The Naked Truth About Movie Sex

"Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean and Natalie Wood, pops up in Part 3, on teenage sex in the movies.
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

"The following program contains explicit sexual content."

Well, let's hope so. After all, when a show is titled "Indie Sex," viewers have a right to expect something beyond the parlor passion of Jane Austen or the winky prurience of a smutty sitcom.

What, though, is "indie" sex? Sex without undies? No. Sex in independent films -- logical, since the documentary was produced for the Independent Film Channel and airs there four nights in a row at midnight, starting tonight. The time slot makes it seemingly inaccessible to most children, but IFC is not a premium channel like HBO; it usually comes to cable subscribers as part of a bundle, or tier, of networks.

Naturally, anything with sex as its subject will draw fire and -- in a nation still hobbled by the Puritan hang-ups of its founders -- large crowds. Although the dozens of clips include nothing that technically qualifies as "hard-core" material, there are relatively large amounts of frontal nudity, simulated sex and four-letter commentary.

Still, it's an earnest and intelligent production, not an exploitative peep show, even if one of the guest experts popping up is none other than burlesque queen Dita Von Teese (surely her real name). We also hear from such respected critics as Elvis Mitchell (full disclosure: a friend) and Jami Bernard, such accomplished actors as Peter Sarsgaard and Tatum O'Neal, and such anti-establishment directors as Todd Solondz, Miguel Arteta and the definitively inimitable John Waters, bawdy bard of Baltimore.

Waters has managed to retain his maverick's credentials even after attaining considerable commercial success, if in a roundabout way. The current movie "Hairspray," for instance, is based on a Broadway musical that in turn was based on Waters's original, cheerfully grubby film.

Tonight's opener is a pop primer, a basic history of sex in movies and of the tireless and sometimes self-defeating attempts to censor them. The camera had barely been invented when someone thought of training it on an undraped woman, or a woman in the act of undraping. Undulating dancing girls could remain fully draped and still be denounced as obscene. Bluenoses made films, too, the better to mount campaigns designed to "deliver our children from the horrors of perversion."

As far back as 1894, filmmakers were using the medium to record nymphs romping in the buff, staging pillow fights and even, in a clip from 1901, attempting to disrobe while swinging on a trapeze. Anything resembling eroticism derived from the thrill of the forbidden. Stag films soon followed.

The first hour rushes along, with the number and brevity of clips sometimes resulting in a blur. A few clips are abbreviated before their relevance is clear. In "Dance, Fools, Dance," Joan Crawford proposes to shipboard partygoers that they strip down to their underwear and sploosh into the water, but the clip ends before any real stripping or splooshing. After nearly 70 years, you'd think we could see more of Hedy Lamarr's naked swim in "Ecstasy" than the glimpse included here.

Censors became organized. The Catholic Legion of Decency took it upon itself to decide what was fit to see onscreen. What became the Motion Picture Association of America was formed to squelch cries for government censorship on the federal level, and though it succeeded at that, pontificating politicians used anti-smut crusades to attract voters.

One good thing about censorship was that it forced filmmakers to be imaginative in depicting love and lust. Others just relied on a commonly accepted visual shorthand to let audiences know that boy had more than met girl. The lighting of cigarettes meant sex, a fade-out following a clinch meant sex, and so on. Absent is the most recognizable symbol of all: waves crashing on a shore, even if a story was set in Paris or Steubenville.

Among the less familiar clips used to illustrate the gradual liberation of the screen are striking shots of a topless Jayne Mansfield in a sex comedy called "Promises! Promises!" Awesome, awesome. It's more erotic than another quoted scene, the notorious moment in "Basic Instinct" in which Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs (Wayne Knight, later Newman on "Seinfeld," played one of the voyeuristic cops in the scene). Actor Sarsgaard, meanwhile, says not only did he not balk at doing frontal nudity in "Kinsey," but it was his idea to do one scene naked.

Tomorrow night, "Taboos" includes Waters declaring proudly and incorrigibly, "I never had normal sex in my movies -- ever." He predicts that a "major star" or two will perform non-simulated sex on the screen within five years, thus crushing another barrier. It has already happened -- but by a cast of relative unknowns -- in John Cameron Mitchell's shocking yet oddly upbeat "Shortbus," a hit at Cannes last year.

Part 3, "Teens," concerns teenage sex in movies, from "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Splendor in the Grass" through "Porky's," "Risky Business" and "American Pie." "Extremes" concludes the miniseries Saturday night.

Obviously, a candid, four-part look at sex in the movies, indie or otherwise, is pretty much a can't-miss box office idea. Those tuning in purely to be titillated, however, will learn something, too -- about movies and the movie business, about the culture and culture shock, and about the persistence of sexual skittishness in American life. One director says he looks forward to the day when sex on the screen can be "celebrated" and "not so tormenting." He probably has a long wait.

Indie Sex (75 minutes) airs four consecutive nights beginning tonight at midnight on IFC.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company