Linda Williams, Chapter 2: “Screening Sex”



Williams begins by describing sex in foreign films: Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1959) and Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) both “portrayed gang rapes of young virgins” 69. “To screen a dramatic simulation of (coerced) genital sex was a very different thing from reading about that, or any kind of sex, in a novel. The power of impression derived not only from the vividness of seeing real bodies in acts and positions that were still unspeakable in polite American society, but also from seeing them magnified several times over” 69-70. The images lost focus in Wiliams’ mind, “to suggest the girl’s own loss of consciousness, even an ultimate loss of self, at the still unseen moment of genital penetration,” though in reality, they remained clear, “penetrating the initial distance between the camera and the girl… simulat[ing] a kind of rape” 70. Williams attributes this melting to the shameful awareness of her own bodily response to the films at the time.

The “carnal knowledge” film offers, however, is not immediate – it “does not necessarily come as a unique identification with any one body on the screen, but as a series of mediated exchangeds between our bodies, what Vivian Sobchack calls ‘the film’s body,’ and the bodies on the screen” 75. “Images of bodies taking sensual pleasures in one another invoke both our more distant senses of sight and hearing and our more proximate senses of touch, taste, and smell” 75. Williams wants to focus as much on sound as sight to explore the way American movies began to toe the line between showing it all and still concealing “it” by being “visually reticent” 75, 78. For years, Hollywood cinema remained more comfortable speaking the language of sex than showing it – with words like vagina, orgy, and virgin 77. (Her examples include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, & Carnal Knowledge).

In The Graduate, “instead of showing the quality and kind of sexual relations that Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson enjoy, the film thus chooses to extend and thematize the initial war between illumination and darkness… to concentrate on the before preparations and the after dressing and departures, never the during of sex” 80. In Christian Metz’s terms, this is “a bracket syntagma: ‘Brief scenes given as typical examples of a certain order of reality but without temporal sequence, often organized around a concept'” 80. (Versus Chantal Ackerman.) “It is precisely in these lyrical montages – montages in which music amps up and narrative slows down – that a palatable form of carnal knowledge first found its way into mainstream American film” 83. Music and sex become inextricably linked (“Hollywood’s new practice… would be to situate the spectacle of sex as an affectively controlled interlude distanced by the effect of editing and music” 84) and when music is removed to allow the sounds of sex to be heard, it is another definite shift in screening sex 83. (See also Midnight Cowboy, 1969, on male prostitution and threatened masculinity).

Williams goes on to describe exploitation films (“any low-budget movie with a topical bent aimed at social problems not treated in the mainstream”) and the development of sexploitation films (“homegrown soft-core American sex films… to exploit so-called adult situations, and, above all, to expose more female flesh than could be seen in a mainstream film”) 88-9. “Sexploitation producers were so terrified of resembling hard-core pornography – and they did constantly skirt prosecution for obscenity in their vulnerable position outside the Code – that they would frequently displace the energy of genital coupling into a more generalized orgasmic abandon of the whole female body… jiggling breasts… verge on the clinically hysterical” 91. Finally, blaxploitation films cropped up in response to the Code’s prohibition of miscegenation on screen: “Taboos of interracial sex grew out of an American history that has covertly permitted white men sexual access to black women and violently forbidden black and brown men access to white women… generated taboo sexual fantasies with an important purchase on the American sexual imagination” 92. For example, Sydney Poitier and the fame of other famous black actors “seemed to have been purchased at the very price of his sexuality” 92. “Blaxploitation – the overt exploitation of racialized sex and violence – would prove the next logical step… launched its initial cycle through the sexploitation of supervirile black male bodies” 93. “Sweetback primes our anticipation of the vestigially taboo act of interracial intercourse while playing peekaboo with the male organ that would enact it” 97. “While white critics tended to begrudgingly admire the crowd-pleasing fabulation of the black man’s revenge on ‘whitey,’ while simultaneously wincing at its crass overstatement, for once the more important critical commentary occurred within the black community,” including Huey Newton, who admired its radicalism 99. In response, Lerone Bennet Jr. wrote in Ebony that it in fact simply created a counter-stereotype to Uncle Tom. This is “the phobic stereotype of the black rapist who cannot control his slavering desire for white women and the counterphobic one of the kind, gentle, and asexual Uncle Tom” 101. “The less fiercely independent Blaxploitation films to follow the trail blazed by Sweetback would make a point of delivering something a little more like ‘the black tradition of spontaneous sexuality’… ‘the lushness, the beauty, and the incredible variety of black flesh'” 103.

“The final location for the depiction of carnal knowledge outside the mainstream of American film in the sixties is the avant-garde” 104. “A remarkable number of the films discussed in this chapter depict sex performed for audiences within the film narrative,” including a camera in Warhol’s 1968  Blue Movie 105.

“The temporal flow of this sex, although not without an occasional ellipses at the seemingly arbitrary end of each roll of film, differs radically in duration and explicitness from any other… If it were possible to have a degree zero of sex in movies, this is it. No edited montages, no superimpositions, no musical interludes attempt to stand in for the always elusive orgasmic moments of pleasure. Nor does the scene build to a dramatic climax of money shots. Yet Warhol does take his cue aesthetically from the blunt and often matter-of-fact older blue movies he so much admired. These films are often so haphazard in their orchestration of unfaked sex acts that they, too, neglect to offer dramatic climaxes and thus, screened today, often have an uncanny realism. As we saw him do with kisses, Warhol simply shows the act with an unblinking, unprobing, unprurient eye although without maximally visible close-ups… The real payoff of his film turns out to be the postcoital and emphatically domestic intimacy…” 110

The chapter ends with the wonderful observation that Benjamin nearly eludes Mrs. Robinson’s advances in The Graduate with the question, “Would you like to go to the movies?” 110.

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