The erotic charge has been central to cinema — and a constant source of both lurid fixation and controversy — from its beginning. But besides the obvious touchstones of films which feature explicit scenes of sex and sexuality, there’s a parallel history of movies that deal with sex solely in their dialogue. Such works are the focus of the new Anthology Film Archives screening series Let’s Talk About Sex. Programmers Róisín Tapponi and Jed Rapfogel have paid particular attention to films that center subjects outside the mostly young, White, heterosexual, and male-focused purview of mainstream cinema, from the Black gay men testifying in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) to elderly people reciting the erotic poetry of Brazilian author Carlos Drummond de Andrade in O Amor Natural (1996).
I talked with Tapponi and Rapfogel about the inspirations for the series and formative erotic films via email. These interviews have been combined, edited, and condensed for time and clarity.
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Hyperallergic: It’s mentioned on the program page that Jean Eustache’s Une Sale Histoire was ‘central to the conception of the series.’ How so? What else inspired it, both in terms of its creation and for what films were picked?
Róisín Tapponi: Earlier this year in February, I was screening Danielle Arbid’s This Smell of Sex (2008) at Anthology as part of a wider season I curated on women’s archival films from Southwest Asia and North Africa. This Smell of Sex is rarely screened, and deals very explicitly with issues of sexual desire and pleasure amongst young women in Beirut. At the beginning of the screening, Jed and the rest of the team said they weren’t going to stay … Of course, when the lights went up at the end, they were all still there. That sparked conversation about a season on sex, which Jed proposed we program together.
Jed Rapfogel: This Smell of Sex called to mind a couple other films we’d shown recently in entirely different contexts: Cassandra Gerstein’s Tales (1969), which we included in a retrospective of Jill Godmilow’s work (she edited the film), and Mireia Sallarès’s Las Muertes Chiquitas (2009), which we presented several years ago (coincidentally at the strong recommendation of Godmilow). The technique of all three films — exploring sexual experiences and stories through almost purely verbal means — reminded me of Une Sale Histoire, which has been a favorite ever since I saw it in an Eustache retrospective many years ago. I’d say that these films, and perhaps also Sylvère Lotringer’s Violent Femmes (1998), represented the core of the idea. From there I brainstormed, researched, and discussed the idea with Róisín, who agreed to co-curate and ended up contributing a whole bunch of other ideas.
H: What is the earliest film you saw in which sex was discussed openly and frankly? In what ways have such films introduced you to or informed you about different aspects of sex and sexuality?
JR: Hm, good question. Possibly movies like Godard’s Weekend (1967) and Bergman’s Persona (1966), which include (in)famous sequences of sexual storytelling. We thought about including those films, either in whole or in part, but decided to focus on nonfiction, with the exception of Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) and Smooth Talk (1985). Blue Velvet (1986) was an extremely formative film for me, but that’s definitely a matter of showing and not telling!
I think that cinema has always been a key source for learning about experiences — sexual and otherwise — outside of one’s own culture or background. That’s all the more true when it comes to erotic experience, at least in cultures where frank discussion about sex is discouraged.
RT: I grew up in a typical Iraqi household where my dad would switch the channel every time someone kissed. I remember the first time I saw sex on screen was Chantal Ackerman’s Je Tu Il Elle (1974), which I watched secretly on YouTube on my phone when I was about 14. The final 10 minutes is an explicit lesbian sex scene, that was a pivotal moment for me for sure. The first film I saw where sex was discussed was Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I saw it around the same age, again torrented on my phone. I rewatched it throughout my teen years, and am looking forward to finally rewatching it on the big screen years later.
I watched many of the other films in my formative years — I’m from London, you can definitely see that in the selection, and in our collaborations with distributors such as Cinenova and LUX. For example, I first came across John Samson’s films at this really shitty pub in Stoke Newington which had an incredible film club. To this day, that pub’s had the best programming I ever saw in London. I think it has stopped now; I sometimes wonder who ran it. But yes, they used to show all these super queer British videos, mainly from the punk era.
H: In programming this series, have you noted any commonalities in how filmmakers have found ways to make sexual dialogue cinematic? More specifically, are there any reliable techniques for making talking erotic? Is it all that different from framing and editing a traditional sex scene, ultimately?
JR: For me, the series is less about ways of making dialogue cinematic and more about how cinematic purely verbal storytelling or testimony can be in general. This is something we explored at Anthology years ago in a series called Talking Head, which brought together films that consist almost entirely of unvarnished feature-length interviews — Scorsese’s American Boy (1978), Eustache’s Numéro Zéro (1971), Wang Bing’s Fengming (2007), Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), etc. “Talking head” documentaries have a bad rap, often for good reason, but it seems to me that when a speaker is compelling and charismatic enough (and when a filmmaker is perceptive enough to stay out of their way by minimizing editing and avoiding facile illustrations or other unnecessary interventions), direct verbal testimony can be as electrifying and dynamic as any elaborate visual techniques. And all the more so when the subject is something as charged as sexual experience!
In terms of technique, I think the main thing (and the mistake that so many filmmakers make) is simply to avoid cutting the thread between speaker and viewer. Filmmakers seem to be anxious that viewers will be bored if they don’t chop someone’s testimony up into fragments, or illustrate it with cutaways, or find other ways of “jazzing up” the interview. But I’m convinced that the effect is just the opposite, that this fragmentation interrupts a connection, breaks the spell, subverts the power of the storytelling.
H: Besides Une Sale Histoire, what other films did you hope to program but were unable to, for whatever reason?
RT: The main reason for any notable absences just came in deciding what to include. There are so many uncirculated films which talk about sex! For example, early videos by Campbell X and Shu Lea Cheang, features such as Steve Humphries’s Sex in a Cold Climate (1998), or cult remakes such as Richard Holm’s Swedish homage to Soderbergh, Sex, Lies and Video Violence (2000). Of course, there were also more recent films which we didn’t include, such as Koto Yoshida’s Sexual Drive (2021), and films we thought could work but ultimately weren’t so explicitly matched to the theme, such as the early films of Vivienne Dick, Dino Risi, or Ngozi Onwurah.
H: Are there any titles in the series you’d like to draw special attention to?
JR: Las Muertes Chiquitas for sure. It’s an extraordinary film, and most definitely a key title in the series. It’s also five hours long, so not often screened, and we expect Sallarès to join us for the second screening on July 31. I also highly recommend the short film program that includes This Smell of Sex, Cathy Cook’s The Match That Started My Fire (1991), and Alice Diop’s Towards Tenderness (2016). And again, Tales was a major discovery when we screened it during our Godmilow retrospective. It’s a fascinating film about sex, but even more broadly about storytelling, truth and fiction, and the power of words in a cinematic context.
Let’s Talk About Sex is playing at Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Avenue, Manhattan) through July 31.
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