Documentary Review — “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies”

Psycho - 1960

Say this for “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies.” It’s thorough, almost academic textbook/video-accompanying-a-film-studies-class broad in its scope.

The documentary’s two hours and nine minutes take us from the first naked moving images of the human body to #MeToo, coming a lot closer to mentioning and showing a clip from EVERY movie that has ever had nudity in it than you might expect, or than is absolutely necessary. No, “Skin” doesn’t just dance through the hundreds of movies that the academics, historians, filmmakers, journalists and actors label as “groundbreaking,” or that moment when “the floodgates opened.”

Maybe that’s to be expected as Jim McBride appears in it and has a producing credit. The “senior entertainment editor” at the online film nude scene repository MrSkin.com is something of a completist, after all.

There’s marvelous, little-known history brought out, from “pre-code” to post-MPAA, “Extase” to “Henry & June,” “Magic Mike” and “American Pie.”

But the effect of this decade-by-decade, film after film having its plot summarized by a critic, a professor, an actress who appeared in it or the filmmaker, is muted by the excess.

Lost in the excess are actresses talking about “nudity riders” in contracts, nudity “required” in a film that producers and a studio want to reach a certain rating for pure business reasons, the not-really-nuanced difference between “essential nudity” and “exploitation,” the power imbalance that has ALWAYS put actresses in particular in the awful position of wondering, “Was it coercion, or consent?”

These matters are visited, right from the opening credits, a sort of CYA “permission” the filmmakers give themselves for their sometimes glib Survey of Skin on film. The differences between American attitudes and European ones on the subject are used to dismiss any thoughts of the exploitation that occasionally enters into the conversation.

When an actress talks about the eating disorder that hit her the minute she saw her naked self up on a theater screen for the first time, some editor or more enlightened producer might have said, “This is what our movie is about” because it’s certainly the most interesting thing in it.

When Sean Young mentions having to lift her shirt at the end of her audition for “No Way Out” for director Roger Donaldson, somebody — not just the viewer — should have cringed enough to say “We need to emphasize this more.”

And when an actress we’ve seen in “Skin,” time and again, explain away the decisions she made that painted her into a career corner — “She does nude scenes– finally adds “I didn’t have the choices women do today,” maybe rethinking this whole “survey” of skin in cinema as an organizing strategy should have entered somebody’s mind.

Because not every starlet could shrug it off with a carefree “When am I ever going to look this good again?”

As an overview, the blizzard of titles and parenthetical detours — into “nudie” and its subgenres, “women in prison” pictures, “stag films,” “art films” — could launch a hundred dissertations.

Great raconteurs Peter Bogdanovich, “Last Picture Show” director and film historian, and actor Malcolm McDowell (nude in “if…” and “Caligula,” a rapist in “A Clockwork Orange”) tell well-polished tales of this scene in that movie.

Landmark films in their treatment of nudity– many of them forgotten — are sampled, from the pre-Code silents to the competitors of Russ Meyer. We can laugh at the on-screen perversions that Cecil B. DeMille visited and revisited, and the ’50s and ’60s obsession with “nudist colony” set “nudies” (lampooned in “A Shot in the Dark”).

Then a wag jokes that “Last Tango in Paris” “certainly put butter on the map,” even as allegations that star Maria Schneider made about feeling “a little raped” on the set are downplayed and written off (by another male “expert” who looks about 30). And an actress tells us about learning how to read a script and a contract to ensure that you’re not “just the pair of (naked) boobs in that (film’s) distribution deal.”

McDowell sneering at the “hypocrisy” of Hollywood, the sexism that puts naked women on the screen exponentially more often than nude men, opens another can of worms “Skin” doesn’t fully address.

Any prurient value the film with “MrSkin” built into its bones has vaporizes in an instant. Let’s hope that’s by design, but the light touches that make a joke of Monroe’s openness and the “shock” of Julie Andrews losing her top in “S.O.B.” or the pointless inclusion of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” suggest that it isn’t.

In setting out to do a complete history of on-screen skin, director Danny Wolf and the producers must have been bowled over by the access they got and the “names” they landed interviews with, all the titles they had permission to sample, and not been able to edit some of them out.

Perhaps a better approach might have been splitting this into a two or three film series, the way clips-heavy “cult films” and other histories of film genres or issues in the cinema have been dealt with. Entire episodes on “pre-Code” and “exploitation vs. ‘essential (necessary) nudity'” and the like would have streamlined “Skin,” and lessened the sense that ugly, important subtexts are given lip-service, and little more.

Because we know what the MrSkin crowd wants and will be streaming this for. “Thorough,” in this case, feels like pandering to the prurient.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: NC-17

Cast: Shannon Elizabeth, Pam Grier, Malcolm McDowell, Mariel Hemingway, Martha Coolidge, Sean Young, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Sylvia Miles, Amy Heckerling, Mamie Van Doren, Traci Lords and Eric Roberts.

Credits: Directed by Danny Wolf, script by Paul Fishbein and Danny Wolf. A Quiver release.

Running time: 2:09

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