The Greeks had a word for it: scopophilia. To derive pleasure from watching. Normally, that refers to the enjoyment people get from viewing erotic objects or pornography. In film theory, however, that decidedly unsexy-sounding term is specifically used to describe how the act of coitus is portrayed in cinema in order to excite viewers. The webseries Frame By Frame (its slogan: “Like film school but BETTER”) devotes its attention to scopophilia in an intriguing episode called “Filming Sex Scenes: How Hollywood Arouses An Audience.” Despite that lurid, panting title and the presence of a few scantily clad performers in the footage, this is a thoughtful, semi-scholarly video essay seemingly aimed at aspiring filmmakers who want to know the tricks of the trade. The gabby, rapid-fire narration by host MatPat of The Film Theorists should have a powerful libido-defeating effect on most viewers. Nevertheless, there’s some good information to be found here.
Frame By Frame traces the lineage of the modern sex scene back to 1933’s Ecstasy with Hedy Lamarr. That film used close-ups for its groundbreaking sex scene, partly as a way of appeasing the censors. But close-ups have remained an important part of movie sex scenes for decades, and this essay shows how they can be used in different ways. On the one hand, by reducing characters to their various body parts, close-ups can serve to objectify or dehumanize actors. This is particularly true of how women have traditionally been depicted in movies. Spike Lee comments on this trope in 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, in which Tracy Camilla Johns’ body becomes a veritable battleground for three jealous men.
On the other hand, close-ups of actors’ faces during love scenes can help create an emotional connection with the audience. Frame By Frame cites Boogie Nights as an example. Paul Thomas Anderson is not shy about including nudity in that film, but a crucial sex scene between Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore concentrates mostly on the actors’ faces. Elsewhere in the video, a scene from Last Tango In Paris demonstrates the importance of camera movement in depicting sex on screen. The takeaway from all this, according to MatPat: “If we’ve learned anything today, it’s that we all like to watch.”
[via The Playlist]