Nostalgia 101: Skin-a-Max

June 21, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is the fourth in an open-ended series looking back at film-related subjects from 20-30 years ago.

It is the mission of nearly every adolescent boy in life to seek out and locate images of naked women. I'm sure there's a biological imperative involved, but this column is about nostalgia, not science. The Internet has made this quest ridiculously easy. All a curious/horny 13-year old boy has to do is sit at a computer, evade blocking software (piece of cake!), and dial up images that would make some adults blush. Alas, it hasn't always been so simple.

On more than one occasion, Roger Ebert has commented that one of the reasons he and his friends became interested in foreign films during the 1950s is because they represented the best opportunity to appreciate naked female flesh. With the Hays Code regulating the product coming out of Hollywood, it was up to Europe to provide more candid images.

There was no Internet when I crashed through the barrier of puberty, and the consideration of seeing foreign films was not on my radar. There were, however, two alternatives. The first was Playboy magazine. I must candidly state that, at the age of 12 when I purchased my first issue, I did not buy it to read the articles. In fact, I'm not sure I read any of the articles. Obtaining the magazine turned out to be easy at the local 7-11 type convenience store - as long as you strategically selected a high school boy as the cashier. He would smile knowingly as he plopped the magazine into a brown paper bag. There was an old woman there who resembled a toad, but I was smart enough never to try to buy from her.

There comes a point, however, when it's time to graduate from still images to moving ones. Enter Cinemax. In the early 1980s, Cinemax was in its infancy, having spun off of its parent HBO a few years earlier with the mission of airing movies, all movies, and nothing but movies. In the beginning, it showed mainly older films (from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), but it soon had to change its programming in order to compete. So it opted to show current genre films, many of which never made it to HBO. I couldn't say when the cable station started airing "Fridays After Dark," but I remember discovering it around the time that Star Trek II hit cable (1983). "Fridays After Dark" was soft-core porn. The main feature, which typically began around midnight on Friday nights, was either a hard R, an NC-17, or something unrated. There were limits on what could be shown: no erections, no penetration, no close-ups of genitalia... But there was lots of T&A. In fact, the Cinemax programmers aimed for the highest BPM (Breasts Per Minute) count they could obtain. "Fridays After Dark" is the primary reason that Cinemax earned the nickname Skin-a-max.

I can't say I remember many movies I watched under the "Fridays After Dark" banner. The plots were forgettable, but storylines weren't the point. There were women in prison movies, dopey sex comedies, and (of course) the Emmanuelle series. By some accounts, those movies (which were dubbed) have become the all-time most-watched French exports, in large part due to their cable airings. I wonder how Truffaut would feel about that.

Today, watching those late night soft-porn films seems to be a tame and innocent pursuit. For boys of my age who had access to Cinemax, it was a rite of passage, and it helped fulfill the goal of seeing images of naked women. I believe Cinemax still airs "Fridays After Dark," although I'm not sure who the audience is. Teenage boys have other venues for observing naked women. They no longer have to sneak down in front of the TV after their parents are in bed to watch cheesy fare. Somehow, though, half the fun was in the sneaking around.

As for the movies themselves... I think this may have been the first time I became aware of what constituted a really bad film. Not that it mattered, or that I cared at the time.