**This article is about a subject that may not be comfortable for some to read. I have included as little of myself in it as possible, but this is still about my experiences with film. Reader discretion advised**
Months ago, I heard about Emily Browning’s new film Sleeping Beauty. The story followed Browning as Lucy, a girl moonlighting as a prostitute to make some money. The trailer made it look sensuous and very indie. I thought the story sounded interesting and I’ve loved Browning since I saw her in The Uninvited opening weekend back in January 2009. A few months after I got the news about Sleeping Beauty, Browning’s latest film Sucker Punch was released. Another movie I followed from the first publicity still, Sucker Punch flopped and let me down in every way. I was expecting something way more original and empowering than Browning playing a deranged girl pretending to be a really gifted burlesque dancer. I hoped Sleeping Beauty would be the film that would erase the disappointment of Sucker Punch.
The anticipation for Beauty reached a fever pitch last night, when in a fit of over-anxiousness, I managed to watch significant pieces of it. Dubbed in Russian without subtitles, I was so determined to see this movie that I attempted to watch it despite the language barrier. What I soon realized was that the film wasn’t nearly as delicate and interesting as the trailer had made it sound. The plot of the film was true to the trailer, but her interaction with her johns was completely one-sided. The unique nature of her service was that her clients were able to have their way with her while she was drugged unconscious. I attempted to look past this, but the nature of her job was unsettling. Though I have little doubt that writer/director Julia Leigh had it serve as a metaphor for something else, this wasn’t working. This was consenting to men having sex with her while she was in a state in which consent cannot be given. Essentially she was paid to be raped.
All the scenes with her johns were very frank in its portrayal of nudity. Looking back on the poster (shown above) and the ad campaign, it seemed like the nudity was one of the selling points of the film. But, this is far from the first time that sex and nudity were used to sell a product. The saying is “sex sells”, but it really is true. Just look at the poster for December’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, actress Rooney Mara is actually topless in that picture.
In 2003, In the Cut was released. Remember it? I do, but not for the reasons a film should be remembered. In most circles, this is known as Meg Ryan’s first big nude scene. Billed as a romantic thriller, the film bombed as quickly as it reached audiences. Quality of the film aside, In the Cut relied heavily on the draw of Ryan’s mammary glands to get people in seats. It didn’t work. In today’s world of internet and wifi, the urge to sit through a film just to see a few boobies is replaced by websites like Mr. Skin and pornographic sites that have only the “best parts of the movie”. Though those sites populate a sizable portion of online entertainment, studios still insist on letting details of nude scenes slip for promotional purposes.
The biggest example of embracing the flesh in hopes of getting a profit is Showgirls. Released intentionally in NC-17, the film follows Nomi Malone as she ascends from stripper to the next big thing in Vegas showgirls. The film is nowhere near being a masterpiece (in fact, it’s more often laughed at than enjoyed…because it sucks so much.), but it was all about pressing the flesh in a film about pressing the flesh. It also failed to make back its money in theaters. Filled with topless women and lines so god-awful that it hurts, it should have proven that a movie can’t be sold merely on the promise of nudity.
In 2004, Atom Egoyan got into a battle with the MPAA (they rate films). His film Where the Truth Lies was given an NC-17 rating because one particular scene involved a threesome between one female actor and two of her costars (Rachel Blanchard, Kevin Bacon, and Colin Firth). When the appeal to have the film rating lowered failed, it was released unrated rather than make the cuts needed for an R rating. This controversy added to its profile, overshadowing the film which was actually quite good. Other examples of such controversy overtaking the film’s intended appeal include The Brown Bunny, The Last Tango in Paris, and many of the X-rated films of the seventies that have since been rerated as R.
Just a few years after Egoyan’s battle with the MPAA, documentarian Kirby Dick released a documentary titled This Film is Not Rated. In it, Dick studied these and other cases of censorship of nudity in American films.
Some genres are more or less expected to have nudity in their films. Teen/raunch comedies and slasher films seem to need nudity in order to be made. Unfortunately, those films are often so myopic that the film comes and goes from theaters and the audiences’ memories to quickly too make any difference.
About 10 to 15 years ago, Hollywood came up with a way to add more nudity and violence in hopes that the zeitgeist would hold onto a film just a little bit longer. Previous generations were known to watch not just the theatrical version of a film, but when home video like Beta and VHS came into play, people could also watch the Director’s Cut. They then had the option to see the original format and/or the director’s intended version. Less and less, Director’s Cut has been replaced with one simple word: unrated. This gave those who opted for the home release something extra. Not all unrated versions really warranted the label, but the intention was to be more edgy and add more violence and nudity for those who previously enjoyed the film or are watching the film for the first time (A more in depth of this fad can be found here). It got bad a few years back when almost all PG-13 movies were being released unrated. I took a step back by avoiding these films; I would watch it in its theatrical version. I wanted the original film, not some boob filled distraction from the story I remember. But after seeing Fired Up! unrated because I couldn’t find a rentable PG-13 copy, I gave up. Now I’ll watch whatever copy I can get my hands on.
Europe doesn’t share our conservative nature when it comes to nudity in film. Almost all other countries that make films abstain more from violence than nudity. They view the human figure as beautiful and should be recognized as such. Look at ancient civilizations and their sculptures, most of the subjects are naked. It isn’t meant to be pornographic or erotic, it is meant to be artistic and elegant. But in our country, all our statues have people clothed.
That said, nudity will continue be a part of cinema. Certain actors will avoid roles that require it, while others will appear to be bare in every movie they do. Regardless, the hormonal desire to see a film or promote a film on this decision needs to be eradicated. A film should be seen as a whole, not as a vehicle for boobies for younger audiences to see (butts and other parts too, but breasts seem to have the most frequent appearance in films of the three). I don’t condone or encourage such behavior, though I did indulge in it when puberty and the release of Titanic opened a dark rabbit hole. It’s part of growing up in a highly sexualized society unfortunately. It may not be the case in the future, but today kids are told to grow up way too fast, only aggravating the problem.
Some more conservative societies are not letting the rating system carry the burden of such a worry. In states like Utah, persons not involved with the actual film’s production edit films further after their release. CleanFlicks is a company that takes previously released films and removes any item they deem inappropriate. People who want to see a movie, but would prefer to not have violence, nudity, and language can then watch in peace. This process is highly controversial and often ends in lawsuits. But similar to online pornography and illegal music downloading, it will never cease to exist.
Though I understand the desire to remove harsh elements from a film, this is going too far. You can’t enjoy movies with Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue and Martin Scorsese’s frank sense of violence with these heavily censored re-edits. In a sense, the nudity in films is simply that; nudity in a movie. It shouldn’t excite you in a manner other than what the director intended. Nor should it be exploited for personal gratification. Movies are meant to be an experience, a whole greater than the parts that go into it. If a film is playing up the nudity of some scenes while downplaying the artistic merit of the film as a whole, pass. Sleeping Beauty will not be a blockbuster, and many will never even knew it existed. Watch a movie for the movie’s sake. If you want naked people, go somewhere else.