Sunday, June 2, 2024

"Prestige Sleaze" at SIFF Cinema: Jun 9 - 26 | "The Wet Dreams and Twisted Politics of Erotic Thrillers" | The Criterion Collection

Such is the cultural moment that films are susceptible to receiving a prohibitive MPAA rating, trigger warning supplied by the exhibitor, editing of material by the director, or outright retraction of a film by its distributor in response to poor reception at festivals and preview screenings due to depictions of sex and the interpreted politics of on-screen gender relations. For deeper reading on these trends, Catherine Shoard's editorial for The Guardian, "Cut! Is This the Death of Sex in Cinema?", and Christina Newland's "The Pleasure Principle" for Sight & Sound tackle these issues, and their origins, in all of its complexity. Newland speaks further on the subject in the pages of Sight & Sound; "It’s possible that a combination of factors, both culture-wide and industry-specific, have contributed to this odd moment of both the avoidance of and a fixation on sex acts on screen. Initial hesitation around on-set safety post-MeToo, and a sense of discomfort around sensitive topics, has perhaps been fueled by social media pearl-clutching and a Gen Z backlash against the idea of ‘sex-positive’ feminism". The latter is supported by recent statistics, like those highlighted in NPR's coverage "Gen Z Wants Less Sex in Their TV and Movies" of the UCLA study, which featured such descriptors as the content being found, "Icky, Pointless, and Invasive", wherein half of those polled were, "Turned Off by Onscreen Sex". Shoard's piece for The Guardian illustrates over numerous observations and citations, the reasons for this being concurrently made complicated and narrow-minded by the two sides of a polarized political landscape. Wherein sex has become that much more weaponized in its entanglement with identity and representation, and the discomfort experienced by audiences who feel their identity politics not complimentarily represented defines no small part of their enjoyment, or even acceptance, of thematic and psychological content in fiction. In the eyes of a currently influential constituency, for whom artistic merit must be allied to a certain branch of moral and political virtue, there are vast realms of the erotic, suggestive, and sexual material on screen that will not pass such demands. Regardless of said material's honesty in representing the complexity of these matters in relation to life.

This month, SIFF Cinema is putting this to the test. Assembling an array of films which are forcibly sex-forward, drawn together largely from the 1980s and 1990s abundance of erotic thrillers and provocatively flirtatious crime dramas, "Prestige Sleaze" runs the month of June at The Egyptian Theatre. Plumbing the heights and depths of kink, subversion, and thrillingly uncertain socio-sexual outcomes between men, women and otherwise, the stakes are high in these boundary pushing films which are largely culled from the decade of the Erotic Thriller micro-genre. The pleasures, and flirtatious unease of the genre was given due consideration on The Criterion Channel last year, with their Erotic Thrillers showcase, and analysis of the cultural moment which produced these films in, "The Wet Dreams and Twisted Politics of Erotic Thrillers" for The Current. Framed by their Erotic Thriller Week, The Vulture hosts Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This series, in which she inquires; “Why did genres like the erotic thriller, body horror, neo noir, and the sex comedy flourish in the 1980s and 90s, what was happening culturally that made these movies possible and popular, and why did Hollywood stop taking sex seriously?" Writing on "Why I Love Erotic Thrillers", Abbey Bender notes in the New York Times, that they were initially a product and response to the Reagan era, a time; “Which was politically conservative, yet culturally trashy. These films fruitfully explored this contradiction, and by the 1990s, they were certified box-office gold. They distilled the excesses and anxieties of yuppie culture into psycho-sexually messy yet stylized commercial products, before fizzling out in the aughts. Building on the moody, femme-fatale-filled world of classic 1940s and 50s film noir, the erotic thriller was always gloriously excessive, with a laser-sharp focus on beautiful women doing bad things. In films like "Basic Instinct", "Fatal Attraction", and "Body Heat", the calculated performance of self-assured femininity inspires fear, arousal, and awe in equal measure."

Part of the thrill of watching these erotically charged films from the Reagan and post-era, is that the sexual politics are the most perverse thing about them. Though the films delight in their explicit sex scenes, and raunchy suggestion, they often express a paranoid and conservative perspective in their values. This paradox itself is what lends them their edge. And though they centralize the femme fatale as the motivator and focus of the narrative frisson, the movies are more often than not, about male anxieties. Every twist sinks the plots into deeper levels of their protagonist’s masculine unease, paranoia and doubt, as they navigate inceasingly unstable psycho-sexual territory. These themes are literally explored in Brian De Palma's "Body Double", as a meta-thriller vehicle to challenge audiences, as well as the conservative attitudes of the MPAA. Pushing the boundaries further, and accentuating the paranoia and unmooring of the male psyche, provocateur William Friedkin masterfully captured popular culture's uncertainty surrounding queer subcultures in "Cruising". Conversely, Alain Guiraudie offers a very modern perspective on homosexual psychological tensions in "Stranger by the Lake", and an example of charged modern heterosexuality can be seen in Jane Campion's "In the Cut". By turns elegant, tragic and erotic, Tony Scott's "The Hunger" looked to make the vampire genre one worthy of 1980s arthouse consideration, and from the late 1990s, the greatest height of unsease offered in the series can be found in the chilling void-space, where empathy has been inverted by J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name. David Cronenber's exploration of the novel's themes of society's inhibitions erupting in the deviant behavior and fatalism of an underground society of obsessed sybarites, where machinery, appendages and injured psyches, all collide together in “Crash”. So singular is it, that Criterion Collection's Jessica Kiang sees the novel and its adaptation as a head-on, smash-up, "Crash: The Wreck of the Century".