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X-Rated: a Chapter in the History of Moviegoing

An X-cursion into high-end X-rated cinema, and how our shifting perception of the rating has paved the way for broader, more intense filmmaking.

Last week I mentioned the wreck of a film, Myra Breckinridge (1970). Under the previous Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system, it received an X. If the bad reviews weren’t going to kill the movie, an X-rating would curb the box-office by limiting the number of theaters that would take on the film.

During this period, several other films of substantially higher quality received an X. I remember taking my first girlfriend to see Midnight Cowboy (1969). She had come to my house for dinner, where I let my parents know what movie we were seeing. They weren’t enthused. I hadn’t experienced such disapproval since I told them a couple years before that I had seen Rosemary’s Baby (1967; not X-rated, but condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency).

Actually, this was the first serious movie we were going to see. We usually went to a drive-in theater and saw fare such as The Love Bug (1968) and Prudence and the Pill (1968). I don’t think my parents considered the upside: we wouldn’t be making out heavily in the back seat of a car.

Midnight Cowboy’s explicit sexual themes and content prompted its X rating. A naive Joe Buck (John Voight) goes to NYC to make his fortune as a stud. After an encounter with a woman (Sylvia Miles) walking her poodle, he proceeds to lose his money, most of his clothes, and his room.

One of those who takes his money is Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a street hustler who lives in an abandoned tenement. Soon, Joe is prostituting himself to support the both of them, eventually turning to homosexual encounters in theaters and hotels to get more money.

It’s a powerfully sexual and violent film about lowlifes in the wormiest part of the Big Apple. Winning the Best Picture Oscar, however, the film’s rating was changed to R—standing more for its gained Respectability than its Restricted content—and John Schlesinger won the Best Director award. Schlesinger has made several other good films, including Darling (1965) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), for which he received Best Director nominations, as well as The Day of the Locust (1975), Marathon Man (1976), and The Falcon and the Snowman (1985).

Two years later, I went to see A Clockwork Orange (1971), which received its X for many scenes of brutal violence, capped by the rape of a woman to the strains of the song “Singin’ in the Rain.” It was one of the most intense movie experiences I’ve had, enhanced greatly by not only the soundtrack but by the high volume of the music.

I learned many years later from a friend that Kubrick had left instructions to have the volume in theaters turned higher than usual. True or not, the combination of the moog synthesizer tracks, the intense fights between gangs, and the individual violence wrought by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs against others and each other, left this and many other audience members emotionally drained.

I was aware of the controversy that the film caused at the time, but with Kubrick as director, there was little doubt how important and meaningful the movie was. The Academy Awards again flirted with giving an X-rated film the Best Picture Award, but the film lost out on all four of its nominations. A testament to its intensity, as far as I know, Clockwork has not appeared on a commercial television channel, not even the basic cable outlets, which routinely show (butchered to near nonsense) the violent Scarface (1983) and GoodFellas (1990).

From extreme violence to graphic sexuality, the next important X-rated film was Last Tango in Paris (1972). Technically, it wasn’t given an X because it was a foreign film. Later, it received an NC-17 rating, which is akin to the old X. A user-created page on Internet Movie Data Base offers a complete breakdown of the sex acts (in the nude and with clothes on) that is very daunting. Less so: the amount of cursing and how many times the characters smoke and drink.

I didn’t see the film until 1974, once in a theater in Bala Cynwood, and then later in NYC at Columbia University. It was not easy to get past the many sexual encounters, each one increasingly more tense and daring, between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. I didn’t really like the film until I saw it the second time.

Ultimately, it’s Brando’s film. His character, Paul, has lost his wife to suicide, and his relationship with Schneider’s Jeanne, whom he meets while looking at an apartment, plays out his attempts to deal with grief. In fact, during the encounters around Paris, they never give their names.

Only after he has come to terms with the loss of his wife does Brando open up with Schneider, at precisely the moment she wants to pull away. He tells her his name. He wants to be more playful and get to know her. She panics and shoots him. 

Bernardo Bertolucci directed Last Tango, giving him worldwide renown. He followed the epic 1900 (1975) and a decade later conquered the Oscars with The Last Emperor (1987). He ventured into ratings difficulty getting an NC-17 for The Dreamers (2003), a story of three students during the 1968 student revolt in Paris.

I thought that I couldn't have seen a film any more sexually graphic than Last Tango. Indeed, to get more graphic, it would have to border on pornography. One such film in 1976, In the Realm of the Senses, seemed to cross that line. It had to be developed outside of Japan because of the strict censorship laws. In several countries, Realm faced charges of pornography before winning court cases that finally allowed it to be shown uncut.

Its director, Nagisa Oshima, led the Japanese equivalent of New Wave in the 1960s. His films before and after Realm always cross political, social, and narrative lines: Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Violence at Noon (1966), Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968), The Empire of Passion (1978), Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1982), and Taboo (1999).

Oshima’s narrative structure and content are inseparable and bear some resemblence to Jean-Luc Godard’s films like Vivre Sa Vie (1962) and Band of Outsiders (1963). His work explicitly critiques both modern Japan and its film culture, openly rebelling against the acknowledged masters of the time, Kurosawa and Ozu.

In the Realm of the Senses depicts the true 1930s story of a sexual obsession and murder involving a Japanese military officer and his mistress during a critical moment in the relations between the Japanese Army and the government. The officer is so engaged with the woman that he is oblivious to the military's coup d'etat.

It has Last Tango’s building intensity in the sexual relationship, and the woman does eventually kill her lover because he had broken his promise not to have sexual relations with his wife. In the end, she mutilates the officer in an act of not wanting to let him go; Schneider in Tango could no longer deal with the new kind of relationship that Brando seemed to want, and killed him for it.

Except for Realm, I had seen these films in packed houses. It is not an easy thing to view explicit sex on the big screen with anyone, let alone alongside hundreds of strangers. In fact, the fewer people present, the more self-conscious I have felt. This was especially true for Realm, if only due to its near-pornographic content, but I felt similarly when I went to a couple of NC-17 films: Henry and June (1990) and Crash (1997).

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash August 14, 2012 at 11:56 AM
I saw Midnight Cowboy in Philly in 1969. In retrospect, I couldn't see why is was X-Rated, but America's was not as evolved with evaluating movies. Midnight bothered me. Not because of the sexual content but the lifestyles. I couldn't believe how two men had sunk to such depths to make money. It was 1969-everybody could get jobs. Good paying jobs, I did go to NYC frequently beginning in 1967 , when I was 16. Times Square was so crowded with prostitutes you could't walk.
Robert Castle August 14, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Ned, Joe Buck was a dishwasher, not a professional. He thought he was going to make a fortune as a stud. Instead, he lost all his money and had to hustle. Ratzo Rizzo didn't possess many social skills, nor did he seem like a person who wanted to work. Midnight is essentially a lowlife buddy film.
John Reynolds August 15, 2012 at 02:19 PM
It was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh! Alex in "Clockwork" was my first role model during my formative teenage years. After seeing the movie, I wanted to dress up in a white suit and jackboots, and go around kicking-ass to the sound of Ludwig Van and the boys. After getting my ass kicked a few times, the novelty wore off, and I grew out of my eroto-Christian-violent stage. I felt lost and looked for new role models – then saw Midnight Cowboy. I bought a cowboy suit and went out cruising for attractive, rich women to service, but like most boyhood dreams, that didn't pan out either, so I settled down to the boring 9 to 5 life. Kids today don't have the role models we had back then.

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