Although we only sped by it briefly, on the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast (now settling into its 54th week), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I talked about the recent passing of film director and softcore porn pioneer Zalman King, the man behind notoriously smutty feature films like Two Moon Junction, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Wild Orchid. He was also the founder and director of a famed TV show called Red Shoe Diaries, which was a Tales from the Crypt-style anthology show hosted by David Duchovny, and featured romantic lust stories and long, loving takes of women’s breasts.
I mentioned on the show that Wild Orchid (1989) was one of those classy-looking nudie films that you could sneak past an inattentive video store clerk. As a teenager in the late ‘80s – who didn’t have access to internet pornography, mind you – these sorts of films were godsends. They allowed us the long, attentive looks at women’s breasts that we desperately desired, yet didn’t have regular access to. With no porn to call your own, these films filled a very important sexual niche for a generation of teenage boys. For many of my peer group, these were our first looks at semi-explicit sex. What’s more, Wild Orchid (as I mentioned on the show) was one of those films rumored to contain real sex between the actors in question. No gory pornographic close-ups of the sex, mind you, but it was said the actors were actually, y’know… doin’ it. Every once in a while, such allegations will arise over certain films or TV shows. Ask around about Evan Rachael Wood and Marilyn Manson in the “Heart-Shaped Glasses” music video. Or Paul Walker and Vera Farmiga in Running Scared. Did they really do it? Really?
But the death of Zalman King may mark the death of something far more profound. In an age where any 10-year-old kid with tech savvy and an internet phone can, within seconds, call up the dirtiest possible hardcore sexual imagery from the internet, whither the softcore smut film? I recall a halcyon day when sneaking a peek at a photograph of a single exposed breast was the most electrifying thing imaginable. We had to circulate pornographic magazines and keep them stored away in places where you were sure your parents would never find them (even though they always did). There was money, subterfuge, and an underground network of trusted peers involved in getting porn into your home. Some of the more ambitious kids even landed contraband VHS tapes of certain pornographic films, and a few managed to boldly purchase their own copies of Zalman King’s movies. We used to have to work hard for our porn, dammit. You kids these days. You don’t know how good you have it. Also, get off my lawn.
Indeed, we’ve reached a point where teenage boys expose themselves to so much sexual imagery, that they become bored with it. No lie. I’ve heard stories of teenagers becoming bored with porn. Lord knows I would have done that. It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to internet porn as a teenager. I suspect I would have done little else with my time. Is all this porn good for teenagers? Well, like all vices, it should be consumed in moderation. Also, perhaps with sex being more and more openly discussed, we’ll move into a more open and sex-positive society. Kids will grow up with fewer hang-ups about their sexual interests, fetishes and preferences, and we may be able to approach sex from a healthier stance. Well, ideally.
But part of me will be a little sad to see the subterfuge go. It was so valuable and vital to us. True, being “caught” with smut back in the day may have incurred the wrath of outraged parents, leading to shame about your sexuality and the growth of life-consuming neuroses. But at least in my circles, no such wrath was encountered. Maybe a strict talking-to, but that was as far as it went. The subterfuge was fun, and the softcore films were… well, they were important.
Indeed, the softcore Cinemax late-night films – despite my talk of horny teenage boys on desperate smut hunts – depicted sex in a much more mature light than most porn films. Pornography only required two willing actors and a cameraman to achieve its desired effect. Softcore film, with their inability to depict close-ups of sexual penetration that would lovingly capture the details of human genitals, spent a lot more time focusing on things like character and scenario and photography. Oh, that grand Skinemax photography. The soft, soft, soft focus. The candlelight. That fantastically horrible soft jazz that played on the soundtrack. The flowing curtains softly whispering being the toned, nude actors. They were possessed of an aesthetic. It was like a soap opera explosion. A perfume ad with tits. The cover of a romance novel taken to a logical extreme. True, the scenarios were usually boilerplate Penthouse Forum rip-offs (“Dear Red Shoes, I never thought this would happen to me…”), and the characters were never terribly deep (even though you did have the occasional good actress willing to disrobe), but you have to give Cinemax credit for appealing to a more moody and intellectual masturbator. Indeed, Cinemax became so well-known for its late-night softcore smut films, it is still, to this day, often referred to as “Skinemax.”
Is a softcore film even appealing to the average young person these days? If they can spend hours looking at well-lit and digitally touched up close-ups of unprotected penetration (and who can’t, really?), does an out-of-focus slow-motion shot of a guy threading his necktie through a woman’s panties hold any appeal? There was something to be said for the clunky plotting and well made-up model types of those films. Akin to a good action film, most of the story was a bare-bones setup for the climactic scenes. Only in Skinemax movies, there was a lot more scented oil and silk bed sheets. Just like in hardcore porn, but usually with more dialogue and better filmmaking.
I guess my thesis is this: All genres and subgenres of film have their own vital aesthetic. True, the function of Zalman King's films was to titillate, but they also sought a very specific form of titillation. Even sex can be aesthetically pleasing. But no matter how defunct a genre is, or how unpopular it is, or even how notorious it is, the actual subgenre will stand out, and will, for as long as the film is preserved, remain vital. Sure, in terms of the sexual activity on display, softcore has long since been outstripped by the availability of hardcore (“outstripped,” see what I did there?). But in terms of what it offers in terms of look, feeling, camp, and joyous subterfuge, it still has power. Is it as sexy? Isn't that subjective?
Some people prefer going to a strip joint and seeing women emerge from backstage already nude, just so they can sit on the ground and splay their legs open, making sure everyone sees everything. There are other, however, that prefer a nice slow dance to some nicely chose music, all with an actual striptease. Heck, burlesque is enjoying a renaissance, and there's no explicit nudity in that at all. Softcore, for however cynical porn-lovers may be about it, still gives us something important. It gives us the tease. The promise. Sometimes, even the old B-movie bait-and-switch. It's yet another way to tap into our erotic imaginations, and another way to tell a story about adult sexuality. If hardcore porn is going to (in the ideal scenario I described above) move us toward a more sex-positive culture, then there's definitely room for the slow-moving cameras and candlelit romance sexings of softcore smut.
Rest in peace, Zalman King. You did a great service to us all.
Next: Are the Skinemax movies the most underappreciated film genre?
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
I don’t have cable anymore, which is probably a good thing because if I did, I’d do nothing but watch cheesy monster movies on the Sci-Fi Channel – I refuse to call it anything else – and softcore smut. I’ve written before about my love for cheesy monster movies, but aside from a brief period on the deceased series New Adventures in Netflix, I don’t talk too often about softcore cinema. Nobody does. That’s a problem, isn’t it? It’s the black sheep of the film industry, more so than straight to video horror movies or pornography. Nobody talks about it. You rarely see critical analyses of softcore cinema. They’re a little like the American noirs of the 1940s and 50s, which were written off as claptrap before the brilliant folks at Cahiers du Cinema decided to codify it as a genre. I’d never claim that Skinemax movies are as good as, say, The Maltese Falcon or Gun Crazy, but at least it’s a real genre with conventions and attitudes that separate it from its competitors in both the mainstream and pornographic studios.
Films with titles like Illicit Behavior and Petticoat Planet weren’t made to compete with Hollywood productions. They were made to cater to audiences looking for cheap, late night thrills after the kids had gone to sleep. But they were made with actual locations, plotlines and occasionally respectable actors who probably had nothing better to do that month and didn’t want to pass up an excuse to press their bare chests against Joan Severance. They had real scripts with character development and plotlines that drove the story forward. They were often shot without any tangible amount of love from the filmmakers, but often included game performances from amateurish young actors who were just happy to be in a film, or at least willing to accept money to flash their lovely bodies (which they clearly worked very hard to maintain) and pretend to be cops and news reporters and sex therapists for a little while.
The ambition was low, but the many elements – such as content, style and thematic preoccupations – were consistent between many productions. Often, the films included a character whose attitudes towards sexuality was consistent with the moral mainstream. Someone who didn’t want to cheat on their husband, or actively sought to persecute those who treated sex as an enjoyable, consequence-free past time. In Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, no less than Morgan Fairchild became a fascist dictator who outlawed fornication in all of its forms. So teenagers traveled back in time to have sex with her. The films catered to an old-fashioned romance novel mentality, often featuring realized fantasy scenarios of marital infidelity, workplace affairs and non-threatening lesbian experimentation (often limited to dreamy caresses in unusually large showers). The heroes were idealized male and female archetypes: hunky men with ripped abs and women with improbable curves, often sculpted by the nation’s top plastic surgeons. They were often confident figures, or waifish ones who become empowered through positive sexual contact. Skinemax movies have a variety of their own subgenres, but they generally favor erotic thrillers or light comedies.
But the real unifying thread seems to be that these movies take a somewhat conventional genre plotline and include several sex scenes. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but in a way that would be a fair assessment. Most Hollywood films depict sexual acts as occasional romantic crescendos, major plot points or throwaway gags. Thanks in part to the Hays Code, there’s a history of punishing characters in mainstream movies for having sex at all. Sex, in those films, is usually in defiance of the norm. The opposite is true in pornography. Most pornographic films depict so much sex that the plot – if there even is one – is forgotten for as much as 30 minutes at a time. In pornography, sex is the norm. In Skinemax films, the balance is actually much closer to real life. The characters go about their daily lives, solving murders and saving the family car wash business, and occasionally have sex. The sex is filmed but usually limited to a brief montage, keeping it in proportion to the rest of the protagonists’ daily lives.
These aren’t mind-blowing distinctions, but they are distinctions all the same. And while the quality of the films was usually quite low, the uniform nature of their message and style makes them worthy of a second look. Most people dismiss the softcore Skinemax subgenre as an offshoot of the 1990s erotic thriller boom, or as a substitute for hardcore pornography in the years prior to high-speed internet connections, when audiences wanted to watch something sexy without having to endure the disapproving glances of their local video store clerks. And while those things are both kind of true, they reduce a fascinating subgenre to its influences and functions. Would you say that slasher movies are just rip-offs of Hitchcockian thrillers, and only serve as drunken party material?
The next time you’re up late at night and find a movie with a title like Victim of Desire or Bikini Hotel, give it a watch. Ignore the poor production values, and try to give the models-turned-actors a pass for their amateurish performances. Watch instead the films’ balance between plot and sexual content, and their often-naïve attempts at repressed sexual wish fulfillment. Pay attention to the plot, for Pete’s sake, and think about how this kind of filmmaking differences from theatrical releases and actual pornography. You’ll find that it’s a unique entity all its own, and worthy of being a part of the critical conversation, if nothing else.