John Cameron Mitchell, whose second feature, “Shortbus,” opens this week, has justified his use of graphic, unsimulated sex throughout the film by saying it was done as “an act of resistance” against the Bush regime. Other directors usually come up with something about “normalizing sexuality” or “cinematic honesty” in their attempt to work actual sex into what they hope is a mainstream film. Some dismiss it as a cheap gimmick, some say that outside of snuff films it’s one of the last big ideas the movies have, with the potential to say something new; before seeing “Shortbus” for myself, I tended to think it’s the directorial version of leaving the house in sweatpants: you’ve given up. In the last six years (hmm), the number of films featuring unsimulated sex has grown noticeably — is burgeoning on a trend, in fact — and so we thought we’d take a look back at some milestones in real live sex on screen.
1972: “Pink Flamingos”
Debauchery of all flavors is on offer in John Waters’ infamous yuck-fest, and Divine performing fellatio on her on-screen son is, incredibly, not the most outrageous example. For that I would vote for what I hope is the simulated rape of a young woman…by a chicken. Hardly mainstream, Waters gets credit nonetheless for being one of the first if not the first American director to put a sex act in what became a well-known, non-porn feature. That’s the first time I’ve even written “fellatio,” by the way. We’ll see how long that lasts.
1976: “In the Realm of the Senses”
Nagisa Oshima’s film, based on a book recounting true events, caused a huge ruckus in 1976, and was the first explicitly sexual film to lobby hard for arthouse credibility, with some success. John Cameron Mitchell pays dubious tribute to the film with a hilarious reference in his recent “Shortbus.”
The uncut version of this Tinto Brass film included an orgy and several acts of graphic sex. Though none of the principals were engaged in said graphic sex, it’s the first film with a pedigree (written by Gore Vidal) and actual movie stars (Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell) to, as the kids say, go there. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone involved with the film later disowned it, except major backer Penthouse magazine; they felt all right.
1986: “Devil in the Flesh”
This Italian film is often cited as the first major western film to depict unsimulated sex which consists, if you must know, of a blowjob performed by lead actress Maruschka Detmers on co-star Federico Pitzalis.
French director Catherine Breillat could put out a shingle, at this point, for films featuring (incredibly depressing) unsimulated sex, but this one brought her the widest acclaim. “Sex is forever,” the movie poster warns, and if that doesn’t terrify you, check out Breillat’s “Fat Girl” or “Anatomy of Hell.” “Sex is Comedy,” her 2004 film, is something of a misnomer, as I can’t imagine anyone has ever laughed watching a Breillat film, unless it was one of those bitter, French snorts.
The title translates as “fuck me,” but it really means “fuck you” in Virginie Despentes’ sunny road trip flick. Two women (both of the actresses were adult film stars) set out to fuck and/or kill as many men as possible after one is raped and the other witnesses the murder of her pimp. The sex is nasty and probably too close in style to hardcore porn for any viewer with a pulse to keep their wires uncrossed, which is especially disturbing given the film’s themes and outcome. Karen Lancaume, one of the lead actresses, committed suicide in 2005.
2004: “The Brown Bunny”
Chloe Sevigny blah blah blah.
All right, fine, it was the first American film to depict an actual, respected actress going down on a skeevy greaseball. Congratulations.
2005: “Nine Songs”
Michael Winterbottom’s mopey shag-a-thon barely qualifies as a shag-a-thon because the sex was snore city. If, like me, you fast-forwarded through the bands just to see if the next round would be as boring as the last, you already know that the film, far from doing what Winterbottom intended — i.e. to “tell a story which honestly depicts the connection between sexual intimacy and being in love without claiming they’re the same thing” — is not even passable porn.
John Cameron Mitchell’s love letter to New York’s special brand of loneliness features a band of “non-professional” actors (and non-porn stars) engaged in every kind of sex you can imagine, and by that I mean: bad sex, sad sex, funny sex, mean sex, and really, really good sex. Mitchell, by showing us the vulnerability of his characters and the slapstick negotiations that vulnerability can sometimes leads us to, manages to film not just bodies having sex, but people.
Honorable Mention: 1978’s “Germany in Autumn”
This one’s for all the hardcore nerds out there: famed director Rainer Werner Fassbinder gets a nod for saying enough with the metaphors already and actually masturbating on film. Ach du lieber!