Back in that prehistoric era before AIDS, sex in the movies was much as it is in life: messy, thrilling, fun. Lately, though, it has seemed like one long morning after. While our culture appears more obsessed with sex than ever, the inextricable link with violence (see sidebar) makes it all feel sour. Mainstream movies like Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence profess to be ”dangerous” erotic groundbreakers, yet they see The Act as not only unenjoyable but deserving of punishment — a purse-lipped fear not far from Barbara Bush’s recent pronouncement that ”promiscuous sex is death.” Even more up-front about that equation are video-only ”erotic thrillers” with such titles as Double Threat and Invasion of Privacy. Then there are hard-core ”adult” films; unless your idea of romance is wooden line readings followed by an anatomy lesson, though, you’re out of luck. Where’s the human intimacy? Where’s the humor? Even the most genuinely erotic movie moment of ’92 — Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe’s fully clothed clinch in The Last of the Mohicans — was more angst than ecstasy.
Into the breach ride a new breed of direct-to-video cassettes, informally known as couples tapes. Often released by established name-brand sex purveyors such as Playboy or Penthouse, couples tapes dearly want to be a more respectable alternative to the guys-only meat market of hard core. They’re softer, less explicit. The emphasis is on sensuality rather than grunt-lust; to quote one of these tapes’ narrators, they’re ”tasteful yet provocative.” At the same time, there’s none of the weird baggage that mainstream Hollywood feels compelled to pile onto its close encounters. In other words, these are sex tapes for people who don’t buy sex tapes — and they’re selling like crazy.
A few aspire to the level of practical cheesecake. Sexy Lingerie V courts guys who peek through their girlfriends’ Victoria’s Secret catalogs, while Ultimate Sensual Massage is produced in association with The Sharper Image, which specializes in overpriced yuppie toys, such as — surprise — electric massagers. The pretensions are a con, of course — the Lingerie video is your typical Playmate bimbo parade, while Massage covers its visuals of groping couples with dry instructional-speak (”As another tactile treat, sweep your hair over his body”). It’s a functional enough how-to (remember, ”always oil your hands first”), but if you really need this tape your relationship may already be too far gone for help.
Most of the other tapes fall into the vignette genre: short stories of mutual conquest that play like Love, American Style with follow-through. The ”couples” concept is pretty misleading, though. Even when told from a female character’s point of view, almost all these tales are warmed-over male fantasy: boy gets nurse, boy gets French tutor, boy gets lady boss (and tell me that last one ain’t a power scenario). In essence, tapes like the semiclever Erotic Encounters, the dumb Playboy’s Erotic Fantasies II, and the crass Wager of Love are just the latest wrinkle in soft core — descendants of all those drive-in teasers clogging late-night cable.
And like their predecessors, they’re terrible. Granted, these three tapes understand one thing that hard-core films always miss — it’s not the act that counts, it’s the context. But in trying to sail a middle course between believable setup and hubba-hubba payoff, they fail on both counts. The writing and acting are too inept to work as drama, and the simulated sex is all pointless camera movements and ersatz rock bomp. They play exactly like VH-1 with breasts, and they’re boring.
There’s one exception to the vast, howling void — one soft-core tape that tries to have its cheesecake and eat it, too. Novel Desires has a plot that literally questions what people look for in erotic fantasies: It’s about a romance novelist named Brian (Tyler Gains) who’s numb from churning out one Harlequin-style pulse pounder after another and who thinks realism may be sexier. His fellow hack Vicki (Caroline Monteith) thinks realism is for Lit classes and cranks up the purple prose in her own work. Meanwhile, their own love lives are falling down around their ears.
Desires is truly daft-a chatty exchange about the need for escapism in literature will be followed by a witless T&A scene — but the characters are slightly more than glands with feet. There’s a welcome sense of humor as well. I don’t want to oversell it — the writing and filmmaking are way below Hollywood standards — but Desires gives us so much time to get to know its characters before the inevitable ”tasteful yet provocative” wham-bam, it almost becomes a real movie. And maybe we should be thankful it doesn’t. Otherwise, Brian and Vicki would be going at each other with ice picks. Sexy Lingerie V: D Ultimate Sensual Massage: C Erotic Encounters: C- Playboy’s Erotic Fantasies II: D+ Wager of Love: F Novel Desires: C+