Hollywood Can’t Get It Up: Superbad and the Retreat from the Erotic

The MPAA tag explaining the R rating it gave to Superbad is almost hilarious in its exhaustiveness. (It’s also one of the longest I’ve ever seen.) “Rated R,” it says, “for pervasive crude and sexual content, strong language, drinking, some drug use and a fantasy/comic violent image – all involving teens.” I imagine those last three words italicized and written in boldface, though the MPAA doesn’t actually do it that way. They seem written to be spoken aloud with a sudden exhaling of breath, or through gritted teeth, as if in a last-ditch effort to dissuade anybody’s mom or dad from accompanying them to a screening of Superbad. Won’t somebody think of the teens?

Not so many years ago, Clerks was threatened with an NC-17 because somebody at CARA thought one scene contained too much talk about blow jobs. But that film’s dick-sucking diatribe seems downright quaint compared to the awesome sustained vulgarity of Superbad, which opens with star Jonah Hill discussing a (fictional?) online porn site called “Vag-tastic Voyage” and ends with a lengthy (and, amusingly, kind of disturbing) cartoon-penis montage. However, the MPAA ratings board seems to have gotten tired of hearing how repressive it is, and has gone into a sort of crouched, defensive position, giving a rating to stuff like Hostel 2 (“rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language and” — wait for it! — “some drug content”) with a wrinkled nose and a sigh.

What’s conspicuously missing from Superbad is something that was de rigeur in R-rated high-school comedies when I was young enough to be discovering them — nudity. OK, there’s a glimpse early on of a convenience-store porn magazine that sports an anonymous pair of breasts. And that’s it. The movie has sex scenes, but they feature young women who (like Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up) seem to enjoy making love with their underwear on. Now, I’m no Lothario, but even in my experience these scenes fly in the face of common sense — hot chicks are much more likely to show you their breasts than they are to have actual sex with you.

So what’s the big deal? For one thing, it’s a question of performance credibility. It doesn’t matter how talented the actors are — if they are behaving in a way (exhibiting an unusual degree of modesty) that’s inconsistent with the actions of their characters (trying to have sex), their performances feel artificial. It’s the same sense of phoniness you get when TV stars go to bed together only to wrap themselves tight in the sheets, like big burritos. For another, the clever use of nudity in film goes underrated. Many European directors use it efficiently to engender a feeling of intimacy, or to connote vulnerability. Its use in Hollywood movies tends to be more pointed, especially since anything more than a fleeting nude is a rarity in mainstream American cinema. Robert Altman often used nude scenes to reveal something about the relationships between people; just as often, David Lynch uses them to make viewers uncomfortable. Nudity can be vulgar or exploitative, of course. But it’s important when it symbolizes a character’s openness about sexuality, or signals in very visual terms the exploration of issues of sexual desire and pleasure.

Jennifer Hason Leigh and Robert Romanus in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Think of director Amy Heckerling’s confident use of nudity in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a veritable template for the contemporary high-school comedy. (Of course, the original cut of Fast Times got an X rating from the MPAA.) On the one hand, you have Phoebe Cates stepping out of that swimming pool in Judge Reinhold’s fantasy world, displaying the breasts that launched, perhaps, a million ejaculations. And on the other you have that lovely, carefully observed scene featuring Robert Romanus and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a pathetic, failed attempt at intercourse. You could shoot the same scene if both actors were partially clothed; the screenplay wouldn’t need to be changed, the same character points would be made, yadda yadda yadda. But, visually, you’d lose that combination of trust, vulnerability and disappointment that gives the scene its charge. There’s something genuinely moving in that scene, and it’s related to nakedness.

Superbad is also built around a heartbreaking clumsiness — what’s really funny isn’t the dialogue, but the pregnant, incredibly awkward spaces in between the lines. In its way, the film is even after some of the same kind of pathos as Fast Times (confusion, disappointment) but by nerfing its own raunchiness, it squanders some of that horny, hard-won authenticity. Now, it’s possible that the actors simply wouldn’t agree to strip. After all, nudity is still rare enough in Hollywood releases that it generates endless chatter in the press. Go ahead and do a Google News search for “nudity” — you’ll quickly learn that Jessica Alba and Julia Stiles say they’ll never do nude scenes, Jessica Biel may have one in the works, and Angelina Jolie’s cartoon doppelganger (!) is naked in the international trailer for Beowulf. You can see how this almost obsessive degree of who’s-nude-and-not scrutiny would wear on a woman: Halle Berry gamely participated in a completely gratuitous topless scene for a vulgar action movie called Swordfish, and then spent her press tour, probably unhappily, talking about her tits. I’d think twice about taking my shirt off, too.

Unfinished Music #1: Two Virgins LP cover

Given the dubious status of nudes in American popular culture — they’re present in premium cable programming, tolerated in art museums, banished from the airwaves and hounded off the magazine racks — I was highly amused by a recent article in The Economist that pondered a purported “resurgence in nudity,” opining that the cover of Unfinished Music #1: Two Virgins, which featured a full-nude portrait of both John Lennon and Yoko Ono (hidden behind a plain brown wrapper until you got home and unwrapped it), would raise no eyebrows if it were published today. Obviously this piece would not appear in a U.S. publication — the days of dedicated record stores are more or less over outside of the biggest cities, and I can’t imagine any record company would risk provocative cover art that might alienate today’s staid purveyors of the rock-and-roll lifestyle: Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart. The Economist does, at least, note the stateside outburst that followed Janet Jackson’s performance at Super Bowl XXXVIII. My guess is the audiences at Hollywood test screenings, often recruited from shopping malls in the suburbs, complain about nudity in just about any film. Because people have been trained, culturally, to think of nudity as a shameful thing (and also maybe because it turns them on just a little) they seem to get rattled when they find themselves looking at images of nude men and women in anything but the privacy of their own Internet connection.

It’s ironic that, with actual erotic content generally missing from the movies, pornography has never in the history of human endeavor flourished like it has in the Internet era, a development that has its own implications for the way young people think about sex. Among some observers — mainly those who disapprove of extremely violent content in movies — there is a long-standing complaint that the MPAA employs a double standard, penalizing sexual content more harshly than violence. You can cause all kinds of mayhem in a PG-13 film, but if you flash a nipple in a sexual context you’re suddenly in R territory. If you find a smart person who’s willing to defend that policy, odds are the argument will go along these lines: Violence in movies is make-believe. Nudity in movies is real. I trust my kids to know the difference between what’s make-believe and what’s real, which means I don’t worry about them going out and shooting someone, but I do worry about them getting horny and having sex.

I understand that argument, but come on, Joe and Jane America
— odds are your kids are already horny. All you’re doing by squeezing realistic depictions of sexuality out of mainstream movies is ceding that ground to porn, which is now more readily available to all age groups than ever. Larry Clark hilariously demonstrated some of the implications of this in his semi-documentary sex film, “Impaled,” in which anxious young men describe their preferred modes of sexual interaction in the crass argot of hardcore pornographers, like soft suburbanites adopting the gangsta patois.

Maybe I’m just getting old.

Back to Superbad. Consider this episode: having crashed a party with the intention of stealing the host’s liquor, Seth (Jonah Hill) ends up as the unlikely dirty-dancing partner of a flirty party girl (Carla Gallo) who rubs her body up against him in time with the music — it’s the only genuinely good time Seth gets to have in this movie, no nakedness required. It’s revealed as a sick joke when Seth discovers that while the girl was humping his leg, she left a menstrual-blood stain (!) on his pants. It’s not entirely un-funny, but it’s a pessimistic and strangely punitive scene — and probably the most misogynistic episode in the whole film. Strangely, it’s the only scene in Superbad that feels remotely erotic.

Kevin Bacon in Wild Things

It’s not like I expected Superbad to suddenly turn into Wild Orchid. Or Wild Things, which is maybe the last major multiplex release to make hay out of sex and nudity. (I’ll never forget the uproar in the crowded Manhattan theater where I saw that movie as Kevin Bacon’s penis made a casual but decidedly unexpected appearance on screen — like it or not, it’s that kind of reaction that makes a difference when it comes to the disparity in the sexual treatment of men and women on screen.) But this film’s avoidance of anything resembling a turn-on feels, in the end, like a denial of pleasure. Superbad is good in enough important ways — its recognition of the cocky cadence of high-school sex talk among insecure, undersexed guys, its acknowledgment of the unspoken love affair between teenage buddies, and its sympathetic representation of what it feels like to be a desperate loser — that maybe it’s appropriate that it’s defined, in the end, by its own fear of intimacy.

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