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The younger we are, the harder it is to shock us. There was a time, back in the good old days, when a cross-dresser could eat a piece of dogshit and elicit pandemonium in a movie theater.
But kids today have 2 Girls 1 Cup, and they don't even have to make an event out of it — they can watch it from the comfort of their mothers' basements.
The more two girls and a cups we see, the less relevant John Waters and his shock cinema peers are. Take a look at Waters' more recent NC-17er A Dirty Shame and watch Tracey Ullman pick up a water bottle with her vagina. You mean ... that's it? Why isn't she doing tricks with the bottle?
While hardly anything in mainstream cinema can approach the levels of jaw-dropping transgression available in droves at the click of a mouse, it still doesn't stop mainstream filmmakers from trying. It's what they're used to; they've been at it long before there was any competition.
They've tried since the days of Edison and Muybridge, when images of naked women climbing rocks and playing sports unspooled alongside galloping horses. They've been trying since the first bit of full-frontal female nudity shocked censors as early as 1899, according to Jon Lewis' great book Hollywood v. Hard Core. They've been trying since those dirty Scandinavians got away with sex scenes under the defense of art (See The Silence, I am Curious (Yellow). Actually, don't see I am Curious (Yellow) — it's a bore). They've been trying since Marlon Brando asked for the butter, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger spent nine-and-a-half weeks together, Henry and June met Anaïs, and Elizabeth Berkeley declared she was a dancer.
Today, none of these films are as shocking as they were intended to be, just as any modern viewing of The Exorcist is unlikely to send viewers bolting to the restroom to vomit. But despite our desensitized times, there are still porny moments in commercial movies that make us do proverbial spit-takes: moments during which we can only assume the MPAA ratings board took a popcorn break. With sex on most people's minds as Valentine's Day approaches, here are a few of those moments.
"We never got to be teenagers together."
A History of Violence, 2005
I wasn't shocked by the scene I'm selecting from A History of Violence. But my mother certainly was, and, we can safely presume, so were mothers everywhere. It's early in the film, long before innocent family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) turns into professional assassin Joey Cusack, and everything is peaceful in the Stall household. The kids are away, and Mom and Dad have some time alone. At first it looks like Mom (Maria Bello) is the sexual aggressor, then Dad takes the initiative to go down on her, which naturally mutates into a 69 position for an all-too-brief moment. The scene is nowhere near as monumental or theme-defining as the stairwell fight-turned-fuck these two characters share later in the movie, but it's a scant moment of taboo naughtiness from David Cronenberg, one of filmdom's chief purveyors of it.
"I promise. I will never die."
Team America: World Police, 2004
Anyone who's ever placed their Barbie and Ken dolls in porno positions — and what Mattel enthusiast hasn't? — realizes the limitless possibilities of puppet sex. Hooking your toys up together opens a Pandora's box of perversity wider than any Kama Sutra guide. If Team America is any indication, Trey Parker and Matt Stone garnered plenty of ideas from bumpin' plastic. The action-film stereotypes they concocted for their satirical farce — the brooding loner haunted by past trauma and the buxom superhero who feels his pain — play all the hits you know and some you don't: missionary, anal, 69, blow job, reverse cowgirl, up against a wall, and a couple of physically defying arrangements. And this is only from the theatrically released cut. Parker and Stone edited their scene 12 times to avoid an NC-17. One only imagines the golden showers, strawberry shortcakes and rusty trombones to which only the virgin eyes of the MPAA prudes were privy.
"I have to make a call."
Two Girls and a Guy, 1998
I was never into the idea of analingus until I saw Two Girls and a Guy. In actuality, I'm still not fond of the practice, but James Toback makes this forbidden fruit of mainstream movies look as arousing as any sexual act, not just a buttman fetish. Logically, Heather Graham should hate Robert Downey Jr. for his infidelity, but part of the situation kinda turns her on, and she lets Downey pin her to a wall, drop to his knees and explore her asshole with his tongue, then spin her around to penetrate a more conventional orifice. It's oral sex at its most raw, primal and uninhibited. The fact that it doesn't make any contextual sense somehow makes it all the more truthful. Toback understands that love and hate are not always — to reference another one of his titles — black and white.
"Vaughn's semen must be very salty."
One David Cronenberg film in any list about transgression is simply not enough. In this auto-erotic pornucopia of perversity, there isn't one particular scene that stands out. Rather, it's the cumulative effect of the film's sexual round-robin: Deborah Kara Unger jerking off James Spader in a hospital bed while reciting the gruesome details of his car accident like it was text from an erotica paperback; Spader penetrating Unger from behind while she discusses the varying degrees of saltiness in semen; Spader, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette pleasuring each other while watching crash-test porn; Elias Koteas engaging in some rough foreplay with a muff-exposed Unger in the midst of a car wash; Spader and Koteas pleasuring each other's car tattoos. Yes, there's certainly something for the whole family.
"Now they're gonna put up 50 G's just 'cause these chicks wear penguin suits."
Bad Lieutenant, 1992
Good ol' sleazemaster Abel Ferrara, who began his career with the beloved porno 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, directed Harvey Keitel at his nakedest — literally and figuratively — in Bad Lieutenant, a slow-burning tale of a corrupt, heroin-addicted cop who finds Jesus through the most circuitous of ways. There's a lot of grody sex shown and implied, but nothing could prepare viewers for the rape of a nun at the hands of two men. Ferrara intercuts the hideous act with shots of Christ on the cross and other religious icons, connecting the nun's suffering with a tradition of sacrifice as old as the Bible. It's a startlingly graphic moment, even for an NC-17 release.
"Forget who you are."
9 Songs, 2005
9 Songs may be remembered as a footnote in film history for briefly reigniting the debate about the nature of pornography. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said of porn, "I know it when I see it," in a landmark 1964 case that helped open new worlds for sexual content in art-house cinema. Others don't look at porn so amorphously: If two people are having unsimulated sex on screen (and if we see penetration), it's porn. Filmmakers across the globe have pushed the limits of what constitutes porn for decades, but none of them has flaunted it as brashly and effectively as Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs, a relationship narrative told almost entirely through sexual trysts and indie rock shows. It's very close to a documentary: The guy's semen is definitely real, and the gal's moans certainly sound it. In the most memorable encounter, Kieran O'Brien ties Margo Stilley to the bed and performs cunnilingus on her, while creating a fictional setting upon which to transport her. Unlike traditional porn, the scene is not aimed at providing a sexual release for male moviegoers. Like many in the movie, it's all about — gasp — a female experiencing genuine pleasure while a male does all the work. It's a concept that is as rare in the misogynistic world of pornography as it is in the conservative, male-dominated mainstream film industry.
"Why did you fuck those guys?"
The Brown Bunny, 2003
Here we have the most-watched three minutes in Vincent Gallo's oeuvre. The theatrical distribution of The Brown Bunny was microscopic, but the viral distribution is the ultimate in porn-site ubiquity. Users who have never heard of Buffalo 66 have watched Chloë Sevigny give an intense blow job, complete with ejaculation-in-mouth, to director-star Gallo in his execrable road movie. If I have to stand on a side of whether or not the scene is necessary, I would lean on necessary, because it's something that happens (unlike in the rest of the film). The entire movie is just a masturbatory vanity project anyway, and in that sense I can't think of a better way to send us off than by getting him off.
"Watch this contestant attack his slice!"
The Wayward Cloud, 2006
Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud is as sick as movies get, climaxing with the gang-rape of a corpse followed by a death-by-throatfuck. But its juicy opening scene is a curiously pleasurable experiment in sexual-metaphor creativity. A woman lies on a bed, ready and willing, with a watermelon between her outstretched legs. Her male suitor licks the watermelon as if it were her clitoris, then proceeds to finger and fist the melon to her orgasmic whinnying. Finally, he licks his fingers and fills her mouth with pieces of the fruit until the juice drips across her face in every direction. Trust me, it's way hotter than it sounds, and you won't be able to look at a watermelon the same way again.
John Thomason is freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.