U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Let’s talk about sex…film critics and the sex scene

Ben’s recent post on teaching the 1960s and our running conversations regarding the culture wars, prompted me to revisit an essay I wrote for a volume edited by Eric Schaeffer on the movies and the sexual revolution. My contribution is on the film critics and the sex scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Below is an excerpt from that essay on an episode that I found just amusing as well as interesting.

Many American critics writing in the late 1960s saw the sex scene as part of a larger, radical revolution that had begun to sweep through movie culture with the advent of the French New Wave and the elevation of their profession to intellectual respectability. Movies had matured as an art, and audiences all over the world had come to embrace cinema as a vital, as well as a popular, cultural expression. Expectations among critics and moviegoers were very high when the sexual revolution came to the big screen. Thus when critics viewed sex films they did so in terms similar to those they used to champion art films and condemn Hollywood’s tired genre pictures. It was not surprising, therefore, to hear critics rail against sex films for being devoid of intellectual substance. And yet, at the same time many had to admit that collectively these films reflected the heightened expectations of this sexually liberated era. Thus it was possible at once to dismiss most sex movies as commercial trash and accept that some sex films someday might be worth real thought.[1]

In her 1967 essay, “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag provided insight into the desire for real thought about real sex. Her vision coupled the image of the heroic artist with the liberated audience joined together in a revolutionary project of transgressing boundaries. The artist would offend public norms so that the audience could acknowledge and participate in what amounted to a radical cultural crime. She called this the “poetry of transgression.” “He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not; and he knows something the others don’t know.”[2]

Critics had the task of mediating this cultural crime for audiences. Moviegoers made easy accomplices – they became rebels by simply seeing sex movies. But they also wanted confirmation from critics that this cultural rebellion was for real. For their part, critics risked ruining the moment by talking too much – sex films were not going to remake filmmaking by introducing new techniques or even new narrative structures. The important thing was the sex – nudity, naked bodies, erotic scenes, lovemaking in the raw – this was the stuff that audiences finally had a chance to see. Moreover, critics had to be careful not to sound anachronistic when writing about the easy exploitation of cinematic sex. No critic wanted to suffer the same kind of fate as Bosley Crowther – the powerful New York Times critic who was rhetorically crucified by his colleagues and moviegoers for panning Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because he found it excessively violent. Crowther’s tragic mistake had been to misunderstand the rise of New Hollywood and the visceral connection it had with audiences. Like violent movies, sex films projected a new intellectual freedom and a stylized social revolution.

It took the ironic mind of Andy Warhol to reveal where movie culture was headed. In 1969, he released F*** (retitled, Blue Movie). He made a blunt statement and as result provided with excruciating clarity the implications of the emerging sex scene. No one knew how to deal with this sexual turn. New York City officials reacted as they had in the past by attempting to confiscate, prosecute, and ban the film. When Blue Movie went before a panel of city judges, it was a film critic, the precise and prescient Parker Tyler, who had to explain that the film showed “attitudes of the cool world toward sex…an indifference to emotions, everything in a cool way.” What were the judges preventing, then, if the film failed to do anything? Was it obscene or pornographic if it wasn’t titillating? And what were critics left to discuss? Was it good or bad; art or entertainment; banal or significant?[3]

So, here it was, the scene censors and moral guardians had most feared – two people having real sex on a movie screen. But this wasn’t a stag film; this was film by a major American artist. Moreover, this was reality, not a depiction of reality or a simulation of the real thing. Parker Tyler noted at the time: “This film is not meant to represent; it is meant to be. And therein, like it or leave it, lies its great, really cool distinction.” Blue Movie was different than any sex film yet created, and at the same time so commonplace as to suggest a future no one in 1969 could possible have understood. After all, sex happens, and now it had happened in an art film. But how would one critique it? Tyler suggested you couldn’t. F*** is not a sexploitation film… In those, everything is calculated, however gauchely, to provide an illusion of erotic pleasure or lust, whether by innuendo of supposed actual copulation. F*** is definitely not as exciting as possible to the emotions. Which is the one sole reason why it is so exciting to the intelligence.” In this way, Warhol established a dichotomy for movie culture as he had for the art world – one could either accept cinematic sex or reject it, there would be no unifying theory, no mise-en-sex.[4]

Warhol’s artistic achievement had been to reduce the desires moviegoers had harbored for years to single sexual acts and then parody the emotions one felt. One might want to think deeply about a Warhol movie but doing so risked realizing that you had failed to enjoy the sex. One could approach a Warhol film just hoping for a turn-on only come away feeling cool, not hot. In short, his films were anti-aesthetic statements. What you wanted to find wasn’t there. Yet, by creating this anti-blue movie, Warhol also revealed something about exploitation pictures that had both preceded Warhol and capitalized on the fame of sex in the underground. Writing in Films and Filming, critic Colin Heard wondered if the time wasn’t “ripe for a similar reassessment of Whip’s Women, The Animal, The Taming and so on. If artistic justifications can be read into one particular case, there’s no reason why this method of criticism can’t be applied wholesale.”[5]

Heard touched upon a concern that persisted among critics throughout this period, that criticism would be either so expansive that any film no matter how exploitative could be found redeemable or that criticism would simply become irrelevant. Many mainstream critics never paid attention to sexploitation, but that didn’t mean they didn’t care about sex. What critics hoped for was a test case, a film that used sex in a way that was smart and significant. In the same year Blue Movie hit screens, so did I am Curious (Yellow), a Swedish film that attracted critical acclaim and popular attention.

Critics wrote about this film with verve and commitment. Never had a film with a reputation built on sex elicited this much ink. It was the film that became the first touchstone for a critical debate over the cinematic sexual revolution. The editor of Film Quarterly Ernest Callenbach established the terms of the debate: “The general current toward more literal and extended portrayal of sexual behavior on the screen is clearly enduring, broad, and deep. So is the debate it occasions, as is natural for a revolutionary development in public mores – which is, moreover, connected with other tender questions of cultural revolution.” He claimed that this moment so significant that all the totality of film history would have to be called “foreplay cinema” since up until the late 1960s, all films were merely trying to get their protagonists into bed. Of course, to make this statement Callenbach had willfully overlooked the films exposed in sex magazines. Nonetheless, for mainstream film criticism, Callenbach’s report was appropriate. He told readers that he found this new climax “not very interesting…for most adults – or indeed very stimulating erotically.” The sex scene, he concluded, lacked any aesthetic punch and thus turned out to be a major turn off. “In short, where everything is permitted it may be even harder to do it right.”[6]

Curious did all right, though, at least at the box office. The film outgrossed the ticket sales at Radio City even though it played at a theater with almost 5500 fewer seats. That distinction made it into almost every article on the film. In its first week it broke all records for art films – if in fact it could be categorized as one – by grossing $79,101. Such success in New York City attracted other suitors. A film distributor in Texas told the magazine he wanted the film because he could make $2 million dollars just in that state alone. “This can no longer be called a film – it’s a social phenomenon,” said another distributor.[7]

Two critics in the New York Times dwelled on the meaning of this phenomenon. In parallel columns Vincent Canby and Rex Reed took shots at each other and the film. For Canby, the film was a “wise, serious, sometimes deadpannedly funny movie about the politics of life – and of moviemaking.” And he explained that even though the movie was not his favorite kind because it did not appeal to him “on all levels,” he felt compelled to defend it.”[8]

Canby argued that using sex in this movie to sell it was no different from song in The Sound of Music. Furthermore, he concluded that the moral opponents of Curious had to be “right-wing moviegoer[s]” who had deluded themselves by buying the sugar-coated world of Old Hollywood. Curious was not a landmark film, but it did mark another stage in “a revolution in movie mores of really stunning rapidity and effect.” And he observed that the sex scenes were real enough to make one wonder what it was like for the actors to perform them, and to imagine – without much trouble – that in the future these new conventions would most likely be broken.[9]

Reed was his reactionary self. He considered the film part of a “trash explosion” and a movie that was at the “bottom of the garbage dump.” “This genuinely vile and disgusting Swedish meatball is pseudo-pornography at its ugliest and least titillating, and pseudo-sociology at its lowest point of technical ineptitude.” What most “distressed” Reed was the popular reaction to Curious – the movie was a hit. He strongly suggested that the people lined up to see it were a bunch imbeciles being duped by a pretentious filmmaker and a dishonest marketing campaign. “All this pretentious, revolting, cheapjack Grove Press sideshow proves… is that there are as many stupid and provincial no-talents trying the make a fast buck in Sweden as there are in every other part of the world. They’re just more devious about it in Sweden; they call it art there.”

Reed recalled seeing a preview of the film with other critics. Several “talked loudly back to the screen, moaned, and made other gratifying noises. Some even dozed off.” All, according to Reed, were happy to walk out of the theater when the ordeal was over, even Canby. However, the abuse was not over, the projectionist had discovered a misplaced reel. The critics were ushered back into the room and shown what Reed described as sequences that seemed impossible or simply unnecessary to place in the film as a whole – none of it made sense anyway.[10]

Philip Hartung in Commonweal dismissed Curious, saying it lacked little if any social or aesthetic significance. As a statement about the decline of film censorship, he conceded that it was undoubtedly an important document – but for a critic that was a thin line to peddle. Hollis Alpert in Saturday Review saw the film for a second time months after he had watched it as part of his obligation to testify in the legal case against it. Upon viewing it again, Alpert said he saw less and enjoyed more. He liked the film’s politics and the way it used sex to say something about contemporary social issues. In the New Yorker Penelope Gilliat wrote that upon her second viewing she stumbled into a telling scene: she arrived for the last five minutes of the previous show and “noticed that there were no subtitles.” The projectionist fixed the problem, but it didn’t matter much to the audience “who had been sitting through the length of this Swedish-language film and losing the redeeming social worth in its hours of puerile street interviews without missing redemption one bit.” While the public cheered the fall censorship, it had little time for the heroic work of the critic who survived its collapse.

Stanley Kauffmann, the erudite critic for the New Republic, captured this dilemma in brief: “The film seems to me an utterly serious work. But that’s not much of an aesthetic recommendation.” Indeed, critics could discuss the heroic accomplishment of depicting sex on the screen and report on the audience’s euphoria, but so what? Such observations couldn’t pass as criticism. Kauffman explained that what interested him the most about “this quite honest and quite mediocre picture [was] its possible effect on concepts of privacy.” He reasoned “that all of human behavior ought ideally to be available to the serious artist. On the other hand, human beings do need areas of privacy for themselves.” As a critic of the theater as well as the cinema, Kauffmann had seen eroticism, nudity, and sex in as many performative forms as was legally possible in 1969. His conclusion echoed the formalist tradition in which he wrote: “There is more heat in Bibi Andersson’s narrative of an orgy in Persona, as she sits in a chair fully clothed, than in all the genitalia of Sjöman’s film. The more intrusive a film gets in physicality, the less erotically effective it is likely to be with a mature viewer, who is reluctant to let his most private physical experiences be used as items of reference in a theatre.” In a post-censor movie culture, audience morals didn’t need protection, but their aesthetics did.[11]

This was certainly the fear of Andrew Sarris, the most severe formalist among American film critics. Sarris had created a reputation based on his interpretation of the auteur theory and deployed an encyclopedic knowledge of (mostly) Hollywood movies with a razor sharp analysis of their directors. Like almost all other critics, Sarris was happy to bid farewell to censorship, but he too had objections to “sexual intercourse and nudity on screen.” He had no moral or social objections, rather in a series of articles published in the Village Voice, Sight and Sound, and the New York Times, he argued that the closer films came to showing real sex the less ably they would approach drama. “Pornography by its very nature,” he wrote, “is more concerned with certifying its own criminality than with establishing an erotically viable point of view.” So, in this sense Warhol’s film Fuck should have the final statement on the sex act – we’ve seen it, let’s move on. Instead, Sarris feared that Curious and films to follow would “destroy the fictional facade of cinema” by focusing exclusively on sex acts, as if that kind of realism made enough of an artistic point. Exhibitionism was not art, but rather a kind of “nihilism of nudity.” “Apart from the rhetorical reflex of defending the artists against society on every possible occasion, it is difficult,” he argued, “ to become concerned, much less inspired, by the issued involved in Blue Movie, I am Curious (Yellow) and all the other cheerlessly carnal exercises in film-making.”[12]

Obviously Sarris didn’t have much use for concentrating on the social and cultural significance of movies, thus most of the sex films of this period did not impress him. “The evolution of the sexploitation movie in America deserves a separate chapter heading, though mainly sociological and only marginally aesthetic.” Yet, in an astute observation made in the Times, Sarris thought that part of the problem with sex films had little to do with the films themselves – most made few pretensions to be anything but skin flicks. What annoyed critics like himself was the media storm that accompanied wave of sex films. In “30 or 40 years no one will mourn the coming of skin,” and like the coming of sound in 1929, the coming of skin in 1969 would not, despite reports to the contrary, bring the end of western civilization. In another Voice essay he concluded: “It is a mistake to overdramatize the situation. The saga of the screen’s liberation is singularly lacking in heart-warming heroics.” There had not been and most likely would not be the kind of history-defining moment that some revolutions provide. The sexual revolution was a big letdown for the cinema. “Doity” movies, as Sarris called exploitation films of the late 1950s and 1960s, had a filmic style that created the only kind of theatrical atmosphere required – “steamy temptation, degraded and disreputable… proceedings.” Elevating sex films to either revolutionary proportions or, even worse, artistic pretensions, destroyed the only suitable context for them.[13]

[1] For more on the emergence of a new post-censor movie culture, see Raymond J. Haberski, Jr., Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), especially chapters 6 and 8.

[2] Susan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, reprint, Viking, 1994), 45.

[3] New York Times, (September 17, 1969).

[4] Parker Tyler, Sex, Psyche, Etcetera in the Film (New York: Horizon Press, 1969), 16, 17.

[5] Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception, (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 144; Colin Heard, “Underground U.S.A.,” Films and Filming, 15 (August 1969), 25.

[6]Ernest Callenbach, “Editor’s Notebook,” Film Quarterly, 22 (Summer 1969), 1,2.

[7] “Sex and the Arts: Explosive Scene,” Newsweek (14 April 1969), p. 67.

[8] Vincent Canby, “’I Am Curious (Yes),’” New York Times (23 March 1969).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rex Reed, “’I Am Curious (No),’” New York Times (23 March 1969).

[11] Stanley Kauffmann, “I am Curious (Yellow),” New Republic, 160 (March 15, 1969), 22, 32.

[12] Andrew Sarris, “The Nihilism of Nudity–II,” Village Voice, (March 27, 1969), 51; Sarris, “A View from New York,” Sight and Sound, 38 (Autumn 1969), 203.

[13] Sarris, “A View from New York,” 203; “If Rhett Loved Scarlett Today…,” New York Times, December 14, 1969); “The Ethos of Doity Movies,” Village Voice, (October 7, 1971), 76.

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  1. Ray: I’m ignorant about both the beginnings of this genre (as it “arose” in Sixties anyway), and its critics (good and bad). So thanks for the excerpt. I’ll have to learn something more about Ms. Sontag someday. Wasn’t George Cotkin thinking of writing a book about her? Or was that you? – TL

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