Linda Williams, Chapter 1: “Screening Sex”



Kisses “no longer carry the burden – or the enormous electrical charge – of being the whole of sex that can be seen. The movie kisses of the era before the 1960s sexual revolution were both more infantile and more adolescent than the kisses of today – infantile in their orality and adolescent in their way of being permanently poised on the brink of carnal knowledge” 26.

“What is its role as textual punctuation – as period, comma, question mark, and, most important, as the dot, dot, dot of ellipsis?” 27. Edison’s 1896 film is the first recorded kiss, and Williams describes its necessary theatricality, in which the actors are torn “between the necessary close contact between bodies and the requirement to make that contact visible” 29. It is also like later sex in that it could be called ‘gratuitous’ 29. “What seems to be at stake is a visceral attraction or repulsion on the part of viewers. Fragmentation, repetition, and magnification make possible an anatomization that turns the kiss of The Widow Jones stage play into a culturally new combination of prurience and pedagogy… a new kind of sexual voyeurism unleashed by moving pictures” 30.

Williams goes on to describe “What Happened in the Tunnel,” a screened kiss between a man and a black maid (he thinks he’s kissing her mistress) in the darkened interval of a train going through a tunnel 31. This is an example of a kiss deemed “obscene,” since interracial kisses would not come “on/scene” until much later (think of the threat of the interracial kisses in Birth of a Nation) 31.

Williams next considers the era of the Hollywood Production Code, from 1934 (“when the code began actually to be enforced) to 1966 (when the ratings system took hold) 33. “Eroticism, as George Bataille teaches, can be surprisingly complicit with the law, or the morals, that prohibit it” 34. In the case of Casablanca, the film’s famous song emphasizes that “a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh,” and the film does not aid its viewer in imagining the sexual act that might follow or accompany the kiss 35. Because of the 3-point lighting system so famous in Hollywood cinema, “all white women in Hollywood films glow with a light that works to purify the darker lusts their kisses may evoke” 37. Williams calls the constant interruption of such kisses osculum interruptum, with similar connotations to coitus interruptus 38. If “ellipsis is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a word or words required by strict grammatical rules are omitted… the missing words are implied by the context… Ellipses are especially frequent and felt as ellipses – noticed as dot, dot, dot – when they elide sex acts” 39-40.

“Sexual desire ultimately exists in this, and many other Code-era films so that it may be sublimated to a more purified, ideological and aesthetic ‘good’ – whether the good of the family or, in this case, the good of the American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual pleasure as positive values in themselves have no legitimate, acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges… the special, perverse pleasure of watching sex in movies of this period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for this reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous…” 41.

For Williams, much of the erotic tension comes from the “internal resistance” of the male hero to the kiss in question, such as the one Jimmy Stewart succumbs to in It’s A Wonderful Life 42. Williams draws attention to how the mouth’s function to suck is highlighted in the silent eros of Garbo in Flesh and the Devil 45. The focus on the kiss is a sort of ironic lingering in the phase of the Freudian perversion to avoid showing the obscene, which is actually, for Freud, the normal aim of any erotic encounter 47.

The eros of the kiss lies at least partly in the fact that “unlike so many other se acts that depend on penetration – one convex organ fitting into another concave one – the kiss is a contact in which one can touch the other with the same body parts – lips, tongue, mucous membrane – with which one is touched oneself” 49. (Interestingly, this suggests the fascination with lesbian scissoring in porn.) Williams, in fact, claims that “one reason why women are the great connoisseurs of romantic kisses” may be “not, as has sometimes been suggested, because of an innate female predilection for soft-core, soft-focus romanticism, but because kisses are so potentially egalitarian. There are few other (equipmentless) sexual acts in which a woman can be both penetrator and penetrated” 49. A kiss is a sexual act, but also alludes to one.

Hitchcock seems to “get away” with screening bigger, longer, and more frequent kisses than other Code-era directors 56. Williams points to the scene in Proust when Marcel is dismayed to see Albertine break down into fragments as he approaches her, which is different, she argues, from the cinematic kiss, where the viewer never suffers the intimate fragmentation that the actual kisser would 57. This translates as a “diffuse sensuality” in us, rather than an actual mimic of the kiss 57 (“viewers have responded viscerally, though not necessarily imitatively, to what they see 63). Warhol’s 1963 Kiss was the first of his films to be projected in a theater 58. It consists of 13 kisses, each longer than the last, adding up to 58 minutes total (slowed to a ritardando 16 frames per second). All the kisses are in progress when the camera begins filming, and all but one continue after the camera stops. Warhol wrote that “se is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway” 61. (I like this between the sheets pun.) The film, overall, explores the limits of the kiss, but also disrupts the Hollywood tradition, showing more active and diverse kinds of kissers.

In the end, as the code faded, violence flourished and became a fully American expression, while sex often seemed like “an import item” 64. While violence was always fake, sex could be hardcore (unsimulated) or softcore (faked) 64. “A certain spectacle of violence revealing the aggression to or penetration of one body by another – in the form of various kinds of fights, along with displays of blood, wounds, and even inner organs – has become a normal part of the movies. However, the mainstream has not as easily absorbed a similar spectacle of sex – also often a penetration of bodies – even though in its own exclusive form, cordoned off as the separate genre of pornography, it is arguable the most enduring and popular of all moving-image forms” 64-5. (Interesting to think of Lolita & American Psycho here.) The “ecstatic body ‘beside itself'” is also mirrored in both acts – why should one be simulated and the other not? For Bazin, at least, art must remain in the realm of the imaginary, and sex can unfold in the cinema rather than theater precisely because it is a sort of imaginary space 66. Why, too, should the novel “tell all” if the cinema cannot “show all”?


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