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A revealing look at sex in cinema.
A fascinating series of documentaries from the Independent Film Channel, Indie Sex pretty much sums up exactly what it is in one sentence: a documentary about sex and independent cinema. Ah, truth in advertisement. Refreshing for a change, wouldn't you agree?
Facts of the Case
Made up of three documentaries focusing on sex in cinema and its effects, controversies and value, Indie Sex compiles footage from some of the most memorable and critically acclaimed films over the last century that challenged our notions of sexuality in film. Coupled with interviews from actors, writers, directors, and film critics, the documentary takes an in-depth examination into notions of sex, what can be shown on film and why, and how the cinema as an art form has grown and developed over the years in its languages addressing issues of sex on film.
When Indie Sex presents itself as an in-depth examination about sex in cinema, the key words here are "in-depth." Get it? Sexual innuendos aside, make no mistake: Indie Sex is like a three-hour orgasm, with full-on sex, nudity, leather, nakedness, and practically every fetish and perversion ever captured on camera. Viewer discretion advised, to say the least—sex is front and center here in every way, shape, position, fetish,and form. There is a method to the madness, however; behind all the gyrating, sweaty naked people getting it on lays a thoughtful dissertation on both the history of sex in cinema and its influence on the art form worthy of serious academic examination for the film nerd.
The first feature, "Censored" starts square at the beginning, laying out the early days of cinema in North America and laying out its development path to the modern day in relation to sexuality on screen. The early roots of the motion picture were often little more than small peepshow clips and Vitagraphs of dancing, running, and frolicking, showcasing the human forms (most often the female). The silent film days and early days of sound ("pre-code") were surprisingly explicit in their depiction of sexuality, leading to a conservative backlash during the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in the first of numerous reforms to the studio system. After the introduction of the 1930 Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), limiting what could and could not be shown on the screen, Hollywood began the slow decline into regulation and censorship in Hollywood of subject matter deemed "inappropriate." Simultaneously, with sex in film becoming forbidden, stag films grew in popularity. Mainstream filmmakers struggled for decades to express their creative ideas and visions within these rules, developing a code of metaphor and allegory to express sexuality during this time, men lit an awful lot of cigarettes for women with deep longing in their eyes, if you get my meaning. Meanwhile, in Europe, neorealism and sexual expression in cinema got down and dirty, and once competition from television and post-war depression set in, filmmakers soon recognized the profitability of good ol' nakedness. On it goes; a film review is not the place to go into any further detail on the subject, as entire books could (and have) been written. "Censored" will be old hat to anyone up on the history of cinema or a first-year film student, but for the casual observer the first installment of Indie Sex makes for indispensable study.
"Teens" targets specifically the development of cinema in relation to teenagers throughout the decades and the depiction of sex therein. During the Baby Boom, studios quickly realized the profitability of creating low-budget films to target those with disposable incomes. Unfortunately, teen films inevitably must deal with sexuality, for it is the very definition of being a teenager. Showcasing seminal coming-of-age films, "Teens" examines fifty years of teenage-oriented cinema from the cautionary to the extreme: Splendor in the Grass, the romping beach party films of the 1960s, Porky's, American Pie, the works of John Hughes, Welcome To The Dollhouse, But I'm A Cheerleader, Kids, Thirteen, Fat Girl, and everything in between. Despite the risky-sounding subject matter, "Teens" is the most restrained of the three features in both tone and hardcore on-screen imagery, focusing on how the expression of sexuality for teenagers has slowly developed and loosened over the years to allow ruminations on homosexuality, disease and into the proliferation of cyberspace and other topical elements. A good feature, but the other two are better.
"Extremes" is relatively self-explanatory, showcasing the groundbreaking films that pushed the envelope in terms of what could be expressed on the screen throughout the decades. These are the big ones; the films that really got critics' panties in a bunch, and started up discourse that lasted years, even decades. During the Sixties, North America lagged something terrible behind the rest of the cinematic would in terms of what could be shown, and much of the early influential films came from France, Italy, Japan, and so on. America soon caught up, pushing the oeuvre right in the pants, and once we got going, there was no slowing down. "Extremes" explores cinema and sexual expression as two sides to the same coin, both pushing the other into new realms: bondage, kink, homosexuality, domination, perversion, and everything else imaginable. After all, if we take cinema to be an art form, this is the perfect forum to be exploring sexuality. Films touched upon in this section include Lolita, Midnight Cowboy, Myra Breckenridge Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Last Tango in Paris, The Night Porter, Caligula, 9½ Weeks, and onwards to full on-screen penetration between actors in Shortbus.
One argument Indie Sex makes (and makes well) is the assertion that sexuality has been intimate with cinema from the first moment man picked up a camera. Indie Sex digs up some astonishing examples of early silent stag films and pornography that are shocking in their explicitness, even by today's standards. As documentaries go, Indie Sex is thoroughly nonobjective in its examination of sexuality in cinema—indeed, it wants more, wants more cinema to push the envelope and challenge viewers. It is an old debate—most of the civilized world has far more liberal views on expressing sexuality on film than in North America, and conversely, more conservative views on expressing on-screen gore and violence. In that regards, we are a bit backwards from the rest of the planet, still very uptight on issues of sex in our mainstream films. It falls to independent cinema (hence the documentary title) to constantly push audiences and the industry to tackle sex in cinema, either willingly or unwillingly.
Consider the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema: we go into the dark and watch the lives of others. Indie Sex nails this primal truth right on the head, and nails it good, nudge nudge. Kinkiness aside, even the prudish among cinema aficionados should find genuine value in this thoughtful and provocative discourse on sexuality in film. As documentaries go, the issue is a bit one-sided, but the argument is forceful and sound. Sex is a part of being human, and art explores this thoroughly. Cinema is not granted immunity from this. The most memorable and controversial films of the last fifty years are often the very films that tackle sexuality in a real and direct way, much to the horror of the public at large at the time. A filmmaker pushes the envelope, and though they may suffer for their art through backlash and controversy, the envelope stretches out just a bit, allowing another filmmaker to come along and explore just a little bit further. In this fashion, the art form is always expanding, always pushing outwards, always exploring new ways to express itself. If you come away with nothing more than this while watching Indie Sex, the documentary will still be an invaluable and thought-provoking experience.
From a technical standpoint, Indie Sex is the expected quality one would assume a made-for-television documentary would be: a nice letterboxed transfer, but one that varies based on the source material compiled. Interviews look sharp and are recorded well with clear dialogue, good picture sharpness, acceptable black levels, and no noticeable defects or transfer irregularities. The sound comes in a simple stereo Dolby presentation only, but does the job well enough.
The first disc of this two-disc set contains the three main features. The second contains the supplementary material, the first of which is a director's cut of "Taboos," a 30-minute feature created back in 2001 discussing John Waters, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg and their stigmatic view on sex in cinema, as a precursor to Indie Sex the series. A rough sketch of the three documentaries to come, it makes a nice companion piece, but is not as structured or thought out as the main features. An extended (and graphic) stag scene from "Censored" is included, which mostly consists of scenes too explicit to make the primary cut.
We also get an interview gallery with a handy "play all" feature, organized based on subject matter: What was the first sex scene you ever saw? What would you like to see on screen? Women as sex objects. Celebrity sex tapes. In essence, these are extended and deleted interviews that got left on the editing room floor, about thirty minutes worth. Finally, we get three historical timelines, companion pieces to each of the three features that are navigable using the left and right arrows on your remote control. A nice historical backdrop, it runs down the seminal events from the 1880s to the present day regarding sex in cinema.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The graphic carnality of this series might put off the prudish amongst us, and this will probably be the biggest sticking point behind the film reaching a wide audience. I kid you not; Indie Sex features more on-screen penetration and sex acts than the entire catalog of reviews combined here at DVD Verdict. After all, we are a family site.
The only other point of concern here is the one-sided take on the subject of sex in cinema. Not a single person in the film, save for stock footage clips of ultra-conservative 1950s propaganda pieces about "clean morals" takes an opinion about sex in cinema being a negative or subversive aspect. I certainly would not agree with such an argument personally, but documentaries should never fear challenging their own convictions. Indie Sex is so unabashedly pro-sex in cinema that it almost betrays its own convictions at times. When your panel of contributors involves John Waters, Dita Von Teese (burlesque dancer), John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus), and Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl), odds are you are only going to come to a single conclusion.
For cinema fans, Indie Sex represents the best of both worlds: a thought-provoking, well-researched and challenging documentary coupled with naked people. I challenge you to come up with a better combination. Kinky and controversial, it works both a historical retrospective and a meditation on the arts.
Personally, I could use some more artful meditation, if you know what I mean.
A racy but undeniably quality piece of documentary filmmaking. Not guilty.
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