Judge Rafael Gamboa was wondering why he couldn't read the map. Then he realized that the States were naked and had been blurred out for his moral protection.
Our review of Naked States, published July 19th, 2002, is also available.
"America is in for a nude awakening."
We here in America live in a strange culture. We censor nudity on television in the name of decency and the preservation of our children's innocence, but we don't censor non-nude but otherwise explicit sexuality. A short, non-sexual scene involving male and female soldiers showering and chatting whilst nude is cut from Starship Troopers on FX , but gruesome deaths involving flying body parts and brains being sucked out is totally fine for broadcast. And then there are those who try to circumvent censorship: as long as an exposed breast has a censored nipple, it's kosher. Which really makes no sense at all, seeing as everyone has a nipple but not everyone has a mammary gland, and, anyway, censoring the nipple won't eliminate the outright sexuality that might be in that scene. Even medical programs, usually quite happy to show someone's exposed innards on national television, blur out nipples in the name of respecting privacy—even though the patients' medical and emotional lives are on display for the possible entertainment of thousands.
Our societal attitude towards nudity is that if it's there, it's sexual and shouldn't be seen by children or decent folk. Therefore, censoring nudity = censoring inappropriate sexuality—which, of course, is rubbish. Just because someone is naked doesn't mean they're being sexual, and vice versa. An image of someone walking down the street nude is not inherently sexual. An image of someone walking down the street clothed and masturbating through their pants is. But because we have somehow convinced ourselves that all nudity is inextricably linked with sex, and that sex is not something to be dealt with in the open, we have become the only creatures on this planet that are ashamed their bodies and bodily functions.
That's a big bummer, considering we're all born naked and there's absolutely nothing wrong with our bodies. For most people, clothes have ceased being practical items or fun diversions; clothes are now required fetters, symbols of the shame we are forced to feel for our natural selves. We are afraid even to show something as life-affirming as a mother breast-feeding an infant. And yet MTV gets to air Spring Break specials and hip-hop videos with sexually objectified, gyrating teenagers and it's totally fine to show that to our kids on national television because they're wearing clothes—barely. Consequently, children get a very unhealthy conception of what sexuality is—and of which body types are socially acceptable. We're seemingly told that we're allowed to wear less clothing (or even no clothes, gasp!) in front of people only if our bodies are young and look a particular way. If you're fat, well, wear the most tent-like clothing you can find to mask your form, and don't you dare be seen in public exposing skin. We become self-conscious of our "imperfections," constantly nitpicking our appearance or hiding aspects of our bodies we are ashamed of. Because we are not okay with nudity, a healthy understanding of the difference between nudity and sex is not something we possess from our formative years, and many people sadly never get to that oh-so-important distinction. And people wonder why strange sexual proclivities, fixations, and anxieties arise.
Being comfortable with nudity—our own and of others—is something we now have to struggle to achieve, which is really something psychologically unnatural to the human creature. This struggle is often discouraged, repressed, dismissed as indecent or sinful. To what end, I'm not exactly sure. I fail to see how it is possible to be content with yourself if you cannot be comfortable with the body you live in, or to be content with others if you cannot be comfortable with their appearance unless it is veiled. How can you be happy and confident in yourself if you're ashamed of the skin that makes you human? How can you ever be truly happy with your body if you care more for what other people think of it? How can we be accepting of others if our appreciation of them is fundamentally superficial? Moreover, why and how the hell have we imposed this aversion to our bodies upon ourselves?
Facts of the Case
Not that this documentary will answer or even address some of these issues, but it will definitely make you think about them. Naked States is a nonfiction piece by filmmaker Arlene Donnelly (Positively Naked) that follows photographer Spencer Tunick and his ambitious goal: to photograph nudes posing in public in each of the 50 states, then get his work exhibited in galleries across the nation. His journey takes him to such vastly different locations as Fargo, the Burning Man festival in the Mohave, a Phish concert, and the Sturgis biker rally. Along the way, we meet a peculiar assortment of people willing to bare it all in the hearts of cities across the country, from rowdy nudists to recovering rape victims. It is a piece that has chosen to challenge the societal etiquette and conception of the body.
The film opens with Tunick being arrested in New York City. First impression, you think this guy must be up to some pretty obscene stuff. Turns out that couldn't be farther from the truth. Sexuality is only present in the gender of the models, nothing more. Whether placing a group in apocalyptic collapses and geometric patterns, or working with individuals in intimate simplicity, the unifying feature of his work is its emphasis on the beauty of the body and its comforting familiarity. The faces of the models never look towards the camera, never directly engage the viewer, and thus never suggest anything but what the body itself communicates. Placed in the context of the urban landscape, the images are striking; our gray, hard-edged cities have hardly seemed more inappropriate dwellings for such soft and delicate creatures. Placed in the context of the uninhabited outdoors, the images seem to return to us a natural exoticism we lost long ago: a wild, childlike abandon. And yet, within these same settings, Tunick throws his models into poses that stun with contrast: a sharp-angled zig-zag of bodies across the flat plane of the desert, a voluptuous woman holding a coiled snake sculpture on her head while a bus makes its rounds behind her. One of Tunick's models dubbed this photographic technique as deliberately exposing cracks in reality, and I couldn't have named it better. These cracks take many different shapes and flavors, sometimes social, sometimes political, sometimes just for the heck of it. Watching the journey, and the creative process behind these captivating compositions, feels like an incredible privilege.
The models themselves are perhaps more fascinating than Tunick himself. An overweight black woman, the victim of a terrible rape, surprises herself deeply by volunteering to pose in public; she discovers that the experience taught her to love her body again, a milestone in her journey of spiritual and psychological recovery. Others include a pregnant woman who celebrates the new life within her by sharing it with the world; a former soldier, who once aspired to pose in a biker magazine or in Playboy, but now finds tattoos and age no longer allow such a possibility; an aging man who once considered being in a public urinal far too uncomfortable; and a young girl wanting to escape the suffocating repression of her hometown. All of them share one thing in common: a desire to be liberated, to be free to love themselves without shame and without reservation.
Donnelly follows Tunick and his models with spellbinding intimacy. Low-fi to the point of resembling an amateur home movie at times, she captures the events with a right-now handheld intensity. Her on-the-spot interviews capture people at their most candid, most heartfelt moments. And yet while the film might display the occasional appearance of a chaotic project, what with its constant switching of film stock and quality, it is quite obviously a meticulously composed work. The opening titles, for instance, take on the texture of developing photographs in a beautiful nod to her subject's profession. Donnelly takes us through this most American of road trips with a blistering pace that somehow doesn't feel rushed, floating gently but rapidly through her rich material. This is certainly remarkable, as one of the faults that many documentarians fall prey to is an unwillingness to let go of all the footage they have gathered. Donnelly doesn't, though; she keeps only the most essential and the most engaging, and unflinchingly flips through that which might threaten to bog down the film with economically minded, narratively dynamic montages. It is a promising directorial debut for this self-taught filmmaker.
The DVD comes with a weaker but nonetheless equally naked short film: "Strawberry Fields" by Andrew Einhorn, documenting a group shoot Tunick did near John Lennon's Strawberry Field memorial. Also provided in the extras are some of the photographs that formed part of Tunick's Naked States exhibition, and biographies on Tunick and Donnelly. Plus the requisite trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is anything negative to say, it is that the film doesn't really seem interested in truly tackling difficult questions. It merely wishes to present Tunick's journey as-is, and Tunick himself doesn't really take time to muse about any artistic points he may be trying to make. He seems far more interested in logistical challenges, and while some of his models occasionally take a stab at interpreting what it is Tunick is trying to accomplish besides taking pretty pictures of naked people, they mostly stick to talking about their own personal motivations. Perhaps Donnelly was attempting to portray Tunick as merely the medium, the mechanism through which people are allowed to realize deep-seated desires, as the film does focus so much on the models. Or perhaps Tunick really doesn't have any overriding point that drives his ambitions besides his desire to do so. Perhaps that possibility in itself is significant.
But the point is, nothing terribly incisive is stated by the film. All the thoughts I expressed while introducing this film were stimulated by what I was seeing but not but what the film was telling me. I'm not sure if that is a strength or a weakness in the film. And personally, I don't really care. I loved it anyway.
In a society where nudity is either forbidden or flaunted for its objectified sexual aggression, it's refreshing to see thousands of people celebrating their bodies in ways that do not negate their personalities. Bodies aren't transformed into mere sperm repositories or sperm fountains once the clothes come off; they are a fundamental part of a person. In this film we are watching people nude, not just the hollow sexual automatons with which we are so constantly barraged. And it is beautiful.
The Supreme Court has cleared Tunick of all criminal charges, you know. That's as "not guilty" as you can get. I recommend this as a definite buy.
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