What's the sexiest moment in movie history?
That's a tough call, but for my money it just might be in Hitchcock's 'Rear Window'. Grace Kelly holds up a nightdress and tells Jimmy Stewart (who has broken his leg), 'Preview of coming attractions.'
There. Not a nipple on show. Not a glimpse of buttock. But it worked for me when I first saw it.
But why? I mean, okay, Grace Kelly was moderately attractive, and the thought of her wearing a negligee could drive a man to distraction. In fact, that's just it. Sure, I'd like to have seen her wearing it. But the THOUGHT of her wearing it - the IDEA that, when they got married, lucky Jimmy Stewart would get to see her wearing it EVERY NIGHT - well, wow, there's a thought.
Like they say, it's the thought that counts.
Now, say what you like about Alfred Hitchcock, I think he was a genius. There's a lot we can learn from his movies. Beyond the camera trickery and the odd quirks, Hitch really understood cinema. And so what if most of his movies turn on the same plot (male victim of mistaken identity goes on the run and encounters a cool blonde)? He knew his audience.
And one of the things he knew is that sometimes it's better not to show things.
Now, there's a conundrum. The screen is a visual medium, and now I'm suggesting we shouldn't show things. Hmmnnn ...
The imagination is an exceptional tool. As screenwriters, we're supposed to go where our imaginations lead us. And we live in an age when, if we're lucky to have an indulgent producer with unlimited funds, we can show whatever our imagination comes up with.
This is largely thanks to a process known as CGI or 'Computer Generated Idiocy'. When it first appeared (think back to 'Jurassic Park' and 'Terminator 2') it was amazing. Now, I think it's a bit tired. But it seems to appeal to the juvenile among us. That's why movies and TV are obsessed with it. It's expensive, it's not convincing, but the kids love it.
(I suspect that the kids love it because they've grown up in a virtual world.)
However, just because we can show giant monsters destroying New York City, or flying dragons attacking a castle, or people having their skulls blown apart, the real question is - should we show these things? This is the great moral quandary - call it the problem of science: just because we CAN do something doesn't mean that we SHOULD do it.
How many werewolf movies have you seen which completely fall apart the moment you see the monster?
Maybe the real problem is that while screenwriters indulge their own imaginations and budgets go through the roof, what about the audience's imagination?
If the audience has to imagine the monster, the horror, the ghastly injuries, they'll often do a better job of it than our special effects experts can. It's called 'fear of the dark', or 'fear of the unknown'.
One of the scariest films I ever saw was a black-and-white adaptation of Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw'. It's called 'The Innocents', and I've been lucky enough to work with the cinematographer (the legendary Freddie Francis) and to befriend the first AD. Not much happens in the movie. There's no gore. There are no giant monsters. They only just manage to show us a ghost. But it's chilling, terrifying, and absolutely brilliant.
A well-known British producer (Tony Garnett) had something of a catchphrase, as I remember. It went 'There's nothing less sexy that a shot of heaving buttocks'. I suppose much would depend on whose buttocks were doing the heaving, but in fact I think he's right.
The juvenile, 'I want' part of the audience maybe only wants to see shots of heaving buttocks, between computer generated images of mass destruction. The most juvenile culture in the world is that of the United States, which means that America produces metric tonnes of this shit every week.
And while the BBC keeps trying to attract younger viewers, we'll have to put up with more of this expensive, unimaginative toss on our small screens.
But let's remember that, if you want to reach a mature audience, or an audience that might actually read books, or an audience that doesn't feel the need to stuff its face with junk while whooping at the screen, we need to use our imagination.
Which also means letting the audience use theirs.
'Preview of coming attractions.' I'd take Grace Kelly saying that over a load of CGI nonsense anyday.