point of emergence, acknowledge tlemselves as gay. It is clear, lowever,
from a footnote tlat Miller sees Lees lm falling slort of Frencl, Cerman,
Italian, and Spanisl precursors of wlat le calls lomocinemaa cinema
capable of disrupting social and symbolic orders, as seen for example in
tle lms of )ean Cenet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and
Almodvar. Hollywood cinema knows only two options: to make lomo-
sexual desire invisible, in a closet intended for general use, or to make tle
Homosexual super-visible, as a minoritized problem. I argue, to tle
contrary, tlat by staging a mytlical primal scene in wlicl lomosexual
desire emerges from sometling tlat does not preexist, and in also staging
tle tlreat of castration against wlicl it emerges, tlat tlis Hollywood lm
precisely does not reduce lomosexuality to a minoritized problem but
makes it a fear, and a desire, sympatletically, and even melodramatically,
felt by all. Tus mucl of tle argument about low gay or not gay, low uni-
primal scenes on American screens :,
versal or minoritized tle lm is, seems misplaced on botl sides. Mucl
more important is low carefully Americans of all sorts not only watcled
tlis lm, as I lave argued about Deep Troat and Last Tango in Paris
(clapter ), but paid attention to tlemselves watcling it.
B. Ruby Ricls claim for tle lm was large: Every once in a wlile a lm
comes along tlat clanges our perceptions so mucl tlat cinema listory
tlereafter las to arrange itself around it. In extolling tle beauties of tle
idyll tle two men lave on tleir mountain, Ricl describes tle rural bliss
of tleir primal scene. In wlat follows I want to pursue tle primary fan-
tasy sense of tlis term, not only as pre-Edenic innocence but in Laplancle
and Pontaliss tripartite sense of fantasies of sexualitys origin, now under-
stood in queer terms.
You know I aint queer, says Ennis Del Mar (Heatl Ledger) to )ack
Twist ()ake Cyllenlaal) slortly after tle two cowboys lave lad word-
less, grunting (simulated) anal sex in tleir tent. Me neitler, says )ack,
Its nobodys business but ours. As tle one wlo initiated tle action, )ack
will, over time, prove more inclined to accept tlis label, to publicize wlo
le is witl it in certain contexts. He will also die in tle end because le
does not keep lis queerness as closeted as Ennis. At tlis point, lowever,
wlat tle two men clearly agree on is tleir sexual riglt to privacya riglt
tlat did not exist for lomosexuals in ,6, tle time of tle lms initial
events. Indeed, tle riglt to sexual privacy is a recently forged one tlat
resonated in tlis :oo, lm witl tle still-reverberating :oo Lawrence v.
Texas Supreme Court ruling tlat struck down sodomy laws.
Lawrence v. Texas
Over and over in tle Lawrence ruling, tle sanctity of lome and bedroom,
associated witl tle riglts of tle normal (propagating) family to privacy,
is extended to lomosexuals: Individual decisions concerning tle inti-
macies of plysical relationslips, even wlen not intended to produce o-
spring, are a form of liberty protected by due process. It suces for
us to acknowledge tlat adults may cloose to enter upon tlis relationslip
in tle connes of tleir lomes and tleir own private lives and still retain
tleir dignity as free persons. Wlen sexuality nds overt expression in inti-
mate conduct witl anotler person, tle conduct can be but one element in
a personal bond tlat is more enduring. Te liberty protected by tle Con-
stitution allows lomosexual persons tle riglt to make tlis cloice.' Te
majority in Lawrence is clear: tle state can no longer criminalize private
sexual conduct, if it does not assert tle riglt to sodomy, it does assert tle
riglt to privacy.
:(o primal scenes on American screens
Te Lawrence v. Texas ruling overturned tle conviction of two men
wlo lad purportedly committed an act of sodomy. Tis act was appar-
ently viewed by two uniformed Harris County, Texas, male police ocers,
answering a call about a man brandisling a gun in an apartment. Tese
ocers discovered )oln Lawrence and Tyrone Carner in Lawrences bed-
room engaged in anal sex. Te specic Texas statutes tlat Lawrence and
Carner oended dened sodomy as deviate sexual intercourse, namely,
(A) any contact between any part of tle genitals of one person and tle
moutl or anus of anotler person, or (B) penetration of eitler of tlese
orices witl an object. Texas law tlus did not dene tle deviate part of
tle act as specically lomosexual, and tlis vagueness would prove an im-
portant part of tle Supreme Court ruling overturning tle previous ruling
of Bowers v. Hardwick. In tlat nineteen-year-old earlier ruling, tle ma-
jority lad declared sodomy to be leinous, a disgrace to luman nature,
and a crime not t to be named. Lawrence v. Texas did not so mucl over-
turn tlis attitude of revulsion as it tempered it witl a riglt to privacy.
Sodomy is a word, says Core Vidal, at tle sound of wlicl everybody
starts to vibrate like a gong. )ustice Antonin Scalias near apoplectic dis-
senting opinion to tle decision is just sucl a vibration and, unlike tle
majority, le says tle word as often as possible. Scalia (correctly) points out
tlat tle majority lad not been bold enougl to assert tlat lomosexual
sodomy is a fundamental riglt, tle way, for example, tle ,; Supreme
Court lad establisled abortion as a fundamental riglt. Ratler, Scalia
notes tlat tle majority simply asserts tlat tlere is no justication for
Texass intrusion into tle personal and private life of tle individual. He
takes every opportunity to vibrate tle gong in contrast to tle euplemisms
of tle majority (wlo prefer terms like private consensual act, intimate
conduct, sexual practices common to a lomosexual lifestyle, etc.).
Wlen Scalia catcles tle court saying tlat tle laws prolibiting sodomy
do not seem to lave been enforced against consenting adults acting in
private, le asks wlat other kind of sex can tlere possibly be: Te oppo-
site of private sex, to Scalia, would be public sex, wlicl is automatically
obscene: surely, le sneers, consensual sodomy, like leterosexual inter-
course, is rarely performed on stage.
Yet tle moment tle two police ocers intruded into tle bedroom to
become tle witnesses of tlis sodomy, tley became a kind of audience
wlose very lorror put in motion tle maclinery tlat would end in tle
liglly publicized Lawrence ruling of :oo. Two years after tlat ruling,
Brokeback Mountain staged consensual sodomy between two men in a
very dark tent as a simulated R-rated movie sex scene available for viewing
primal scenes on American screens :(
by all persons seventeen or older, or any age if accompanied by a parent
or adult guardian. If I nd a certain lypocrisy in tle Lawrence rulings
exalted respect for tle newfound privacy of lomosexuals and a certain
ugly lonesty in Scalias overt lomoplobia at tle idea of staged, public
sodomy, it is because tle majority ruling seems unaware tlat its very as-
surance of privacy also constitutes a kind of publicity. If we lave learned
anytling from tle teaclings of Foucault it is tlat discourses of sexu-
ality, including so-called reverse discourses tlat do not embrace tle acts
named, are forms of publicity in wlicl teclnologies of print, ploto, lm,
video, and digital forms of pornograply lave been particularly important.
Indeed, tle riglts of sexual minorities lave not been gained witlout tle
loud publication of intimate sexual practices tied to particular forms of
media. Te listory of minority sexualities in tle twentietl and twenty-
rst centuries is indissolubly linked, as Miclael Warner, Lauren Berlant,
Cayle Rubin, Ricl Cante, and Angelo Restivo lave all argued, to its me-
diated publicity. Indeed, between tle ,86 Bowers v. Hardwick and tle
:oo Lawrence v. Texas ruling, it is possible tlat tle proliferation of gay
pornograply could lave functioned as tle single most important factor
in tle recognition and acceptance of lomosexual practices oniscene.
Te great irony of Brokeback Mountain is tlus tlat in tle wake of tle
triumpl of tle ideology of tle privacy of consenting adults, and in tle
context of a lm about two cowpokes wlo tlink tleir sexual pleasure is
nobodys business but ours, gay anal sex received its widest publicity
beyond tle contained world of gay pornograply.' It is tlus against tle
background of tlis liberal consensus about privacy in tle striking down
of sodomy law tlat we need to situate tle concealed and revealed sex acts
between Ennis and )ack. In wlat sense is tlis lm also about primal fan-
tasies, and low lave tlese fantasies been queered:
Perlaps tle rst answer to tle above question is tlat tle primal scene
itself, tle fantasy of parental copulation tlat Freud described, is already
in its original form proto-queer. Tat is, before tle dream of wolves tlat
later introduces tle fear of castration, tle image of tle boys motler and
fatler engaged in coitus a tergo is assumed by a pregenital male clild
wlo does not yet understand sexual dierence to be taking place between
sexually undierentiated actors at tle anus. Freud emplasizes tlat tlis
position a tergo proves especially favourable for observation, tlat is,
favorable for tle clild to observe botl tle facial expressions of tle motler
and tle penetration of tle anus. Tus tle primal scene a tergo, as Lee
:(: primal scenes on American screens
Edelman interprets it, gives imaginative priority to a kind of proto-
lomosexuality. Before tle clild needs to repress its identication witl
tle so-called passive position of tle motler, it freely identies witl tle
pleasure (or pain) tlat comes from tle penetration of wlat le under-
stands to be tle anus. According to Edelman tlis pleasure could be botl
tle doing of tle act of penetration and tle experience of being pene-
trated. It is only in tle later dream of wolves, a dream tlat takes place
after tle clild understands sexual dierence and tle tlreat of castration
tlat lies belind it, tlat tle Wolf Man feels terrorized by wlat Freud called
tle boys earlier lomosexual entlusiasm.
Witl tlis primal fantasy in mind, low slall we understand tle simu-
lated public spectacle of sodomy as staged in Brokeback Mountain: How
does tlis spectacle contrast witl tle liberal concept of sex as tlat wlicl
deserves privacy as articulated in Lawrence v. Texas: How does Lees lm
slow its two adult protagonists seduced into tle pleasures of male-male
anal sex despite tleir fears of castration and emasculation: How is tle lm
audience also seduced into a curiosity about, perlaps even an erotic desire
to see, tlis extremely occulted spectacle of seduction:
We lave seen tlat Laplancle and Pontalis argue in Fantasy and tle
Origins of Sexuality tlat certain primary, original fantasies function as
mytls of origin tlat address basic enigmas related to subjectivity. After
tle primal scene of tle witnessing of parental sex proper, tley discuss tle
related fantasy of tle origin of sexual desire. From wlere does it come:
Tis origin is explained, so to speak, by tle fantasy of seduction. In tlis
scenario, tle clild, laving passed tlrougl puberty, recollects seduction
as laving come from outside, from tle adult. For example, as we saw
in Blue Velvet, wlen Dorotly drags )erey from ler closet sle asks lim
wlat le wants. I dont know, comes lis lonest and perfectly innocent
answer. Yet le does lave some inkling of wlat le wants, or else le would
not be tlere. Tougl Dorotly tlen seduces )erey into wanting wlat she
wantsultimately for lim to beat ler in tle act of sexwe recognize tlat
sle lerself gets tlis desire from Frank. Te real origin of desire remains
inaccessible and deeply mysterious, in autoeroticism it is ultimately notl-
ing more tlan an elusive matrix of memories tlat only become signicant
after tle fact.
In Brokeback Mountain )ack and Ennis are also engaged in a primal
fantasy of seduction tlat operates to explain tle origin of an even more
mysterious, and unwanted, lomosexual desire. Ennis, like )erey, tlinks
le knows wlat le wants: to marry a nice girl. But )erey responds to tle
primal scenes on American screens :(
mystery of tle ear and Ennis responds to tle lure of tle wilderness, and
botl young men nd tlemselves seduced into sometling quite dierent.
Seduction begins in Brokebacks very rst scene. Robin Wood argues
tlat a gay spectator would knowingly understand )ack and Enniss rst
meeting as sucl. In long slot, )ack arrives noisily in lis decrepit truck
and kicks tle bumper. Ennis watcles. )ack tlen leans against tle truck,
lands on lips and displaying limself. He takes a few steps toward Ennis,
tlen watcles, uncertain. In close-up, Ennis lowers lis lead, lis face slad-
owed by lis lat. )ack in close-up looks at Ennis witl a lint of a smile. Ennis
looks back and tlen lowers lis lead. Heterosexual, or just not interested:
Or just cautious: asks Wood. Next )ack leans against tle truck, one land
on lis belt, tle otler stretcled out (invitingly: comments Wood) over
tle bumper. He lowers lis lead to look in tle truck window. Te next
slot slows Ennis reected in tlis mirror. A nal slot slows )ack slaving,
using tlis same mirror for tle Boss, due to arrive: Or for Ennis: asks
Tese questions are real. Cay desire does not necessarily preexist in
)ack any more tlan it does in Ennis. Te scene of seduction is tle place of
tle emergence of desire, but if we take seriously Laplancle and Pontaliss
lesson about tle always too early or too late nature of tle upsurging of
desire, tlen it must be seen to come botl from witlin tle subject and
from witlout. )ack is not portrayed as already gay, neitler le nor we can
say wlere tlis taboo desire comes from, tlougl it will, at some point, be
Seduction proper takes place in several scenes around tle campre long
before tle two men get togetler in tle tent. Two lonely rancl lands nd
camaraderie ligl on a mountain, away from tle world, caring for sleep.
Te closed-down, tiglt-lipped, and wary Ennis opens up to tle more
gregarious )ack. Tey talk, eat, and drink, but one of tlem must always
spend tle niglt ligler up from base camp to guard tle sleep. Sexual
awareness emerges as if unconsciously from growing friendliness. Ennis,
for example, speaks of tle apple-sized balls of a coyote le saw on tle
mountain and soon after strips naked to batle. Tougl )ack, viewed in tle
foreground, scrupulously avoids looking at lim, we appreciate tle eort
it takes lim not to look (gure oo). In a series of round-tle-campre
scenes, emotional intimacy engenders subtle signs of attraction. )ack, for
example, takes a piss and comes back to tle re pointing proudly to lis
rodeo-prize buckle, wlicl is also to say in tle direction of lis penis (gure
o). Tougl tlis pointing to lis prize buckle only precipitates a rousing
:(( primal scenes on American screens
argument about tle merits of rodeo riding, tle emotion of argument itself
moves tlem closer. Wlen tle sly Ennis speaks of lis clildlood, )ack ob-
serves tlat tlese are tle most words le las spoken all week. Ennis self-
mockingly adds tlat it was tle most words le las spoken in a year. Under
tle inuence of tle bottle, )ack next breaks out in an exuberant dance
imitating a rodeo rider waving to tle girls in tle standstlougl tle
only person le waves at is Ennis.
Seduction continues at tle next campsite as )ack plays lis larmonica,
Ennis speaks uidly, and tle two men now drink out of tle same bottle.
Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, 2005)
100: Ennis bathes, Jack exerts efort not to look
101: Jack points to his belt after peeing
primal scenes on American screens :(,
)ack loudly sings a lymn tauglt lim by lis Pentecostal motler, wlicl
leads to a discussion of sin in wlicl Ennis confesses tlat tlougl )ack may
be a sinner wlo will go to lell, I aint yet lad tle opportunity. It is tlis
confession of virginity tlat leads into tle seduction proper. Too drunk to
tend tle sleep ligler up on tlis cold niglt, Ennis falls asleep beside tle
campre wlile )ack sleeps in lis usual place in tle tent. Halfway tlrougl
tle niglt, )ack orders a slivering Ennis into tle tent witl lim.
It is dark in tlis tent and director Lee never lets us see exactly wlat
transpires. Nor do we see facial expressions very clearly. We do see, and
especially lear, a general sort of wrestling wlose understanding depends a
lot on our own state of knowledge. For example, we can surmise tlat wlen
)ack reacles over and grabs Enniss land to pull it toward limself tlat
wlat actually lappens is tlat )ack brings tlis land to toucl lis own pre-
sumably erect cock. All we really see, lowever, is Enniss recoil and some
ratler intense wrestling. Wlat interests me especially in tle rst part of
tle scene are two pauses in tle action wlen Ennis and )ack face eacl otler
in momentary standos. In tle rst, Ennis, tlougl locked in ostensible
struggle to elude )acks embrace, leans toward lim ever so sligltly and
tlus gives permission to proceed. At tlis point )ack removes tle denim
jacket in wlicl le las been sleeping. In tle second stando, wlen it be-
comes clear tlat )ack is now undressing limself in preparation, Ennis
struggles again as if to move away. At tlis point, )ack places lis lands on
eitler side of Enniss face. Once again Ennis ceases lis struggle, putting
lis own lands on )acks face and mirroring limwitl tle dierence tlat
his lands form sts (gure o:). Again )ack interprets Enniss stillness as
102: Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis face of
:(6 primal scenes on American screens
acquiescence and proceeds to unfasten lis prize rodeo belt buckle. Tus
)ack is again tle ostensible seducer, but at eacl new stage Ennis las given
small signs of encouragement.
At tlis point, lowever, it is Ennis wlo takes clarge. He turns )ack
around, unbuckles lis own belt lastily, spits into lis land, and tlrusts
into )ack from an upriglt position on lis knees, a tergo more ferarum,
as Freud would say. We lear botl men grunt and pant, and mucl of our
understanding comes from sound. Te visual focus sucl as it is initially
rests on Enniss face and upper body in tlis nonexplicit (simulated) scene,
but tle camera soon tilts down to reveal )ack, face down on tle bedroll,
ass up in tle air. Te camera twice tilts up and down between eacl of
tleir faces, neitler ignoring nor focusing on tle bodies tlat are between.
A loud grunt suggests release, and a cut to tle tent seen from tle outside
illuminated by moonliglt ends tle scene.
If )ack appears to be tle initial seducer, tle one wlo rst knows gay
desire and slows it to Ennis in tle form of lis erection, tlen we would
expect Ennis to be tle one seduced into tlis desire by tle one wlo knows.
But as we lave seen, Ennis is not truly witlout knowledge, le gives per-
mission at eacl stage of tle seduction and, wlen tle time comes, le ex-
pertly turns )ack over, lubricates limself witl spittle, and commits tle act
of deviate sexual intercourse tlat got Tyrone Carner and )oln Lawrence
in sucl trouble in Texas. But now, instead of two slocked and oended
police ocers, a very large portion of tle America lmgoing public above
tle age of seventeen was led to understand, if not to explicitly see, wlat
transpires. Proulxs depiction of tle seduction is very brief, but it makes
one furtler point clear: Ennis ran full-tlrottle on all roads wletler fence
mending or money spending, and le wanted none of it wlen )ack seized
lis left land and brouglt it to lis erect cock. Ennis jerked lis land away as
tlougl led toucled re, got to lis knees, unbuckled lis belt, sloved lis
pants down, lauled )ack onto all fours and, witl tle lelp of tle clear slick
and a little spit, entered lim, notling led done before but no instruction
manual needed. Wlat Ennis seems to want none of is not anal sex, but
to be in tle more passive female position in ittle position of tle anally
penetrated motler as understood by tle Wolf Man in tle primal scene.
Later in tle lm we will see tlat Ennis, like tle Wolf Man, prefers letero-
sexual sex a tergo witl lis wife as well. Compared to Proulxs abrupt lines,
tle lm protracts seduction over its entire rst tlird as we watcl Ennis
warm to )ack, slowly overcoming resistance. We cannot say wlere tlis
desire originates, but tle fantasy of seduction operates as Americas rst
mainstream movie example of tle seduction into lomosexual desire.
primal scenes on American screens :(;
In yet anotler impassioned argument against tle universality of Broke-
back Mountains love storytlis time for seeing tle lm as a specically
gay tragedyDaniel Mendelsoln asserts tlat wlile otler star-crossed
lovers may face familial or etlnic impediments to tleir union, tley do
not despise tlemselves for belonging to tlese familial or etlnic groups.
Capulets, for example, do not despise tlemselves as Capulets and Mon-
tagues as Montagues. In contrast, )ack and Ennis lave been tauglt to
fear and despise queers, and wlen tley nd tlemselves seduced into
queer desire, tley late tlemselves for it, tlougl Ennis, as we slall see, las
reason to late limself more. Tis self-latred is generated in Enniss case
especially by wlat Mendelsoln calls a grim aslback from Enniss clild-
lood. It slows Enniss fatler marcling lis two sons in slow motion to
view tle mutilated remains of an old queer cowboy wlo lad been dragged
by lis dick until it fell o. Enniss narration notes, He made sure tlat I
seen it, and tle lm makes sure tlat we see it by abruptly jumping closer.
In voice-over, Enniss narration adds of lis fatler, Hell, for all I know le
done tle job. Tis aslback, also part of Proulxs slort story, publisled in
,,;, a year before tle University of Wyoming student Mattlew Slepard
was beaten and killed outside Laramie, goes a long way toward explaining
Enniss internalized lomoplobia as a fear of literal emasculation.
Witl tlis scene of castration serving as lis own traumatic primal scene,
Ennis is, as Mendelsoln puts it, and as Ledger plays tle role, a man tor-
mented simply by being in lis own bodyby being limself. For Ennis
to be limself, tlat is, to own up to tle queer desire into wlicl le las
been seduced, is in more ways tlan one to court tle disaster of castration.
However, castration lere is not simply tle fantasmatic paternal tlreat tlat
psycloanalytic tleory likes to posit as tle originary explanation of tle
dierence between tle sexes. Instead, it constitutes a literal punislment
specically meted out to men wlo otler men fear miglt lead tlem down
tlat same patl of seduction. Te men wlo velemently insist on repudi-
ating tle pleasures of tle anus will punisl men like Ennis (wlose very
name ecloes tlis word) for being too mucl like presumably already cas-
trated women. Castration lere is sometling more tlan wlat Laplancle
and Pontalis call tle fantasy tlat explains tle mystery of sexual dierence
to tle leterosexual imagination, it also carries tle added lorror of being
seduced into same-sex desire.
For a cowboy wlose seasonal job is castrating cows,' literal castration
makes for a familiar fact of life. After lis rst niglt witl )ack, Ennis rides
out to lis neglected lerd and nds a dead sleep wlose eviscerated in-
:(8 primal scenes on American screens
nards are a silent reproacl to lis succumbing to seduction. Eacl time
over tleir long intermittent relations wlen )ack urges Ennis to join lim in
making a lome togetler, Ennis is clear tlat sucl a venture risks tle kind
of emasculation-deatl tlat as a clild le saw enacted on tle gay cowboy.
As le later says to )ack, If tlis tling grabs lold of us in tle wrong way,
tlen were dead. Immediately after learning of )acks accidental deatl by
an exploded tire, Ennis suspects, and tle lm pictures, anotler possible
cause for lis deatl: tle blows of a tire iron, a classic tool used in gay-
basling. For )ack, tlis tling had grabbed lold of lim tle wrong way
and tle lm slows us Enniss imagination of )acks deatl even as )acks
wife gives lim tle ocial story of an accident.
In tle slort story Ennis belatedly conrms lis suspicion tlat it lad
been tle tire iron, not an exploded tire, tlat killed )ack, at tle moment
le lears )acks fatler speak of )acks plan to bring anotler one back to
lis rancl. We are left to infer tlat lis involvement witl anotler onea
claracter tle lm esles out brieyis wlat brouglt on tlis murder.
But Proulxs story adds sometling at tlis point tlat tle lm excludes: a
fear-of-castration backstory now involving )ack and lis fatler.
Ennis recalls tlat )ack once told lim tlat as a four-year-old le lad been
severely punisled by lis fatler for tle minor crime of missing tle toilet
wlile peeing. His fatler was furious and wlipped lim witl lis belt. To
furtler impress on lim tle magnitude of lis crime, tle fatler also pissed
on )ack and tlen made lim wasl everytling up. But wlat especially im-
pressed )ack from tlis memory is tlat wlile le was losing me down I
seen le lad some extra material tlat I was missin. I seen tleyd cut me
dierent like youd crop a ear or scorcl a brand. No way to get it riglt
witl lim after tlat. Proulx las Ennis remember )acks recounting of tle
scene just after le las met tlis lard, grudge-bearing fatler. Her narrator
summarizes, )ack was dick-clipped and tle old man was not, it botlered
tle son wlo lad discovered tle anatomical disconformity during a lard
Tat botl )ack and Ennis endure tle tlreat of castration from aloof, un-
loving fatlers is obvious. But wlere Ennis lives lis life in paranoid terror
of losing wlat tle fatler tlreatens to take from lim, )ack appears to live
more comfortably, tlougl also dangerously, laving more readily accepted
and lived witl tle evidence of lis loss. If castration is tle fantasy tlat
explains sexual dierence, tlen it may, in tlis queer context, also function
to explain queer dierence. In tlis case perlaps it explains not just tle
sons lack vis--vis tle fatlernotice tlat )ack does not only say tlat
le is missin wlat tle fatler las but tlat tle fatler also las an excess
primal scenes on American screens :(,
of material, suggesting tlat tle fatlers possession miglt not be tle true
standard of measurement. )acks greater comfortableness in lis own skin
may tlus derive from lis ability to dierentiate limself from a fatler le
does not want to emulate. Here, too, Ennis las not lad tle opportunity
tlat )ack las lad.
)acks relation to tle paternal plallus tlus appears to be less terror-
struck tlan Enniss. Tis may be wlat enables lim, at a later point in tle
lmin a scene not included in Proulxs storyto reclaim tle knife tlat
carves tle Tanksgiving turkey from lis bullying fatler-in-law and to, at
least briey, take over from lim tle role of lead of louselold. In a par-
allel scene also set at tle Tanksgiving dinner table, we see Ennis witl lis
ex-wife Alma, tleir two girls, and Almas new lusband. Unlike )ack, Ennis
does not take over tle carving from tlis upwardly mobile supermarket
manager wlose noisy electric knife stands for everytling Ennis ablors.
Later, at tlis same celebration, Ennis turns violent at Almas mention of
tle many sling trips le took witl lis friend )ack, trips in wlicl le never
cauglt a single sl. Terried tlat someone miglt be looking at lim and
catcl out lis queer desire, Ennis can only ee. He soon learns of )acks
deatl and retreats to tle safety of lis lonely trailer in wlose closet le
keeps tleir two slirtsrelics of tle idyll on tle mountain.
Te lms penultimate slot slows tlis small, cramped trailer closet con-
taining Enniss few possessions and tle two slirts. Tey lave been trans-
ferred from tleir deeply lidden place wlere Ennis found tlem in )acks
closet to a more prominent position on tle swung-open door of Enniss. In
)acks closet tle blue denim of lis own slirt lad been protectively overlaid
over Enniss faded wlite, yellow, and blue plaidbotl blood encrusted
from tle glt tley lad lad at tle end of tleir idyll. Even tle sleeves of
Enniss slirt lad been carefully inserted inside tle sleeves of )acks, like
two skins, one inside tle otler, two in one, writes Proulx. Wlen Ennis
rst discovers tle two slirts, le indulges in tle classic gesture of tle fe-
tislistbreatling in tle smell, feeling tle texture of tle garmentswlile
still standing in )acks closet. Proulx writes, He pressed lis face into tle
fabric and breatled in slowly tlrougl lis moutl and nose, loping for tle
faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of )ack but tlere
was no real scent, only tle memory of it, tle imagined power of Broke-
back Mountain of wlicl notling was left but wlat le leld in lis lands
(gure o).
In a scene not included in tle story, Ennis takes tle slirts downstairs
laving folded tlem so as to render invisible lis own slirt underneatl.
Nevertleless, )acks silently sympatletic motler seems to understand tle
:,o primal scenes on American screens
relation le is liding from tle fatler wlo sits nearby. Sle carefully lelps
lim place tle two slirts in a brown paper bag, emblem, like tle closets
tlemselves, of a life of careful concealment. )acks slirt is more out, as is
)ack limself, wlile Enniss slirt is carefully concealed underneatl. But
at tle end, wlen we see Enniss closet, we may also note sometling tlat
tle story also does not tell: tlat tle relation of tle two slirts las been re-
versed, now it is Enniss liglter slirt tlat protectively, lovingly, envelopes
)acks denim one, wlicl Ennis now carefully buttons. )ust above tle sloul-
der of tle slirt langs a postcard of Brokeback Mountain (gure o(). In
Brokeback Mountain
103: Jacks closet: Ennis discovers the two shirts and breathes them in
104: The two shirts, reversed, in Enniss closet
primal scenes on American screens :,
tlis slrine to loss, Ennis las also memorialized a more open love tlat
miglt lave been.
Compared to tle tawdry glamour of Franks blue velvet, tle old work
slirts of two cowboys could not be more lumble, nor do tley appear to
lave tle same direct sexual function. Yet like Franks blue velvet, tlese
slirts, too, perform a fetisl function (and tle fact tlat tlese slirts lave
fetcled over a lundred tlousand dollars on auction tlrougl eBay would
seem to attest to tleir enduring fetisl value). In tle most classic Freud-
ian sense of tle term, all of tlese garments are substitutes for tle relations
tleir owners can no longer lave. Tey are also disavowals of castration
tlat are testimonials to tle very lacks tley may wisl to deny. At tle siglt
of Dorotlys vagina Frank demands lis blue velvet fetisl as a magical tal-
isman to protect lim from tle tlreat of castration. He cannot lave sex
witlout lis blue velvet. His fetisl is not merely a necessary condition to
tle sexual object but, as Freud puts it, actually takes the place of tle
normal aim and tlus, to Freud, would be judged not simply perverse but
patlologically so.'
Te two slirts, in contrast, do not operate as patlological substitutes.
In tle passage quoted above, Ennis seems to searcl for tle talismanic
function of tle slirts as a means of evoking tle lost object of tle esl and
blood )ack, but le nds it wanting. Tis fetisl will not, like Franks, get
lim o. )acks scent is not in tle slirts, only tle memory of it, tle imag-
ined power of Brokeback Mountain of wlicl notling was left but wlat
le leld in lis lands. Enniss fear of castration, like Franks, las reduced
lim to tle possession of a fetisl instead of tle real tling. But tlis fetisl,
unlike Franks, does not take tle place of tle normal aim, ratler, it serves
to launt lim witl tle recognition of a lost opportunity of a real relation in
wlicl tle sodomitical sex act would no longer be viewed, as Scalia views
it, as a leinous crime not t to be named, but precisely as one of many
possible normal aims. Compared to Franks, tlen, Enniss fetisl is more
on tle side of knowledge tlan of belief. He may wisl to believe tlat )acks
slirt miglt substitute for tle esl-and-blood person, but le knows tlat it
cannot. We miglt call it a fetisl tlat works in tle service of melodrama to
evoke tle acute sense of loss. Tis fetisl evokes tle melodramatic patlos
of an avowal of love tlat is botl too little and too late. Too little in tlat tle
slirts, tlougl more prominently displayed and not literally lidden as tley
were in )acks familial clildlood closet, are nevertleless still in a closet,
too late because tley can only nostalgically evoke a frozen moment of tle
past and cannot facilitate tle actual contact of skins.
However, tle new position of tle slirts, witl Enniss liglt one now
:,: primal scenes on American screens
enveloping )acks darker one, does suggest tlat Enniss own frozen and
private memorial to lack las gained a new symbolic signicance as now
displayed in lis own sad closet. For in placing lis slirt over )acks, le
takes a baby step toward outing limself. No longer liding underneatl
tle embrace of )acks slirt, Enniss slirt now enacts, in place of Ennis
limself, an engulng embrace of )ack. Wlat is most striking, lowever,
is also tle way tlis gurative, fetislistic embrace recalls an earlier actual
embrace tlat took place wlen tley were still young on Brokeback, saved
in tle lm for tle powerful statement of loss at its end. It is a aslback
embedded in a late scene in wlicl Ennis and )ack part for tle last time
after a bitter argument in wlicl )ack famously wisles le knew low to
quit Ennis, and Ennis urges lim to do so. Wlen Ennis breaks down in
impotent self-loatling, )ack embraces lim, precipitating a violent rage
tlat only ends after )ack persists in tle embrace and Ennis nally collapses
to tle ground witl )acks arms around lim: I cant stand tlis anymore,
)ack, le says. )acks embrace of Ennis at tlis point constitutes tle typical
embrace pictured in tleir relations, not unlike wlat we glimpse in tle
tent: A violent, reluctant, and conicted Ennis gives in to )acks amorous,
persistent, and in tlis case nurturing embrace (gure o,). Tis embrace
mirrors tle slirts as initially found in )acks closet: )acks slirt, like lis
arms lere, surrounds and embraces Enniss. But tlis is not tle embrace
tlat las been saved for tle end.
In a bold move, tle lm cuts from tle above embrace to tle smoking
embers of a re. A young )ack stands lalf asleep before an early-morning
campre on Brokeback, Ennis comes up belind lim and puts lis arms
around lim in a nurturing way usually more typical of )ack (gure o6).
Well, now youre sleeping on your feet like a lorse, le says. My momma
used to say tlat to me wlen I was little. He lums a bit of a lullaby and
sways back and fortl still embracing tle sleepy )ack witl lis riglt arm
around lis sloulder and clest. A long slot of tle same pose memorializes
tlis rare moment of intimacy and tenderness in wlicl Ennis, for once,
embraces and comforts )ack before bidding lim good-bye until evening
(gure o;). Te moment las been conjured from )acks memory as a
lappier alternative to tle present scene of bitter farewell. In tle remem-
bered scene, Ennis embraces and comforts )ack and good-bye is only until
nigltfall, as Ennis rides o for lis days sleeplerding on Brokeback, )ack
looks after lim. Tis view of )ack in tle past fondly watcling Ennis depart
is smootlly linked to tle departure in tle present as an angry, bitter )ack
again looks after lim. It is tle last time tley will see one anotler.
Two departures by Ennis, botl of tlem watcled by )ack, tlus follow
Brokeback Mountain
105: Jacks last
embrace of a
devastated Ennis
106: The saved
memory of Enniss
last embrace
107: Long shot
of Enniss last
embrace as
used in the
:,( primal scenes on American screens
two embraces, one from tle past and one from tle present. And tlese
embraces, in turn, eclo tle dierent positions of tle slirt memorials.
Te rst embrace, wlat I lave called tle more typical one, mirrors tle
position of tle two slirts as tley were rst lung in )acks closet: witl )acks
slirt embracing and also liding Enniss. Tis embrace, in wlicl Ennis is
passive and )ack enfolds lim, is still launted by tle tlreat of tle fatlers
discovery and punislment. It is tle reason, as we lave seen, for tle near
total concealment of Enniss slirt under )acks. Te second embrace mim-
ics tle mytlic and more precious saved memory from tle past and tle
slirts as tley are later lung on tle door of Enniss closet. Tis embrace
is comparatively free of tle fatlers tlreat, as evidenced by tle motlers
lullaby and Enniss ability, for once, to enfold )ack in lis own nurturing
embrace. It is mirrored in tle new position of Enniss slirt placed protec-
tively over )acks. Witl tle too-late revelation of tlis earlier embrace, we
discover tlat tlis position may not be so new after all, it simply mirrors
a past we lave not yet seen tlat now comes to stand for wlat miglt lave
In a leated exclange over tle advertising campaign for tle movie, tle
critic Mendelsoln, tle same person wlo clampioned tle lm as a spe-
cically gay tragedy about tle closet, took producer )ames Slamus to
task for seeming to market it as a universal, ratler tlan a gay-specic,
love story. Mendelsolns primary evidence for lis clarge tlat Slamus
clooses tle universality route of obfuscation is tlat tle words gay and
homosexual are never used in tle press kit and tlat tle posters for tle
ad campaign did not slow tle two men embracing, tlus falsifying tle
lms content. Slamus, for lis part, defends tle marketing by saying, No
mainstream lm in listory las been promoted witl as open, proud, and
insistent a celebration of tle love between two men. Tus Slamus insists
tlat tle lm is botl a love story and a gay story and tlat it solicits every
audience members identication witl tle lms central gay claracters. In
tleir debate, Mendelsoln and Slamus occupy tle two binary positions
laid out by Eve Sedgwicks inuential study, Te Epistemology of the Closet:
tle always inadequate eitler-or of a minoritizing gay desire particular to
a specic group of actual lomosexuals (Mendelsolns claim) and a uni-
versalizing view tlat sees lomosexual desire in relation to tlat of otler
sexualities (Slamuss claim). Indeed, Slamuss claim is precisely tlat tle
lms reception, wlicl le masterfully organized, participates in a cultural
moment of slattering tle epistemology of tle closet, a slattering tlat
runs tle risk of destroying tle nonuniversal, specically gay knowledge
previously lidden inside it.
primal scenes on American screens :,,
Of course any lm advertisement, necessarily condensed, will attempt to
appeal to tle most universal possible demograplic and will inevitably fal-
sify a lms content in trying for tle broadest possible appeal. Mendel-
solns minoritizing requirement for tle lms ad campaign would seem to
translate to a poster tlat would slow )ack and Ennis frontally embraced.
Yet as Slamus points out, in a later reply not included in tle New York
Review of Books exclange, frontal embraces are not exactly de rigueur in
even tle most classically romantic of leterosexual ad campaigns (e.g.,
posters for botl Titanic [dir. )ames Cameron, ,,;] and Pride and Preju-
dice [dir. )oe Wriglt, :oo,]). He notes, moreover, tlat tle long slot of
Enniss embrace of )ack from belind (gure o;) is featured as tle central
image of tle lms trailer, underscored witl tle lines, spoken by )ack at
anotler point in tle lm: It could be like tlis, just like tlisalways.
Wlile I believe tlat Slamuss defense of lis ad campaign is convincing
it does not falsify tle lms gay content tlougl it does try to universalize
its appealtle larger question of gay epistemology cannot be answered
because, as Sedgwicks book eloquently argues, and as I lave been arguing
about Brokeback, tle closet constitutes a place of deep contradiction not
easily slattered. Tere is no denitive answer to an argument between
minoritizing and universalizing views of lomosexuality, just as tlere is no
denitive answer between constructivist and essentialist understandings
of sexuality.
If Brokeback Mountain is about tle epistemology of tle closet, tlen it
cannot be about a proud proclaiming of gay love, a denitive emergence
from tle closet into tle briglt liglt of day. If tle lm is tle product of a
postcloset world, it is looking back on an era of tle closet. As I lave tried
to slow in tle previous discussion of wlat langs in tle closet of eacl
man, it is not about slattering tle connement of tle closet, it is about
glimpsing inside and discovering reasons for tlere being a closet in tle
rst place. Ultimately, tlis movies depiction of tle closet concerns some
ratler small rearrangements of wlat langs inside. But wlat is perlaps
most important about tlis representation of tle closet and tle poster art
tlat advertises it is tlat it does not aim to slow us a bold image of illicit
desire, but instead tle tension between desire and tle fear tlat inlibits
but also eroticizes it. Nowlere does Ceorges Batailles observation tlat
tle taboo observed witl fear evokes tle counterpoise of desire wlicl
gives it its deepest signicance seem more apt. Considered from tle
point of view of gay pornograply, Brokebacks famous publicity still (gure
o8) may seem a cowardly avoidance of gay sex, but from tle point of
view of an eros primed by tle tension between fear and desire, it makes
:,6 primal scenes on American screens
for a perfect one: tle two men refrain from toucl but seem tempted to
come closer. Te tension of tle refraining is palpable, and tle eroticism
all tle more powerful. Some feartle fear tlat institutes tle closetis
necessary to tle listorical understanding of tlis desire. Tus tlis particu-
lar image tlat refrains from toucl takes on tension in tle context of tle
trailer image and tle primal sex scene of tle lm itself. And tlis is wlere I
would nally disagree witl Slamus. Te trailer image of Ennis embracing
)ack is not a standard visual representation of erotic love, nor is it open,
celebratory, proud. Ratler, it is a melodramatic wlat miglt lave been,
and it makes all tle dierence in tle world tlat it is a position pictured, as
Freud would put it, a tergo.
As for tle larger argument for tle minoritizing or universalizing view of
Brokeback Mountain, it islike tle false binary of being inside or outside
tle closet, like tle question of wlere desire comes from altogetler, like
tle primal scene itselfundecidable. We do not know low gay desire sud-
denly becomes speakable or representable in a culture. One day lomo-
108: The movie
poster for Brokeback
primal scenes on American screens :,;
sexual desire is lidden, anotler day it is plain as can be. One day )ack and
Ennis are just two cowboys vying for a job, anotler day tley are already
beginning a long dance of seduction. Human sexuality, as Laplancle and
Pontalis note, seems always to be cauglt between tle too early and tle
too late occurrence of tle event. We cannot know wlere tle upsurgings
of desire come from. We are not, and we can never be, on tle same wave-
lengtl about tle origins of desire, tle meaning of castration, tle real or
fantasmatic witnessing of a primal scene. But in :oo, American audiences
encountered a lm tlat powerfully enacted tlese fantasies in ways tlat
lit lome to American audiences, and not just tle art louse crowd. Tis
is wlat also lappened in ,86 witl Blue Velvet. Botl Lyncls small-town
mystery of tle severed ear and Lees vast wilderness of tle West brouglt
primal fantasies of sex lome to tle American leartland.
When I was at university, the flm club always showed In the Realm
of the Senses at the start of a new year to get people to join. It was
full of explicit sex. . . . Thats the benchmark.
mi chael wi nterbottom, 2004
philosophy in the bedroom
Hard-Core Art Film Since
tle ,,os
Altlougl lard-core pornograply lad ourisled in Ameri-
can movies during tle so-called golden age of tle seventies,
and altlougl Oslima Nagisas In the Realm of the Senses
(,;6) lad seemed to augur an era of lard-core art, in point
of fact, by tle late ,8os no more graplic sex appeared on
large, tleatrical screens. Hard-core pornograply ourisled
in tle eiglties witl tle move into tle lome. Hard-core art
lms did not similarly ourisl on eitler big screens or small.
It would not be until tle nineties tlat graplic sex would
again screen in tleaters. By tlis time critics got into tle
labit of distinguisling between two kinds of sex on movie
screens: simulated, sucl as tlat of Blue Velvet and Broke-
back Mountain, in wlicl great care is taken to avoid tle
display of (especially male) sexual organs, and tle unsimu-
lated, in wlicl male and female sexual organs are on display
in action.
It is one of tle goals of tlis clapter to replace tle awkward
philosophy in the bedroom :,,
term unsimulated witl a more appropriate designation tlat American
culture miglt nally be adult enougl to abide: hard-core art. Critics re-
sort to tle term unsimulated to dierentiate tle sexual representations
of art lms witl explicit sex from tle cruder maximum visibility and
overt intention-to-arouse of lard-core pornograply, on one land, and
from tle R-rated simulated sex of tle mainstream, on tle otler. Under
tle Motion Picture Association of America (rv) ratings system tlat
las replaced tle Hollywood Production Code since ,68, lms are given
age-appropriate maturity levels tlat range from C (general, appropriate
to clildren), vo (parental guidance), and vo- (parents strongly cau-
tioned, no one twelve and under allowed) to R (restricted). R signals tlat
a lm contains some adult material. Clildren may see tlese lms only
if accompanied by a parent. Adult material, tlougl never designated as
just sexual, is considered to encompass strong language, violence, nudity,
drug abuse. Tus simulated sex acts tlemselves are not necessarily de-
ned as constituting tlis restricted category, tlougl in practice tley often
are. Te most recently invented category, c-;, admits no one seventeen
or under. Altlougl tlis category does not necessarily imply just sexual
content, it is in fact sex, and especially kinky, nonleterosexual sex and
explicit (nonsimulated) glimpses of it tlat most often lead tle rv to
deploy tle c-; rating. Tis rating is usually considered a commercial
kiss of deatl. Sometimes, lowever, a lm may begin witl an v-rating,
lave a life on tle large screen, and tlen be recut to correspond to c-;
for later lome viewing on ivi.' Wlile slort-duration female nudity is
tolerated in some R-rated American movies, male nudity is not, and an
acute double standard, brilliantly illustrated in Kirby Dicks documentary
Tis Film Is Not Yet Rated (:oo6), also prevails in tle simulated represen-
tations of gay and straiglt sex.
It is tempting to rail against tle lypocrisies of tle rv and its con-
tinuing contribution to wlat I described in clapter as tle articially
long adolescence of American movies. Initiated by tle Hollywood Pro-
duction Code, tlis adolescence is prolonged now in tle rvs patletic
last gasp. Its system of assigning presumably age-appropriate labels avoids
tle outriglt prolibitions of tle Code, but it las undoubtedly contributed
to tle continued arrested development of American movies and audi-
ences. Civen tle stunted opportunities to explore explicit sex on-screen
outside tle realm of lard-core pornograply, it is not accidental tlat most
of tle lms discussed in tlis clapter, witl tle important exception of )oln
Cameron Mitclells Shortbus (:oo6), are foreign. Ratler tlan fume at tle
rvs continued preference in American movies of graplic (simulated)
:6o philosophy in the bedroom
violence over any kind of sex, I would like to clampion tle many ways in
wlicl diverse directors from many dierent countries lave gone all tle
way. In tlis way I lope to suggest low American audiences miglt emerge
from tle infantilizing diclotomy of simulatediunsimulated, concealedi
revealed into a wider range of possibilities.
Hard-core art lms are tle bold inleritors of Oslimas In the Realm of
the Senses even if tley no longer slare tle politics of revolutionary trans-
gression marking tlat singular benclmark lm. Te lms of lard-core
art may be aggressive, violent, lumiliating, desperate, alienating, tender,
loving, playful, joyous, and even boring, but tley are art lms tlat em-
platically do not sly away from explicit sexual content. It is sometling of
a critical truism tlat artworks about sex tlat leave notling to tle imagi-
nation are inferior as art because of tle pornograplic expectations tlat
seem to come witl tle territory. Tis idea las received its most extreme
formulation in Ceorge Steiners diatribe against literary pornograply (one
can only imagine wlat Steiner miglt lave lad to say about contemporary
lm and video pornograply!). Steiner accuses pornograplers of subvert-
ing tle last, vital privacy of sex by doing our imagining for us. Por-
nograplers, le claims, take away tle words tlat were of tle niglt and
slout tlem over tle roof-tops, making tlem lollow. He tlus views tle
rise of wlat I call oniscenitya public display of sex tlat loses tle force
of obscenity by virtue of familiarityas an explicitness tlat leaves tle
imagination impoverisled and tlat infringes on luman privacy. I lave
been arguing tlrouglout tlis book tlat sexual representations, wletler
simulated or explicit, do not necessarily rob tle imagination of sexual
fantasy. Steiners presumption tlat explicit sex acts belong only to tle pri-
vacy of tle niglt fails to understand tle ways words and images feed tle
imagination. Nor does it understand tle listorical clanges taking place
in tle relations of tle luman sensorium to botl tle immediate and tle
mediated world.
Ratler tlan complain tlat movies no longer leave anytling to tle
imagination, we miglt do better to approacl tle imagination as a faculty
tlat perpetually plays witl tle limits of tle given. Clristian Metz las
described tle cinema as a kind of permanent strip-tease wlose wan-
dering framings (wandering like tle look, like tle caress) can even take
back wlat it las already given to see. We do not necessarily need tle
old-faslioned ellipses of tle era of tle kiss for tle imagination to do its
work. Tere will always be ellipses, just not in tle places we once expected
tlem. Catlerine Breillat, we will see below, oers ellipses in plot just as
philosophy in the bedroom :6
previous directors used to oer ellipses of sex. If explicit movies can be
ricl, complex, multitextured, and ambivalent, ratler tlan banal, simple,
and formulaic, tlen so, too, can tle imagination tlat responds to tlem. In
wlat follows I oer an initial typology of lard-core art lm closen from
a range of possibilities.
Wlen tle acclaimed Britisl art lm director Miclael Winterbottom de-
cided to tell tle story of a love aair by concentrating almost exclusively
on tle sexual content of tle relationslip, lis Nine Songs (:oo() immedi-
ately became tle most sexually explicit lm in tle entire listory of Britisl
cinema. In tlis lm Winterbottom stages a very sliglt story about a man
and a woman (Matt and Lisa, played by Kieran OBrien and Margo Stilley)
wlo meet at a London concert, lave sex, and begin a relationslip. Te
rest of tle lm portrays tleir attendance at subsequent concerts (nine
songs from nine dierent concerts), intercut witl furtler sex and small
fragments of meals, lolidays, pillow talk, and mornings after. All of tlis
is framed by Matts sparse voice-over recollection of tle aair as le does
climate researcl in tle icy regions of Antarctica.
All of tle songs in tle lm contribute to a lyrical portrayal of sex. Liter-
ally so, for eacl sex act belaves like a song witl sometling akin to a songs
duration, eusion of emotion, and economy of presentation. But despite
tlis supercial resemblance botl to tle musical sexual interlude of Holly-
wood tradition and to tle sexual number of lard-core pornograply, none
of tle lyrical sex moments are matcled up witl or accompanied by tle
music of tle songs. Instead of adding music to sex, wlicl would lave
amounted to a sort of lard-core r1v, Winterbotton seeks to discover tle
lyricism witlin tle sex, most of wlicl is presented unaccompanied by tle
concert music, or witl just a small bit of piano.
To appreciate Nine Songs one must abandon tle expectation tlat tle
sex scenes will illustrate and tlus become part of a larger plot and clarac-
ter development. Winterbottoms gamblewlicl only partly pays ois
tlat tle sensual substance of a love aair can just as well be captured
tlrougl sexual and musical lyricism as tlrougl dramatic event or ex-
tended dialogue. Te sex scenes, like tle music scenes, oer moments set
apart from everyday life. Yet Winterbottom also keeps tlem remarkably
separate, one from tle otler, respecting tle dierent spaces of noisy pub-
Lyrical Sex
:6: philosophy in the bedroom
lic concert performance and quiet private sexual encounter. Te rst line
is spoken as voice-over as Matt ies over a frozen Antarctic landscape:
Wlen I remember Lisa I dont tlink about ler clotling or ler work,
wleres sles from or wlat sle said. I tlink about ler smell, ler taste, ler
skin toucling mine. Te lm tlen invokes tlese sensuous qualities of tle
aair, witl almost a tlird of tle action taking place in bed.
Te couples sex varies from intense tlrusting (man on top or woman
on top), cunnilingus, fellatio, mild bondage (again, perfectly balanced witl
respect to tops and bottoms), and female masturbation witl a vibrator.
Tougl In the Realm of the Senses may lave been Winterbottoms bencl-
mark, le does not reproduce tle mad love and sexual excess of tlat earlier
lm. Ratler, le clronicles tle male lovers recollections of tle arc of a love
aair tlat reacles its peak at about tle ftl concert and tlat afterward
fades, apparently more quickly for tle woman tlan for tle man. After tle
tlird song, wlile on a brief loliday, Matt declares lis love for Lisa after
plunging into tle frigid sea, yelling I love you. Lisa does not respond.
Later, we see tle couple in tle batltub. Lisa, facing Matt at tle opposite
end of tle tub, casually caresses lis erection witl rst one and tlen botl
of ler feet (gure o,). Te gesture speaks volumes about tle casual inti-
macy and playfulness of tlis middle plase of tleir aair, but also, tlrougl
tle feet, about Lisas sligltly more cavalier attitude toward it. Following
on Matts profession of love, tlis scene suggests tlat wlile Lisa is seriously
engaged in tleir lovemaking, sle is not also equally in love witl Matt.
However, tle plysical part of tleir aair is still on its upward arc. In tle
109: Nine Songs (dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2005), Lisa casually caresses Matts
erection with her feet
philosophy in the bedroom :6
next scene, Matt blindfolds Lisa and asks ler to recount a sexual fantasy,
giving ler a prompt: Youre on a beacl in Tailand. . . . As le performs
cunnilingus sle recounts a fantasy of a woman and a man wlo lave sex
on tle beacl wlile looking at ler. Sle tlen orders Matt to come up lere
and fuck me. He puts on a condom and does.
Pausing to put on a condom would lave been untlinkable in tle
taboo-breaking lms of tle seventies, just as it still is in most mainstream
leterosexual pornograply. Today, lowever, it is axiomatic. Putting on tle
condom automatically signies two tlings tlat are listorically new in tle
world of screening sex: rst, tle awareness of tle danger of sex ever since
tle tlreat of iis became known, second, tle unmistakably recreational
nature of tle sex about to transpiretlere is no question of procreation
as a goal or outcome. (Compare tle kiss between Ceorge and Mary in
Frank Capras ,(6 Its a Wonderful Life immediately followed by tleir exit
from a clurcl, and followed just a few slots later by tle clildren of tlis
On one land, we can see tlat Lisa is tle perfect sexual partner: adven-
turous, aroused, playful, and willing to ask for wlat sle wants. On tle
otler land, we know tlat Matt is recalling tle aair, apparently trying
to comprelend a relation tlat we already suspect did not end lappily.
Indeed, tle moment Matts profession of love is not answered in kind by
Lisa, we expect tlat tle relation will not endure. In keeping witl lis deter-
mination to slow a relationslip through its sex acts, Winterbottom next
slows Lisa confessing tlat sometimes wlen tley kiss sle wants to bite
lim lard enougl to make lim bleed. We see tle couple next at a sex club,
not at tleir usual concert. Te rock concerts are Matts passion, and Lisa
will tellingly opt out of tle next one. Te sex club, lowever, seems to be
ler passion. Sle certainly seems more interested in tle lap dances oered
by tlese women tlan is Matt, wlo soon leaves. During tlis brief unelab-
orated scene, we lear a dierent kind of music: a woman in a recording
sings tle blues. Tougl it is only a snippet of sound, it forces tle realiza-
tion tlat all tle otler music in tle live concerts las been by male rockers.
Wlatever Lisas own song may be, it may not be any of tle eiglt otler
songs we will lear in tlis lm.
)ust as we do not see Lisas experience of tle lap dance, we do not see
tle argument tle couple most likely lad later over Matts departure. Wlat
we do see soon after is Lisa alone in bed witl a vibrator as Matt forlornly
looks on. We can only surmise tlat wlatever tle cause, tle leady ex-
perience of tle beginning of tle aair las now lost steam. Lisa no longer
seems to nd Matt fullling as a lover. After Lisa orgasms sle weeps,
:6( philosophy in the bedroom
perlaps mourning wlat sle now anticipates as tle end of tle aair. We
may recall at tlis point tlat in most of tleir sexual encounters it las been
Lisa wlo las been tle rst to pull away. Now Lisa will cling to Matt, but
it is tle clinging of tle partner wlo best knows tlat tle end is near and
is mourning tle relationslips loss. Soon after, tle couple las tle only ar-
gument we are privileged to see. It is over tries: le put sugar in ler tea,
sle las taken a pill too early in tle day. Tougl tley make up and lave
passionate sex (liglt bondage tlis time, witl Matt blindfolded), all tlat
follows is tinged witl tle melancloly of anticipated loss.
Matts activities in Antarctica frame tle lm and serve as occasional
metaplors for its form: Antarctica, le says, is an exercise in reduction-
ism, its cold landscape is visually juxtaposed to Lisas warm esl, like tle
aair, it is claustroplobia and agoraplobia in tle same place, like two
people in a beda plrase many critics seized on to analogize tle lm
itself. Matt is tle subject wlo speaks, and Lisa is tle object about wlom
le speaks: Sle was twenty-one, beautiful, egotistical, careless, and crazy.
If Lisa often remains a cipler in terms of motivation, so, too, does Matt.
Te mere fact tlat le narrates tle story does not give us any more access
to wlat le is about as a claracter.
If we accept tle lms premise tlat wlat we learn about tle couple must
come from tle substance of tle sexual relationslip,we slould not look for
a narrative explanation for wly Lisa leaves but to tle sex itself. Wlat we
learn from its performance is tlat Lisa is more out tlerebotl more
sexually frank and more sexually demanding: sle reads pornograply out
loud and speaks ler sexual fantasies. Matt does neitler. We also suspect,
from tle lap dance episode and from otler lints about female friends,
tlat sle may be inclined to lave sex witl women. Sle is also clearly more
drug dependent (we see ler snort cocaine more tlan once, and Matt criti-
cizes ler for taking an unidentied pill). Wlen Lisa demonstrates tlat sle
can satisfy lerself tlrougl masturbation witl a vibrator, tle point is not
tle evil of teclnologically aided masturbation or a judgment on Lisa for
engaging in it, but a way of slowing tle disconnect occurring between
tle once passionate couple. Wlile it miglt be possible to invoke judgment
on Lisas witldrawal from leterosexual coupledom, especially given tle
sadness of tle soon bereft Matt, we lave nevertleless been witness to a
liglly nuanced clronicle of an aair presented and understood primarily
tlrougl its many and varied acts of sex. To pay attention to tlis sex is to
understand tlat sometimes tle lottest sex in a relationslip can occur
after tle potential for mutual love las been foreclosed. Wlile tlis also
philosophy in the bedroom :6,
means tlat a certain desperation enters into tle proceedings, aairs can
lave tlis desperation, tlougl rarely tlose depicted in movies.
Tougl tle lm does leave one lungry for more story, particularly for
more of Lisas, tle development, mood, and execution of eacl sexual scene
creates a colerent arc of relationslip. Similarly, tle way Lisa masturbates
alone witl a vibrator wlile Matt sits apart las tle same emotional reso-
nance of a scene tlat miglt slow Lisa eating alone. Sex, like eating, is a
bodily function witl its own automatic pleasure and satisfaction. Indeed,
Winterbottom is on record saying, If you lm actors eating a meal, tle
food is real, tle audience know tlat. But wlen it comes to sex tley know
its pretend. Youd never do tlat witl food and so I started tlinking we
slould make sex real.
Like Andr Bazin, but witlout tlat critics apologetic remorse about
sexual realism, Winterbottom cites tle age-old realist imperative: if one
part of a lm is real, tlen tle rest slall be too. Like Bazin, le wants to
introduce a level of documentary realism to a basic fact of luman life
as basic as eatingtlat las been occluded in conventional movies. But
wlere Bazin drew tle line at real sex, arguing tlat if you slowed real sex
you must tlen slow real violence and, at tle limit, admit tle morally
untlinkable possibility of unsimulated violence, even murder, Winter-
bottoms example of food prompts us to ask if all tle drugs and alcolol
consumed in Nine Songs are real as well. My guess is tlat some are and
some are not and tlat mucl tle same tling can be said about tle sex tle
couple engages in. Not every tlrust tlat we see Matt make into Lisa is
tlat of a certiably erect penis, but we see enougl of tlat penis to believe
more in tle autlenticity of tle rest. Nor does every moan tlat Lisa emits
as Matt performs cunnilingus correspond directly to tle moments tlat
lis lips toucl ler genitals, but we believe in tlem nevertleless. Tere is
often a very ne line between tle real and tle performed in screened sex
acts, just as tlere is witl kisses and witl food tlat could easily be spit
out before swallowed, bourbon tlat is really iced tea, or cocaine tlat is
powdered sugar. Nevertleless, Winterbottoms (documentary) portrayal
of tle sex of lis (ctional) couple represents a signicant assault on tle
leretofore fairly rigid division between pornograplic lard-core sex and
simulated art sex in feature cinemaa division tlat lad only been truly
broken previously in narrative lm by Andy Warlols ,68 Blue Movie and
by Winterbottoms own benclmark, Oslimas In the Realm of the Senses.
Most critics lave been quite careful to distinguisl Nine Songs from por-
nograply.' Even tle notoriously censorious Britisl Board of Film Classi-
:66 philosophy in the bedroom
cation gave tle lm an R rating. Nevertleless, tlis is tle one lm of all
tlose discussed in tlis clapter tlat structurally comes tle closest to con-
ventional pornograply. If pornograply can be dened simply as a string
of sexual numbers lung onto a plot existing primarily as an excuse for tle
sex, tlen, as I lave argued elsewlere, pornograplys closest genre alia-
tion is tle musical in wlicl tle lyrical cloreograply of song and dance
numbers resemble tle rlytlms of bodies in tle sex act. Nine Songs tlus
merges tle lyrical structure of tle musicalin tlis case nine songs by
popular bandswitl tle sex acts performed by Matt and Lisa. If tle lm
were pornograply it would be possible to say tlat it is tle very rst work
in tle genre to possess even lalf-decent music. However, Nine Songs is
not pornograply if we mean by tlat a genre intent on tle maximum visi-
bility of sexual function witl tle accompanying intent to arouse. Despite
its undoubted display of graplic sex, and despite tle fact tlat its display
miglt arouse, it never focuses on tle plumbing details of lard-core invol-
untary display. It is graplic, we miglt say, witlout being pornograplic.
Nine Songs represents one possible, lyrical direction for a new kind of
lard-core art cinema. Winterbottom is an art lm director wlo realizes,
like Oslima before lim, tlat not to speak sex in tle realistic way of wlicl
cinema alone is capable is to leave out an enormous clunk of luman life.
Very few of tle directors I will examine below believe tley are striking
blows for sexual freedom wlen tley portray graplic sex. Yet all feel com-
pelled, like Winterbottom, to be more real about tle often paroxysmic
life of tle esl tlan tleir predecessors.
Lars von Trier is anotler well-known contemporary art lm director
wlose main subject las not previously been sex.'' Nor is lis Dogma-
certied Te Idiots (Idioterne, ,,8, released in tle United States in :ooo)
a sex lm in tle way of many of tle otler lms discussed lere. Tere is far
too little sex in it for it to count as a major contributor to tle new wave of
sexual explicitness. Nevertleless, von Triers decision to include a slort
scene of unsimulated penetrative sex in a spastic orgy (explained below)
means tlat le regarded real sex as one of tle measures of autlenticity in
tle new wave of cinema le lelped launcl.
Te so-called Dogma manifesto, originally signed by von Trier and
Tomas Vinterberg in ,,, (lence tle title Dogma ,,), was rst and fore-
most opposed to tle stiing creative constrictions of big-budget, big-
Idiot Sex
philosophy in the bedroom :6;
star, big-eects lmmaking. Te manifestos ten Vows of Clastity were
aimed lalf-seriously at tle restoration of purity to a medium tlat tle
original cosigners deemed to lave been corrupted by complex cinematic
eects.' Most of all, von Trier, Vinterberg, and tle later joiners wanted
to return cinema to a more spontaneous, emotionally autlentic medium
witl neitler fake blood nor fake tears by adlering to tle discipline of tle
Dogma rules. Te nal words of tle vow read: My supreme goal is to
force tle trutl out of my claracters and settings. I swear to do so by all
tle means available and at tle cost of any good taste and any aestletic
considerations. Tus I make my vo oi cns1i1v.'
Von Triers vow would seem to require, according to lis own interpreta-
tion of tle rules, tlat sex scenes, like crying scenes, derive from autlentic
feelings. )ust as tle director would expect tle tears of a crying scene to be
real, le would, in tleory, expect erections and penetrations to be real as
wellgood taste be damned.' Liberated from commercial constraint
by tle Vows of Clastity, von Trier was determined witl Te Idiots to
emotionally and plysically go all tle way. Wlat else could le do in a lm
tlat tlematized tle struggle to arrive at a core of autlenticity tlrougl tle
teclnique of releasing ones inner idiotliterally acting like a mentally
clallenged spastic in botl public and private places:
Te lm is about a commune of dissidents opposed to tle inautlentici-
ties of polite Danisl society. Tey inlabit an old villa in an upscale neigl-
borlood. Teir leader, Stoer ()ens Albinus), is a tyrannical, unbalanced,
and clarismatic dictator, not unlike von Trier limself, wlo seems to need
to irt witl emotional disaster to create. Part performance art project,
part political intervention into tle well-oiled maclinery of Danisl society,
Stoer eggs tle group on to more and more risky spectacles of spas-
sing in publicrestaurants, swimming pools, tle door-to-door peddling
of patletic Clristmas ornaments, even a scene in wlicl tley encounter
a group of persons witl real Downs syndrome. Tey regurgitate food,
drool, get lelp going to tle batlroom, and generally expose wlat look like
involuntary bodily functions to tle dismay of fellow citizens and to tle ap-
preciation of one anotler. It is never quite clear wlat tlis ultimate spas-
sing performance miglt be, only tlat it is in process. Stoer, for example,
urges tle group to take tleir idiocy back witl tlem to tleir families and
professions wlere, because tley care more deeply about low tley are
regarded, it will be more meaningful. Many balk at tlis command. Stoer
limself sets tle tone in a scene of total freak-out in wlicl le runs naked
tlrougl tle streets of tle staid neiglborlood. Rebels witl an ambiguous
causeand in tlis sense not unlike tle Dogma movement itselfvon
:68 philosophy in the bedroom
Triers idiots seem less interesting wlen engaged in simple exercises to
pater les bourgeois and more interesting wlen delving into more danger-
ous personal and interpersonal terrain.
Civen tle logic of a story about bodily spassing as a device for seeking
autlenticity, it is not surprising tlat one of tle communes celebrations
slould turn into a spastic orgy. At a birtlday party for Stoer, most of tle
idiots arrive in claracter. Wlen asked to propose a game for tle group
to play, Stoer proposes a gang bang. Sure, Id love a spasser fuck, re-
plies one of tle women, wlo promptly disrobes and lies down. Te otlers
get naked too, and tle men display erections amid a confusing tumble of
bodies. Wlen one naked woman ees tle louse, tlree naked men pursue
ler in a clase across tle grass. But tley clumsily miss in eacl of tleir
attempts to tackle ler. Wlen tley do lave ler on tle ground, all dissolve
in giggles. More spastic group grope tlan gang bang, tle orgy glimpsed
inside tle louse is brief, good-lumored, and playful: out of a mass of
intertwined bodies, we see only a brief moment of penetration. Te willed
spastic belavior of tle group tlus nds a correlative in tle involuntary
spasms of tle sex act.
Since many of tle actors were unwilling to perform real sex in tle orgy,
von Trier brouglt in professional porn performers wlo actually did tle
requisite penetration. If not in violation of tle letter, tlese body doubles
appeared in agrant violation of tle keep-it-real spirit of tle Vows of
Clastity. Nevertleless, tlese very brief lard-core glimpses color tle
next scene of simulated sex. After all tle faux idiots lave performed tleir
spastic orgy, two of tle more genuinely troubled individuals get togetler:
)osepline (Louise Mierite), wlo is later retrieved from tle group by a
fatler worried tlat sle las not been taking ler medication, and )eppe
(Nicolaj Lie Kaas), wlose wlole being never relaxes from a state of awk-
ward dis-ease. )osepline lad gotten naked at tle beginning of tle orgy,
but lad tlen ed tle room. )eppe, wlo lad lovered about its perimeter,
comes up tle stairs lalf-undressed limself and sees tle naked )osepline
In contrast to tle free and easy, good-lumored, and explicit sex of tle
orgy, in wlicl a spasser fuck is portrayed as a frenetic, giggly grope, we
now see two fragile people, already uncomfortable in tleir own skins,
already uncomfortably close to tleir inner idiots, toucling one anotler
awkwardly. )osepline stands facing a wall, sle wlimpers and issues inar-
ticulate cries. )eppe approacles ler and tlen sits on tle bed. )osepline
goes to lim and awkwardly toucles lis naked tligl. Tougl tlis gesture
is an inquisitive probe into lis sexual receptivity, it is, like many of tle
philosophy in the bedroom :6,
sexual gestures discussed in tlis clapter, not one tlat las been mucl seen
at tle movies. And tlis seems to be partly tle point. Tis is a couple tlat
seems to lave missed out on tle kind of carnal knowledge to be gained
from screening sex. )eppe, especially, seems not to understand tlat to
move into tle domain of toucl is to give up some of tle domain of siglt:
le keeps trying to see )oseplines face wlile smelling and feeling it at tle
same time. Tis lolding close of faces, yet witlout tle conventional fore-
play of tle kiss (tle moment in wlicl siglt is typically given up), intro-
duces a peculiar tension tlat makes strange all tle otler familiar gestures
of leterosexual sex. Wlere in tle orgy one miglt say tlat tle idiots were
fake (acting out idiot personas) and tle sex was real, in tlis scene, tle
idiots seem more real and tle sex is faked.
After a pause in wlicl tley look at one anotler and )osepline lolds
)eppes face in ler lands, le awkwardly lunges. Te lack of continuity
between one slot and tle nextone moment )eppe las lis slirt o, tle
next moment it is ononly enlances tle sense of tle spontaneity of tle
moment. Tougl all we see is tle very conventional missionary position
of a clotled man lying atop a naked woman, tle plysical connection,
coming from sucl a space of awkwardness, is electric. )osepline professes
love at one point, weeps uncontrollably at anotler, and seems to lose ler
idiot persona for sometling even more real: an intimacy botl frigltening
and tender. It would be a mistake to conclude, lowever, tlat visual discre-
tion lere makes possible a nuance tlat tle brute explicitness in tle earlier
scene does not allow. For it is tle spastic, freewleeling, lard-core orgy
(tlougl censored in all American prints, witl distracting black boxes
placed over genitals) tlat provides tle emotional context for, and contrast
to, )eppe and )oseplines intimate connection.' Tis connection will pay
o furtler in tle subsequent scene during wlicl )oseplines fatler re-
trieves lis emotionally disturbed dauglter from tle commune and )eppe
tlrows limself lelplessly on tle departing car taking ler away.
In tle recriminations tlat follow tle loss of )osepline to tle group,
Stoer again clallenges tle members to take tleir contrived idiocy lome
to tleir real lives. One by one tle more normal members of tle band of
idiots prove tley lack tle courage. Only Karen (Bodil )orgensen), an older
woman wlo las more sincerely entered into tle activities of tle group
(and wlo, like )osepline, las an emotional fragility tlat puts ler in close
toucl witl idiocy), dares to do so, and witl devastating personal conse-
quences. In an excruciating scene we see ler reunited witl tle family sle
lad abandoned to join tle idiots. In tlis scene we learn tlat following tle
deatl of ler young clild, sle lad walked out on ler lusband, motler,
:;o philosophy in the bedroom
fatler, and sisters. As we watcl ler clew and tlen extrude tle unswal-
lowed cake and coee served at tlis painful funereal family gatlering, we
realize tlat for Karen idiocy las ligl stakes. It deeply oends ler family
and seems to permanently burn ler bridges to tlem. At tle urging of ler
communal companion, Karen tlen leaves ler family. Te lm ends at tlis
moment of devastating idiocy.
Te sex in tlis lm is only a part of von Triers larger plan of seeking
greater autlenticities of performance. It is just one of many bodily ac-
tivities on wlicl le seeks to refocus tle attention of cinema. Tougl le
cleats tle most on lis Dogma vows wlen it comes to sex, tle attenua-
tion of tle sexual scene, tle ability to see a moment of sex between two
idiots beyond tle familiar clicls of dominant commercial traditions, is
nevertleless tle most memorable aspect of tlis lm. A long way from
Winterbottoms lyricism, idiot sex seeks to unsettle our very expectations
of sexual performance.
Te acclaimed stage and opera director Patrice Clreau las said in sev-
eral interviews tlat le wants lis lm sex scenes to begin wlere otlers
normally end.' Tis means tlat tley will lave greater duration certainly,
but also tlat tley are constructed as dramatic wloles witl gestures tlat
function almost like dialogue, as a call-and-response in wlicl body parts
normally lidden come into play.
Clreaus Intimacy (:ooo) is a Frencl-produced lm set in London,
adapted from a novel by Hanif Kureisli. It is Clreaus rst lm in Eng-
lisl. In some ways it oers an anglicized and downscaled lard-core ver-
sion of Last Tango in ParisDavid Denbys review calls it Last Tango in
Lewisham.' It features regular Wednesday afternoon meetings between
a man and a woman wlo abandon tlemselves to passionate sex witlout
so mucl as exclanging names. Te man, )ay (Mark Rylance), will prove to
be a lead barman and divorc wlo lives in willful, antibourgeois squalor
wlile undergoing a midlife crisis. Te woman, Claire (Kerry Fox), will
prove to be a motler and sometimes actress married to a cab driver. )ay
soon nds limself impatiently waiting for tle appointed lour, but instead
of developing a relationslip and getting to know tle woman, le surrep-
titiously follows ler, witnesses ler amateur tleatrics, and strikes up an
acquaintance witl ler lusband and son. More emotionally needy tlan
Claire, yet unable to slow it, )ay cannot abide tle fact tlat sle seems con-
Urgent Sex: Last Tango in Lewisham
philosophy in the bedroom :;
tent witl tleir anonymous Wednesday assignations in wlicl tley barely
speak. After lis stalking nearly ruins ler marriage, le makes a plea for ler
to stay witl lim. Instead, sle las sex witl lim one last time and leaves.
Te lm opens witl urgent, lurried, and explicitly penetrative sex be-
tween tlese near strangers. Mucl of tle rst scene slows tlem struggling
desperately to get a better leveraged position from wlicl to tlrust at one
anotler. Te diculty of obtaining tle ideal leverage creates a kind of
poignancy as tle two bodies, so separate in tle rest of tleir lives, work
desperately lard to maintain an always imperfect plysical connection
tlrouglout tle prolonged scene. One way of registering tle dierence be-
tween ,;os art sex lms and tlose of tle new millennium is to compare
tlis lms rst sex scene to a similar scene of simulated rst sex between
Paul and )eanne in Last Tango in Paris.
Recall tlat Bernardo Bertoluccis ,;: lm also begins witl an urgent,
animal act of lust between strangers in an empty apartment, also ending
on tle oor, also emplasizing wlat Pauline Kael called thrusting, jab-
bing eroticism.' It is perlaps not surprising tlat wlat seemed slockingly
real in ,;: now seems remarkably stylized and abrupt. Art lm audi-
ences, I would venture, lave grown more familiar witl a certain dura-
tion in tle sex acts gured on-screen, wletler from tle often absurdly
long, extremely graplic scenes of lard-core pornograply or tle tiglter
interludes of tle Hollywood mainstream. Screened today, tle Tango scene
seems remarkably slort (a little over two minutes) and arcl, especially tle
moment at tle end wlen )eanne dramatically rolls away from Paul like an
overly entlusiastic actor biting tle dust.
Botl of tlese initial acts of sex portray urgent lust between individuals
wlo will fail to connect as enduring couples. In comparison to tle stylized
tango of Bertolucci, lowever, Clreaus lm emplasizes tle vulnerability
of tle couple wlose naked bodies exude a desperate desire. Nor does le
invoke a nudity double standard. Claire las a sliglt belly and a melan-
cloly need. )ay is slender witl a receding lairline, a lungry look, and sad
eyes. He undresses rst. Wlere Bertoluccis camera lolds lis couple at a
(respectful, goldenly lit) distance, tle graplic sex of Clreaus couple is
seen in a cold, bluisl liglt and from mucl closer views. Tese views are
cauglt up in tle urgency of tle act, tlougl not so mucl so as to imply
tle slakiness of a landleld camera tlat is itself in tle action. We become
aware tlrougl tlis closeness of tle actual plysical exertion involved: low
tle bodies pant and lose breatl, low awkward it is to take o clotles in
a lurry, low one or tle otler must occasionally rest before pusling on,
low Claires breatling is tlrougl ler nose wlile )ays outriglt pant is
:;: philosophy in the bedroom
tlrougl tle moutl and partially voiced. Most of all, we become aware of
tle duration of tle act (wlicl, at tlree minutes in tlis rst scene, is a full
tlird longer tlan tlat in Last Tango).
Te couples second meeting is almost as wordless. Tey lunge at one
anotler greedily wlile still dressed. Tey tlen stop abruptly, making a
conscious eort to savor tle experience, and to slowly undress. Tey kiss
naked on tleir knees before one anotler. Claire strokes )ays erect penis
witl tle palm of ler land as le lies on lis back. Sle begins at tle base
and strokes up its lengtl, pressing it against lis abdomen (gure o).
Wlile I do not suppose tlat tlis gesture is at all uncommon in tle ges-
tural repertoires of leterosexual sex, I found myself slocked to see sucl
an intimate gesture on lm. So often in mainstream movies womens ges-
tures seem organized to deny prior familiarity witl tle movements of
sex. It comes as a surprise, for example, in Alfred Hitclcocks Notorious
(,(6) to see Ingrid Bergman using tle back of ler ngers to stroke Cary
Crants ear in a gesture of intimacy tlat speaks volumes about ler clar-
acters sexual experience and tle awareness of ler own desire.' Similarly,
tle lunger, urgency, and desire of Claires gestures are unprecedented in
any known repertoire of lard-core cinematic representation. Tougl sle
strokes tle erect penis, sle does not oer tle kind of reverential penis
worslip tlat so commonly occurs in lard-core pornograply and wlicl
is usually designed to slowcase tle peniss outward extension from tle
male body in plallic display. Ratler, we feel tlat sle feels botl tle esly
110: Intimacy (dir. Patrice Chreau, 2001), Claire strokes Jays penis against his
philosophy in the bedroom :;
vulnerability of tle organ as well as its pulsing lardness. Most important,
tle gesture makes us believe in tle reciprocity of one toucled body part
to anotler.
In tle next position, tle couple is locked togetler in intercourse and
ends up on tleir side, lolding on to one anotler desperately. Unlike por-
nograply, no eort is made to get in to see tle sexual organs, yet to privi-
lege tle view of insertion and extraction, tle previous slot of stroking
(like tle previous glimpse of penetration in European releases of von
Triers idiot orgy) lends credence to otler acts tlat are less graplically
penetrative. We believe, in otler words, tlat tlis couple is connected,
wletler tley really are or not. Clreaus camera even backs o, adopting
several more remote vantage points, including a nal one tlat moves all
tle way down to tleir feet and tlen looks up tleir legs. From tlis per-
spective, eacl tlrust by )ay yields small jiggles in tle back of Claires leg
and tligl, wlicl are wrapped around lis body (gure ). Teir faces and
clests grow usled in tle leat of tleir sustained grappling.
Compared to tle lypervisible penetration and spraying ejaculate of tle
money slots of lard-core pornograply tlat tend to isolate organs for
individual display, tlis momentary connection emplasizes tle desper-
ate tenuousness of Ceorges Batailles continuity tlat disappears back into
discontinuity. We understand tle poignancy of eacl lalf of tle couple
rediscovering tlemselves as separate beings. Wlile Last Tango in Paris
lad also attempted to dramatize tle urgency of tle couples need, its cou-
plings seem comparatively stylized. Tougl one really needs tle moving
image to appreciate tlis, tlere is sometling quite toucling about tle way
Foxs Claire nds lerself witl ler left leg poised on )ays ass (gure :).
Te same leg tlat lad jiggled in response to lis desperate tlrusting now
returns to being just an ordinary leg, indicated tlrougl a tiny, mundane
movement of ler foot tlat reveals it to no longer be attacled to tle cen-
ter of ler pleasure. )ays nal and only line, Next Wednesday, is tlat a
Wednesday too:a minimalist question about tle future of tleir con-
nectionsis left unanswered, adding a note of poignancy.
Neitler tastefully erotic nor insistently lard-core, Clreaus lm sur-
prises. It makes us realize low impoverisled are tle gestures and emo-
tions of most cinematic sex acts. But lere, perlaps, we need to examine
our terms. How slall we describe wlat actors do wlen tley lave explicit
sex in art lms: Acting implies artice, becoming precisely wlat one is
not, tlougl drawing on wlat one las been to create an appearance tlat
is credible, tlat gets into tle role. To act a scene of sex is, in tlese explicit
:;( philosophy in the bedroom
moments, not only to engage in acts tlat act as tlougl tley were sex, it is
also, sometimes, to lave sex as well.
If an actor is asked to express grieflet us say to weep over tle body of a
dead loverit is entirely possible tlat tle actor will feel grief, not actually
for tle claracter posing as dead, but tlat a real quality of grief, possibly
connected witl some real loss in real life, will be conjured for tle benet
of tle scene, to make it true. Te more genuine tle tears, tle more tley
come from witlin tle body of tle performer (ratler tlan, say, as eects
elicited by glycerin), tlen, presumably, according to tlis etlos, tle better
tle performance. In a sex scene, lowever, actual sexual intimacy witl
anotler person must take place, wletler or not one really feels desire for
111: Each thrust by Jay yields small jiggles in Claires leg
112: A leg and foot go back to being just that
philosophy in the bedroom :;,
tlat person or wletler one really comes. Tis may be one of tlose occa-
sions wlere tle contemporary sense of tle word performanceconnoting
an avant-garde edge clallenging tle more safely contained boundaries of
acting and roleis more appropriate. If performance is tle art of opening
tle body of tle performer up to tle plysical and emotional clallenges of
tle situation being performed, tlen Clreaus lm, along witl tlose made
by Winterbottom and von Trier, can be said to require tle performance of
sex: tle plysical motions and tle accompanying emotions tlat miglt be
more real tlan just acting.
Unlike Winterbottom, von Trier, and Clreau, tle Frencl director
Catlerine Breillat las single-mindedly explored womens sexuality
tlrouglout a long career as botl a writer and a lmmaker. Breillat began
as a teenager witl tle publication of a novel, Lhomme facile, wlicl was
immediately banned in France for its sexual frankness. Sle also lad a
small role in Last Tango. Since tle mid-seventies sle las continued writ-
ing novels, wlicl often read like sketcles for future lms, and tlen making
lms from some of tlem. Her rst lm, Une vraie jeune lle (,;6), an
adaptation of ler tlird novel, is tle story of tle erotic fantasies and sexual
awakening of a brooding adolescent girl during ler summer vacation
from sclool back lome on tle family farm. Tis girl plilosoplizes before
ler mirror in voice-over: I cannot accept tle proximity of my vagina
and my face. And indeed, tle lm follows tlrougl on tlis premise as sle
goes back and fortl between attraction toward nascent sexual urges and
powerful revulsion. Denied distribution in France, tle lm las only re-
surfaced in tle ,,os along witl a new wave of sexually oriented lms and
especially witl tle controversies surrounding Breillats more recent, sexu-
ally explicit Romance (,,,), Fat Girl ( ma soeur! :oo), and Anatomy of
Hell (L anatomie de lenfer :oo().
In all Breillats lms, sexual desire emerges as a liglly ambivalent ple-
nomenon. It is often a powerful attraction, but it is also a source of slame
and compromise. Most fundamentally, it is sometling tlat ler female
claracters are destined to negotiate, botl witlin tlemselves and witl
tle men witl wlom tley lave sex. Self-conscious, self-reexive beings
contemplate tlemselves and wonder about tle conjunction of conscious
tlouglt and intention witl animal lust. Sex may be a pleasure, but it also
Sexual Humiliation: Catherine Breillats Philosophy in the Bedroom
:;6 philosophy in the bedroom
causes pain and lumiliation. Te esl is botl sublime and ridiculous. To
be a virgin is to carry around an enormous burden. To lose virginity can
be a negotiation of enormous bad faitl.
In Breillats critical breaktlrougl lm Romance, Marie (Caroline
Ducey), a young elementary sclool teacler, is sexually spurned by tle
boyfriend witl wlom sle livesa coldly narcissistic male model. Proof of
tlis boyfriends lack of interest is dramatized in tle limpness of lis penis,
wlicl Marie tries unsuccessfully to arouse via fellatio. Humiliated, Marie
leaves tleir bed late at niglt and prowls a bar. Sle seeks merely to prove
ler desirability to a man. Entering tle bar, sle ever so sligltly brusles by
a bronzed, golden lunk of a man seated at a stool (Paolo, played by Rocco
Siredi). As soon as sle passes, we see lim take ler in witl all lis senses.
He perks up, lalf rising from lis barstool. Tey exclange looks and sle
glories in lis interest. Teir dialogue is an eloquent mating ritual in wlicl
eacl of tlem concocts a lie tlat may also be a partial trutl: Marie claims
to be married but restless, tle man claims tlat lis wife is dead and tlat
le las not made love for four montls.
Outside tle bar, in Maries car, tle couple makes out eagerly. Maries
voice-over informs us low lungry sle is for tle miracle of a stranger
making love to ler, for tle access it gives ler to a pure, clildisl desire.
However, tle point of tle lm is never simply to depict tlis desire but
ratler to slow low dicult, complex, and slort-lived pure desire can
beindeed, low mucl it may be mixed witl disgust, low mucl work
must be invested in its aclievement, and low complex tle power-pleasure
relations between male and female can be. Soon after Marie exults in tle
purity of ler abandon, tle lover, Paolo, wlo speaks witl a tlick Italian
accent, requests tlat Marie give lim a blow job ( faire la pipe). In many
lms sucl a request would be used to mark tle tawdriness of tle aair or
tle male lovers lack of respect for tle woman. Here, lowever, given our
knowledge of Maries earlier tlwarted desire, sle is not insulted. Sle only
informs Paolo tlat sle would be lappy to do so, but not as tleir rst sex
and not in a car.
As in all ler lms, Breillat is as interested in tle details of sexual nego-
tiation as in tle sex itself. Several scenes later tle two lovers are nally
in bed, negotiating again about sexual position. Trouglout tle scene, a
naked, but ever cerebral Marie strains to remain emotionally faitlful to
ler cold and absent lover wlile still seeking plysical satisfaction witl tle
warm and present Italian one. Siredi, wlo plays tle lover, is Italys best-
known male porn star, making lere tle kind of real crossover tlat Ameri-
can porn stars lave only dreamed of making. In tlis scene, we see low
philosophy in the bedroom :;;
tlorouglly Breillat departs from tle Last Tango double standard model
of sexual display. Te mans bodywarm, bronzed esl and prominently
erect penisis more on display tlan tlat of tlis pale, etlereal, and small-
breasted woman. For once tle man is body, tle woman is mind, as evident
in Maries ongoing voice-over plilosoplical reections on tle sexual re-
lationa veritable plilosoply in tle bedroom in tle grand tradition of
tle Marquis de Sade.'
Te scene begins in tle interlude between one bout of sex and anotler,
at precisely tle point at wlicl postcoital conversation, and plilosopliz-
ing, become possible. Paolo, somewlat reluctantly, puts on a new con-
dom. Marie las evidently insisted on it tlougl le protests tlat le las
not lad sex for four montls and so is clean. Marie observes tlat wlen
tley rst lad sex le lid tle application of tle condom, but tlat now le
seems to aunt botl penis and condom. Like Viva in Blue Movie, sle
explains tlat sle does not like to watcl cock. Nevertleless, sle strokes
lis briey, wlile still making small talk about tle used condom, wlicl
sle briey lolds up and verbally compares to tle tampons sle some-
times lides under tle bed wlen laving sex during ler periods. Her voice-
over explains tlat sle is intrigued by disgusting tlings. Sle also opines
out loud tlat condoms make guys go soft. Sle complains tlat many men
(tlougl obviously not Paolo) cannot get lard enougl: Look at any porno:
Cirls lave to stu limp cocks in tlem. Tis tleme continues in a dia-
tribe against badly slaped cockstlose tlat are too tlin, too crooked,
too pointy. Wlen sle turns ler back to Paolo le asks if sle wants it in tle
ass. Sle says not yet, but tlat sle prefers not to face lim during sex.
Only at tle point tlat le penetrates ler from belind does Marie stop
talking. Civen Maries reference to porno, not to mention tle presence of
Siredi limself in tle lm, a comparison of tlis sex scene to pornograply
seems in order. One obvious dierence in Breillats sex scene is tle pres-
ence of tle condom, discussed, argued over, and displayed in botl its used
and unused state. In contrast, condoms are almost never displayedlet
alone argued overin leterosexual pornograply. In Romance tlis pro-
saic detail becomes an integral part of tle drama of tle couples sex. A
second obvious dierence is tle relative unimportance of genital sex once
tle erect penis las been registered as present. Instead of pornograplys
conrming close-ups of meat and money slots, Romance presents tle
couples encounter in one long take tlat slows tlem on tle bedMarie
on ler stomacl witl ler back to Paolo and Paolo on top. Te camera pans
a little to tle riglt at one moment to take in tleir lower bodies, it pans a
little to tle left to concentrate on tle couples faces and upper bodies, and
:;8 philosophy in the bedroom
tlen continues to subtly slift attention between lower and upper lalves,
in tension, in tle words of Breillats earlier leroine, between vagina and
Marie proers only ler back to Paolo and later refuses la tendresse of
kisses or cuddling. Her witllolding seems to be part of ler larger project
of remaining emotionally faitlful to Paul, even as sle seeks sexual release
witl Paolo. Her voice-over at tle conclusion of tle scene explains tlat sle
does not want to see tle men wlo screw ler: I want to be notling more
tlan a lole . . . tle more gaping tle lole, tle more obscene, tle truer it is,
tle more I surrender. Its metaplysical. I disappear in proportion to tle
cock taking me. I become lollow. Tats my purity. Marie las nally taken
tle sensual pleasure tlat lad been missing in ler life witl Paul, but ler
pleasure in ler new lover is guarded, ambivalent. Tougl sle articulates
a desire to disappear, in fact sle seems to try lard not to give lerself up
completely to tle experience. Sle cannot fully aclieve wlat ler pliloso-
ply in tle bedroom desires.
In tle rest of tle lm Marie will continue to seek tle sexual release sle
cannot nd witl tle man sle loves, nding ler greatest release, in Breil-
lats usual celebration of paradox, witl ler decidedly unalluring boss
tle sclool principalwlo applies tle intricate knots of bondage. Tougl
some form of conscious lumiliation does seem to be a key element of all
of ler sexual experiences (most important in tle sexual experience sle is
denied by tle man sle loves), tlis does not mean tlat Marie las found,
like O in Te Story of O, ler inner masoclist. Ratler, as Liz Constable las
argued, tle experience of bondage witl tle older sclool principalin
many ways tle exact opposite of ler bossy control of Paolo in tle scene
described abovedoes not mean tlat Marie discovers lerself tlrougl
tle perversion of a bondage to wlicl sle submits, but ratler tlat sle
discovers a form of transformative rebirtl to wlicl sle willingly surren-
ders, not as permanent condition but as part of an ongoing process of
becoming a sexual subject.
Breillats :oo lm Fat Girl also deals witl sexual lumiliation and nego-
tiation. But tlis time tle sex concerns tle initiation of two inexperienced
sisters, one twelve and one fteen. Anas (Anas Reboux) is tle younger,
and bigger, of tle two. It is tlrougl ler often reluctant eyes tlat we watcl
tle seduction and deoration of ler svelte and beautiful older sister, Elena
(Roxane Mesquida). However, tlis is no ordinary, wistful, bittersweet
end-of-innocence tale so typical of Frencl lms. Nor is it tle sex-is-pure-
lumiliation tlat we lave seen from directors like Todd Solondz or Caspar
philosophy in the bedroom :;,
No. Tougl tle sex acts portrayed are lumiliating, and even worse,
tley are never witlout ambivalent desire.
Te two sisters are initially discovered in a very long slot walking and
talking about sex and boys as if tley lad worlds of experience. Anas,
tle fat, younger one, tells Elena, tle svelte, older one, tlat despite Elenas
beauty sle scares boys away. Elena vows to pick up a boy in tle next caf
yet also insists tlat by retaining ler virginity sle remains exempt from tle
clarge of loose morals leveled by ler sister. Anas disputes tle tactics of
tle teclnical virgin, saying sle would like to be divested of ler virginity
long before sle meets tle man sle wants. (We see ler repeatedly singing
a forlorn song about boredom in wlicl sle longs for someone, anyonea
man, a woman, a werewolfto relieve ler ennui.) During tlis opening
conversation tle two girls walk from an extreme distance into closer view,
and we are surprised, given tle apparent soplistication of tleir talk, to
discover low very young tley botl are. At tle caf Elena, to prove tle
point tlat sle does not scare boys away, picks up a young Italian law stu-
dent (Fernando, played by Libero De Rienzo) and irts witl lim wlile
Anas eats a banana split. Eacl sister indulges in tle ambivalent pleasure
tlat seems to complete ler.
Locked in battles of love-late extending back to tleir infancy, tlese
sisters alternate aectionate condence witl tle typical cruelties of ado-
lescence. Eacl indulges tle otler in ler weakness: Elena comforts tle
unlappy Anas witl more food, Anas makes possible ler sisters sex. Sle
pretends to be asleep wlen Elena invites ler new boyfriend to sneak into
tle beacl vacation bedroom tley slare at niglt. Anas botl criticizes
and envies ler sisters sexual initiation. Playacting alone in a swimming
pool earlier in tle lm, we see ler enact a dialectic between innocence
and experience: at one end of tle pool sle kisses tle pylon of tle diving
platform as if it is ler lover, acting tle part of tle sly virgin, sle says tlat
sle is saving lerself for lim, dog-paddling in ler awkward, buoyant esl
to tle otler side, sle now acts tle role of tle worldly woman to tle pool
ladder, saying cavalierly tlat eacl lover brings sometling new. At niglt,
lowever, sle watcles a similar dialectic of innocence and experience play
out in Fernandos assault on ler sisters virginity (gure ). As in Ro-
mance, Breillats principle of masculine carnality is anotler Italian witl a
big erection, tlougl tlis time not one played by a porn star. Elena is torn
between tle same pretense to worldliness and an innocent desire to save
lerself for ler future lusband tlat Anas performed in tle pool.
Te two bedroom scenes between Elena and Fernando, witl Anas as
:8o philosophy in the bedroom
reluctant witness, constitute tle dramatic core of tle lm. Elena botl
wants and fears tle loss of ler virginity. Her desire is tentative, lesitant,
lis is alternately cajoling and bullying. We lave leard all tle clicls be-
fore: Sle, on one land, would like to love lim, does not want to be a cock
tease, but worries tlat sle will lose lis respect. He, on tle otler land,
claims to respect and love ler but needs proof of ler love or le will be
forced (out of plysiological necessity) to turn to an older woman wlom
le does not love. Wlat is new in tlis scene is tle remarkable combination
of duration witl explicitness in tle form of Fernandos initially looming
erect penis. Out of tlis combination a banal scene of seduction takes on
epic proportions in a prolonged battle of wills lasting most of tle niglt.
In tlis battle, tle erect penis functions like a dramatis personae. All Fer-
nandos actions, and all Elenas reactions, are governed by its visible pres-
ence in two scenes. He argues, for example, tlat sle must trust lim to
stay on tle edge and not to come. Sle is plysically uncomfortable witl
its demands, especially wlen le presses it up against ler. At tle same
time, lowever, sle pitifully accepts lis practiced lies tlat profess eternal
love and tle promise of marriage, promises wlicl are made strange, and
even more inautlentic, by lis Italian accent. We know tlis is a line, but
we understand tlat sle wants to believe tlat tle man to wlom sle will
eventually give ler virginity is tle love of ler life. How else can a young
girl lave access to sex but tlrougl tle rletoric of true love: Tus eacl
time sle rebus lim and le turns away, sle nds a way to give lim new
lope. Eventually, an unlappy compromise is reacled tle back way.
Wlat proves especially powerful about tle scene, beyond tle insistence
113: Fat Girl (dir. Catherine Breillat, 2001), an Italian with a big erection
philosophy in the bedroom :8
of tle penis, are tle two moments in wlicl tle lm cuts to Anas watcl-
ing from ler bed across tle room. In botl cases tle slift to ler distanced
point of view occurs at tle precise moment tlat most lurts ler sister. In
tle rst instance wlen Fernando tells low le las enjoyed lumiliating
otler women wlo invited lim into tleir bedrooms, tlougl of course not
Elena wlom le respects, tle cut to Anas punctuates lis bad faitl, for sle
perceives tle violation despite its apparent lack of violence. In tle second
instance, wlen Fernando anally penetrates Elena, we again watcl Anass
face as sle lears ler sisters muted screams and Fernandos noisy climax
(gure (). Tus tle eventual sexual climax of tle rst bedroom ordeal
is not viewed in tle esl, but on tle face of tle empatlic younger sister
wlo registers its violation.
In tle second bedroom scene, Elena more freely gives lerself to Fer-
nando, and Anas is on tlis occasion tle silent judge and uncomfortable
witness to ler sisters actual deoration. We see Fernando put on a con-
dom and climb onto Elena. Sle asks lim to be gentle but le insists tlat
one lard pusl is best. As le does pusl, we again cut to Anas: tlis time
sle is weeping and turned away from tle siglt of tle couple. Belind ler,
in tle distant background, we see tle moving legs of tle entwined couple
and lear, once again, Fernandos loud climax. Tus tle rst dauglter rids
lerself of tle burden of ler virginity wlile tle second dauglter weeps for
Tere lave been countless scenes representing tle loss of innocence in
cinema. Te mere fact tlat Breillats lm oers wlat appears to be more
explicit sexual action is certainly not tle sole cause of tle originality and
114: Fat Girl, Anas as witness of her sisters ordeal
:8: philosophy in the bedroom
power of tlese scenes. But fragments of explicit sexual action, along witl
uncommon duration, allow tle battle over tle loss of virginity to become
a more psyclologically and emotionally accurate ordeal, botl immediate
and powerful in its eects on Elena, and distanced and refracted tlrougl
tle eyes of a sister wlo is simultaneously empatlic, jealous, and sorrow-
ing. Te scene is true, sad, funny, and devastating all at once.
Wlat lappens next is slocking, yet in keeping witl tle lms lucid pre-
sentation of tle brutality of sexual initiation and tle conicted desires of
young girls. Once Fernandos seduction of Elena is discovered, tle couple
is separated and tle familys vacation comes to an abrupt end. But tle
meclanics of low tlis lappens are unimportant to Breillat, wlose lms,
as noted above, lave ellipses of plot wlere otlers lave ellipses of sex.
Te sisters furious and lopelessly noncommunicative motler declares
tle vacation over and sets out to drive tlem lome. On tle road, tlings
turn ominous. Looming trucks pass tle increasingly rattled motler and
ler disconsolate dauglters. We begin to tlink tlat tle lm will end in a
fatal accident.
Instead Anas now gets tle seducer of her dreams. Unlike ler sister,
tlis will not be tle man sle must convince lerself sle loves and to wlom
sle gives ler leart, but a version of tle man sle conjured in ler song
of boredom at tle beginning: an anonymous anyone, a werewolf, wlo
will relieve ler of tle burden of lerself and of ler ennui. Specically, le
is a big man witl a crowbar at a rest stop. In slort order le smasles tle
windslield of tle car, kills Elena witl a blow to tle lead, and strangles tle
girls motler. Anas, wlo lad been clewing tay in tle back seat wlen
tle violence began, continues clewing after tle intruder las dispensed
witl ler motler and sister. Urine runs down ler leg. Sle slowly gets out
of tle car and walks backward, lolding lis gaze, saying, almost as an order
as le begins tle rape, you are not going to lurt me. And indeed, sle
will emerge from tle ensuing quick rapecounterposed to tle prolonged
psyclological violation of ler sisterseemingly less lurt, more intact.
Even on tle ground witl lis body moving above lerno question of
explicit sex in tlis scene witl a tlirteen-year-old actresssle continues
to lold lis gaze, unresisting but in ler very stillness exercising a peculiar
control. Wlen le is done sle simply removes tle scarf le lad used to
gag ler and lolds still. Te nal scene slows police gatlering evidence at
tle car as two policemen lead a stunned but still-living Anas out of tle
woods. A cop says sle claims not to lave been raped. Anas lerself says,
Dont believe me if you dont want to, as tle frame freezes on ler face.
It is as if in meeting ler fate, tle unlappy twelve-year-old virgin, wlose
philosophy in the bedroom :8
untoucled esl lad been like a ball and clain, recognizes a perverse
liberationfrom family, from innocence, from tle web of lies a young
woman must enter into to rid lerself of virginity, from ler very impris-
onment in ler self.
Ending witl tlis fearful symmetry of tle deoration of tle second sis-
ter, Fat Girl turns out to be a comparative study of tle forms of lumili-
ating sexual initiation and tle damage tley can do to young girls witl no
real power over tleir sexual fate. Wlile tle lm is deeply feminist in its
protest against tlis lack of power, its polemical point, like tle point tlat
bondage liberated Marie in Romance, is tlat tle more truly violated of
tle sisters is tle one wlo was not literally raped, tle one wlo convinced
lerself to love ler seducer. Tis puts Breillat in tle provocative position
of arguing tlat a quick rape is actually preferable to a long seduction, and
tlat tle raped sister exercises more control over ler fate tlan tle seduced
one. As in Romance, Breillat is willing to slow, sometimes quite explicitly,
tle sexual degradations women often endure in a quest for pleasure and
It is not likely tlat any of tle sex we see in Fat Girl is fully lard-core
owing to tle young age of tle girls. Signicantly, we do not see any of tle
penetrations. Indeed, in a subsequent lm entitled Sex Is Comedy (:oo:),
Breillat las made a point of staging a woman director slooting a scene
very mucl like tlat witl tle Italian lover. Amusingly, sle las tle male
claracter of tlat lm walk around tle set witl an erect, prostletic penis.
Yet tle view of tlis erect penis is as necessary to tle tragedy of tle one
lm as it is to tle comedy of tle otler. No otler director, male or female,
las so eectively presented tle complex circumstances including tle
pressure of an erection in wlicl sexual pleasures are negotiated.
American-produced lms lave not entirely been missing in action on
tle front of lard-core art, but neitler lave tley exactly been pioneers.
Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut (,,,) was raked over tle coals by many
critics for tle digital insertion of clotled gures to obscure explicit sexual
activity during a brief orgy. Kubricks producers were terried of receiving
tle kiss of deatl of an c-; rating and so inserted tle robed gures in a
scene tlat can now be seen in all its not very eartlslaking glory on ivis
of tle European release. On tle otler land, tle occasional lm tlat does
not bow to tle requirements of tle R rating can be excoriated as too
American Hard-Core Art: The Orgasmic Imperative of Shortbus
:8( philosophy in the bedroom
brazen. Witness Vincent Callos unrated Te Brown Bunny (:oo), wlicl
received a lostile reception from critics at tle :oo Cannes Film Festival.
A subsequent ill-fated billboard placed above Sunset Boulevard slowing
tle star Clloe Sevigny engaged in fellatio witl tle director and costar
Callo did not lelp tle reception of tlis lm, wlicl was not as bad as crit-
ics made it out to be wlen it was rst booed at Cannes. American lms
tlat incorporate real sex into tleir narratives often run tle risk of seeming
like bad imitations of European angst (Callo) or, as in Wayne Wangs Te
Center of the World (:oo), about a young dot-comer wlo lires a prosti-
tute to perform sex for lim in Las Vegas, as too timid to deeply explore
tle sex tlat is tleir topic.
Wlat no American lm lad lazarded was a story predominantly about
sexnot just one sex scene or twoin an idiom tlat did not constitute a
poor imitation of European angst but proved distinctly American. Tis is
tle great accomplislment of )oln Cameron Mitclells Shortbus (:oo6).
Unlike Callos dour lm, Shortbus received a standing ovation wlen slown
at an out-of-competition midniglt screening at tle Cannes Film Festival.
Mitclells previous lm lad been tle angry but exuberant musical Hedwig
and the Angry Inch (:oo) about a transsexual rock star. Eager to encom-
pass explicit sex as a means of treating tlemes of connection and love
and fear, but weary of tle European lms in tlis tradition tlat end witl
violence and deatl, Mitclells innovation is to deploy tle language of
sex mucl tle same way tlat tle language of music is used in a musical.
Acutely aware of all tle traditions le is negotiatingEuropean lard-core
art, American lard-core pornograply, tle new realism of musicals tlat
still want to belt out a songMitclell set out to make a uniquely Ameri-
can lm of lard-core art tlat miglt leave lis viewers witl a feel-good
Te lm opens to tle cool jazz of Is You Is or Is You Aint My Baby: Te
camera pulls out from tle nose of tle Statue of Liberty and ies tlrougl
a stylized, cartoonisl model of a post-,i Manlattan and adjacent bo-
rougls (gure ,). Peeking into a number of windows, we are introduced
to a cast of claracters, most of wlom are already in medias sex. In tle
rst live action scene we see a man in a batltub lming lis penis as it
oats in tle water. For a nation tlat las become positively plobic of any
sigltings of erect penises outside tle gletto of pornograply, tlis is a very
canny beginning. Te penis is only a little erect, and tle way it bobs in tle
water is ratler endearing and entirely benign (gure 6). We see it in full
view, botl as attacled to tle man in tle batltub and also framed in tle
digital cameras screen. We even see a little yellowness in tle water as tle
philosophy in the bedroom :8,
man pees. Body organs and functions are not lorric or anytling to be
aslamed of, tlese rst slots of tle lm seem to say, so lets see wlat else
can be done witl tlem!
Over tle rst lump of tlis initial penis siglting, tle lm proceeds to
introduce its cast of claracters. A dominatrix sternly wlips ler young
client wlo tries to make small talk about tle war in Iraq and to question
ler about tle quality of ler orgasms. Te man from tle batl, still lming
limself, attempts, tlrougl a series of yoga exercises, to perform fellatio
Shortbus (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
115: Post-9/11 Manhattan
116: A benign penis flmed in the bath
:86 philosophy in the bedroom
on lis own penis (gure ;). Anotler man excitedly watcles lim tlrougl
binoculars from a window across tle way. An Asian Canadian woman and
a wlite man lave vigorous sex (cunnilingus, land job, and coitus) in a
variety of atlletic positions all over tleir apartmenton tle piano, against
a glass wall, even in bedin a series of atlletic positions seemingly de-
signed to give movement to Ludovico Ariostos famously illustrated posi-
tions (gure 8).
Like Winterbottom and Breillat, Mitclell reveals claracter tlrougl
tle performance of sexual acts. Unlike tlese European directors, low-
ever, tlis sex is funny and carnivalesque. Mitclell lumorously celebrates
tle crescendo of orgasms by rapidly intercutting tle climax of eacl of
tlese scenes into a stylized tongue-in-cleek nod to tle conventions of
lard core: Te man from tle batl comes on lis own face, tle female lalf
of tle leterosexual couple moans in concert witl ler partner in a way
tlat loudly signals orgasm, tle client wlipped by tle dominatrix ejacu-
lates forcefully and inadvertently onto tle multicolored drips of a )ack-
son Pollockstyle action painting lung above lis bed. His ejaculate joins
all tle otler little dribbles (gure ,). Witl tlis crescendo of comedic
climaxes, Mitclells lm breaks tle sexual ice wlile irting witl our cer-
tain familiarity witl tle money slot convention of lard core. We know
at once, lowever, from tle clever intercutting, tle Pollock gag, and tle
overatlletic comedy of positions, tlat despite tle presence of erections,
insertions, and even visible ejaculate tlat tlis is too playful, too witty, too
rapidly cut, and too little intent on engendering arousal to be porn, even
wlile tle pornograplic imperative to demonstrate orgasm is observed.
If we did not recognize tlis fact from tle witty comedy of sex, we would
certainly recognize it from tle mood clange tlat follows. Belind all tlese
strenuous and diverse sexual acts lurks tle deep melancloly of claracters
wlo aspire to goals of sexual connection tlat never measure up. We learn,
for example, tlat Soa (Sook-Yin Lee), tle Asian woman wlo works as a
sex tlerapist, las been faking ler orgasms to Rob (Raplael Barker), ler
lusband. And after tle self-fellator ejaculates on to lis own face le sobs.
His acrobatic feat proves symptomatic of a larger inability to allow limself
to be penetrated or symbolically toucled by anyone otler tlan limself.
We later learn tlat tlis man, )ames (Paul Dawson), las been lming lim-
self not out of narcissistic pleasure but as a farewell suicide tape to lis
lover. Finally, we learn tlat tle dominatrix, Severin (Lindsay Beamisl), is
an alienated sex worker wlo goes lome alone to a cramped storage con-
tainer and sadly soaks ler tired feet.
117: Autofellatio
118: Vigorous
119: Jackson
Pollock ejaculate
:88 philosophy in the bedroom
Shortbuss narrative tlus operates in knowing counterpoint to tle
utopianism of American lard-core pornograply. As we saw in clapter ,
Linda Lovelace in Deep Troat confessed to ler doctor-tlerapist a failure
to orgasm. Te pornotopic solution provided by tlat lm was to discover
ler clitoris in ler tlroat and to prescribe more and better sex: dirent
strokes in tle form of deep-tlroat fellatio leading to eartlslaking, world-
slattering orgasms. Sucl is tle pattern of lard-core pornograply of tle
classic era: sex is tle problem, (more and better) sex is tle (simplistic)
solution. Mitclells lm expands tle range of possible dirent strokes
to include female-female, male-male sex, orgies, and sir, but le adleres
to tle fundamental pornotopian notion tlat tle solution to tle problem
of sex is more or better sex. Tus wlile Shortbus does not imitate tle form
of pornograply, it uplolds its orgasmic imperative by also seeking solu-
tion in orgasm, tlougl notling quite so meclanical as tlat aclieved in a
single sexual act or position. Wlat is new about tlis approacl is an at least
tacit understanding tlat tle proliferation of pornograply itself las been
part of tle problem of everyones performance anxiety. In an interview,
Mitclell notes tlat because young people today tend to learn about sex
from porn, tley can become very insecure in tleir own ability to live up to
its lyperboles. His solution to tlis problem is not to esclew pornograply,
but to refunction some of its conventions to more polysexual spontaneous
Tus tle claracter of Soa can be seen to take over wlere tle sexually
questing female lero of mucl classic-era lard-core pornograply left o
in ler quest for tle big O. During a tlerapy session Soa blurts out to ler
clients, tle gay couple )ames (tle self-fellator from tle beginning) and lis
partner )amie (P. ). DeBoy) tlat sle is preorgasmic. Does tlat mean tlat
you are about to come: asks tle naive )amie. No. Tat means Ive never
come, responds Soplia. Tougl tle lm is smart enougl not to insult
its female protagonist by identifying any single teclnique or plilosoply
as tle solution to ler preorgasmic status, and tlougl it las a lot of fun
oering Soa a wide range of contradictory advice and plilosoplyfrom
tle exercise of Kegel muscles to sensory deprivation, from tle idea tlat
orgasm represents immense solitude to tle idea tlat in it one is nally
not aloneits narrative nevertleless imitates tle pornograplic quest
for pleasure. However, it larnesses tlat quest to tle larger social goal of
forming a community of permeable, unafraid beings. Modeled on tle
quintessential pornograplic narrative, Shortbus tlus also operates as a
corrective to tle isolation and xation on bodies and teclniques tlat soli-
tary porn can engender.
philosophy in the bedroom :8,
)ames and )amie send Soa to Slortbus, a bolemian sex club and caba-
ret, modeled on a number of actually existing venues. Te club gives
as mucl space to screening avant-garde lm on 6 mm as it does to
Te Pussy Room, a place for dykes and otler women to vent. Tere is
anotler room for general mixing, anotler for music, and anotler for
orgies tlat bring togetler all kinds of bodies in all kinds of sexual combi-
nations. Queer-friendly but not queer-exclusive, Slortbus welcomes tle
old, tle straiglt, tle transgendered, and tle swingers wlo want more tlan
one partner. Named for tlat otler sclool bustle slort one tlat takes
tle dierent, clallenged kids to sclool, Shortbus tle movie, like Slort-
bus tle cabaret, pays lomage to yet anotler of tle groundbreaking lms
of tle porno clic era: Behind the Green Door (dir. Artie and )im Mitclell,
,;:) as well as its ,86 sequel (dir. Artie and )im Mitclell). In botl tlose
pornotopias, ordinary peopletruck drivers, iglt attendants, Vietnam
vetsenter a magical cabaret of sexual abundance in wlicl multiple
styles of sexual pleasure are celebrated and observed in complexly staged
orgies tlat culminate in glorious communal orgasms.
Like tle world belind tle green door, Shortbus is a sexually and
racially diverse community tlat is a utopian idea of New York City. Ex-
tending beyond tle island of Manlattan, it is tle place wlere one can go
to be permeable, as one memorable claracter wlo claims to be tle ex-
mayor of New York puts it. Tis claracter tells us tlat New Yorkers are
permeable and sane because tley are willing to bend over to let in tle
new and tle old. New Yorkers tlus are seen to represent Americas lope.
Claiming for lis city and lis nation a desirable status of plilosoplical and
sexual permeability, Mitclell tlen plays out tlis opposition in tle drama
of tlree claracters wlose impermeability needs xing.
Soa slows up at Slortbus, wlere sle encounters all tle sexual actors
from tle beginning: )ames and partner )amie are searcling to nd tle
riglt person to make up tleir tlreesome, and Severin, tle dominatrix,
langs out in tle Pussy Room avoiding ler joln. Soa, tle newcomer, is
slown around by tle rc ()ustin Boyd). Te lms most quoted lineIts
just like tle sixties only witl less lopeuttered by tle rc to Soa, las
been cited as a mark of cyncism. But it actually belies low mucl faitl
Mitclell actually seems to place in tle liberatory utopian ideals of tle
,6os. As Riclard Corliss, reviewing tle lm for Time, put it, Shortbus is
so retro, it seems sparkling new.
But Shortbus is no tlrowback. Wlen Soa confesses to a failure to
orgasm and to a general lack of sexual experience (laving only lad sex
witl ler lusband), sle initially sounds like Linda Lovelace wlo in Deep
:,o philosophy in the bedroom
Troat also asserted tlat sle loved getting laid, but lamented tle fact
tlat tlere were no bells ringing, dams bursting and bombs going o.
Soas confession begins in tle same way: Sex feels terric, I love it a lot,
its a great workout. Unlike Linda, lowever, and in tle security of tle
Pussy Room witl only otler women listening, sle furtler confesses,
But its a lot of pressure, and sometimes I feel like somebodys going to kill
me, and I just lave to smile and pretend to enjoy it. Te women wlo lear
tlis confession lave just described tleir best orgasms to Soa in exalted
terms: A slooting out of creative energy and it feels like tlere is no war,
I was nally not alone, It feels like talking to tle gods. Tougl tle en-
tire Slortbus establislment is enlisted in tle project of slowing Soa tle
road to orgasm, tle lm is not so didactic as to believe it can illustrate tle
way to it. Nor is it so lappy-go-lucky as to imagine tlat Soas practice of
smiling and pretending to enjoy las not lad its emotional costs.
Te emotional costs of bad sex are indeed everywlere to be seen in
Shortbus, wlose tlree main claracters are all in tle line of alienated sex
workfor wlat else slould we call Soas occupation as a sex tlerapist
and couples counselor: )ames, tle suicidal former male escort, suers
from a problem similar to Soas: tle inautlenticity of laving lad to
pretend to enjoy. He cannot connect witl anyone. Even tle invitation
to Cetl ()ay Brannan) to join lis relation witl )amie proves to lave tle
ulterior motive of providing an alternative partner for )amie after le is
dead. Tus tle good-spirited, tlree-way daisy clain we see tlese men per-
formtlougl comical in its rousing singing of tle national antlem into
Cetls anusis actually more of an acrobatic feat tlan a sexual event. Te
men respectfully adjust positions, give proper feedback to one anotler,
and Cetl uses )amies penis as a mock microplone, but altlougl tley are
properly erect and perfectly congenial, no one ever comes, and all tlree
collapse in giggles in tle end (gure :o).
Two of Shortbuss main claracters tlus cannot nd pleasure in sex and
are unlappily impermeable. Wlen Soa makes ler devastating confession
about smiling and pretending to enjoy to tle otler women in tle Pussy
Room, tle dominatrix from tle opening scene, Severin, snaps ler picture
witl a Polaroid and gives it to Soa witl tle word Sorry inked over it.
Soon tle two women become friends. Anotler alienated sex worker, tlis
dominatrix coacles Soa on ler masturbatory teclnique wlile tley are
immersed side by side in a sensory deprivation tank. But Soa proves to
be a klutzy masturbator. Severin, for ler part, las no diculty getting o,
but tle ability to orgasm in ler case refutes tle lms metaploric use of
orgasm as a form of connection. Sle, too, is emotionally impermeable.
philosophy in the bedroom :,
Connection is everytling. )ustin Boyd, playing tle congenial, gay master
of ceremonies uses tle metaplor of a motlerboard lled witl desire tlat
travels all over tle world. Tat toucles you. Tat toucles me. . . . You just
lave to nd tle riglt connection.
In tle second evening at Slortbus, Soa brings along ler lusband, Rob,
laving nally informed lim of ler problem and of tle potential solution
to be found in tle cabarets realm of tle senses. Soa las also armed ler-
self witl a powerful teclnological aid tlat is tle lms comedic lomage
to Oslimas lm: a vibrating egg labeled In tle Realm of tle Senses is
inserted into ler vagina. But lusband Rob, given tle remote control for
tle vibrator, proves negligent and loses tle device, anotler man plays it
tlinking it is a video game. Soa tlus spends tle rest of tle evening comi-
cally vibrating in inappropriate situations, tlougl still not coming. At one
point Severin even gets o on tle devices vibrations during a moment
of intimacy between tle two friends, only proving once more Severins
sexual facility and Soas incapacity. Te legacy of Oslima looms large,
but in an era of commodied sex toys, a real realm of tle senses seems
How, tlen, is tle problem of sexual disconnection and impermeability
solved: In furtler lomage to pornograply, it is solved as are all problems
in porn, witl more, and better, sex. )ames nally attempts tle suicide le
las been planning all along. But lis plan is foiled by a last-minute res-
cue from tle man wlo las been lis faitlful voyeur and stalker since tle
beginning. Tis benign voyeur pulls lim out of tle pool wlere le las
120: Shortbus, the daisy chain
:,: philosophy in the bedroom
tried to drown, nurses lim back to lealtl, and asks low someone wlo is
loved so mucl could ever want to end it all. )ames replies tlat le knows
)amie loves lim, but tlat le cannot feel it: It stops at my skin. Having
already bridged tle voyeuristic gap tlat separated lim from tle object of
lis desire and tlus breacled lis own impermeability, penetrates )ames
anally in a way tlat is nally felt. As in lard-core pornograply: if sex is tle
problem tlen tle solution lies in more or better sex. Here tle sex oered
to )ames is tender, caring, and explicit in a way tlat very few lmmakers
lave managed to slow outside tle world of avant-garde lm or lard-core
Meanwlile, Soa projects lerself into a fantasy in wlicl sle nds ler-
self alone by tle sea on a park bencl in an area ooded witl water (gure
:). Sle masturbates on tlis bencl and seems to come close to orgasm
until tle power goes out all over New York. Tis is tle lms device for
bringing Soa, Rob, )ames, )amie, Cetl, tle benign voyeur, Severin, and all
tle previous denizens of tle Slortbus cabaret back togetler for a lappy-
ending, candlelit nale tlat will be capped at tle end by Soas literally
eartlslaking orgasm. It is to be noted, lowever, tlat tlis orgasm is not
tle result of better teclnique, ratler, it is tle result of better community
and trust for wlicl sex now becomes a metaplor. Te rc leads tle group
in tle nales song (as your last breatl begins i you nd your dreams,
your best friend i and we all get it in tle end). Cetting it in tle end is
tle sexual metaplor for permeability tlat will allow tle lm to end lap-
pily and for New Yorkers to lave tleir slare of tle revolutionary lope of
polymorplous perversity begun in tle sixties, now revived at least mo-
mentarily in tle good feeling of tle immediate post-,i era under tle
sign of tle circuitry of a motlerboard. Te orgy commences and every-
one becomes permeable, if not literally penetrated, tlen at least open and
available. Soa nally discovers tlat sle can get it in tle end, not by
working lard but by letting lerself go witl strangers (in tlis case a par-
ticular leterosexual couple sle lad frequently admired and envied wlen-
ever sle spied on tle activities in tle orgy room) (gure ::). Her even-
tual orgasm will not be a clinical image of female ejaculation or any of tle
otler possible unsimulated involuntary convulsions so central to lard-
core pornograply. Ratler, it will be, as witl )ane Fonda, tle old standby
of tle orgasmic womans face. It is not a face placed next to anotler sexual
organ, like Linda Lovelaces, but tle face of a woman wlo is momentarily
beside lerself witl ecstacy (gure :). Witl Caleb, tle voyeurs curative
interference, we also now nd tlat )ames and )amie can get back togetler
121: Sophia
almost comes
122: Sophia
swings in the
orgy room
123: Sophias
124: Everyone
joins in
:,( philosophy in the bedroom
and tlat )ames, too, will now get it in tle end. Caleb, tle voyeur wlo
las saved )ames, also nds a partner in Cetl, and even tle lonely Severin
seems to be lappy for once as part of tle crowd. A marcling band restarts
tle song and everyone joins in as Soas orgasm reconnects tle motler-
board and tle liglts turn back on in New York (gure :().
A retro, sixties-style orgy, tlougl one amply supplied witl condoms
and lube, is tlus not only tle place for pleasure but also for understand-
ing, permeability, and even forgiveness. Te enemy of tlis etlic is tle fear
tlat closes us o and makes us impermeable. Permeabilitya willingness
to get it (and take it) in tle end, and every otler possible wayis tle retro
sexual revolutionary faitl in a world in wlicl sex miglt be good again.'
It is practiced at Slortbus in botl sexual and nonsexual ways and con-
stitutes tlis lms particular plilosoply in tle bedroom. Shortbus miglt
be a better lm if it could take tle despair of its claracters a little more
seriously, but if it did, it miglt not be tle quintessentially American sex
lm it is, and it certainly could not function as tle breaktlrougl lm for
American lard-core art tlat it is.
Wlen Shortbus premiered in its midniglt screening at Cannes, tle
Daily Variety critic called Mitclells lm unquestionably tle most sexu-
ally graplic American narrative feature ever made outside tle realm of
tle porn industry. Had tle lms distributors taken its c-; rating to
tle multiplexes, it miglt lave found tle controversy tlat would lave pro-
pelled it to greater publicity and sales. However, I am writing tlis just at
tle end of tle lms tleatrical run in tle United States, wlere it las gen-
erated some very good reviews but no big controversy and tlus no big
audiences. Te same reviewer wlo pronounced tle lm sexually graplic
also condemned it to small recognition wlen le noted tlat tlougl tle
lm miglt be an immediate must-see for certain audiences, especially
gays, in limited tleatrical release, it will nd its true and lasting lome on
ivi. One wonders wlat miglt lave lappened lad tle distributors not
believed tlis prediction.
Distributed by TinkFilm, tle same company tlat did sucl a ne job
nessing tle diculties of marketing Te Aristocrats (dir. Paul Provenza,
:oo,), Mitclells lm las been mucl more cautiously marketed and only
to art louses. Multiplexes lave not been eager to book tle unrated lm
for fear tlat audiences miglt wander in from anotler screen. As Mark
Urman, TinkFilms domestic distribution lead, put it, Weve been keep-
ing tle lm wlere it belongsat festivals and lm societiesWe cant
be needlessly provocative. No similar concern was registered regard-
ing tle similarly unrated Te Aristocrats, a funny, rauncly lm about tle
philosophy in the bedroom :,,
long listory of a single dirty joke. In tle story of tle dierent marketing
of tlese two lms by tle same company, we face, in a nutslell, diering
American attitudes toward tle word and tle (moving) image. Bold witl
words, timid witl images, especially wlen tlose images speak explicit
sex, TinkFilms failure to provoke means tlat American audiences lave
mostly not lad a clance to see wlat still remains anomalous on Ameri-
can screens: lard-core art tlat is not foreign, tlat is, in fact, aggressively
Americanfrom its opening on tle Statue of Liberty to its singing of tle
Star-Spangled Banner.
Te lms discussed above are only tle tip of tle iceberg of an interna-
tional plenomenon of lard-core art cinema. In tle United States we
lave grown so used to tle separation of pornograply from art tlat we
tend to assumesometimes ratler lypocriticallytlat any arousal re-
sponse is antitletical to art and any emotionally complex art automati-
cally antitletical to arousal. Mucl of tle negative critical reaction to wlat
I lave been calling lard-core art lms las been premised on tle assump-
tion tlat pornograplys function is to elicit arousal and art cinemas func-
tion is solely aestletic.
Consider, for example, tle Los Angeles Times critic Kennetl Turans
fairly typical reaction to Breillats Romance. Turan argues tlat tlose de-
luded enougl to go to Romance for its unapologetic scenes of mastur-
bation, oral sex, intercourse and intricate bondage are going to be even
angrier and disappointed by tle torpid, uninvolving quality tley exude.
Distant sex, no matter low explicit, and bogus posturing turn out to be a
deadly cinematic combination. According to Turan, explicit sex makes
any response to it, other than sexual arousal, seem like bogus postur-
Wlat Turan objects to, in a review typical of tle lms American critical
reception, is precisely tle presence of Maries female voice-over trying to
make plilosoplical, political, and emotional sense of ler various sexual
lumiliations. It is as if, for Turan, tle Frencl tradition of plilosoply in tle
bedroom spoils tle pure pleasure of tle sex. But it is precisely tle rewall
between plilosoply, politics, and emotion, on tle one land, and pure
pornograply, on tle otler, tlat lard-core art cinema is breaking down,
forging new ways of presenting and visually experiencing cinematic sex.
To Turan it would seem tlat anytling otler tlan arousing sex is pure pre-
tension and an automatic turno. But wlat kind of moving-image art do
we condemn ourselves to if sex must be so compartmentalized: I would
argue tlat tle even greater pretension may be tle very idea tlat sex is
:,6 philosophy in the bedroom
mindless. If it seems pretentious to Turan to mix ambivalent emotions
and plilosoplical tlouglt witl sex, it is also simplistic to assume tlat sex
is monopatlic and totally witlout tlouglt.
We live in a world in wlicl directors like Winterbottom, von Trier,
Clreau, Breillat, and Mitclell make tlemselves vulnerable to tle clarge
of being pornograplers wlen tley depict explicit sex. To defend tlem-
selves, tlese directors lave often velemently protested tlat tley are not
pornograplers. Clreaus defense, interestingly, las been to distinguisl
Intimacy from wlat le would term tle greater pornograplic sensation-
alism of tle Frencl women directors wlose explicit works emerged at
about tle same time as lis own. Tus le argues tlat wlile Breillats Ro-
mance and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinls Baise-moi (:ooo) are
prurient, his lm is not. Breillat, for ler part, wlen accused of being a por-
nograpler, argues provocatively tlat tlere is no sucl tling as pornogra-
ply. Wlat exists instead, sle claims in an interview, is censorslip wlicl
denes pornograply and sets it o from tle rest of lm. . . . Pornograply
is tle sexual act taken totally out of context, and made into a product for
consumption, by using tle most debased feelings or emotions of people,
wlen in fact in daily life sexual acts are surrounded by emotions, con-
sideration for tle partner, pleasure and so on, wlicl do not come witlin
tle pornograplic depiction. Mitclell, for lis part, claims to enjoy por-
nograply but asserts tlat lis sex is more metaploric tlan real.
So wlere Oslima lad argued, as we saw in clapter ,, tlat porno-
graplic cinema slould be autlorized, immediately and completely, as a
means to glt censorslip and outmoded concepts of obscenity, Breillat
claims, to tle contrary, tlat pornograply is an artifact of censorslip. Most
of all, sle glts against tle lypocrisy of putting a moral valueeitler as
liberation or as condemnationon tle question of wletler performers
really do it:
If you look at wlat most mainstream actors are doing now, more and more
tle love scenes are very intimate and very frank, so its lypocrisy to ask Do
tley really penetrate or not: Actors do not simulate: tley dont simulate
emotions, so at tle same time tley cannot simulate pleasuretley lave to
act it. So as tley are not going to be able to simulate pleasure, tley are going
to lave to act pleasure. After tlat its just really a plysical detail.
Simulation, as Breillat uses tle term, seems to consist of going tlrougl tle
motions witlout feeling tle feelings (wlat I earlier called acting). Simu-
lation is an imitation tlat creates a more or less credible appearance. But
Breillats acting, or wlat I prefer to call performing, involves feeling tle
philosophy in the bedroom :,;
emotions generated between tle actors, wlo are not just putting on an
appearance but, on some level, necessarily feeling.
I do not expect tle directors defending tlemselves against tle clarges
of pornograply to agree on tleir terms, and tlere may even be a value to
claiming to make a new kind of pornograply. Tis, in fact, is wlat Oslima
did wlen le created In the Realm of the Senses. At issue, as it so often
lappens in lm, is tle vexed question of tle fundamental realism of tle
medium: tle fact tlat cameras and sound recorders register actions tlat
take place before tlem even if tley are also components in larger ctions
and even wlen some of tle acts registered are faked.
Recall tlat Bazins reaction to tle dilemma of presenting sexual action
at tle movies was to ask: If one could demand real sex from movies, tlen
slould one not also demand real violence: Since le deemed sucl a demand
botl immoral and obscene, Bazins uneasy solution was to pronounce tlat
even tlougl notling is a priori prolibited on tle screen, artists must
resort to tle capacity for abstraction in tle language of cinema, so tlat
tle image never takes on a documentary quality. Tis caveat fudges
Bazins belief in tle fundamental indexicality of tle medium, so intensely
celebrated elsewlere in lis writing. Wlat Bazins realist imagination does
not allow lim to consider is tle degree to wlicl every sex act tlat miglt
be placed before a camera is also a document of a performance: It is botl
realsometling tlat actually lappensand, as we saw most vividly in
Warlols Blue Movie, it is fake, staged for tle camera and sound equip-
ment. Neitler tle directors of pornograply nor tle directors of lard-core
art from Warlol forward document real sex in tle sense of wlat people
do alone, in private. Warlols glosts are always present. Perlaps Bazins
capacity for abstraction means tle introduction of lm art in tle depic-
tion of sex situations, perlaps it is tle way tle art of tle cinema works to
frame, liglt, edit, and coacl performances as we lave seen in all of tle
lms discussed lere.
Te error tlat Bazin, like Ceorge Steiner, makes wlen le says tlat we
must stay in tle imagination is to assume tlat tle imagination cannot
itself work witl more explicit representations of sex acts. It is also to
assume tlat tlese more explicit representations are not tlemselves tle
products of a directorial and performative imagination. Te imagination
does not suddenly lose its vocation wlen confronted witl a wet, exces-
sively long kiss, or witl a penis, a vagina, or a blow job, or witl tle many
possible ways of performingnot just acting or simulatingsex. Te
imagination and tle ability to fantasize will always occupy tlat place at
wlicl tle lms necessarily limited vision fails. We do it a great disservice
:,8 philosophy in the bedroom
wlen we presume tlat it cannot deal witl more to see tlan previous
convention allows. Clreaus Intimacy suggests tlat sexual intimacy in
its more naturalistic representations las been barely broacled in lm art.
He limself las said: Wlen people reproacl me for slowing too mucl, I
claim tlat sexuality remains as mucl a mystery as it las always been. Per-
laps more. Te question is always asked, Wlere can you go from lere:
No one slould worry, because tlere will always be sometling tlat re-
mains lidden.
Wletler tle current trend toward more explicit sex will be a lasting
feature of contemporary moving images remains to be seen. Certainly tle
diculties posed to actors are great. It is lard to imagine any establisled
male American star exposing limself, erect or unerect, for tle benet
of lm art. Sucl actors run tle risk, among otler tlings, of being com-
pared to tle Rocco Siredis of tlis world. But perlaps tlis is exactly tle
point. Only a realist approacl to screening sex can get over tle idealized
comparisons of body typesmale or femaletle standards of pornogra-
ply. And perlaps only familiarity witl many dierent kinds and moods
of sexual performancenot just tle exotic foreign examples tlat come
to American screens from tle outside to seduce or oend us, but tle
lomegrown kind tlat can speak to our more American identities and
experienceswill break down tle prolonged adolescence of American
lm. I cant lelp but tlink tlat in an era in wlicl even tle notoriously
puritanical American public nds tle discussion of explicit sex acts un-
avoidablewletler in legal cases sucl as Lawrence v. Texas, or in rape
learings tlat must explicitly detail wlat penises lave precisely donetle
continued avoidance of tle emotional nature and plysical specicity of
tle sex acts tlat so importantly punctuate our public and private lives is
going to seem increasingly odd in our movies.
Now, a variety of screenslong and wide and square, large and
small, composed of grains, composed of pixels, lit by projected
light, cathode-ray tube, plasma, lcdcompete for our atten-
tion without any convincing arguments about hegemony.
anne fri edberG,
The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft
Now Playing on a Small Screen
near You!
We lave seen tlat sex can be blatantly revealed (as in well-
lit lard-core pornograply) or more subtly concealed (as in
tle simulated sex acts of mainstream American cinema tlat
arose in tle late ,6os). We lave also seen tlat tle listory
of sexual representation in American culture since tle in-
vention of moving-image teclnology las been a process by
wlicl acts once considered obiscene (literally, o scene)
lave come oniscene. We saw tle encroaclment of oniscen-
ity in our discussion of Deep Troat and Boys in the Sand in
clapter . Yet as tle previous clapter indicated, lard-core
pornograply did not long remain on tle big screen and did
not, at least in tle United States, develop into a tlriving
form of lard-core art. Te peculiar long adolescence of
American cinema las meant tlat rst, tle Hollywood Pro-
duction Code, tlen later tle byzantine rules of tle rv,
remained in force. Today most Americans, even tlose quite
young, are very familiar witl pornograply. But since it is
oo conclusion
now consigned to a space of supposed privacy and is not acknowledged
as part of tle cultural mainstream, it las become a kind of eleplant in tle
room. We all know it is tlere, but its familiar poses, gestures, and secre-
tions are often treated as unocial knowledge. Witl tle exception of tle
still raried lard-core art lms discussed in clapter ; we now lave two
very dierent experiences of screening sex, one on large public screens,
one on smaller private ones. Let us begin by looking at tle importance of
tlese screens tlemselves.
By ,86 (tle year of David Lyncls Blue Velvet), lalf of American louse-
lolds lad vcvs and tlus began to watcl movies wlen tley wanted: no
longer on television witl commercial interruption or at tleaters only at
designated times.' Today Americans screen mucl more in tle privacy
of tle lome tlan in tle public place of tle movie tleater.
Te slift to lome viewing, lowever, las not meant a wlolesale priva-
tization of tle experience of screening. Ratler, as we slall see below, it
las meant a reconguration of tle relative meanings of public and pri-
vate. Wlat was once considered privatetle space of lomelas become
more public as tle multiple connectivities tlat claracterize tle Inter-
net lave entered it and as cell plones bring private conversations to tle
street, airport, train, car, and bus. Conversely, wlat was once considered
public (tle movie tleater) can now be brouglt into tle lome. Computers,
teleplones, Microsofts new toucl-activated surfaces, and movies lave
converged. We can now clat online, manually manipulate images, and
watcl and be watcled by telepresent webcams. On one level we lave
entered a world of many small screens.
As we saw in tle rst clapter, no one paid mucl attention to Tomas
Edisons 8,6 lm, Te Kiss, wlen it was initially projected in tle small
peeplole device of tle Kinetoscope. Only wlen it was magnied tlrougl
big screen projection did critics perk up, eitler positively in praise of its
anatomy lessons, or negatively in criticism of its obscene monstrosity.
Only wlen tle magnied projection of real bodies in movement began
to constitute tle dening experience of movies did tle potential eros or
lorror of tlese larger-tlan-life bodies become botl apparent and contro-
Big screens, and tle larger-tlan-life bodies tley reveal, can seem to en-
gulf tle viewer, but tlis impression actually relies on tle maintenance of
Little Screens: Does Size Matter?
conclusion o
a plysical gulf between wlere we sit and tle screens tlemselves as well as
a temporal gulf between tle time of slooting and tle time of screening.
We may identify witl claracters and we may sympatletically respond to
tle acts tley perform witl jumps, jolts, strong emotions, arousal, or dis-
gust, but we never fully enter into or toucl tleir world. Ratler, we perceive
tlem and know tlem tlrougl an always-mediated embodied relation to
tleir bodies and tleir world as it relates to our knowledge of our world and
our own bodies experiences in it. Our imagination and our bodies relate
to tlese images, but we remain aware, as I lave been arguing, of our bodies
here and tlose larger-tlan-life, virtual bodies there, and of tle unbridge-
able gulf between tleir oversized grandeur and our relative smallness.
A scene in Almodvars Bad Education (La mala educacin, :oo() can
serve as a landy allegory of tle structure of screening sex I lave tlus far
been examining. Two boys sit before tle large movie screen of a provincial
Spanisl movie tleater in ,6, watcling tle Spanisl star Sara Montiel in
a scene from tle lm Esa mujer (dir. Mario Camus, ,6,). Montiel was a
famous pop singer and movie star just beginning ler transformation from
a general icon of female suering into a focus of gay pop worslip. As Al-
modvar frames it, tle two boys, seen from belind, are engulfed by tle
larger-tlan-life image. Tey are aroused by Sara, and tlat arousal plays
itself out in tle tleater as tley discover one anotlers erections. From our
discreet viewing position belind tlem, we see low tleir seats slake as
tley masturbate one anotler (gure :,).
Tis image of tle two boys seen from belind infers a metaplorical get-
ting lold of Sara tlrougl tleir getting lold of one anotler. Tis inferred
mutual masturbation is an amusing deance of tle usual decorum of tle
movie tleater. Historically, tlis image is sometling of an anaclronism:
wlile masturbation or even mutual masturbation could take place in cer-
tain sparsely populated tleaters, it was probably rare in Francos Spain.
Nor was masturbation an activity tlat could be represented in mainstream
lms, Spanisl or American, at tle date depicted in tlis lm. Nevertleless,
we can take tlis image of Almodvars boys in sexual tlrall to tle glamor-
ous female bodies of tle big screen as an emblem of tle centrality of sex to
tle moviegoing experiencea centrality tlat could not be more directly
revealed in movies until tle eiglties and beyond.
How, tlen, miglt we picture screening sex once it las moved into tle
privacy of tle lome: Once again it is Almodvar wlo provides tle appro-
priately perverse picture. In lis ,86 lm Matador a credit sequence intro-
duces tle ecstatic face of tle main claracter intercut witl grisly images
and sounds from lorror lms slowing tle slasling and dismemberment
o: conclusion
of female victims. )ust low our as-yet-undisclosed lero sees tlese grisly
images is not made clear until we see tle nal slot of tle credit sequence
tlat reveals a side view of lis entire body: le is sprawled in a clair witl
lis feet propped up on eitler side of a television monitor. Diego, tle ex-
matador turned woman-killer, is not only presumed to be masturbating,
le almost seems to be laving sex witl lis 1v and it is as if tle television
monitor las been engulfed by lis body (gure :6).
125: Bad Education (dir. Pedro Almodvar, 2004), the boys look at Sara on the big
screen and discover their own bodies before it.
126: Matador (dir. Pedro Almodvar, 1986), Diego masturbates astride the
television monitor
conclusion o
An earlier guration of tlis perverse, excited masturbatory relation
to small screen appears in David Cronenbergs Videodrome (,8). Te
lm is about a cable clannel director wlo, in seeking new soft-core porn
and lorror material for lis station, lappens on a possible live snu slow
wlose video signals appear to produce botl violent lallucinations and
actual bodily clanges in tle viewer. Seduced and infected by tle slows
signals, tlis man limself becomes an appendage of video teclnology. He
discovers a woman witl wlom le las previously lad sex now located in
tle television monitor. Her lips protrude from tle monitor as sle beck-
ons lim to come to ler. Te television itself begins to tlrob and breatle.
Cronenbergs antilero embraces, caresses, and enters tle screen. Even
more tlan Almodvars matador, wlose own body surrounds tle screen,
tlis claracter bridges tle gulf tlat las traditionally separated tle body
of tle viewer from tle bodies imaged on tle screen (gure :;). In botl
tlese examples, tle body of tle viewer and tle body on tle screen seem
to merge.
It is lardly surprising tlat big-screen cinepliles like Almodvar and
Cronenberg depict tle luman interaction witl tle small screen in tle
privacy of tle lome as botl malevolent and lorric. Film-makers love to
vilify tle small screen experience. In botl narratives, solitary, obsessed
men become even more antisocial tlrougl tleir absorption into tle small
television screen. As tle media sclolar Sean Cubitt put it in ,,, video
127: Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983), Max enters the screen of the
television monitor as if it were the woman herself
o( conclusion
seems more likely [tlan lm] to be used for solitary or sligltly illicit view-
ingby lousewives during coee-breaks, by teenagers late at niglt.'
And, indeed, tle small screen las delivered a great many forms of
erotic moving images botl as soft-core genres aimed primarily at arousal
as well as in tle many serialized, multi-season slows aimed at depicting
new sexual lifestyles. Tese recent lits include: Sex and the City (nvo,
,,8:oo(), wlicl, like Mike Niclols in tle late sixties, preferred to
satirically talk about ratler tlan to depict sex, tle gay-tlemed Queer as
Folk (Slowtime, American-Canadian production, :ooo:oo,), wlicl
more boldly displayed tle sex of its protagonists (a rst episode depicted
simulated anal sex accompanied by an illustration and pedagogic expla-
nation of rimming), tle lesbian-tlemed Te L-Word (Slowtime, :oo(),
wlicl followed Queer as Folk into tle realm of serialized drama witl
steamy simulated sex, or tle currently popular Tell Me that You Love Me
(nvo, :oo;), also a serialized drama, tlis one about straiglt, middle-
class, wlite couples. Wlat is new in tlis slow is quasi explicit sex as a
key to understanding claracter. Like tle lms of lard-core art discussed
in clapter ;, new levels of explicitness serve new levels of psyclological
Wlile tle lard-core nature of Tell Me that You Love Me is new, soft-
core sex on cable television extends back to tle early nineties. Critic Dave
Andrews reminds us tlat softcore, as le calls it, was rst spawned on
cable television as early as ,,: witl Zalman Kings Red Shoe Diaries,
wlicl was widely imitated. Andrews locates cable and direct-to-video
soft core as a subset of a continuing sexploitation tradition tlat, like tle
lard-core feature, punctuates its narrative witl frequent sex scenes, albeit
ones tlat avoid all displays of penetration and erect penises.' Unlike most
lard-core pornograply, soft core las listorically been marketed to women
every bit as mucl as to men. Linda Rutl Williams calls tlis soft core tle
cinematic equivalent of coitus interruptus.' Botl critics lave slown low
tlis form of soft-core titillation became linked to tle mainstream as well
as tle low budget erotic tlriller.
Cable clannels and on-demand soft-core pornograply are tlus typical
televisionin tle sense of regular series tlat come into tle lomeand
yet tley are not television in tle sense tlat tley often deal witl sex in
botl adult and titillating ways anatlema to tle older understanding of tle
medium as broadcast. Wlile most of tle cable experience may be tamer
and more domesticated tlan tle wild world of tle Internet (discussed
below), and wlile it may refrain from or go only to tle edge of real sex,
it is likely tlat all tlese slows contribute botl to potential masturbatory
conclusion o,
uses as well as to frank conversations about sexwletler in tle bedroom
or at tle water cooler.
If tle rise of adult viewing material on cable and vcv las facilitated
tle consumption of sexual moving images for purposes of sometimes im-
mediate sexual gratication, it is wortl considering tle clanged status of
masturbation in tlis new world. Te onetime vice of onanism no longer
carries tle stigma of self-pollution tlat Tomas Laqueur tells us it quite
suddenly acquired in tle early eiglteentl century and wlicl it continued
to carry tlrouglout tle following two centuries. However, even tle more
recent relabilitation of solitary sex las been an uneven process.' Dave
Andrews notes, for example, tlat in tle soft-core erotic lms and series
slown on cable it became conventional to depict masturbation witlin tle
soft-core drama, but only as performed by clitoral-discovering women.
Masturbating men, tlougl perlaps tle primary viewers addressed, were
not depicted on tle small screen.'
Private screening takes us out of public scrutiny and gives us control
over wlat, wlen, and wlere we screen. Sucl screening is often a literal
and metaplorical form of wlat Ceorey King, in a recent book about
New Hollywood cinema, calls Embracing tle Small Screen. Tougl
King speaks metaplorically of tle slift to lome viewing, it is indeed
sometling like a literal embracea kind of laving sex witl tle plysical
screen itselftlat is pictured in tle plobic and masculine examples of
tle big-screen cineastes noted above.' Wlere Almodvars boys at tle
movies enjoy a social, public experience, even in tleir furtive gestures of
mutual masturbation, Almodvar and Cronenbergs men merge onanis-
tically witl tleir screens. Small-screen plobia is facilitated by tle fact
tlat tle small screen is itself a plysical object and tlat wlat is pictured
in it is often, in tle case of television-screen close-ups, rouglly life-size.
Unlike tle large lm screen, tlis small screen can be straddled, kissed,
embraced, and manipulated witl direct or remote controls. As Catlerine
Zimmer las argued, tle screen on wlicl I view tle video, ivi, cablecast,
or moving images downloaded from a server is a literal object witl left
and deptl tlat can be plysically toucled and embraced.' Instead of being
engulfed by tle immaterial moving images of tle lm screen, my body
can surround tle material object tlat carries tle image. Tere is also tle
enlanced sense of liveness, wletler actual or illusory, associated witl tle
television itself and its ability to broadcast or telecast events wlile tley
lappen. Cronenbergs antilero enters tle video screen tlrougl tle lure
of tle outsized live woman wlose lips protrude.
Almodvar and Cronenberg found it easy to picture tle small screen
o6 conclusion
as tle repository of lurid images of sex and gore because it was precisely
sucl images tlat lad pioneered tle early practice of lome viewing.' As
Steplen Prince asserts in lis listory of American cinema in tle ,8os,
tle slift to video enabled tle adult industry to expand its output, reacl a
larger audience, and enjoy enormous prots.' Te porn industry soon saw
tle advantage of avoiding tleatrical releases altogetler, and by ,86 tlere
were only two lundred surviving adult tleaters. Hollywood, on tle otler
land, did not venture to invest in video transfers from ,mm lm until
tle adult lm industry lad conclusively proven tle economic viability of
tle rented or purclased videocassette. Tus tle lome video revolution
tlat put vcv and cassettes, laser discs and ivis into our living rooms
and bedroomsand now into our mobile lands and lapswas initiated
more by tle drive to see a lm like Deep Troat and its progeny tlan by
tle drive to see Te Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, ,;:). Clearly
one of tle important dierences of lome viewing, along witl tle ability
to stop, start, replay, and otlerwise more actively manipulate tle image
and despite often very real losses of dimension, quality, and delityis tle
fact tlat tle vcv, and tle small screen in general, amplies and individu-
alizes tle association of movies witl sex.
In tle ,8os Cronenbergs video viewer plysically broacled tle divide
between lis own esl and tlat pictured on tle video monitor by entering
into tle image, wlile Almodvars ex-bullglter planted tle monitor be-
tween lis legs and surrounded it. By tle mid-,,os, lowever, tlese plo-
bic images of tle relation to tle small screen were supplanted by some-
tling even more sinister: a full-body embrace of a new kind of monitor
of a computer equipped witl keyboard (gure :8). In tlis digitally ren-
dered image of tle relation of tle Internet userviewer no longer seems
quite tle riglt word!to new digital teclnologies, tle very gulf between
viewer and image tlat I lave emplasized in tle tleatrical model and
tlat lessens witl tle television seems to be eliminated altogetler. A naked,
vulnerable, androgynous but male body embraces tle screen of tle moni-
tor wlile percled atop an illuminated keyboard. Tis image, mucl dis-
cussed by new media sclolars, was tle infamous centerfold of a )uly ,,,
Time article about tle dangers of a new tling called cyberporn. Unlike tle
gures of unseemly proximity discussed above, tlis image is no longer an
analog plotograpl, but itself tle product of computer manipulation. Te
digital artist Matt Malurin gures tle relation to tle computer screen as
a full-edged embrace.'
In tlis image of tle luman-computer interface, it is even less possible
128: The young person embraces the computer monitor as an emblem of the
dangers of cyberporn. Matt Mahurin, Time, 3 July 1995
o8 conclusion
to tell wlere tle screen, in tle form of tle computer monitor, ends and
wlere tle body of tle viewer or user begins. Zabet Patterson, for ex-
ample, notes low tle relationslip between tle body and tle networked
computer is pictured as unwlolesomely dissolute. Dissolute in tlis
context means not only indulging in sensual pleasures or vices, in tlis
case including a possibly incorrect object cloice, but simply dissolved
tle person wlo so engages is not wlole.
Malurins image was one of several tlat accompanied a panic-inducing
Time article titled, On a Screen Near You, Cyberporn: A New Study
Slows How Pervasive and Wild It Really Is. Te next year Congress
passed tle Communications Decency Act. Altlougl tle act was subse-
quently struck down by tle Supreme Court, it represented tle rst time
any governmental agency attempted to regulate Internet content. As witl
tle ,8os lome video revolution, pornograplic sexual content once again
drove teclnological innovation. In tlis case, as Wendy Clun notes, tle
success of cyberporn sites convinced many American corporations tlat
Internet users were willing to pay witl credit cards online. Cyberporn
can tlus be seen to lave paved tle way for tle Information Superligl-
way, causing botl government and commercial companies to debate tle
status of tle Internet as a mass medium.
Te panic over Internet porn suggests low ready tle public wasper-
laps even low primed it lad already been by earlier lm images of tle
addictive, perverse embrace of tle small screento blame pornograply
as tle evil invader of tle privacy of tle lome. Tis gure of tle corrupt-
ible adolescent too closely toucled by tle new teclnology of cyberporn,
along witl a cover image of a powerless, susceptible clild, became tle
new faceor perlaps we slould now say bodily gurationof screening
sex for tle ,,os. Wlat lorries in tlis gure is not so mucl tle con-
tentas witl tle giant lips tlat ll tle television screen Cronenbergs
antilero plysically entersbut tle luman interaction witl networked
teclnology itself: wlat new media sclolars and users call tle interface
las actually become sometling more like an interbody relation. In tlis
relation bodies are exposed promiscuously and perversely tlrougl tle
medium of tle screen to any number of otler bodies, tlougl not neces-
sarily, as Clun perceptively notes, in tle spectacular faslion of an earlier
cinematic frenzy of tle visible as portrayed in lard-core pornograply.
Hard-core sex acts are certainly visible on tlese small screens, but less
spectacularly so. Fiber-optic networks, as Clun puts it, botl enable and
frustrate tle cinematic model of an all-pervasive visuality. Toucl, as we
see illustrated in tlis gure, seems more important tlan siglt, wlicl is
conclusion o,
often simply an eect employed, Clun notes, to make jacking in, or now
simply activating a screen tlrougl toucl, sexy.
Does screen size matter to screening sex: I tlink it does, but mostly as it
connects witl constantly uctuating issues of privacy and publicity and to
wlat I lave described earlier, borrowing from Miriam Hansen and Walter
Benjamins claim tlat tle body is energized as a porous interface. Home
screens lave grown larger, movie tleaters lave grown smaller, and mobile
screens and now toucl screens of laptops, cell plones, and iPods compli-
cate tle wlole issue by bringing tle once private, small screen out into a
public space tlat is simultaneously more privatized. To linge tle argu-
ment about our bodies relation to media on screen size alone may also
not go to tle leart of tle mucl-vaunted future convergence of all media
made possible by tle computational nature of digital information. In tlis
future convergence, so tle story goes, tle specicity of media will end,
and our bodies will become interfaces to pure ows of information. Te
eroticism of being jacked in may not be so mucl about being immersed
in a single gigantic visual spectacle but may ratler foretell an interaction
witl promiscuous, proliferating relations to otler bodies tlrougl tle
various screens of our lives. How, tlen, to claracterize beyond tle lyper-
bole of utopic or dystopic connections tle experience of tlis embrace of
tle small screen in comparison to tle engulfment by tle old-faslioned
Recall Walter Benjamins claim tlat tle teclnological reproduction of
cinema permits us to get lold of an object at close range in an image.'
Benjamin is well aware tlat tlere is no literal getting lold, no actual
grasp, of tle object in an image. Only insofar as it is mediated as image
do we experience tle illusion of being plysically close enougl to get lold.
But now tlat new media forms of screening sex make possible botl real
and illusory interactions tlat often mime literal grasping and toucling,
and now tlat tlese interactions can take place in tle privacy of tle lome,
is it possible to say tlat screening sex las become a kind of laving sex:
Wlat does it mean to get lold of an object at close range in an image in a
new-media era of screening sex:
Every contemporary tleorist of media must now contend witl botl tle
fact and tle fantasy of a new media age governed by patterns of infor-
mation instead of analogical representation. Virtual realities always seem
Embodiment, New Media, and Cyberporn
o conclusion
about to displace plysical realities. For example, Lev Manovicls land-
mark Language of New Media predicts tlat one day virtual reality tecl-
nologies may cease to be cumbersome lelmets, goggles, and gloves and
be reduced to a clip implanted in tle retina and connected by wireless
transmission to tle Net. At tlis moment we will always be in toucl,
always be plugged in, and at tlis moment, Manovicl predicts, tle retina
and tle screen will merge, tle screen itself will disappear.
Yet predictions of tle triumpl of tle virtual belong to wlat tle media
critic and skeptical listorian Plillip Rosen calls tle rletoric of tle fore-
cast. Te forecast is one of tle most familiar tropes of all discussions of
new media as a journey toward pure digitation resulting in tle abandon-
ment of tle analog. As we get closer to a state of ubiquitous information
ow, and as media converge, tleir specicity will presumably no longer
matter. Rosens main critique of tlis rletoric is tlat we will never quite
arrive at tlis future state. It is anotler form of Platonic ideal. He clarac-
terizes tlis rletoric of tle forecast as entailing tlree main promises: ()
tle innite ability to manipulate enabled by computational media, (:) tle
ultimate convergence of all mediateleplone, lm, television, computer
made possible by tle free passage of any kind of message among a multi-
plicity of maclines and media, and () nally, innite manipulability and
convergence lead to tle ultimate aclievement of interactivity in wlicl
tle receiver of information can potentially interact witl it in tle very
process of reception. Rosens skepticism about virtual reality is primarily
tlat innite manipulation, convergence, and interactivity will never quite
arrive. We persist in a permanent interregnum between old and new
Vivian Sobclack, wlose notion of embodiment in relation to cinema
las been important tlrouglout tlis book, is also no fan of tle digital. Sle
argues tlat tle electronic is experienced not as a discrete, intentional,
body-centered mediation and projection in space but ratler as a simul-
taneous, dispersed and insubstantial transmission across a network or
web tlat is constituted spatially more as a materially imsy latticework
of nodal points tlan as tle stable ground of embodied experience. Te
electronic constructs a metaworld, a system of simulation and of copies
tlat lack an original ground. Cauglt up in discrete bits of a perpetually
instant present, Sobclack asserts tlat tle only tling tlat lolds identity
togetler in tlis regime is tle ongoing armation of our connections to
tlese media tlemselves. In tlis attened, supercial space lacking botl
temporal tlickness and bodily investment, tle dominant teclno-logic
of tle electronic leaves us diused and disembodied.
But perlaps Sobclacks objection to a presumed disembodiment
caused by new media goes too far. Perlaps it is not a question of leaving
tle body, lumanity, and our relation to screens belind. In two recent
books, New Philosophy for New Media and Bodies in Code: Interfaces with
Digital Media, Mark Hansen las insisted on tle centrality of tle body as
tle framer of informationas tle material basis of all perceptual infor-
mation, wletler analogical or coded. In a sense, Hansen tells us wlat we
already know, or at least wlat we already feel if we are not too cauglt up in
dualistic tlinking about mind and body: tlat we relate to moving images
in mucl tle same way tlat we relate to real bodies. My body sympatleti-
cally relates to tle bodies I see on screen, but wlen I am screening sex I do
not lave sex witl tle bodies I see tlere. Nor do I slavislly imitate wlat
I see tlem do. Over time, I lave been arguing, we become habituated to
tlis screening and to our sympatletic relations to tle sex of otlers as a
kind of carnal knowledge felt in our own bodies. Te teclniques of cinema
lave led us to an embodied relation to movies tlat allows us to play witl
tlese moving images even wlile sitting immobile in our tleater seats or
lolding an image on a mobile device in our laps. My irreducible bodily
basis of experience las tlus been conditioned by tle teclnical dimension
of movies. Mixed reality is Hansens term for tle fact tlat tlere is no
escape into tle virtual, no leaving tle body belind, no complete going
tlrougl tle virtual windowonly increased awareness of imaging, and of
active relations to images, as an originary element of our organisms very
Wlere Hansen explains tle embodiment of digital media tlrougl ana-
lyses of rareed digital artworks nearly impossible to see because tley
only exist in museum installations or on eplemeral Web sites, I will briey
explore embodiment in digital media tlrougl some quite readily available
and popular examples of cyberporn by considering Rosens categories of
innite manipulability, convergence, and especially interaction. Cyber-
porn las been called tle great industry of tle internet. All pornogra-
ply, and especially moving-image pornograply, oers a dramatic tension
between fantasy (for example, tle idea tlat people are always ready to
lave sex at tle drop of a lat) and reality (tle supposedly documentary
quality of tlis sex, tle fact tlat in lard core tle sex must really lappen).
But in tle case of cyberporn, tle furtler tension between analog and digi-
tal, real and virtual, complicates tlis initial tension. Because pornograply,
as we saw in clapter , provokes tle bodies tlat use it to react in tle form
of arousal, it can be a very real embodied experience if we are so aroused.
Te gay media critic Riclard Dyer puts it best: No otler genre can be
: conclusion
at once so devastatingly unsatisfactory wlen it fails to deliver . . . and so
entirely true to its liglly focused promise wlen it succeeds.
Since tle era of Deep Troat, lowever, tlere las been a signicant esca-
lation in tle expectation of wlat pornograply delivers. Wlere I lad once
argued of tleatrically screened lard core tlat it was marked witl tle
primary intent of arousing viewers,' Dyer now writes: Te point of porn
is to assist tle user in coming to orgasm. Tis expectation may be tle
essential dierence between tle big screen and tle small screen, between
public and private screening of sex. Wlere tle big screen congures me as
a spectator or viewer, tle small screen congures me as a user-participant
invited to do more tlan just watcl a moving image across tle gulf be-
tween me and tle screen. As witl Dyerand not only in tle realm of gay
pornograplytlere is an assumption tlat masturbation is tle very point
of tle luman-screen interface, and it is not accidental tlat tle video Dyer
discusses tle most, Ryan Idols Ryan Idol: A Very Personal View (,,o), is
itself a celebration of masturbation. In tlis video, Ryan Idol speaks directly
to tle viewer of tle video about a typical day in lis life, a day lled witl
numerous opportunities to masturbate witl us watcling. As in a great
many works of pornograply in tle electronic era, a user interacts witl a
porn performer wlo speaks directly to lim or ler. And tlis user may also
innitely manipulateeven tlougl in tlis predigital video instance ma-
nipulation only amounts to tle ability to repeat sections and to coincide
lis or ler own arousal and coming witl Idols.
If tlis escalation from arousal to coming is pervasive in contemporary
expectations of tle experience of screening lard-core sex, it represents a
signicant clange in wlat pornograply is expected to deliver since tle
big-screen tleatrical viewing days of Deep Troat. Wlile tle gay video
pornograply Dyer uses in tlis instance is not teclnically cyberpornit
is not delivered online, it is not innitely manipulable, and it is, strictly
speaking, not digital, wlicl is to say it is also not yet convergedit for-
mally anticipates many qualities of contemporary cyberporn: it oers di-
rect address to tle viewer-user, it cares very little about narrative, and
it is real ratler tlan ctional in tle sense tlat tle porn star really does
masturbate limself to orgasm several times as tle main action, slaring
lis pleasure, articulating its nature to us as le does so. Wlat is real about
Idol is certainly not tlat le is an ordinary person wlo anticipates tle
proliferation of many amateur forms of pornograply. Ratler, le is real in
anotler sense: le acknowledges our own aroused, possibly masturbatory
connection to lim tlrougl tle camera. He speaks to us, le grows aroused
for us, le comes for us. He even seems to expect us to come with lim. In
lim we see an anticipation of tle cybersex idea of laving so-called tele-
present sex witl a person not plysically available to tle body of tle user.
Te media critic Stacy Cillis denes cybersexas distinct from cyber-
pornas laving sex witl someone wlo is not plysically present in our
space but connected tlrougl tle computer. Cybersex is a synclronous
sexual exclange between two people across a distance. For Cillis, tlis
sexual exclange is necessarily only textualan exclange of written words
in real time. In an open clat room, for example, Laurie proposes to
Cregory tlat tley try anal. Cregory responds tlat tlat is lis specialty:
Cet tle lead in tlere witl circular motion, and dont put tle entire penis
in tlere, or Laurie will lie on ler stomacl for tlree days. Its real tiglt but
tle relaxation is tle key. Part lypotletical action, part sex education,
tlis exclange selectively describes wlat Laurie and Cregory feel about tle
act of anal sex, as well as wlat tley feel toward one anotler wlile tley
virtually do it. Of course no plysical connection between tlemexcept
as tley imagine it to be taking place in cyberspace, except as tley relate to
one anotler tlrougl tleir screensis possible. Nevertleless tlere is a
textual exclange tlat takes place in real time.
Cybersex in tlis model is a telling of fantasies in tle present active
tense of doing and feeling. Wlile Laurie and Cregory, wlo cloose tle
words tley exclange via tle computer, are engaged in cybersex, tlose of
us wlo read tle exclange as it unfolds in tle clat room, or later as pub-
lisled in Cilliss article, are experiencing cyberporna representation of
sexual acts. No one, not Laurie, not Cregory, not tle voyeurs in tle
clat room not tle readers wlo experience tle exclange as cyberporn,
exactly knows wlere tle sexual act takes place. Te logical answertlat
tley are in cyberspace, a virtual alternative to tle plysical worldmiglt
satisfy tle mind-body dualists wlo give priority to mind, but it unfortu-
nately gives very slort slrift to tlese stubborn bodies still sitting before
tle computer. Cillis wisely rejects tle notion of cyberspace as an alterna-
tive to tle plysical world, and sle equally rejects tle often accompanying
metaplor of tle cyborg as tle luman-macline tlat we become in an era
of converging media, innite manipulation, and interactivity. However,
ler conclusion tlat we experience a redrawing of tle body via tle key-
board, on tle screen and tlat tlis redrawing empties out our plysical
and sensory existence into tlat otler place, cyberspace, wlere subjectivi-
ties are not dened by corporeality, seems dubious.
Cilliss argument relies on notions of tle postmodern body as miss-
ing matter and tlus points us away from tle plenomenological insiglt
tlat all media experiences are embodied. Her ultimate conclusion tlat
( conclusion
cybersex is masturbation, mutual masturbation, erotica, pornograply
and sex all at tle same time (altlougl not in tle same place) is too im-
precise. However, it does point us to tle important question of botl time
and space. For not only does tle couple use tle medium of tle screen to
get closer to one anotler, but wlat seems to be most exciting is tlat tley
are doing it togetler at tle same time.
Cyberporn exists in many dierent forms, some of it very mucl like
ordinary porn. I lave been arguing, lowever, tlat tle one common de-
nominator of small-screen pornograply in a new media era las been tle
expectation tlat one miglt be more likely to use tlis pornograply, not
just for arousal but also now to come. Wletler most cyberporn users
do use it in tlis way I cannot conrm, but it does seem incontrovertible
tlat mucl of tle pornograply out tlere today las a built-in expectation
tlat users will be in toucl witl tlemselves and often masturbating be-
fore tleir computer or television monitors or new toucl screens.' Wlat
follows is an impressionistic survey of contemporary pornograplies from
tle perspective of Rosens never quite aclieved qualities of convergence,
practically innite manipulation, and tle ever-developing forms of sexual
In tle introduction to tlis book I cited tle example of Pirates (dir.
)oone, :oo,), a work of contemporary pornograply available on ivi.
Proudly advertised as tle most expensive porn lm ever, it represents
tle big-production, professional movie-like end of a continuum wlose
opposite end is represented by tlousands of free, or initially free, adult
Web sites oering all manner of amateur sexual poses, performances,
and fetisles. Produced by tle combined forces of two of contemporary
porns most establisled studios (Digital Playground and Adam and Eve
Productions) and combining tle talents of no less tlan ve contract
girl players, Pirates comes packaged in an expensive (s,o to s;o) tlree-
disc box set. One disc is tle lm witl a running time of :, minutes, slot
on ligl-denition video in ,. Dolby surround sound in a wide-screen
format. Anotler disc includes special featuresa blooper reel, a voice-
over commentary from tle anonymous director )oone, and a making-
of documentary. A tlird disc oers a second, ligl-denition version of
tle lm tlat can only be played on proper ligl-denition maclines.
Te lm was leavily promoted, and swept tle Adult Video News (v)
Awards (winning a record eleven, including best video feature, best ivi,
best director, best actor, best supporting actor, and best actress). Of course
a sequel is in tle works.
Pirates is tle contemporary example of moving-image pornograply
conclusion ,
tlat most carries on tle narrative tradition begun by Deep Troat. Not
surprisingly, it oers only minimal evidence of media convergence. It is
a digital work aspiring to tle big-screen condition of lm and larking
back to tle leyday of porno clic. Tougl its online marketing campaign
won an v award, and tlougl it is as full of expensive special eects
as tle Pirates of the Caribbean franclise it aectionately parodies, tlese
computer-generated special eects are primarily devoted to sea battles
and tle animated bones of pirate skeletons. Te sex itself, as I claim in
tle introduction, is devoted to lard-core pornograplys usual maximum
visibility of organs and acts. N