Sunday, May 22, 2011

Goodbye Kiss

In a 1971 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Robert Bresson made a curious confession: "I am not at all against nudity so long as the body is beautiful; only when the body is ugly is its nudity obscene. It is like kissing. I can't bear to see people kissing on the screen."

Bresson certainly had a genius for aphorisms, as his interviews, and his little book Notes on Cinematography, show. This aversion to screen kisses, however, came as a bit of a surprise to some critics, especially those who were hostile to his fill-in-the-blanks style of filmmaking. Given his aversion to acting and to fakery of any kind, however, it is perfectly in keeping with his aesthetic principles. While I don't have much use for most of Bresson's ideas, to a certain extent I happen to share his distaste for screen kisses.

For the Japanese, kissing in public used to be regarded as somewhat obscene, since for them it is a sexual overture. Customarily, the only people who kiss one another are lovers. The sight of parents and children kissing in the West is disturbing. And Frenchmen and Russians kissing everyone is just scary.

When General MacArthur was in command of the U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, he approved the production of a film that featured a kissing scene at its climax. It was intended to further the acceptance of democratic values and the emancipation of women. Released in 1946, Japanese audiences flocked to see the otherwise mediocre film, but the scandalous kiss was obscured by a strategically placed umbrella.

Attitudes in the West toward kissing on stage and film have changed considerably since the release of the forty-seven second long Thomas Edison film The Kiss in 1896. It was meant to cause a scandal, and succeeded in provoking calls for an immediate ban on further screenings. It was actually the kiss given by John Rice to May Irwin that had already been staged at the end of the musical The Widow Jones. On film, the impact of that kiss was somewhat different. A reporter wrote: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting."

The voyeuristic nature of the film - of the viewer spying vicariously on the characters' assumed privacy - was significantly noted at the time and made the representation of all kinds of behavior on film somehow more acceptable. This reached its nadir just prior to the invention of internet porn with people gathering together in adult movie houses to watch explicit sex acts performed by professional "actors".

Like Bresson, I have no problem with nudity on film. And I don't even require that the bodies should be beautiful, though that would be nice. An actor's buttocks or breasts (the line is usually drawn just this side of the genitals) are just as important tools as their arms and legs. All manner of physical acts are represented on film - punching and kicking and biting. But it is artificial: nobody is getting hurt, thanks to the angle of the shot or careful lighting or editing. Actors must make the appropriate adjustments to avoid injury.

A kiss presents the same kind of problem for actors and filmmakers - how to make pretending look real. The big difference, however, is that it is an act of intimacy that usually requires the camera to be close to the action. This requires that lips should at least appear to be touching, even if they actually miss by a mile.

But nearly all film kisses are misses. Even when the actors are romantically involved off-camera, a kiss is considered such a private act that they will often not actually kiss on-camera, for the same reason that one doesn't kiss a hooker - it is considered an act of intimacy that is reserved only for private moments. Maybe I've seen too many of them, but nothing restores my disbelief in a film's verity more than a kiss.

It is naïvely - though generally - assumed that when actors are in a "love scene" onscreen that they are getting it on offscreen as well. It's only because people refuse to believe that love can be faked. It's fascinating to watch great actors, so concentratedly absorbed in their roles, suddenly lower their masks in order to plant an utterly unconvincing kiss of their onscreen lovers' faces. They, better than anyone else, prove that a kiss - like sex - is a private gesture.

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