IFC's four-part television series Indie Sex is a historical blow-by-blow of the films, genres, directors, and figureheads that altered the route American artists take in putting sex on-screen—at least within the four categories the episodes tackle, censorship, teens, extremes, and taboos (the last included only on the DVD's second disc). This is not to say that American society is more forgiving lately of racy depictions of sex. The series flashes grainy, black-and-white examples of early movie sex and stag films as lurid as what was to follow; as Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell puts it in the episode on censorship, "If prostitution is the earliest profession, maybe porn is the earliest art, who knows?"
A wave emerges. Unrestrained depictions of sex on film give way to sanction and harsh control, periods of prudishness and restraint, and a rising symbolism for those who want to suggest sex on the right side of the law. This symbolism only gives way to a school of filmmakers who actively break the norms, until what was forbidden is the norm, and the wave crashes all over again. In reality, this progression was enhanced by film's own growing popularity. From voyeuristic nickelodeons to the almost nonchalant sexuality of the starlets of pre-code Hollywood—namely, if unfairly focused on, Jean Harlow. Then the severe repression of the Hays Code for more than 20 years, until the breakout films of Otto Preminger and Elia Kazan, and the almost commonplace sex scenes in the movies that followed.
In these chronological terms, the series is direct and unconfrontational, but also uninsightful. The constant focus on the progression of sex through American cinema gets redundant, and while Indie Sex occasionally disrupts its historical framework to focus on certain necessary bullet points—"sex vs. exploitation," "kink and fetishism," "unsimulated sex," "homosexuality"—rarely are its commentators allowed to offer more than blanket observational statements. More common is a familiar trend in recent documentaries, especially on television: the experts' simple and useless relaying of the plot or scene being shown beneath their voiceover (brought to new lows here by IFC's own Matt Singer, mock acting out a sex scene from Showgirls).
More to the point, the series suffers massively from not having any central device to direct its non-historical discussions and consolidate or connect those few talking heads who bring some real thought to the subject; certain commentators, such as Mitchell, Inside Deep Throat director Fenton Bailey, and critic Jami Bernard, seem to have a lot more to say. The conclusions that result are underdeveloped. The episode on teens suggests, for example, that we're in an era of Hollywood prudishness (the traditional and middle-crust romantic plotlines of The Princess Diaries, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, New York Minute, and Enchanted going up against a new class of directors—including several of the series's talking heads—delivering a remarkable frontal assault with Secretary, Shortbus, Thirteen, Hard Candy, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and now Juno) without acknowledging that many current movies with teens in them are aimed at a new market, a younger, tween crowd.
And while IFC is, by name, committed to exploring American independent cinema, Indie Sex's impossibly tight focus on U.S. filmmaking and filmmakers tends to take the voyeur out of the movies. In rightfully crediting foreign films of the '60s for inspiring American directors to create the sex scenes of the '70s, it does not account for the role played by the general audience member who also crowded in to see those films, creating the interest and demand for the kind of films Preminger, Kazan, Lynch, and others went on to make. Some of the European mavericks on those screens—Pasolini, Godard, Jim Sharman with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more—go unmentioned. The result is the show's essential fault, close-mindedness. Not about sex, but about cinema as an international, audience-driven art form.
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No surprise that a current television series has been adequately transferred to DVD. The image and sound remain sharp, providing that wonderful mix of new interview footage with the textures and exaggerated colors of older film processes.
So, I'm confused. The additional disc for Indie Sex includes a fourth episode, "Taboos," that is labeled a director's cut, is half an hour shorter than the three episodes on the first disc, and is far better structured and more engaging than any of them, going into detail on the films of Waters, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Soderbergh. Also more interesting than anything before is the uncut interview footage, in which the commentators go off on tangents, personal stories, motivations, and opinions, arriving at a more illuminating level of discussion; Waters and John Cameron Mitchell emerge as the clearest thinking, most intelligent voices on the subject of sex onscreen. Perhaps the second disc is what the first was supposed to be.
A fascinating subject that deserves all the intelligent attention it gets. Just, with The Celluloid Closet or Pornography: A History of Civilization, there have been better efforts.