This week we witness the arrival of Shame, the new erotic drama from Fox Searchlight starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. In addition to a lot of favorable advance press, this film bears a rather curious mark upon its bosom: the MPAA’s fabled NC-17 rating.
NC-17 is essentially just a re-branding of the X rating which famously graced older films like Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango In Paris in order to distinguish them from overt pornography. It is difficult to keep track of the official standings, since in some cases X-rated films have had NC-17 retroactively applied, and some no doubt have been reassigned R ratings as we all become less shockable. The point is that in their original forms, these films got a special designation that said, “positively, absolutely, NO kids allowed.” The curious thing about genuine NC-17 is its comparative rarity. In general, censors have saved it for extra special cases, and in practice it feels like much less of an artificial construct than, say, the hated PG-13. Something about these films transcended, or was believed to transcend, the extremely liberal boundaries of the R rating, and in most cases the reasons are still apparent.
The funny thing is that a lot of these films are quite good. Searingly transgressive as they may be, they often compensate with mature themes and thoughtful writing. I will always be in favor of serious entertainment fit for the whole family, but watching a strictly adult (not pornographic) movie, which was clearly never made with a child’s point of view in mind, is an experience apart.
There are exceptions. When I was a youngster, the most notorious NC-17 feature was Boxing Helena directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch (daughter of David Lynch). Featuring Julian Sands as an Oedipally freaked-out surgeon and Sherilyn Fenn as his amputee sex object, it sells itself as a racy geek show and doesn’t even manage that very well.
Like any class of films, they run the gamut in terms of tone, quality, and artistic achievement. However, the NC-17 badge makes them all just a little bit collectible as a very strange and disturbing set. Without further ado, Julia Rhodes, Brett Harrison Davinger and I present some notable entries in the NC-17 catalog.
Henry & June (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1990)
Henry & June is not one of my favorites, but its historical importance to the topic makes it essential as a first entry. Centered around the experiences which partially inspired Henry Miller to write Tropic Of Cancer, it was the first film to receive the brand-new official rating of NC-17. Though the designation has been used to keep kids away from all sorts of extreme content (including Trey Parker’s witty porno farce Orgazmo), the term “NC-17” will always carry strong connotations of grave sex-laden drama, usually rife with frontal nudity. Henry & June has a lot to do with that.
The movie adapts the memoirs of French author Anaïs Nin (played by Maria de Medeiros), whose penchant for the erotic lands her literally in bed with the notorious author Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his sultry wife June (Uma Thurman) during a stay in good old bohemian Paris. While her marriage to banker and burgeoning artist Hugo (Richard E. Grant) languishes in a sea of ennui, she embraces a bit of Continental polyamory with the Millers. Dramatic anguish ensues, as it often does. This film is not weird enough to have been a Miramax release, but all the hallmarks of super-serious 1990s erotic drama are in place. Henry Miller fans probably like this movie a lot. The rest of us are doomed to see merely it as a relic, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog) (dir. Rémy Belvaux, 1992)
The original title of this Belgian mockumentary translates to “It happened near your home.” In some ways it is a better title, but a little unwieldy compared to the sharper and more abstract moniker Man Bites Dog.
The premise of the film is very simple. A small documentary crew are following the exploits of a serial killer named Benoît. Along the way, he offers them insight into his tactics, methods, and philosophies about murdering for fun and profit. Intercut with all the horrific mayhem are segments in which Benoît introduces his family and friends to the camera, illustrating what a nice, normal, charming young man he seems to be.
Then he is off to kill a postman, using the victim’s uniform to seek out new victims. This grim determination to kill kill kill does not, however, mean he will not stop to pat a neighborhood child on the head as he passes. His crimes grow increasingly brutal, and the camera witnesses each in graphic detail. At first the film crew are reluctant to participate, and far more so to hang out with Benoît between his exploits. Gradually, however, they become actively complicit in the outrages until whatever consequences Benoît has coming to him will surely seek them out as well.
Try picturing Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer reimagined by Christopher Guest. Not easy, is it? That’s the best I can explain this movie. Given that the former is one of the most horrifying films ever made, you shouldn’t expect anything too, hilarious, but it maintains a mischievous sense of humor while packing a wicked satirical bite. Unflinching, raw, and difficult to sit through, it nonetheless makes some very eerie points to make about the dangerous allure of violence and power.
L. I. E. (dir. Michael Cuesta, 2001)
L. I. E. is a sober, well-crafted drama of misfits, built around the rather squirmy subject of pedophilia. Paul Franklin Dano stars as Howie, a young boy coming to grips with his mother’s death and his father’s neglect. Whether he not he can escape a go-nowhere life, symbolized by the Long Island Expressway of the film’s title, remains to be seen. Confused about his purpose, his fate, and his sexuality, he dabbles in delinquency with his best friend Gary (Billy Kay), who turns out to be an underage hustler on the side. Not the Paul Newman kind of hustler. The River Phoenix kind, may he rest in peace.
Howie and Gary try their hands at breaking and entering, but they pick the wrong sucker in stealing from Big John Harrigan (Brian Box), one of Gary’s regular clients and not a man to be trifled with. He tracks Howie down, and in exchange for not turning him in, he tauntingly presents the prospect of working off his debt with sexual favors. Though this arrangement never takes full physical shape, a peculiar relationship forms between the two of them. Given Howie’s nagging questions about what sort of person he is growing up to be, John’s insecurity about his own path is almost comforting to the younger man.
Brian Cox made a risky choice by accepting his role in L. I. E. There are no two ways about it; Big John is a very active pedophile. On the other hand, when things get really bad for Howie, John demonstrates an almost paternal concern for him. Compared to the worthless father figure Howie was born with, he has the potential to do much more good than harm in the boy’s life. John is troubled, he is sick, and he lives a big part of his life indisputably in the wrong. But just how absolute a monster is he? Tough questions from a challenging movie.
L. I. E. is roughly contemporary with Darren Aronofsky’s blistering heroin saga Requiem For A Dream. While the latter achieved a lot more notice, and rightfully so owing to Aronofsky’s talents and sense of style, L. I. E. is a more palatable (dare I say hopeful?) portrait of dead-end lives. Requiem For A Dream also enjoyed a run on the NC-17 circuit, and is not a half-bad entry in the annals of extreme tragedy. Its chief weakness is that the story’s trajectory is plain from its opening moments. L. I. E. may not achieve the same level of style, but it has some surprising revelations in store, and a lot more heart.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1989)
By far my favorite film on this list, Peter Greenaway’s most popular film is also one of the most bizarre and baffling ever made. It is gorgeously staged, elegantly scored, cleverly written, and continuously shocking from beginning to end. Any of you who know Greenaway’s work have a vague idea of what to expect. Those of you who don’t yet know Greenaway, buckle up now.
Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is an English gangster and the definitive portrait of a degenerate. Loud, crass, abusive, sadistic and pretentious, he terrorizes the proprietor and patrons of his favorite restaurant on a nightly basis. Chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer) takes this dangerous bully in stride, finding refuge in the elegance of his cuisine and the quiet disdain he shares with all the members of Spica’s retinue, including Spica’s stylish wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). Disgusted by her husband but unable to escape him, she strikes up a clandestine affair with a sensitive fellow diner (Alan Howard), using whatever secret places lie close at hand. Prepare for sex in restrooms, storage closets, meat lockers, book depositories and more. All the while, Albert the self-proclaimed gourmet gorges himself while regaling his entourage with disgusting anecdotes and oafish tirades on haute cuisine.
The restaurant itself is a glorious affair, staged like the best production of Sweeney Todd you ever saw. Greenaway plays fantastic tricks with color and perspective as spatial changes also indicate tonal shifts. As the illicit lovers fly closer and closer to the sun, Michael Nyman’s haunting score soars to dizzying heights along with them. It is clear that eventually all will be found out, and given Albert’s reputation, that will mean bad things indeed. This is the type of man who will have a fellow smeared with excrement and thrown to alley dogs over an unpaid sum of money. Just imagine his jealous reaction to a wife’s infidelity.
Every scene has some hair-raising element or another. You just plain will not believe how vivid this orgy gets, and stays, until the bitter end. Food, sex, corruption and violence mingle rather nauseatingly into the darkest comedy imaginable. I won’t even hint at what happens at the end. Except I already did. I just won’t tell you where or when. This is the kind of filmmaking that the NC-17 rating serves best. Never, never, never show this to your kids, but stomach up and watch it yourself. It is not merely a wicked treat for a perverted sweet tooth. It is nothing less than a work of art.
Even if you haven’t seen Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, you probably have some strong opinions about the MPAA. The top-secret board of regular humans responsible for rating our films have made some truly weird decisions in the past; some that have been downright vindictive, and some that seem completely arbitrary. In ‘murrica, we love our violence and hate our sex. The three movies about which I’ll be writing are all about the sexy sex, just like this week’s NC-17 rated Shame.
Inside Deep Throat (2006, dir. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato)
Inside Deep Throat is about porn. However, it is not porn. It is, in fact, about overzealous censorship and the history of pornography in the US. Directors Bailey and Barbato (who later made the totally mind-blowing and sort of awful Party Monster, which heralded Macaulay Culkin’s return to acting as a murderous club kid) composed an artful, big-name-filled documentary about the making of everybody’s favorite porno, 1972’s Deep Throat.
By rote, Inside Deep Throat shows scenes from the original film. There are man parts going into lady parts, there’s talk of female orgasms (many have noted that any inclusion of female pleasure in film tends to cause the MPAA to slap it with a NC-17 rating – see below). But this isn’t the heft of the film: mainly there are a lot of famous filmmakers, pornographers, and artists discussing censorship and the importance of Deep Throat to American cinema.
Did you know, for instance, that star Harry Reems was arrested for conspiracy to distribute obscenity across state lines? Or that poor Linda Lovelace, the famed female star of Deep Throat, later claimed that all pornography was nothing short of rape? Or how about the mob’s involvement with the distribution of the illicit film? (A pair of Florida retirees who were involved with the film’s distribution were still downright terrified of the mob even 35 years after the fact.) Yes, you did know these things? Well, would you like to see news footage of prim and proper woman in her 70s, wearing a string of impeccable pearls, stating proudly that she had just seen Deep Throat, and she “wanted to see a dirty movie, paid to see a dirty movie,” and that’s what she got? (Let me tell you, it’s satisfying.)
Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie, to someone born in the ’80s, is the fact that one used to be able to see pornography in theaters. Times Square was full of them, before Total Request Live (or whatever show MTV has on after school these days) and the Virgin superstore. I grew up in rural Indiana and moved to rural Virginia. I have always had to drive over an hour to see any movie rated NC-17, and I don’t know if porno theaters still exist (let me know in the comments). Home video changed pornography completely, and Deep Throat was right on the cusp of this change. Of course, the internet changed pornography entirely once again in the late 90s, but that’s another tale.
The movie features the wonderful John Waters, “first amendment warrior” Larry Flynt, Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, Hugh Hefner, Dr. Ruth, Camille Paglia, and a whole slew of former and current porn stars. Whether the MPAA and the conservatives in high places like it or not, pornography changed the course of American film history – and if you name a big director who got his start in the 70s, you’re naming someone who worked in porn, somehow or other. Deep Throat was rated X, and the NC-17 rating only came about in the mid-90s. The scenes of copulation in the film are pretty minimal, and it’s an intellectual and funny look at the porn industry and America in the 70s. (I mean, Deep Throat was such a phenomenon that the Nixon administration’s informer adopted the title as his code name. It was important.) Totally worth a watch.
Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance)
Blue Valentine went through a series of well-publicized battles with the MPAA over its NC-17 rating – which the MPAA eventually revoked. This one perhaps doesn’t actually belong here – but while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about why the MPAA likes to censor films. In 2010, two movies were released during award season that involved cunnilingus. Black Swan, which immediately scored a R rating and earned lead actress Natalie Portman an Oscar, was one of them. The other was Blue Valentine. In Black Swan, oral sex takes place between two women (well, sort of), and it’s psychologically horrifying. In Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams’s Cindy receives oral sex from her husband Dean (Ryan Gosling), and it’s clear she enjoys it…as much as Cindy can enjoy anything. So why did Blue Valentine initially score a NC-17?
Well, your friend and my (boy)friend Ryan Gosling had a lot to say about this: “There is something very distorted about this reality that [the MPAA has] created, which is that it is OK to torture women on screen…Any kind of violence towards women in a sexual scenario is fine. But give a woman pleasure, no way. Not a chance. That’s pornography.”
Blue Valentine is an emotionally devastating movie to watch. There is no Hollywood ending. You are treated to the lovely, quirky beginning of a relationship…and then its total implosion. Humans are inherently flawed creatures, and most viewers will see parts of themselves in angry Dean and frustrated Cindy. Many of us have found ourselves at the end of a relationship, struggling to make it work through any means. Sex is only one of those. It’s a beautiful little film with wonderful performances, and if you’re in the mood to feel really sad for a bit (but probably happy you did it), it’s the one for you.
Even though the MPAA eventually granted the movie a R rating, it was mostly public uproar (and Gosling’s public disdain for the rating system) that made it happen. Kevin Smith, Kimberly Peirce, John Waters, and myriad other filmmakers have also struggled with the MPAA. Anyone else notice that most of the torture-porn makes it through the system and plays in all the major theater chains with a R, but when there’s realistic sex between two people who aren’t happily doing it in a well-lit, hazy peach bed with silk sheets – and/or a woman has an orgasm – the MPAA shies away like a horse from a snake? (I’m exaggerating here, but only slightly.)
The Dreamers (2003, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
Bernardo Bertolucci has made far more famous NC-17 or X-rated films than The Dreamers. HIs Last Tango in Paris is one of the sexiest films ever made. But for a film nerd, The Dreamers is pure heaven. In Paris in 1968, siblings Isabelle (Eva Green) and Theo (Louis Garrel) welcome a lonely American into their bizarre dream world while their parents are out of town. Matthew (Michael Pitt) becomes deeply involved in the twisted, nearly incestuous relationship between Isabelle and Theo as the world bursts into flames all around them.
Matthew is himself a total film nerd. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which opened the door for the Auteur Theory, is quoted repeatedly in the movie. The publication Cahiers du Cinema, featuring critics whose names will make any film student light up like a power surge, was in its first days in 1968. In the midst of subversively sexy escapades, the three kids play the same kinds of games we played when I worked at Blockbuster (get your mind out of the gutter, I mean “name the actor” or “name the movie”). But most importantly, the Paris student riots, which eventually shut down most of the French government, rage outside while the three of them bury their heads in the movies and each other’s sexuality. What’s the point of living if you aren’t actually living? Bertolucci seems to ask.
This one does feature full frontal male nudity and a few sex scenes that are as explicit as it can get without being hardcore. (As if Bertolucci cares – his name alone will draw viewers from across the globe.) It’s a loving homage to film history, to the exploratory sexuality of the young, and to the sordid, self-absorbed webs we weave.
Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger, 1969)
The only X-rated movie to ever win Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy is also one of the best “New York City” movies ever made. The 1969 film presents the dark and gritty version of Manhattan that became increasingly popular in the 1970s from the eyes of two of its lowest caste- Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Rico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The Texan Buck isn’t a guy down on his luck who turns to prostitution, but a man who sees it as a career goal, even though he has difficulty obtaining money from his clients and eventually shows a willingness to cater to men; his cowboy look is not the hook he thinks it’s going to be. A Native New Yorker, Rizzo suffers from a bum leg and bad lungs but dreams of moving to Florida where he can get fresh coconut milk and live in the sun.
The movie is filmed magnificently and director John Schlesinger captures the squalor in which they live, as well as the New York City of the era complete with Andy Warhol-esque party. The disconcerting, nightmare-esque flashbacks that tell Buck’s strange and murky backstory contrast against the Manhattan scenes as well as the Florida fantasies of Rizzo. The lead actors also give two of the best performances of their respective careers. Despite them being pickpockets and gutter dwellers, pimps and prostitutes, the characters have a true, genuine, and human sadness to them. Isolated despite having one another, Buck and Rizzo are tragic and hopeless figures, who dream dreams that can never come true and who wind up sacrificing everything for even more uncertainty.
While iconic images of the film have been repurposed by shows like Seinfeld and Futurama, Midnight Cowboy retains its impact 42 years later. It’s a depressing movie and powerful character drama. Since its release, Midnight Cowboy has been relabeled an R film.
Orgazmo (dir. Trey Parker, 1997)
Before South Park and after Cannibal: The Musical, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Orgazmo. The duo’s obsession with Mormons started long before they hit Broadway, and in this film, Parker stars as Mormon missionary Joe Young who becomes a porn star in order to earn money for his upcoming nuptials. Retaining his innocence, he requires stunt cocks that replace him when it comes time to perform. Nevertheless, his movie (Orgazmo, where he plays a superhero with an orgasm ray known as the Orgazmorator and a sidekick named ChodaBoy (Dian Bachar)) becomes a success even outside of the porn industry, and his fiancé finds out, much to her disappointment. When the director kidn
aps Young’s fiancé, he and ChodaBoy (with a new found belief in Hamster Style) must rescue her, complete with actual working Orgazmorator. Stone appears as Dave The Lighting Guy who doesn’t “wanna sound like a queer or nothing,” but thinks unicorns kick ass and that Depeche Mode is a sweet band.
The film contains a lot of the humor and satirical elements that would later define the comedy of Parker and Stone and as such is much cleverer than originally given credit for. Especially when compared to Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star from earlier this year, Orgazmo shows why the people behind Team America: World Police have always been several cuts above other comedy writers in the business. Furthermore, like many NC-17 movies, the problem seems to come more from content rather than nudity itself. It also has an excellent theme song.
Bad Lieutenant (dir. Abel Ferrara, 1992)
When it comes to the highly divisive Bad Lieutenant, I fall on the side that considers it an amazing film. Harvey Keitel gives one of his best performances as a nameless, crack using, gambling-addicted (and bad at it), deviant, robbing-from-the-evidence-room cop at the end of his rope and out over $100,000 because of the New York Mets. At his job, the Catholic Lieutenant must investigate the rape of a nun who already forgives her two attackers while he tries to reconcile her feelings with his beliefs. It is generally difficult to successfully pull off a crisis of faith storyline (as Dexter this season has proven), but Bad Lieutenant navigates these waters quite well and quite powerfully. When the Lieutenant asks for forgiveness, you truly understand just how much he hates who he is and that he might change if he were not already so far in his hole.
The NC-17 rating comes from sexual violence, strong sexual situations and dialogue, and graphic drug use. Harvey Keitel also shows his penis.
In 2009, Werner Herzog released Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which has nothing to do with the original film aside from featuring a drug addicted asshole cop who starred in National Treasure. Interestingly enough, it’s not a bad movie and one where Nicolas Cage’s Nicolas Cageyness suits the character rather than the character simply being Nicolas Cage and thus is easily one of his best movies in years. It’s a different take on the “story”- higher energy, more humor, less overwhelming despair, little in the way of religion- that would probably have been better served without the Bad Lieutenant title.
Crash (dir. David Cronenberg, 1996)
There are two semi-recent movies with the title Crash. One tells us how human beings have only two speeds- horribly racist and somewhat decent; the other is the good one.
David Cronenberg has been one of the world’s most interesting directors for years. Very few filmmakers could probably pull off the career path he has as successfully as he has. To go from surreal, cerebral, and fantastic looking gore films such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch to strong character dramas such as Spider and Eastern Promises while still presenting a unique vision is quite extraordinary, and I am greatly looking forward to A Dangerous Method later this year.
In 1996, he adapted Crash by legendary author J.G. Ballard- a perfect match considering their mutual fixations on the interplay between technology and the human body. The very sexually charged film centers around James Ballard (James Spader) who gets into a car accident where he kills the husband of Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). Because of it, they discover the powerful eroticism of man and machine, especially involving car accidents. They enter a subculture led by photographer Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who recreates classic car crashes on tracks late at night. Sexual labels disappear and same/multi-sex encounters regularly occur, as the characters become united through the crash rather than the gender. As one would expect, Cronenberg allows us to understand why this turn on holds such power and why conventional sex is so unfulfilling.