By Carlos Monagas
Take out nature through the door, and it will come back through the window.
Sex as a topic is present in cinema from its origins. Censorship is behind it, of course. One of the first censorships of cinema was for the not-so-artistic Thomas Alva Edison. When he just invented his kinetoscope, besides ballerinas and contortionist for his single-spectator machine, he made a short film called The kiss. There, two theater actors give each other a long kiss of 21 seconds without the chaste shyness that the epoch required. This film created the first moral scandal on the cinema aura and very politely, Edison was asked to hide it from the public. Edison was the owner of the first cinematographic consortium in The United States. This is why he did not suffered from any prejudice for this film. But later, other filmmakers did not have the say luck and went to jail, had to hide or exile for talking about these topics. Such was the case of Mae West, Von Stroheim, and Larry Flynt among others.
“The Kiss” Thomas Alva Edison (1896)
The first women in swimsuit appeared in 1910. This sparkle of skin in a film came from a group of girls called Bathing Beauties by Mack Sennett. It was a way, for this skilled comedy-film producer, to make his short films attractive, both for kids and adults. To place Mack Sennett in time, we can say that Charles Chaplin had his first opportunity in a film as an actor for a Mack Sennett’s film. Great actresses, sex symbols of the silent film, came out of this group of young girls wearing their pure turtleneck swimsuits; Gloria Swanson was one of them. The evolution of this style, very obvious and explicit, has ended up in television, we see that today in Don Francisco’s girls, and why not in Xuxa, the Brazilian children-show host, where parents used to go even without their children to see her.
The first full-length erotic film produced for the big screen was Erotikon in 1920 by the Swiss Mauritz Stiller. Sjostrom and Igmar Bergman were Stiller’s students. He also created Greta Garbo. It is important to say, that the only erotic in the movie is its name, at least if you hope to see something in an image. At that time in cinema, it was hard to show something. All characters used ties, were all well dressed and women wore gloves to their elbows. What it actually did was crossing the line of decent, when it pose the idea of whether having a relationship with other people out of the marriage was acceptable or not. The movie starts with a scientific professor of entomology Herr Leo Charpentier, who says that insects, specifically a beetle species are similar to humans regarding their sexual life: some insects, as some people, are bigamous, other monogamous, and even polygamous as the “Ipstypographus” species, which can have three females in a perfect harmonic relationship. Irene, the wife of Professor Herr Charpentier is secretly in love of the baron Felix. Herr Charpentier’s niece, who lives in the house, loves his uncle with imprudent passion and the best friend of the family, the sculptor Preben Wells, loves Charpentier’s wife. This loving mess, compromises and social guidelines, very common in real life, is the plot of the film. Until 1960 the Swede have been the most permissive of the world’s culture to address topics such as sex. History has shown it again with films, as I am curious (1967) by Viglot Sjosman, Dear John (1964) by Lars-Magnus or the complete filmography of Bergman.
By those years, we can also remember Eric von Stroheim. Precisely the eroticism and sensuality of his cinema took him to bankrupt and being considered one of the cursed directors of Holywood. Greed (1924), The Merry Widow (1925). This misunderstood genius made films at a spectacular rhythm, and took care of deep details and contradictions in his characters as only real life storms move. Stroheim obtained all this psychological shades in the possibilities of silent films. The ambiguity in the characters of Foolish Wives is an example. Stroheim’s cinema is one of the most amputated and shut off by the censorship in the cinematography history. His ludic and costly scenarios are legendary, the eccentric orgies in The Merry Widow, where the actors came out of the closed-door study, crying with lashing marks and bites on their skin. From its films, there are only parts, pieces and non-finished material. Yet, of what it is, Queen Kelly (1929) for example, who could imagine that Gloria Swanson would throw her underwear to the Prince? Well, her panties, knickers, or whatever you want to call it.
Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, as Gloria Swanson were erotic symbols of the silent film. Louise Brook is one of the most beautiful images the cinema has had, the Little Lulu with her hairstyle, which identifies the epoch of the moderns. She stared in Pandora’s Box (1928), A Girl in Every Port (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). When sound film started, she disappeared by magic and we saw her again 20 years later as a Macy’s cashier. Clara Bow the daughter of jazz, little thing full of sensuality starred in films as It (1926), Wings (1927) and also, one of the most famous nudes of silent film in Hula (1927). From her private life came many scandals in the cinematographic industry. Upon this men-eater rests the rumor of having invited to her place a whole rugby team and having slept with all of them during a weekend. Among them, there was the still unknown John Wayne, to remind him that telling stories is not a gentleman thing.
In 1930 was created the “Hays Commission” (The Motion Picture Production Code) to stop the uncontrolled sensuality by the visionaries of the cinematographic industry. The also called “Decent Code” made limits with a series of rules to address topics such as sex, violence or drugs in cinema. The code was in force in The United States until 1967, but during its first years it was a true restraint to the scripts and any trace of honesty in every story. Some of the rules were such broadsides as if any couple were inside a room on a bed, one of the characters should put a feet on the floor, also the rule about dances quoted hereby literally: “Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene” During 40 years, American films were cut and amputated by the code and thousands of scripts could not even be filmed.
Starting the decade of the 30s, the most intelligent woman of erotic film shows up, Mae West. Her image was a personal creation and not an invention of the star system industry. She wrote his movies and plays by herself, and when she could not, she asked to write at least her dialogs. During her musical acts, the Duke Hellington band accompanied her. The titles of her films are suggestive: Sex (1926), I’m no Angel (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Every day’s a Holiday (1938). Will Hays, the author of the “decent code”, addressed half of his artillery to destroy Mae West. More than her body, which was a little rough, her sex appeal came from her mouth, it is to say from the words she pronounced. One of her unforgettable lines is when she sees a tough guy coming through the door and she says: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Provocations to the conservative and chauvinist society “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.” She opened a path to the dominant and clever woman, which would later be a main characteristic of the femme fatale of black cinema. But Mae was not only attacked by Hays, but also by William Randol Hearts and his hypocritical newspaper chain. They dedicated to destroy her, writing articles where they called her “lust monster”, “a threat to the sacred institution of the American family” After releasing Sex Mae was 10 days in jail, incarcerated for indecency. In 1940, she left cinema and started to work on the theater, there according to her, the art world was freer. Curious was that after the dead of the Presbyterian Will Hays, hidden in his house many shorts of the nudes made by Mae West were found. It is comprehensible then, it was just a matter of jealousy. He did not want us to enjoy it, just him.
Then the film noir, born in 1932 with Scarface and has its peak in 1948 with The Maltese Falcon, starts to create the figure of the femme fatale at James Cain and Dashiell Hammett’s style. Some actresses such as Rita Hayworth, Mary Astor and Lauren Bacall left cold with their looks all the men who forcibly, tried to control them. Erotic then starts to talk through attitude. The perfidy, the interest and the calculation get lost between the sensuality hazes. Jessica Rabbit said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1989), with defenseless arrogance, “I’m not bad; I’m just drawn that way”. We have to remember the dance of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), where she just took off a glove, but the scene was cut off and the film was a scandal.
The 50s are a decade of silent and transition. The United States was in the middle of McCarthyism. Moreover, Russ Meyer an old Playboy photographer, without messing with politics made the immoral Mr. Tears (1959), one of the first films where the nude of a woman appears without any justification and with the sole purpose of morbidity. Mr. Tears finds some glasses, the ones men want in their adolescence, and when wore all women clothes disappear and they remain completely naked in front of your eyes. Faster Pussycat, kill, kill (1966), Vixen! (1968), Supervixens (1975), Erotica (1961), and Megavixens (1976) are some of his films. Meyer’s cinema has much to be desired regarding art or cinematography language, but some comedy and absurd elements, and a sassy erotic posture have made of him a cult director.
During the 50s, with a little more temperance comes Louis Malle. His career stumbled and jumped with some cinematographic scandals, he was memorable with The Lovers (1958) and with Pretty Baby (1978). This French gentleman gave his first steps as a direction assistant of Robert Bresson in A Man Escaped (1956). When he was 20, he worked for Jacques Cousteu in Calypso, and along with him, he co-directed one of the most important documentaries about nature which was The Silent World (1956). The first submarine documentary. In 1957, he directed his first film Elevator to the Gallows, a pale thriller at film noir style, with the musical strength of Miles Davis. After it, in his second movie he got deeper in the topics of sex and adultery with The Lovers (1958). A bourgeois woman, tired of the monotony of his perfect life, decides to live some affaires lying to her husband with calm coldness. The wife is Jean Moreau of 30 years old. In one of her conjugal revenges, she ends up with her lover in her own house and at night; there is one of the most beautiful and long intercourse scenes in cinema. Jean Moreau performs perhaps the first orgasm acted on the screen. The physical action of sex is shown with great intimacy and never the cinema had dedicated so much time to that action. This film was a true scandal for the French high class. As Vittorio de Sica says: “If we exclude adultery then, what could be the drama in bourgeoisie?” Then, Malle made Murmur of the Heart (1970), achieving another scandal since it talked about the rough topic of incest, besides making any moral judgment. What really represented an award to the beauty was when he initiated Brook Shields in her career as an erotic symbol, which she maintained in a climax until The Blue Lagoon (1980). In Pretty Baby (1978), Brooke Shields is the daughter of a prostitute interpreted by Susan Sarandon and both live in a brothel and a photographer that was taking pictures of the mother, at Lewis Carrol style, feels attracted by the little girl, a flower blossom, Brook Shields of 13 years old. Louis Malle went from one scandal to the other until the end of his career when he made Damage (1992), maybe this last scandal was for such arrogant and boring movie.
The Marquis de Sade, using his sharp quill free of moral, wrote the most outrageous pieces of the western erotic literature. He spend 29 years of his life in jail and there he wrote most of his novels. The cinema did not ignore such writer. Twelve times the Marquis de Sade has been taken to the big screen, from Justine to Philosophy in the Bedroom. In his novels, he states the religion of personal pleasure as the most honorable goal and the highest principle. Torture, submission and domination are his most recurrent medias. Justine is one of the most symbolic characters. An innocent and skilled little girl who, by hazard ends on the hands of the most depraved men of the 19th century Europe. The first time Justine was adapted was in 1962by Roger Vadim. It was called Vice and Virtue, Catherine Denueve stared as Justine. Roger Vadim is remembered due to his love life than his films, which were not that good. Brigitte Bardott, Jane Fonda, Catherine Denueve were some of his wives. Yet, the first film made by Vadim was without hesitation a special contribution to the erotic genre And God Created Woman (1956), with a remarkable Brigitte Bardott in her best moment. Vice and Virtue was such a free version of Sade that in many moments you forget it is Justine. In 1968, the Spanish Jess Franco made the next version of Justine. The humble production of the Spanish on Italian land, with an awful list of actors at the non-argument-porn-film style, has two super starts: Klaus Kinski and Jack Palance. What survives in the film, as in almost every film made by Jess Franco, is the unnecessary treatment of personalities and the lagoon in the emotional causes that make the characters move. It seems that the only who took everything seriously was Klaus Kinski; during the first sequence where the Marquis is been taken to the dungeon in a carriage, he who knows the dignity and geniality of the Marquis, looks to the camera in a challenging way transmitting the personality of the character, as only such an actor could do. After it, the Marquis sits on a chair and starts to write: “Life reaffirms that prosperity is in favor of the evil ones, while misfortune is upon the virtue wall”. Here it starts a series of misfortune facts that will haunt our heroine until the end of the story, making of her body the most valuable object to obtain the sadistic pleasure of the others. The performances worsen each time. Jess Franco only cares about sex and not how to get to it, when there is not actually much sex, since this movie was made to get into the commercial area. Further than the half of the film, the plot gets interesting when Jack Palance appears. Justine believes she is in a monastery, and when she is in front of the master (Jack Palance), he commands: “Bind her”, and she terrified says “Sir, I’ve been told you were good men dedicated to the meditation and the studies” and the master answers “that is true, and the object of our study is pleasure achievement”. Here it is when her worst moments of slave and chained start. The only way she has for saving her life is accepting submission and being at the mercy of those who enjoy hurting her. This movie, next to the book is just an irresponsible cartoon. Not to mention that Jess Franco made five more films based on Sade’s novels after it. Among other versions made by others there are Philosophy in the Bedroom (1968) by Jacques Scandelari, Justine de Sade (1972) by Claude Pierson, and Quills (2002) with Geoffrey Rush as Sade; yet, until this date there is not any film, which has made honor to the honorable Marquis and there is not anything better than reading his novels yet.
The erotic film is built in a space between what it is explicit shown and what the imagination creates. That is why in our memory are super erotic movies, but when we recall them, we notice that there is not a real nude, which is the case of Senso (1954) by Luchino Visconti, The Man Who Loved Women (1976) by Francois Truffaut, and some films by Antonioni. Also those super erotic women who have shown almost nothing in the big screen as Sophia Loren or the case of Jean Moreau in some of her films and in Jules et Jim (1962), where you do not understand how she looks so nice dressed like a man.
“Jules et Jim” Francois Truffaut (1962)
The last years of the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini were dedicated, with higher intensity, to the erotic film. It is curious to remember that Pasolini just worked in the film industry for 14 years and that he started when he was 39 years old. From Teorema the topic of sexuality and the history of men were a constant in his work. The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Arabian Nights (1974), Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Teorema (1968) is an erotic film, although it does not show a single breast. A stranger or friend of the family, it does not matter since Pasolini never explains it, lives with them for a few days. This character has a relationship, in different situations with every member of the house including the house cleaner. Each one of them believes to have a great secret love. The surreal tone of the piece gives it a potent discourse and symbolism with society. The film does not have many dialogs, and when there are, normally there are the introspective voices of the characters creating weird lonely and boredom environments. It is a high-class family with a comfortable life yet boring and empty. There it comes this stranger, without any justification, who will be used by Pasolini as a trigger of each member of the family’s personality. This small emotional element will make them change forever, making them run from their good life as if it were a prison. The house cleaner goes back to her hometown, where she will become an adored saint. The young girl gets crazy and ends up in a mental hospital. The young man becomes an artist, a painter who looks for his destiny; the mother, who is starred by Silvina Mangano, the cold porcelain character who well represents the insipid bourgeoisie, does not know what to do with her desires. And she goes in her car to look for any young man to have sex, whoever reminds her love, at any place. The father, full of conflicts for what it now could mean his new homosexual love in society, wants to gift his company to the employees. And in a true poetic scene, he undresses in a crowded train station and at the end, we see him walking in a desert, as he came into the world, yelling his grief to the emptiness.
In Arabian Nights, Pasolini deals with sex in such a beautiful and natural way, that we feel we get out of the cinematographic language with his intentions and we simply are in a real-life space. Arabian Nights (1974), inspired in the tales of Sherezade, is a poem told through images. The power of evoking the time, in this case 1,500 b.c. is an unquestionable reality, there is no need of those great American productions to evoke the past with the loyalty and sobriety used by Pasolini. Sex is treated with the flexibility of those ancient cultures, achieving images that overflow with naiveté and innocence. The adolescence shines with its beauty and the homosexuality feels natural. It escapes from the eroticism formulas to find harmonized environments with its characters. Sex in Arabian Nights looks clean, pure, unquestionable and uncensored. With this movie, Pasolini closed what he called his “life trilogy” composed by The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights. Then, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is one of the strongest movies in sexual content that has been displayed in the big screen. It is inspired by the book The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), by the Marquis de Sade. Pasonlini’s film placed at the end of the second world war and during the last fascist territory of Italy, Salò tells the misfortune of several adolescents who are kidnaped and locked in a castle, for obeying to the different sexual aberrations of a group of old powerful dukes. That same year, in a dark alley in Italy, Pasolini got a deathly stab, which turned off the light of one of the biggest directors of the world.
Last Tango in Paris (1972) by Bernardo Bertolucci, is a landmark of the 70s. Looking coldly at it, the films does not show much, but the scandals and the prohibition made of a legend of the erotic film. The Spanish people, subjugated by the censure of Francisco Franco, went through the border with France, through the Pyrenees, to see the film. It is not really an erotic film; it is an existentialist film. Let us remind Jean-Pierre Léaud, Antoine Doinel from The 400 blows (1948), performing as this Young director who stages everything that he sees, and the indelible scene when Marlon Brando softens his finger with butter to penetrate Maria Schneider’s ass. This surely was the scene that bothered the most to the censors.
Marco Ferreri before Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), together with the hottest Ornella Muti, made The Grande Bouffe (1973), a mixture of food, sex and loudly flatulencies in the cinema. Rafael Azcona, who might be distinguished as the Zavattini of the Spanish cinema, wrote this film. A great scene it is when one of the prostitutes invited to the bacchanal lay son the cake, getting her breast and belly full of it. Andrea, the woman who joins them during the whole suicide adventure, is a schoolteacher. She accepts everything as it is happening and enjoys from the sensuality without making any kind of judgement. At the end of the plot, we do not know if what we saw was a tragic or funny film, but we surely laugh a couple of times. Especially, when the toilet explodes and Marcello Mastroiani gets out of the bathroom full of shit. Tales of Ordinary Madness is an erotic film, with all the bitter sweetness Bukowski may have, with its ugly and grotesque women. It is unforgettable the scene in which the main character, a Henry Chinaski-like Charles Bukowski alter ego performed by Ben Gazzara, greets the small 12-year prostitute. And the beautiful scene of Ornella Muti in the window, late at night and the concentrated ass licked going through the dawn. Then, it will be enough to read “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness”
“That is pornography”, many say wanting to discredit Tinto Brass films. Yet, this Italian sir from the 50s, was a promise of the avant-garde movements of the 60s. He started as an assistant of Rossellini, Fellini and also made some documentaries with Joris Ivens. He has a western in his list and an important protest documentary, which during its time legalized cinema as a denouncing media, Thermidor or Il fiume della rovolta (1963). Suddenly, he had a cosmic epiphany, which took him to the erotic film and since Salon Kitty in 1975 each one of his films have been explicitly erotic. He does not go further in the stories and every sequence ends in sex. But the photographic value and the staging of Tinto Brass are exquisite. The lights, the frames, the narrative and the skin. Also, the description of the Italian characters and certain hedonic naïveté that seems inherit from the Romans. Each one of the films made by Tinto Brass is a list of fetishes and human perversions but they have a quality and an unquestionable aesthetic, each frame is a beautiful ode to the human body. The Voyeur (1994) is pure erotic from the moment it starts to the moment it ends. The first sequence of the naked woman in the bedroom, which disappears in a confusing way making us discover later that it is a man masturbating, is a beauty. Monella (2002), is a chant to virginity, the innocent girl who is about to get married and from her center, going through her belly is an explosion of sexuality. She makes everything she can to make her boyfriend to take her and not marrying as a virgin. The guy, is a classic chauvinist who does not have sexual relations with his girlfriend for protecting her but he does have sexual relations with prostitutes, and then he cannot resist the potent Monella. The narrative of Tinto Brass and Milo Manara is similar, although one is related to cinema and the other one to comics. Tinto Brass has declared that he always tries to provoke to the censure and being around its limits. Sometimes his images exceed an advertisement-like aesthetic, in some moments it even bothers. Yet, the beauty of every shot is dominant and also his stories are full of surprises and unpredictable endings. It is so contradictory, tan in an interview someone asked Woody Allen who he think it was the worst Italian director and he answered: “It is Tinto Brass, and if you ask me who is the best one, I would also say Tinto Brass.”
After the legalization of pornography with its industrialization during the 60s and the invention of the home video during the 80s, the erotic film was rethought. All the Emmanuelle saga and Wild Orchid seem children’s films. By this time, anyone could take to its place explicit images of sex and the erotic film lost its charm of fight against what is forbidden. That is how there are some beautiful and unforgetteble films as Betty Blue. This film, with a wild erotism, mixes in a coherent way, love, crazyness and sex. It was filmed in 1986, and if you forget about some elements in the scene, it seems to be filmed yesterday. Betty Blue is perhaps the most charismatic of the erotic film. Craziness is its central axis, and craziness has its own charm as Erasmo of Rotterdam shows it in The Praise of Folly (1508). The characters are taken every time to uncertain destinies because of the spontaneity explosions of Betty. This tragic drama, it is important to highlight, is full of gags and hilarious situations. Its main characters are Betty and Zorg, they are the reincarnation of eternal love. By understanding the dimension of this feeling in them is the only way to understand its paradoxical end. In this simple film, but made with a lot of instinct, Jacques Beineix showed that for making cinema, you just need the psychological strength f the characters.
During the 90s the essential of erotic films is not sex anymore, since any action film or even TV show it whenever they want to. The erotic film genre as an attraction seemed worn-out, Adrian Lyne showed it in 1986 when he made 91/2 weeks, where these erotic pretentions become ridiculous with time, and the called sex light. Lyne, the made two more movies that can be considered pare of this genre with better augmented scripts: Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993). Yet the tone on the 90s style is imposed by Basic Instinct (1992), its characters tied to the bed at the beginning to have sex, creates suspicion, from here it came Sharon Stone as one of the sex symbol of the decade. The 90s gave beautiful movies such as The Piano (1993) directed by the New Zealander Jane Campion and with a Holly Hunter in one of the most beautiful nudes of the cinema. American beauty (1999), also impressed by its sensuality, introspection and portrait of everyday life.
Now, during the 2000 erotic is an element that can be in any film. An example is Larry Clark’s cinema, a New Yorker photographer who starts his way with Shirley Clarke and John Cassavettes, making an extremely real cinema. Kids (1994), Another Day in Paradise (1997), Ken Park (2002). Sex matters because it is intrinsically linked to the life of the characters, as in any adolescent’s life in the world. Larry Clark’s cinema takes the best of the Dogme 95 movement, without being perhaps that dogmatic. Harmony Korine, the scriptwriter of Ken Park, is together with Lars von triers (The Idiots – 1998) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration – 1998), one of the highest representatives of the movement. The treatment of sex in their movies, usually stops being in the land of pleasure and goes to the land of bizarre. Julien Donkey-boy (1999) by Harmoni Korine, with Werner Herzog, as Julien’s father, is a nightmare without awaking, from the technique until the pathetic treatment of the topic, yet without any hesitation, going through that Avernus and getting alive from it, becomes an experience.
If we look for examples on the way sex is treated nowadays, we have films such as The dreamers (2003) by Bertolucci, Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too) (2001), by Alfonso Cuaron, Lucia y el sexo (Sex and Lucía) (2005) By Julio Meden, old filmmakers as Bigas Luna, who have always made a pseudo erotic film as Las edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu) (1990). And today keeps making the same with La maja desnuda (The naked Maja) (2001). And also fresher films, which achieve to change the erotic perspective as Laura está sola (Laura is alone) (2002) by Conrad Son and Las fantasías de Lila (Lila says) (2004), about the Muslim culture in France. And well… as we expect form any taste of life such as eating or enjoying, where it does not matter what passed but what comes: the best of the erotic film is to come.
Hollywood Babylon. Kenneth Anger.
Las fatales ¡Bang! ¡Bang! Marta Belluscio
Miradas, revista audiovisual. Art. Joel del Río. “Tinto Brass, paroxismo de voyeur”
El libro de la cesura cinematográfica. Homero Alsina Thevenet.
Epigraph: Homero A. Thevenet
Actual 2010 C De Cine 2008