On-screen nudity is a recurrent topic in Scream (1996), Rose McGowan’s character bragging to Neve Campbell that she’s renting All the Right Moves (1983) starring a young Tom Cruise. “If you pause it just right,” she remarks, “you can see his penis.”
Before there was the internet there was the pause button.
Left to fend for themselves without the aid of categorically erotic media, resourceful teenagers have been making their own porn since the dawn of time, be it with a pencil, an imagination, or a pause button. A still image, possibly blurry and pixelated, is captured from a moving picture. Story, context, and frames preceding and following are evaded in order for what remains on screen to become suddenly erotic.
A non-erotic film exhibiting nudity purely for the sake of arousal will risk having its artistic integrity called into question. The bareness being exhibited must be accompanied by an exhibition of vulnerability or even pain, essential to the plot and character development, otherwise risking a misstep into the impermissible territory of gratuitous. This is generally regarded as a bad thing; one which turns the film into a flick and the art into a gimmick. In order to make the nudity appear meaningful for many American productions, it must be accompanied by the character in question enduring something terrible. Nudity paired with suffering is art. Nudity without is simply gratuitous – simply porn.
I grew up in what was possibly the last American household without internet. As curious as I was enterprising, I’d make ends meet by ordering a slew of scratched and battered DVDs from the public library. Without a gay equivalent to Mr. Skin, the curated straight man’s guide to female-bodied on-screen nudity, I would sit in my school’s computer lab painstakingly shuffling through the parents’ guide feature on IMDb. The warnings (reviews) were at times incredibly detailed, penned by cyber self-pleasure connoisseurs generously sharing the wealth; meticulously detailed and often providing a time-stamp. In two days’ time, I would receive a call from an automated robot alerting me that my stack of smut was ready for retrieval. Librarians, unlike Blockbuster employees, were under no obligation to ask for ID or so much as question why this precocious 12-year-old had a stack of Ewan McGregor’s off-Hollywood appearances in his balmy, perverted little hands. Two hours after school with the house to myself meant embarking on an odyssey of awakening, my mind ajar and learning like a depraved camera shutter. Delightedly, my erotic idols went from the waxed and uncomplicated models on department store boxer brief packaging to every celebrity crush (and nameless body double) to have ever appeared nude on celluloid.
If masturbation was my pilgrimage, then The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) was my North Star. Here we see Matt Damon perched beside Jude Law’s bathtub as the two play chess, a competitive tension perhaps ripening into something more. Damon boldly requests to “get in”, and with a steely apprehension Law’s character refuses – perhaps considering the offer or not – and a split-second cock shot follows as he emerges from the tub. While obviously identifying with the self-hatred of Damon’s character, a rejected and sorry little gay boy, his hopeful proposal spurned, I discerned in the paused image of Law’s dripping dick and homophobic dismissal an intricate eroticism. And this discovery became a pursuit.
Before long this conscious disregard of disturbing circumstances made sexualizing nonsexual on-screen male nudity almost a leisure activity, a talent as inhuman as sneezing with your eyes open. Like a cold-blooded survivor of brainwashing wearing custom horse-blinders of depravement, I managed to disassociate, successfully or not, incest in The Dreamers (2003), the zombie apocalypse in 28 Days Later… (2002), jubilant violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971), a pedophile’s looming presence in Little Children (2006), eye-gouging in Eastern Promises (2007), a Nazi’s shower rape in American History X (1998), and even Jesus’s assault and crucifixion in The Last Temptation of Christ (1998).
If disconnecting stimulating content from the dark and disturbing camouflage that surrounds it means an eternity in hell, then the Bible should at least feature a centerfold.
Luckily for me, the naked male form does not exist exclusively alongside disturbing subject matter – it can also serve the purpose of heightening humor or a sense of raw masculinity. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that male nudity found a home for the purpose of physical comedy and shock value in films like Eurotrip (2004), Wild Wild West (1999), Borat (2006), and the Jackass features (2002-2010) – just to name a few. While nudity for the sake of an outrageous, unexpected gag is not explicitly sexual, the fact that we’re all here for a light-hearted laugh eases hesitancy and leaves more clearance to make it so. Likewise, the locker room scenes in football films like Jerry McGuire (1996) and Any Given Sunday (1999) do not shy away from showing full-frontal cock-and-balls. In an environment as brazen and immodest as an athletic changing room where exposure is inevitable, in lieu of vulnerable and harrowing, this nakedness is proud, recreational and flashy.
I think back to American Psycho (2000), another film I’d return to throughout my adolescence. I’d marvel at the sinewy and towering Christian Bale strutting naked to his shower, blissfully ignoring the intrusive recollections of this character later in the film, murderously chasing a sex-worker through his apartment with a chainsaw. While the callus on my conscience had by now grown harder than the one on my palm, a film in which nakedness wasn’t paired with something troubling or traumatic still elicited a deeper appreciation in me. Bonus points if the film exhibited some level of unabashed queerness like Velvet Goldmine (1998) or Y Tu Mamá También (2001). An ability to disassociate nudity from context may have been a talent, but not needing this talent grew to come as a relief. This childhood inventiveness, now deemed obsolete by the internet, today elicits a particular sentimentality, both nostalgic and queasy. While there existed a reward to laboring through trial and error and earning my coming-of-age nut, it’s certainly preferable having ready access to nude media that’s erotic, consensual, ethical and available. Nudity intentionally sexualized and free of trauma, or a joke, or even a storyline...