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Porn is coming back to multiplexes, in sneaky, provocative ways

Movies like Red Rocket, Pleasure, and Ti West’s X are shaking up a sexless mainstream cinema landscape

Mia Goth, shoulders bare and head in a kerchief, gives a come-hither look back over her shoulder in Ti West’s X
Mia Goth in Ti West’s X.
Image: A24

Writer Harlan Ellison used to tell a story about his very brief stint working for the Walt Disney Company, and it feels so applicable to the state of modern cinema that it might just be too on the nose. Ellison, a notorious hard-ass and prankster, claims he was hired as a writer in the Roy Disney era. On his first day, he says, he went to lunch with a group of his co-workers at the studio’s cafeteria. Conversation drifted about, and Ellison cracked a joke about how Disney should make an animated porn flick, which he proceeded to plot and act out, doing impersonations of the House of Mouse’s iconic cast of characters doing dirty deeds. The whole time, he was unaware that the studio brass was only a few tables away. By that afternoon, he says, the name on his studio-lot parking spot was painted over, and he was told to hit the road.

This is, roughly, what it’s like to try and release a movie about sex in theaters today, regardless of whether famous intellectual property is involved. But that hasn’t stopped smaller studios from trying. In a cinematic landscape defined by its utter lack of eroticism, films like Ti West’s new horror movie X are using sex — and specifically, movies set in and around the world of pornography — to provoke audiences and grab attention, while also possibly bringing some erotic heat back to frigid multiplexes.

Make no mistake about it: West’s film is first and foremost a slasher, a lower-rent thrill ride with all the gory fixings. It was released by A24, the chief propagator of “elevated horror,” and one of the few studios willing to take a chance on anything even tangentially related to fucking, such as Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, a recent masterpiece about a former porn star who finds that his work in sex films has limited his job prospects.

The poster for Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure, with a woman in a leotard and thigh-high vinyl boots, legs spread wide, taking a selfie Image: Neon

But whether West intended it or not, X also falls within a different cinematic tradition: a long line of mainstream-ish narrative American films about pornography that couch their observations on the industry within a period setting. Chief among these is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 movie Boogie Nights, which cast such a glamorous pallor over depictions of the genre on film that even movies about real-life porn stars like John Holmes (2003’s crime drama Wonderland) or Linda Lovelace (the 2013 biopic Lovelace) default to Anderson’s merger of porn chic and storytelling styles cribbed from Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese.

X operates in a similar fashion, with its incessant needle drops, Goodfellas-esque zooms into the faces of characters doing blow, and, most importantly, its thematic grounding. The film is set during the advent of home video, at the time an innovative, liberating market for the theater-bound porn industry. That setting lets West explore the tension between filmmaker ambition and the down-and-dirty reality of the content his characters are working with.

X’s nerdy director/cinematographer RJ (played by Owen Campbell) is a pretty far cry from Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in manner and personality, but they’re both compelled to make art out of sex, and vice versa. The period allows the audience some distance from both the sex and the extreme violence, much like a college history class preventing its students from considering current events. And that distance allows the audience to watch sex acts that are infinitely tamer than any video on the front page of a porn site, and see them as transgressive and shocking.

Beyond the fact that X is essentially the film Anderson might have made if Boogie Nights had solely focused on Little Bill (William H. Macy) murdering his wife (played by, in inspired casting, real-life porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley), the difference between West and Anderson is that the former seems alienated from the cultural context of his work’s setting, while Anderson is immersed in it. Even in the late 1970s, an era where dirty movies played in chophouses across the country and the image of the trenchcoat-clad pervert in the back row loomed large in the cultural imagination, the art house innovations RJ desperately wants to bring to pornography were already part of the stew.

Maria Schneider lies in a bathtub as Marlon Brando washes her feet in Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in Paris
Image: United Artists

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris set off a furor upon its 1972 release, given that it featured one of the world’s most famous movie stars engaged in full-on X-rated action. But it’s also a stylish drama rather than the grindhouse porn that X imagines is the standard for the era. Similarly, Vilgot Sjoman’s 1967 erotic drama I Am Curious (Yellow), which caused a sensation upon its American release, wound up being the States’ 12th highest-grossing film of that year.

A $20 million box-office take — a fortune at the time — for a nearly two-hour diatribe about politics sprinkled with sex feels like an impossibility in today’s cinematic marketplace, the equivalent of, say, Red Rocket grossing more than films like Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw or the third How to Train Your Dragon movie. Art house releases in the era where X takes place let audiences see foreign films they could find titillating, even if those films were aimed more at radicalizing viewers. The nature of distribution at the time — thousands of individual theater owners booking movies, instead of theater chains dictating release strategy — ensured more venues for adult content and controversial films.

X-rated success stories weren’t limited to high-minded art houses, either. 1975’s Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace, could be considered one of the most successful American independent releases of all time. That film is more typical of the 1970s’ porn-chic aesthetic than films like Last Tango, but other releases found success through wider and wilder genre ambitions. Flesh Gordon, a parody of the Flash Gordon movie-theater serials, was successful enough at penetrating the camp cultural consciousness to influence the aesthetic of Joel Schumacher’s later Batman films.

And a 1976 porno musical version of Alice in Wonderland wound up grossing $90 million, acting as softcore adult programming for those who couldn’t get tickets to Star Wars in the later part of its theatrical run. X’s suggestion that in the 1970s porn was somehow at a remove from independent cinema or art is a fallacy. Sure, there were dirty movies, many without merit beyond titillation. But they were simply the far edge of a cinema, newly liberated from the shackles of the Hays Code, indulging in forms of sensual expression that had previously been off limits.

The 1968 death of the Hays Code (and the 1969 Best Picture Oscar going to the X-rated Midnight Cowboy) had a downstream effect on Hollywood, with the erotic thriller becoming a mainstay of theaters until the dawn of the internet. Filmmakers like Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma pushed the boundaries of taste at the multiplex through smutty morality plays like Indecent Proposal or Hitchcockian tributes like Body Double, which were open about the perversions that Hitchcock could only allude to in his day.

Photo detail from the DVD cover for the Twilight Time edition Brian De Palma’s Body Double, with a silhouetted man peeking through shades at a scantily clad woman clutching her breasts
Body Double
Image: Twilight Time

Today, though, sex has all but disappeared from the multiplex, replaced by family-friendly tentpoles and more acceptable forms of provocation. Violence has become the primary outlet for viscerality in movies: In America, it’s famously easier to watch a decapitation with an audience than it is to watch simulated sex. Aspects of Hays-era censorship remain, enforced by the MPA’s ratings board, whose sex-averse, strongly anti-gay ethos is explored and exposed in films like Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

At the same time, many theater chains have barred their member theaters from showing NC-17 films. Some stores, like Walmart, have enacted policies against selling NC-17 home video releases. And as X openly suggests, people looking for sex in film don’t need theatrical releases — they can access a nigh-infinite selection of pornography online, made with legitimate production value, streaming in full 4K glory, and purchasable directly from content creators.

Hollywood has its own atomization problem as well, given the number of streaming services that are currently competing for mainstream attention. They have fewer reasons to avoid spicy content, and judging from the attention that movies like Lyne’s straight-to-Hulu erotic thriller Deep Water garnered, they may have incentive to test out franker sexual stories than multiplexes are providing. Perhaps we’ll see in June, when Hulu gets the Sundance sex comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which is about as explicit as a comedy is willing to get these days.

The studios, meanwhile, are taking their usual risk aversion to its logical conclusion. Studio movies are expensive, and no one wants to go forth on a project without some reason to believe it will succeed. When mainstream studios do take a chance on hot-and-heavy stuff, it’s primarily because they’re channeling IP that’s already been successful in other mediums — hence the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, which possibly counted as the last mainstream “erotic” blockbusters.

So, much as in the old days, the last vestiges of on-screen sex are once again coming from independent distributors and producers like A24 and Neon, both of which have led the current charge to return one of the most natural of human acts to movie screens. Both companies have positioned their films’ content as outright provocations, offering an alternative to the stodgy mainstream gatekeepers. And the big hooks they’ve included in their films include attempts to capture online virality on the big screen (Zola), pure shock value (the upcoming porn-world saga Pleasure), or career-best work from unlikely sources (Red Rocket), each assisted by some amount of festival hype. The question is ultimately whether a return to sex on theatrical screens will be enough to pry viewers away from their computers and get them back into multiplexes. That’s a hard, stiff proposition to answer.

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