Less Is More

The best-selling author Alistair MacLean was once asked why none of his novels contained any sex scenes, and I remember his answer as though I read it yesterday:

“It slows down the story.”

He added:  “”I like girls, I just don’t write them well. Everyone knows that men and women make love, laddie – there is no need to show it.”

I’ve never forgotten that maxim, although I haven’t always followed it in my own writing.  Basically, I believe that reading a book can  allow for a little slowdown in the story — unless it’s a breakneck-paced thriller (like those of MacLean).

Movies, however, are a different matter altogether.  Even in love stories, I’ve found the sex scenes to be a pace-killer, and unlike books, where you can take as long as you like to get through them, a movie has to be consumed pretty much in one go.  And unless the movie is all about sex (straight porn or an art movie like Gaspar Noé’s Love  or the depressing 9 Songs ), sex scenes are pretty much unnecessary.  You want the actors to have sex?  Show them together in a bedroom, or near one, have one start to undress the other, and then cut to the morning, showing them still together.  They had sex, we get the point, thirty seconds, tops (Cary Grant and Eve-Marie Saint on the train, in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest ).  Now get on with the story.  Others, of course, may disagree with me — like SFGate.

I know it’s a San Francisco media outlet, but really?

Sex is disappearing from the big screen, and it’s making movies less pleasurable

Ummmm… no.  Oh sure, when you’ve been watching some tired plot rerun from every movie made since 1920, why not have (say) Katherine Heigl bonk Keanu Reeves for five minutes or so?  (Because a. they all use body doubles for the close-ups and b. see above for why a movie shouldn’t need a brake pedal.)  SFGate continues:

Today, whether it’s in “Long Shot” or “Rocketman,” the sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real. You know what happens next, the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?

Well, yes.

Well, no. But let them continue:

When you deprive audiences of a really good sex scene, you’re depriving us of what was once one of the greatest enjoyments of going to the movies, a part of classic cinematic grammar that, when choreographed with sensuality and sensitivity, can be memorable as genuine entertainment – maybe even great art – and not just a lascivious clip on Pornhub.
What’s more, you’re pretending to build a world grounded in realism that is completely devoid of one of the core elements – and joys – of the human experience. It’s as if Hollywood – fixated on families, teenagers and global markets – has given up on American adults as anything more than arrested adolescents interested only in revisiting the distractions of their youth.

Frankly, I can count maybe a dozen really fine sex scenes I’ve seen in movies, but scores more that have actually made me laugh out loud or exclaim in disgust.  Those  scenes — and let me be very clear about this — have occurred in movies that are aimed at “families, teenagers and global markets” —  in other words, where sex scenes are not part of the plot, and therefore completely gratuitous.

And here’s the basic problem.  When the word “adult” became a synonym for “pornographic”, we lost a perfect description for a movie type, aimed at adults per se, that could  contain a decent sex scene — e.g. The English Patient  or A Good Year — and said movies have, over the years, almost disappeared from the studios’ offerings.

What’s also disappeared is the directors and writers who could create a decent sex scene.  Instead, we’ve ended up with cretins like Michael Bay and Jud Apatow, who taken together couldn’t do something that could coax a semi(-woody) from a randy twenty-year-old, let alone from an actual adult viewer (like, say, me).  Considering that I have only watched one Marvel movie (the first Iron Man, and that only because of Robert Downey Jr.), none of the Transformers and ditto the Guardians of the Galaxy, you may consider me well outside the mainstream — and not for the first time, either.

What I want is to watch true  adult movies — as I said, aimed at adults, not porn — with grownup stories, mature actors, (not necessarily “old” — another piece of modern terminology which gets up my nose) and realistic conclusions.  And if a sex scene is an integral part of the story, fine — but it doesn’t have to be graphic.  A good example is the sex- and nude scenes between Alex Baldwin and Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated — a howlingly funny and accurate depiction of sexuality in an otherwise silly movie which was integral to the plot but which, thank goodness, involved grownups and took less than a minute of film time.  (And thankfully, you don’t get to see Meryl’s nude body, but — and this cannot be left unsaid — you do  get to see Baldwin’s horrible hairy ass.  It is very definitely part of the plot, however, and it’s hysterical.)

As with so many things, they used to do it better in the old days — think of any sex scenes in the black-and-white era involving, say, Gary Cooper or Robert Mitchum and their various female co-stars, and you’ll see what I mean.

What we did not need to see was a scene of thrusting buttocks involving James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life  — and thankfully, we never did.  It was all left to our imaginations… even though the two above were, in the terms of today, totally hot.

Much better in our imaginations, I think.

20 comments

  1. I will probably never set foot in a movie theater again and haven’t been in one for about 15 years. Nor do I watch “modern movies” or TV shows. The condition now is unbearable. After hearing people yammer on and on about “John Wick” movies, last weekend we streamed the first one. For about 45 minutes then I turned it off. That was about as much as I could tolerate.

    For reasons I can only imagine, just about everything these days is turning to shit and it causes me to withdraw even further into my hardened shell. People, in general, everywhere, are complete assholes. I can barely tolerate anyone.

    So we have 5 DVD players in the living room and each night at suppertime my wife and I spool up one of the players for an hour or so with old TV show episodes of 1/2 hour and an hour. One has a disc of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from the early 60’s, another has Peter Gunn from the 50’s, and another has a mostly unheard of Charles Bronson series named Man With A Camera from the 50’s. None of these shows are what I would consider classics nor are they flawless but they are tolerable by sensible people. A rarity in the world today.

  2. Alistair MacLean – “It slows down the story.”

    And he would know. I just got a hardcover copy of HMS Ulysses from the UK after wearing out the paperback I’ve had for years. One of my favorites, which could have been a great movie if it were filmed in 1962. Now, there’d be a sex scene added – and I don’t want to think about where that would fit in the plot.

    1. Interestingly enough, in Nicholas Monserrat’s WWII novel “The Cruel Sea” there IS a (long) sex scene because it is very much integral to the story. When they made a movie of the book, the sex was omitted (because 1950s), and the story suffered quite a bit, although the movie was still excellent.

    2. HMS Ulysses was the MacLean that came immediately to mind when I read the first paragraph of this post. Downloaded the Kindle version about a year ago and blew through it in an evening after not not having read it in close to 40 years.
      Sex in adult (not porn) movies and lit is perfectly appropriate, but agree that here it would be out of context and gratuitous. Perfect example to support Kim’s point.

  3. Although perpetual, and massive, sales figures for pornography testify otherwise, sex isn’t really a spectator sport. I recognize the concept of vicarious thrills so I guess it’ll always be with us.

    In serious movies (and books), however, I’m siding with MacLean; it’s a rare adult not familiar with the mechanics so we all know How It Works and that, as you point out, Everyone Does It. For the kids, there’s always the Porky’s genre.

    That said, sublety seems a terribly lost art, never, I fear, to be regained, and Shakespeare, via Polonius, was entirely correct.

  4. In my book, sex not being a spectator sport, a little onscreen sex goes a long way. And it does detract from the story. Also, not being terribly swave & deboner, such movies are a critique of my style if not other shortcomings.
    With stops in between, during a 20-year career Donna Reed went from “Wonderful Life” wife to “Here To Eternity” hooker to high-heeled suburban housewife in “The Donna Reed Show”. Outstanding if not remarkable.
    Years ago while in service I had a first date of sorts with the long-ago childhood girl-next-door. Duty hours were terrible as my 24/7 guard detachment was undermanned. Thus we were in a continuous duty cycle of 8-on/8-off or 8-on/12-off. “Running guard” it was termed. Anyway, we were finally able to dovetail mutual off hours for a drink & flic. A bit disappointed at what the intervening years had wrought but hey – a 2-at-10 may easily become a 10-at-02! “Hitting the Beach” was still an option.
    Drinks went well enough then it was off to a nearby theatre featuring “A Man and a Woman”. Between a great soundtrack, subtitles, a few beers and the sum of the day; I went out like a light. Awoke as the lights went up at the ending. So I was told, not even elbow jabs stopped my snoring much less awoke me. We parted with barely a handshake. No landing that night, just a long and unfamiliar bus ride back to the barn.
    Even years after finally seeing the flic, I still think the Mustang road scenes to be well done.

  5. Well yes, to all of the above, both post and comments. Back in my youth in the 1950’s there was Esquire and then Playboy, some kind of nekked ladies and my running buddy’s dad was a doctor who had some medical books at his house so as pre-teens we would look at the parts in creepy illustrations of things gone wrong.

    It took very little to make us perk up and take notice, as Freshmen in college we read ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ which we considered racy stuff. There was some porno stuff around in 8mm movie that was pure crap and going to a strip club with the tassels and pasties was uncomfortable for me. As time went by Hustler magazine started looking like a medical text. Then porno movies kind of went mainstream for a bit with Linda Lovelace in ‘Deep Throat’ and in the 1980’s my wife who had grown a Catholic school girl and I rented the VCR when the kids were out of the house overnight, we opened a bottle of wine and after the first ten minutes we dozed off because once you’ve seen it, you say ‘that’s really something’ but enough is enough.

    The tease and imagination is so much better and then having a relationship with a real nice person to share all the life stuff with is fantastic, yep – it’s not a spectator sport.

  6. Actually, sex per se CAN be an enjoyable spectator sport — witness the popularity of bedroom mirrors and YouPorn — as long as it’s the ONLY thing on offer. Throw it in with things like a movie plot and it’s an irritant.

  7. Over at another of my fave blogs, the discussion veered into this very topic. Why so explicit all the time?

    I think the natural discretion we have about sex isn’t about being prude or uptight. There’s a sort of inborn sense of it as something intimate and sacred. It’s literally the act of creation, and it’s not embarrassing but it is…private.

    Maybe that’s just my Western Christian upbringing talking, but then I look at other cultures and religions, and we see that even pre-Western contact, there existed, still exist, a level of respect for the intimacy between two people in the act of procreation, whether a child is the result or not. Mileage tends to vary, but even the Samoan girls who feigned their sexual histories and whose fictions made Mead famous, knew their social taboos around sex and exaggerated.

    This desire to show it all, from sex to menstruation to pooping on sidewalks, like it’s no big deal, cuts down humans to the level of animals. Which is what they say we are anyway, nothing more than naked apes, so why pretend we’re anything other than that?

  8. WRT your comment about “adult” movies (non-porn, but simply themes/ideas that appeal to adults) I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past years and what seems to have happened is that “adult culture” (in the sense of people intentionally living “adult” lives of responsibility and maturity) seems to have all but disappeared from modern Western culture.

    Modern society worships and venerates the “youth culture” of pleasure-seeking and avoidance of responsibility to such an extent that a life of hedonism and fantasy is seen as desirable. Movies and television shows that portray marriage, children or establishing a career as an occasion for mourning or sadness (the groom’s buddies saying “It’s all over now, dude!”) seem to be the “norm” these days.

    The mere fact that movies based on comic books are the top-grossing box office hits says a lot – too much (I still have trouble wrapping my head around the thought of college educated adults reading comic books. Seriously? Comic books? )

    Now first off – full disclosure, I’m “only” 57, so I never lived in the 1950’s (Born in late 1961.) But the impression I get is that there was a distinct “adult” culture – in the 1940’s to mid-1960’s. That the notion of a man in his 30’s who is still living like a college student (no career/job, no family, mindless pursuit of short-term pleasure) would be an object of pity, not envy. That the milestones of “adulthood” – Marriage, children, career – were something to be desired, not something to be avoided.

    That seems to be what has become lost in our modern culture. Forget the “40 Year Old Virgin”, it’s the 40 Year Old Teenager (who spends hours playing video games, obsesses over comic books and works at a dead-end job, if he works at all) who seems to have become the modern archetype, at least of men (women still have that pesky biological clock that prevents them from living like teenagers through their fertile years.)

    1. “… the notion of a man in his 30’s who is still living like a college student (no career/job, no family, mindless pursuit of short-term pleasure) would be an object of pity, not envy.”

      Actually, I think such a man would be an object of suspicion in a lot of places.

  9. Thank Gawd!!
    …for 30 years I’ve thought I was the only one who didn’t care for most of this crap and thought it ruined stories in most cases.
    I’m NOT the odd-man out!!

      1. And THAT, Sir, is why I have followed you since your original blog!
        …a light in the darkness, a respite in the wilderness, as it were.

        Keep swinging, Kim.
        The audience is here and more are finding their way every day.
        Pro Patria Vigilans

  10. Didn’t follow the link to the whole story (I worked at the Presidio back in the 90s, never going back to SF), but I have to wonder if SFGate is lamenting the lack of hetero sex scenes, or more “anything goes?”

  11. WRT the SFGATE article on the lack of sex scenes in movies, my guess is that there is another factor at play and that is international distribution. Even “American” movies are distributed worldwide and a significant chunk of profit comes from non-US and non-Europe box office receipts. Many developing and/or Muslim countries have much stricter rules on showing flesh than US and Euro nations, so cutting out the sex scenes makes it easier to distribute worldwide.

    1. Muslim countries don’t allow movies like “Fatal Attraction”, for example — at least, not without serious censorship. The cartoon-like movies like the “Mission Impossible” series, however… as always, follow the money.

      1. I watched “Fatal Attraction” last week and I forgot how damned scary it was to piss off a crazy woman. That was kind of a joke years ago were a married man to stray off the reservation that he might have a jilted woman come boil his bunny. There were some sweaty not very long sex scenes and a few nice shots of Glen Close’s tight body parts and Ann Archer is incredibly beautiful.

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