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July 18, 2009

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Tony Dayoub

"...Heigl, in Knocked Up, who, at least to the best of my knowledge, gifted cinema with the exceptionally dubious notion that smokin' hot chicks love nothing better than to keep their brassieres on while doin' the monkey."

This is a pet peeve of mine. Since I look for versimilitude in most movies where flights of fancy are not called for, it always sticks in my craw when you see this kind of modesty. Why not frame the shot so the breasts are just offscreen? Or why not skip the sex scene altogether then, if you can't find the cojones to comment on a natural human function (many would say our primary function) in a realistic manner? In a sex/romantic comedy, no less?

Forgetting Sarah Marshall struck me as particularly prudish concerning Kristen Bell (or I should say the actress did) after the male lead had a full frontal scene and the second female lead had no problem going topless.

Aaron Aradillas

I believe Apatow has stated that he has made it his mission to tip the scales when it comes to onscreen nudity. That's why he makes it a point to have male nudity and little if any female nudity. I applaud the notion, but it does feel like an intellectual argument not worthy of the genius of Superbad.

Maybe all this coyness has to do with the Internet and the ability to post the images for all the world to see. I grow nostalgic for the days when even Carol Kane in The Last Detail was willing to show off her breasteses.

Glenn, am I to conclude you own a copy of My Father, The Hero? You truly are dedicated to your work.

Glenn Kenny

@ Aaron: That conclusion would be an error. I stole the cap. Off the internet, as one will when necessary.

Campaspe

I remember Pauline Kael, in her review of Ragtime, ranting for what must have been a couple of her trademark long sentences about the lengthy scene where Elizabeth McGovern (remember her? how short a starlet's time in the sun can be) is topless and having a discussion with someone. I wish I could find a copy of the review online. As I recall, Kael said it was an ugly thing to do to a young actress, and showed contempt for her character too. Rather than making Evelyn Nesbit a free spirit, it turned Nesbit into a dimwit without even the sense to cover herself up. The description stuck in my mind because I thought Kael was on to something. Gratuitous nudity is one thing (hey, I enjoy it too) but nudity that is being used to belittle or trivialize a woman is nasty and automatically very off-putting to me. Your description of My Father the Hero--and that shot of Heigl's backside--reminded me of that.

Further to Heigl's quite magnificent physique--it seems to me, purely anecdotally, that there are fewer breasts and quite a few more bare asses in cinema these days. I haven't the energy to analyze that, though.

Tony Dayoub

I feel it is shocking that our country has gone in a retrograde direction when it comes to sexuality/nudity. Back in the 70s, I'll emphasize that we're talking about near-forty years ago, American cinema's depiction of sexuality seemed to be striving to reach parity with the Europeans' presentation of same. It was frank, and as one who appreciates art, aesthetically pleasing in its presentation of nudity. Now, because of politics and the development of a center-right moral majority, we have slowly slid into exclusively juvenile expressions of sexuality.

I love Apatow's stuff, and I even enjoy sillier fare like Casual Sex(which you recently brought up somewhere, Siren), and Private School. But how come America has never had its Walkabout, or its Last Tango in Paris (9 1/2 Weeks doesn't count, it was pure titillation)?

Tony Dayoub

BTW Campaspe, regarding your Kael story, it reminds me very much of Roger Ebert's disdain for Blue Velvet because of what he perceived as David Lynch's nasty and too-long scene depicting Isabella Rossellini (Lynch's partner offscreen back then) bruised, dazed, and completely nude on a suburban street. For many years after, Ebert seemed to almost hold a grudge towards Lynch - harshly criticizing much of his work until he directed the G-rated Straight Story - for embarrassing Ingrid Bergman's daughter (I won't put that in quotes because I can't be sure he said that, but I seem to recall that he did).

Personally, I think Blue Velvet is a masterpiece. And I find it far more denigrating to speak of Rossellini as if she were a child incapable of making any decisions when, as we have been able to discern over time, she is not only intelligent, but quite a formidable artist in her own right.

This is also hypocrisy, coming from a man who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which I am a fan of, for the record) for Russ Meyer.

I'm not trying to pick on the usually rational Mr. Ebert, but what is your take on this one, Campaspe?

papa zita

Tony,
I take that as a rhetorical question, since the answer is self-evident. It's because sex is dirty in America. A straightforward, unblinking look at it in an American film would have people in the theater looking like the schoolkids in the Simpsons episode where they watch a sex film as Edna Krabapple boredly drones "she's faking it". There have been tries at it, but as you say they were back in the '70s. Americans are childish when it comes to sex. I oughta know, I was brought up in this culture.

papa zita

Bloody hell, this thing doesn't take tags.

Jeff Pickett

Glenn,

Brilliant post. Signs of sexual repression such as these truly make me want to leave this country, a country in which I have lived all my life and which I love in so many ways. I already gave up on making films for the American market - why attempt to bring in a potential audience at the cost of thereby making something I wouldn't want to watch myself?

Christian

I'll defend Kael's rant. She was correct in the scene is awful, overdone and ends up making you feel bad for McGovern. It's supposed to be a funny gag, but it just goes on and on...RAGTIME has some cool things, particularly James Cagney's spectacular final role, but that moment is the worst. And of course Ebert was wrong about BLUE VELVET.

Campaspe

Tony, given Kael's celebrated adoration of Last Tango and a number of other very frankly sexual movies, I don't think we can accuse her of having retrograde sexual mores. (I realize you weren't saying that, I'm just continuing the thoughts.) Kael saw the extended topless shot as tacky, and emblematic of what she though of as Forman's general lack of visual elegance.

As for Blue Velvet, I think even those movie's die-hard fans (I'm not one, I have to say--found it a slog in parts) would have to admit that the Rossellini scene was harsh, even down to the pitiless shot of her scoliosis scar. (Anyone who read Ingrid Bergman's account of how Isabella got that scar would have cringed even harder, as I did.) I don't recall Ebert's whole critique of the movie, but he wasn't the only one who thought it was too much. All that said, despite the fact that I wasn't crazy about Blue Velvet, I didn't think the nude scene was crude or mocking. It fit with the rest of Lynch's vision, and I'm sure Rossellini saw it that way and played it that way.

There's something leering about the scene in Ragtime, though, that Kael pretty much nailed. It's interesting that Forman is a European director; Americans are not the only ones who have an adolescent approach to sexuality at times. On TV5 I have seen some pretty juvenile French farces too, and as I recall My Father the Hero is based on a French film that apparently was't much better.

The trouble with mainstream American films is that they are so often made by and for an adolescent or barely post-adolescent mindset. It isn't just the approach to sex that lacks depth or a broad adult perspective--it is love and romance as well. One of the many things I like about older American films is that I find more of a mature perspective about men and women and love in an old Bette Davis vehicle than I do in all of (for example) Steven Spielberg, great director though he is on occasion.

Glenn Kenny

@ Campaspe: I had hoped to find Kael's consideration of "Ragtime" in the collection "For Keeps," but alas, it isn't there; the considerations of McGovern therein are confined to her ornamental role in "Ordinary People" and her absolutely hapless turn in "Once Upon A Time In America."

I'm not a big booster of "Ragtime," but I find the cited scene more sardonic than leering. As for "Blue Velvet"...well, Christ. It is what it is, and writers much better than myself (David Foster Wallace, for one) have spent a lot of time racking their brains over Lynch's motivations, methods and results, without ever coming up with answers that would make any of us completely comfortable in our living rooms, kitchens, and so on. It might be worth noting that Isabella R., an active and idiosyncratic artist in her own right, has never denounced, or renounced, David L. In any event, it's a whole different ball field than the one in which Katherine H. plays, which is not to dis her. Still.

A friend who has seen the French version of "My Father The Hero" tells me that it's actually less leeringly gross than the American remake. WHich speaks to Jeff Pickett's plaint, I think.

Oy! I try to amuse, and open up a much more interesting can of worms. I think that's really one of the things this blog is good for!...

Ellen Kirby

Lynch has said many times that he works almost entirely by intuition (and I believe him), so on one level saying that he "intended" the scene to be intensely disturbing is not quite right, but on another it is. He just does what feels right. I'd agree that it isn't mocking at all, but even (especially?) at its most hard-to-watch I feel it contains a great deal of compassion for all the characters involved.

Campaspe

Aha, I was supposed to do jokes on this one? NOW you tell me ... So, two nude scene directors walk into a costume shop and ...

Nope, I got nothing.

I should re-see Blue Velvet along with Repulsion, I think. I never know how to prioritize these things, though--movies I need to see, period, versus movies I suspect did not get their due from me at the time. Kael as I remember disdained the whole notion of re-watching movies in at least one interview.

I can't imagine many image-conscious actresses, including Heigl, who'd be willing to play that Blue Velvet scene, shot and lit the way it was. It's a tremendously nervy piece of acting and I'm sure Rossellini remains proud of it.

Vidor

"the second female lead had no problem going topless"

Mila Kunis is on record as saying that the picture you refer to was photoshopped.

As for nudity in American movies, we certainly have backtracked. I was astonished that no one got naked in "Scream". It was a slasher film, for goodness' sake.

Michael Dempsey

Here is what Pauline Kael wrote about the aforementioned scene of "Ragtime":

"But the performer who is treated the worst is the lovely young Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Evelyn Nesbit. Forman appears to see Evelyn as some sort of open-mouthed retard. The actress is photographed so that her cheeks look stupidly full, and Evelyn is not merely dim-witted, self-centered, and venal -- she's also such a crude little peasant that when she's interrupted in the middle of naked lovemaking with Younger Brother she proceeds to discuss a business deal with a couple of lawyers without having the instinct to cover herself. Younger Brother makes a move to cover her breasts, but the cloth falls and she ignores it and goes on talking. The focus of the scene is on Elizabeth McGovern's torso. And we sit there uncomfortablyu, knowing that Forman could make his small, ponderous point just as easily by framing the image so that only her shoulders were visible -- it would be perfectly clear that she was naked below the frame. When an actress is left exposed this way, it's the director who's crude."

"Taking It All In" (hardcover edition), page 266. If memory serves, the shot in question is composed to make McGovern's bare breasts appear to be resting on the bottom frameline of the image, like melons on a table.

Kael's comment doesn't seem like a mere rant to me, but maybe there's an element of strangeness to it, given her collection's double-entendre title (like the titles chosen for most of her other collections as well).

Tony Dayoub

I'm gratified that you all seem to be on the same wavelength as I am.

For my part, I will move Ragtime, a film I've never seen but which is (no lie) sitting on top of my media stand in the living room at this very moment, up to must-watch-this-weekend status. I'll report back on that one only if I disagree with you guys.

JF

Of all the scenes in Blue Velvet (which I've seen countless times and is almost my favorite movie), the one with Dorothy on the lawn is to me one of the easier ones to read, because Lynch has been on the record about exactly where it came from and, unlike with many of his anecdotes, given us his emotional attitude towards it. He's said that it was inspired by an incident from his childhood in which he was very disturbed by the sight of a naked woman walking down the street in his neighborhood. So we more or less know he intends us to be disturbed.

By that same token (and this is where I think it tripped up Ebert and others), there's a layer of black humor to the scene in the way that Sandy's ex-boyfriend and his pals react to Dorothy's presence, and in the scene that follows where Jeffrey takes her into Sandy's house, which definitely complicates the reaction you have to her nakedness.

John M

"Sex and the City, both the series and the very wonderful film spun off from it..."

This sort of took me by surprise. As a 30ish hetero male who's mostly unapologetic about seeing just about every episode of the series--and you know, liking it a lot, okay?--I thought the movie was a ridiculous mess. Deeply, passionately ridiculous. Like, to-be-puzzled-over-hundreds-of-years-from-now ridiculous.

Have you written a defense elsewhere? Point the way!

Glenn Kenny

John M: Sorry, I did not splash a sufficient amount of vermouth on my sarcasm. I am not a fan of, or a defender of, any manifestation of "Sex and the City," although I did have a very pleasant lunch with Candace Bushnell once upon a professional obligation. In referring to "SATC" as "very wonderful" I was paraphrasing Woody Tobias Jr.'s assessment of the non-existent "Cujo II" on an old "SCTV" sketch. Sorry for the confusion. But I sincerely have nothing against sincere fans of the series—hell, it gave some lucrative employment opportunities to some valued friends and excellent directors (some of whom are the same person, i.e., Allison Anders). As for the movie—I'm with you 100 %.

Ed Howard

This is totally off-topic from anything else here, but I saw a trailer for that Heigl/Butler film cited up top, and the premise seemed to be that Katherine Heigl's character needed advice from Gerard Butler about how to seduce guys and get dates. Uh, yeah. The dating scene must be really rough for impossibly gorgeous statuesque blondes. Does that seem like an unbelievably stupid idea for a comedy to anyone else? Apparently, not only do smoking hot chicks keep their bras on during sex, but they require massive amounts of instruction and training to get guys to pay any attention to them.

Tim Lucas

Heigl is a beautiful young woman and a decent actress in light fluff but, as I see it, for the very reasons you cite, a comedienne without much of a sense of humor.

As for Pauline Kael, she was an impeccable stylist with an ability to recognize and describe talent, but I can't say that she ever opened my eyes about anything. It's okay with me if your mileage differs.

John M

So, Glenn, can I consider this a form of entrapment?

You sure got it out of me, ya bastard.

In my defense, I watched it primarily while doing things like folding laundry, vacuuming, email.

I'm just digging the hole deeper, aren't I?

Phil

"Ms. Heigl has another R-rated "raunchy" comedy due in theaters, which, I see from the commercials, contains a vibrator joke that was stolen either from The Sweetest Thing or The Naked Gun 2 1/2; The Smell of Fear, I can't quite tell which"

Or perhaps Shortbus, which had a great remote control vibrator gag.

Glenn Kenny

@ Phil: YES! "Shortbus" it was! And it was pretty funny in THAT film, I admit—that character's travails by that point had come to resemble a triple-X rated variant of an episode of "The Lucy Show."

@ John: Sorry! But really, some of my best friends do the same as you, honest...

Joel

I'm not really that upset by the lack of nudity in mainstream American film. Every time that I see female nudity in a Hollywood movie, I feel a bit uncomfortable, as if I'm watching the product of intense negotiations between agent, manager, producer, and actress, all of which result in the exact lighting, angle, surface area of breast revealed, and duration of shot. Perhaps this is the result of a pre-Web pubescence spent sneaking into movies such as The Doors (Meg Ryan's nipple!) or Billy Bathgate (full-frontal Nicole Kidman!) in order to fulfill my yearning for celebrity skin. Anyway, I'm kind of happy that actresses no longer feel the pressure to get naked for a part. Still, I don't object to those actresses who obviously have no problem, which is my way of encouraging Ludivine Sagnier to stay employed.

JF

Or maybe it's an homage to Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake of June. That's a pretty funny movie.

Glenn Kenny

@ Joel: You wrote: "Every time that I see female nudity in a Hollywood movie, I feel a bit uncomfortable, as if I'm watching the product of intense negotiations between agent, manager, producer, and actress..." Yes, that's exactly it. And it's all part and parcel of the puritanism bemoaned above by Jeff Pickett, I think.

Joel

I'm not sure if this is a symptom of puritanism in the culture at large. If women start leaving their bras on during sex in real life, then maybe you'll have a better point. As for the actresses of twenty or thirty years ago who took off their tops, I don't think it was for the sake of verisimilitude, and I doubt that they were always thrilled to do so. I imagine that some producers were happy to finance a youth-culture curio (in their eyes) such as The Last Detail or Mean Streets, but asked the directors to throw in a bit of skin in order to guarantee at least a bit of return on their investment.

Glenn Kenny

Scorsese's gone on record as saying he doesn't much care for nudity in pictures, saying that it "stops the film dead." The fantasy sex scene in "Who's That Knocking On My Door" was shot at the insistence of a distributor, and Amy Robinson's brief nude scene in "Mean Streets" was, in fact, done at the behest of a producer. (It didn't adversely effect Robinson and Scorsese's relationship; she went on to co-produce "After Hours.") He bent later on, in cases where the nudity made sense—see Barbara Hershey in "Last Temptation" and the brothel scenes in "Gangs of New York."

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