Sex and eroticism in movies has long been a dirty word. The public stereotype of movie sex is a low-res projection behind a red curtain in a steamy peepshow. Since the advent of moving pictures, filmmakers have grappled with how to show sensuality on the screen.
In 1896 the Thomas Edison company created a 20-second film in which actors May Irwin and John C. Rice kissed on screen. This film was also one of the first to be projected on screens known as nickelodeons. This film provoked outrage at the time. Religious groups condemned it for being pornographic, Yet this movie proved that there was a huge appetite for evocative and erotic images in cinema. This tiny piece of cinematic history finally made it to Youtube on the 15th December 2017.
Sex and eroticism in movies needs to be distinguished from a sex film. A sex film generally refers to a pornographic film. Although in high school I was forced to watch educational sex films.
The depiction of a naked human body need not be erotic or imply sex. Set in a natural setting it is likely that the images would be stripped of any eroticism. Unless you argue that the rise of the ethnological documentary in the 21st century is a form of new pornography.
Pornography is the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual arousal. Porn refers to the depiction of a sexual act, but not the act itself. Thus live sex shows are excluded. Society has developed strong views on the portrayal of sex acts. Many times a sexual act is deemed to be pornographic as a way to enact censorship and even to criminalise the works. It is deciding as an artist and filmmaker where you draw the line between a work created deliberately to arouse the audience. The question I suppose is, what is pornographic and what is erotic.
Erotic films do not necessarily have to include nudity either. In fact the kiss in Battle of the Sexes is very erotic yet only goes from Emma Stone’s and Andrea Riseborough’s chin to forehead.
The question is, how do filmmakers and screenwriters portray eroticism in the age of #MeToo? Obviously there are deep nation-wide concerns about how women are treated in movies. The good work of the Bechdel Test offers excellent guidelines about how women are portrayed in films.
Creating sex and eroticism in movies
But what of sex and eroticism?
The ground-breaking work of Erika Lust creates erotic and sexual fantasy films from a female perspective. Her ground-breaking XConfessions series allowed viewers to have their own sexual fantasies turned into movies indie style. And movies designed to arouse the viewer.
Eroticism in movies has always been taboo. I remember running a screenwriting workshop in Tokyo in 2004. One of the participants was an elderly fisherman who had written over 50 Yakuza films, one of which inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I wish I could remember his name! I asked him what a good movie was. He answered:
Our bodies are three quarters water. A great movie forces one’s body fluid out of an appropriate pore
Wise words, I think, of what our goal of a great movie should be. Be it frightening, funny or erotic.
The question is, how do we as filmmakers find out how to create erotic movie scenes without slipping into gratuitous sex scenes, or crossing the boundary into pornography? The filmmakers job is not to use a sex act in a film as a short-cut to the story.
I bumped into an interesting female filmmaker at the 2017 Raindance Film Festival: Jennifer Lyon Bell. Her Blue Artichoke Films was formed to make erotic movies that portray sexuality in an emotionally realistic way. As such, I believe her films are anything but pornographic, but rather explore human sexuality and eroticism.
Jennifer’s work is ground-breaking in that she thinks *outside* of the artificial distinction of porn/not-porn and more about the kind of sexuality and sexual relationships that a) serve your story and b) generate the feelings that you’ve made the artistic choice to provoke in your audience, whatever those might be.
Jennifer delivers an exciting workshop at Raindance where filmmakers and screenwriters can explore their own fantasies in a safe environment. They then storyboard and discuss filmmaking techniques to ensure they are filmed safely and within the moral guidelines of socially acceptable eroticism. Jennifer also not at all bothered by a director or writers’ choice to arouse the audience.
It’s an interesting connundrum. Sex sells. People love being titillated. But in the new moral high road being carved out by the #MeToo campaign – can we make movies that explore eroticism?