by Christopher Campbell
What is worse about the now-infamous Watchmen sex scene (watch it here), the distracting soundtrack or the explosive metaphor at the climax? Even if intended to be funny, and regardless of its (more-subtle) appearance in the graphic novel, the fire blast as stand-in for ejaculation is so cliché that it has no place in a story that means to shatter conventions. Plus, sexual metaphor is a little unnecessary in a film that already has a lot of nudity and a distinct moment of impotence. Especially at the end of a scene that is quite gratuitous compared to the comic’s depiction, that blast is more a symbol of how incorrectly handled Watchmen is than of the orgasms it’s intended to represent.
Between that shot in Watchmen and our recent list of sexiest non-sex scenes, we have had bad sex-scene clichés on the brain. So, to relieve us from the tension of list-making blue balls, we’ve decided to release this short burst of a list for discussion. Think we should have included saxophone-heavy soundtracks or any other cliché you’ve come to notice, let us know in the comments.
1. The Explosively Metaphoric Climax
Watchmen may have the worst example of this cliché, and that’s saying a lot considering the practice of using everything from fireworks to popping soda/champagne bottles to rockets firing to trees spontaneously combusting to nuclear explosions during kissing and sex scene climaxes has been extremely popular throughout film history. Explosive metaphors sometimes work well in classic films that required veiled innuendo (see To Catch a Thief, The Girl Can’t Help It and Cool Hand Luke for some good examples), but anything that’s come after the terrific montage in The Naked Gun 2 ½ is overkill.
2. The L-Shaped Blanket
This is a basic movie cliché that people have complained about for years and doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to a sex scene. It’s the typical appearance of an “L-shaped” sheet or blanket that exposes a male character’s chest while covering the female’s (or “LL-shaped” sheet, in the case of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). When it appears after a sex scene, though, it’s even more frustrating, particularly if that scene has already featured nudity. The problem with continuing to show the woman’s breasts may have to do with the tradition of non-sexual representation of the female body, unbroken and casual, in movies. Or, it could just be the difficulty of not being able to use a body double in such wide-shot situations. Either way, it’s frustratingly unrealistic. Then again, so were separate beds for married characters; there are just some things we have to put up with from censored and modest Hollywood movies.
3. “Actress Inferior Position”
This is the first entry in Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary: A Compendium of Movie Cliches and was submitted by Ebert’s late friend and review-show partner Gene Siskel, who wrote, “In movie sex scenes, which are usually directed by men, the POV at the moment of climax is almost always the man’s, so that we see the actress, not the actor, losing control.” Well, this may be true enough that it encourages boys to grow up thinking sex is completely about conquering a woman by making her orgasm, but after seeing Patrick Wilson’s “O” face in that Watchmen scene, audiences might rather keep this cliché as standard. Of course, Malin Ackerman’s loss of control isn’t exactly enjoyable either.
4. Food Mixed With Sex
Food can be quite sexy, and there are certainly a lot of decent films that explore the connection between eating and making love (Houston Press has a great list of ten such films). But some films have taken the concept too far and now it’s become a bad sex-scene convention. First, Hot Shots! lampooned the famous ice-and-food foreplay scene from 9 ½ Weeks, officially labeling the food/sex combination a cliché. Then, 12 years later, Young Adam conclusively killed the whole idea with its disgusting custard-covered lovemaking scene.
5. Cigarettes as Phallic Symbols
Back during the Hays Code days, cigarettes were clever devices used as metaphoric hints at sexual activity. When characters shared cigarettes, such as in Now, Voyager, To Have and Have Not and Rope, it implied a sex act. When Marlene Dietrich held a cigarette in any of her films, the prop was a phallic symbol implicit in projecting an image of bisexuality. And ironically, in a film as explicit as 9 ½ Weeks, a cigarette may have been a required stand-in for Mickey Rourke’s penis during a strip-tease scene, because male nudity continues to be a taboo while the naked female body is common on the big screen. However, not all cigarettes in films represent sex and/or phallus, but due to the heavy employment of the prop in such a way for so many years, it’s hard for moviegoers (particularly those of us with film studies degrees) to think of them as anything but sex symbols. Fortunately, Hollywood is being forced to censor out cigarettes from their movies (for even featuring a pack of cigarettes), and meanwhile they continue to break sexual taboos at the same time. So this cliché is likely to go way very soon.