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.
The feature in question was/is Up And Cummers 29, produced in 1996 and subsequently anthologized in countless collections either highlighting star Swift or the newbie-gonzo genre or the real-female orgasms category or what have you. Images of Swift experiencing ostensibly real orgasms are widely available all over the internet. In 1998, at the Adult Video News Awards, she won a Best Female Performer statuette.
So yes, Swift DID recieve an award, arguably, for both her willingness and her effectuality in conveying the real to her circumscribed audience, but let's not kid ourselves, the AVN Awards pretty much exist only to be ridiculed, or pondered over in think pieces such as the one that "Big Red Son" both was and sort of tried to resist being, think pieces that conclude either that pornography is kind of bad and kind of sad, or pieces that try to debunk that thinking and tell us to loosen up and smoke a joint and relax and enjoy yourself for once but which similarly insist, mostly indirectly, that pornography is not and cannot be art and cannot tell individual viewers or the culture anything epistemologically significant. There is also the inherent supposition that if porn ever shows viewers reality, or the real, its doing so is entirely incidental and besides its ostensible point, which is catering/pandering to male sexual fantasies. This generalization, while not entirely unreasonable, fails to take into account certain varieties of porn. For instance, in the latter part of her career as a pornographic performer, before it was ended after a bout with cancer and a subsequent experience of born-again Christianity, Swift appeared in several titles for a production concern called Sweetheart/Sweet Sinner, founded by Nica Noelle, who directs a number of its titles. The dual label (Sweetheart deals exclusively in lesbian content; Sweet Sinner caters to straight couples) touts its product as showcasing "real lovemaking, real orgasms."
After relating Hecuba/Wright's anecdote, Wallace warms to the theme: porn films "are supposed to be 'naked' and explicit but in truth are some of the most aloof, unrevealing footage for sale anywhere. Much of the cold, dead, mechanical quality of adult films is attributable, really, to the performer's faces. These are faces that usually appear bored or blank or workmanlike but are in fact simply hidden, the self locked away someplace far behind the eyes." Describing the (in his experience of viewing) extremely rare occasions when "the hidden self appears," Wallace avers: "It's sort of the opposite of acting. You can see the porn performer's whole face change as self-consciousness (in most females) or crazed blankness (in most males) yields to some genuinely felt erotic joy in what's going on; the sighs and moans change from automatic to expressive. It happens only once in a while, but the detective is right: The effect on the viewer is electric." And what is the reward for the performer who reveals this to the viewer? There is none, really, and it's rather likely that the performer didn't get into the business with the express idea of revealing the real to his or her audience anyway.
The Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival went to a film called, in French, La Vie d'Adèle, and in English, Blue Is The Warmest Color. It is based on a French graphic novel by Julie Maroh and was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. In awarding the festival's highest honor to the film, the Cannes jury head Steven Spielberg insisted that its lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopouos take the stage with its director. Spielberg later said at a press conference that "had the casting been even three percent wrong, [the movie] wouldn't have worked for us as it did."
The movie, which I have not seen, is a coming-of-age romantic drama about a love affair between two young women. The reaction from Cannes reflected on its generous three-hour running time, and on its unusually explicit love scenes. In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called it "a blazingly emotional and explosively sexy film." Warming to his theme, Bradshaw continued that Blue "reminds you how timidly unsexy most films are, although as with all explicit movies, there will be one or two airy sophisticates who will affect to be unmoved by it, and claim that the sex is 'boring.' It isn't." As Nigel Tufnel before Bradshaw observed, there is nothing wrong with being sexy. If you can't swing with that, Bradshaw reckons, you're affected, and probably epicene. For whatever reason, Bradshaw has made his agenda not just the movie and his direct experience of it, but how uptight anyone who claims to be unmoved by the movie has to be. I get it—you should too—and that fellow over there?—let's not have him at our party. This is all fine as far as it goes, in a settling-scores-with-a-straw-man kind of way. When The New York Times' Manohla Dargis registered an exception with respect to the sex scenes, the back and forth became somewhat more revealingly specific.
"As as the camera hovers over [Exarchopouos'] open mouth and splayed body, even while she sleeps with her derrière prettily framed, the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else," Dargis wrote. "Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women." Once the film was awarded the Palme d'Or, Jeffrey Wells gloated that the Dargis complaint (his term: "too male horn-toady") fell on deaf ears and then quoted a "filmmaker friend" who speculated that the jury gave the film an award specifically as a rebuke to Dargis. The only thing this mini-masterpiece of very male spite omitted was the instruction that Dargis ingest a bag of penises.
Certain more erudite ripostes and apologias followed. One person implied that the amount of (apparently unsimulated) snot blown out of the lead actresses' noses during the crying scenes more than made up for whatever prurient interest the love scenes might have entertained for the males in the audience; another mournfully speculated that academic feminist jargon was gonna get in the way of our feelings, man. (Just imagine, in this day and age, when the phrase "male gaze" has gained sufficient mainstream currently that it can be regularly abused by writers for Badass Digest.) Again, I haven't seen the film, so I have no idea of what I'm talking about, only I did get a very direct sense, in reading the responses to Dargis' objections, of boys who have finally been pushed to admit that they've gotten a little fed up with being proper, with doing the right thing. What I can't stop myself from hearing underneath all of the argumentation is: "I've been a good boy. I've played nice. Why can't you let me have this?"
My friend Susan Walsh, a writer, worked on and off as a stripper and sex show performer until she disappeared, in a still-unsolved case, in July of 1996. One of the writing projects she was most proud to have been involved in was Red Light: Inside The Sex Industry, a book of short essays and photojournalism by the photographer Sylvia Plachy and the reporter James Ridgeway. The book was issued by Powerhouse Books just a month before Susan disappeared.
In addition to assisting Jim and Sylvia with research and interviews, Susan allowed herself to be one of the book's subjects. She appears in several photographs by Sylvia, one a very haunting posed portrait, the others depicting her in several faceoffs with patrons of a New Jersey strip club. She allowed Jim and Sylvia to reproduce a passage from her journal, the last paragraph of which reads: "'Just let me get my finger wet and I'll give you this twenty,' one customer will say, holding the bill between two fingers as if it's his precious dick, the middle finger erect and pointing between my legs. Then he'll try to shove it in before I can move back as his friends laugh. Their buddy's getting married and deserves a little from the slut on stage. Wagging their tongues in proud displays of cunnilingus, grasping my hand after they tip me so I can't go back on stage, pulling me by the wait and planting me on a barstool as I try to run to the dressing room, they struggle to be warriors in the dirtiest battle known to humanity."