Stretching this documentary on sex in cinema over four nights primarily to pair its original production with movies like “Boogie Nights” and “Spanking the Monkey,” IFC’s “Indie Sex” provides an intriguing snapshot of where we are and how we got here without delivering much depth. Doc’s loosely divided into four chapters — “Censored,” “Taboos,” “Teens,” “Extremes” — but there’s an arbitrary quality to the thematic demarcations, and despite three dozen talking heads, some of them keep turning up with astonishing frequency. That said, the documentary’s a worthy endeavor, if only to remind us how old, recurring and inevitable the sex-in-movies “controversy” truly is.
The opening installment does a reasonably good job of setting the table for what follows, chronicling the rise of the Hays Code in the 1930s, the Legion of Decency inveighing against movies and, eventually, the establishment of the MPAA ratings in the 1960s. Along the way, there’s rare footage of an excised nude swimming scene in the 1930s “Tarzan,” an examination of how attempts to censor invariably help create taboo sensations like “Deep Throat,” and a look at how movies in the ’40s and ’50s employed a “secret language” to convey all the salaciousness they couldn’t depict graphically.
The next three hours over as many nights, alas, could easily be pared down to roughly half that time — the main points are how the blockbuster mentality has overtaken Hollywood since the mid-1970s, leaving less room for risque mainstream movies, and the far greater boldness European cinema exhibits in dealing with matters of sexuality.
Multiple actors and filmmakers lend their thoughts to the discussion, though critics ultimately seem to garner the lion’s share of screen time, with Jami Bernard chiming in so often she practically merits her own credit alongside directors Lisa Ades and Lesli Klainberg.
Strictly for cinephiles, the overall exercise does provide an opportunity to appreciate the work of various directors — from John Waters to David Lynch, David Cronenberg to France’s Catherine Breillart — but after night two, much of what’s shown feels like a recap of what has gone before.
The principal exception would be the portion of part four devoted to what’s described as “the final frontier” — actors having sex on screen, in non-porn settings. Unfortunately, the various pundits don’t really lift the issue to the next level by articulating whether this is truly necessary or merely a stunt.
The one theme that does come through loud, clear and with lamentable repetition is that filmmakers will always continue to push against boundaries to provoke, enlighten or simply shock — a dynamic that has yielded a pushback in every era, though seldom with any sense of that historical context from the forces crusading against filth or on behalf of piety.
It’s an excellent point, and one that needs to be made publicly from time to time — though frankly, on IFC at midnight, one suspects such a revelation represents little more than preaching to the choir.