… Movie kisses were the fist sex acts I ever screened. Before I had my romantic first kiss, I already knew, from movies, that one needed to tilt the head a little to avoid bumping noses, but that if both kissers tilted the same way they would still bump noses, so a complex choreography of bodies had to be worked out in this simple act. I learned this from the big screen where kisses were greatly magnified in the garish Technicolor kisses of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. But I also learned some things from the little black-and-white screen before which my mother and I sat watching TV movies on warm summer nights when I could stay up late.
[ … ]
… Sexual desire ultimately exists in … many … Code-era films so that it may be sublimated to a more purified, ideological, and aesthetic “good” — whether the good of the family or, in this case [Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca]the good of the American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual pleasure as positive values in themselves have no legitimate acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges. This, of course, is the special, perverse pleasure of watching sex in movies of this period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for this reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous what exactly transpires between Rick and Ilsa.
It is easy to ridicule a Code that works so hard to keep us from inferring what its very obfuscations and interruptions cause us to suspect. But this is how eroticism works in the Code era. It is no accident that the most erotic of the kisses in which Rick and Ilsa engage is the one most fully adulterous (by this time they both know that Laszlo lives). This may also be why the two [voted by viewers #1 and #2, best] other movie kisses — that in From Here to Eternity and that in Gone with the Wind — have also been deemed among the sexiest. They, too, are structured on internal conflicts between illicit sexual desires and the demands of war, whether the Civil War or World War II. Code kisses are memorable, it seems, not because they are necessarily performed by sexy men and sexy women (has Humphrey Bogart, with his perpetually wet lower lip, ever been, objectively speaking, sexy?), but because they are intrinsically structured around conflicts between sexual pleasure and taboo.
[ … ]
… In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol writes: “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway.” His Kiss pays homage to this idea by sustaining a fascinated look that is also cool and analytical. His real interest, like that of the audience in the era of the kiss, is not in seeing, like actual voyeurs, what happens between kissers in real life, but in seeing what happens on the screen when these acts are projected. (Warhol himself is rarely in the room when his films were shot.) By slowing down, by skipping the beginning and the ends, by taking Edison’s original fixed close-up and just holding it there, Warhol bypasses all the coy business — dialogue, twirling mustaches, telephones, cigarettes — used to motivate the oral relation.
[ … ]
… A realist theorist [André Bazin] who in every other way celebrates the ability of cinema to directly present life as it is, without the intervention of language codes or the hand of the artist, Bazin here acknowledges … the sensational power of a medium that deals in the extremes of sex and violence. His ultimate fear is that “real sex,” like “real death,” will lead audiences back to the abuses of the Roman circus. His theoretical point is that cinema is founded on just such an illicit glimpse of real bodies and real objects of the world. In the cinema a nude woman can be “openly desired” and “actually caressed” in a way she cannot be in a theater because, he writes, “the cinema unreels in an imaginary space which demands participation and identification. The actor winning the woman gratifies me by proxy. His seductiveness, his good looks, his daring do not compete with my desires — they fulfill them.”
Yet if the sex scene does gratify by proxy (if not exactly in the male/subject, female/object teleological progress to orgasm that Bazin suggests, but in the more diffuse and rebounded way I have been indicating), we are seemingly plunged into pornography, a realm Bazin abhors. The liberal realist who admires the documentary quality of narrative cinema in many ways and who believes “there are no sex situations — moral or immoral, shocking or banal, normal or pathological — whose expression is a priori prohibited on the screen,” nevertheless argues that as far as sex goes, to remain on the level of art, “we must stay in the realm of imagination.”
The problem, of course, is that every kiss in every film is already a kind of documentary of that particular intimate, and yet still publicly acceptable sex act in a way that an act of violence, which is usually faked, is not. In or out of character, two people must really kiss in a film close-up. The kiss or caress has, as Bazin notes, the potential to “gratify by proxy.” But everything is organized in scenes of violence so that actors, even though they may touch in a relatively intimate fight, do not really hit, knife, or shoot one another the way they are expected to kiss and caress. Bazin recognizes and is embarrassed by the inconsistency of his argument. Writing in 1956 in direct response to the provocations of Roger Vadim’s Brigitte Bardot vehicle, And God Created Woman, which (following reluctantly in the tradition of John Sloan) he calls a “detestable film,” he realizes that his remarks have also brushed off a good part of the contemporary Swedish cinema. His only recourse is to claim, weakly, that the “masterpieces of eroticism” do not cross a certain line. But as Bazin clearly foresaw, times were changing: the sixties were about to happen, and the argument that masterpieces never go too far sexually already rang hollow as movies would take on the challenge of “going all the way.” Many so-called novelistic masterpieces had already described a great deal about sex, not leaving it to the imagination. And Bazin honestly admits at the end of his essay that the situation of the writer may not differ all that much from that of directors and actors. So he concludes simply: “To grant the novel the privilege of evoking everything, and yet to deny the cinema, which is so similar, the right of showing everything, is a critical contradiction I note without resolving.”
These are the honest and intelligent words of a great film critic grappling with the unprecedented realism of the new media form of the twentieth century and its special relation to both sex and violence.