In the new comedy Sex Tape, couple Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel’s eponymous media file, conceived and executed to spice up their marriage, is accidentally uploaded to his cloud account and circulated amongst their family and friends, with disastrous results. How has serious cinema historically tackled the issue of filming—surreptitiously or otherwise—various forms of intimate encounters, and the attendant voyeurism that often motivates the deed?
First, let’s settle some semantic issues. Sex Tape obviously isn’t about a sex tape, as first Beta and then VHS have both been eclipsed by DVD, VLC, MKV and a virtual alphabet soup of other digital file formats. So for the purposes of this academic inquiry, “tape” refers to any medium used to preserve an image, and the verb “film” means the hardware used to shoot that image.
“Sex” will still refer to sex, though this list will sidestep reality television and the enormous adult film industry (with one notable, if simulated, exception) in pursuit of more intellectual fare. C’mon, this is SBS, after all.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
The subsequent DVD release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno features a whopping 94 minutes of deleted scenes, which should be a hint to the discerning consumer at just how sloppy and self-centered a filmmaker Kevin Smith really is. This “romantic sex comedy” isn’t very romantic, has no actual sex (as befits a mainstream Hollywood movie) and isn’t very funny—unless, of course, the viewer is a fan of Smith’s buckshot-style method of crude one-liners. There are precisely three inspired elements here: the casting of Traci Lords, the cameo by Tom Savini and the appearance of the Monroeville Mall, which is where George Romero shot the original Dawn of the Dead.
Actor Bob Crane played Colonel Robert E. Hogan on the immensely popular American TV show Hogan’s Heroes from 1965 to 1971; in June 1978 he was bludgeoned to death by person or persons unknown with what was theorised to be a camera tripod. During the run of the show, he met an electronics salesman and the two began taping their sexual exploits and conquests together. Directed by Paul Schrader, Auto Focus (2002) is a bawdy and provocative spin on the story.
Winner of much acclaim and a raft of Academy Awards, director Sam Mendes’ first film (1999) is a cold and cruel thing, its cynicism a reflection of the bad industry experiences screenwriter Alan Ball had working on unsuccessful TV shows (his Oscar was a jumping off point for Six Feet Under and True Blood). The dysfunctional home life of the Burnhams is videotaped by their teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose shots of a plastic shopping bag twirling in the wind were intended by Ball to represent the Buddhist notion of the miraculous co-existing with the mundane. Or something.
Transgression as the road to empowerment is nothing new in the arts; Roman Polanski’s splendid new adaptation of playwright David Ide’s Venus in Fur is only the latest in a long line of such meditations. Writer-director Rolf de Heer’s troubling, incisive and absorbing Alexandra’s Project (2003), in which the unhappy wife of the title (Helen Buday) taunts her husband Steve (Gary Sweet) via videotape on his birthday, has been polarising audiences since its Valentine’s Day world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (nice touch, that). And also like the Polanski, this is a claustrophobic film played largely in a single space, from which Alexandra has ensured Steve cannot escape. Viewers may feel the same way, but there’s no denying de Heer’s original concept of torture by camcorder.
Sex, Lies and Videotape
The multiple Cannes festival award winner that put writer-director Steven Soderbergh and Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films and independent American cinema in general on the international movie map, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) may have lost its cutting edge shock value but retains its narrative confidence and skewed sense of humour. Into the loveless marriage of Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher comes drifter James Spader and his dysfunction which only allows him sexual gratification watching tapes he’s made of women. Striking not only for the way the technology is seamlessly integrated into the plot, but also as a nearly immediately identifiable work of Soderbergh, who has straddled the indie and studio worlds with much success ever since.
As long as there have been sprocket holes, there’s been porn. In fact, the adult film industry has proven itself to be early adapters to newer, higher grade technologies, from the shift to videotape from film, DVD from VHS and now 3D-augmented hi-def. This march of progress is part of what Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights (1997) is all about, but perhaps its most thrilling emotional achievement is the way these dysfunctional, attention-starved strangers band together as a family—a family that makes porn films in the basement. This is amongst the best films ever made about the movie-making process, and the most benevolent and big-hearted work possible about its subject matter.