B-Movies Extended: Eroticism vs. Porn

She-Hulk XXX2

On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, tottering slowly and surely into its 118th episode, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I discussed the huge blockbuster Iron Man 3 (which made over $175 million over the weekend), and three ultra-sexy movies, Aroused, Kiss of the Damned, and She-Hulk XXX. Aroused is a brief documentary feature about transforming famed hardcore actresses into artistic nudes for a photography project, Kiss of the Damned is a loving homage to smutty Eurotrash vampire flicks of the 1970s, and She-Hulk XXX kind of speaks for itself. Over the course of our discussion, Bibbs and I noted the difference between a film that is outright pornographic and a film that is actually erotic. This conversation extended into Bibbs' B-Movie recommendation for the week, Belladonna's piece of hardcore reality porn with the unfortunately crass title of Spontaneass. The conceit of Spontaneass was that a group of friends (all workers in the porn industry) got together to film a casual afternoon, and left the camera running while the conversation turned to sex, the friends all became increasingly aroused, and eventually engaged in a spirited and unplanned orgy. Bibbs noted that Spontaneass was superior to much porn because it focused less on the usual close-ups and mechanical body pumping of adult features (although it does do that), and allowed the slow build-up – the actual sexual tension – to build.

In a world that is rife with pornographic images (thank you, the internet), it's actually rare for a film, pornographic or otherwise, to focus on actual eroticism. Most porn these days is relegated to brief clips online – usually played without setup or scenario – which are devoted to a single sexual act. When someone does bother to make a feature film, well, it can often turn out like She-Hulk XXX, that is; a weak story on which to hang random sexual activities on, all featuring familiar pop culture costumes wrapped around badly-acting hardcore actors and actresses. With all due respect to Chyna as a model, athlete, and professional wrestler, she's just not much of an actress. Something like She-Hulk XXX exists only as a piece of costume fetish porn, made for men who have always wanted to see She-Hulk and The Invisible Woman get it on. Or  She-Hulk and Hawkeye, which is a sex scenario, I think, that even poorly-written online slash fiction hadn't gotten to yet.

She-Hulk XXX

Sexuality on camera is a no-brainer and is easy to film. Point a camera at a nude person in almost any scenario, and you've brought up sexuality. Heck, many high school students are taking pictures of themselves and broadcasting them to other cellular telephones in the vicinity. Instant gratification sex has only become more instant thanks to advances in technology. Getting sexuality on camera is now more common than any other topic. Well, other than cute cats. But even in the days before the internet, porn and softcore smut were everywhere in video stores and newsstands, and William Bibbiani and I once even wrote a loving paean to Skinemax movies. In that article, we pointed out that on-screen sexuality was given a bit more time to breathe than in their hardcore cousins. True, sex scenes are typically presented in movies as miniature intermissions to the action, wherein the attractive stars can take a breather and grind into one another for two or three minutes, but in Skinemax movies, those intermissions were the raison d'être of the film entire. Hence, the sex scenes were given a lot of lead-in, a lot of set-up, the actual scenario was important.

That's the vital missing element from a lot of pornography, and the one element that, I think, separates straightforward mechanical porn from something that is more elegantly erotic: Scenario. True, it can be sexy to watch a couple have sex, but who the people are, where they are having sex, why they are having sex, the release of sexual tension, those are the erotic elements that elevate mechanic porn into the realm of cerebral arousal. Porn goes straight for the crotch. Erotica goes for the crotch by way of the mind, and maybe even the heart.

Look at something like Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Showgirls is a notorious (and notoriously enjoyable) 1995 bomb about rival strippers in a hyper-charged Las Vegas. The film is rated NC-17, and features acres of bared flesh, dozens of nipples, and no small amount of pubic hair. Bisexual cat women growl and flirt, and the lapdances/sex scenes are so frantically energetic, you wonder if poor Nomi Malone is having some sort of attack. This is not a world of sexual tension, or even sexuality. This is a weird polished world inhabited by women who clearly only exist as masturbation fantasies for screenwriter and sleazy ogre Joe Eszterhas. Showgirls represents the primary example of how a lot of people consider Hollywood to view sexuality. Women are not complex human being with emotions and dreams, but rivals in sexuality. Indeed, a lot of the Eszterhas cannon (Jagged Edge, Flashdance, Sliver, Jade, Basic Instinct) have a kind of potboiler approach to sex, wielding breasts the same way Michael Bay wields explosions.

Showgirls

Now look at something like Atom Egoyan's Exotica from around the same time, 1994. That film is darkly sexual, and feature many incredibly hot scenes of strippers – just like Showgirls – but Exotica is far more interested in the emotional journey surrounding the sexy women we hold in high esteem. Strippers in general behave like fantasy objects, but Exotica bothers to explore how a stripper and her boyfriend must ultimately relate through the fantasy/client privilege; There is a divide between the fantasy and the reality, and there are levels of sexiness to both. Showgirls is only interested in the fantasy. Exotica has a keener eye about real life sexuality vs. mere pornographic fantasy.

Outright sexuality is rarely exploited in mainstream feature films, and it's rare that a big-budget studio product will feature anything outright sexy anymore; could you imagine if a PG-13-rated superhero blockbuster featured just one pair of incidental breasts in a non-sexual situation? It would cause an uproar. When sex is dealt with in mainstream Hollywood features, it's either something that is all-too-self-consciously-gimmicky like Love and Other Drugs, it's a cheap potboiler like Atom Egoyan's Chloe, it's a an effective and wicked satire of teen hedonism culture like Spring Breakers, or it will be a pointed rare exception made by a well-known auteur; I re-watched Stanley Kubrick's 1999 Eyes Wide Shut just the other night. True depictions of actual emotional, cerebral eroticism are all but absent from both porn and mainstream Hollywood.

Chloe

Luckily there are places you can find eroticism, although you typically have to go to either your local indie/arthouse, or, oddly enough, to softcore made-for-cable cheapies. Or to the 1970s, during the brief period when porn was almost art. Filmmakers like John Cameron Mitchell, Ang Lee, Catherine Breillat, Harmony Korine, Larry Clark, and even Lars Von Trier have all made films that deal with the bare and base and practical everyday application of sex, and presented their sex scenes as being not only vital to the narrative, but actually built to rather than just presented. Not all of those films are erotic – Von Trier tends to make dour tragedies – but they at least have an erotic vibe.

Some Good Ones:

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To point out one of the best erotic films from 1970s era, I have to recommend Radley Metzger's Score from 1974. A bisexual film with hardcore sex scenes, Score is about a predatory older couple who aim to seduce a younger couple who are visiting, wife for wife, and husband for husband. There is only one extended sex scene in Score, but the entire film took its time getting to it. Metzger was a man who knew how to build tension. The 1999 lesbian drama Aimee & Jaguar had one of the first “It's my first time” sex scenes in recent memories. I am very fond of the cheap 1995 exploitation monster movie Stormswept, which featured a demon that made people spontaneously horny, and caused them to engage in all kinds of sexual activities, and then deal with the consequences. For a stupid and cheap softcore sex film, it's sexy and thoughtful. These are all films that use sexual tension rather than just sexuality.

Anyway, it was just a thought. Both Bibbs and I pointed out that the build-up to the actual sexual act (in movies as in life), and the constant mounting of will-they-or-won't-they tension can be far more delicious than the actual sex. It's the most compelling part of a sexual narrative, and it is often eschewed or ignored entirely, even in the world of hardcore smut. If you can find that one movie that does allow sexual tension to build, cherish it. They are, rather unfortunately, rare.  


Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List