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Screening SexReview - Screening Sex
by Linda Williams
Duke University Press, 2008
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Jan 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2)

In 1899 the Evening World magazine ran an article which said that for the first time in the history of the world it is possible to see what a kiss looks like. It then opined that "...the idea has limitless possibilities." Linda Williams has undertaken an in-depth consideration of these possibilities, and their limits, in her new work, which follows many of the themes and preoccupations of her previous book Hard Core.

Her basic thesis is that as a culture we have begun to develop a cinema-mediated sexual consciousness, and are in a reflexive relationship that both drives and responds to evolving understandings of sexuality, its representation and its expression. What happens on the screen also happens in our bedrooms (or kitchen tables, hot tubs or staircases) and vice versa -- both what we do and how we think about it. She charts this over the past century, although the preponderance of the book is concerned with the last forty years. She also covers a range of film genres, including the overtly pornographic, the soi-disant artistic, the cult and the mainstream.

She intersperses a deep understanding of film and cultural criticism, often founded in a feminist critique, with more personal insights and readers may be reminded of their first exposure to sex on the screen (although it might have been possible to discuss both television and video a little more). It becomes possible to conjecture how we learn to kiss by watching Clark Gable clinch Vivian Leigh, or that we learn both to experiment with and accept the sex we see on the screen.

Particularly interesting sections include her examination of the notion of the gaze (which is often seen to male), portrayal of women and gay sex, although it may be noted that she does not deal with questions of race in any great detail. In looking at (pardon the pun) gay sex, she devotes substantial space to Brokeback Mountain which tried to portray love as much as sex. When she reviews the representation of women she is concerned with both sexuality and sexualization. There is also a theme in which she seems to suggest that the history of the representation of sex in the cinema has parallels with an individual's evolution. It may begin with sneaked kisses and backroom sniggers, and there may be a period of overt declarations of identity, often associated here with graphic presentations of what she calls the "hydraulics of sex". It seems there may be an adolescent need to display and shock -- sometimes this may involve contorted positions particularly suited to a rather invasive camera angle, or an emphasis on anatomical size that most of us (perhaps fortunately) do not possess. It may be that this was a stage our culture had to go through and it is to be hoped that this rather bleak and aggressive portrayal, often devoid of love or eroticism may then give way to a more mature, more adult, more satisfying and richer experience.

Williams would not like to conflate nudity per se with sex and it becomes significant to ask at some point not so much what you can portray on the screen, for now we have mainstream films with real rather than simulated sex, with erections and penetrations, with cunnilingus and fellatio, with close-up and inside as well as money shots, but rather what is necessary to portray. What is the point? -- in the most sensible and straightforward interpretation of the question. How does the representation of sex on the screen, in a particular film, add to our engagement with the story or the characters? How, if it does not sound too pompous, does it enrich our experience of the film and our understanding of our selves? Perhaps it doesn't, perhaps it does. It just seems important to ask the question. There is the related issue of real rather than simulated sex and what is and how far is something a representation when it is real? Would we draw the line and real violence, although it happens in the real world? Killing real people, perhaps? Would we applaud or condone child abuse? Why are we assured that "no animals were injured in the making of this film"? Is there confusion in speaking about simulations and documents in the same way? Can we support Bazin's argument, perhaps ad absurdo, that if we can be shown unsimulated sex, we can be shown unsimulated violence? This also brings to mind Laurence Olivier's oft-quoted remark to the Lee Strasberg Method-influenced Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, "Have you ever considered acting?" Are we watching actors, performers or exhibitionists?

It would seem that the truly erotic is a difficult note to hit; it is all too easy to be dull and boring or laughable and ridiculous. Williams explores the questions of romance, sex and sexuality -- and they very rarely seem to be the same thing. It is particularly important for her to look to the future, as well as the past, again seeing cinematic representation as both a mirror and a sign post; indicating both where we are and where we are going. This may be the more lasting legacy of the book.

It has been suggested that clothing is more erotic than nudity and that the imagination is more engaging than frankness, and Williams concludes by saying that the carnal knowledge in which we share on the screen "never fully reveals the scratch we imagine "it" to be, but the itch that keeps us scratching".

This is undoubtedly an important book in an under-researched area. It may not really appeal to the general reader but will prove interesting and informative for students of film and in related areas of cultural studies. It is well-researched, thoroughly documented and referenced and written in an accessible but still scholarly manner.

© 2009 Mark Welch

Mark Welch, British Columbia, 2008.


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