Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies: Sinema stripped bare.
We open as the curtain rises on the #MeToo movement. When our return to cinemas is finally ensured, there will be a new closing credit aberration to reckon with, a job described simply as “Intimacy Coordinator.” Hired by the studio, it’s their task to oversee sex scenes, to choreograph them such that the line between actors and sex workers is never blurred. If ever there were a film in which nakedness was essential to the plot, it’s Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies.
My first job managing a theatre was a Landmark single-screen that changed double-bills daily. The year was 1980, and the City of Chicago, which still required theatre owners to acquire permits for each movie they exhibited, would frequently send a deputy around to keep exhibitors honest. A knock on the door echoed through the lobby 30 minutes prior to the matinee performance of Josef Von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, a scandalous-to-this-day adaptation of the life of Catherine the Great, and one of the last films to be released before the infamous Hays code became law.
No sooner did the Catholic Legion of Decency publish its ratings list to churches than lines began forming at theatres showcasing the condemned titles. Movie censorship, regulated by both city and state when The Scarlet Empress opened in 1934, led to the film’s “Adults Only” classification. The rep was older than cinema itself, puritanicalism personified, cloaked in grey business dress and topped with a marled blue lambswool mane wound tight in a bun. Tugging at the leather knot button of her color-coordinated gloves, from which dangled an unfiltered Chesterfield, the relic from the Hays Office insisted that we display an X-Rating sign in the box office. The revenue lost by turning away a teenage throng eager to watch a black-and-white costume picture from the 1930s was incalculable.
It was called the Hays Office, but former Postmaster General Will Hays was less a censor than he was a shill on the studios’ payroll. It was Catholic layman Joseph Breen who, more than any individual of his time, shaped Hollywood morals throughout its golden period. In the truest sense of the term, pre-code films ceased to exist when the production code was first submitted to studios in 1929. But critic Mick LaSalle rightfully points out the era in Hollywood’s history frequently called pre-code actually refers to films released between 1929 and 1934, that glorious period before the code actually became enforceable.
I am not going to pretend that I have not enjoyed my fair share of onscreen nudity — my first nipple was Ali MacGraw’s in Goodbye, Columbus — but in retrospect, a starlet’s nude scene seldom lives up to her agent’s “essential to the plot” incentive. With rare exceptions (The Pawnbroker, The Last Picture Show, The Crying Game are the first films that come to mind), nudity does more to advance an actress’s career than it does the plot.
After denuding a great deal of information, the film begins to fall apart — around the same time as the studio system — all but abandoning historical perspective as it collapses into a checklist of favorite flashes. Russ Meyer and Pam Grier are given their due, but damn if the filmmakers don’t gloss over the 1970s, by far the most fertile era for nudity in mainstream cinema. Though it’s directed by Danny Wolf, the true auteur behind the film is producer/talking head Jim “Mr. Skin” McBride, aided by fellow professional flesh-spotter and publisher of Celebrity Sleuth, Barry Kemelhor.
It could be argued that American Pie introduced sex comedies to a new generation of teenagers, but Wolf veers far off the mark by spending more time on Howling 2 than the original, and fawning over dross like Terminator 3 or the overall inexorable Not Another Teen Movie. Ditto Blake Edwards, whose masterful 10 is given short shrift in favor of Julie Andrews taking a pause amidst the forced hysterics of S.O.B. to flash her “boobies.” And a little fact checking is in order: actress Camille Keaton claims that I Spit on Your Grave was the first film in which a rape victim goes back to get revenge on her attackers. But the subject was covered four years earlier, and to greater effectiveness, in the exploitation marvel Act of Vengeance, aka Rape Squad.
In closing, one must applaud the filmmakers for their wisdom in including the single most important full frontal romp committed to film in the past 20 years: Ken Davitian’s nude wrestling match with Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat. A better film on the subject awaits. Until that time, we’ll have to make do with a solid opening hour and the random parade of tits and giggles that follow. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Endless — We open in mid-misfortune: Chris (Nicholas Hamilton) is in the passenger seat, three beers to the wind, his designated driver girlfriend Riley (Alexandra Shipp) texting behind the wheel, and two oncoming cars screeching along on their way to put an end to love. At least in this world. Survivor’s guilt overwhelms Riley, while Chris, unable to cross over, forges on in oblivion. (As strong a presence as Shipp brings to the role, that’s exactly how drippy Hamilton’s ghostly brooder is.) It turns out that Scott Speer’s (Step Up Revolution, Midnight Sun) weigh station for ascending souls is an agreeable destination with perks galore. How old you were when you died is how old you stay. Communication amongst the limbo dead is a plus. Want to globe hop? Just think of a destination! And did I mention that one can fly anywhere they desire, no wings attached? In Chris’s case, it’s even possible to make aural and physical contact with his beloved! Presented with uncomplicated conviction by a director skilled at sleight-of-hand, even the most ludicrous plot points prove pleasurable. When not cranking out video shorts, Speer works exclusively in genre pictures, making him a rarity among today’s directors. Oddly enough, though the film is meant to jerk tears, not once did I find my hand reaching for a Puffs. 2020. —S.M. ★★★
The Tax Collector — Last year’s pawn shop acquisition of Dark Blue was almost enough to call for a reevaluation of David Ayers’ screenplays. His violent professional friendships, and the profane musings that entail between passenger and driver never were my bag — better a twentieth viewing of Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. than a second appraisal of Training Day — but the advance word on this led with “unwatchable,” so here I am. David Cuevas (Bobby Soto) is a juice man for the mob, loved by his family, but not feared enough by his enemies. That explains the rapport between David and co-collection agent Creeper (Shia LaBeouf), an exsanguinous enforcer who instills enough fear in their victims for the both of them. Once professional movie stars LaBeouf and George Lopez are written out of the script, it’s strictly amateur night, with Soto not strong enough to carry the picture. And if exploitation is the desired end result, why cloak it in a mist of social significance that, when dissipated, has nothing to show for itself short of a pile of bloody corpses, pointlessly added to shock enlightenment into today’s jaded viewers?. 2020 —S.M. ●