Thursday, February 12, 2009

When It’s Okay to Stop Watching and Start Screwing

This article originally appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.

by Brandon Colvin

Not all sex scenes are created equally. There’s the weird, the funny, the sentimental, the passionate, the terrifying, and the downright hot – the last of which will be the focus of this list. While defining what is and is not a properly “inspirational” sex scene (ifyaknowwhaddimean) is certainly a subjective endeavor (and a revealing one), I’ve tried to choose a handful of scenes that are not only erotic but also worthy of cinematic merit. In other words, you can come for the sex scene and stay for the movie (pun intended).

5. Dirk Diggler’s first time on camera in Boogie Nights (1997)

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout feature, a multifaceted tale of finding family and inventing identity in the late 70s/early 80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, is chock full of titillation, debauchery, and more sex than you could shake a stick at (even if it is 13-inches-long). Centering on the well-endowed Eddie Adams a.k.a. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his meteoric rise to adult film stardom, Boogie Nights reaches its erotic climax during Dirk’s debut performance on celluloid with the foxy/strangely maternal Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) – girlfriend of blue movie auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds).

A typically cheesy porn set-up (guy-interviews-for-job-and-has-to-whip-his-cock-out-for-sexily-straight-laced-female-interviewer) provides the context for the film-within-a-film, complete with blank-faced porn acting and stilted line delivery. Initially humorous and reasonably light in tone, the scene takes on a more intimate and sensual aura as the two commence with the planned missionary-on-the-desk revelry. Alternating between shallow-focused, handheld shots hovering over the bare, sweaty bodies and the lazily composed footage being recorded by the porn squad’s cameras, introduces a meta-level to the sex scene that detaches it from its seemingly sordid surrounding, imbuing the porn protocol with a sense of pulse-quickening immediacy and genuine tenderness. Directly addressing the voyeuristic position of the audience, the scene inter-cuts reaction shots of the crew – mouths agape, eyes widened – as they look on with awe at the hot, hot lovin’ (Jack Horner included). Self-reflexive to the max, the scene even depicts a dazzling inside-the-camera point-of-view shot of the sexcapades as the soundtrack picks up on every nuance of the couple’s grunts and moans – as well as Amber’s whispered desire for Dirk to cum inside her rather than give her the standard “money shot.” A fascinating sequence on the level of montage and an earnest depiction of how intensely personal sex can still be in a room full of cameras and on-lookers, Boogie Nights’ most interesting sexual sequence is one that demands repeated viewings. That’s right. Over and over and over and over again.

4. Dreamy, dreamy lesbians in Lynch’s surreal Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Most times, movie sex is a fantasy. Sometimes, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy. And, in at least one instance, movie sex is a fantasy inside of a fantasy inside the mixed-up retro-Hollywood dream of a scorned lover who has recently (and regrettably) put out a hit on her two-timing, heart-breaking ex-ladyfriend; welcome to the wonderful world of David Lynch – abandon all hope ye who enter. The two former/current/imaginary lovers in the film – Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) and Rita/whothehellknows? (Laura Elena Harring) – provide an underlying current of electric sexual tension that erupts in a memorably spontaneous expression of lesbian lust, the powerful impact of which subsequently results in the inevitable undoing of protagonist Betty/Diane’s dream-illusion (a little abstract, I know).

With a mysterious narrative and obscure plot, Mulholland Dr. thrives on mood and texture, resulting in a profoundly sensual and remarkably sexy fetishization of repeated images and colors, all reminiscent of Hollywood glamour a la Billy Wilder’s influential Sunset Blvd. (1950): ruby red lips, glistening perfect skin, sun-drenched cityscapes, breathy secretive mutterings, elegant evening gowns, intriguingly stylized shadows, and the pleasurably voyeuristic act of watching. Palpably stimulating, the film’s idealized sexual undertones are made overt when Betty/Diane invites Rita to share her bed for the night. Identity confusion, blonde wigs, amnesia, impersonation, and performance haunt the boudoir proceedings as the two women attempt to cast away their swirling doubts, sure of only one thing: their mutual passion. Hallucinatory and intense, the scene depicts the two women stripping one another before engaging in some smooching-between-the-sheets, lit with a melancholy blue cast – an indicator of the tragic oncoming end of the lovers’ perfectly romantic bliss, Betty/Diane’s fantasy. They must awaken from their sexual euphoria, and so must the viewer . . . sure is great while it lasts, though.

3. A History of Violence (2005) – Do it ‘til it hurts

Nobody does weird on-screen sex like David Cronenberg. Nobody. From the mind-altering sadomasochistic snuff film perversion of Videodrome (1983) to the drug-induced phantasmagoria of cannibalistic shape-shifting homosexuality in Naked Lunch (1991) to the car-crash fetish for twisted metal and broken bone orgasms in the NC-17-rated Crash (1996), Cronenberg – known in some circles as the “King of Venereal Horror” (one wonders who the rest of that royal family is) – has consistently pushed the envelope regarding cinematic sexuality. Although it is certainly one of Cronenberg’s most accessible acts of transgression, the exceedingly rough sex between A History of Violence’s Tom Stall/Joey (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is nonetheless effective – to say the least.

Having just discovered that her husband of nearly 20 years is not who she thinks he is – a down-home, gentle Indiana family man (instead, he’s a reformed mob hitman from Boston) – Edie becomes quite reasonably incensed. When confronted with the threat of police interference as a result of her husband’s recent deadly activity, however, Edie stands by her man, displaying a hint of acquiescence amidst her indignation – setting the tone for the emotionally conflicted physical explosion that follows a brief visit from the local sheriff. Puzzled by Edie’s contradictory actions, Tom corners her on the stairs, grabbing her forcefully and receiving a slap to the face for his brutality, which is then intensified as he returns the slap and slams Edie to her back. Their bodies heaving and their hips pinned tightly together, the two quickly shuffle off their clothes and Tom begins thrusting. In control, Tom keeps his hand on Edie’s throat, as she seems to prefer, her submissive response revealing her breathless excitement. The scene ends unhappily, though, as a sexually satisfied and emotionally distraught Edie wiggles back into her panties and storms furiously up the stairs. Brief, rough, and reckless, the stairwell copulation is a spontaneous erotic crescendo of assertion and assent, reinforcing traditional gender roles and patriarchal power structures in a way that is so hot you almost forget about the overarching ideology. Hell, you might even end up approving of it.

2. Soderbergh’s sophisticated cool in Out of Sight (1998)

Editing can make or break a sex scene; and, when it comes to editing, Steven Soderbergh never fails to impress. The indie icon responsible for the controversial breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh came into his own with Out of Sight, a surprisingly sexy heist film adapted from a novel by pulp author Elmore Leonard. Adopting a retro-sleek aesthetic that harkens back to 1970s genre classics, Out of Sight is a tour-de-force of ingenious editing, tastefully muted visual palettes, and brilliantly ambient mood music (by turns rhythmic and ethereal) – consistently encapsulating just the right blend of cool detachment and smirking flirtation. Oh, and the incredible chemistry between leads George Clooney (as debonair bank robber Jack Foley) and Jennifer Lopez (as curvy US Marshal Karen Sisco) doesn’t hurt when the film’s sly libido rises during a role-playing faux-chance-encounter between the odd couple at a snowy, swanky hotel.

As Soderbergh has admitted, the magnificent scene between Jack and Karen (referring to themselves as “Gary” and “Celeste” and pretending to be strangers) is a direct homage to the #1 sex scene on this list (wait for it, you know that’s half the fun) and Out of Sight’s jaw-droppingly beautiful sex scene is almost as excellent as its classic forebear. Using parallel editing, the filmmakers alternate between Jack and Karen’s foreplay-filled dialogue in the hotel lobby, which comes off as both confident and nervously excited, and their later mutual disrobing before an inevitable romp in the bedroom. Slipping between both temporal/physical locations with ease, the scene, which uses Soderbergh’s now-signature flash-forwards (in this case, flashing forward from verbal foreplay to sex), is held together by David Holmes’ haunting score and the voices of the two lovers as their pre-sex banter plays over wonderfully-lit images of them fulfilling the promises of their words in bed, uniting present and future in way that is both deeply moving and deeply erotic. Incredibly intimate and undeniably hot, the scene is a textbook example of how a well-crafted montage can get your blood flowing to the right places even faster than a big, juicy . . . . uh, nevermind.

1. Don’t Look Now (1972): realer than real sex

I have seen films with actual, hardcore, no camera trick sexual acts in them – 9 Songs (2004), Battle in Heaven (2005), The Brown Bunny (2003), El Topo (1970), not to mention straight-up pornography – but I have never seen on-screen sex as true to life and as unpretentious as in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. An unusual candidate for containing the greatest, hottest, most emotionally resonant, best-lit, best-edited, best-staged, most-shockingly brilliant sex scene ever created (the hyperbole is justified), the film stars Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as John and Laura Baxter, a married couple visiting Venice for one of John’s architectural restoration projects, while also recovering from the emotionally scarring and eerily supernatural recent death of their young daughter. Winding through the dark alleys and foggy bridges of the “City of Water” (notable because their daughter drowned), the psychologically troubled and romantically estranged couple experiences a variety of metaphysical occurrences which lead them to join up with a pair of strange psychics in an attempt to communicate with their deceased child. One of the few films that genuinely scares me, the fact that Don’t Look Now features the pinnacle of cinematic sex is made all the more poignant by its pervasive sense of dread and tragedy, the gorgeous scene of exuberant sexual energy standing out like an island of vitality amidst the murky opacity of the Venetian waters.

Director Nicolas Roeg has claimed that he added the scene to humanize the relationship between John and Laura Baxter, which is strained throughout the rest of the film; he certainly achieved his desired effect. The inverted predecessor of Soderbergh’s flash-forward to sex in Out of Sight, Don’t Look Now’s sex scene is structured as a flashback in an editing scheme that alternates between two temporalities/spaces (this is the part Soderbergh picked up on, obviously). Beginning with shots of the two getting dressed and primped in the bathroom, the scene cuts backs-and-forth between their mundane getting-ready routine and the playful lovemaking that preceded it, depicting the sex with fresh nostalgia and the warmth of a relived memory.

Even more striking than its impeccable structure is the scene’s surprising levity. Boldly, Don’t Look Now shows a married couple having spontaneous, light, laughter-filled, multi-positioned, loving, tender, intimate, enjoyable, non-über-serious, smiling, open-eyed sex in a room that is well-lit in the middle of the day. To say the least, this is rare. To say the most, this is truer to my experience and to that of those I’ve talked to who have seen the film than any other sex scene in existence. This is the glory of a truly great sexual relationship – there is no over-dramatization, no indulgent over-emphasis, no fetishization of clichéd visual tropes, only the understated regularity of a relationship where good sex is the norm and in which making love is a happy part of daily life. As a result of how immensely and uniquely relatable it is, the scene gains all of the qualities other sex scenes miss, and without even trying too hard: joy, cooperation, communication, a sense of humor, and a feeling of genuine comfort are all present in John and Laura’s respite from the horror surrounding their stay in Venice. If watching this scene doesn’t inspire you to pause the DVD player, grab the special someone next to you, and love them like you never have before, well, you might want to contact your local monastery/convent; I don’t think you’d have a hard time fitting in.


Tony Dayoub said...

Great list. I would have put Polanski's Rosemary's Baby at #5 before Boogie Nights, but I'm nitpicking...

Speaking of nitpicking, I don't know who they are, but the couple in that last picture is not Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

Anonymous said...

Rosemary's Baby? That's horrifying.

Finally an article dedicated to quite possibly my favorite thing about film. :/

I can't help how much incredibly realstic sex in high quality film turns me on. And not just sexually. I mean, it moves me.

Don't mean to be so laudatory, but Bravo.

James Hansen said...

Tony D- I couldn't find a real pic anywhere! That looked kind of likle Sutherland so I thought it might be from the film. I didn't remember it well enough. Alas, correction has been made!

Tony Dayoub said...


I guess I was thinking of Rosemary's Baby less from the oh-that's-a-hot-scene perspective, and more from a sex-scene-that's-integral-to-the-plot perspective.

Anonymous said...

I also wondered about that pic. Mainly because she was crying.

And SUUUURRRREEE you did Tony D. :)

I'm into a little satan love everynowandagain myself, don't be ashamed.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Five Great Films...Five Great Scenes. Terrific Choices Brandon.

Brandon Colvin said...

Tony D - I actually haven't seen ROSEMARY'S BABY (don't hate, don't hate), so I can't ratify the hotness/non-hotness of the sex scene. Thanks for the suggestion though!

Tony O - Thanks for the compliments. Maybe I should write about sex in film more. It was a lot of fun. Also, agreed about the satan love.

Jeremy - I knew you would be into this list. After I made it, I thought "who else loves all of these movies?" ummmm "Jeremy definitely does."

I suggest all of you grab a hot mama on Valentine's Day, watch one of these, and get laid.

Chuck W said...

I really need to watch DON'T LOOK NOW one of these days.

Excellent list with some unexpected choices. I remember watching that scene from BOOGIE NIGHTS with my mom--not the most enjoyable experience.

Anonymous said...

1-Great article, Brandon! Though truth be told, I view the Out of Sight scene as more of a footnote in Don't Look Now's greatness. It's been numerous years since I've seen OoS and I clearly did not care for it as much as Jeremy.

2-Chuck, are we to infer that you haven't seen Don't Look Now? Get on that! It's great.

Tony Dayoub said...

Gotta disagree with you Jacob. Out of Sight is probably Soderbergh's second-best movie after Kafka. And I say this as someone who put Che on his top 10 list for 2008.

And Chuck... must we shame you into watching Don't Look Now? Here's a fun homework assignment... watch a double feature of Don't Look Now with Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers right after that.

Brandon Colvin said...

Jacob - I effin' love the OUT OF SIGHT scene, though I'm not sure I love the entire film as much as Tony D or Jeremy.

Chuck - Go see it. Now. Watch it twice in a row.

James Hansen said...

Just to stop the bleeding for Chuck...I haven't seen Don't Look Now either. I have seen the sex scene and saw some clips from it in a Script Analysis class, but never saw the whole thing. I've also never seen Rosemary's Baby...or Out of Sight. Whoops.

Brandon- I'm the sex in film guy! You're cramping with my style! :)

Tony D- Have you written about Kafka at all? Maybe its more popular than I realize, but I haven't really heard anyone saying its Soderbergh's #1. I haven't seen it but I guess I probably should. My top Soderbergh's would probably be the first and the most recent. There's some longevity for you...

Brandon Colvin said...

James - I wasn't trying to cramp, more like sensually massage the cramp away. Haha. You should throw some of your Breillat stuff up on here - it's good reading.

Chuck W said...

No public shaming necessary. I know DON'T LOOK NOW is essential viewing. But, holy god, I have such a huge backlog of movies I desperately need to see. I lost an entire two years of quality moviegoing during grad school--stupid worthless English degree--and now I have to play catchup with several classic and contemporary films. I'd be too embarrassed to make a list of "essentials" that I have somehow not seen.

So, um, yeah. It's in my Netflix queue now. As is THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS. Thanks for the homework assignment, Tony. :)

And for the record, KAFKA might also be one of my favorite Soderbergh films, although CHE and SCHIZOPOLIS probably come first.

Speaking of James' Breillat stuff, I also need to see ANATOMY OF HELL. Goddamn it. Sometimes, I wish I could just be a hermit with an limitless Netflix account.

Tony Dayoub said...

I plan on writing about Kafka this week. You can see it on YouTube, and should before they take it down.

I went to rewatch Ken Russell's The Devils after I had previously seen it there, and it had vanished.

Anonymous said...

I should probably mention that I haven't seen Out of Sight in about eight years, so my take on it is somewhat outdated.

And I haven't seen Kafka, but I hate the idea of watching a whole film on youtube. I'll see if I can't find it some other way. Also: The Comfort of Strangers has been added to the queue. It's way down in the depths, but it's in there.

As for my favorite Soderberghs, I'll offer Che (obvs) and The Limey.

Brandon Colvin said...

I'm shocked by the lack of TRAFFIC love. I would definitely rank it as my favorite Soderbergh - followed by OCEAN'S THIRTEEN and THE LIMEY.

I've yet to see KAFKA. I think I might youtube it.

Tony Dayoub said...

Ouch, forgot The Limey! Definitely my favorite Soderbergh.

Chuck W said...

Oh, yeah, THE LIMEY. How did I forget that one?

I remember seeing TRAFFIC a long time ago... and, to be honest, it's not my favorite (it might be somewhere in the middle).

Maybe we should have a Soderbergh week sometime.

Brandon Colvin said...

Chuck, I think you're right.

This is a sign - James, we must have Soderbergh week soon . . . maybe when CHE gets its split-up re-release (is that actually gonna happen?).

Tony Dayoub said...

Che has been split up on IFC's VOD service for the past month.

It's disappointing that each part of the split version is missing the opening overture with the animated map. I felt it was necessary for exposition.

Anonymous said...

They dropped the openings?! My knowledge of geography is terrible. Those maps were the only thing that kept me afloat. I guess they just expected the VOD viewers to wiki "Cuban regions" while watching or something.

Anonymous said...

Man, Where is the Sex Lies and Videotape love? I had a spiritual experience the first time I watched that movie.

w. said...

the first time paul and jeanne fuck in "last tango in paris" is stunning.

Anonymous said...

Confession time: I haven't seen Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I checked it out from the library once and didn't get around to it. But I did find Kafka which I'll watch at some point.

Oh, man! Last Tango in Paris...where's my butter?

PIPER said...


I'm with you. I have yet to see all of Don't Look Now, but I have seen the sex scene - only because I wanted to see if they're really doing IT.

For some reason or another, there was incredible chemistry between Lopez and Clooney and their scenes worked. Even the trunk scene is hot. I think it's a testament to Soderbergh that he got the performance from Lopez that he did. And I've never seen Kafka, but you sold me on it. I need to check it out.