As crazy as it may sound, there was a time not too long ago when people would commonly gather in dark theaters for the specific purpose of getting turned on.
We’re not talking seedy adult theaters in Times Square or indie screening houses where “foreign” was code for unselfconscious nudity (although those too used to exist in greater numbers). We’re talking about megaplexes, chain cinemas in midsized townships all across America. As recently as the the 1990s, people steamed in their seats to films like “Ghost” or “Basic Instinct” or “Interview With the Vampire.” Precocious youngsters conspired to crash the theater gates, determined to find out what the buzz was about.
Many of these films feel tame by today’s standards. And yet, in the past decade America has produced fewer erotic mainstream entertainments than we have since perhaps the 1960s. Americans love sex, but our artists currently seem more comfortable riffing on or laughing at it than exploring it, or actually heightening the experience for audiences. We may be living in a golden age of raunchy adult comedies, like the sublime “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which offer frank insights into sexual relationships — but whenever the characters actually wind up doing it, it’s usually a punchline.
It’s not difficult to imagine why that is. For starters, widespread access to high-speed internet in the late nineties contributed to the meteoric rise of home pornography viewing and a booming adult film industry. Back in the days when X-rated features were relegated to the margins, there were few affordable opportunities for curious thrill-seekers that didn’t involve a face-to-face transaction of some kind. And remember, in the days before Fandango or electronic ticketing kiosks, even buying a regular movie ticket could be a blush-worthy experience. In order to get in, you had to speak the words like “One for ‘Wild Things,’ please,” out loud, knowing that what the elderly or teenaged cashier heard instead was: “I’m here to watch the sexy people doing sexy things. Also, Kevin Bacon’s penis.”
Almost overnight, every man, woman, and (unfortunately) child across the country could enjoy far more explicit fare while keeping a far lower profile, for the modest price of a cable internet connection. The web also paved the way for mainstream movie piracy. Why pay extra to put yourself through the embarrassment of partaking in public, when you could enjoy the same spicy content for free in your living room, with the shades drawn?
This trend also coincided with a time when movie studios began bowing down before the almighty teen dollar, mostly transforming the horror genre — a hotbed of taboo-shattering sexuality from its earliest years — into a blandscape of PG-13 attractions with the violence softened and the sexuality all but eliminated. Even R-rated horror flicks rarely aspire to the carnality of bygone days; fleeting instances of gratuitous nudity or sex are usually played for purely laughs or shock value — a nod to the genre’s history. Where is the drawn-out sensuality of “The Hunger,” or “Cat People,” or even “Bram Stoker’s Dracula“?
The tradition of inciting lust in darkened rooms has not entirely died out. The kinky “Secretary” put Maggie Gyllenhaal’s bum front and center on movie posters. Michael Fassbender’s sex-addiction drama, “Shame,” was one of 2011′s watch-alone pleasures; what last year’s “Magic Mike” lacked in actual love scenes, it compensated for with vulnerable male backsides and sinuous grinding, becoming an instant Girls Night Out destination. Critics and audiences alike are currently wondering what to make of Naomi Watts’ recent momsploitation flick “Adore.” However, half of those films were made in Europe; like it or not, America’s last chance to live up to its sexy twentieth-century reputation lies in the upcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey” release, which is all but guaranteed to break records and incite moral panic — a good old-fashioned tent-pole sex movie.
What do all of these have in common? Mainly female audiences. Or greater female accessibility than the erotic enticements of yesteryear. It’s as if men abandoned the scene entirely, somewhere around the time that films like “Showgirls” and “Eyes Wide Shut” became major media events on the promise of unbridled sexuality — promises upon which neither was able to deliver (the former was hilariously unsexy, the latter used sex as bait to get Americans to swallow a chilling evaluation of the effect of wealth on morality). Perhaps it’s not surprising that men began dodging these bait-and-switch experiences once they had less complicated and more straightforward scenarios awaiting them at home.
Tom Blunt is the producer and host of "Meet the Lady," a recurring variety show that pays tribute to oft-overlooked women in cinema, part of the film program at New York's 92nd Street Y. His blog, Doom Cakes, has been profiled in The Guardian and Edible Geography. Tom has also written for New York Magazine, Hadassah, and the television channel AMC.
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