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MOVIES : FILM COMMENT : Was It Really the Last Tango? : A year after the NC-17 rating made adult themes legitimate, American filmmakers have yet to examine sex as a real experience

<i> Peter Rainer is a Times staff writer</i>

American movies lack a genuine core of eroticism. The danger and allure of sexual relationships--which, of course, encompass so much more than sex--are virtually absent from our screens.

Right now in literature and painting and sculpture and photography, some of our finest artists--often in the face of a punishing, uncomprehending hostility--are trying to give expression to their sexual feelings. But the movies, perhaps the most sensual art form of all, are locked inside a kinder, gentler dream time. The carnal and the sentimental don’t mix.

There are, of course, the occasional high-flown porny pix like, most recently, Ken Russell’s “Whore,” deluxe Eurotrash fantasias like “Wild Orchid,” retro-blue sex comedies like “Switch” and pseudo-noir passion plays like “After Dark, My Sweet.” There are the high-gloss depravities of Peter Greenaway.

But sex as a fuse, as an instigator, as a kick, an obsession, sex as an explicit and implicit part of our lives--where are the American movies that speak to us of these things, of how complicated sex has become for us?

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And where are the great sex comedies that could be made about this look-and-listen-but-don’t-touch era? Where are the great comic actors who might do for this period what, say, the early Woody Allen did for the post-Freudian generation?

It’s ironic that this lament comes just a little more than a year after the Motion Picture Assn. of America revised its code by replacing the X rating with the NC-17. By creating a new designation to replace the dreaded porno-tinctured X, the MPAA theoretically made it possible for serious, adult-themed films to play the same multiplexes as the Rs and the PGs. It made it possible for those film artists who for years had been pre-censoring themselves to finally loosen their gifts. And maybe it also had the power to inspire a new generation of film artists who in the past were dissuaded from exploring the medium.

But, of course, it’s one thing to sanction more adult-oriented movies; it’s another thing to make them. Since “Henry & June” in October, 1990, there has not been a single major studio-financed, studio-distributed NC-17-rated movie. Because of cowardice, intimidation or bottom-line-ism, filmmakers and producers and studio heads--with the support of such video chains as Blockbuster that refuse to carry NC-17 films--have backed off from the challenge; they have confirmed what the naysayers of the new rating said from the start--that NC-17 is just another way of writing X. And in the process, they are missing an opportunity to enlarge the thematic possibilities of films at a time when the movies desperately need to be invigorated.

The issue here is not, strictly speaking, that movies need to be more sexually explicit. The argument rather is that movies need a sexual scope they do not now have, and the NC-17 provides one way to go in providing that scope.

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There was a dream that many of us who loved “Last Tango in Paris” had when it came out in 1973--that first-class film artists would finally be able to confront the rawness and shock of sexual emotion with the same power employed by writers like Mailer and Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence. The dream has practically faded from view; it’s hard to imagine a less hospitable atmosphere for its resurgence. This is, after all, the movie era when men and women rarely get to do much of anything together. And if we are to believe the pronouncements of moguls like Paramount’s Brandon Tartikoff, movies for adults don’t cut the commercial mustard any more. Get set for kiddie fests.

Certainly AIDS is responsible for some of the pullback in sexually themed movies, but here too the issue is more complicated than it at first appears.

It is not, after all, as if Hollywood has ever been eager to deal with the consequences of the sexual act. Part of the fantasy appeal of movies is that they often do not deal with consequences. AIDS introduces a more complex and tragic element into the sexual equation than Hollywood can cope with; afraid of dealing with AIDS as a dramatic subject and equally afraid of implying that we are not all a nation of abstainers and celibates and safe-sexers, the studios have worked around the problem by turning a clouded eye to the proceedings. Sex in contemporary-themed movies now, when it appears at all, is like a romp in never-never land.

The apotheosis of this attitude was the highly successful “sex, lies, and videotape” with its impotent video voyeur as hero. The orgasm--glory of the Beats, the hippies’ latchkey to liberation, the feminists’ Valhalla--was demystified in that film. It was about sex as power play, as denial, as metaphor. Sex as sex was disdained. The film appeared to have been made by a hip scold, and its ecstatic reception suggested that perhaps AIDS-freaked audiences were primed for a scolding.

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In the old Hays Office days in Hollywood in the 1930s, it was written into the Production Code that no mention should be made in any movie of sexual hygiene or venereal disease. It also said, “Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing,” and that “passion should be treated in such manner as not to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.”

The official purpose of these prohibitions, of course, was to uphold moral standards. Are we really so far from this laughable, and hurtful, mind-set now? Some well-meaning but misguided commentators insist that sex-themed movies should feature only responsible, socially acceptable role models. But this is to confuse civic responsibility with dramatic license. If you eliminated all the characters in film, literature and theater who have behaved horribly and irresponsibly, there would be almost no great characters left.

It may seem like a contradiction that the new adult rating came at a time when the country is entrenched in conservatism. But surely the cultural situation is more volatile than the society’s feel-good veneer would indicate. That veneer represents a complacency in the culture that is periodically undercut by events ranging from the censorship battles in our museums and the plight of the National Endowment of the Arts to the arrest of rap groups and the cautionary labeling and banning of “offensive” records.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the bourgeois status quo and those who are drawn to undermine it. If the most interesting and maddening and controversial movies of the last few years have often been on the edge in matters of sex--movies like “Wild at Heart,” “Internal Affairs” and “The Grifters” or the films of Gus Van Sant--the reason may be that these movies affront that status quo. They speak to something disturbing in the atmosphere that the big, gauzy sex-and-romance hits like “Ghost” and “Pretty Woman” flee.

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The traditional sex scene in American movies, unlike its racier European counterpart, has usually been keyed to a denial of explicitness; this may be one reason, besides the obvious economic one, why American filmmakers in the NC-17 era are still so slow to play show-and-tell.

The famous erotic moments in American film, like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing in the waves in “From Here to Eternity,” or Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor mating their profiles in “A Place in the Sun,” are relatively chaste, and generally in black and white too--our fantasies color them in. Americans seem to need a bit of grandiloquence in their sex scenes if they are to be “classic”; they need an overarching romanticism that is, deliberately, old-fashioned. The grandiloquence serves a dual purpose: It distances us by its exaggeration, but by matching up with our fantasies, it also draws us closer to the passion. It’s this push-pull that provides the erotic intoxication in many a great American film romance. The subtext keeps rubbing up against the text.

The paradox in sex-themed American films now is that many of them, like 1989’s “The Fabulous Baker Boys” or the current “Frankie & Johnny,” combine both the new explicitness and the old-fashioned romantic values. This combo cuts both ways. In a film like “Fatal Attraction,” the message was: Stray and be punished. On the other hand, in “Bull Durham,” we were allowed to experience the sex as a high because the whole film was shot through with the sheer joy of physical release. And, on a smaller scale, the same thing could be said for Martha Coolidge’s “Rambling Rose.” (One way to upgrade the quality of movie sex would be to get more women behind the cameras.)

There have been a handful of American films in the recent past, like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Enemies, A Love Story,” “Heartbreakers” and “Shoot the Moon,” that communicated the ache of sexual longing in ways that seemed almost revelatory, and many of the actors in these films, as if liberated by the subject matter, have never been better.

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In most of the new films, however, there’s often so little going on between men and women on any level that when sex happens, it’s weirdly abstract. The sex scenes in “9 1/2 Weeks” or “Risky Business,” to take two typical examples from the past decade, were so hyped, the visual styles so gaudy, the communions so improbable, that no one could mistake any of it for the real thing. The eroticism was explicit but denatured, and so it was less threatening. It lacked the pang of real experience--hence its appeal.

It used to be that Americans would look to European or Asian films for a more “grown-up” or vividly outrageous treatment of sex. And until fairly recently, there were the films of such directors as Bertrand Blier (“Get Out Your Handkerchiefs”), Pedro Almodovar (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), Juzo Itami (“Tampopo”) and Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Laundrette”) to reward us. But with the exception of Frears, and perhaps Almodovar, most of the recent work of these directors has lost its sexual edge. The house style in European movie eroticism has become a variation on our own: sleek, characterless, insensate. “9 1/2 Weeks,” which was much more popular in Europe than in this country, has set the standard all over the world.

Eroticism in modern movies can dispense with personality and emotion because these things just slow down the action; they slow down the “sell.”

And what is being sold? The real eroticism is in the camera stylistics, in the almost fetishistic detailing, in the seductions of high-tech gimcrackery. The hollows and curves of a jazzy jet or motorcar, the sheen of a power player’s executive boardroom, are riper than any flesh. It’s the erotics of materialism. It’s probably no accident that the rock videos, and the slick-magazine advertising that features sleek, aerobicized, half-draped figures hawking jeans and cologne, are often more sexually explicit than the movies. In those arenas, the relationship between sex and sell is indistinguishable and undisguised.

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It’s naive to think that in matters carnal filmmakers work out of some private realm of huff and puff and purr, oblivious to politics of state or studio. The current economic downturn and disillusionment may, if nothing else, have a humbling, restorative effect on our human sympathies. Sex in the movies has often had the effect of objectifying, trivializing and exploiting its on-screen participants. If our filmmakers want to put the pang of real experience back into sex, they must first acknowledge that real people, and not androids, are involved in the act.


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