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Über dieses Buch

Sex and Film is a frank, comprehensive analysis of the cinema's love affair with the erotic. Forshaw's lively study moves from the sexual abandon of the 1930s to filmmakers' circumvention of censorship, the demolition of taboos by arthouse directors and pornographic films, and an examination of how explicit imagery invaded modern mainstream cinema.




A fairly sober warning should be given to any potential readers of this book. If notions of political correctness are important to you, it might perhaps be best to steer clear of what follows. Sexuality and the treatment of sex on film has long been a minefield for a variety of reasons, but it has perhaps become even more so now that it is essential for any writer to parade his or her ideological credentials or attitudes; even the sentence you have just read had to be non-gender specific. One might say that the Damoclean sword of ‘avoidance of offence’ in the sexual arena fell in the 1980s with the surprising and unlikely marriage between the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse and anti-pornography feminists. While the former was famous for her ‘Cleanup TV’ campaign and battles with such dramatists as Dennis Potter, the latter concurred with her view that the female body had become objectified in popular and even serious culture. Personally, I argued in vain with feminists of my acquaintance who supported her censorship initiatives, believing that they (my friends and colleagues) had far more in common with someone like myself, who had no objection to either female or male nudity. Their fragile alliance was with a woman who, for instance, objected to such feminist shibboleths as abortion and felt that her own sex was best served by a devotion to family, church and conservative values — the German mantra ‘Kinder, Küche und Kirche’, in fact.
Barry Forshaw

1. The 1930s: From Mae West to the Legion of Decency

The smart, witty and frank sex comedies of the impudent 1930s — notably the ‘bad girls’ cycle of the day — are as fondly celebrated today as when they originally delighted audiences. Crackling with untrammelled sexual energy, their freedom to treat such subjects as prostitution was later prohibited, abruptly ended by the introduction of the Hays Code under its folksy but steely progenitor, Will Hays, the voice of the church. The Code’s draconian restrictions brought about a new age of enforced innocence for the cinema, which was to last for two decades. But the Hay’s Code was not the only opponent of freedom in the cinema, as we shall see. The British establishment, uneasy with the frankness of films, had no ideological arguments with the Code’s strictures.
Barry Forshaw

2. Getting it Past the Puritans: The 1940s

Examining the ingenious and entertaining fashion in which clever screenwriters, directors and stars circumvented the crushing censorship demands of the day is a source of pleasure in itself. Those who try to unpick such Machiavellian strategies have often found that it increases their admiration of the ingenuity of the filmmakers of the period. But under the demands of the Mrs Grundys of the day — an insistence on a kind of prelapsarian innocence in which there was no place for adult themes — the concomitant, repressed charge given to material that, on the surface only, conformed to the restrictions of the era made for some electric undercurrents. A good example here might be the discussion of horse racing between Bogart and Bacall in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) — when Lauren Bacall says her pleasure depends on ‘who’s in the saddle’, audiences understood what she was talking about. Similarly, in the same film, when Bogart opens a book (the contents of which we do not see), his expression makes it clear that he is looking at pornographic material. This sleight of hand was something that powerful newspaper interests in the UK and the US were uneasily aware of; newspaper editors were mostly self-serving supporters of censorship, since shrieks of outage about the immorality of everything — apart from the press itself — has always sold papers.
Barry Forshaw

3. The Kinsey Era: The 1950s

The 1950s in Hollywood cinema was a decade on the cusp prior to the pending sexual revolution, a staging post between the enforced celibacy and uneasy innocence of 1940s cinema and a new, more liberated decade. Films laboured under the limitations of the outmoded Hays Code before the dynamiting of censorship shibboleths in the 1960s. It was an era in which even musicals were rendered inoffensive by rewriting already innocuous material: a line in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, ‘A skinny lipped virgin with blood like water’, was obliged to become in the film version ‘a skinny lipped lady’ — although Otto Preminger bloody-mindedly included this unacceptable noun in The Moon is Blue (1953). But just as the American theatre was producing provocative, edgy work with adult themes, shortly to be adapted (and, inevitably, softened) for the cinema, the time was growing ever more ripe for some unruly rebels to take on the censors and once again produce a cinema for grown-up audiences rather than trying desperately to avoid giving offence to church groups. The Catholic Legion of Decency and the formidably right-wing Daughters of the American Revolution were still censorship groups to be reckoned with; however, Freud’s notion of the ‘return of the repressed’ became ever more relevant, as this was also the time of Alfred Kinsey’s rigorous examinations of modern sexual behaviour, documents that became stratified through every level of American society. The strictures and inhibitions of the era are intelligently recreated in Bill Condon’s unsensational biopic Kinsey (2004, with Liam Neeson as the sexologist).
Barry Forshaw

4. Pushing the Boundaries: Preminger the Rebel

Important directors such as Otto Preminger took on the all-powerful Production Code with the specific intention of making adult movies; the battles were bloody, but they led to the sudden, swift crumbling of the influence of such organisations as the Catholic Legion of Decency as serious filmmakers’ fights with the censors chimed with a new liberalism on the part of audiences. And this short-tempered German expat was the toughest street fighter of all the Hollywood rebels.
Barry Forshaw

5. This Property is Condemned: Tennessee Williams

If one writer may be said to be a barometer for the boundaries of presenting sex on the screen, it is one who rarely wrote directly for the medium, but whose plays — when adapted for the movies — were wildly successful, not least for their inflammatory depiction of sexual matters. However, most of these adaptations had to be softened and bowdlerised in order to be shown to cinema audiences, who were considered less sophisticated — and thus more open to moral corruption — than the more cultivated theatre audiences who first encountered Tennessee Williams’ work. After the success of his play The Glass Menagerie in 1944 (which was later filmed, but is not relevant to this study), virtually all Williams’ major plays enjoyed adaptations that were generally considered to maintain an extremely high standard, despite the strait-laced tinkerings to which they were subjected. Before the playwright’s cavalier attitude to drink and drugs began to sap his creative energy, he furnished some remarkable material for the cinema in which overcooked emotion and fevered sexuality were couched in the most poetic of terms, and shot through with a genuine and nuanced grasp of character, however extreme the situations in which he placed his protagonists.
Barry Forshaw

6. Arthouse Cinema in Italy: The New Explicitness

Is sexuality the key to Italian cinema? Eroticism is ever present: from the unbridled sensuality of the orgy scenes in silent Italian cinema, through a topless Sophia Loren in a 1950s historical epic, to the image of Silvana Mangano, her skirt provocatively tucked into her underwear in the Neorealist classic Bitter Rice (RisoAmaro), and to the erotic obsessions of Fellini and the more cerebral but still passion-centred movies of Antonioni. And then there’s the popular Italian cinema: the acres of tanned flesh (both male and female) on offer in the many sword and sandal epics of the peplum era through to the inextricable mix of sexuality and violence in the gialli of such directors as Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The latter may be said to be the final exhausted sigh of Italian concupiscence: a full-on Liebestod in which death and sex meet in a blood-drenched, orgasmic finale.
Barry Forshaw

7. Sex à la Français

It is instructive to examine the fashion in which French cinema, by virtue of its cachet of perceived quality, broadened the limits of what was acceptable in cinema; Gallic sangfroid pointed up cultural differences between that country’s films and the more cautious British and American varieties. Unsurprisingly, the popular conception, whether true or not, that France was the land of the untrammelled libido, with copious sexual activity — a reputation rivalled only by that of another liberated European country, Sweden — did absolutely no harm to the healthy box office prospects of the French films that were shown (sometimes maladroitly dubbed) in the UK and the US. What’s more, French cinema had produced the most important female sex symbol of the modern era; the actress Brigitte Bardot swiftly supplanted Marilyn Monroe as the cinema’s defining image of female sexuality. And cineastes were also aware that French directors were more ready than most to engage with sexually charged subjects.
Barry Forshaw

8. World Cinema Strategies: Britain and America from the 1960s

In 1967, audiences had put down their money and waited breathlessly for the brief glimpse of female pubic hair in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but the candlelit nude wrestling between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s Women in Love two years later and the nude tableaux of male and female actors in the rock musical Hair began to accustom audiences to such hitherto forbidden sights. Literature had long blazed a trail in the sexual arena, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to John Updike’s Couples (1968) with its partner-swapping lovers, while the theatre — always ahead of the cinema when it came to épater les bourgeois territory — had seen great success with Mart Crowley’s gay-themed The Boys in the Band, a show that enjoyed the imprimatur of such theatregoers as Jacqueline Kennedy. In Britain, the drama critic Kenneth Tynan — celebrated for the first use of the word ‘fuck’ on British television — was certainly not going to be outdone by American theatre producers when it came to edgy material. Inspired by the success of Hair, Tynan created the nudity-filled review Oh! Calcutta!, which resulted in the entire cast being arrested for obscene behaviour at its Los Angeles premiere. But this was no mere catchpenny endeavour written by a collection of hacks; the contributors included no less than the highly successful (and shortly to be murdered) gay playwright Joe Or ton, no stranger to outraging staid audiences with such thoroughly amoral plays as Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane.
Barry Forshaw

9. World Cinema Strategies: Europe

One of the great directors of arthouse cinema, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, demonstrated a variety of obsessions throughout his lengthy career. One of these was a ruthless desire to strip away the pretensions of the middle classes, a mischievous concern to which he gave particular expression in his Indian summer colour films, although, unlike the many middle-class directors given to idealising their working-class characters, Bunuel had no interest in such politically correct finessing; his characters from lower down the social scale are driven by impulses quite as base as those of their ‘betters’, and the director’s excoriation of them is just as lacerating. Bunuel shows us all of his dramatis personae in the same uncompromising light, although there is no attempt at facile moral judgement. His early film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, is full of violent sexual imagery; a particularly famous image shows ants crawling from a hole in the centre of a human hand as a (possible) metaphor for sexual desire, while another sequence has male hands grasping a young woman’s breasts as her dress vanishes, leaving her nude. Buñuel and Dalí were concerned with sexual repression in their ‘priest-ridden’ Catholic country (Joyce’s phrase nicely summarises their scathing attitude), and their shot of a sexually unsatisfied woman with her mouth pressed to the marble toe of a statue remains shocking.
Barry Forshaw

10. Stretching the Parameters: Bergman and Oshima

The crucial importance of one of the cinema’s most respected directors to the theme of this book cannot be overestimated. Always confrontational, the Swedish giant of film Ingmar Bergman dealt in an honest and serious fashion with issues of sexuality, along with his other concerns: the relevance of art and music in the modern world; the false consolations of belief; and, a crucial theme, the uncomfortable relationships between men and women. In the latter area, he reflected the plays of August Strindberg, which Bergman had directed in the theatre. Bergman’s work altered the parameters of the treatment of sex in film, and the battles over such films as The Silence, The Virgin Spring and Summer with Monika were much reported in their day and paved the way for such Swedish films as Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow), with its incendiary melange of left-wing politics and graphic lovemaking cenes. Bergman, however, rejected modish notions of agitprop and facile political solutions to society’s problems.
Barry Forshaw

11. The 1970s: Exploitation Joins the Mainstream

Assaults on the moral probity that had ruled in Hollywood cinema for so long may have been initiated by filmmakers such as Otto Preminger in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was the trumpet call of a new cadre of rebels in the 1970s that really brought down the walls of Jericho. The decade saw a revolution in popular cinema, from the ‘women in prison’ series of films, with their sadistic lesbian warders and inmates in buttocks-exposing shorts and abbreviated halters, to ‘blaxploitation’ movies, with a ballsy Pam Grier taking on The Man while exposing her formidable assets. Through their confrontational tactics, their naked appeal to an ethnic demographic and their testing of boundaries, such films changed the face of mainstream cinema — although they may have lacked any overt artistic intentions.
Barry Forshaw

12. Vixens and Valleys: Russ Meyer’s Cinema

In the introduction to this book, I pointed out that I would not be in the business of providing moral condemnations of filmmakers whose entire oeuvre is an affront to particular sensibilities, feminist or otherwise. That caveat should definitely be borne in mind in any discussion of the films of exploitation king Russ Meyer, who was either a cutting satirist of the American obsession with large breasts — an epithet he could share with the director Frank Tashlin — or one of the most maladroit and naive filmmakers in the history of the medium: take your pick. His outrageous, operatically pitched films featured copious nudity; his heroines were argumentative, loud women of voracious sexual appetites, usually endowed with unfeasibly voluptuous figures. Largely speaking, Meyer eschewed — and claimed to dislike — hard-core pornography, and the occasional glimpse of a prodigiously sized but non-erect male organ would fool only the most gullible into believing it was anything but prosthetic. His films, with such titles as Vixen! (1968), Common Law Cabin (1967), Cherry, Harry and Raquel (1970) and the more mainstream Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), made the director a millionaire, and he was often able to film his outrageous melodramas in his own opulent house and large swimming pool. The work he did while enjoying this commercial success might be said to be the product of his own cottage industry — his house was in essence a mini studio, and Meyer frequently used his cast (the noun ‘actors’ is only occasionally applicable) as crew members, in much the same fashion as fellow independent Roger Corman, keeping the budget tightly under control and usually recouping far more than the initial outlay.
Barry Forshaw

13. British Smut

There are certain films that drop off their directors’ filmographies, and, frankly, it is not hard to see why a certain process of discreet tidying up has been undertaken. After all, in the United States, it is hardly surprising that the director Francis Ford Coppola suggested that his career began with an imaginative, and borderline-respectable, Psychoinspired effort called Dementia 13 (1963, retitled The Haunted and the Hunted in the UK, and trimmed of its axe murders), when in truth his first film as a director was a ‘skin flick’ made a year earlier with the lubricious title Tonight for Sure. And, in Great Britain, the director Michael Winner was wont to draw a veil over an early nudist film he had cut his teeth on called Some Like It Cool (1962, with the healthy-looking Julie Wilson), one of the hilariously anodyne brand of British naturist films in which strategically placed towels always concealed the genitals of male and female stars alike. Volleyball games were popular in such affairs, as they could be shot from behind: as noted earlier in this study, bouncing breasts were acceptable; genitals in piquant motion were not. But leaving aside its acres of naked flesh, Winner’s film, despite being made with a knowing comic eye, was saddled with a screenplay of stupefying asininity — and it was performed by non-actors chosen more for their readiness to divest themselves of their clothes than their desire to spend time perfecting their line readings.
Barry Forshaw

14. The Porn Revolution

In the 1970s, a remarkable change in mainstream cinema was wrought by an iconoclastic commercial revolution. This revolution resulted in previously clandestine pornographic films becoming (relatively) mainstream, and a brief period began in which such material was considered acceptable fare for couples visiting the cinema — as opposed to the raincoat brigade that traditionally constituted the porn audience. Leaving aside the gender politics of such material, going to these films was seen as a specific rejection of the hypocritical sexual attitudes of an earlier generation. Within a few years, the burgeoning video market made such material accessible in living rooms, where its primary function — arousal for the purposes of masturbation or coitus — might be indulged in private. This period of ‘porno chic’ was typified by celebrities (Sammy Davis Jr, for example) being seen at such films as Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat in 1972, but its appeal quickly faded, as the new mainstream audience became alienated as much by the repetitive and poorly made nature of most of the films as by their ideology. Women’s sexual arousal in such films was invariably bogus — female orgasm could always be faked, and often was — while male porn stars, because of the demands of the material, had to obtain erections and ejaculate; the ‘money’ or ‘cum’ shot was obligatory.
Barry Forshaw

15. Sex Moves Centre Stage: The 1980s and 1990s

At the start of the twenty-first century, it is perhaps hard to remember the fuss caused by the explicit sex scenes in such films as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of the Senses (1976), Ken Russell’s Aldous Huxley-derived The Devils (1971) or even Sharon Stone crossing her legs sans culottes in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). We live in an era when relatively mainstream films — with the uneasy consent of the BBFC — frame carefully lit male and female genitals, separately or engaged in sexual congress. Such once-forbidden images as close-ups of vaginas and erect penises — and even ejaculation — appear in the work of directors including Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, 2004) and Lars von Trier (Antichrist, 2009); the latter said of himself, ‘I am but a simple masturbator of the silver screen.’ But to say that we live in a more liberated age does not precisely convey the reality — a triple-pronged attack is under way from religious groups, politicians eager for column inches and those who legitimately feel that the sexualisation of popular entertainment is robbing a generation of its innocence. Any newly won freedom of expression should not be taken for granted. One man’s (or woman’s) meat is another’s poison, and that is perhaps more true of the sexual instinct than of many other things. And it is also why, in an age of political correctness in which the ‘male gaze’ at an undressed female is now a default subject for censure, filmmakers are obliged to make one of two decisions: either to pander to their critics and omit anything that could be deemed unacceptable; or to simply say ‘The hell with it,’ and risk the disapproval of those with very specific guidelines about what is permissible in the realms of the erotic.
Barry Forshaw

16. Anything Goes: The Twenty-first Century

The films of the early twenty-first century finally brought down the last trembling walls of censorship, with explicit imagery now a regular part of mainstream cinema; the controversial Danish director Lars von Trier reached an apotheosis with the self-performed cliterodectomy of Antichrist (2009) and the sadomasochistic antics of Nymphomaniac (2013). This new erotic cinema had a literary obbligato with the amazing phenomenon of E. L. James’ functionally written Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy the first book of which was filmed in 2014 by Sam Taylor-Johnson. A debased fane Eyre for the Twilight generation James’ books were a fannish revival of earlier erotic ‘capital punishment’ writing that moved out of the self-publishing arena and enjoyed success far in excess of anything that had preceded them.
Barry Forshaw

17. The End of Sex? The New Puritanism

Despite the resurgent interest in literary erotica via E. L. James, the days when a variety of sexually explicit films could enjoy large cinema audiences are undoubtedly on the wane in the first decade of the twenty-first century. While a fascination with sex remains as keen as ever, the massive success of such television shows as Game of Thrones (based on the rumbustious novels of George R. R. Martin) is usually remarked upon in twofold fashion: the show is praised for its intelligence and sophistication, but there is the inevitable rider that the copious amounts of female nudity must surely have an effect on the viewing figures. Similarly, such comedy dramas as Girls take far further the frank discussions of sex to be found in earlier programmes such as Sex and the City, while the latter allowed the occasional sight of a nipple and non-aroused penis, Girls was even able to show a man ejaculating on a woman’s breasts. In fact, ejaculate — or a milky facsimile thereof — has eventually become almost as commonplace in films as blood was in the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s. Girls was an HBO show, and the sight of the company’s logo at the beginning of a given programme is now read as a signifier that what follows will be almost always adult, and often unblushing, in content. The internet, too, provides a steady stream of imagery to complement the new erotic cornucopia, and not just in the comfort of the home, with the popularity of iPads and smartphones.
Barry Forshaw

18. Painful Odysseys

Finally, any contemporary study with the title Sex and Film is obliged to examine — in some detail — the most controversial film dealing with the subject in the early twenty-first century, a film that has been celebrated and criticised in equal measure.
Barry Forshaw


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