A Brief History of Real Sex on Screen (Well, Without the Porn)

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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.”

1979: “Caligula”
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.

1999: “Romance”
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.

2000: “Baise-Moi”
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.

2006: “Shortbus”
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!

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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