copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

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

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:

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:

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).

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]

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.

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.

That the studios and major independents seem to be softening their product lines to suit the family values crowd is no real surprise. The religious right emerged at the end of the 20th Century as not only a political force but a pain in the neck on the public relations front for studio Hollywood.  First Amendment advocates are far less likely than evangelicals to publicly threaten studios with boycotts when film content doesn’t suit them and it’s hard to imagine anyone rallying to oppose cuts in Rollerball.[11]

As the studios moved into tamer territory and the R-rating became at once easier to get and riskier at the box office, X, NC-17 and Unrated films have become almost exclusively the sort of product released by the smaller independents. Indeed, though the studios have moved over the past decade or so to assimilate some of the lower budget/lower return independent market (through Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Disney’s Miramax etc.), they have steered clear of NC-17, X and Unrated material. Take Todd Solondz's 1998 drama Happiness, for example. First slated to be an October Films release, corporate parent Universal (owned at the time by Seagram) balked at releasing an NC-17 film. In the eleventh hour, the film was returned to its production company Good Machine. In limited play, thanks to the NC-17 rating and the absence of studio money behind it, Happiness took in just under $3 million at the box office, a few hundred thousand less than it cost to produce. The original cut of Solondz’s follow-up, Storytelling (2001), received an NC-17 from the MPAA thanks to a long, full figure inter-racial sex scene in which a white female creative writing student, bullied into a sex act with her African American professor, is urged into shouting a racist phrase as a turn-on for her aggressor. Unwilling or unable to reshoot, Solondz opted to digitally shroud the scene to obtain an R-rating. When the movie screened in theaters and then aired on premium cable channels, the print sported a huge red rectangle obscuring the bodies in the frame. The racist comments, though, remain audible throughout

Sometimes films, like Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, also released in 2001, can not be cut to accommodate an R-rating. The film is about a dot.com millionaire who pays a stripper to accompany him to Las Vegas. The deal they strike is something we must accept as viewers: no penetration, no kissing on the mouth, and a strict time limit. Like the British import Intimacy, The Center of the World alludes to Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973). It's about sex in the absence of emotional connection, the fantasy “zipless fuck” extolled by Erica Jong in her freewheeling, sexually explicit 1973 novel Fear of Flying.[12]

There's no real sex in The Center of the World. And despite gestures towards realism (the hand-held, documentary-style digital video), it is in the end just another sexy U.S. movie melodrama about a rich businessman who buys a woman, falls in love with her, and then has to figure out a way to live without her: Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) with a down ending. The Center of the World was released without an MPAA rating. It would have gotten an NC-17 for sure, because the simulated sex takes up so much screen time and the film’s premise (that kissing on the mouth and intercourse are out) introduced the sort of “unconventional acts” that always seem to trouble the raters at CARA.

Promoting an Unrated film is difficult. Artisan, which distributed The Center of the World, struggled to get the film booked. Many newspapers refuse to take ads for films without an MPAA rating and advertising on TV for Unrated titles is impossible. Artisan did what it could with The Center of the World by turning to the web. The terrific, very suggestive web-site for The Center of the World offered visitors the opportunity to "make" the stripper strip and chat with her afterwards. The lobby poster for The Center of the World was certainly eye-catching. It shows a stripper suggestively sucking on a lollipop. The poster sums up Artisan’s promotion strategy; the company hawked the film the only way they could, as a sex(y) film. But the truth of the matter was (as with most advertising come-ons) at once different and in an important way less than satisfying. The Center of the World goes no-place closer to a cinematic real sex than its ostensible model, Last Tango in Paris, a picture Norman Mailer famously dismissed as

"a fuck film without a fuck — like a western without horses."[13]

Porn movies insist that what we're seeing is real in the most obvious physical sense of the term. Such films offer proof of this reality at regular intervals. But porn is also a performance; the sex is performed by professionals. So what's fake and what's not is not irrelevant, it's just a different sort of question. In The Center of the World, the film’s premise prohibits realization, it puts arbitrary limits on what can and can’t be shown.

The Center of the World grossed just over a million dollars in the spring and summer of 2001 and at one point played on 45 screens[14] — a lot for an indie sex title but insignificant in light of the average studio release at the time. Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, for example, released two months earlier, opened on over 3,200 screens.[15] Just as the rating system opens up the marketplace for Hannibal — an R-rated, disturbingly violent commercial film released by the major Hollywood studio MGM — it closes things down for adult-themed independents like The Center of the World.[16]

Real sex as realism

The vast majority of real-sex titles aspire to a cine-realism and "use" real sex on screen to further that claim. The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 1998), for example, does so in service of Dogme 95, a manifesto that demands of its practitioner a cinematic asceticism. The claustrophobic video scale of The Idiots, which was shot by the director Lars von Trier on videotape not only approximates a documentary realism (in his use of natural light and non-professional actors) but it also attends the formal markers of home-grown, amateur, gonzo porn. By the time we get to the real sex insert at the end of the film, the images seem to have less to do with hardcore than with Dogme, less to do with titillation than with a commitment to a cine-realism that encompasses style (all that shaky hand held video work) and content (the naked, human emotions on display, the moment at which the actors are no longer acting, they’re fucking).

In The Idiots, von Trier follows a group of young anarchists posing as crazy or mentally challenged “idiots” who descend upon bourgeois haunts to make a scene that is at once awkward, embarrassing and, funny. The film ends with a brief birthday orgy as the characters continue to play-act as idiots. In the original cut we see an erect penis and two shots of actual penetration. The shots appear within the flow of the scene; like everything else, erection and penetration are just some things that happen while the camera is running. The real sex inserts fit the larger ideological and cinematic goals of The Idiots; and while von Trier is a provocateur, his provocation at once exceeds and complicates the few seconds of real sex footage. As the Village Voice reviewer J. Hoberman points out, von Trier’s The Idiots “plumbs the depths of smirky neo-primitivism.”[17] The “smirk” is the key gesture here.

Despite the real-sex inserts, The Idiots was approved by censorship boards in over thirty European and Asian countries, but posed problems in two big markets: the UK and the US. In something of a prank, von Trier submitted in both the UK and the US two versions of the film — the original cut and a version with outsized black boxes covering up the offending genitalia, a comical gesture utilizing and lampooning the sort of black-box censorship routinely used in Japan. This too was a provocation — an attempt to poke fun at the arbitrary censorship in the UK and the US. But to the director’s surprise, censors in the UK gave the uncut film its seal of approval, albeit under its strictest release designation. As the British censorship board announced to the press:

“We considered the view of real sex and group sex to be so brief and so crucial to the story … that it was OK."[18]

Unsurprisingly, the MPAA looked only at the censored version and when they finally got back to von Trier, they asked for more black boxes. Von Trier complied and The Idiots opened quietly on two screens in April 2000 and grossed just over $7,000.

The penetration shot that punctuates the scene reveals a conflation on the part of the filmmakers between a sex scene (which they consistently play unflinchingly straight) and a violent scene (which, even given the filmmakers’ commitment to realism, must be staged, choreographed, and faked). Baise Moi presents an unpretty case for the way many women are mistreated in contemporary society — a case made stronger, the directors argue, by the degree to which the actresses (Raffaela Anderson and Karen Lancaume, AKA Karen Bach)[19] and actors go to make that point. Authenticity then is not only a matter of cinematic proof, hence the penetration shots, the raw, documentary quality of the sex scenes, but it also signals a selfless dedication on the part of the players to their craft, a seriousness of purpose on the part of the filmmakers in the telling of the film's story.    

But such a cine-realism has its limits. The sex is real, but the violence in Baise Moi is staged. The rape that sets the plot in motion isn't a rape; the actors and actresses have, for money, agreed to play the scene as written. The penetration shot that punctuates the scene reveals a conflation on the part of the filmmakers between a sex scene (which they consistently play unflinchingly straight) and a violent scene (which, even given some sort of vow of chastity, must be staged, choreographed, and faked). The filmmakers may be on the smart or right or safe side of a double standard of sorts … but it’s still a double standard.

A number of contemporary French films like Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone (1998) and Irreversible (2002) have a similar seriousness of purpose through an unflinching and thus almost unwatchable pornographic violence. Still, there are no claims that the actors themselves are hurt, that they must, in order to play these characters, experience in any real way the pain they suffer or inflict. While certain scenes in I Stand Alone, Irreversible, and Baise Moi are purposefully displeasing, these films' success depends on the sensation (within the film world, with audiences) created by the directors' refusal to temper the material. The films are thus at once realistic and sensational — X-treme films for a popular culture hooked on the X-games.

Real-sex inserts

A number of real sex films feature brief (and easily excised) hardcore images, what in the trade are called inserts. These hardcore images, often shot in close-up and in certain cases facilitating the use of body doubles (as in the Dogme 95 film The Idiots), are literally inserted into an otherwise conventional, simulated sex scene.

Foreign-made art films that transcend (and largely ignore) the prevailing censorship regime have been a staple of the art-house circuit since 1934 when Samuel Cummins arranged for the release of the notorious Czech film Ecstasy (Gustav Machaty), featuring Hedy Kiesler, later Hedy Lamarr, dashing through the woods in the buff. The use of a real sex insert in an otherwise softcore import screened uncut in the United States dates to Marco Bellochio’s 1986 feature, Devil in the Flesh, which features a single, medium-close shot of oral sex performed by the actress Maruschka Detmers on the actor Federico Pitzalis. The film reviewer Roger Ebert contended that the oral sex scene was in large part a publicity stunt, but after doing so, Bellocchio raised some interesting questions about the formal and ideological complications of real sex on screen:

“Bellocchio has at least assured a lot of attention for Devil in the Flesh by including an explicit and lengthy scene of fellatio in the movie, one that qualifies it for the X rating. Watching it, I wondered what it had to do with anything else in the story. That characters engage in a given sexual practice is one thing. That the camera shows them doing it for a longish period of time is another. Explicit sexuality has the strangest power to turn a narrative film into a documentary: The moment the characters take off their clothes and get down to business, we aren't looking at characters anymore, we're looking at naked actors.”[20]

Patrice Cheareau’s Intimacy, a 2001 real sex insert film from Great Britain, was anxiously touted as a milestone in the history of film censorship. As AC Grayling from The Guardian newspaper wrote:

“[Intimacy] delivers an important blow to a ridiculous taboo" [regarding real sex on screen] by allowing such things [as an erect penis and an oral sex scene] to appear in mainstream cinema, rather than leaving them to the bracketed-off realm of pornography … it allows them to be incorporated more fully into [a] debate about life's natural experience."[21]

Intimacy, according to the reviewer, thus achieves a heightened cinematic realism because it depicts real and realistic sex. But it's not pornographic because it participates in a debate of sorts; its attraction is intellectual not carnal.

A month after Grayling’s article, a parallel story emerged in the pages of The Guardian, recalling Ebert’s contention that with real sex on screen “we aren't looking at characters anymore, we're looking at naked actors.” Still a full month before Intimacy's twenty-seven-screen UK first run, Alexander Linklater, the real life boyfriend and real sex partner of the film’s star Kerry Fox, weighed in on what it's like to live with a serious actress who has serious real sex on screen with another guy. Linklater wrote:

"I would … wait while [Kerry] left for rehearsals to practice sex with Mark, and [then come] back home. Then I would have to wait while she went on the set, undressed with Mark, took him in her arms, helped him reach a state of arousal, and came back home again. And eventually, I would have to watch, along with a sizable public, in the magnificent magnified detail of widescreen cinema, everything they'd done together. Or after editing, not quite everything. Which is the worst? Seeing nothing, or something, or everything?"[22]

Making art is often about taking chances and everyone involved in the production of Intimacy seems to have embraced that ideal. Still there were boundaries, limits. When President Bill Clinton maintained that he “did not have sex” with Monica Lewinsky, he was, according to a certain narrow definition of the phrase “to have sex,” telling the truth. It was a matter of semantics, perhaps, but it also reflected a certain attitude shared by a lot of Americans. Such a distinction proved useful for Linklater as well:

"The final question was, would they be having penetrative sex? Logical or not, that was the impassible barrier for me, and for Kerry also."

Later in the same interview:

"There is oral sex, which you see, and there is the extremely effective illusion of two ordinary people making desperate love."

So why show any real sex, however fleeting, however arbitrary, however limited and restricted (to one sort of act, once, with the stopwatch running)? Linklater's answer:

"It is to take the internal logic of a work of art to a conclusion; that is its integrity."[23]

But of course the actors don’t go all the way, and so the film, by this logic, doesn’t either.

Fox appreciated from the start that she was taking "a chance on the kind of sex Patrice (Chereau) was portraying in Intimacy.” Indeed she referred to a sort of artistic submission:

"I agreed to do [the film], to give myself over to Patrice and to trust him completely. That was the sort of agreement I made with myself, that I wouldn't get too precious, and, as a result, I really surprised myself and did work I didn't think possible."[24]

Fox's reflections here support her boyfriend’s assertion, however duplicitous and possibly insulting to his paramour, that while the sex in Intimacy looks real (and at one moment at least one of the intimate acts is),

"it is not particularly erotic." … “It doesn't blur the line between the art-house movie and [hardcore] video. It makes it clearer."

In her essay “Cinema and the Sex Act,” Linda Williams applauds the way Chereau uses explicitness to highlight what is (unlike hardcore) a relationship between two real (as in not air-brushed or surgically enhanced) people to whose real lives we seem to have gained intimate access. The film’s title, then, refers to the relationship between the two characters in the film, Jay and Claire, and also to the relationship between the viewer and the images on screen. For Williams, the key scene in Intimacy occurs when Claire takes Jay’s penis in her hand and strokes it — an intimate gesture that for many in the audience constitutes a real act (though perhaps not what they’d consider a real act of real sex).[25] Williams writes,

“While I do not suppose that this gesture is at all uncommon in the contemporary repertoires of heterosexual sex, I found myself shocked to see such an intimate, familiar gesture on film.”

For Williams, what makes the scene “shocking” — an interesting choice of words for an academic who is pretty hard to shock — is its capture of the commonplace. But if we accept Williams’ view of things, this scene in particular complicates the tentative and arbitrary distinctions drawn by Fox (no vaginal penetration) and by Linklater (no “sex”), because it questions our comfortable notions of acting and performing. In hardcore, acting is pretty much beside the point and performing is an end in itself. The characters in Intimacy are played by accomplished actors, but are they acting or performing? Or both? Williams argues:

“To ‘act’ a scene in which the action is sex is, in these explicit moments, to really engage in sex.”[27]

The goal of the real sex inserts in Intimacy is not to recreate a moment in the life of two fictional characters, but for the actors to capture and for the viewer to witness some sort of real intimacy that happens when the actors are asked to do more than just simulate some real physical act. If, as Williams suggests, the film succeeds on this score, the brief glimpses of real sex are not only not a gimmick, they are among the rare moments on film when what we are watching and investing and believing in is real.

Sex as narrative

The 1999 Korean film Lies offers a brief glimpse at a real sex act (of fellatio again), but unlike the real sex insert films discussed above, it features an astonishing on-screen sex to on-screen narrative ratio: by my stopwatch, 90% sex, 10% exposition.     

Lies quite deliberately alludes to Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 real sex melodrama In the Realm of the Senses. Both films share a similar sex to narrative ratio (to the extent that the sex scenes are the narrative). Both use sex scenes of extended duration and of increasing intensity and personal risk to make clear the point that the characters are really obsessed with (having sex with) each other. Jang Sun Woo, the writer-director of Lies, endeavored to depict a couple — in this case the 18 year old schoolgirl Y (Kim Tae Yeon) and her thirtysomething sculptor paramour J (Lee Sang Hyun) —  so absorbed in “their dream of living, eating, and fucking without having to work” that the trappings of bourgeois existence fade into the background. Woo accomplishes this by focusing so extensively on sex in scenes shot with hand-held cameras, what the Village Voice reviewer J. Hoberman described as “a loose, semi-verite” style.”[28] The net effect is at once realistic and daunting, and the risk of (or is it the plan behind) including so much simulated sex is that by some point in the film we feel like we’ve seen enough (sex, whipping, etc.). It’s no longer fun for us and it doesn’t look like it’s much fun anymore for Y and J. Sitting through it all is I suppose a necessary process by which we recognize the distinction between a love affair (the codes of which we readily recognize on screen) and whatever sort of mutual abuse the characters in Lies indulge in when the sex games so completely take over their lives (and the film).

The 2004 British import 9 Songs, directed by Michael Winterbottom, similarly tracks an intense relationship through a series of intense sex scenes and like both Lies and In the Realm of the Senses, narrative is expressed physically, sexually on screen. 9 Songs presents a series of explicit, real sex scenes interrupted briefly by live concert footage featuring contemporary rock bands. The sex in 9 Songs is real. While it is far less shocking than the real sex in Baise Moi (which is used mostly to disturb us) and far more fun for everyone concerned (the characters and the viewer) than in Romance, it is used (as it is in these other real sex films) to make somehow more real the clearly fictional lives of the characters in the film.

Such a realist strategy neatly fits Winterbottom’s oeuvre. He is an auteur who has successfully mixed fiction and fact in such films as the political thriller Welcome to Sarajevo (1994), his valentine to the Manchester music scene 24 Hour Party People (2002) and most recently A Mighty Heart (2007), the political melodrama about the abduction of the journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his wife Marianne’s (Angelina Jolie) failed attempt to save him. In each of these films, Winterbottom breaks down the markers of fact and fiction with documentary-style camerawork, real lighting, real locales, frequent strategic shifts from conventional third person fictional storytelling to videotaped interviews that break the fourth wall, and home-video-style footage that seems to capture life — real life — as it unfolds. Winterbottom has also used explicit (albeit simulated) sex scenes in films like Jude (a 1996 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and the steamy melodrama I Want You (1998). Both films contain full frontal nudity and explicit simulated sex scenes featuring major (legit) female film stars: Kate Winslet in Jude and Rachel Weisz in I Want You. This strategy suggests that the work is so absorbing and powerful, that (even) these commercially successful actresses were willing to go further (they were willing to show more skin) than in any other film.

9 Songs is composed almost entirely of documentary footage. The concerts are shot live in real venues. The cameras move through the club just as the patrons must in such a hectic, crowded space, and we never get the sense that these scenes are rehearsed or “produced.” They are simply recorded. The sex scenes seem also to be documented as opposed to performed for the camera, and even the handful of seemingly random domestic scenes seem captured as they happen. There’s no effort made to integrate scenes into anything resembling a narrative. Indeed, the effect is that Winterbottom has picked up random moments in a relationship that is, finally, little more than the sum of sexual acts. They eat. They fuck. They go to concerts. What little narrative trajectory we get is expressed in the bedroom. For example, we get a hint that the relationship is in trouble not from anything they say, but from a sexual act. In what begins as just another random domestic scene, we see Matt (Kieran O’Brien) as he is preparing dinner. Eventually, he wanders over to the bedroom to find Lisa (Margot Stilley). She’s in bed masturbating. He watches, and thus we watch from his point of view, as the scene takes us from her arousal to orgasm. But while the scene is plenty erotic — for him and for us — we also recognize that she is taking care of business without him, a plot point of some power thanks to a single reaction shot that lets us know that Matt knows what this scene means. When Lisa later tells him that she’s leaving for the United States, Matt is hurt but not surprised.

The masturbation scene is the film’s true turning point, the 2/3 mark at which their relationship begins to move towards closure. The scene immediately precedes the film’s two most explicitly depicted encounters: the first, a long oral sex scene (Lisa taking Matt’s penis in her mouth) — a sequence that is punctuated by a money shot. The second scene attends their last bout of intercourse and includes shots proving vaginal penetration. These two scenes show the characters clinging to the one thing that really worked in their relationship. They lived together for a while and went to some concerts. Then she left. The effect is the rather politically conservative notion that absent love, sex is just sex. And no matter how hard Matt tries to render the story in romantic terms, the film’s real sex, itself divorced of love (the actors after all are doing a job and the documentary-style camera captures that labor), so dominates the film, so clearly is what the film is about, that there is no room at the end for sentiment.

Winterbottom’s original scheme for 9 Songs was fairly simple. As he explained in an interview,

“I wanted to see if you could take a very simple premise — two people in bed making love — if you filmed it closely enough, honestly enough and in enough detail, maybe you could capture something of the atmosphere of a relationship, something of the atmosphere of being in love, without seeing much beyond that.”

Given such a premise, the “heart of the film [would be] sex.” And in the film there is little else.

Real sex U.S. style

U.S.-made real sex films compose a fairly small indie genre. Virtually all are released Unrated, which is to say that they are never submitted to the MPAA. Real sex films are screened at only very select art-houses. This is less a matter of censorship than basic economics. Art-houses are generally independently owned. Independent theater owners live and work in the community and depend in large part on a loyal and local customer base. Before screening a real sex film, the art-house theater owner must asses the risks of showing such a picture to his/her customers. Also worrisome is the risk of pissing off fellow local businessmen or worse the city management (with its host of fire, health and building inspectors).

Domestic real sex titles are seldom released to more than a handful of theaters and most are difficult (or even impossible) to find on DVD. Case in point: Larry Clark’s Ken Park (2002), which loosely tracks the lives of some young men and women slacking their way through the boredom and emptiness of suburban life in Visalia, California. Clark, a still photographer who specializes in disturbing portraits of disturbed, alienated teenagers is best known to U.S. art-house filmgoers for his 1999 film about urban skater-punks, Kids, a documentary-style film rather dominated by scenes of simulated teen sex performed by actors who look shockingly young. Clark utilizes the same documentary-style in Ken Park: hand-held camera, non-professional actors, real locations, and natural lighting to lend a realistic cast to a fictional story. But while Kids stopped short of showing real sex on screen, Ken Park ends with an explicit male-female-male threesome that includes explicitly depicted oral sex and intercourse. The un-simulated sex scene seems in many ways just another stunt for a director whose work seems designed to exploit our worst fears about the lives of the young and restless. As Michael Rechtshaffen of the Hollywood Reporter wrote about the film:

“Given Clark’s preoccupation with teens in their underpants (and out of them), the is-it-art-or-is-it-exploitative-smut debate isn’t going to be settled anytime soon.”[29]

Ken Park played to packed houses at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, but Clark initially failed to find a domestic distributor for the film. It was eventually picked up by Vitagraph Films, the distributor of the low budget Bruce Campbell tour de force, Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002) and little else even the most avid art-house patron might recognize. To date, Ken Park has not been released on DVD in the U.S. The film is thus notorious but little seen.

Also little seen but much talked-about is Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, which ends with a three minute oral sex scene. Like Ken Park and many of the European art-porn films, The Brown Bunny is shot in a realist style. Gallo makes use of a low budget, naturally-lit look and he uses non-professional actors in significant roles. Such an aesthetic supports Gallo’s contention that the final real sex scene is just an extension of an already insistent cinematic realism and a seriousness of purpose in which the actors, in this case Gallo himself and his then girlfriend, the actress Chloe Sevigny, are willing to do anything for their art. In a review for the New York Times Manohla Dargis put the final scene in a peculiar but nonetheless illuminating context:

“Even in the age of girls gone wild it's genuinely startling to see a name actress throw caution and perhaps her career to the wind. But give the woman credit. Actresses have been asked and even bullied into performing similar acts for filmmakers since the movies began, usually behind closed doors. Ms. Sevigny isn't hiding behind anyone's desk. She says her lines with feeling and puts her iconoclasm right out there where everyone can see it; she may be nuts, but she's also unforgettable.”[30]

The critical consensus, especially with regard to the film’s initial Cannes Film Festival cut, was that the director Vincent Gallo is nuts too. The Screen International poll held annually at the festival gave The Brown Bunny its lowest rating ever. The popular film reviewer Roger Ebert hated the film:  

“In May of 2003 I walked out of the press screening of Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny at the Cannes Film Festival and was asked by a camera crew(member) what I thought of the film. I said I thought it was the worst film in the history of the festival. That was hyperbole — I hadn't seen every film in the history of the festival — but I was still vibrating from one of the most disastrous screenings I had ever attended.”

 Gallo responded by calling Ebert “a fat pig.” Ebert countered:

“I will one day be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.” 

Ebert proceeded to lose over eighty pounds. And Gallo, still the director of The Brown Bunny, cut almost 30 minutes from the film’s two-hour running time, cuts that prompted Ebert to revise his initial impression of the film. In his far more positive review of the 93 minute release cut of The Brown Bunny, Ebert had the following to say about the final scene:

Yes, it is explicit, and no, it is not gratuitous.”[31]

The most successful U.S. real sex film to date is John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which opened on just six screens in October 2006, then on positive word-of-mouth expanded to over sixty screens in its third week of release. The film eventually grossed nearly $2 million, a respectable run for any art house film, let alone one with ample gay-male content.[32]

What distinguishes Shortbus from previous real sex indies and imports is its exuberance, the notion that sex (and sex on film) might actually be fun. This hearkens back to the “different strokes for different folks” spirit of the groundbreaking 1972 porn film Deep Throat, which promoted an egalitarianism, a democracy of on-screen sex. Several mainstream reviewers celebrated Mitchell’s novel approach. David Ansen of Newsweek wrote:

“Other films (mainly foreign) have certainly given us totally explicit sex before. Think of Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Anatomy of Hell. Or the grittily aggressive Baise Moi. But these were all films that rewarded prurience with punishment (in the form of either graphically unpleasant sex or windy French philosophizing). Mitchell brings an all-American cheerfulness to his sex romp, a native-born faith in the therapeutic benefits of unfettered desire.”

With regard to the film’s orgy finale, Ansen shrugged off all the real sex on screen, concluding,

“This is XXX with a happy face.”[33]

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis similarly commented upon the film’s happy feel:

“Mr. Mitchell isn’t the first nonpornographic filmmaker to incorporate sexually explicit material into his work, but he may be the most optimistic and good natured.”[34]

Dargis went so far as to assert that the final scene in Shortbus offers not only an answer for the lonely twentysomethings in the film but a model for filmmakers in Hollywood:

“Mr. Mitchell finds his happy ending in raucous music and warm caresses, in an oceanic feeling in which everyone is free to be freakily you and me. His idealism is pleasingly touching and just maybe a bit naïve. It’s an idealism that feels out of place next to the hot-to-trot television housewives, panting pop divas, cringingly graphic memoirs and novels in which sex is an index of late capitalism at its most bleak. Certainly it’s deeply, if promisingly, at odds with an U.S. movie mainstream that has grown progressively more prudish about sex over the last three decades, while its representations of violence have grown more obscenely violent. Hollywood says let it bleed. Mr. Mitchell would rather we get off on life.”[35]

Parting glances

Regimes of censorship are inevitably capricious, ambiguous, and inconsistent, yet they reflect upon the culture they serve in ways that are at once telling and troubling. The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), which rates films for the MPAA, makes possible the wide release of R-rated torture films like Saw and Hostel, yet offers no “legitimate” designation for a sweet-natured (adults-only) real-sex film like Shortbus. Saw IV, the R-rated installment of the popular torture film series released during the same twelve month period as Shortbus, opened on more than 3,000 screens nationwide and grossed over $60 million in its first 2 months in release. That’s 2,940 more screens than the reigning real-sex box office champion Shortbus reached at its peak and roughly thirty times its theatrical gross.

There’s more to this than the obvious double standard at the MPAA regarding sex and violence. The Shortbus/Saw IV comparison reveals the ways in which industrial policy and practice drives cultural standards. In the marginalization of art-house porn and in the mainstream commercial success of disturbingly violent horror films, we find our society not so much mirrored but reified by MPAA censorship policies and procedures. We are fascinated by violence in even its most extreme and hideous representation, and we are willing to indulge this fascination with few (if any) limits. Sex, especially real sex, makes us nervous … so nervous that if it can be shown (in any legitimate venue) it must be, it better be “art.” Art has become as much a matter of commerce as aesthetics. That is, by labeling something art you pretty much guarantee a small audience, one that is marginal to (and systematically marginalized by) U.S. pop culture.

Looking back on that evening in 1964 at Stanley Kubrick’s house, the notion of a commercially viable real-sex film was little more than a passing subject of drunken or stoned speculation. No doubt, once sober, everyone at the gathering appreciated that there was little hope that such a film could be made at the time. Now, well over forty years later, we’re really no closer to seeing a real-sex studio film. But we have seen the mainstreaming of a sort of horrific violence that would have been no less unthinkable in 1964. So let’s ask the obvious question: which is the more obscene: Shortbus or Saw IV ? I think it is an easy question to answer, but one the film industry is disinclined to examine or discuss. Commenting on the writhing bodies in the climactic orgy scene in Shortbus, a character exclaims (speaking as much to the images on screen as to our present cultural predicament):

“It’s just like the 60s, only with less hope.”

It’s a curious pay-off line for such an upbeat film, but nonetheless telling.


[1] This is a story Southern was fond of telling. I have heard and read slightly different versions over the years. Here and elsewhere in this opening section I will stick to the version Southern told an interviewer for the on-line magazine Smoke Signals. See:

[2] www.carminestreet.com/smoke_signals.html#terrysouthern.

[3] www.carminestreet.com/smoke_signals.html#terrysouthern

[4] “Sex on Screen: Porn or Art?” China Daily, October 11, 2006,

[5] The MPAA has strict rules about movie advertisements like one-sheets, newspaper ads and trailers. The Advertising Administration (supervised by the MPAA) offers the following description of their task:  “The film industry wants to ensure that all advertising for rated films is appropriate for viewing by the general public. Therefore, all advertising for films rated by CARA must be submitted to the MPAA Advertising Administration prior to being released to the public. Advertising materials include, but are not limited to, all print ads, radio and TV spots, press kits, outdoor advertising such as billboards, Internet sites, video or DVD packaging, and trailers for both theatrical and home video releases.  The Advertising Administration reviews these materials to determine their suitability for general audiences, and to make sure that the advertising is placed appropriately. After its review of submitted materials, the Advertising Administration reports within 24 hours to the submitting distribution company.

Every advertising item must display the film's rating, and may require several revisions before final approval. According to the Advertising Administration guidelines, advertising that is targeted for an audience attending a "G" or "PG" feature will not be approved if it includes scenes depicting violence, sensuality, offensive language, or other material that most parents would find unacceptable for their younger children to see or hear. Film companies do have the option, however, of creating advertising for a limited audience (not including younger children) for whom the material is appropriate, i.e., "restricted" trailers, which may be shown only before "R" and "NC-17" films, restricted-access internet sites, and television spots reserved for late-night audiences.”

[6] When a film is produced independently and then picked up by a studio for distribution (at a festival, for example) it's called a negative pick-up (because the studio ostensibly buys the negative).

[7] For a detailed discussion of the MPAA and its unwritten policy on copyrights and venue-based censorship (including film alterations made by theater owners and various Christian conservative outfits see:  Jon Lewis, “The Utah Version: Some Notes on the Relative Integrity of the Hollywood Product,” Film International, 4 (2003/4).

[8]   Dave Karger, “Executioner’s Song," Entertainment Weekly, November 16, 2001, pp. 73-74.

[9] Berry received a $500,000 bonus for agreeing to go topless in the movie.

[10] A.O. Scott “Monster’s Ball” (film review), New York Times, December 26, 2001,
and Rene Rodriguez, “Monster’s Ball is an eloquent love story,” Miami Herald, February 8, 2002,

[11] Dargis’ cautionary remarks for the promising indie actress Chloe Sevigny proved unnecessary. Whatever audiences and more relevantly casting agents and indie film and cable television producers made of Brown Bunny, the film has not wrecked Sevigny’s career. Indeed, she has since 2003 landed a recurring role on the popular HBO series Big Love and appeared in several films including Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004), Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). While some celebrities have benefited from the release of home made sex tapes — Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson have both maintained attention in the media absent actual work thanks to the internet traffic attending their real sex performances — Sevigny’s post-Brown Bunny success likely regards her talent and her unusual look. But it is fair to wonder in this age of easily accessed celebrity porn (via Mr. Skin and celebrity movie archive) just how much real sex might affect a celebrity’s career.

[12] Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (NY: New American Library, 2003).

[13] Mailer as cited by Richard Falcon in his review of Intimacy: “Last Tango in Lewisham,” Sight and Sound, July 2001,
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Center of the World lead actress Molly Parker remarked that “If anything, I think [Wang] was interested in going much further than he did. But I didn’t think it was necessary.” Aug 24, 2001.
Parker also objected to the way the film was marketed; she remarked that the lurid poster depicting a woman fellating a lollipop “makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

[14] One of those 45 screens was in Cincinnati where a theater owner contracted to screen The Center of the World decided he was uncomfortable with some of the footage so he cut it out of the film. When news got back to Artisan, they pulled the film from the theater — protecting their product far more ardently than a studio would have under the same circumstances. For a parallel story about a Utah theater owner making cuts to James Cameron’s Titanic see: Jon Lewis, “The Utah Version: Some Notes on the Relative Integrity of the Hollywood Product.”

[15] Between 3200 and 3500 screens was the 2001 industry standard for bigger studio releases. The early summer blockbuster Pearl Harbor opened on 3,214 screens; Tim Burton’s much-anticipated remake of The Planet of the Apes was released to 3,500 screens and Jurassic Park III had its opening weekend on 3,434 screens.

[16] Despite the notoriety, Baise Moi and Intimacy never played on more than 8 screens.

[17] J. Hoberman, “Arrested Development” Village Voice, April 26, 2000,

[18] BBFC People Archive, taken from a Guardian article by Brian Pendreigh,

[19] Both actresses have appeared in several hardcore titles. Launcame/Bach has appeared in such films/videos as Anal Power 3 (1999) and Anderson starred in Faust Fucker (Gabriel Pontello, 1995). Anderson became something of a celebrity after the 2003 documentary by Emmanuelle Schick Garcia, La Petite Morte. The film chronicles the story of Anderson’s rape by two men who recognized her from adult films. In Garcia’s film, Anderson recounts how the prosecutor and judge dismissed her account of the events: “You’re an actress in pornographic films, so you can’t complain.”

[20] Roger Ebert, The Devil in the Flesh (review), Chicago Sun Times, July 10, 1987,

[21] AC Grayling, “Close Encounters of the Rude Kind,” The Guardian, May 17, 2001,
Preceding and accompanying the film’s first run in England, The Guardian ran a total of eight reviews and feature articles — unusually full coverage for an art house title.

[22] Alexander Linklater, “Dangerous Liaisons,” The Guardian, June 22, 2001,

[23] Linklater, “Dangerous Liaisons.”

[24] Chris Darke, “Truly, Madly, Explicitly,” The Guardian, July 1, 2001,

A handful of recent exceptions, all with the same intended effect as the “hand job” scene in Intimacy are worth noting here, for example: Sex and Lucia (released in an edited version theatrically and uncut on DVD) and the opening episode of the HBO series Tell Me You Love Me.

[26] Linda Williams, “Cinema and the Sex Act,” Cineaste, Winter 2001, p. 21. This intimate shot (of a woman stroking a man’s penis) occurs in a number of other explicit films of late, including Lucia y el sexo and Lie with Me (Clement Virgo, 2005).

[27] Williams, “Cinema and the Sex Act,” p. 22.

[28] Jang Sun Woo quoted by J. Hoberman,”Imps of the Perverse,” Village Voice, November 15-21, 2000,

[29] Michael Rechtshaffen, “Ken Park” (film review), Hollywood Reporter, September 27, 2002,

[30] Manohla Dargis, “The Brown Bunny: The Narcissist and His Lover,” August 27, 2004,
Dargis’ cautionary remarks for the promising indie actress Chloe Sevigny proved unwarranted. Whatever audiences and more relevantly casting agents and indie film and cable television producers made of The Brown Bunny, the film has not wrecked Sevigny’s career. Indeed, she has since 2003 landed a recurring role on the popular HBO series Big Love and appeared in several popular films including Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004), Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Kerry Fox, the star of Intimacy, and Margot Stiley, the star of Nine Songs, have continued to land roles. For these three actresses at least, performing real sex in a real sex feature has not adversely affected their careers and has not resulted in any sort of typecasting.

[31] Roger Ebert, “The Brown Bunny “ (film review), Chicago Sun Times, September 3, 2004,

[32] Of the films discussed here, Shortbus is the only one with any gay male scenes. A number of recent features have male masturbation scenes, some to on screen climax like Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005). No doubt there are real sex films featuring gay men, but these receive significantly less exposure than the heterosexual films discussed in this essay and are screened at select art-houses.

[33] David Ansen, “Shortbus”(film review), Newsweek, October 5, 2006,
Linda Williams, in her review of the film for Cineaste (Spring 2007) also dubbed Shortbus a “quintessentially American sex film.”

[34] Manohla Dargis, “Naughty and Nice in a Carnal Carnival,” New York Times,
October 4, 2006,

[35] Manohla Dargis, “Naughty and Nice in a Carnal Carnival,” New York Times,
October 4, 2006,

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