Five Film Favorites: Those Uncomfortable Nudes

I’ve often said, in a mostly joking manner, that there’s never been a film made that wasn’t improved by nudity. Setting aside my lame attempts at humor, nudity adds, at the very least, an intense realism to movies. Now, I’m not going to speak from a purely artistic standpoint–yes, I find nudity titillating in most films.  It’s fun and exciting to see your favorite actors in a state of undress.

However, I can’t emphasize enough that nudity is essential to certain pictures, making them feel so damned real that you squirm in your seat. Nudity is vulnerability. It is vulnerability on the part of the actor, and on the part of the character. And that unclothed exposure can be so acute that it will stay with you for days. Where some directors try and shock with violence–so overrated–it is a well placed nude scene that really stands out.  Where most of us have hopefully avoided violence in real life, everyone has been naked. From sitting in an examining room with a doctor to using a public restroom, this exposure is something with which we can all relate.

There’s a certain bravery in shooting a nude scene, obviously for the actor, but also for the director. Violence is corn syrup with red food coloring; nudity is real. A lot of our great directors feel very safe drenching their people in blood, but try and get them to remove even a stitch of clothing, and that’s another story.

The tendency in an article like this might be to focus on the startling developments in nudity in films, and with that you typically go back to the 1970s, and examine, say, the works of Bertolucci or Ken Russell (or maybe even the explosion of “art house” porn.) They’ve made great movies whose sex scenes are startling, to say the least. But what interests me are those moments when nudity has been used to a different effect–as a way of communicating extreme vulnerability.

So pardon me for ruining your fun, but these nude scenes, with the exception of one, are hardly arousing. But to be honest, I remember these scenes more than I do moments of supposedly alarming violence. The end result is that these moments are effective, and they remind us that we’re watching people, real people.

NOTE: No nude clips, and there will be spoilers.

5. The Pawnbroker (1964, Sidney Lumet.) To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of this movie. But The Pawnbroker deserves a nod if only because it was the first blow against Hollywood’s rating system and Hays code that prevented nude scenes. This is the story of Sol (Rod Steiger, who himself went without clothes in the awful Illustrated Man), a Harlem pawnbroker whose feelings have been destroyed by his experiences in the Holocaust.

The Pawnbroker forced The Motion Picture Association’s hand, for it has two brief nude scenes that are not in the least bit exciting–one in which a prostitute (Thelma Oliver) tries to get more money from Sol by removing her top for him, which only serves to take the poor man back to that moment when he watched his wife, Ruth (Linda Geiser), raped by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp. Both Geiser and Oliver exposed their breasts. I will also say that both scenes drive home the emotional wasteland that Sol lives in–without these scenes, or say, if they were shot in a way that didn’t show the body (say, from behind), they would not have any impact. We need to see Ms. Olivier’s breasts, see her despair, which in turn leaves us feeling as vulnerable as she is in that moment.

The Catholic League of Decency condemned The Pawnbroker, but the studio, Allied Artists, went ahead and released it without the MPAA’s rating (and basically gave the finger to the League of Decency.) New York censors allowed it to play, and the MPAA, its tail between its legs, allowed it an “exception”. Many historians point to The Pawnbroker’s situation as the beginning of the end of this type of censorship, and from then on it was no hold’s barred.

4. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch.) You might be saying, now hold on a second, Schilling. The nude scenes in Mulholland Dr. are pretty damned exciting.  Please allow me to disagree, and strenuously.

There are three moments of nudity in Mulholland Dr. and they’re doozies, in part because the two leads are profoundly beautiful women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring), and because they have a pretty intense love scene together. Oh, wow, sexy lesbians! Boom-chicka-bow.

Sorry, dudes, but every nude scene in Mulholland Dr. is designed tobe a desperately sad or angry moment for these two women, a moment of exposure to a world that swallows souls like breakfast cereal. In the first, we see Diane (Harring) emerge from a shower. She has been in a horrible car accident, one that was actually fortuitous, as the people inside were trying to kill her. Hiding away in a strange apartment, she finally decides to clean up when Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives.

So, in other words, Diane is discovered in one of her most vulnerable moments–when she’s naked, and in a shower (and since Psycho showers are no longer safe places.) Lynch is continually toying with his characters’ ability to create safe spaces in Mulholland Dr., violating even their dreams, as reality and unreality intrude upon one another.

Sex scenes make up the other two moments of nudity–the lesser known of the two fits perfectly into my analysis. Diane has stopped by Betty’s run down bungalow to break up with her. The former has just landed a great part in a movie, the Betty is on the outs, despite, at least in her mind, being the superior actress. As their argument reaches a strangely quiet pitch, Betty very nearly rapes her former lover, and definitely causes her (and us) tremendous discomfort. It’s not fun to watch but nasty.

And then there’s the “famous” love scene. Mulholland Dr., in my mind, has very clear delineations of dream world v. reality, and this is definitely the dream. But if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting dirge is playing while these two young women are climbing into bed and all over each other. It’s a strange moment, and one that takes on even greater significance when you realize later that it is the same music playing when Betty, realizing her mistake at having her former lover killed, commits suicide. The love scene was a foolish dream, and now those dreams are gone. Diane is gone. And Betty, beautiful Betty, succumbs to the existential menace of Hollywood, and blows her brains out in a ratty bungalow in Los Angeles.

Devastating, and made even more so by the powerfully sad nude scenes.

3. Schindler’s List (1993, Stephen Spielberg.) There is a conventional moment of nudity in Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s near-great and terribly flawed portrait of life in a concentration camp. It is a scene where Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, amazingly evil) is loafing in bed, his big belly protruding upward, and a beautiful young woman emerges from under the covers, topless. It’s a bit of a surprise, coming from Spielberg, who doesn’t typically have any nudity in his films.

But this isn’t the scene I’m concerned with. I give Spielberg all the credit in the world for going forward with two moments that are so totally devastating they’ve remained with me for years: that of the Jewish prisoners, men and women, the young and the very old, being forced to run in circles outside, totally naked. The other, of course, is the shower scene. As we know, showers in a concentration camp mean death, horrible, agonizing death.

Let me digress just a bit to say that it infuriates me when directors have to play all sorts of games to avoid nudity. Women in films for some reason sit up in bed and always pull up the sheets to cover themselves, and in the world of cinema you can attend strip clubs to watch girls dance around in bikinis. To me, this only brings back the fact that I’m watching a movie, and not real life.

Spielberg really went for broke here, and knew that if he did not show his actors totally naked, the film would be empty. Schindler’s List pulls its punches in its final hour–boy, does it pull its punches–but up to that point it is a shocking film. And I’m here to tell you that is the nudity, more than the violence, that sends its horrors home.

2. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch.) As you can see, there are two David Lynch films on this short list, and I have to say that he is definitely a director who is comfortable with nudity. About half his movies feature actresses in states of undress. However, Lynch is a man who understands the power of nudity–both to excite, and to disturb.

Case in point: Blue Velvet. And I hope you all know the scene I’m talking about. It is one of the film’s most brilliantly terrifying moments. Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is out driving with Sandy (Laura Dern.) They’ve been on a date, dancing and playing the Hardy Boys meet Nancy Drew. Suddenly, they’re being pursued by thugs in a fancy car. Their reaction–and ours–is that this is Frank (Dennis Hopper.) You know Frank–sucking nitrous and PBR, beating Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), and slicing off ears. Frank is the heart of a murder “case”, and Jeffrey’s smack in the middle of it, foolishly thinking he can solve this mystery.

But then Lynch toys with us–the car in question is not being driven by Frank and his gang, but a bunch of Sandy’s high school friends, a dopey drunk football player and his pals who are pissed she’s being seen with Jeffrey. We breathe a sigh of relief. And then from the shadows steps a very naked Dorothy, her arms extended toward Jeffrey and whispering “He put his disease in me.”

I’m shuddering even now as I write this. I had the privilege to see Rossellini speak at the Walker Art Center, and she explained that Lynch and his brother, when they were very young, watched as a neighbor woman ran from her home, totally naked, to flee an abusive husband. “It was the first time he’d seen a naked woman,” she explained, and naturally it terrified him. There was no affection, no love, no thrill to this first sighting–it was a moment of pure fear.

In Blue Velvet, Dorothy’s moment adds to the strange mysteries of the film and is surprisingly touching–who has watched this and not wanted to remove their coat to place it over her shoulders, to cover her and comfort her? If we’re relating at all to Jeffrey we’re anxious about this collision between the dark and the light as Sandy recoils at the fact that he’s obviously been sleeping with Dorothy. It’s really an amazing moment, and again, it is Lynch’s brave take on nudity that makes it as acutely uncomfortable as it is.

1. In the Valley of Elah (2007, Paul Haggis.) In the Valley of Elah was the first film Paul Haggis directed since his Oscar-winning Crash. It was a flop, the story of a former soldier, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, in what I believe is his finest performance, which I know is saying a lot), who decides to investigate the murder of his son, himself a soldier recently returned from Iraq.

In the Valley of Elah is one of the most honest films I’ve ever seen about the life of a soldier. For most of the movie Haggis, who typically loves, loves, loves to drive a point home with the subtlety of a VW bus plowing into a redwood tree, here restrains himself, allowing subtle details to color this tremendously sad story. Jones’ Hank Deerfield is a man committed to his country, but he’s not a zealot–we don’t see him swing from one extreme to another. He’s investigating a death with all the tools at his disposal (he was once a crack MP), but we remember that he’s not investigating the death of a stranger, but his own son.

Haggis shows us the world of the young soldier, eating greasy food in restaurants with plastic tables, guzzling beer in trucks and staring at the sun setting, trying to get a grip on their lives.

And in this amazing scene, the only nude scene in the movie, we get what I believe is the most honest look at stripping ever committed to a feature film (there’s good documentaries out there, I’m sure.) Jones has walked into this cavernous warehouse turned bar and strip club, to see if anyone there remembers seeing his son come in the night of his death. The great Frances Fisher comes from out of the kitchen to wait on him… and she’s topless, and wearing a wig to make her look a lot younger than she his. With a depressing matter-of-fact attitude, contrasting beautifully with Jones’ look of muted shock, she answers his questions, nonchalantly. Later, its driven home by a shot from the end of the bar, where we see two men drinking cheap beer, totally indifferent to the nude woman in dark blue jeans with porcelain-white skin.

You can see it here, with weird dubbing. This scene shocked me then, as it does now. And it makes me sad. It made me sad to think of those kids living their brutal lives who were in there just to get a glimpse at a beautiful body, something comforting, something exciting (that didn’t involve death), and this contrasted with my feelings for this woman, working this job that probably pays better than all the other crappy gigs around town. Real strip clubs don’t feature beauties like Marisa Tomei (as in The Wrestler), but the cheaper ones have women like Fisher, older, unable to afford a boob job, broken a bit by this life or putting up a good front to show they’re tough.

Fisher isn’t unsexy because she’s old–this scene depresses because of the context, and, again, the nudity heightens the situation. It’s there for a reason, and a very good reason, and even though she’s not a soldier, Fisher’s nakedness exposes everyone’s vulnerability. Brilliant. Despite it’s shortcomings, and there’s a lot of them here, In the Valley of Elah is one to see.

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