“Hey, don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love.”
- Woody Allen in Annie Hall.
I recently read screenwriter David Freeman’s great book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock. David worked with Hitch on what would’ve been his final film, called The Short Night. It was an adaptation of a book by Ronald Kirkbride of the same title. It’s about an American agent chasing after a very bad British double agent who escaped from jail. While the American waits for this bad Brit to arrive in Finland to meet up with his family, he has an affair with his wife. The project was always on the brink of being shut down due to Hitch’s failing health, but it was the passion of his characters and their love affair that kept him going. Here’s David:
“The talk of love was a tonic for him. ‘Yes, yes. That will work. Very exciting.’ It was as elaborate as praise ever got: He was saying, ‘I will put that in my movie.’ He was off and running.
“‘The lovers are seated across the room from each other,’ he began in his deliberate tones. ‘Their robes open as they look at one another.’ He stopped, savoring the scene, repeating that the robes were open. He was starting to sound suspiciously like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. ‘Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon’ (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off of Finland). ‘The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat’s motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon. They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.’ He’s grinning now and actually stretching his legs, his cane has fallen away with the lovers’ robes. ‘Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.’ Now he didn’t actually intend to put this in the film. It was a private vision, playful and from the heart, a true home movie.”
I love that scene. I love the aching desire between those two characters combined with the fact that they can’t touch each other in those few moments they have together. Plus, you have the noise of the approaching boat’s motor that brings a sense of rising tension into the scene with the arrival of her evil husband and by extension, the moment where he must be executed. Fabulous! It’s different from all the usual sex scenes we see in films. It’s rooted in the story, and it capitalizes on the high emotions of the moment. (A good friend reminded me of a film called Bent that had two men in love who couldn’t touch each other, and in one scene, they “have sex” by imagining it while standing side-by-side.)
HORIZONTAL VS. VERTICAL
Let me get on a soapbox. Sex is also an opportunity for vertical writing in your screenplay. Maya Deren once made a distinction between drama that’s “horizontal” and “vertical,” and by that she means that the narrative is “horizontal” and the lyric is “vertical.” To quote her:
“In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a ‘horizontal’ plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it ‘vertically,’ if you will, so that you have a ‘horizontal’ development with periodic ‘vertical’ investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues… You can have operas where the ‘horizontal’ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.”
In one of my favorite screenplays, Kubrick’s Napoleon, you can really see the distinction between that which is “horizontal” and “vertical,” because in order to cover all of the important events in Napoleon’s life, you have to fly down that horizontal plane at lightning speed in order to squeeze it all in before you reach page 150. And thus, you cannot help but notice those moments when Stanley shifts gears in the narrative and chooses to slow down to be “vertical,” to spend just a few pages to highlight the meaning of a dramatic moment.
And the first “vertical” moment that comes to mind has to be the sequence involving Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine. We’ve been flying through pages about his quick rise to power and his preparations for the Italian campaign, which we know will send him into worldwide fame and headlong to becoming the next Emperor of France. But we stop for this very important love affair. We hear Napoleon’s many poetic love letters to Josephine. “Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this bizarre effect you have upon my heart?” “By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my existence? It is a kind of death, my darling, since there is no survival for me except in you.”
And while we hear Napoleon pour his heart out, we watch Josephine have a torrid sexual affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles.
This sequence is not just about establishing their marriage and her betrayal and how much Napoleon loved Josephine. It was also about how much he overwhelmed her with the kind of love that suffocates a human being, which in this case drove Josephine into the arms of another man. (Of course, she was indifferent to him since the beginning, but his behavior certainly didn't help matters either.) It also showed a believable contradiction in the main protagonist, which gave him depth - that is, the arrogant, powerful, confident Napoleon was also the insecure, needy, emotionally reckless Napoleon who naively wanted to be loved as overwhelmingly as he loved Josephine. We see that he completely gave himself over to her with an almost childlike honesty without realizing the consequences of his behavior, a stark contrast to the genius who meticulously calculated (and won) every battle. And by making us hear his voluminous words of love while at the same time showing us Josephine’s sexual betrayal, we are practically forced to feel the sting of her infidelity just as Napoleon felt it, and we sympathize with him.
EYES WIDE OPEN, BABY
Okay, a couple of thoughts about Eyes Wide Shut.
We know that with Kubrick, his movies aren’t always about the lead character’s journey. He doesn’t write stories like we do. He’s usually thinking in broader terms and he’s making statements about mankind, history, civilization, power, etc. A Kubrick story should not be judged solely by its psychology but by it sociology, too. For example, due to Bill’s (Tom Cruise) interest in becoming a member of the ultra-elite, he grows uninvolved and disconnected from his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), which in turn made her nothing more than an object to be used whenever he wanted her. And her resentment of his attitude surfaced only in her dreams and when she’s stoned. From that first opening shot of her slipping out of her clothes, she is presented to us as an object of desire. Everyone from the babysitter to Ziegler to Szavost praises Alice only for her looks. Her daily regimen is pretty much devoted to rigorously maintaining her looks. She's constantly looking at herself in the mirror. Of course, these kinds of details don’t exactly make for exciting dialogue and cinema (unless you know to look for these things), but it’s Kubrick non-verbal way of making statements about Alice, the objectified wife.
Kubrick also likes to make visual connections between characters in order to make statements about them. That typically requires more than one viewing to notice. (Or, thank God, you could look them up on the internet.) What’s interesting to me is that you have to look past the nudity and sumptuous visuals of Eyes Wide Shut to see the details to understand the connections Kubrick’s trying to make. If you notice, Kubrick visually associates Alice with all of the other women in the movie, and therefore, he’s also making statements about Alice as the prostitute wife. For instance, she’s identified with Mandy. They are both first presented to us in bathrooms. They both have a penchant for drugs. Mandy’s final night of her life in which “she got her brains fucked out” by many men is echoed disturbingly in Alice’s dream. Alice is also associated with Domino by the purple bed sheets and the similar dressing-table mirrors, essential for any true courtesan. It could be argued that there was only one woman in that film. All the women Bill encounters are various incarnations of the one he is truly seeking – his wife.
And then there is Helena, their daughter, named after the most beautiful woman in history. The subtext of all of their interaction with her is really about her being groomed to be the same kind of high-class object as her mother. During the day, she is always with her, observing her, learning from her. She wants to stay up to watch “The Nutcracker,” which is, of course, about a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince. The fact that this story takes place during Christmas-time is no coincidence. This is when consumerism is at its height. Later, when Helena reads the bedtime story, she recites, “before me when I jump into my bed.” Alice mouths it along with her. In the dining room, Alice helps Helena with a little math problem - how to calculate which boy has more money. There’s a photo of Helena in a purple dress in Bill’s office, eerily reminiscent of the one worn by Domino the night before.
In the final scene in the toy store, Helena’s carefully observed actions speak volumes. Alice said she was “expecting” them to take her “Christmas Shopping” (even though they already have piles of presents under the tree). Perhaps the trip was so Helena could shop for her friends, which is telling, because she only thinks about herself in the store. She wants everything in sight. She wants the blue baby carriage (similar to the blue stroller we saw twice outside Domino's door). Then she grabs an oversized teddy bear. Then she shows them a Barbie doll dressed as an angel, which was no coincidence, because Helena herself wore an angel costume in the opening sequence when she asked if she could watch “The Nutcracker.” Helena runs down an aisle full of stuffed tigers that look suspiciously similar to the one on Domino's bed...
By the way, I think it was all a dream in Bill’s head.
“YOU WANT TO MAKE LOVE ALL THE TIME, HUH?”
One of the books I read as research for this article was Jody Pennington’s fabulous History of Sex in American Film. Those who like to use their minds, as I do, will be delighted to learn that this book is all words and ideas and hardly any pictures. In any case, an over-obsession about sex can make characters blind about bigger, encroaching evils. Pennington articulated these kinds of ideas that ran through Cabaret far better than I could:
“Cabaret obliquely portrays the strange coexistence between the Weimar Republic’s sexual decadence and the rise of an intolerant totalitarian regime. The film does not establish a causal relationship between the two; instead, it underscores the futility of decadent entertainment in the face of brutal repression. The Kit Kat Klub’s patrons, symbolizing a populace diverted from political reality by sexual diversions, were not blinded by political ignorance but an indifference fomented by sexual excess.”
By the way, the growing, extreme sexual obsessions of two lovers led to a rather inconvenient third act climax for a man named Kichizo in a movie called In the Realm of the Senses. Ouch! In her essay, “A Theory on Female Sexuality” (1966), American psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey noted that “the strength of the [sex] drive determines the force required to suppress it.”
IT’S MORE THAN SEXUAL ORIENTATION
In Boys Don’t Cry, you may recall the moment when Teena is arrested and while she’s in jail, Candace discovers her secret. Then Candace tells Lana who quickly sees Teena in prison. Teena tells her she’s a hermaphrodite but it “sounds a lot more complicated than it is.” Lana tells her she doesn’t care if she’s “half monkey or half ape” and gets Teena out of jail. They make love in the front seat of a car. Thus, sex can be the payoff to a giant setup, the deep inner goal of a character, that is, the long-awaited moment of acceptance.
Of course, sex here was not the goal. Love was the goal. And this concept sometimes gets lost because there’s an over-emphasis by some in the industry on the sexual part of “sexual orientation.” Why does there have to be an emphasis on sex just because a character has a different orientation? Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters can have, like any other great character in literature or cinema history, depth, contradictions, goals, inner conflicts, and arcs. I’ve read quite a few scripts by aspiring gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers, and some have shared with me their feelings of anxiety about sex scenes. I say don’t worry about the sex and focus on the depth of your characters. In that context, the sex will find its natural place in the script. Don’t force it. Write that scene when you know it’s crucial to your story. Because the point of a sex scene is not the act itself, it’s the characters. What does the scene reveal?
SO HOW DO YOU WRITE A SEX SCENE?
It seems fitting that I’m contributing to a magazine that showcases Dave Trottier, because I’m a huge supporter of his book, The Screenwriter’s Bible. A sex scene is like any other scene in a script. Use action lines. Make them lean and mean. Write active verbs. Keep the action paragraphs down to four lines or fewer. Emphasize the characters. Avoid incidental actions.
I must commend Bob Verini who also wrote a great article about sex in Script Magazine’s 2005 January / February issue. He talked about the mechanics of writing a sex scene and pointed out how Joe Eszterhas loved using the ellipsis in Basic Instinct:
She moves higher atop him ... she reaches to the side of the bed ... a white silk scarf is in her hand ... her hips above his face now, moving ... slightly, oh-so slightly ... his face strains towards her.
I’m okay with that so long as it’s in small doses. You can also write a MONTAGE, which Trottier explains in detail in his book. Verini had some good montage examples as well. I would only add Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Nichols’ The Graduate.
The only film I’ve watched that had a sex scene that actually moved me to tears was a 2003 film called Lilya 4-Ever. Abandoned by her mother and living in poverty in the former Soviet Union, 16-year-old Lilya resorts to prostitution to survive. Without revealing too much of the plot, there is a montage toward the end of the film in which we (looking up) view from Lilya’s perspective all of these older, disgusting men having sex with her. I was so saddened by what was being done to her. I wanted to get on a plane to Sweden and save that little girl. It was such an effective tragedy in the way it condemned those horrible, underground, sex slave organizations.
MAKE A CLEAN BREAST OF IT
There’s so much more territory we could’ve penetrated. There’s the art of seduction. There’s sexual abuses, disorders, and addictions. There’s rape, infidelity, and incest. There’s symbolism, sex for the elderly, and teen sex comedies, which I believe happens only once every generation. There’s orgies, although I really don’t know what I’d say about that. I like what Mason Cooley wrote, “Orgies are an early form of what will someday become sex by committee.” Hehehe… Say, how many prominent asexuals can you list in films? Depp’s Willy Wonka? Pee Wee Herman? How about Hercule Poirot? Can you think of a film in which a character’s asexuality became the source of a conflict? I cannot.
OH, THE CLIMAX
There was an interesting article by Dylan van Rijsbergen in Sign and Sight called Sexing the Handbag. He wrote: “Time has come to start a new movement inventing new images of sexuality and pornography. Time has come for a new Jan Wolkers, male or female, someone who can write powerful stories of authentic sexuality. Time has come for all kinds of individuals in the media, art and literature to invigorate the tired imagery of commercial porn. Time has come for a slow sex movement, which stretches sexuality beyond the single moment of the male orgasm. Time has come to return sexuality to what it has always been: elusive, exciting, intense, playful, authentic, dynamic and sublime.”
Okay, I’m spent. Was it good for you?
WITHOUT THEM WE WOULDN’T BE GETTING ANY
I’d like to thank Jennifer van Sijll, Eric, Joel, Kelly, Randy, Rebekah, Joseph, Jeff, Erin, as well as the readers of my blog: Emily Blake, Joshua James, David Alan, James Patrick Joyce, Laura Deerfield, Purpletrex, Miriam Paschal, Pat (Gimmebreak), Christina, Matt, Nestori, DougJ, terraling, Lisa, Christian M. Howell, Seeing_I, deepstructure, Gabbagoo, James, Scott, Kevin Broom, Bob Thielke, Spanish Prisoner, Cody, Ben, Trevor, rdas7, hwee, Unknown Screenwriter, and the Anonymous Production Assistant. Their raging debates about sex in film last July on my blog provided much needed food for thought. Thanks so much, guys.