A review of Linda Williams’ new book Screening Sex is up at Metapsychology:
Williams would not like to conflate nudity per se with sex and it becomes significant to ask at some point not so much what you can portray on the screen, for now we have mainstream films with real rather than simulated sex, with erections and penetrations, with cunnilingus and fellatio, with close-up and inside as well as money shots, but rather what is necessary to portray. What is the point? — in the most sensible and straightforward interpretation of the question. How does the representation of sex on the screen, in a particular film, add to our engagement with the story or the characters? How, if it does not sound too pompous, does it enrich our experience of the film and our understanding of our selves? Perhaps it doesn’t, perhaps it does. It just seems important to ask the question. There is the related issue of real rather than simulated sex and what is and how far is something a representation when it is real? Would we draw the line and real violence, although it happens in the real world? Killing real people, perhaps? Would we applaud or condone child abuse? Why are we assured that “no animals were injured in the making of this film”? Is there confusion in speaking about simulations and documents in the same way? Can we support Bazin’s argument, perhaps ad absurdo, that if we can be shown unsimulated sex, we can be shown unsimulated violence? This also brings to mind Laurence Olivier’s oft-quoted remark to the Lee Strasberg Method-influenced Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, “Have you ever considered acting?” Are we watching actors, performers or exhibitionists?
It would seem that the truly erotic is a difficult note to hit; it is all too easy to be dull and boring or laughable and ridiculous. Williams explores the questions of romance, sex and sexuality — and they very rarely seem to be the same thing. It is particularly important for her to look to the future, as well as the past, again seeing cinematic representation as both a mirror and a sign post; indicating both where we are and where we are going. This may be the more lasting legacy of the book.
More about the book is at the publisher’s site, Duke University Press