Screening Sex

January 1, 2009

Linda Williams' book, she tells us, "began as an amateur movie". Rather like James Spader's character in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape - a film which, surprisingly, doesn't feature in her survey - Williams took to videotaping friends and colleagues while asking them about their most erotic moments at the movies. (Those seen on screen, that is, rather than during breathless teenage fumbles in the back row.) But she came to realise that the question was one she might more productively ask herself. The result is a book that, while far from amateurish, retains a personal element that adds much to its appeal and cogency.

Williams, who came of age in the crucial decade of the 1960s, tracks what she calls "the long adolescence" of American cinema in parallel with her own sexual development. From the era when, having just moved in with her boyfriend (and being denounced by her mother as "a fallen woman, damaged goods"), she went with him to see The Graduate (1967), its frankness unprecedented in mainstream American cinema; to the early 1970s, when the watching of such landmark films as Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Deep Throat (1972) became a communal rite "almost necessary to sexual citizenship ... a badge of honor"; to the present age of freely available interactive cyberporn. Williams notes how carnal knowledge "never arrives at the exact moment we are ready to learn about it, but always too early or too late".

Following a preliminary chapter that whisks us through the depiction of on-screen sexuality during cinema's first 70 or so years - and it started very early, with Thomas Edison's 1896 The Kiss, the cause of much scandal at the time - Williams homes in on key films that have advanced or radically changed what is considered acceptable, or indeed desirable, on our screens.

Besides those films already mentioned, she devotes space to, inter alia, Andy Warhol's Blue Movie (1969), with its frank (if frankly unexciting) depiction of unsimulated sex; the pioneering gay sex scenes of Boys in the Sand (1971); Nagisa Oshima's Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) (1976), cited as the first example of "hardcore porno art"; the masochistic love-death of Pedro Almodovar's Matador (1988), and Ang Lee's "gay cowboy movie" Brokeback Mountain (2005), which Williams considers "a major cultural event" that "brought primal fantasies of sex home to the American heartland".

Williams' approach is serious but never solemn, and she derives amusement from the various subterfuges resorted to by film-makers wanting to appear bold and adult, while still not offending too many people. She notes the periodic outbreaks of "sexual logorrhea" (talk, don't show) in such films as Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953) and Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and the frequent use of what she calls "sexual musical interludes" in such films as Midnight Cowboy (1969) where "the spectacle of sex" is rendered as "an affectively controlled interlude distanced by the effect of editing and music". Such devices, she suggests, operate as a means of "controlling and reassuring audience response".

The book's focus is strongly American: non-American films are considered almost exclusively in terms of their impact on US audiences and critics. Within these limitations, though, Williams offers a lucid and perceptive account, never slipping into a simplistic "the more frankness the better" attitude, but noting how seeming advances in openness often entailed retrograde steps: for example, how fetishisation of "the money shot" (male ejaculation) and the emphasis on penetrative sex sidelined female sexual pleasure and alternative sexual practices. It is an altogether worthy follow-up to the author's previous work in the field, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the 'Frenzy of the Visible' (1989).

Screening Sex

By Linda Williams Duke University Press. 424pp, £59.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780822342632 and 42854. Published 25 January 2009

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