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Dreaming of acceptance: Sex and the American media

I saw The Dreamers the Saturday before spring break. No, you haven’t overslept and woke up on the movie review page — this column is about sex, which is readily apparent if you’ve heard anything about the movie. Just in case you haven’t, Bernardo Bertolucci’s latest film in a 40-plus-year career (he is most famous for having directed Marlon Brando in the classic Last Tango In Paris in 1972) is also the first motion picture to be labeled with the dubious NC-17 rating since Showgirls flopped several years ago. And yes, it earned the restriction based on the fact that there’s a lot of sexual activity — some of it disturbing, some of it incestuous and all of it graphic.

Without getting too in-depth (because after all, this isn’t a review), the plot centers around a 20-year-old American named Matthew who, while visiting France in 1968, witnesses the Paris Student Riots from the bedroom window of two indolent, spoiled and kinky Gallic twins named Theo and Isabel. While Paris burns, the kids dissect the minutiae of classic cinema and stage spectacular “forfeits,” such as public masturbation and having sex on the kitchen floor. It was unceasingly intriguing, devoted to its themes and motifs, and, in my opinion, more erotic than “real” pornography. None of the scenes shocked or offended me (although at least one moviegoer stormed out during the particularly visceral depiction of Isabel losing her virginity), but the drama outside the cinema was notable.

Going in (to my amazement, it was playing at the Baywalk Muvico 20 rather than some out-of-the-way one-screen theater), I knew that the experience would be something different from an average night at the movies. I’ve never had my I.D. checked so attentively. At the box office, the grinning teenager who took my boyfriend’s money informed us, “There’s a lot of sex in that.” The ticket-ripper inside the lobby glanced at our stubs and said: “All riiight.” Again, at the theater’s entrance, another attendant was dutifully weeding out interlopers. Inside, I was interested to realize that I was the youngest person in the very sparse audience. A small knot of mostly middle-age-ish, mostly devoted-film-buff-looking types filled maybe one quarter of the complex’s smallest auditorium, waiting for one of the most praised and critically analyzed masters of contemporary movie-making to work his magic on them.

There is a reason that directors and the studios that back them don’t release NC-17 features. Many notable flicks of years past, including American Pie, House of 1000 Corpses (“notable” doesn’t mean “worth the money spent making them”) and Kill Bill were threatened with the scarlet rating their first time past the MPAA, and scrambled to make substantial cuts in areas that were deemed too “mature” for the American public. After NC-17 replaced the “X” rating in the early ’80s (Henry and June was the last “X”) because Hollywood felt that “X” was becoming connotative of pornography, the MPAA set down rules about movies with that label. Mostly, the rules restricted who could be admitted (no one under 17, no way, no how) and how the movie could be promoted, namely, not on TV or anywhere impressionable young minds might be exposed to it. Who wants to release a movie they can’t promote?

But what are we saying about the American public? Are we, in fact, not mature enough to handle honest depictions of sexual activity on film? I was watching Blade with my kid brother a few weeks ago and discovered that apparently the dismemberment, decapitation and blood-soaked demises of various hell-demons are A-OK for an “R” rating. This is not to single it out, especially since Wesley Snipes is H-O-T, and I “love me” some vampire movies. You see the same things in Reservoir Dogs (anything by Tarantino, actually) and the TV trailer for Dawn of the Dead. These are just things I have seen in the last week. Why is it that as a society we can handle violence (which an “impressionable” mind might hopefully never encounter on a scale equivalent to these features), but down-to-earth depictions of sex are taboo? In films that want to imitate reality (and leave porn, material specifically to stimulate and imitate sex, out of the discussion), why must we pretend that we live in an airbrushed, sheets-artfully-arranged world? Compared with the majority of European nations, which tend to levy stronger regulations against cinematic violence and allow more elaborate depictions of sex, it seems like we are sexually repressed. Indeed, according to European rating systems (which assign a specific minimum “recommended” age at which a film ought to be seen), The Dreamers rated between 12 (in France) and 16 (in Italy), with none of the stigma of the American equivalent.

Why is it that the sight of a naked body is considered more deleterious than a fully clothed one oozing blood from every pore? Perhaps someone should tell Bertolucci and other auteurs not to bother bringing movies for adults to our shores, because, apparently, we can’t deal with them here.