Christopher Hampton, the playwright and director, once said that masturbation is the thinking man’s television. I guess that means we know what intellectuals who don’t own televisions are. For the rest of us dullards, sex in television and film exhibits a pull that could only be defined in terms of gravitational field strength. Those dimwits in advertising have long believed that sex sells, which is why even the actresses in adverts for toothpaste are fine ladies with asses that don’t quit. Advertisers are wrong. Sex doesn’t sell. Sex is the delivery mechanism, the product and the end goal of the product.
So sex is in movies, of course. But, of course, because we don’t go to theatres to watch straight-up pornography, we have our sex disguised and filtered, layered with metaphor and symbolism. I always think it’s amusing when you watch old Cary Grant and Gary Cooper movies at the moment when the masculine man takes the woman in his arms and the camera pans away to the curtains. Firstly, it’s always the curtains – what’s up with that? Why are curtains the celluloid symbol of somebody getting down and dirty? Secondly, what are they afraid to show us? We know what’s happening here, and anybody who doesn’t is just going to ask. Maybe it’s because the implication is more erotic than the thing itself. The imagination is the largest erogenous zone, after all.
I have a large collection of what could be defined as dirty movies – movies that, in short, I’d be uncomfortable watching with my grandmother. What strikes me is how these movies are a) not pornographic in nature, and b) quite unique in their take on all matters below-the-waist. Here are a few movies about sex that sort of aren’t, if you get my drift.
If you’re anything like me (god help you) whenever you hear about a prominent celebrity who’s just been admitted to the Betty Ford clinic or The Priory for sex addiction, you roll your eyes so hard your head flips back like a pez dispenser. As a consequence in the early 2000s I crushed two vertebrae and accidentally headbutted an old man standing behind me on the bus because everybody famous was being admitted for what I assumed was code for low-public-profile-disorder. Sex addiction is so obviously, palpably a made-up condition that it’s almost hilarious, a bit like how ADHD is in some cases nothing that a swift boot up the arse wouldn’t fix. Or so I thought. Shame made me change my mind. Michael Fassbender, who in some lights looks like Peter O’Toole and a Great White shark had a love child, plays a man with sex addiction whose life starts to unravel. For a film that focuses on a premise that could be portrayed as farcical, Shame is really quite disturbing. Fassbender manages to make a twisted, unemotional compulsive guy in a truly sympathetic character. Carey Mulligan also has significant scene-stealing moments playing his ditzy sister. Shame is not a morality tale and I like how much of it is offered without commentary. It was in many ways the standout film of 2011.
Also, Carey Mulligan’s cover of New York, New York brings a lump to my pants. Throat. I mean throat.
I like to name-drop Eraserhead in conversation as much as I can because it’s one of those films that’s very difficult to enjoy so it gives you kudos for at least having made the effort. In many ways it’s similar to a couple of years back when I read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and wanted to show off; a sort of look-at-me-aren’t-I-clever. If you want to judge me, fair enough, but it’s the only reason anybody in the world watches Lars Von Trier movies, so let’s not get too personal, hey?
Anyway, Eraserhead is a movie about sex (in my opinion). Henry Spencer has a non-sexual relationship with Mary from which a monstrous, deformed child is the result. Left to care for the sadistic mutated offspring on his own, Henry’s life breaks down into a series of hallucinations and nightmarish events.
So where’s the sex, i hear you cry? Yeah, it’s all implied. Henry has an affair with a mysterious femme fatale while his child mocks him, and that’s about as sexy as it gets. It’s not so much about sex as the implied consequences; namely, the more frightening aspects of caring for a child that can’t possibly be yours and how that messes you up. Man, it’s disturbing.
Sleeping Beauty (2011)
I’ve had a mild crush on Emily Browning ever since she played Violet Baudelaire in the brilliant-but-forgotten Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (that’s not creepy, the dates add up) so when I heard she was going to be in a movie that would feature actual nudity I bought a ticket so fast the guy at the concession stand got wind-burn and a perforated eardrum. Sleeping Beauty is the most disappointing film on this list, because it is probably the least sexy film ever made. Ms Browning plays a laconic student of some sort who carries out odd jobs. She’s a call-girl. She works in a lab. She photocopies. Her alcoholic best friend commits suicide while she holds him. And she gets naked and takes sleeping pills while ugly old men fondle her. There are packets of breakfast cereal sexier than this movie. And yeah, she does get naked in the movie, but by that point you’re so dispirited that it doesn’t make any difference – she might as well be a shoe. These things aside, Sleeping Beauty is making a very deep point about….nothing whatsoever. There is no purpose to this movie. It isn’t erotic, or enthralling, and yet I still consider it a really good movie. My reasoning is this: it must take a powerful movie to make a really pretty girl as attractive as driftwood. I can’t explain it otherwise.
Natasha Henstridge, one of the most beautiful women of the nineties, plays an alien called Sil that has to have sex with men. That’s all there is to this movie. I can’t say that there’s a deep, spiritual point to this movie either, but I suppose it could be regarded as a cornerstone of feminist science fiction. Sil is…well, I guess you could say she’s very empowered, because she knows what she wants and she goes after it. What’s weird is the thing she’s after is Alfred Molina, the guy who played Doctor Octopus in a Spiderman movie (hey, there’s a joke in there somewhere), so you get to see the hottest blonde woman in the world and a guy who looks like an evil mushroom doing the underpants Charleston. Which, to be fair, is all I really want from a movie.
I could write a thousand pages on the symbolism of Alien and not really make any coherent points because I love this movie too much to remain objective about it. Every scene of this celluloid treasure is perfect in any way a movie can be. Alien is not about spaceships and explosions. Alien is about a hostile species that reproduces by violating people in novel ways and doesn’t really care if we want to or not. Alien, i guess, is about rape. Or, to be more specific, it’s about male rape, and boy does it hammer that point home. The aliens themselves are all, thanks to the designs of Hr Giger, hypermasculine forms, with huge phallic heads, while the lesser objects like the eggs are also twisted versions of, er, recognisable forms. The aliens stand taller than men, are strong and smarter than your average men; in short, the aliens are to people what people fear about each other. The aliens are the physical embodiment of the reproductive urge – an urge that is both aggressive, parasitic and destructive, a Freudian nightmare without justification or consciousness. That’s what makes the alien so frightening – that they a propelled forward blindly, without being able to reason or emote, single-mindedly hell-bent on turning every living thing in the universe into food for more aliens. Ash, the robot on the ship, expresses his warmest regards towards the alien when he says that he “admires its purity”. That’s the frightening thing: the alien is the pure distillation of the best that evolution has to offer.
And that is why Alien is so frightening to people who grasp its implications – that, in the universe of Ellen Ripley, human beings aren’t the best that nature has to offer – the alien is. Alien is a movie about sex in the sense that a heist movie is about money – the sex is the motivation, the goal : control of the universe.