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On nudity and sex and Shame

Above: Photo (censored) taken during the filming of "Shame" in New York.

When it comes to sex and nudity in the movies, at some point the fiction gives way to a recording of the actors getting naked. Steven Soderbergh reportedly said on one of his commentary tracks that, especially when famous actors are involved, "the minute they take their clothes off, it becomes a documentary." I thought of this when I read Richard Brody's post at his New Yorker blog, The Front Row, about Michael Fassbender and co-stars' ballyhooed sex and nudity in Steve McQueen's "Shame" (2011). (Apparently nobody remembers that Fassbender was also naked in McQueen's "Hunger" -- although he was getting thrown around the prison at the time.)

In a piece called "Behind, Before, Above, Between, Below," Brody writes:

McQueen's film has lots of it--huffing and puffing, pumping backsides and writhing limbs and grimacing faces--and it's got bodies: Fassbender's, full frontal but fleetingly, in shadow, at a distance, or, most grotesquely, seen from behind and below, urinating; Carey Mulligan's, naked but in side view; and a few other women, in a variety of stages of undress. I have never had any particular interest in seeing any of these actors' genitals, but I find McQueen's coy respectfulness cinematically offensive. If he's going to show his performers undressed, the lighting should be the same as it is on their faces, and the angles in which he shows them should be as plain as those which he uses for their faces. Instead, he uses their bodies as a sort of chit of authenticity and frankness. Whether the story itself is authentic and frank, we can talk about when the movie is released, but there's an intrinsic oddity to the notion of actors showing it all.

I haven't seen "Shame" (which recently played the New York Film Festival), but that makes it sound like one crazy Busby Berkeley picture. ("By a Waterfall" indeed!) And while I'm all for more nudity and more sex -- and more naturalistic nudity and sex -- to return to the movies (the "Back to the Future" Reagan 1950s/1980s helped kill off the idea of an American cinema for adults), I believe I understand and somewhat sympathize with what he's saying.

Nudity, which some have argued became perhaps too commonplace and obligatory for a while in the 1970s (female nudity, anyway), has been stuffed back in the closet. In some ways we're back to where we were in the late 1960s, when the MPAA rating system was imposed. It was commonplace for TV talk show hosts (Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, etc.) to ask actresses if they would do "nude scenes" -- to which they would almost invariably reply, "Yes, if it was important to the story." And the development of the character. And not exploitative, but tasteful. (In 2011, 29-year-old Kirsten Dunst was asked to respond to these same kids of questions about her Cannes award-winning performance in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia.")

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I am of two (or three) minds about this. Yes, nudity can distract you from the story when you start thinking about the performer more than the character. (On the other hand, when naked Viggo Mortensen was getting kicked and punched in that sauna in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," my empathy for his character's vulnerability was only intensified.) I suppose Julianne Moore's bottomless argument with her husband Matthew Modine in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" was somewhat distracting in some ways at first, but as the scene went on it seemed more and more natural -- much less absurdly artificial than, say, those damn bed scenes where the sheets are used as enormous pasties.

My feeling is, if you're a performer who makes a living with your body, and you like the way your body looks (and other people like it enough to pay you to show it off), then why wouldn't you? If, on the other hand, you're uncomfortable getting naked (whether you're insecure or ashamed about your body, or you just don't want your friends and family to see it on the screen and have explicit screen grabs posted all over the Internet), then I fully understand why you would not want to appear nude before the cameras. Some actors want to be forced or encouraged to confront their fears, to reach beyond their professional, physical, emotional comfort zones in their work. Others don't.

Richard Brody goes further:

Directors shouldn't ask them to do it. Such a level of revelation renders a performer so vulnerable as to risk making them close off and shut down their emotional sensitivity as they rely purely on technique to craft a performance in extremis -- or else, if they remain fully alive to the moment, they're likely to give more of themselves (of their inner selves) onscreen than anyone can or should ever be asked to give, and it's likely to take a toll on their careers and even their lives (see under: Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider).

I'm not sure precisely what he's referring to regarding Brando and Schneider, but directors have often been known to push (or gently guide) actors into dangerous and volatile emotional territory. I found this in a 2007 interview with Schneider, who died in February at age 58 -- and later I found that RB had linked to the same interview in a post shortly after her death:

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"I was too young to know better. Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn't me.

"I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol -- I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown." [...]

[Regarding the infamous "butter scene"] "That scene wasn't in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea," she says.

"They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry.

"I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that.

"Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears.

"I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take."

Schneider remained friendly with Brando, and furious with Bertolucci, to the end. Can we ever know what finally pushed her too far? Was it the nudity, the sex, the content of the film itself, the intensity of the acting, the atmosphere on the set, the overwhelming response to the film when it was released -- and how they all catalyzed with her own personal and professional demons and insecurities? Probably all of the above, but from what she says in that interview it sounds like the 19-year-old was unprepared (how could she have been?) for the fame and notoriety that engulfed her when "Last Tango" became an international sensation.

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(I'm reminded of young James Fox, who had what we used to call a "nervous breakdown" after shooting Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammel's violent and psycho-sexually transgressive, X-rated 1970 "Performance" with Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. Fox didn't fully return to acting until David Lean's "A Passage to India" in 1984. He has been quoted saying that "people think 'Performance' blew my mind... my mind was blown long before that" -- but he also said: "'Performance' gave me doubts about my way of life. Before that I had been completely involved in the more bawdy side of the film business. But after that everything changed.")

As for nudity itself, attitudes toward it vary widely by individual and by culture, of course. (Swedes, for example, don't think twice about being naked around the family or strangers in the proper settings.) Is nudity, in and of itself, or when presented in a sexual context, a moral or artistic issue -- or just a part of human experience that mainstream movies tend to gloss over? I'm more likely to see those ubiquitous, coy, low-light, close-up, soft-focus, blue-tinted sex montages as morally offensive (the filmmakers may as well simply insert a slide that says "Generic Sex Scene Here" -- that would be more honest) than something that treats sex as an intensely physical and/or emotional experience. (Unless, of course, the dramatic point is that it's just bad, awkward, unsatisfying sex, as in "Greenberg" or "Michael" Why do recent movies deal more powerfully and realistically with bad sex than good sex? Maybe it has to do with the difference between harmonic physicality and uncomfortable, self-conscious physicality?)

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Richard Brody (who is an outspoken champion of Joe Swanberg's films (which prominently feature gratuitous/banal/matter-of-fact nudity and sex, depending on how you view it) concludes:

I've written here before about the artistic burdens of representing sex: it's a matter of such intimacy and such profundity as to make it a touchstone (no pun intended) of the director's art. Of course, one could say as much about, oh, love and death and other experiences of the greatest gravity, and the banalization of violence through endless and numbingly ordinary cinematic depictions is a more grievous and endemic societal ill. And as the essential lot of the species, sex seems like an odd thing to exclude from the screen. But the experience itself reaches deep into the inarticulate animal essence of life, and calls on a kind of philosophical or poetic extrapolation that is extraordinarily distant from the mere visuals of the activity. There's always more and less than meets the eye.

Of Swanberg's recent work, RB wrote:

Both of Swanberg's new films face the implacable connection of art and life, especially regarding sex on camera. In "Silver Bullets," Swanberg plays an independent-film director whose romantic and artistic life are jumbled when his girlfriend is cast in a higher-profile horror film and he himself casts her friend as his girlfriend in a quasi-autobiographical film he's making. "Art History" specifically concerns a pair of actors (Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker) whose intimate lives are overwhelmed by the explicit sex scenes they enact in a film made by a director (Swanberg) whose own private life also becomes implicated.

I haven't seen much of Swanberg's work -- though I got a voyeuristic kick out of some episodes of his IFC/nerve.com web soap/sitcom "Young American Bodies." I'd like to know more about Brody's view of sex and nudity in his work. (When I post this, I'm gonna send him a tweet and ask!)¹

How do you see sex and nudity in the cinema, if I may phrase the question that way? Is it too risky and intimate to be dealt with in a (non-pornographic) way on the screen? Is it still the last taboo in a mainstream cinema that has no qualms about depicting violent and grotesque violations of the human body -- torture, blood, gore, viscera, etc.?

- - - - -

¹ Twitter reply from Richard Brody:

Good question; I was wondering whether someone would ask. 1. Nudity is never coy in his films, always direct and frank;...

2. the filming or staging of sex is itself the subject; 

3. as is the unity of performance and life.

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