I sometimes wonder the extent to which the much-celebrated Katz's Deli "I'll have what she's having" scene in Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner's 1989 When Harry Met Sally affected the sex lives of the Joe and Josephine Popcorns, if you'll excuse the phrase, who have seen it over the years. The scene is a classic for a reason; Meg Ryan's Sally hoists Billy Crystal's Harry by the petard of his own sexist presumption but good. But one reason the movie is as cozy a concoction as it is has to do with the fact that after the punchline, it never returns to the topic of female orgasm; the discomfort Harry feels after initially sleeping with Sally and then fleeing from her prior to the inevitable fateful facing of facts and return to romance has nothing to do with this particular facet of sexual or emotional exchange. Someone might expect, in the depiction of their growing intimacy, a query from the acceptably neurotic Harry along the lines of "how do I know you're not faking it with me?" But the viewer is left to presume that they've worked that all out. Actually, given the way the movie progresses to its conclusion, my feeling is that the filmmakers were/are hoping that you've pretty much forgotten about the whole thing. This is When Harry Met Sally, not The Mother And The Whore. The viewer is meant to feel pleasant feelings, not particularly complicated or uncomfortable or unpleasant ones.
This idea as it pertains to comedy, and to romantic comedy, is changing—see Girls on the one hand, and the Hangover movies on the other (what they share in common is the view that pretty much all sexual relations are somehow predicated on hostility)—and it's also changing as it pertains to drama, and romantic drama. The ideas change, but the issues of representation remain just as fraught. Next to race, the depiction of sexuality on screen is about the most fraught thing ever, and right now it is as fraught as it ever has been. And critics, depending on their ideological perspective, direct and/or unique experience, or just plain contrarian pissiness (to name just three of what could be dozens of factors) will unpack a given work dealing with this representation in sometimes wildly divergent ways.
In 1969, expressing what he characterized as his sole major disappointment in director Tony Richardson's adaptation of his novel Laughter In The Dark (whose female lead's name, Anna Karina, apparently amused him no end), Vladimir Nabokov said: "Theatrical acting, in the course of the last centuries, has led to incredible refinements of stylized pantomime in the representation of, say, a person eating, or getting deliciously drunk, or looking for his spectacles, or making a proposal of marriage. Not so in regard to the imitation of the sexual act which on the stage has absolutely no tradition behind it. The Swedes and we have to start from scratch and what I have witnessed up to now on screen—the blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss, the four or five mingled feet—all of it is primitive, commonplace, conventional and therefore disgusting. The lack of art and style in these paltry copulations is particularly brought into evidence by their clashing with the marvelously high level of acting in virtually all other imitations of natural gestures on our stage and screen. This is an attractive topic to ponder further, and directors should take notice of it." This was in an interview with Philip Oakes of the Sunday Times of London that ran on June 22 1969 and was of course reprinted in Strong Opinions, a compendium of interviews and essays and occasionals by Nabokov.
Since 1969, significant strides, one could say, have been made in the on-screen depiction of the sex act, although it would be useless to speculate as to whether they might have found favor with the notoriously particular Nabokov. Nudity is no longer so taboo, although the proscriptions regarding who may see nudity in films remain pretty strong. The simulation of sex acts has become more realistic via the use of prosthetics (see Catherine Breillat's Sex Is Comedy, a droll behind-the-scenes look at the absurdity and awkwardness of a film set not unlike one of Breillat's own) and digital manipulation (by which means, say, an actress' body stocking can be handily erased). There is also a mild trend toward unsimulated sex. The sex in the early films of Joe Swanberg, while staged, is often not simulated. Martin Scorsese once said he didn't like nude scenes because they stopped a film's narrative dead; cinematic open-heart surgeon John Cassavetes also largely abjured them, perhaps for different reasons. In films such as those of Swanberg's, they are inextricable from the narrative. Although I continue to insist that the discomfort the scenes in Swanberg's films might cause in a viewer have little to do with Swanberg's intentions or motivations. (I continue to believe that Swanberg began his moviemaking efforts as a Joe Francis with a film-appreciation-class schtick under his belt, and that his current films are an attempt to live that unsavory fact down.) In matters sexual as depicted on screen, there's a continuing fascination with/desire for the real. Only it's not desired in the context of pornography, at least that's the party line. Pornography, no matter what it show us, isn't art. Pornography doesn't win Palmes d'Or, nor does it get its participants commended for their bravery. Pornography doesn't count. But why should it not?
Here is a passage from "Big Red Son," David Foster Wallace's essay chronicling the Adult Video News Awards of 1998. The character of "Harold Hecuba" is in fact Evan Wright, who was a writer and editor at Hustler magazine at the time. Not to potentially alienate any of my younger readership by getting too "Losing My Edge" on them, I can confirm that Wallace, writing under a dual pseudonym, here sets down the story pretty much as Wright told it (maybe overselling the super-decent-guy aspects of the detective character just a teensy bit):
"Mr. Harold Hecuba, whose magazine job entails reviewing dozens of adult releases every month, has an interesting vignette about a Los Angeles Police Dept. detective he met once when H.H.'s car got broken into and a whole box of Elegant Angel Inc. videotapes was stolen (a box with H.H.'s name and work address right on it) and subsequently recovered by the LAPD. A detective brought the box back to Hecuba personally, a gesture that H.H. remembered thinking was unusually thoughtful and conscientious until it emerged that the detective had really just used the box's return as an excuse to meet Hecuba, whose critical work he appeared to know, and to discuss the ins and outs of the adult-video industry. It turned out that this detective—60, happily married, a grandpa, shy, polite, clearly a decent guy—was a hard-core fan. He and Hecuba ended up over coffee, and when H.H. finally cleared his throat and asked the cop why such an obviously decent fellow squarely on the side of law and civic virtue was a porn fan, the detective confessed that what drew him to the films was 'the faces,' i.e. the actresses' faces, i.e. those rare moments in orgasm or accidental tenderness when the starlets dropped their stylized 'fuck-me-I'm-a-nasty-girl' sneer and became, suddenly, real people. 'Sometimes—and you never know when, is the thing—sometimes all of a sudden they'll kind of reveal themselves' was the detective's way of putting it. 'Their what-do-you-call...humanness.' It turned out that the LAPD detective found adult films moving, in fact far more so than most mainstream Hollywood movies, in which latter films actors—sometimes very gifted actors—go about feigning genuine humanity, i.e.: 'In real movies, it's all on purpose. I suppose what I like in porno is the accident of it.'"
Below, although it is not in any way explicit, is an arguably "not safe for work" image of then-porn-performer Stephanie Swift in an early appearance, in a segment from a pornographic anthology feature, one of whose prime directives involves demonstrating the intensity of Ms. Swift's actual orgasms.