Maximum exposure: Rita Hayworth plays the femme fatale in Gilda (1946)
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Sex, lies and videotape: Barry Forshaw's Sex and Film lays bare the erotic traditions of cinema

Sex and Film: the Erotic in British, American and World Cinema is a survey of sex on celluloid, from Tarzan to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sex and Film: the Erotic in British, American and World Cinema
Barry Forshaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 243pp, £19.99

The release of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey offered an intriguing insight into contemporary Anglo-Saxon attitudes to erotic cinema. Pre-release, there was lively speculation as to its presumed transgressive qualities. Post-release, there was an equally keen sense of deflation at the unanticipated modesty of what the Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw called “the most purely tasteful and softcore depiction of sadomasochism in cinema history”.

Barry Forshaw examines this complicated attitude to depictions of sex in film – a kind of simultaneous dreading and hoping to find something nasty in the sexual woodshed – in Sex and Film, his study of British, US and world cinema from the early 1900s to the present day. The skirmishes between film-makers’ desire to depict eroticism and the constraints of public morality began with the advent of moving pictures, but the battle lines were formally set with the imposition of official film censorship in 1912 in the UK and 1909 in the US.

Forshaw begins his book with the literary equivalent of the censor’s “R18” rating. “A fairly sober warning should be given to any potential readers,” he writes. “If notions of political correctness are important to you, it might perhaps be best to steer clear of what follows.”

With that tantalising warning in mind, we proceed to the dicey area of sexual arousal. The point at which pornography becomes art (or vice versa) has been earnestly debated, not least by Susan Sontag in her essay “The Pornographic Imagination”. But Forshaw’s terms of engagement are admirably unambiguous: “nearly all the work discussed here, whatever the erotic elements, is generally committed to saying something pertinent about the film’s characters, or about society, rather than merely treating us to some photogenic concupiscence”.

He argues that the treatment of sexuality by early silent movie-makers descended in a direct line from 19th-century realist novelists such as Émile Zola. The connection is evident in films with a strong European sensibility, such as Gustav Machatý’s 1933 Ekstase, whose frank depiction of nudity, intercourse and female orgasm caused it to be banned in the US, and G W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), based on Wedekind’s Lulu plays and starring Louise Brooks as the fatal female libertine.

Jean Harlow and “the It Girl”, Clara Bow, epitomised a bold, modern sexual freedom, but Hollywood’s take on sexuality moved swiftly towards the exotic and unattainable, with stars such as Theda Bara representing a thrillingly unwholesome eroticism. Film settings were equally suggestive of licence, as in George Melford’s The Sheik (1921), an extended rape fantasy starring Rudolph Valentino as the predatory Bedouin, and W S Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and his consort romping scantily clad through the jungle.

Weissmuller’s exposed glutes were early victims along with Mae West’s lubricious one-liners of the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code (after Will Hays, the first president of the US film trade association the MPPDA). Co-written by Martin J Quigley, the Catholic editor of the exhibitors’ Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A Lord, a star-struck Jesuit priest who had acted as a technical adviser to Cecil B DeMille on The King of Kings, the code was ratified in 1930 and began to be enforced four years later by its administrator Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic.

The code’s comprehensive list of prohibitions included childbirth, profanity, miscegenation, surgical operations and disrespectful treatment of the American flag. Where sex was concerned, Breen’s moral vision demanded respect for the bonds of matrimony, suppression of carnality (“sexual content between males and females was limited mainly to osculation, an act placed under strict time and lip limits”, Thomas Doherty notes in his biography of Breen), and the veneration of women as “vessels of virginity or paragons of maternity”.

Forshaw observes:

The ingenious . . . fashion in which clever screenwriters, directors and stars circumvented the crushing censorship demands of the day is a source of pleasure in itself . . . A good example might be the discussion of horse racing between Bogart and Bacall in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) – when Lauren Bacall said her pleasure depended on “who’s in the saddle”, audiences understood what she was talking about.

The constraints of the trade code also produced some hauntingly erotic cinematic moments, such as Rita Hayworth’s explosively chaste striptease in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), involving the removal of a single glove. But the approach of the sexual revolution was inexorable, and was heralded by the incandescent sexuality of Marilyn Monroe, “a living refutation of the censor’s anti-sex ethos”.

While directors in Britain and the US struggled to circumvent the censor (the production code was eventually abandoned in 1968, a year of many revolutions), in Europe directors such as Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini in Italy, Louis Malle and Alain Resnais in France, and the Swedes Ingmar Bergman and Vilgot Sjöman, director of 1967’s I Am Curious (Yellow), were able to explore even extreme forms of sexuality (as in Pasolini’s Salò, not passed uncut by the British Board of Film Classification until 2000). The violent contrasts in levels of artistic freedom led to a lingering conviction among Anglo-Saxon audiences that Europeans are, in some mysterious way, better at sex.

The relaxation of censorship in the late 1960s and 1970s did not necessarily lead to erotic high seriousness in Hollywood or Pinewood. Forshaw devotes a chapter each to the oeuvre of the breast-obsessed Russ Meyer (auteur of 1965’s black-and-white Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and the genre he calls British Smut, with its poster boy, “the massively ubiquitous Robin Askwith”, demonstrating “a schoolboy reaction to sex . . . somewhere between hysterical fear and slack-jawed lust”.

Forshaw pursues his subject through the blurring of lines between pornography and erotica in films such as Deep Throat (“the Citizen Kane of hardcore 1970s pornographic films”); the elision of sex and violence in the likes of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), with its “uncompromising scenes of murder and rape”; and sex and horror in the films of David Cronenberg. But in a confusedly argued penultimate chapter he seems to assert that, despite the “burgeoning permissiveness” that permits nudity and even ejaculation to be portrayed in television dramas such as Game of Thrones and Lena Dunham’s Girls, a “new puritanism” is at work, which he appears to conflate with feminism, or perhaps with the female equivalent of the “male gaze”. Of Fifty Shades of Grey he remarks: “Male readers and observers of the phenomenon found themselves excluded from this new, lucrative sexual arena in which a woman was writing about sexual fantasies for women.”

It doesn’t appear to occur to him that a similar sense of exclusion might have troubled half the audience for film since the birth of the genre, or that modern viewers may be growing restive with a medium of whose aesthetic, as the critic Molly Haskell wrote, “The conception of woman as idol,
art object, icon and visual entity is . . . the first principle.” Although Forshaw acknowledges the “positive elements about the new attention to the subject [of sexual mores], such as women’s laudable insistence on their equal rights to sexual pleasure”, he claims that “male sexuality is under a merciless spotlight, even more so than was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, when writers such as Andrea Dworkin, Marilyn French and Betty Friedan suggested that the masculine sexual impulse was ineluctably linked to patriarchy and control”.

Under the catch-all label of “political correctness”, he appears to imply that when it comes to cinematic depictions of the erotic, feminism operates as a form of censorship. It is a view he expresses by assertion, rather than argument. He claims to have “argued in vain with feminists of my acquaintance who supported [the] censorship initiatives [of Mary Whitehouse], 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”. And in a chapter on Lars von Trier’s 2013 film Nymphomaniac, Forshaw complains about the director’s “lack of intellectual rigour” in the final scene, whose message of male culpability, he grumbles, “would find favour with the most polemicising 1970s feminists”.

For anyone interested in cinematic depictions of sexuality, this is a necessary but in some ways frustrating book. Its range of reference is immense, but the scope of Forshaw’s knowledge is not matched by an equivalent analytical depth. A substantial portion of the text is given over to plot précis and the cliché-heavy style can be trying. The repeated digs at feminism make it hard to take him seriously as an authority, as does his coy sidestepping of problematic work. Of Russ Meyer’s oeuvre he asks, rhetorically, “was [he] actually producing the most meretricious rubbish?” and concludes: “The answer may be different for each individual viewer.”

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s largely failed to fulfil its promise – in film as in life – of treating the sexuality of women as different from, but equal to, that of men. There are, however, some signs of change, with the impetus appearing to come not from the mainstream but from pornography. The 21st century has brought the rise of a thriving genre of erotic films made by women, from a female point of view. As the dialogue over the role of women in every aspect of mainstream cinema continues, it will be intriguing to see how the work of Anna Span, Erika Lust and Petra Joy informs the next generation of films about desire in all its myriad manifestations.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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TV show ideas better than the Game of Thrones showrunners’ series about slavery

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

So David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners on Game of Thrones, have announced their next TV idea: a revisionist piece where slavery never ended in America. The response was... not good. As Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast, “this harebrained idea serves as yet another reminder that the imaginations of white men can be incredibly myopic... this show sounds stupid as hell.” So I and the New Statesman web team came up with our suggestions for TV shows we’d rather watch. Please enjoy.

The Office, except it’s your office, every day, from 9-5, from now until you’re 70.

Blackadder, but it’s just about fucking snakes.

Pingu, but after the icecaps have melted.

A children’s TV show about a time-travelling grammar-obsessed medical pedant called Doctor Whom.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but it’s just me, trying to talk to people in various social settings.

The Great British Hake Off: who has the best medium to large seawater fish averaging from 1 to 8 pounds?

Gilmore Girl. Lorelai is dead.

Brooklyn 99. Let’s go buy an ice cream in New York City, baby!

Come Dine With Me. The host only cooks one meal and other contestants fight for it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Alan Sugar selling broomsticks in Romford market.

Match of the Day, but it’s just about actual wooden matches.

One Tree Hill. It’s just a tree on a hill.

House of Cards. It’s a man building a – ok I think you get where we’re going with this now.

Knife Swap: what happens when gangs trade territories?

Recess: a provincial MP goes home and sorts out his guttering.

Blue Planet: on the ground in the smurf community.

Transparent: Your TV, replaced with glass.

Game of Thrones, without the violence against women.

Friends, but without modern medicine so all the friends die by age 25. Except Ross. Ross lives.

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

Rugrats, but it’s just one long tracking shot of a rat-infested rug.

A talking head countdown starring minor British celebrities but instead of the best comedies of the 1970s or whatever they’re just ranking other talking head countdowns starring minor British celebrities.

30 Rocks: seven sweet, sweet hours of unfiltered footage of 30 motionless rocks.

Live footage of the emotional breakdown I’m having while writing this article.

The Good Wife: she’s just super sweet and likes making everyone cookies!

Stranger Things, but it’s about the time that stranger walked towards you and you both moved right and then both moved left to avoid each other and oh my God how is this still happening.

Parks and Recreation: Just a couple o’ pals having fun in the park!

Who Do You Think You Are? Just loads of your ancestors asking you how you even sleep at night.

The Crown: some really graphic childbirth footage playing on repeat.

Downtown Abbey: nuns in inner city Chicago.

Peeky Blinders: a study of neighbourhood curtain twitchers in a Belfast suburb.

DIY: SOS. The emergency services are called every episode!

The Big Bang Theory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.