Monday, May 18, 2009

Sex, Part 1

Hello, Script readers.

Let’s skip the introductions and go straight to the sex, shall we?

Because I have a few questions for all you virgin screenwriters out there. As we look forward to 2009 and beyond, how should we view sex in our specs? Can sex be crucial to a story?

It seems to me that in films, as in life, sex complicates things. People get all confused and distracted when breasts, butts, and bushes flash across the screen. So let’s see if we can unveil a few secrets about sex in screenwriting. To do that, we first look to the past.

Starting in the 1920s until the mid-60’s, the rather prudish Hays Production Code overshadowed every creative writing decision in every production of every film. If your film didn’t get a Seal of Approval from the Production Code, you were in trouble. Some tried to distribute their films without a Seal, just as Otto Preminger and United Artists did with their 1953 film, The Moon is Blue. The Code denied the Seal because the script contained the words seduce, pregnant, and virgin. Not only that, a film distributed without a Seal into the heartland of America ran the risk of prosecution for breaking local obscenity laws. Otto’s film was banned in Kansas, which got challenged, and went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court who reversed the decision.

During World War I, Americans were concerned about something called “social hygiene,” umm, you know, venereal diseases, and filmmakers like Ivan Abramson put together little movies, like Enlighten Thy Daughter from 1917, which explained the “facts of life.” This, if you can believe it, evolved into underground sexploitation films of the ‘30s - ‘60s, which were showcased in tents or run-down theaters called grind houses. Even then, the celluloid gypsies of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to come up with reasons to include all of that envelope-pushing sexuality in their films in case they got hit with a lawsuit. Their reasoning? “Education.” Or it was a “morality tale.”

They’d have lurid titles like Sins of Love (1932), Road to Ruin (1934), Slaves in Bondage (1937), Mad Youth (1939), Secrets of a Model (1940), and Confessions of a Vice Baron (1943). The posters would scream “Open Your Eyes! Protect Your Daughters!” “Girls Enslaved Into Lives of Shame!” “A Throbbing Drama of Shackled Youth!” The stories, of course, always ended badly for those who, uhh, misbehaved so that there would be an acceptable “balance” of moral condemnation. The narrative might be a policeman investigating a seedy party that went wrong or we’d have a man sitting in jail telling a story with regret about the things he’d done. By the 60’s, they’d have voice overs literally condemning what you were seeing on screen or they’d speak passages from great works of literature or play the music of Bach to make it more difficult for prosecutors to convince jurors that a particular film had no redeeming value.

Fascinating to me, however, was a haunting film from 1965 by Sidney Lumet called The Pawnbroker, which helped bring some change and revision of the Production Code. The film, following many heated confrontations, was released with a Seal and with nudity because the fleeting shots of breasts were actually crucial to the story. In one scene, a prostitute visits Sol Nazerman, a pawnbroker and Holocaust survivor. She says, “I’m good pawnbroker. I’m real good. I’ve done things you haven’t even dreamed about before. Just twenty dollars more. I’ll make you happy, like you never know.” She takes off her top. “I gotta get me some money. Look… Look… Look…” And her breasts trigger Nazerman’s memory of the tragic fate of his wife at the hands of Nazi rapists. We’re given flashbacks via French New Wave quick cuts of his wife (topless) in a cell, men looking in, a Nazi guard entering, and then back to Nazerman throwing his hands onto his face. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the concentration camp. A German soldier asks, “Willst du was sehen?” meaning, “Do you want to see?” He’s cruelly forced to witness heinous acts, and the soldier’s “want to see” question parallels the prostitute’s “look” commands. For Nazerman, sex has become a source of trauma. Nazerman snaps back, covers the girl with a raincoat, and gives her twenty dollars.

Of course, not every sex scene (or in this case, an almost sex scene) has to be tragic to be crucial to a story, but I believe this helps to point us in the right direction to learn a deeper truth about sex in screenwriting today and that is:


It’s like what bad boy writer, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote, “A pornographic novelist is one who exploits the sexual instinct as a prostitute does. A legitimate sex novel elucidates it or brings out its poetry, tragedy, or comedy.” Exactly! And how do you do that? Through characters. When I read a sex scene in a script, I’m not usually moved by the mechanics of the act itself. I’m drawn to the emphasis on the characters in the scene and if the writer is doing something interesting beyond the clichéd emotion of euphoria. That’s the difference between exploiting sexual instincts and elucidating the poetry, tragedy, or comedy of sex.

So let’s explore some of the ways sex can be crucial to a story. It can, first of all, be a way to get to a truth about a character. Chinatown was all about obtaining truth through knowledge of sexual behavior. It opened with Jake revealing to a man photos of his wife having an affair. The story moved on to what may be Mulwray’s affair with a young girl and ends with a devastating revelation. I’m sure you know the story. If you don’t, you’re not much of a screenwriter. Hehehe… In any case, there is a scene in a bathroom with Jake and Evelyn, which precedes the sex, where Jake removes the bandage off his face. She’s shocked by his deep physical scar, just as Jake will later be shocked by her emotional scars.

Then, he allows her to dabble peroxide on his nose in a moment of trust. Jake notices a black mark on the green part of her eye. She tries to shrug it off as “a flaw in the iris,” “a birthmark of sorts.” Uh huh. Interesting that we have two characters both avoiding talking about the past (Evelyn and her father, Jake and Chinatown) while both have deep scars to share. Then, we cut to Jake and Evelyn lying in bed having obviously had sex, and we’re given more subtle clues to the murder mystery. The phone rings. She answers. She tells Jake she has to leave. Jake mentions that he recently met with her father, which gets a subtle, yet important reaction. Evelyn is visibly shaken, has to cover her breasts with her arms, and she quickly goes to the bathroom. Some scars can only be seen when we’re naked emotionally and physically.

Sex can be a way to chart a character’s arc, too. A character’s attitude toward sex is one way in the beginning of a film and completely different by the end. Masturbation was the vehicle to showcase Lester Burnham’s character arc in American Beauty. You may recall the opening sequence where Lester tells us in voice over that he’ll be dead in a year and that he’s already dead spiritually. We’re given a scene where we’re to look pitifully at Lester “jerking off in the shower,” which will be, as he says, “the high point of my day.” Later, when Caroline catches Lester masturbating in bed, she becomes furious. Lester tells her, “I’ve changed. And the new me whacks off when he feels horny!” In the beginning, masturbation illustrated how desolate he was, but later, it signified the new, assertive, independent Lester Burnham.

A sex scene can also be a way to reveal different sides of your characters. It can, on the one hand, illuminate a character’s hypocrisy, as an individual says one thing in public and does something quite different in private. On the other hand, you can have a character that simply behaves one way out in the world (timid) only to be completely different in the bedroom (tiger). I love the scene with Faye Dunaway and William Holden in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. This woman was so passionate and so sexy in the office that a guy can only wonder how fantastic her love life must be. However, when you finally get her into the bedroom, you are revealed just how totally cut off she is from her emotional and sexual roots. She will not stop talking about the ratings and the network and the TV shows. But she will pause briefly for an orgasm:

She busily removes her shoes, unbuttons her blouse, whisks out of her slacks down to her bikini panties. She scours the walls for a thermostat.

...Christ, it’s cold in here...
(turns up the heat)
You see we’re paying these nuts
from the Ecumenical Liberation Army
ten thousand bucks a week to bring
in authentic film footage on their
revolutionary activities, and that
constitutes inducement to commit a
crime. And Walter says we’ll all
wind up in federal prison...

Nubile and nearly naked, she entwines herself around Max, who by now has stripped down to his trousers. The two hungering bodies slide down onto the bed where they commence an affable moment of amative foreplay.

(efficiently unbuckling
and unzipping Max’s
...I said, “Walter, let the
government sue us! We’ll be front
page for months! The Washington
Post and The New York Times will be
doing two editorials a week about
us! We’ll have more press than

Groping, grasping, gasping, and fondling, they contrive to denude each other, and in a fever of sexual hunger, Diana mounts Max. The screen is filled with the voluptuous writhings of love. Diana cries out with increasing exultancy...

(in the throes of passion)
All I need... is six weeks of
federal litigation... and “The Mao
Tse Tung Hour”... can start
carrying its own time slot!

She screams in consummation, sighs a long, deliciously shuddering sigh, and sinks softly down into Max’s embrace. For a moment, she rests her head on Max’s chest, eyes closed in feline contentment.

(after a moment, begins purring)
What’s really bugging me now is my
daytime programming…


This brings us to one of the most obvious points about a sex scene and that is, sex can be a way of gauging the health and stability of a relationship. The great Peter Ustinov, Mr. Hercule Poirot himself, once said, “Sex is a conversation carried out by other means. If you get on well out of bed, half the problems in bed are solved.” Exactly. When there are problems in the bedroom, when there’s passionless, perfunctory sex on display, we know something’s wrong.

Annie Hall gave us scenes filled with problems in the bedroom (usually bad timing, mood-killing mishaps, or lowered romantic interests) all of which satirized the idea that sex was the foundation upon which all contemporary relationships were built. Here, if the sex was dead, so was the relationship. You may recall the sequence where Annie and Alvy are seeing their respective therapists and revealing their differing perceptions about the same question of “How often do you have sex?” Alvy: “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Annie: “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” Hehehe… Those two seemed fated to always be searching for a love that lasts but never find it, which was punctuated by Allen’s non-linear structure.

Shampoo boldly proclaimed that those who concealed conflicting desires were hypocrites, not that those conflicting desires did the characters any good. Robert Towne incorporated a motif of interruptions during sex, which implied unsatisfied desires. The interruptions always happened to the lustful rake by the name of George played by a young Warren Beatty. His affair with Felicia in the opening sequence was interrupted by a phone call from another woman named Jackie. George’s affair with Jackie was twice interrupted by a man named Lester from whom George was trying to secure money and who was also married to Felicia while having Jackie as a mistress. Is your head spinning yet? George is so self-obsessed that when his wife, Jill, tries to communicate with him and achieve greater intimacy, George ignores her or interrupts her.

I have to mention 9 Songs, which was written and directed by Micheal Winterbottom. This is the only film to be on the Independent Film Channel’s online lists of both the 50 Greatest and 50 Worst Sex Scenes in Cinema History. While not a masterpiece, I think it had some interesting ideas, which were explained best by Mr. Roger Ebert: “What Winterbottom is charting is the progress of sex in the absence of fascination; if two people are not excited by who they are outside of sex, there's a law of diminishing returns in bed. Yes, they try to inspire themselves with blindfolds and bondage, but the more you're playing games, the less you're playing with each other. Their first few sexual encounters have the intricacy and mystery of great tabletop magic; by the end, they're making elephants disappear but they know it's just a trick.


A sex scene can also be about manipulation, a means to an end. In James Bond films, it’s usually a way of coaxing information out of a female spy. In Film Noirs, femme fatales are notorious for using sex to convince men to do things that are not very nice, like murder. Film Noir is the only genre where it’s essential to have a weak, passive, male protagonist.

Body Heat took place in a small town in Florida that had no air conditioning and seemed to be stuck in limbo, like its protagonist Ned Racine (William Hurt). Here’s a guy who is grown up, hit with the reality that adulthood isn’t as wonderful as he thought it would be, and he lacked the will to better himself or move away. Thus, he became susceptible to the charms of Matty (Kathleen Turner), who used sex to convince him that life with her would fulfill all his fantasies and restore his self esteem, if only he would do this one little thing for her. In fact, she first got him to break the law by encouraging him to break into her house to have sex with her:


…He pushes at [the windows] as his eyes lock with Matty, who watches from the hall. The windows won't move. Racine spins and picks up the nearest object, a wooden rocking chair. He lifts it, turns and smashes the big window. Glass showers into the dining room.

Matty watches. She hasn't moved.

Racine pushes the broken window out of his way. He comes in, like a violent gust of wind.


Racine crosses the dark living room fast. As he reaches Matty, she lifts her arms to match his embrace. They come together hard and tight. They kiss. And kiss again. Her hands travel over his body, as though she's wanted them there for a long time…

In other erotic thrillers, like Sea of Love or Basic Instinct, the sex scene is the moment of reckoning for some characters. Will she or won’t she stab him with an ice pick? Thus, a sex scene can also be an important turning point in the plot.


“You make me crazy. You’re so damn sure I’ll keep coming back here. What do you think? That an American on the floor in an empty apartment eating cheese and drinking water is interesting?”

Well, apparently it is, because I can’t get around the topic of Last Tango in Paris in an article about sex in films. Frankly, when I first saw this movie a couple of years ago, I hated it. I thought it was boring, un-erotic, tonally inconsistent, and I was particularly incensed by Paul’s sexist, narcissistic, degrading treatment of Jeanne. I mean, he practically raped her twice! In preparation for this article (and after reading 12 critical essays on Tango), I’m more comfortable with the film than I used to be. When they first meet in the apartment, I no longer think it’s a case of rape. He picks her up, carries her to the wall, and at any time, she could’ve screamed, fought, or tried to resist him. But no, she doesn’t. I think we’re given a visual illustration that she was literally swept away by Brando’s pain, hunger, and need for her. The butter scene still angers me, though, and it’s inexplicable to me that Jeanne doesn’t storm out of that apartment. Her behavior in the third act is also inexplicable to me. If anything, Tango fails to be a masterpiece because Jeanne behaved the way the filmmakers wanted her to behave, not because her character was fully developed and we could see that it was in her nature to be that way.

Sex was not the point of the film, of course. Sex was used as a means to escape the loneliness of the relationships that left those two characters so unfulfilled. Julian Ebb wrote that it was “sex as an instrument of power divorced from tenderness or curiosity [that] results in chaos and despair.” That could be. The bigger point is that sex, in and of itself, never should be the point of a scene when it comes to quality screenwriting. The emphasis should be on the characters.

For Part Two, click here.


returnon said...

Great posts! Sex is regarded by most people as such a vital aspect of real life, ridiculous that its not the same in film.

A History of Violence, which I didn't see mentioned in either post, has two sex scenes that are brilliant examples of character and plot development.


In the first sex scene, the wife role-plays as a cheerleader to her husband's bemused delight. She asserts her desires with her passive husband and they have gentle sex (not to mention the first 69 in American cinema). They are conspicuously relaxed and happy the next morning.

This is effectively the setup, juxtaposed against the second sex scene that, to me, is the 2nd Act turning point. The wife is gradually coming to terms with a husband inexplicably VERY adept with violence. This once passive husband has just revealed disturbing things about himself and she wants answers. They argue, she slaps him, he responds in kind, then starts to rape her on the staircase. We already suspect that his mild-mannered exterior conceals a brutal sociopath, more fascinating is what the scene reveals about her. He stops for a moment, realizing what he's doing and she encourages him to resume. Her horror is just the facade of a civilized woman, her inherent animal nature is aroused by a mate who can defend and dominate her. The next morning she has conspicuous bruises on her back from the stairs and angrily covers herself when he sees her naked. Modesty and indignation signify the resumption of her civilized facade.

This motivates his actions leading to the climax, to reconcile the decent family man he made himself into with the dormant animal he began life as and has now reawakened.

A History of Violence is one of the few widely released American films that treated sex seriously without titillation. I'm amused and a little disturbed by the way the U.S. regards sex and violence in cinema. A PG-13 film can show nearly any manner of atrocity. Brilliant as it is, The Dark Knight is a very violent and fairly graphic film. Heads impaled on pencils, 3rd degree facial burns and killings a-plenty. But if so much as the crescent of a woman's nipple were shown, the MPAA would slap it with an R! Sex is a normal part of life, violence is not. Why the hatin' on the fornicatin', y'all?

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

this was a very cool article. However, you forgot to mention that married couples were NOT allowed to be shown sitting in bed on TV shows back in the 50s-- like "I Love Lucy," which is why they gave Lucy and Ricky two seperate beds.

They also had to avoid using the word "pregnant" for Lucy's pregnancy with their first child, Ricky Ricardo Jr. They used really clever wording in dialogue to get around the pregnancy.

Pretty interesting to watch.

Christian M. Howell said...

The bigger point is that sex, in and of itself, never should be the point of a scene when it comes to quality screenwriting. The emphasis should be on the characters.
This is the entire point I tried to make in our discourse. The actual sex scene is about as exciting as watching someone take a dump.

And similar in that the reason for someone taking a dump can be funny sad, poignant or just plain necessary. Sexuality ( I need to remember to always state the in serious cinema sexuality is what we explore not sex.

I wrote a short about a homosexual couple and added what I thought was a good sex scene - no actual nudity .

I think you'd enjoy it as an examination of people and the complexities of sex - one partner has a heterosexual affair. I had a gay writer enjoy it.

Christian M. Howell said...

ex is a normal part of life, violence is not. Why the hatin' on the fornicatin', y'all?What is important to note in the argument of sex versus violence is that the nerdiest person may be "coerced" into sex but it takes a special individual (read:unbalanced already) to try and reenact blowing someone's brains out or setting a person on fire.

I mean, hey, who wouldn't want a chick like Mena Suvari or Halle Berry naked in a bathtub. Hell, you could insert (any women who's pretty).

I'm not defending gratuitous violence but it is more "fantastic" because of it's inaccessibility.

The scene in History of Violence was slightly uncomfortable for me but that's because a theater full of people would never see what I do to my woman or what she does to me.

I mean the "cheerleader" scene not the reconciliatory anger "fuck." The half dressed nature of the abandon on the stair case was more character revealing than the fantasy scene. It showed that they did love each other but the history made it all difficult. For him, is his violence represented in his sex and for her does she really know him sexually if she doesn't know that "dark side."

The playful nature of the cheereleader scene could have been more fully realized with facial expressions and giggles rather than the graphic oral, etc. Everyone knows where the guy is going below the navel.

GabbaGoo said...

I was just starting to write a sex scene... and what do I find... Mystery Man has Essay's written on it.

Life Saver sir...

returnon said...

Good point Christian. Discomfort in watching a sex scene like that in A History of Violence is due to its proximity to our own private lives. Its easy to distance ourselves from violence because its so alien to us. My dad hates violent movies, largely due to him witnessing real violence, which can be trivialized by movies.

mernitman said...

"A sex scene is only as good as its characters" -- now why the hell didn't I ever say that?!

I'll just have to quote you, dammit.

Mystery Man said...

Returnon – I loved those comments. Thank you.

Deaf – SO much went unmentioned! This topic is so vast, big books could be written.

Christian – “The actual sex scene is about as exciting as watching someone take a dump.” I wouldn’t go that far. Hehehe…

Gabba – Great minds think alike.

Billy – Thanks, man.

David said...

Sex is a normal part of life, violence is not. Why the hatin' on the fornicatin', y'all?Well, the obvious answer is because we lived in a repressed, hypocritical culture that uses such repression to subdue the masses.

While I agree sex scenes should offer a means to explore characters, one could say that about any kind of scene. What I'm concerned with is the need to justify a sex scene. I mean one doesn't feel the need to justify beautiful outdoor photography. It's there, say in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and its beauty speaks for itself. Somehow I can't help but think the need to justify the use of sex (to whatever extent it is justified) reflects how even the most open-minded people can internalize the repressive aspects of our culture. (In particular, I recall listening to Soderbergh's commentary on "Full Frontal." He said, "It's just getting harder and harder to abstract a sex scene." I thought to myself, "Why abstract it?")

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