I have been trying to figure out why am I obsessed with these films from the past that cheesily allude to sexual acts and show a little titty here and there. The Blue Lagoon, for example, would cut to turtles swimming whenever the sexual tension between Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins would rise. The film haunted my sexual fantasies as a child (and continues to do so) because my imagination was able to take over where the director left off. Visually, the film left me in the middle of the ocean, but my mind was able to create an even dirtier and realistic fate for my incestuous duo.
There’s the popular cliché that it is better to leave more to the imagination than give away the milk for free, or something along those lines—and I agree. That’s not to say that I am prudish or that I have something against expressing oneself. I simply feel that it is more fascinating to navigate within the grey area of the in-between than take an extreme side one way or another—to show it all or show none.
Show what? you probably ask. I asked the same question when I attempted to define the term soft-core. Even the word itself is a limbo of sorts. Hardcore is a solid unified word as verified by spell check, but soft-core elicits a hyphen, which leads me to believe that soft-core is somewhat of an uncharted territory.
This year, the U of T Film Festival will be dedicating the entire third floor of Hart House to the investigation of soft-core. The aim is to create alternative viewing experiences, based on the principles of peeping toms and veiled perspectives. It will tie into the larger theme presented by the festival concerning issues of censorship, as we attempt to show student films in an atmosphere that promotes censorship not only as something to be trespassed, but also something that can give art new life. The context in which the films will be shown, similar to the way soft-core scenes function within a narrative context, is key to the stimulus created by the images.
Censorship as a constraint can have many different effects when producing sexual feeling. It can draw attention to that which it is censoring, through the use of blurring or blacking out parts of the image, for example. The approach to the soft-core part of the festival is a simple one: we want to encourage students to make films, indulge in sexual fantasies, and make it as fun as possible.
Yet censorship, as much as it adds to soft-core by what it does not present—all those turtles when I knew there should have been something else—does not entirely explain my continued attachment to these films. For that, I’ve turned to cultural theorist Slovoj Zizek’s interpretation of pornography and nostalgia, which focuses, for me, soft-core’s relation to the spectator.
When there is something left to the imagination, the people on screen hold a power of mystery over the spectator. Through the principles of mystery, “spectators are reduced to a paralyzed object-gaze,” says Zizek, instead of the all-powerful gaze commonly attributed to the observer. Zizek states that “to extract the gaze-object in its pure, formal status, we have to turn to pornography’s opposite pole: nostalgia.” This quote hits me like a ton of bricks.
If we can go back for a moment to watching Blue Lagoon: I have to admit the film translated a tad literally with my two cousins that one night, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. The fact that I was able to watch these kinds of films only at my cousins’ house and from their illegal TV box may have also contributed to the “naughtiness”—kiddy-like naughtiness—of it all, adding to the potency of this particular nostalgic event. We revel in images that we don’t have easy access to. I will always love Blue Lagoon, and the movies that I illegally watched in that basement have informed the obsessions that I still practice today.
Nostalgia consists of two parts: fascination and ironic distance. They seem to almost counter each other because fascination diminishes when irony takes over. It’s fascination that I’m interested in exploring. As my friend Airhead remarked at work, “the cultural cycle is speeding up increasingly to the point where we experience a kind of instant nostalgia.” And if things are put so quickly in the past, they are more susceptible to pastiche and parody. It is obvious that nostalgia is paramount to the aesthetic and obsession with soft-core, but I would like to take it more seriously. I want to give it the recognition it deserves in relation to its influence on the way I perceive sexuality and its legitimate reflection in real life. The presence of irony in my everyday life is becoming more and more prevalent, and it is getting to the point where I don’t want to get it anymore.
Soft-core is dynamic, not only because it exists in a narrative context that draws us in, but also because it brings us closer to that mysterious real thing. This “thing” is defined by its ability to create desire and fascination that can only exist through an indicated or “faked” representation. Zizek says, “if we show the Thing itself we necessarily lose what we were after.” This may be behind my aversion to the new sub-genre in horror movies called “torture porn”: I don’t want to hear someone screaming for an hour and half. Of course that is going to make you feel sick inside; it’s too easy.
8mm is a good example of the sexiness of the fake. It has not only that big hunk Nicky Cage with his “leatha,” but also Joaquin Phoenix as a porn-shop skid babe who knows everyone and is intelligent, as we are made eye-rollingly aware, because he reads novels behind the counter.
Even though the representation of the underground porn industry in 8mm is most likely inaccurate, it still gives something onto which spectators can project their fantasy of the porn world. The bondage scenes, for instance, are completely overdone—everyone has a European accent—and are positioned in the narrative as a sign that the investigators are getting close to the real hard stuff. However, bondage rarely includes nudity, let alone penetration, and could easily be considered a soft-core activity in most instances. It is the fantasy that matters; not the plausibility of the act in the real world, but in the context in which it is presented. Nicolas Cage could have never infiltrated the snuff Mafioso that quickly, especially with that lame lingo, but he did and, I am happy to say, so did we.
The film was not very good but I bought it and I’ve watched it many times because there is something about old film stock and sexuality that just make you want to watch it. First of all, 8mm film brings about notions of home movies and amateur encounters. You feel as if you are watching something personal from someone else’s past. You are gaining access to memories that you were never meant to see. But, as this film teaches us, you are never alone in this activity. There will always be others implicated. Even if you, like Nicolas Cage, are trying to crack the case of “who made this snuff film,” you will also be implicated through the very watching of the film, regardless of whether you are getting any perverse sexual pleasure out of it. (I did.)
I still don’t know how to define soft-core, but I am slowly realizing what it is not. I came to the conclusion that most people agreed that hardcore pornography means penetration, “showing pink,” and bad plot lines. One of the reasons why hardcore porno movies have staggeringly horrible plots is because the story isn’t taken seriously. The actors become lifeless objects that have no real impetus.
Soft-core, on the other hand, involves the spectator on another level. In the same way old film stock implicates you the viewer, you are now engaged in an interaction. The spectator becomes the object as well, instead of simply the all-powerful observer. Through the oscillation between concealment and exhibition, the spectator engages in an exchange when watching love scenes in a movie, or by tuning into soft-core programming late at night. In a sense, you could even say that soft-core fucks you back.
Kate McEdwards is in her final year studying cinema studies and English. “As an afterthought and seeing as 70 per cent of my sexual activity has occurred while watching a movie,” she says, “I would like to suggest a few good ‘soft-core’ titles that will create some quality sexual tension, that can be easily ignored, and will also allow for a few bursting laughs of relief: Cape Fear, The Crush, The Dreamers, and White Palace.” McEdwards’ investigation of soft-core, with Felix Kalmenson and Jimmy Weaver, will take over the third floor of Hart House on March 13 as part of the U of T Film Fest. Interested in submitting something to the exhibit? Email [email protected].