The Bigger Picture: The Big Three, Part Three

85272569We have now reached the last of a three part series concerning the three taboos of cinema. Thus far we have discussed the use of profanity and violence, leaving us left with only one subject to discuss, and the most mystifying topic of them all.

The outrage over sex in film that is displayed in many circles seems quite ridiculous when viewed with a logical mind. Sex is the very beginning of life, an event from which we all sprang forth. Likewise, it is something we all naturally crave and seek out, even those who repress it. Why then are we all so afraid of it?

Recently, there was a fascinating news story that sheds some light on this sociological puzzle. Chilean fashion designer Ricardo Oyarzun put on a show that included models dressed as the Virgin Mary, many with ample cleavage. Naturally, this sparked outrage from religious groups. Chile’s Episcopal Conference claimed that the fashion show would encourage people to view the Virgin as an “object of consumption.”

As usual, this story can be viewed logically from both sides. A woman’s breasts are perhaps her greatest symbol of motherhood, and who embodies motherhood more than the Virgin Mary? They are also innately arousing and sexual, but the very desire a man has for women comes from the natural urge to procreate and find a suitable mother for his children. However, breasts are so hidden from view that they naturally become solely sexual objects arousing a desire in men from the earliest stage of puberty. It is understandable that religious groups would be offended by this display, no matter how logically sex is liked to motherhood.

Why is sex is such a common element in movies? The obvious reason is that stories are generally about the most interesting events in life, and sex is usually a pretty interesting and momentous event. It also represents a link between characters, one that is much more visual than any written dialogue can be. The old screenwriter axiom of “show it, don’t say it” comes to mind.

Yet, despite all of this logical analysis, sex remains a difficult subject for our culture. Things are so out of balance that many people have psychological disorders relating to sex, and they can go in either direction. Some are too modest, while others too promiscuous. On one side we have your garden-variety child-molesters, rapists, and various other predators, and on the other we have the Jonas Brothers and assorted orthodox religious figures. The rest of us fall somewhere in the middle.

The general rule is that sex in movies is acceptable if implicit, and irresponsible if explicit. But where exactly would your own bedroom escapades fall within that delineation, and does the answer to that question mean there is something wrong with what you do?

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ sparked outrage from religious groups because Willem Dafoe’s Christ is shown making love to Mary Magdalene. The idea that Jesus could be sexual in any way seemed to really offend religious figures, even though it was used metaphorically.  This reaction is not too surprising when one considers the track record zealots have in interpreting metaphors.

When we are children, most of us are embarrassed by displays of affection. I remember many a time in which I covered my eyes when two characters kissed in a film. Once we reach puberty, we start to feel excited by the idea of physical closeness, and actively seek out movies that have any kind of sexuality. As an adult, this becomes a bit of an afterthought. Perhaps this is because we tend to have more of a lasting memory not necessarily of the sex act itself, but of the situations that it is bookended by.

A great example of this can be seen in Once Upon a Time in the West. Throughout the scene, Henry Fonda is merely lying on top of Claudia Cardinale, talking to her. It is these situations in which a real connection is made between two characters. Likewise, a more explicit scene can appear comical or out of place. Watchmen contained one of the most hilariously out-of-place sex scenes since Zack Snyder’s previous movie, 300. Both of those scenes made me giggle like a sixth grader. Just as one mistaken bit of casting can ruin an otherwise fine film, a poorly handled sex scene can distract from an otherwise decent movie. The best directors are smart enough to hide their flaws.

In the end, this is all a matter of opinion. It’s a definite possibility that movies today rely too much upon sex for their own good. Since it can sidetrack a plot, it must be handled with the utmost care. A director’s job in many ways relies upon his ability to suggest and to tease. Sex, while often a key moment in a character’s story arc, can often be mishandled. It is that it be handled tastefully; otherwise a movie’s credibility can be severely compromised.

In many ways, actresses are the real victims of Hollywood’s sex-obsession. Last fall, when casting for my current project, my partner and I held auditions at a friend’s house. We got a large response and booked almost a dozen girls. Only one of them showed up for the call. Our casting director was able to provide some insight into this, explaining that when an actress arrives for an audition, she will often keep driving if the address turns out to be a residence (especially in the San Fernando Valley). The following week, we held auditions at a casting space in Hollywood, with much more success.

Megan Fox recently decried her own situation. Hoping to be taken seriously, she complained that she had been offered a dozen roles as a stripper, claiming that she hopes to “make a point of keeping her clothes on as long as possible.” That quote alone shows the fatalistic attitude she already has about her situation. Megan Fox is a lovely young woman, and far be it from me to complain were she to strip down for a movie. But that’s not the point. She, and many other actresses like her, struggle daily in Hollywood to be taken for more than just their mammary glands.

It happens because women are beautiful, and the men hold the paychecks. Many an aspiring filmmaker these days knows that he can exploit the thirst for profanity, violence, and sex that I have been entailed the last three weeks within a cheap slasher movie. There is always a market for these as the new crop of 14-year-old boys discovers the horror section of their Blockbuster (or Netflix), and eventually matures to distribute the paychecks around Hollywood. But there is another group, the filmmakers, among whom few will be successful, and even fewer will retain their integrity.  Despite the lopsidedness of the success/integrity ratio, those who use these correctly will ultimately achieve a greater kind of success than those who use them for exploitative purposes.

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  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    The key here is that the US is a paternalistic society. If our children see violence, while we may be shocked, we rationalize it in two ways: movie killing is not real. One day, you may have to defend yourself.

    With language, although it is the mark of abhorrent parenting, seeing a child say dirty words has comedy-shock value. I'm not agreeing with this, mind you, but a little kid shouting the f-bomb can be uncomfortably hilarious to all except their embarrassed parents.

    But with sex, there is no wiggle room. We do not was to hear about, and certainly not think about, our little children taking cues from media and experimenting. Now, if we were responsible and checked our media first before we thrust it upon our youth, then it would truly be a case for parental discretion, which is where it ought to be. But we're not responsible, it's easier to legislate sexual images out of media than to shoulder that burden ourselves.

    As for nudity, it's really what the market will bear (or bare, as it were.) Recent films had big box office opening weeks and then tanked afterward, for many reasons of course… But the undercurrent has suggested that, because there was male full-frontal nudity in some of these to match the female exposure rate, guys rejected the movies. Women as a demographic have been shown to go see a movie once, enjoy it, and that be enough where a male becomes obsessive and will go see a movie five plus times. If this grapevine talk is true, it would indicate the penis is stunting repeat business.

    I conclude this unnecessarily long comment with a quote from a former film teacher I had. It was later revealed she didn't like men much but was really into the girls gym teacher. Make of that what you will. But her comment about female nudity versus male nudity was: Even naked, men never themselves in.

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