I Would Prefer Not To…

No, I haven’t become Bartleby, scrivener or otherwise, I’ve just become numb.  Back in the seventies, when I was just getting into movies, the one complaint you always heard about new movies was that they were filled with sex and violence.  You see, the ratings system had just come in a few years earlier in the late sixties and now filmmakers could show whatever they wanted on the screen without fear of censorship.  This meant that within a matter of just five short years, we went from the F-word spoken onscreen in a couple of movies to a scene in The Exorcist with a crucifix, a twelve year old girl, and a shouted line of dialogue that, surely, no one in the previous 80 years of film history saw coming.  I mean, you really just can’t predict that kind of scene will ever happen.  And it only took five years.   Today, showing horrifying sequences is easier than ever and, frankly, I couldn’t be more bored.

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The same goes for the other side of that complaint, the one about sex.  Once it got to the point where having sex on screen wasn’t something that required a fade out, it lost a lot of the allure.  And violence lost a lot of its impact.

Here’s the thing: When I was younger, I thought it was a sign of edginess for a movie to show violent or sexual scenes.  And, in some ways, it was and is.  When I first saw All Quiet on the Western Front, I was taken by the scene of the soldier who gets blown up at the barbed wire, leaving only his hands clinging to it.   That scene works because the movie isn’t about showing us endless violence but specific violence.  It makes its point in a sharp and disturbing way but doesn’t linger.

But when I was younger, despite my love of classic cinema, I felt newer movies handled things like war and crime and romance better because they could show more.  I was equating quantity of explicitness for deeper levels of realism when really it was just indulgence.  Still, a war movie showing graphic violence, like Saving Private Ryan, has a point and one that I appreciate.   And a movie like Last Tango in Paris that has a sexual relationship as a central focus of the story needs to show the sex, even if, in retrospect, it doesn’t show much at all.

As I grew older and the number of classic films I saw multiplied, I became accustomed to a style of storytelling in which sex and violence were implied more than shown.   I also grew up and encountered all the real things the movies were showing in real life.  And that’s when it started to get boring.

Don’t Look Now is one of my favorite movies of all time and I’ve written it up here before.  The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is notorious for its “realism” as the two make love while the edits intercut between them getting ready for dinner afterwards.  The scene itself is perfect in that it shows the couple in emotional and physical connection with each other, perhaps for the last time, and I wouldn’t remove it for anything.  But at the same time, if they’d chosen to imply the sexual encounter instead, I think it would’ve had the same resonance.  The editing would have to be different, obviously, as it wouldn’t be inter-cutting between the act and afterwards, but I think it could have worked with an allusion to sex instead, that is, a build up to it and then a fade to them preparing for dinner.  And it’s not that I think the scene is awful, quite the contrary, it’s very well done.  It’s just that, frankly, it’s dull.

Orson Welles once said that he hated seeing people praying in movies because he knew it was a fake and maybe the same thing applies to sex.  It’s dull, very dull, onscreen no matter how well produced.  But a scene of seduction and buildup, like the kinds between Bogie and Bacall or Stanwyck and MacMurray,  are better.  Or that scene in A Place in the Sun where the camera shows Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters going into the house together and then shows sundown and sunup and he comes back out?  That works better.  Admitting to that when you’re young feels old and stodgy because you’re not old enough yet to understand that it isn’t about stodginess, it’s about storytelling.   Often times, the lesser a movie is, the more time it spends on filler and that filler often comes in the form of sex and violence.

So now, when I see filler sex and violence in a mediocre movie, it’s just as painful as bad dialogue and wooden acting.   What worries me, or at least causes mild concern, is that I’m getting bored with it even in good movies.   When I see an especially violent movie now, I’m not shocked or horrified or sickened.   I’m anxious to a degree but only to the extent that I think, “Boooooring.  When is this going to end?”

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Now there are some people who might object to sex and violence on some Victorian or prudish moral grounds but I’m not one of them.   If you want to load your film up with violence or sex because you think it’s necessary for the story, please do.  But remember that showing less can sometimes mean a whole lot more.  Like that scene from A Place in the Sun.  Or any war movie from before the seventies or any western or any gangster film that all got their points across about violence without, remarkably, showing too much of it.   What I perceived as a weakness in youth I now see as a formidable strength because it requires better storytelling to get the point across without just showing it.

So that’s where this journey through cinema has finally led me.  It’s led me to a place where I appreciate seeing a lot less and understand the creativity that goes into that.  Again, I’m not against showing anything in a movie if it’s got a point, I’m just against wasting my time with weak storytelling.  So when it comes to gratuitous sex and violence, I’m not offended by seeing it, it’s just that, like Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

48 Responses I Would Prefer Not To…
Posted By tdraicer : June 26, 2013 11:10 am

I understand and agree with your point about how limits improve art. At the same time “gratuitous” is inherently subjective, and since I’ve done my best not to mature, I haven’t reached an age where I find attractive naked bodies dull. For me, perhaps the best compromise on sex and violence was found in the horror films of the late sixties and early 70s (I’m looking at you Vampire Circus-literally, the dvd is on the shelf next to me) which were more explicit than their earlier cousins while still limiting nudity and blood to 15 seconds here and 30 seconds there.

Posted By tdraicer : June 26, 2013 11:10 am

I understand and agree with your point about how limits improve art. At the same time “gratuitous” is inherently subjective, and since I’ve done my best not to mature, I haven’t reached an age where I find attractive naked bodies dull. For me, perhaps the best compromise on sex and violence was found in the horror films of the late sixties and early 70s (I’m looking at you Vampire Circus-literally, the dvd is on the shelf next to me) which were more explicit than their earlier cousins while still limiting nudity and blood to 15 seconds here and 30 seconds there.

Posted By chris : June 26, 2013 12:12 pm

this reminds me of one of my favorite movie going experiences. When “Rear Window” was re-released in the mid-80s, I went with my little brother(9 years younger). Bear in mind that he was raised when movie violence was ramped up by slasher flicks like “Friday the 13th” and the like. When Grace Kelly is in Raymond Burr’s apartment and Burr’s headed her way down the hallway, it was extremely satisfying to see my brother physically on the edge of his seat whispering for her to get out of there.

Posted By chris : June 26, 2013 12:12 pm

this reminds me of one of my favorite movie going experiences. When “Rear Window” was re-released in the mid-80s, I went with my little brother(9 years younger). Bear in mind that he was raised when movie violence was ramped up by slasher flicks like “Friday the 13th” and the like. When Grace Kelly is in Raymond Burr’s apartment and Burr’s headed her way down the hallway, it was extremely satisfying to see my brother physically on the edge of his seat whispering for her to get out of there.

Posted By Heidi : June 26, 2013 1:01 pm

Wow! I had to stop and double check to see who wrote this, because I feel exactly the same way! I usually get…restful…with it. I tend walk out of movies and wonder where the editor was, only because after the 10 punches to the face, we sort of get the idea, and maybe that was the time to move the story along, not after 10 more more minutes of it. Or when the 50th building has been destroyed. Metropolis can’t have that many sky scrapers left to blow up or crash into. Saw the latest Superman this past weekend. I was actually very bored it it. Sex in movies is about the same. I much prefer the implied, I have a great imagination and find the crashing of waves on the rocks, or the sun rising and setting very descriptive.

Posted By Heidi : June 26, 2013 1:01 pm

Wow! I had to stop and double check to see who wrote this, because I feel exactly the same way! I usually get…restful…with it. I tend walk out of movies and wonder where the editor was, only because after the 10 punches to the face, we sort of get the idea, and maybe that was the time to move the story along, not after 10 more more minutes of it. Or when the 50th building has been destroyed. Metropolis can’t have that many sky scrapers left to blow up or crash into. Saw the latest Superman this past weekend. I was actually very bored it it. Sex in movies is about the same. I much prefer the implied, I have a great imagination and find the crashing of waves on the rocks, or the sun rising and setting very descriptive.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 26, 2013 1:40 pm

there is so much sensory overload in movies today,the blockbuster popcorn types anyway,that i rarely venture out to see them anymore…it might make for a thrill ride experience for the younger generation,but if i want to ride a roller coaster i’ll go to an amusement park…it reminds me of thirty years ago when everyone was saying Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the bloodiest and most violent film in history when in reality almost all of it was implied rather than graphically shown…i’ll take any Val Lewton movie over any modern horror film ,like Saw and it’s many sequels and imitations, for it’s implied sense of dread over graphic torture and maiming

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 26, 2013 1:40 pm

there is so much sensory overload in movies today,the blockbuster popcorn types anyway,that i rarely venture out to see them anymore…it might make for a thrill ride experience for the younger generation,but if i want to ride a roller coaster i’ll go to an amusement park…it reminds me of thirty years ago when everyone was saying Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the bloodiest and most violent film in history when in reality almost all of it was implied rather than graphically shown…i’ll take any Val Lewton movie over any modern horror film ,like Saw and it’s many sequels and imitations, for it’s implied sense of dread over graphic torture and maiming

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:50 pm

tdraicer – “Gratuitous” in this context simply means unnecessary or unwarranted. And I suppose that point of necessity is reached at different times for everyone but I think it’s more objective than most people give it credit for. If we can agree that the shower attack in Psycho is perfectly executed (no pun intended) with more buildup than actual killing and more shadow and blur than blood, then we can agree that a reshoot of the scene that lasted a full minute longer with lingering shots of the knife slashing open her torso and intestines coming out would be gratuitous. What I’m trying to say, and it’s a tough argument to make I admit, is that if a murder scene like that in Psycho can succeed then it proves how little you need to make that kind of violence work. Earlier films contained so little violence that when they intended to impact us, they often didn’t. Later films tried so hard to shock us that they ended up boring us with overkill. In the sixties and early seventies, though, I fully agree with you, they got the ratio just right.

As for sex, well, I think as adults with active sex lives we end up looking at sex in movies as a little dull because of our own much better real life experiences. That doesn’t mean the human form isn’t a beautiful thing to behold though.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:50 pm

tdraicer – “Gratuitous” in this context simply means unnecessary or unwarranted. And I suppose that point of necessity is reached at different times for everyone but I think it’s more objective than most people give it credit for. If we can agree that the shower attack in Psycho is perfectly executed (no pun intended) with more buildup than actual killing and more shadow and blur than blood, then we can agree that a reshoot of the scene that lasted a full minute longer with lingering shots of the knife slashing open her torso and intestines coming out would be gratuitous. What I’m trying to say, and it’s a tough argument to make I admit, is that if a murder scene like that in Psycho can succeed then it proves how little you need to make that kind of violence work. Earlier films contained so little violence that when they intended to impact us, they often didn’t. Later films tried so hard to shock us that they ended up boring us with overkill. In the sixties and early seventies, though, I fully agree with you, they got the ratio just right.

As for sex, well, I think as adults with active sex lives we end up looking at sex in movies as a little dull because of our own much better real life experiences. That doesn’t mean the human form isn’t a beautiful thing to behold though.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:52 pm

Chris – I’ve had experiences like that, too, where someone doesn’t think an older movie will have an effect on them because it’s not as graphic or “realistic” and then they find out they’re in the grips of the plot without even knowing it. Good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter what the era.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:52 pm

Chris – I’ve had experiences like that, too, where someone doesn’t think an older movie will have an effect on them because it’s not as graphic or “realistic” and then they find out they’re in the grips of the plot without even knowing it. Good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter what the era.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:57 pm

Heidi – I think a lot of editors are forced by the director to leave things in that they’d rather cut. Especially if it’s a successful director. I’m always reminded of successful writers and their editors. From Stephen King to J.K. Rowling, the books that made them successful were edited down to length by professionals trying to get an unknown’s book published. Once they became big, it was “hands off” with their writings. Look at most successful writers and after the initial success, it’s clear the editor has been overruled and the books get longer and longer (and more rambling and rambling).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 1:57 pm

Heidi – I think a lot of editors are forced by the director to leave things in that they’d rather cut. Especially if it’s a successful director. I’m always reminded of successful writers and their editors. From Stephen King to J.K. Rowling, the books that made them successful were edited down to length by professionals trying to get an unknown’s book published. Once they became big, it was “hands off” with their writings. Look at most successful writers and after the initial success, it’s clear the editor has been overruled and the books get longer and longer (and more rambling and rambling).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 2:00 pm

Devlin – I tend to see blockbusters at home and see the classics and more intimate movies in the theater. I think big, loud, screen thrills work well on a smaller home screen because they’re so overdesigned and overdone. A small intimate film on a big screen really pulls you in though. Many people often use the opposite justification for the small screen/big screen argument but I say overdoing it in the movies takes away from the experience which is why I’m fine seeing them at home.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 2:00 pm

Devlin – I tend to see blockbusters at home and see the classics and more intimate movies in the theater. I think big, loud, screen thrills work well on a smaller home screen because they’re so overdesigned and overdone. A small intimate film on a big screen really pulls you in though. Many people often use the opposite justification for the small screen/big screen argument but I say overdoing it in the movies takes away from the experience which is why I’m fine seeing them at home.

Posted By jojo : June 26, 2013 3:01 pm

Movies are more violent now than ever. But with sex, it’s gotten to the point that I’m actually surprised by sex scenes in current movies.

Maybe it’s because pornography is so readily available these days via the internet and whatnot — so film-makes feel that audiences will be bored by soft-core offerings. Or maybe they’re just prudish, I’m not sure. But I watch things like The Walking Dead — which usually has at least three incredibly violent kills per episode — yet sex is off-camera. And this seems to be the route most entertainment is taking.

Posted By jojo : June 26, 2013 3:01 pm

Movies are more violent now than ever. But with sex, it’s gotten to the point that I’m actually surprised by sex scenes in current movies.

Maybe it’s because pornography is so readily available these days via the internet and whatnot — so film-makes feel that audiences will be bored by soft-core offerings. Or maybe they’re just prudish, I’m not sure. But I watch things like The Walking Dead — which usually has at least three incredibly violent kills per episode — yet sex is off-camera. And this seems to be the route most entertainment is taking.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 3:15 pm

Jojo – It’s very true that movies really don’t show a lot of sex anymore. I remember that the scenes in Mulholland Drive seemed perfectly done. Just enough to suggest the enticement of the sexual encounter but over in less than a minute because, storywise, the point’s been made.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 3:15 pm

Jojo – It’s very true that movies really don’t show a lot of sex anymore. I remember that the scenes in Mulholland Drive seemed perfectly done. Just enough to suggest the enticement of the sexual encounter but over in less than a minute because, storywise, the point’s been made.

Posted By Emgee : June 26, 2013 4:17 pm

I agree with you word for word; to me the excessive use of sexand/or violence is a sign of artistic mediocrity, or worse.
It’s just lazy directors supplying their audience with what they think it wants, and they’re probably right, too. Now that’s not a cheerful thought.
Sex in movies is mostly dull, excessive violence mostly disgusting. It’s not what i watch movies for.

Posted By Emgee : June 26, 2013 4:17 pm

I agree with you word for word; to me the excessive use of sexand/or violence is a sign of artistic mediocrity, or worse.
It’s just lazy directors supplying their audience with what they think it wants, and they’re probably right, too. Now that’s not a cheerful thought.
Sex in movies is mostly dull, excessive violence mostly disgusting. It’s not what i watch movies for.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 4:30 pm

Emgee – The other thing is that violence just becomes filler for a thin plot. Especially a long, drawnout finale that seems like a substitute for a well wrapped up conclusion. In the best movies with violent aspects, we’re often surprised by how little violence they actually show, in retrospect, like Psycho, and in the worst there’s often violence from beginning to end, like any piece of crap slasher movie you can name.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 4:30 pm

Emgee – The other thing is that violence just becomes filler for a thin plot. Especially a long, drawnout finale that seems like a substitute for a well wrapped up conclusion. In the best movies with violent aspects, we’re often surprised by how little violence they actually show, in retrospect, like Psycho, and in the worst there’s often violence from beginning to end, like any piece of crap slasher movie you can name.

Posted By Kevin Deany : June 26, 2013 5:23 pm

Regarding that Orson Welles quote about not like seeing people pray in movies because he knows its fake, a perfect example of this is at the end of “San Francisco” (1936). Clark Gable gets on his knees to thank God and there’s a close-up of him saying something like “Thanks God, I really mean it this time” and it’s embarrassing. I love Gable, but I don’t buy it for a moment. The scene would have been much better just showing, from his back, Gable on his knees. The close-up and that line of dialogue just kills that scene.

Posted By Kevin Deany : June 26, 2013 5:23 pm

Regarding that Orson Welles quote about not like seeing people pray in movies because he knows its fake, a perfect example of this is at the end of “San Francisco” (1936). Clark Gable gets on his knees to thank God and there’s a close-up of him saying something like “Thanks God, I really mean it this time” and it’s embarrassing. I love Gable, but I don’t buy it for a moment. The scene would have been much better just showing, from his back, Gable on his knees. The close-up and that line of dialogue just kills that scene.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 5:25 pm

Kevin – totally agree about that scene in San Francisco. But man do I love the earthquake sequence. Great miniature and stunt work in that one.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 5:25 pm

Kevin – totally agree about that scene in San Francisco. But man do I love the earthquake sequence. Great miniature and stunt work in that one.

Posted By Doug : June 26, 2013 5:28 pm

One thing-we came of age at a time when movies were pointed at us.
Now the movies are pointed at teenagers for what they are going through. Of course those moments of sex and violence bore us-we aren’t the target audience.
Implied sex and violence will always be better because we have to imagine, to fill in the blanks of what is happening. If it is all blatantly shown, with nothing left to imagine, then we may be unmoved because we are uninvolved in what is happening.
But lights darkening on lovers, fade to black? What we imagine is more powerful than what we might see.

Posted By Doug : June 26, 2013 5:28 pm

One thing-we came of age at a time when movies were pointed at us.
Now the movies are pointed at teenagers for what they are going through. Of course those moments of sex and violence bore us-we aren’t the target audience.
Implied sex and violence will always be better because we have to imagine, to fill in the blanks of what is happening. If it is all blatantly shown, with nothing left to imagine, then we may be unmoved because we are uninvolved in what is happening.
But lights darkening on lovers, fade to black? What we imagine is more powerful than what we might see.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 5:30 pm

Doug – It’s funny because, as I say in the piece, when I was younger I thought the violence was edgy and gritty, so yes, the studios know who they’re playing to. They’re business people after all and not dumb ones.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 5:30 pm

Doug – It’s funny because, as I say in the piece, when I was younger I thought the violence was edgy and gritty, so yes, the studios know who they’re playing to. They’re business people after all and not dumb ones.

Posted By tdraicer : June 26, 2013 7:58 pm

>That doesn’t mean the human form isn’t a beautiful thing to behold though.

Hmm, I’m thinking now I want to make a distinction between “sex” and “nudity.” I’ll agree simulated sex is mostly dull (the exception perhaps being a sex scene where we know something bad is going to happen, so it is really about suspense rather than sex) but nudity (while it may cause a sexual response in the viewer, and putting aside the attractiveness of the bodies on display) isn’t just about sex, but character and relationships.

For example, if we see two people who are supposed to be sexually experienced having an after-sex conversation in bed, yet they both clutch their sheets tightly to their bodies, to me that screams “we are behaving like this for reasons of the film’s rating or the actor’s contract.” Of course you can film scenes in a way that makes it clear the characters are nude to one another without their nudity being visible to us (to take your example, the killing in Psycho does that as well) but quite a few films simply turn two passionate lovers (at least that is what we imagined when the film cut away as they fell into bed) into shy teens the next morning.

Posted By tdraicer : June 26, 2013 7:58 pm

>That doesn’t mean the human form isn’t a beautiful thing to behold though.

Hmm, I’m thinking now I want to make a distinction between “sex” and “nudity.” I’ll agree simulated sex is mostly dull (the exception perhaps being a sex scene where we know something bad is going to happen, so it is really about suspense rather than sex) but nudity (while it may cause a sexual response in the viewer, and putting aside the attractiveness of the bodies on display) isn’t just about sex, but character and relationships.

For example, if we see two people who are supposed to be sexually experienced having an after-sex conversation in bed, yet they both clutch their sheets tightly to their bodies, to me that screams “we are behaving like this for reasons of the film’s rating or the actor’s contract.” Of course you can film scenes in a way that makes it clear the characters are nude to one another without their nudity being visible to us (to take your example, the killing in Psycho does that as well) but quite a few films simply turn two passionate lovers (at least that is what we imagined when the film cut away as they fell into bed) into shy teens the next morning.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 8:00 pm

tdraicer – Yes, the sheet-clutching! I hate that. It signals, unnecessarily, that everything is fake. There has to be a better way to do that. I’ve never known my wife to clutch the sheet over her torso when sitting up in bed. Never.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 8:00 pm

tdraicer – Yes, the sheet-clutching! I hate that. It signals, unnecessarily, that everything is fake. There has to be a better way to do that. I’ve never known my wife to clutch the sheet over her torso when sitting up in bed. Never.

Posted By Gene : June 26, 2013 8:52 pm

I agree, Greg. There may be times when a graphic scene (or whole movie) is justified, but it’s so often what we don’t see that makes a film more powerful because it taps into our imaginations where fear and desire are ingrained.

Posted By Gene : June 26, 2013 8:52 pm

I agree, Greg. There may be times when a graphic scene (or whole movie) is justified, but it’s so often what we don’t see that makes a film more powerful because it taps into our imaginations where fear and desire are ingrained.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 9:00 pm

Gene – I think so, too. I wouldn’t change anything about the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, in fact, it’s the best part of the movie before it becomes a kind of cliched and thinly written mess (in my opinion, at least).

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 26, 2013 9:00 pm

Gene – I think so, too. I wouldn’t change anything about the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, in fact, it’s the best part of the movie before it becomes a kind of cliched and thinly written mess (in my opinion, at least).

Posted By Doug : June 27, 2013 1:54 am

Great example of this subject-”Lifeforce”, the movie that Mr. Sweeney recently wrote about.
What could have been a great “Aliens makes it to earth” movie instead became the “naked girl alien” show. The nudity ruined
the sci-fi. If she had simply been provocatively dressed instead of naked, I think that the movie would have been better accepted.

Posted By Doug : June 27, 2013 1:54 am

Great example of this subject-”Lifeforce”, the movie that Mr. Sweeney recently wrote about.
What could have been a great “Aliens makes it to earth” movie instead became the “naked girl alien” show. The nudity ruined
the sci-fi. If she had simply been provocatively dressed instead of naked, I think that the movie would have been better accepted.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 27, 2013 8:44 am

Doug – Agreed. There are so many sci-fi movies (my favorite genre) that get ruined by a great notion that then gets underwritten or filled in with violence or, in this case, sex.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 27, 2013 8:44 am

Doug – Agreed. There are so many sci-fi movies (my favorite genre) that get ruined by a great notion that then gets underwritten or filled in with violence or, in this case, sex.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : June 27, 2013 2:47 pm

Doug – I wouldn’t go that far – “Lifeforce” is an inconsistent mess with or without nudity.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : June 27, 2013 2:47 pm

Doug – I wouldn’t go that far – “Lifeforce” is an inconsistent mess with or without nudity.

Posted By swac44 : July 4, 2013 8:55 am

This is why I like pre-codes and film noir so much, some truly sexy and/or nasty things are happening, but you have to pay attention and use your imagination.

Posted By swac44 : July 4, 2013 8:55 am

This is why I like pre-codes and film noir so much, some truly sexy and/or nasty things are happening, but you have to pay attention and use your imagination.

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