A few weeks ago the Huffington Post published a list of “8 Films That Forever Changed Sex As We Know It” (NSFW). These are supposed to be the eight essential films that reflect changing sexual mores on screen. I found the selection odd and limited. A friend challenged me to do better. Here’s my list of influential films in the history of cinematic sex, with special attention to films that affected censorship, particularly in Canada.
Irwin-Rice Kiss (1896)
May Irwin (from Whitby, Ontario) and John Rice starred in the New York stage comedy The Widow Jones, and they re-created their kiss for Edison’s film company. A reviewer noted: “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)
In 1975, film scholar Laura Mulvey wrote an influential essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” essentially claiming that films were all about presenting women as fantasy objects for men. There’s a long history of that, and the objectification is noted in this annotated version of The Gay Shoe Clerk.
Among other things, this film showed black men as sexually aggressive towards white women. It was controversial when it was released, and some of the newly established state censor boards banned the film. The Ohio ban went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a case known as “Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” the court ruled:
The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.
In other words, state governments were free to ban films, since they were not constitutionally protected speech.
This forty minute Italian parable features a peasant who becomes pregnant by a tramp, whom she believes to be Saint Joseph (played by an uncredited Federico Fellini). An American theatre owner brought the film to New York in 1952, obtained clearance from state censors, and played it on a triple bill called Ways of Love. Catholics were outraged, and the state censors decided the film was sacrilegious and banned it. The case went to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the 1915 Mutual decision was no longer valid, and that films were in fact entitled to First Amendment protection.
Even if it be assumed that motion pictures possess a greater capacity for evil, particularly among the youth of a community, than other modes of expression, it does not follow that they are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment or may be subjected to substantially unbridled censorship.
This was the beginning of the end of film censorship in the United States.
Films set in nudist camps and promoting naturism were a staple of the exploitation circuit in the United States, though not legal in Canada. The nudity was limited to breasts and bums. The Garden of Eden was among the first of these films in colour, and, in the moral climate of the time, it was considered less exploitative than many films of this type because it included children. New York state censors banned the film, but the ruling was overturned by the courts, citing the decision in the Miracle case.
Russ Meyer’s first film, a low budget voyeur comedy with extensive female nudity, was the first exploitation picture to drop any premise of education, artistic merit, or examination of the nudist lifestyle. Sexually explicit films were illegal, but this film narrowed the gap between the legal exploitation sex films and the illegal explicit sex films.
The first American Film to show female breasts and be approved by the Production Code was 1965’s The Pawnbroker. Meanwhile, in Ontario, a theatre planning to show a Japanese erotic fable, Woman in the Dunes, threatened to sue the Ontario Board of Censors if the female nudity in the film was cut. The Board passed the film uncut.
This very sixties black and white socially conscious two hour Swedish epic attracted a lot of attention, and made a lot of money, due to its politics and full frontal male and female nudity. It’s also very, very boring. As Roger Ebert commented, “two hours of this movie will drive thoughts of sex out of your mind for weeks.” It was approved in Ontario, with cuts.
There is also I Am Curious (Blue), from 1968. It’s a different version of the same film, with the same cast and crew. Yellow and Blue refer to the colours of the Swedish flag.
The 1960s quiet revolution in Quebec meant new possibilities for film. History teacher and film maker Denis Héroux, who had friends at the National Film Board of Canada, started Cinepix (later CFP and now Lionsgate Films) and made Valérie, a low budget black and white exploitation picture about a nun who becomes a topless dancer. A series of similar films led to Variety coining the term “Maple Syrup Porn” for Canadian made soft-core porn films. In Quebec, the names were cruder. Héroux went on to produce many films, including Atlantic City and Black Robe, and received the Order of Canada for his contributions to the film industry.
In 1968 the Motion Pictures Distributors Association of America (MPAA) introduced a series of age based ratings, replacing the one-size-fits-all requirements of the Production Code. (Ontario introduced age based ratings in 1946.) The highest level, for adults only, was X, and distributors were permitted to use the X rating without submitting the film for approval. Both Hollywood and the adult sex film industry started to release X rated films, but neither group liked sharing a rating, particularly since the contents were different. The adult sex film industry switched to XXX, and Hollywood eventually switched to NC-17, but the NC-17 rating still has the taint of being associated with adult sex films.
Midnight Cowboy is the only X rated film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The MPAA gave Midnight Cowboy an R rating in 1971, though there were not any changes to the film.
One of the few adult sex films to go almost mainstream. This 61 minute sexually explicit comedy was reviewed by respected critics, most of whom, including Roger Ebert, panned it, and for better or worse it entered popular culture. Bans and trials in many jurisdictions only added to its notoriety. Although criticized for its minimal plot and low production values, in the world of adult sex films it was noteworthy for having a plot and any production values.
It was quietly approved for distribution in Ontario in 1990, though it was not until 1992 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that consensual portrayals of explicit sex were not obscene. (British Columbia started allowing sexually explicit films in the 1980s).
A Toronto theatrical showing in 2000 attracted protests, on the grounds that the film portrayed sexual violence. At issue was not the content, but the abusive conditions under which Linda Boreman made it. The board noted that they could only consider the on screen content, and that the film was “a cut above 99% of the films that we now see at the board.”
This German film received the 1980 American Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and eight other Best Foreign Film awards from associations around the world. However it also challenged censors with scenes of simulated sexual activity involving a male character who is outwardly three years old, mentally an adult, and portrayed by a young teenage actor. The director agreed to a twenty second cut for England, but refused three cuts requested by the Ontario Film Review Board.
Ontario already had a reputation for strict censorship (for example, see my essay on In Praise of Older Women), and the Tin Drum cuts were the last straw. The government appointed a new chair and restructured the Board with part time citizen reviewers instead of civil servants. The film eventually passed with two cuts. During media coverage of the issue, the scenes to be cut were shown on television news broadcasts.
In 1997, an Oklahoma County judge declared The Tin Drum to be child pornography. Police subsequently seized video copies from stores, libraries, and from the homes of people who had rented the movie. Eventually federal courts ruled that the confiscation had been unconstitutional and the film was not obscene.
This experimental documentary from Canadian film maker R. Bruce Elder won Best Independent Experimental Film by the Los Angeles Critics Circle. It includes 46 seconds of explicit close up sexual activity, but the newly re-organized Ontario Film Review Board passed it uncut on the grounds of artistic merit.
In April of 2000, undercover Theatres Act Inspectors purchased the adult sex video Descent in a Toronto specialty bookstore. The video had not been rated and as a result the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial relations charged the store, Glad Day Bookshop, and its owner with Distributing an Unapproved Film, in violation of the Theatres Act. Four years later, the Ontario Supreme Court ruled that mandatory film rating was unconstitutional.
The Ontario government created a completely new Theatres Act, with changes such as allowing an unlimited amount of explicit sexual activity in mainstream films, but mandatory rating is still in place, and films can still be banned. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia also still have mandatory rating and the option to ban films. Alberta has ratings for theatrical releases only.