Surge in explicit films recalls late '60s renaissance

In the ’60s, at a time when the Western world seemed to have thrown out the rulebook and was hell-bent on remaking itself in novel and exciting ways, a group of Europeans began taking off their tops.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” took it to the next step, featuring what was billed as the first ever full-frontal female nude shot. For a nascent cinematic movement, it was the equivalent of Elvis’ pelvis on Ed Sullivan. By that decade’s turn, a wholesale sexual film revolution was under way, though by 1972 and “Last Tango in Paris” a chaste backlash had already begun.

“The movie frightened off imitators,” Roger Ebert wrote 20 years later. “Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects.”

In the past five years, however, such directors as Catherine Breillat (“Romance”) and Gaspar Noe (“Irreversible”) began traveling similar salacious paths. A number of racy Spanish-lingo films like “Sex and Lucia” and “Y tu mama tambien” became hits, and reminded many that sex can be packaged more thoughtfully — and more enticingly — than the bimbos-and-sax solos formula of old. The past year saw the release of David Mackenzie’s “Young Adam” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers.” Upon returning to “Last Tango” terrain, the latter declared, “An orgasm is better than a bomb.”

Suddenly there’s a plethora of sexually charged indie pics headed for theaters, including Clement Virgo’s “Lie With Me,” Bill Condon’s “Kinsey,” Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” Michael Winterbottom’s “Nine Songs” and John Waters’ “A Dirty Shame.” But with the NC-17 rating traditionally considered a box- office bane, why has sex finally become good for business?

“Clearly there’s a sexual renaissance underfoot and clearly there’s a market for it,” says British producer and distributor Hamish McAlpine, whose Tartan Films released both Breillat and Noe’s films in the U.K. and recently opened a U.S. arm. “All you need to realize is that the films made in the San Fernando Valley outgross all of Hollywood’s output.”

While Hollywood isn’t exactly looking to approximate the output of its step siblings in the porn industry, ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman views the success of such cable shows as “Sex and the City” as proof that “there’s an audience that’s delighted by this kind of (more sexually frank) material.”

But cable’s one thing and the mainstream box office another. The question remains: How big can that audience get if the rating system is still designed to limit viewers?

For an unrated pic such as “Brown Bunny,” the controversy surrounding the film has almost been carefully cultivated. The posters and billboards advertising the film are labeled with a large “X,” even though the MPAA hasn’t used that rating since the introduction of NC-17 in 1990. This is all part of a strategy designed to let the entire world know that no matter what else we think of the film, the last 10 minutes features Chloe Sevingy giving Gallo her close and undivided attention — a fabulously useful marketing tool when the DVD comes out.

“It used to be that a film like ‘Brown Bunny’ would have a tough time in the theaters and a tougher time on video. But thanks to places like Netflix and Amazon and Tower, our DVD release is an event,” says Ryan Werner of Wellspring Media, which is letting loose the “Bunny” domestically.

John Waters, whose sex-addiction farce “A Dirty Shame” is being released with an NC-17 rating — a first for a comedy — feels the distinction remains bad for business because the MPAA refuses to flex its muscles.

“They’re always saying that there’s nothing wrong with an NC-17,” notes Waters, “and I’ll agree with them just as long as they hire some lobbyists to deal with the newspapers who won’t carry advertisement for my film. When Jack Valenti picks up a picket sign and marches in front of the theater that turned down my business, fine. Then I’ll agree that the NC-17 doesn’t hurt.”

Nationwide, according to John Fithian, president of the North American Assn. of Theater Owners, only one major theater company refuses to play NC-17 movies (he would not provide the chain’s name, but Carmike is one family-oriented chains that often refuses to play NC-17 films). He adds the caveat that “all of the other theater owners will say no to certain films that they feel are wrong for their markets.”

Still, he maintains, “our general policy is that we support NC-17 films and want to see more of them.”

His support, however, is often tempered by leasing agreements with the prudish real estate companies who own the malls where many of these theaters are located. That means that while the theater owners have no policy against an NC-17 film, the mall owners do. One example of this is San Francisco’s arthouse Embarcadero Theaters.

There are other problems as well. While many foreign markets, especially European ones, view erotica as just another theater choice, no different from an action movie or a drama, getting people into the seats is another story. With soft-porn flourishing on French and British and Italian television, a little cinematic titillation isn’t enough to sell tickets.

“The two things that don’t travel well are sex and humor,” says producer-distributor Kirk D’Amico, whose Myriad Pictures is handling “Kinsey.” Further limiting is the fact that Britain, a place where American sexuality easily translates, has some of the world’s toughest censorship laws.

One of the content advantages that indies have over more mainstream fare is a lack of corporate ties that, owing to the conservatism of parent corporations, might limit the full utilization of sex as a dramatic element.

“When Kubrick did his Nicole Kidman/Tom Cruise movie, the economics of that project demanded it reach a mass market,” says Urman. “If that’s part of the equation then how could Kubrick, as a director, really use sex to further the story? If you’re going to cross real frontiers and take on real taboos then it helps to be able to show us what you’re talking about.”

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