IT’S INTERESTING to hear an audience’s reaction to naked people onscreen. When Hanna (Kate Winslet) began to undress her newfound captive in The Reader, and then dared to stand behind him naked, and the audience gasped. When Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) revealed his blue penis in Watchmen, many (guys, especially) laughed. When Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and Scott Smith (James Franco) passionately kissed in Milk, the audience watched silently. Those reactions certainly depend on the audience, but they also reveal something about these films’ uses of nudity.
In Milk, director Gus Van Sant exposes two male bodies together to acclimate viewers to homosexual intimacy far more successfully than more mainstream-minded, gay-themed films like Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia. Viewers of Brokeback Mountain could think, “These are two closeted guys having an affair, so they’re not like me.” The sexual content was generally rough, animalistic. Watching Philadelphia, viewers could think, “This guy’s dying of AIDS, so he’s not much like me.” And the film contained scarcely any nudity. But in Milk, tender, funny, playful romantic scenes make it easier to identify with the characters onscreen. Van Sant forces the viewer to empathize with, and thus, normalize, gay men acting out their sensuality and developing romance.
When portraying men being physically intimate and vulnerable, Van Sant is unashamed, but he also treats it as if he knows he’s pushing the boundaries, and realizes where the limit between tasteful and trashy exists. He knows that to gain acceptance, or even acknowledgement, you have to push, but not too hard. When characters in Milk are naked, they expose themselves emotionally. The physical parallels the emotional, and in this, also, Van Sant attempts to gain empathy and sympathy from the audience. When his characters are nude, their nudity functions the most conventionally—in the interest of relationship intimacy—of the three films mentioned here.
In Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, the function of Hanna’s and Michael’s nudity develops over time. At first, Hanna controls Michael as she undresses him and brazenly exposes herself to him, which might partially explain why this nakedness is so shocking: a woman controls (and to some extent, exploits) a young boy. She acts as the prison guard in their relationship, not only as the older woman controlling the young man, but also as the one in the relationship who decides when they will have sex. She even gruffly scrubs his entire body in the bathtub, as she might have done with her former prisoners. But this nudity is also ironic. They are physically vulnerable to one another, but emotionally, they couldn’t be further apart.
Michael has a teenage crush on Hanna, yet Hanna remains closed off, unwilling to reveal anything emotional or spiritual about herself. Despite their nudity and sexual intimacy, she is an impenetrable wall, emotionally and psychologically. Yet over the course of their interaction, the nudity in their relationship comes to signify their gradual revelations of self.
As Hanna reveals more about herself, she seems to want to put on more clothes, and she’s less interested in being naked with Michael. The two separate, and Michael is left with memories of their physical intimacy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has learned from Hanna the same ability to be physically intimate and emotionally absent. On the other hand, Michael begins the relationship by revealing himself entirely to Hanna. He’s embarrassed by his physical intimacy, but has no qualms about opening up to her emotionally. Later, he learns to be embarrassed about his feelings, yet jumps right out of his clothes and into bed. Hanna teaches him to unlearn his willingness toward emotional intimacy.
Dr. Manhattan’s nudity in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen conveys several ideas. First, it reiterates Manhattan’s lack of concern about human mores. Members of the audience laugh because there’s a huge naked blue dude onscreen, but depicting Manhattan as consistently naked also reinforces just how much he doesn’t fit into humanity. Ironically, his near-constant nudity (except when he meets the President, attends a funeral or fights a war) also highlights precisely how human he is. He’s a well-built guy, almost a perfect physical specimen, and through constantly being confronted by his physique, the audience remembers see how human he is, even though he’s colored blue. He is a living oxymoron: extremely human, yet eerily not.
But Dr. Manhattan isn’t the only naked character in Watchmen. The entire film continually emphasizes how people can become a shadow of their former selves; it’s incidental that the main people we focus on in the film are former superheroes. They’ve all lost a part of themselves because the society they live in no longer wants them, even though that same society still needs them.
So, when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II make out for the first time, and Nite Owl can’t function sexually, it’s funny. This loser finally gets the object of his lust and love, and then he can’t perform. Only later, after they’ve saved some people while in costume, can he function. They strip, but they strip off their costumes, not their daily-living clothes. In one telling dream, Dan (Nite Owl) envisions himself and Laurie (Silk Spectre II) standing naked face to face. They unzip their skins to reveal themselves in full crime-fighting costumes. They kiss as a nuclear bomb explodes and destroys them. Dan wakes in a sweat, and stands naked (also another point where many guys in the audience laughed) in front of his Nite Owl costume, where he reveals his mixed emotions about being a masked avenger and the tentative future. His nudity is a sign of his newfound vulnerability.
Laurie and Dan get naked for the second time because they’re finally regaining some of their former sense of identity. This nakedness is regenerative, and is completely unlike Manhattan’s nudity, which sterilizes his body in the minds of those who encounter him. This is exactly why Laurie can’t stand Manhattan any longer: his exterior and his interior match in a way that she is unwilling to accept. She wants Dan, instead, who is passionate, daring, and involved underneath both his everyday mask and his superhero mask.
Nudity in the Conversation
But how do these films’ uses of nudity relate to or rephrase the already-existing conversation about nudity in film, and art, in general?
Nudity in art can challenge cultural assumptions and objectifications. Consider the audience’s reaction to Gustave Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath (1884). Initially, Caillebotte had to show it in a back room, rather than with the other Impressionists, because its subject matter shocked viewers. The painting frankly and viscerally depicts a rear view of a nude man drying off beside a tub, along with a few wet footprints, a pile of clothes, and closed curtains.
Through depicting the nude man, Caillebotte forced (and still forces) his audience to reconsider the male body as beautiful as the female. His painter compatriots focused the majority of their attention on nude women, and in presenting Man at His Bath, Caillebotte says, “Hey, men are equally as beautiful, fragile, and noticeable as women.”
Similarly, both Van Sant and Daldry seem to be reminding us through their depiction of nude men that men, too, are beautiful. Furthermore, Daldry shows both the male and the female body equally, and embodies, through his film, this concept of equal beauty. He’s not objectifying beautiful bodies, but using them to make statements only available to be made through the use of nudity. In fact, each of these three directors is using nudity in film specifically to contribute their own statements about naked bodies in art.
One of film’s primary tools is a narrative told over time, and it lives closely to our everyday sense of external reality. By contrast, paintings, in which nudity has long been common, generally depict static moments or states, as do photographs, sculptures, and most other visual forms of art. Therefore, film as an artistic medium carries a degree of responsibility. Onscreen nudity is often something prurient and, sadly, in the United States, most nudity on film (or television) serves little purpose other than stimulation and shameless marketing. The scantily-clad person strolls across the screen and the viewer starts to salivate. And maybe buys the product. The end.
In great (lasting, challenging, beautiful, truthful, skillful) art—great film, great painting, great quilting, great photography—prurience has little place. But nudity for a great filmmaker relates to film’s sense of time: it focuses on the impermanence of the body, while at the same time reveling in the beauty of the same body, as in each of these films. Harvey Milk’s body, Hanna Shmitz’s body, Dr. Manhattan’s body: each fades away, and becomes dead through the course of the story. As in a portrait, their onscreen nude flesh preserves their image beyond death. It reminds the viewer of his or her own impermanence.
This article also appeared on The Curator, an online culture magazine published in New York by the International Arts Movement.
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