Closer Later/Mixed Messages

November 30, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

One unfortunate aspect of living so far from screening locations is that I occasionally have to miss a screening for one reason or another (a 2-hour movie eats up about 5 hours of my time). Admittedly, I don't have an overwhelming desire to see Closer, but I expect it to be provacative, and, in a perfect world, I would have liked to have had the review up by Friday. However, since both screenings this week are at inconvenient times, it looks like I won't be able to see the film until its general release. Normally, that would mean Friday afternoon (review available Friday evening). To complicate matters, however, I have a pair of screenings Friday: Ocean's Twelve and Million Dollar Baby. Both are over two hours long, so that may preclude my being able to see Closer until Saturday. Bottom line: the review will be up this weekend, but perhaps not as early as many of my readers would like. So consider this an explanation and an apology. (As well as an attempt to ward of the inevitable deluge of "where is it?" e-mails.)

Mixed Messages

When it comes to sex and nudity, there are two United States. Never has this been more clear than during the last two elections, when the number of liberal voters (those casting ballots for the Democrats) nearly equaled the number of conservative voters (Republicans). And a couple of high-profile recent media instances have once again highlighted the divide and its associated hypocrisy.

A few weeks ago, before a 9:00 pm EST "Monday Night Foootball" game between the Philadlephia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, ABC-TV aired a "racy" promo featuring a blond character from the series "Desperate Housewives" seducing Terrell Owens, an Eagles player. The towel that was wrapped around her falls to the ground in the end, but all we see is her bare back (no breasts, no buttocks). The uproar that followed the airing of this was cataclysmic, wirh the most common complaint being, "How dare you air something like this when little children are watching!"

Let's consider this objection for a moment. First, the promo was more playful than titillating. Could it cause some naive kids who don't know anything about sex to ask a question or two? Of course, but I would guess that most kids old/mature enough to be watching MNF already know a thing or two about sex. (Children are never as innocent as their parents believe.) But a more salient point is that it's apparently not okay for kids to see Nicolette Sheridan bat her eyes and coo at Terrell Owens, but it is okay for them to watch football, which is the modern equivalent of gladiatorial bouts. (This is not a criticism; I like football, but I also recognize it for what it is.) Football is violent - more violent than any other sport seen regularly on American television. And the package comes complete with beer commercials featuring scantily clad women (remember the catfight in the mud?) and spots for Cialis, Viagra, and various other erectile dysfunction drugs. Does anyone other than me see a disconnect here? Bone-cruching tackles and beer ads: good. Nicolette Sheridan dropping her towel off-camera: bad.

"Desperate Housewives" is the second-highest rated show on U.S. TV. Oh, and it's on at 9:00 EST, which means that for those living in the eastern half of the United States, that's the same time as "Monday Night Football." Same time, racier content. Then there's a news item on yesterday's IMDb "Studio Briefing" that indicates more children watch "Desperate Housewives" than "Monday Night Football." The numbers: 540,000 children (ages 2-11) watch MNF while 870,000 view "Housewives."

Moving from television to theaters, I read an article in the paper last week indicating that the religious right has decided to protest Kinsey. I'm one of those who thinks protests of this sort do no good, although the publicity generated could benefit the target. Kinsey doesn't have a large advertising budget, so free press can do nothing but benefit it. But why protest this film, which does not portray Jesus or priests in a negative light? (Those are the usual two targets.)

The explanation: because Kinsey offers a favorable view of a man who has been demonized by religious fundamentalists. But what a backwards world we might live in if Kinsey had not shone his flashlight under the covers... It's true that some of his sources have been discredited (he put too much reliance upon a catalogue of information provided by a pedophile) and some of his methods are of dubious scientific value (the home-made sex tapes), but, as a whole, his body of work has been invaluable. To use a popular cliché, you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Studies made by others who worked after and independently of Kinsey have validated almost all of his findings.

Does Kinsey "deserve" his own movie? It's an arguable point, but he's certainly one of the 100 most influential men of the 20th century, so this isn't a case of someone being picked from obscurity. And, when it comes to a film, what does it matter how important the man is if the story is compelling? Those who are protesting this movie fear what Kinsey revealed: that Americans - even upright, God-fearing Americans - do things behind closed doors that they would not want their neighbors to know about.

Now would be an appropriate time to make an argument about how screwed-up the American value system is, with violence being viewed as acceptable but sexuality as taboo. But I'm not going to fight the sex battle. It's too big for a short column, and others have written more eloquently about it than I can. However, I am going to tackle an adjunct conflict because it ties more directly into cinema - and that's nudity.

Why are we so frightened by the naked body? (And, in particular, the naked female body?)

If you believe that God is the author of creation, then he is responsible for every curve and nuance of the human body. Why then do fundamentalists consider nakedness to be dirty, inappropriate, lewd, or obscene? Does it make any sense that baring a female breast in public can lead to an arrest?

The naked human form can be beautiful or it can be ugly, but it is what it is. The prime objection to nudity by those who find it offensive is that it can "promote impure thoughts." In the case of titillating nudity or simulated sex, this is unquestionably true, so let's remove those instances from the equation. Yet, when refering to a simple image of female breasts displayed in an unprovocative manner, the objection remains. When a movie shows a woman showering or posing nude for a painter, it is still to be shunned. Why? Again, because such images can "promote impure thoughts."

But perhaps the problem in those cases is the viewer. When I view La Belle Noiseuse, a movie which features more than 90 minutes of a naked Emmanuelle Beart, my thoughts are not impure or unclean. I admire Beart's beauty, but the film is not arousing, nor is it intended to be. Those who condemn this movie on the ground that it "promotes impure thoughts" are making a statement about themselves. Don't ban breasts because they make you uncomfortable or because the sight of them causes you sexual excitement.

Some people are excited by feet. Should we therefore disallow bare feet to be shown in public? Some people are aroused by eyes. Should everyone have to wear reflective sunglasses? Absurd statements? Not in fundamentalist Islamic societies, where virtually every part of the female body (except the eyes) must be concealed. Studies have shown that in this culture, the sight of a woman wearing sandals or in a bathing suit will cause male arousal. Conversely, in societies where breasts are commonly bared, exposure of that portion of the body generates no more arousal than the exposure of feet or midriffs. (Those who are concerned about boys and men being sexually aroused by breasts might consider this information. Hiding something makes it more desirable and stimulating. Repeated exposure dulls the sensation.)

Occasionally, Hollywood seems to "get" this, at least to a point. In the film Beautiful Dreamers, a fact-based indie production featuring Rip Torn as Walt Whitman, a PG-13 rating was awarded, despite full-frontal nudity in a skinny-dipping scene. Likewise, Titanic displayed much of Kate Winslet's body without garnering an R. And Doc Hollywood has a sustained frontal view of Julie Warner's breasts. However, the "rule of thumb" is that a nipple usually equates to an R, regardless of the circumstances. Recently, PG-13 movies are going out of their way to hide breasts. (Ironically, the resultant "can't quite see it" can be more erotic than if the breast was bared in its full glory.) And it's sad that something so natural has been twisted by men into something viewed as perverse.