Sex and violence are absolute human constants. They’ve always been with us, and they always will be. That’s not a statement that encompasses any value judgement whatsoever, it’s a simple statement of fact. Human beings demonstrate this repeatedly, even at their most “innocent”. Children throw violent tantrums in their cradles, and children themselves (just like the rest of us) are the result of an unbroken series of successful acts of copulation. Because I firmly believe in the constancy of these aspects of human nature, I also believe that both subjects are entirely appropriate for class discussion, and that’s definitely the case this week. By including the topic on my syllabus I’m not offering any moral, ethical or religious opinion regarding the practice or consequences of either activity (which is not to say I don’t have such opinions, but it’s where the discussion really gets thorny). I’m merely suggesting that it does no good whatsoever to ignore them. This is especially true as it relates to the development of the American film industry, which has used both to sell tickets without offering a particularly coherent approach to either.
In the early 1930’s, before the industry decided to avoid government interference by rigorously censoring itself, sex and violence were all over America’s movie screens. Entire careers were constructed around knowing, sassy sexual attitudes and frequent appearances in underwear (I’m looking at you, Joan Blondell).
When the industry decided to rein in such behavior, the prevalence of both subjects dropped to a certain degree, but sex took it on the chin. The eventual intervention of the Second World War provided an entree for the return of violence, but married couples continued to sleep in separate beds for several decades after the Japanese surrender. Not only that, but for some time the movies taught us that men and women kissed with only carefully calibrated levels of passion, always returned home at a reasonable hour when courting, and never seemed to wear underwear with anything approaching casual comfort. Such an approach led to the claims of critic Gilbert Seldes (and others) that the Production Code (by which the industry conducted its self-censorship) drained all love relationships of the natural passions which eventually ensure our survival as a species. It’s hard to argue that he didn’t make a very good point.
At the other extreme from all this passionlessness we have the existence of a wave of post-Code (and post-Sixties sexual revolution) pornography in the early 1970’s which tried to re-introduce sex as a legitimate topic of public discussion. My favorite of these (and the one I excerpt in class) is The Devil in Miss Jones, the first twenty minutes of which (one third of the film!) references Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Catholic doctrine regarding suicide, before reveling in a final forty minutes of extreme copulation (the formerly clean-living heroine is making up for lost time before settling into an eternity in hell thanks to her suicide). Jaw-dropping intellectual references aside, the film does not manage to take sex seriously enough to incorporate it into a fully developed plot, though contemporary works such as Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses managed that feat with a certain aplomb while remaining somewhat closer to the mainstream.
The attempt to make “real” sex acceptable to a mass film audience never really gets very far, and the public (mostly) continues to remain comfortable with unrealistic depictions of the act in the mainstream right up to the present day (All men spend six hours a day in the gym! All women are comfortable in bikinis! Everyone is always under sheets! No one ever has bad breath!). It’s either that or similarly unrealistic depictions in less acceptable pornographic films (which sometimes try to have a story, but the requirement for regular sexual interludes gets in the way).
My point here is not to be provocative by talking about sex, or to be a proponent of any moral perspective, but to suggest that it shouldn’t necessarily be that provocative to have the conversation in the first place. It’s a ubiquitous topic, and it’s not especially useful to sweep it under the carpet. The movies have tried to deal with it in different ways over the last hundred years (as has pretty much every human being who ever lived) so why not talk about it? It’s a part of our history and our film heritage, and it involves questions of public morality and art which shouldn’t be debated in a vacuum. After the conversation (and a few relevant examples), then you can decide what you think and I’ll be o.k. with that. But let’s talk about it first.