Those of us who haven't already come to terms with it must: Someday, somewhere, we will be faced with a full-on view of Lindsay Lohan's snatch. Don't worry it won't be in a movie theater. It'll be on the other end of a hyperlink in an e-mail emblazoned with the acronym "NSFW," or blearily ink-jetted onto a piece of paper crumpled up at the foot of your teenage brother's bed, or sweet mother of Joseph on your dear old grandmother's computer screen the day she's unfortunate enough to perform her first-ever Google search on the phrase "that Herbie girl." It is a sad, sad truth in this modern age that LiLo's private parts have become so un-private; savvy parents have begun to incorporate them into their birds-and-the-bees PowerPoint presentations, abstinence instructors are seeing exponential increases in their non-Christian enrollment and Tara Reid's integrity rating has, by default, climbed up into the single-negative digits.
It wasn't always this way. Some of us are old enough to remember a more humble time let's call it 1992 when we actually went to the movies for a glimpse of the forbidden: namely, a zoom shot of Sharon Stone's crotch. The distinction may seem a subtle, not entirely more-appealing one, sure. But once you figure in the creepily lit police-interrogation set that looks like an empty swimming pool, the Nordic-white PVC wardrobe and the horny focus-puller's exorbitant, union-mandated salary, you begin to realize that there's a huge difference between a starlet who approves her naughty bits for mass consumption via a major motion picture and the one who orchestrates a flashing while hobbling out of the backseat of a Mercedes-Benz.
What happened? When did 20-year-olds with a sixth-grade reading level decide to give away for free what generations of actors before them worked so hard to demand top-dollar – or at least a butt double – for? It's easy (for print columnists, at least) to blame the Internet, what with the increasingly indistinguishable paparazzi blogs and YouTube porn variants that pop up as quickly as flies at a steer-breeding convention. (Never mind that the turnaround time on a dirty cell-phone video is significantly shorter than the time it takes to release dreck like Just My Luck.) Or maybe the culprit is the box-office success of the dreaded PG-13 rating, whose no-skin guidelines have forced mainstream movies to be more demure than ever. More likely still is the corrupting influence of inane Dave Matthews lyrics on the impressionable, pre-teen Mousketeers of the '90s: "Hike up your skirt a little more and show the world to me" was a bad pick-up line, not a mandate, girls.
But the fact the movies are no longer an outlet for true eroticism remains the fault of the movies themselves. After the sleazy, cocaine-drip rush of Basic Instinct, flesh purveyors Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas had nowhere left to go but Showgirls, a film whose unintentional camp pleasures effectively annihilated its valiant efforts to make a mature statement on adult sexuality. (That statement, incidentally, was "Look! Boobies!") Following the lead of great sexual outlaws throughout history – Oscar Wilde, Louise Brooks, Janet Jackson – the entire genre of erotic film retreated underground, overseas or, in Hollywood, back into the closet.
Like a bad lay, what forward momentum there's been in the industry lately has been lurching and tentative, but not without incidental pleasures. Closer offered the curious spectacle of Julia Roberts trying to spit out a description of Jude Law's spunk, not to mention the most awkwardly clinical pole dance in history, courtesy of the still-shellshocked-from-Star Wars Natalie Portman. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers garnered some press attention and a somewhat sizable cult, one presumably made up of French college students who are turned on by licking crusty eye pus and affixing photos to their genitalia.
The English-speaking indie world remained a refuge, albeit one plagued by a sort of schizophrenic nymphomania. The sexathons of Shortbus, 9 Songs and The Brown Bunny all subscribed to the notion that real live penetration was the last unconquered frontier in cinema, and while the first two at least presented their hook-ups in an exuberant, non-judgmental fashion, their casual matter-of-factness managed to extinguish the charge you get from great erotica, when the big sex scenes are preceded by a certain amount of anticipation, foreshadowing and heavy petting. Both films provided yards of eye candy for straight women and gay men, at least but it was the all-important foreplay that was MIA. The Brown Bunny, by contrast, was all a come-on, if sitting around in silence in a van for 80 minutes is your idea of first base. Knowingly or not, Vincent Gallo's opus of self-love took its cues from the anti-sex subgenre perpetrated by the French (Irreversible, Baise Moi, Pola X, Twentynine Palms), dour, inadvertently puritanical films in which flesh is only shown to remind us that it can be violated.
To those searching for a touchstone, it's depressingly clear that five years after the fact, America is still waiting for its own Y Tu Mamá También. Setting out to give his teenage son a correlative to the bug-eyed, jizz-obsessed antics of American Pie, director Alfonso Cuarón revealed that behind every "friends forever" Porky's-style buddy comedy are two best buds who just want to pork each other. Ignoring the conventional wisdom that movies about sex cannot themselves be sexy, he managed to entertain and titillate while actually saying something about class, lust and the fine line between friendship and desire.
In fact, the best recent films of any MPAA rating all seem to share the notion that with strong characters comes even stronger attraction: Think of the delirious heights Mulholland Drive reached when Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts went from lovers-in-subtext-only to unlocking their own weird Pandora's box ("Have you ever done this before?" "I don't know"). Hilary Swank's scene with Chloë Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry in the shadow of a bleak Midwestern factory managed to evoke the thrill of two people navigating territory so uncharted, even they didn't quite understand it. That Sevigny's character probably knew her beau was packing rubber only made the scene hotter: Here were two people who wanted each other so badly, they weren't going to let something as cumbersome as gender get in the way.
In art as in life, you never forget your first time: Is it any surprise that the breakout actors who put out in these films have almost all gone on to large (and largely sexless) Hollywood productions? The casting-couch myth may not be as pervasive as it once was, but there's no denying the fact that randy, mostly male mainstream directors have done their window-shopping in the red light district of Indiewood. While for Swank this has meant undergoing a big-screen spaying (has she even had sex since Boys Don't Cry?), at least we can count on Watts, Sevigny, Gael García Bernal and now Maggie Gyllenhaal to quite literally keep the flame alive. When a performer imprints herself on your brain as Gyllenhaal did in Secretary by gleefully delivering a memo on all fours the last thing you want is for her to retreat to the domain of the Helpful Inner-City Teacher, the Caring Suburban Mom or the High-Powered Lawyer (otherwise known as the tragedy of Michelle Pfeiffer). Even in the films in which Gyllenhaal doesn't thrill at the sight of a riding crop, she exudes sexuality: It's hard to picture any of the other Quietly Suffering Wives in World Trade Center actually deigning to do the nasty for reasons other than patriotic reproduction. In an industry that produces images less racy than a Viagra ad, we'll continue to count on women like her to smuggle in some Spanish fly.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org