The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2, 1999


In movies, sex scenes no reflection of real life

Bar Talk: for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
Have you ever seen yourself having sex on film or would you want to?

A question like this gets attention - it's a rhetorical tactic, not unlike those used by the film industry when they release trailers laden with images of bodies in compromising (or promising) positions to lure in the American moviegoer. In the wake of recent releases like Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, I visited Lucy's Hat Shop, a restaurant/bar in Old City, and 700, a neighborhood bar in Northern Liberties, to find out what people thought of today's hyped-up, sexually-charged movies.

How does the sex we see on the big screen compare with what it's really like? The bar crowd was quick to draw a line between fantasy and reality. "It's the difference between what people look like in the movies and what they look like in real life," said Lucy's Hat Shop owner Avram Hornik, 26. "One's the top 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of the world; otherwise, it's everyone else."

How then does cinemagraphic sexuality make us feel when we leave the theater? Does it set up an unattainable expectation? Lara Deines, 28, a landscape architect who was taught in school to "keep it sexual," to recognize the curves and sensuousness of landforms when designing outdoor spaces, said, "You see something that's so exquisite and you say to yourself 'why not, why can't it happen,' but it's hard for people to live up to that standard in their own lives."

Many thought that the main difference between screen and everyday romance had something to do with the director's available resources--gadgets, techniques and choreographers--absent from the typical real-life love scene. Mike Davidson, 26, a scenic carpenter who builds sets for commercials, TV and movies, said, "On screen, the sheets are always in the right place, there's makeup and airbrushing and fancy camera work; it's all very graceful." 700 owner and bartender Kurt Wunder, 33, added, "It's the perfect man and the perfect woman, their bodies are oiled, and everybody's sweating just enough. You never hear things like 'would you turn the lights off' or 'can you shut the window.' That's reality."

It was clear that the moviegoers I talked with could easily spot an idealized depiction of sexual relationships, those cigarette-after moments often glorified on film. Software developer Mike Kmiec, 28, commented on self-image: "You should go to the theater happy with who your are and not be swayed by some ideal created by Hollywood, which is in the business of making things ideal." Andrew David Gordon, 25, who works in publishing, added that sex in movies is "meant to look like sex in other movies, as opposed to the sex and sensuality we experience in our own lives."

So which movies had power-campaigns to promote eroticism and sexuality but fell flat or seemed outrageously far-fetched? Besides Eyes Wide Shut, interviewees named films like Pretty Woman, Clay Pigeons, Nine 1/2 Weeks, Wild Things, Showgirls, "any movie with Mickey Rourke" and the highly-anticipated Bikini Carwash Company II.

Among the most exciting, provocative and erotic movies mentioned were The Big Easy, Body Heat, The Pillow Book, Exit to Eden, Do the Right Thing, Witness and A Room with a View. What do these movies have in common? People felt the kind of sexuality most stimulating on film was hinted at, subliminal, unexpected, honest or intrinsic to the storyline itself. "What works," said marketing executive Diane Connelly, 38, "is the suggestion of an idea that's planted in someone's head, so what happens in the mind is more exciting than the explicitness portrayed on screen by Hollywood."

People also appreciated comedies for their playful parodies of sexual situations. "Take Naked Gun, said editor Erica Pennella, 23, "which had a montage of suggestive imagery like rockets launching and oil pumps drilling. It made fun of the fact that sex is very Freudian and that people take symbolism seriously when it comes to sex."

In the end, people championed older movies, those that evoked sensuality through innuendo, that captured the emotion by what's implied. Film props stylist Todd Siwinski, 25, summed it up by talking about the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man: "It's in the way they look at each other. It's more about the emotion that's taking place than the physical aspect of what you see. I would say that the sexiest films don't show any sex at all."

In this era of voyeuristic, over-marketed sexuality, where perhaps the worst made-for-TV movie of all time, the Clinton/Lewinsky story, is still fresh in the mind, I tend to agree.


© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.