That’s not Art, that’s Smut!

Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.

In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.

But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.

Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”

‘Contempt’

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.

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