Sex in film still kept under wraps

Eric Rhoads and Eric Rhoads

Film depictions of sex, like so many taboo areas in society, has been opening up, but there are still lines over which moviemakers rarely step.

Sex in film was once a subdued art in Hollywood. Only hints of sexual activity pervaded movie theater screens across the country. With the rise of violence in film, sexuality became more tolerable. This has led audiences to an off-balanced view of reality, with explicit violence showcased in films, while ideas of explicit sex are showcased in still a comparatively subdued manner.

Director Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is a masterful look at the perfected subdued sexuality in film. Its immediately-telling opening sequence of Nicole Kidman’s character undressing sets the stage for what follows.

Kubrick envisions the sexual world of a married couple in New York City. Their lives outside of sexuality are only briefly mentioned. The focus remains on sexuality, whether fantasy or reality. The focus shifts from eloquent scenes of dialogue with heavy sexual undertones, to abrasive nudity (including an overdosing hooker at a party and a fantasy-esque orgy sequence).

The fantastical scene in which Tom Cruise’s character enters the house of sexual rituals showcases perfectly the manner in which sex is seen in America. Many of the explicit sexual scenes were edited out in the theatrical release using computer-generated people placed in front of the images that would have given the film an NC-17 rating.

However, compare this content with a film like ‘Hostel,’ in which the characters move from sexual activity to being tricked into a torture chamber and the advent of violence takes hold over the subdued sexuality. Much of the opening portion of ‘Hostel’ focuses on the sexual fantasy realized by three tourists in Slovakia. This takes a back-seat to the second portion of the film, which depicts extreme acts of torture and violence, including dismembered bodies and leaking eye sockets.

The film itself showcases this blurred vision of sexuality, but shifting the focus to graphic violence.

Even in films like ‘Observe and Report,’ in which a grotesque flasher runs amok at a mall and a woman is date-raped while puking from a night of drinking, the depiction of sex is only insinuated. What sense does it make, in a film depicting an overweight male running around flashing the audience with full-frontal nudity, for the actions of sexuality to be only modestly inferred? It is truly mind boggling in this context.

What appears to be happening is that audiences are being shown an off-balance reality due to the focus on conflict and violence and a straying away from physical sensuality. What consequences might this hold for society, and does this mean that violence in film needs to be toned down? Or does it mean the ante on sexuality needs to be upped?

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