Friday, August 19, 2011

Re-Post: Writing Sex Scenes

Hi All,

Someone wrote to me today to tell me how much she enjoyed this old post of mine ... from 2006. Hard to believe I've been "blogging" that long. Anyway, I don't ever really re-post things but I re-read this and thought, "Huh, I forgot I'd even written this." It's about the difficulty of writing sex scenes.

A real golden oldie from the blogging files. It follows forthwith:

I’ve been reading a lot of hard-boiled detective fiction lately, getting ready to start writing my next novel. Reading the classics: Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON, Thompson’s THE GRIFTERS and THE KILLER INSIDE ME, plus re-reading James Ellroy’s masterful LA Quartet and THE BLACK DAHLIA. I read a few books by Michael Connelly, based on the fact Stephen King dubbed him the best detective fiction writer going; now maybe I read the wrong books, but while Connelly’s stuff is well-written, with intricate enough plot lines that I wasn’t able to puzzle out whodunit until very late, I wouldn’t go as far as to call him the best detective fiction writer going; not so long as James Ellroy still has breath in his lungs (though perhaps King doesn’t consider Ellroy a detective writer, which is true nowadays; he’s more of a hard-boiled historical revisionist). Still, I’d go with Carl Hiassen or Giles Blunt or even Dave Barry over Connelly. As is per usual with my criticisms, you’ll see I generally level them against writers who are far too successful to be harmed by them; Connelly, who has sold a ka-jillion books and has legions of fans, falls into this category.

As an aside: if you haven’t read Ellroy, I cannot recommend him enough, especially from THE BLACK DAHLIA onwards. I read some of his earlier work, BLOOD ON THE MOON and BROWN’S REQUIEM and, while good, he made a quantum leap forward with THE BLACK DAHLIA. This happens sometimes with writers: they put out a few books and something monumental clicks and they come out with a book that so far surpasses their previous output it’s like a whole new writer has emerged. Ellroy’s stuff is vicious and violent but it’s also hugely intelligent, very accessible considering how intricate the plots can be, funny, bloody, and brilliant. He’s one of my top-5 favorite writers; I re-read his stuff more than I do anyone else. Check him out.

But one aspect where all these hard-boiled writers fall short is writing sex scenes. Actually, the books have a pretty fossilized view of the male-female dynamic: Sam Spade, Hammett’s detective, is forever touching and rubbing his female secretary, and he does the same to all the other females in THE MALTESE FALCON. He’s always absentmindedly fondling them, sort of as though it’s his right. If those scenes were to be rewritten according to modern day mores, they’d read like this:

...Sam Spade walked into his lawyer’s office. The secretary sat behind her desk
“Sweetheart,” he said, absently rubbing her hip with his broad flat hand, “your boss in?”
“What are you doing?”
“What’s the matter?” he asked, rubbing harder. “All you dames like it. Don’t pretend you don’t.”
Sam Spade was caught unawares when the secretary stabbed him in the groin with her pen...

Plus these private eyes are always grabbing women and kissing them. There’s a big heated argument, accusations fly, and the scene ends with Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe grabbing the gal and planting a kiss on her, at which point she always “melts like candy.” Again, this seems highly suspect and I can’t see it working in real life. For example, if I were to try this with a woman, the scene would probably go something like:

ME: I won’t play the sap for you. Yeah, maybe I loves ya. Yeah, maybe we could have a future together. But I won’t lay down and play the sap for you.

GIRL: What in god’s name are you talking about?

ME: C’mere, you. [reaching for her]

GIRL: Get your hands off me, you creepy turd.

ME: Ah, you’re one brassy dame. You’re a real firecracker [reaching for her again].

GIRL: [punches me in the nose]

ME: Well, I’ll be seeing you.

Even Ellroy, who is a masterful writer, falters when it comes to sex scenes. They’re all violent and loveless; people’s mouths are always “mashing” together, lovers are always “rutting” and so forth. I’ve got a library copy of THE BLACK DAHLIA, and after one particularly lurid sex scene, a previous borrower has ironically written “How sweet” in the margin.

But when I think about it, WHO does write good sex scenes? I honestly can’t think of one writer who pulls it off. Bret Easton Ellis writes memorable sex scenes, certainly, but they’re so clinical and often perverse that they’re not at all erotic. Poppy Z Brite writes long, detail-intensive sex scenes, but again they aren’t erotic because they often end with one partner killing and dismembering and partially eating the other one (at least they did in THE EXQUISITE CORPSE). Certainly I can’t write my way out of a paper bag where sex scenes are concerned. I’ve given them the ole college try, but end up marring them by including an exploding penis pump or the like. I’ve included two sex scenes in THE FIGHTER, but neither of them, I fear, will leave readers feeling even the slightest bit aroused.

But when I think about it, has there even been a movie sex scene that has got my juices flowing? I mean, can you think of one? When I think “Movie Sex Scene,” I think of a giant canopy bed draped with gauzy, mosquito-netting-type stuff, wind blowing through the bedroom window and the distant sound of surf, the gal’s on top of the dude, who you can barely see (because, really, at that point nobody’s rubbing their hands together saying, “Oh, man, I hope we get a peek at Billy Zane’s hammer!” or crossing their fingers going, “Lordy, lordy, I hope we get a wicked ass shot of Anthony Michael Hall!”; no, the female lead is the focus of attention, as she should be), she’s doing her thang, arching her back and what-have-you. Michael Bolton blowing on his saxaphone. It’s not really all that much of a turn on.

Sometimes it’s a turn-on to see a marquee star without her clothes on. That scene in OPERATION: SWORDFISH (Operation Swordfish? Hah! Operation BOREDfish is more like it!) Halle Berry striding about with her bikini top off, that was hot. Carla Gugino in SIN CITY, that scene where she’s starkers with Mickey Rourke—also, pretty hot. But actual sex scenes? No, not hot. Tell me where I’m wrong.

I’ve often wondered if women get a kick out of seeing actors going around naked as much as dudes like actresses doing so. Because it’s so much less frequent, with guys. Apart from one particular actor, I can’t think of very many full frontal nude scenes with a dude. That one scene in THE LIFE OF BRIAN, where Graham Chapman throws open the window, totally naked, to have the entire population of Nazareth staring at him. That’s all I can think of.

Except, as I said, for one actor.

Kevin Bacon.

Dear Kev just LOVES to flaunt his wang on film. You see it in HOLLOW MAN, WILD THINGS, and PYRATES (which I have not seen, but the website Celebrity Nudity Database describes his nude scene in that movie thusly: “On the fire escape: side view of aroused penis & balls. Later in the movie Kevin is under Kyra Sedgewick and his penis is visible flopping under her bottom.”) Aroused penis & BALLS? Did anyone else twig on that? Penis, yeah, but how the hell do your balls get aroused? Then again, it’s Kevin Bacon. He’s a bigtime movie star. Maybe once you’re a bigtime movie star, you become so virile and hyper-sexed your balls become visibly aroused. One of the perks of stardom.

I think perhaps Kevin’s got a real problem. An exhibitionist or something. Who knows how many times he’s whipped it out during a film only to have it left on the editing room floor. Imagine this on the set of APOLLO 13, for example:

RON HOWARD: Okay, now we’re shooting the scene where you’re rocketing back into Earth’s orbit. You’re scared but resolute, you’re not sure you’re going to make it, you’re—

TOM HANKS: Ron, Ron, just a sec here. Kevin’s doing...that THING again.

RON HOWARD [Sighing]: Kevin, listen, we’ve been through this before—

KEVIN BACON [penis hanging out of his spacesuit]: I just think—no, now listen Ron, don’t give me that face, give me a chance to plead my case—I just think this is what my character would be doing right now, is all. It feels like something he would do at this moment.

RON HOWARD: Kevin, your character is hurtling to Earth in a ship with a busted solar panel, perhaps only moments from his own death. Do you really think he’d chose that moment to cut a hole in his spacesuit and expose himself to his fellow astronauts?

KEVIN BACON: Yes, Ron. Yes I do.

TOM HANKS: This is ridiculous. Kevin, we talked to the members of this mission, did we not? Did Captain Jack Sedgewick, upon whom your character is based, ever tell you that he hung his penis out of his suit while in space? At ANY time, did he admit to doing that?

KEVIN BACON: Not in so many words.

TOM HANKS: In so many words?

KEVIN BACON: He said so with his eyes.

TOM HANKS: Jack Sedgewick’s eyes said, “In the blue-black emptiness of space, I found no greater thrill than pulling my weiner out of my spacesuit and wagging it about?”

KEVIN BACON: Yes. That’s what his eyes said.

Okay, well, this post went right off the rails. Detective novels to sex scenes to Kevin Bacon’s penis. Really, when you look at it, the progression is almost unavoidable.

All best, Craig.

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