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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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses