Stanley Kubrick.

Terry Southern.

The racy one-sheet for Catherine Breillatís Romance (1999).


Real sex: aesthetics and economics of art-house porn

by Jon Lewis

In 1964, a few months after the release of Dr. Strangelove, there was a party at Stanley Kubrick's house and somebody brought along a hard-core film. After watching a bit of the picture, Kubrick said to the screenwriter Terry Southern,

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if one day someone who was an artist would do that — using really beautiful actors and good equipment."[1][open endnotes in new window]

At the time, such a project was unthinkable.

In 1970, Southern recalled Kubrick’s proposal when he wrote the satirical novel, Blue Movie about a bored, Academy Award winning film director named King B., who, with the help of Sid Krassman, a successful film producer, and Angela Sterling, a mainstream star bent on doing something serious, sets out to produce the most expensive and best X-rated movie of all time. That Hollywood might produce such a film was in 1970 easier to imagine. And but for a couple of lawyers mucking up the works, it might have happened.    

John Calley, then president of Warner Brothers supervised the development of Blue Movie in 1974. As Southern tells it:

“He [Calley] was convinced that the first studio to come out with a quality full length film showing erection and penetration, using stars, would go over the top … it’ll be like Gone with the Wind.”[2]

Calley hired Mike Nichols, who had recently directed the R-rated melodrama Carnal Knowledge (1971), and cast Julie Andrews (then Calley’s girlfriend), to play Angela Sterling. A fourteen-million-dollar budget, quite adequate for the time, had been secured, and everything was ready. Southern mused,

“John’s diabolical genius envisioned Mary Poppins getting banged for the world.”[3]

The mind reels … but key here is less the brilliant exploitation of an iconic actress than the impact the film might have had on the future of Hollywood. With Nichols and Andrews involved, Blue Movie would have been hard to dismiss as just porn.

Ringo Starr, who starred in the 1969 film adaptation of Southern's best known novel, The Magic Christian (Joseph McGrath), held the option on Blue Movie. He told Calley that he was ready to step aside now that there was an actual production ready to roll. Enter the villain of the piece: Ringo's lawyer, who demanded points for his client. Negotiations ensued, but Nichols’ lawyers refused to concede, claiming that the director needed to control all the available points to make deals with actors. The lawyers never found common ground, and the film was never made. If we can believe Southern, this may be the closest a major studio ever came to making a feature with "real sex." And it all started with a porno screening at Stanley's house.

Art-house porn

On September 19, 1999 Catherine Breillat's Romance, a French art film with "real sex" — that is: scenes of un-simulated sexual activity including penetration, a very long take on an erect penis, and a money shot — premiered in the United States, and a new genre was born: art-house porn. “Art-house” referred to these films’ ultimate venue and “porn” regarded quite obviously to the graphic scenes of “real sex.” As the term is used today, the phrase “art house” has taken on a second meaning; it is employed as a kind of qualifier, to refer to films that are not exactly or not quite or not really porn. The distinction is important with regard to distribution and exhibition and audiences as well as the producers and performers recognize the difference. When asked about art-house porn in a 2006 interview, the veteran hardcore producer-director-performer Joanna Angel put things in context:

"I want to make something that's hot before I want to make something that's good. If people are saying these [art house] movies are porn they should sit down and watch a porn [movie] and find out."[4]

The distinction between art-house porn and even the steamiest of commercial features is also clear: art-house porn includes on-screen (in the absence of a better term) “real sex”: visible (vaginal and/or oral) penetration. Studio films do not. The notion that “real sex” has occurred on mainstream movie sets has long been the stuff of gossip and conjecture. But even if we could believe the urban legends regarding real on-set sex in studio movies featuring famous movie stars (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now, Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Debra Winger and John Malkovich in The Sheltering Sky), and I don’t think we can (for practical reasons), what audiences got to see in the release cuts of these pictures was blocked and cut to accommodate the MPAA. No penetration, no erections, no money shot.

Like virtually all art-house porn, Romance was released without an MPAA rating because there was no way it could have received an MPAA seal (as an R-rated picture). The racy one-sheets and poster ads for the film featured a woman touching herself suggestively, a come-on that would not have passed muster with the MPAA either .[5]

Romance’s U.S. distributor, Trimark, had by 1999 an eclectic record, showcasing

  • low-budget horror franchises like Warlock (Steve Miner, 1989) and Leprechaun (Mark Jones, 1993, with Jennifer Aniston in her big-screen debut),
  • art-house U.S. independent titles like Federal Hill (Michael Corente, 1994) and Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemons, 1997) and
  • a variety of foreign-made negative pick-ups [6] like the erotic melodrama Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (Mira Nair, 1996), the political melodrama Chinese Box (Wayne Wang, 1997), and the historical drama Last September (Deborah Warner, 1999). 

How these very different films fit together is easy enough to see once you look past what they’re about and look instead at their place within the theatrical marketplace. All, including Romance, are niche productions, films targeted at (and only interesting to) a select clientele promising a predictable but relatively modest cost to profit margin. Romance performed slightly better than most European imports — about $1.3 million in its nine week U.S. run. The modest gross was hardly enough to interest the major studios in accommodating films with such content and finally proved inadequate to keep Trimark afloat. Just months after the release of Romance, the indie studio folded, selling its assets to the slightly larger and more successful independent, Lions Gate. To date Lions Gate, a bigger company than Trimark with a bigger stake in the indie marketplace, has not distributed anything that might be categorized as art-house porn.

Romance proved to be part of a late 20th century/early 21st century trend of hard(er)-core foreign-made films:

  • Francois Ozone's Sitcom (1998),
  • Lars von Trier's The Idiots (1998),
  • Leo Carax's Pola X (1999),
  • Jang sun Woo's Lies (1999),
  • Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise Moi (2000),
  • Patrice Chereau's Intimacy (2001) and
  • Julio Medem’s  Lucia y el sexo (2001).

Initially I was a bit skeptical about these films; I assumed that the inclusion of real sex was a sort of publicity stunt.  There was after all a whole lot of press coverage for these films: Romance, Baise Moi and Intimacy in particular.

It is axiomatic that controversy sells in the film business, but not in this case. Consider the numbers:

  • The Idiots, $7,235;
  • Pola X (despite a presence, sort of, in U.S. theaters from September 2000 through April 2001), $172,107;
  • Lies, $61,900;
  • Baise Moi, $74,018; and
  • Intimacy, $103,440.

Only Romance and Lucia y el sexo (which was released theatrically with an R rating — the Unrated, real sex version was released later on DVD) broke the $1 million mark, earning approximately the same amount (in the same venues) as the U.S.-made documentaries American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999) and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Aviva Kempner, 1998), the U.S. indie features Girlfight (Karen Kusuma, 2000), and Hamlet 2000 (Michael Almereyda, 2000), and the PG-rated Iranian import The Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi, 1999), hardly big earners even in the humble realm of the art house.

Through 2008, no real sex film has earned more than $2 million at the box office in the United States, and regardless of publicity virtually all of these films have faced significant obstacles in what continues to be a home-box-office aftermarket governed by restrictive cable television standards and practices and by the caprice of ideologically conservative big box outlets. Premium cable channels like HBO won’t show real-sex films uncut, and major DVD outlets like Blockbuster and Wal-Mart won’t shelve NC-17, X and Unrated films. 

These films are little seen but much talked about. Successfully positioning them in the marketplace has proven difficult for their U.S. distributors because the only way to promote these films is to highlight the taboo-breaking real sex interludes. But there is more to art-house porn than just a willingness to show and tell all. There is a seriousness of purpose and a kind of aesthetic purity to which these films aspire, a gesture towards a new cinematic realism made by filmmakers and actors who are willing to show and do anything and everything for their art. As will be evident in the discussion to follow, art-house porn is a genre defined by both a market niche and a set of shared aesthetic principles that introduce a peculiar but nonetheless sincere cinematic realism.

Careful times at the MPAA

The first wave of real-sex films reached the marketplace in what were indisputably careful days at the studios and at the MPAA. The X, NC-17 and Unrated designations had come to signify not only a certain sort of content but a market niche and market share as well. Films with explicit material — the real sex imports as well as U.S. independents that are clearly aimed at adult audiences (but are not, given the way the term is understood today, adult films) — were relegated to the art-house. The unintended consequence was that “explicit” and “adult” became subgenres of the art film.  And in the contemporary film business, “the art film” has come to mean $2 million or less at the box office.   

While it's the presence of real sex that gives a film an attraction of sorts, the studios and the larger U.S. independents play this same game in reverse. For them, it's a complex game of presence and absence — what gets shot and then what gets shown (and what gets shown in what venue, first in movie theaters and then as restored footage for Unrated so-called director’s cuts on DVD). Commercial films are routinely released in a variety of versions and formats suitable for a wealth of exhibition venues: movie theaters, home theaters, pay-per-view, pay-TV, network TV, and airplanes. At select regional movie theaters exhibitors have taken to cutting scenes out of films to suit local community standards. In American Fork, Utah, for example, the owner of the Towne Cinema cut the nude sketch scene out of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Since the theater lived up to its financial obligation and restored the film to its original form before returning it to Paramount, the studio decided not to do or say anything. Film content is infinitely malleable these days just as the studios maintain that their copyrights are inviolate.[7]

To see how graphic simulated sexual content is marketed in commercial films, let’s look at Lions Gate’s prestige release Monster's Ball, released in November 2001, one month after the New York Film Festival screening of Intimacy. In the 2001 holiday movie preview edition of Entertainment Weekly, Monster's Ball was touted with regard to footage audiences would never see (on the big screen at least).

"In order to avoid the NC-17 rating, (director Marc) Forster was forced to trim about a minute from the raw sex scene between (Halle) Berry and (Billy Bob) Thornton." But don’t fret, the magazine gushed, the scene still "clocks in at a heavy breathing 3 1/2 minutes."[8]

(The folks at the Classification and Ratings Administration or CARA are notoriously fond of their stop-watches, so the journalists at EW were smart to take out theirs as well). The film, in its censored form, was then positioned in the marketplace as something so real, so serious, so committed, it had to be reigned in, it had to be softened for public consumption. Here we see how censorship in Hollywood can be used to at once advertise a movie (as “hot”) and enhance industry public relations (trumpeting the continued efficacy and value of the MPAA’s rating system, which in this case forced cuts in an intense simulated sex scene).

According to the timekeepers at Entertainment Weekly, the release cut of the steamy sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001) “clocks in at a heavy breathing 3 1/2 minutes."

By 2001, the film's female star had plenty of experience exploiting this ad-man's game of what you see and what you get. Six months earlier, Berry appeared in the action-comedy Swordfish (Dominic Sena, 2001) a film widely hawked as a chance to see Berry's breasts for the first time on screen.[9]   Berry, by the way, received a $500,000 bonus for agreeing to go topless in the film. Her performance in Monster’s Ball was called brave in many of the reviews and she received an Oscar for Best Actress the following spring.[10]

Halle Berry received a $500,000 bonus for agreeing to appear topless in Dominic Sena’s Swordfish (2001).

At the very moment real sex films reached U.S. art houses, market research had the studios moving in the opposite direction, softening modest-budget R-rated pictures for PG-13 release. The strategy mostly failed in part because the PG-13 versions seemed silly rather than just safe. For example, the PG-13 theatrical release of the 2001 teen picture Soul Survivors (Stephen Carpenter) sported a shower scene featuring two beautiful young actresses (Eliza Dushku and Melissa Sagemuller) both fully clothed, an emblem for the not so brave new Hollywood. Soul Survivors was subsequently released with an R rating on DVD in what its distributor Artisan called an "unburied cut.” Soul Surviviors earned around $3 million at the box office against a $14 million production budget. A nude shower scene would have helped. It couldn't have hurt.

The PG-13 theatrical release of the 2001 teen picture Soul Survivors (Stephen Carpenter) sported a shower scene featuring two beautiful young actresses (Eliza Dushku and Melissa Sagemuller) both fully clothed, an emblem for the not so brave new Hollywood.

Rollerball (John McTiernan), a spring 2002 release, was also cut from an R to a PG-13. The filmmakers trimmed time off of a couple of the violent scenes and cut out altogether a very brief sequence involving Rebecca Romjin-Stamos and a sauna. Like Soul Survivors, Rollerball was a bomb. It cost $70 million to make and grossed less than $20 million. The DVD is rated R, but as with Soul Survivors, the PG-13-rated original cooled interest in subsequent formats.

In order to see this brief sequence showing Rebecca Romjin-Stamos nude in a sauna in John McTiernan’s Rollerball (2002) you have to rent the director’s cut DVD.

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