In 1896, actor John Rice lifted and smoothed his extensive moustache and planted kisses on the mouth of actress May Irwin, and Thomas Alva Edison filmed it. The fifteen second _The Kiss_ was a bit of a scandal. "The idea of a kinetoscopic kiss has unlimited possibilities," gushed the _New York World_, which had used the film as a publicity stunt. It was supposed to depict part of a musical play that was then in New York, but the kiss was the only thing in the movie. In other words, the film was of a sex act purely for the sake of a sex act, a particularity with which those interested in films would become familiar over the next decades. The movie became the most popular of the projected short films of the time, although a literary magazine protested that a kiss so monstrously enlarged and shown repeatedly became "positively disgusting." No one had made such an objection about the original kiss in the musical play itself. The Kiss is the first film discussed in _Screening Sex_ (Duke University Press) by Linda Williams, who teaches film studies and who in 1989 wrote _Hard Core_, a book that took pornographic films seriously and showed there was no reason to avoid an academic study of pornography any more than any other field of human activity. In some ways, _Screening Sex_ continues the themes of the previous book, although the world of sexual activity on screens is far different from what it was twenty years ago. The book is serious (and completely referenced) but not solemn, and Williams tackles some dense theorizing with gusto and an appealing sense of humor that nicely fits her subject.
Kisses were the limit of movie sex, at least officially, for decades, but there is much Williams has to say about them. The best parts of her book are analyses of specific films. Everyone knows that "A Kiss is Just a Kiss", as Sam sang in _Casablanca_, but in the film, Rick and Ilsa (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) have their share of kisses, with the last big one in Rick's room above his saloon. Again, the kiss is interrupted as the camera moves on to look at a German searchlight, and then back to the couple an indefinite period of time thereafter. Was the kiss just a kiss? Maybe not, but one way or another, the couple are still deeply in love. Whatever its suggestiveness, the Code authorities didn't take out the kiss, probably because it does not, in the end, lead to Ilsa leaving her husband. "Desire and sexual pleasure," writes Williams, "as positive values in themselves have no legitimate, acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges."
Full scale sex, although without much anatomical detail, was introduced to theater-going Americans (differentiated from stag film attendees) in imports like Bergman's _The Virgin Spring_ (1959) and De Sica's _Two Women_ (1960). _Last Tango in Paris_ and _Deep Throat_ both came in 1972, and both were greatly different from what had gone before. _Tango_ was a serious film, foreign but starring American sex symbol Marlon Brando. It had six explicit sex scenes; they are sometimes brutal, but they are not graphic, and the sex is simulated. There had been commercial pornography films before _Deep Throat_, but this one was the first to get wide theatrical distribution and to become a household name. Williams presents these two films together in one chapter because they represent "a belated coming of age on American screens" and because these were films that did not just depict sex, they were about sex. It is fun to read Williams's extensive quotation of reviews by Pauline Kael for _The New Yorker_ and Al Goldstein for _Screw_ (can you guess which reviewer wrote about which movie?) showing not just an acceptance of the sex in the films, but that America was accepting that sex could be a legitimate chief subject for films to explore. That sex is something in which people (and movie audiences) are interested, and that it is something that can be depicted with beauty and with detail have brought forth what Williams calls the "hard core art film". John Cameron Mitchell produced the first fully American mainstream movie predominantly about sex, the good-humored _Shortbus_, in which a woman seeking a cure of anorgasmia views and participates in some very unusual, and funny, scenes. The sex in these movies is obviously not simulated, with erections, penetrations, ejaculations, and more. The movies are unapologetically about sex; any of the "redeeming social value" to be found in them is the sex itself, treated in a biting, distressing, or jocular fashion.
Of course there is still hard core porn, but it is a shadow of itself from the years after _Deep Throat_ when movies like _Behind the Green Door_ and _The Devil in Miss Jones_ were part of the "porno chic" of the time. There will be further experimentation with interactive media; it is only primitive now, but if you buy _Virtual Sex with Jenna Jameson_, your in-computer self can connect with the in-computer Jenna in various ways, and you can go to the "I/N" choice menu to have her respond "innocently" or "nastily" (which Williams amusingly says are respectively "just polite" and "just a woman who bluntly commands what she wants"). Throughout this interesting book, which has sections on homosexual and Blaxploitation films as well as a full chapter on the graphic 1976 Japanese art movie _In the Realm of the Senses_, Williams argues that we are not only making movies about sex, we are responding to them and that screening sex has become part of the way we conduct ourselves sexually. I hope she gets to see a recent article in Salon which advises men not to take porn so seriously. The author mentions a woman who was puzzled by the conduct of a man she had been dating. During sex, he would withdraw his member and thump it on her. This did not increase her pleasure, and could not have done much for him - but it is a standard in porn, and he was just applying what he had seen the pros do.