No Sex Please We're American

Film still for No Sex Please We're American

Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven and William Friedkin can't make erotic thrillers in Bush's USA, they tell Linda Ruth Williams

Hollywood just doesn't do sex like it used to do. A creeping puritanism has infiltrated the industry, particularly since the election of George W. Bush in January 2001, pushing the erotic back into the closet along with a range of other progressive cinematic concerns. Clinton's Hollywood-friendly America, it was often said, was like a warm petri-dish in which sexual images could blossom, or - to some minds - fester. In Joe Eszterhas' gloriously lurid autobiography/treatise American Rhapsody (2000) the sexually incontinent Clinton is portrayed as the number-one fan of the erotic thriller, the genre Eszterhas helped to create. "Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Sliver, Jade, Flashdance, Jagged Edge... I know you've seen all of those," he writes in 'Bubba in Pig Heaven', part love-letter to, part critique of the ex-president. "If I have a core audience for those movies, I know you're a hard-on hard-core, Bubba... Hollywood is the place for you... This place reeks sex from its celluloid pores."

That was 2000; this is 2003. Now adult films for adult viewers (as distinct from pornographic 'adult films') are a dying breed. Movies that include the same kind of sex as those Eszterhas cites are designated in the UK by the BBFC's '18' certificate. Twenty-seven per cent of films released in 1990 received an '18'; ten years on this had dropped to 21 per cent and figures available so far for 2003 indicate only 10 per cent. Since the BBFC liberalised its classification guidelines in 2000, explicit images are seen as fair game in 'serious' contexts - mainly in European auteur-helmed films such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Virginie Despentes' Baise-moi or Gaspar Noé's sensation works. But while Europe is going in one direction, Hollywood is moving in another. Here sex scenes are rare, fully naked sex scenes even rarer and sex scenes that do something interesting almost non-existent. Major studios target the lucrative teenage market and refuse to release 'NC17' movies so that even international arthouse films like Jane Campion's In the Cut or Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers must be savagely cut. Why has this changed since the beginning of the 21st century?

One answer is George W. Bush. I recently talked to three A-list directors with interesting cinematic sexual vitae about whether it's still possible to make challenging films for contemporary mainstream America. William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) and Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995) all did their bit to challenge the boundaries of what you could show sexually on American screens. But today Friedkin directs well-crafted, comparatively safe studio products such as Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003). De Palma's latest film, the innovative erotic thriller Femme Fatale (2002), failed at the US box office and was released straight-to-video in the UK. Verhoeven claims his latest Hollywood work Hollow Man (2000) was forced into effects-led conservatism, with its deliberately offensive rape scene cut and its odious protagonist granted more mainstream appeal. "The whole window has closed down," he says. "But you must realise it's not me, it's society. America was puritan from the start, and I've always had more problems here than in Europe, but it's worse now with this fundamentalist right-wing government. Ashcroft is fundamentalist, Bush is a born-again, and I think they all think that God's on their side. And God doesn't fuck, so we shouldn't either.

"I'm sure Brian De Palma and William Friedkin are in exactly the same situation. We're more or less the same age and we're all probably still influenced by our desire to make an interesting, good movie. We're all perhaps wishing still that film is art. Certainly I went into film-making because I thought it was art. But I've stopped thinking that now."

All three directors were indeed born within two years of each other, all began film-making in the 1960s and established their reputations in the 1970s. Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) redefined the possibilities of the horror genre and his Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971) shot the police-thriller through with a European edginess. De Palma followed Dressed to Kill with Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984), both 'problem films' containing unprecedented scenes of ostensibly gratuitous violence, drug use or perversity. Verhoeven's Dutch back-catalogue is littered with extreme sex and violence, while his American films have rethought genre in important ways.

Friedkin and De Palma are often identified with the so-called Hollywood new wave, a nouvelle vague-inflected window of artistic opportunity that opened up between 1967 and 1975 to let in all sorts of sexually daring and politically subversive possibilities. This period, which saw shocking cinematic forms attract massive new audiences and X-rated movies win Best Film Oscars, has recently come under the scrutiny of historians, with a rash of publications and at least three recent documentaries: Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's The Kid Stays in the Picture, which celebrates the maverick excesses of 1970s producer Robert Evans; Ted Demme and Richard LaGravenese's affectionate three-part survey Decade under the Influence; and Kenneth Bowser's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, loosely based on Peter Biskind's book of the same title.

So how do these A-list directors now view the work they started in the more permissive 1970s, films that so provocatively hit mainstream culture's rawest sexual buttons? Only Friedkin admits to having shot actual sex: "Cruising shows everything, or as much as it can. And there are 40 minutes on the cutting-room floor. Most of it is set in clubs and shows the most graphic stuff that was going on. And it was real." For the director, sexual content was part of the film's project to "get away with stuff most people weren't getting away with - I wanted to see how far I could push the envelope." In response to a censor who demanded stringent cuts, Friedkin inserted gay hardcore subliminals that survive in some prints today. "I shot it because I could," he says. "These guys were willing to do anything. They were completely uninhibited."

I asked both Friedkin and Verhoeven if they wanted their sex scenes to be arousing, or if arousal is an index of whether a scene works. "Not for the whole of Basic Instinct," says Verhoeven. "But certainly for the two big scenes. We shot the long scene between Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, which lasts three or four minutes, over three days with full nudity." Verhoeven talks about screen sex with missionary zeal. "It was always my idea to make the ultimate sex scene. First of all, I like sex, I'm a big fan. So I felt an urge to share that feeling and to show something that might make people think about sex in a different way. All the playfulness of sex - I wanted to show it's not just 'huh huh huh', how can I get in as fast as possible and come. I'd like to do a scene where people are laughing as they come instead of having this 'aaarghhhhh'." Friedkin's vision of his sex scenes is more macabre: "They're more Boschian. They're erotic only in the sense that they're terrifying and threatening to the characters and possibly to the audience. Dark fantasy - that's what interests me."

In Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire Laurence O'Toole has written that "Stories were porn's original alibi", and for all three directors thriller plots function to legitimise sex taken up to the wire of explicitness. De Palma's Body Double contains a fictional hardcore film-within-a-film - animated to Frankie Goes to Hollywood doing 'Relax' (banned at the time by the BBC) - that is sanctioned by the murder mystery. Comparing the limits imposed on his 1995 film Jade with the freedoms allowed Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967), Friedkin points out: "Jade had to be masked as a crime melodrama, with the secret life of the woman in the background. It wouldn't have got made in America if it was a pure examination of a woman's sexuality." Similarly Verhoeven claims that the nudity in Basic Instinct's big set-piece scene "is possible only because it's also a thriller scene. It's one of my favourite love scenes because it shows how people behave in bed without all the bumping-bumping. I wanted to make an interesting sex scene that doesn't use dissolves; that uses continuously hard cuts and has several episodes. In the first episode he does her orally. Then she does him. Then they do it together. Then she ties him up, and she's maybe going to kill him. So there are four elements; it's like a symphony."

But sexual film-making can be arousing in other ways. Feminist protest at Verhoeven's Turkish Delight (1973) and De Palma's Dressed to Kill was followed by anger at such films as Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion (1984). 1980s cultural feminism judged what it saw as the pornographic in mainstream film-making to be on a par with the sex in Snuff or Hustler, making Verhoeven and De Palma ready targets. Cruising and Basic Instinct also stirred up trouble in the gay community for their depictions of killers as gay. Of course, such protests do directors and box-office statistics no harm (all these films became water-cooler 'talkies'), and it's better that a film becomes an object of vilification than that it doesn't get made. But today the cinematic sanitisation of the Bush era has rendered the idea of such protest redundant. Perhaps the only contentious subject matter likely to be screened in contemporary mainstream America concerns the blasphemous, as with Martin Scorsese's 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, for which Friedkin recalls that public wrath "actually kept people out of the theatres. They were burning crosses on Lew Wasserman's lawn and there were 10,000 people outside Universal Studios."

The present sexual cover-up is symptomatic of a more general closing down of cinematic possibilities in America, which has caused Verhoeven, De Palma and Friedkin to reflect on their careers in sometimes melancholic ways. Despite their recent journeyman work, all three directors still see themselves as the angry young men of their art. For Verhoeven, "The only thing you can do is to be provocative towards everybody who has started to love you, to say I'm going to do exactly what you don't expect." De Palma is also clear that he has "swum against the stream all my life. It's not something I feel uncomfortable with. Is it difficult? Is it unpleasant? You bet. But you have to do what appears to be the truth, and if everybody says you're crazy you have to live through it and hopefully continue to work." And Friedkin describes his delight that Cruising "scratched something in audiences that was disturbing and disgusting. I thought that was great. What led me to make films was the notion they could change people's lives, show us aspects of the inner self."

He laments that this is "almost impossible today, apart from the rare exception that slips under the radar. Audiences and younger film-makers don't want to go to those places, and in any case US film is almost totally fantasy-driven. Comic books and video games." De Palma agrees: "The subject matter that's flooding American cineplexes is of no interest to me. I'm over 60 and how I'm going to get laid this Friday is not at the top of my priorities." And Verhoeven is as vociferous about Hollywood's lack of complexity as about its lack of sexual courage: "I feel so fed up with the formulaic thinking and absence of values and of any relationship to life."

De Palma notes that Europe still makes complex cinema: "I watch a lot of French movies because they deal with adult situations. In America today an actress like Charlotte Rampling would have a hard time landing a minor role as a grandmother. Yet she has lead parts in French movies that have her characters' particular predicaments at the centre of their stories. And they're interesting." Though still based in New York, De Palma now makes American movies outside the US. His next film, an adaptation of Gardner McKay's Toyer, is set to start shooting in Venice in January. "I like to go to different places to make movies. I'm living in America in an era in which it has become completely isolated, not only uninterested in what's going on in the world outside but antagonistic." He attributes the disappointing performance of Femme Fatale - a dreamlike, existentially ambiguous noir-ish fable set in Paris - in part to its European backdrop. "At first they thought it was a foreign film. And the fact that it had subtitles really confused them. Today you can't have a film with subtitles without killing it in the market."

If De Palma is an American abroad, Verhoeven sees himself as "a European director who tries to be American." He attributes his abiding interest in parallel realities to his ex-patriotism: "I was 48 when I came to the United States, and living in a world that was in some way alien to me made me think about the relativity of truth." Ambivalent meanings, he says, tend to be rejected by American studios and audiences alike. "I'm sure that if we'd test-screened Basic Instinct audiences would have said the ending is unclear, too ambiguous, and the studio would have asked me to clarify." Starship Troopers (1997) is the last film with which he felt he could be oppositional. "While I was working on it at Sony the regimes kept changing and ultimately no one looked at it. Someone said to me, 'I think these flags look like Nazi flags', and I said, 'Well, they're not. The Nazis didn't have green-and-white flags.' But of course they are Nazi flags and the costumes were based on Nazi uniforms. It's about Earth, but Earth is the United States, clearly. We were showing a fascist utopia where the citizens were like the citizens of the US last year, believing in it, and not seeing the evils. A lot of the newscast inserts are based on Texas. It's all Mr George Bush - how many people get executed, gun laws, soldiers giving out bullets. On the one hand it says 'These people are patriots' but at the same time it accuses patriotism of being foolish and fascist. The subversive thinking tells you the characters are idiots as well as heroes."

Meanwhile Friedkin, in A Decade under the Influence, laments the damage done by market-led movie-making: "Committee after committee looks at the content: 'We should change that line and put this in and let's shoot four endings because until we test it we don't know if it's any good.'" This no-risk strategy is challenged by Francis Ford Coppola in the same documentary: "There can't be art without risk. It's like saying No Sex, and then expecting there to be children."

So if God doesn't fuck, can anyone in American movies? Though not a studio film, Jane Campion's In the Cut suggests they can. While other actresses are buttoning up, Campion persuaded Meg Ryan to undress; while other films dealing with sex and sexual violence rely on the implicit, Campion makes the spectacle a talking point. This is, however, an exception to the rule, perhaps because Campion's films are aimed at a specific market.

Verhoeven argues that there's still an audience for mainstream sexual cinema, but claims people "don't dare to say so" and scripts don't offer it. "There are no scripts that dare to go into sexuality. Even when it's shown, it just says 'and then they make passionate love' and goes on to the next chapter. No descriptions. Joe Eszterhas wrote the scenes with Sharon and Michael in Basic Instinct over four or five pages, which I followed to a large degree. You'd never find anything like that nowadays."

He does believe that "it'll cycle back" and that sexuality will eventually re-emerge on Hollywood's agenda. "But not if this president is re-elected. Then it'll take another six years before we can go in a new direction."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012