Back in the hoary days of the first expansion of cable television, the cable box marked your family as people of means and scrutinizers of entertainment. Said mechanism sat atop a boxy old boob-tube, and its prehistoric remote control ran across the room on a long cable like an umbilical cord of options. The remote had twelve keys—one for each channel, starting at the number two and ending at 13—and three rows you clicked between to get to the higher channels. The keys went up to 37, but only the most sophisticated and wealthy could afford to go past 30.

Legend told prepubescent boys what sort of programming hid behind the blackout on stations like Cinemax, the Movie Channel and Playboy. Everyone had a secret combination of numbers they clicked simultaneously to get some grainy reception of adult entertainment. Nudity in film became an obsession for a generation that was willing to work for it, and we all waited breathlessly for the parental warning to appear before a movie on HBO, the one premium channel included in the service. We wanted an “N” and an “SC” but would settle for “BN” if that’s all there was. The birthdates of writer/director Danny Wolf and cowriter/producer Paul Fishbein are unknown to the usual entertainment websites, but their new documentary Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is an adoring missive to boys raised on Phoebe Cates, Deborah Foreman, P.J. Soles, Helen Mirren and a host of men and women who have bared it all for our amusement.

Nudity in film is not a conceit of the ‘80s, but the decade reached a peak where a certain amount of breasts and shower scenes were required by distributors of horror films, exploitation films and teen comedies. A wealth of performers exists who are more than happy to sit down and talk about their experiences. Long before the #MeToo movement sent the cockroaches in power scurrying throughout Hollywood, women often had to disrobe as part of the audition process. It was a double standard, of course. Requirements for male genitalia were never typed into a distribution deal, and the sight of a penis could get filmmakers in trouble with the MPAA, the American film studio’s self-regulating ratings board, and dangerously close to an “X” rating.

If myth is to be believed that audiences ran the first time a moving locomotive was projected on a bedsheet, then primitive filmmakers needed a new shock to sell once those early novelties wore off. From dancers in a short at a nickelodeon to background actors in Birth of a Nation, the naked body became the next frontier, and the unregulated industry was happy to exploit it until the moralists complained and the Hays Code was enacted in 1934. Wolf and Fishbein start their narrative in the present with the introduction of intimacy coordinators, who ensure the emotional well-being of actors who participate in sex scenes. Then they rewind to the beginning of film and the Lumière brothers, taking us through the decades back to our current moment. It’s an oral history told by critics, film historians, directors and finally the actors who did the work.

The problem is it’s surprisingly dull. Given the subject matter and the potential for a 130-minute film to entrench itself in topics like hypocrisy, the male gaze, exploitation and empowerment, the documentary is ultimately a frustrating and shallow exercise. No one topic or theme is given its due as more and more people are brought on to talk about the subject. There is no consistent throughline other than that of nebulous nudity. Speakers like Malcolm McDowell, Amy Heckerling, Joe Dante and Sybil Danning cry out for more screen time, but Wolf and Fishbein choose to meander with Jim McBride, the founder of the Mr. Skin website, or Peter Bogdanovich’s yarn about getting Cybill Shepherd to take her top off in The Last Picture Show. Women like Linda Blair express real rage, but it’s all done with a wink and a smile so no one feels too uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly, the challenge of tackling 100 years of an aspect of film history in one film is a daunting prospect, particularly when wrestling with something as intimate as one’s own body. Consider the trepidation experienced when standing naked with one person. Then consider what it must be like when a director, crew and teamsters are mulling around. There are often co-stars with boundary issues to deal with, which is one of the reasons the intimacy coordinator exists. This is work that requires a safe environment, and until recently film sets were quite the opposite. This could have been a film with a great deal to say about patriarchy, feminism and America’s continued excoriation of sex and nudity, but the end product is one for boys who took some classes in college but who are forever glued to their cable TV giggling at Porky’s.

There is no consistent throughline other than that of nebulous nudity.
40 %
Historic Snooze
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