Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 2, 2013
In the next episode of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the chapter title is “1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams.” It covers, in part, the sexual tension building in cinema in the 1950′s, from Rebel Without a Cause, near the beginning of the episode, to Lawrence of Arabia at the end. In Lawrence of Arabia, narrator and series creator Mark Cousins says, we have a hero who views the desert romantically and the world of Arabia held a vaguely hinted at sexual attraction for Lawrence as well. Cousins is intending for the famous match/sunrise scene to work as a moment of sexual climax and it sure plays like one as the music swells and the sun rises under Cousins’ narration. By the end of the fifties and early sixties, Cousins says, cinema was bursting at the seams and something had to give. And so it did. By the late sixties and into the seventies, sexual freedom and exploration on film was accepted practice but did it change anything? Did it make the cinema better?
That’s an unanswerable question. Nothing really makes the cinema better or worse. What works for one filmmaker may not work for another. The question should perhaps be, “Does sex, when robbed of its nuance, add or detract from storytelling?” The same could apply to violence or political ideals. Implying violence has a different effect than showing it graphically. Implying a philosophy through story has a different effect than boldly trumpeting a political message. The question is one of degree but also one of necessity. That is, is it necessary to let those seams burst at all? Does it work better if everything stays loosely sewn up?
In one of his many conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles once remarked that he hated seeing prayer depicted on the screen. He knew the actor was just sitting there, pretending, and not actually praying and it annoyed him. I feel that way about the mechanics of a lot of things on the screen. When an actor is doing something for real on the screen, like Stanley Tucci making the breakfast eggs in Big Night in one long unbroken take, it’s has a sense of awe to it, as simple as it is because, hey, he’s really doing that right there in front of the camera. When an actor is pretending to perform an action, it’s more distracting. For instance, there are times in movies when watching an actor “drive” a car can damn near drive me to distraction. Just a couple of weeks ago, watching Giant on TCM, I couldn’t focus on the scene with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in the car, moving in front of a rear projection screen, because Dean kept bobbing that steering wheel from one side to the other. It was so pronounced that had they really been driving a car, it would’ve zigzagged to the point of Taylor throwing up her catered lunch.
Other distracting fakes include playing a musical instrument or performing an athletic feat. If you’re going to make a movie where a character plays the piano, either hire an actor who plays the piano or just don’t show the actor playing the piano at all. Use a double if you have to but please don’t subject me to an actor with no knowledge of the chord and melody structure of a piano lurching their hands and arms all over the place in complete contrast to the music being heard. And if you’re movie is about an athlete, again, use a double. Robert Redford, despite having an athletic youth, throws a God-awful pitch in The Natural. When he strikes out the Slugger (Joe Don Baker), I think, “How? That last pitch was bush league, all the way.” Or Katherine Hepburn in Pat and Mike. I remember watching it years ago on tv with my old post-college roommate Andy (who comments here sometimes), a golf enthusiast, who was distracted by how bad her slice was.
The point is, when actors are performing a physical function that they’re not really performing, it’s distracting and the same goes for sex. Sex on the silver screen has always been better served, for me, with nuance, tension and desire. Definitely desire. It’s the desire that’s appealing, not the actions. After all, it’s happening in a film in the service of a story. A mechanical action feels unnecessary in getting the point across. A good example would be A Place in the Sun. The result of George (Montgomery Clift) and Alice’s (Shelley Winters) night of passion is what is important to the story. How that baby was made is easily shown by the sun setting and rising as George enters and leaves Alice’s residence.
Kissing, of course, is kissing and really happens. No faking there. But real sexual passion, well, it doesn’t happen (outside of adult films which have historically been so incompetently made that using the word “passion” is inappropriate anyway). Even when people claim it does happen, because it looks so real, like between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now, I still find it barely necessary to the film. Don’t Look Now is an exception in my view only because it represents a physical connection between the characters that’s desperately trying to make up for an emotional void left by the death of their daughter. Titillating passion is not the goal of the scene at all.
Of course, movies have plots that revolve around relationships a lot more than plots that revolve around playing the piano, pitching a baseball or driving a car as a matter of market demands. When passion is integral to the plot, it may be tempting to push the envelope of sexual freedom a little further open to make the point. But when those seams burst open in the sixties, it didn’t do much for great relationship stories on the screen. Many of the greatest relationships movies made after sexual exploration opened up on the screen, like Alvy and Annie in Annie Hall, have not a single explicit scene in them (yes, they’re shown in bed together but then Annie’s true self gets up, distracted, and ruins the moment). What it did was remove ridiculous measures like twin beds for married couples and lovers always keeping one leg on the floor if kissing on the edge of a bed. It opened up the appearance of sex in the cinema but it did nothing to address its necessity. What it did was make the topic itself more available for storylines and that, indeed, was important.
Even Last Tango in Paris, so famed for its sexual explicitness, could have easily been made in the fifties with only a few changes in shots and, of course, language. There really aren’t that many scenes or even shots of sexual explicitness and it ends exactly how the old Hollywood Production Code would want it to, with the man, who’s having an affair with an engaged woman, getting killed. Where it couldn’t have been made was in the frankness of the main characters’ discussions and that’s the “bursting at the seams” that Cousins is referring to. It’s the subject matter itself that needed to be addressed and that’s understandable. But I don’t lament that we don’t have more sex scenes in movies, as Roger Ebert sometimes did, because, to me, it’s like lamenting that there aren’t as many driving in front of rear projection scenes anymore either. Who cares? When those seams burst open back in the sixties, filmmakers were allowed to explore sexual relationships with more honesty in dialogue and circumstance and that’s what really mattered. The mechanical act didn’t, and doesn’t. It’s all a fake anyway. And like a bad actor sitting behind the steering wheel of a fake car, all it will do is drive you, and the movie, to distraction.
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