If, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, the sexual revolution began in 1963, then the sexual revolution is now well into middle age. And wasn’t that supposed to be the point? Wasn’t the sexual revolution supposed to give us a rational and mature perspective on matters of sexual intimacy rather than allowing us to continue to wallow in childish ignorance about it?
Well, now that the sexual revolution is nearing 50, I think we can all agree that it’s proved to be less a wise and prudent channeler of Eros and more that sniggering, giggly, potty-mouthed, pockmarked adolescent it promised to allow us to vault over and rise up from. The old advertising line that “sex sells” is now taken to new extremes every week by marketers trying to figure out any way possible to claim a moment of our attention when it is no longer a simple matter to get anyone to watch an ad (except my six-year-old daughter, who howls in rage if I try to fast-forward through a Disney Channel commercial we’ve recorded on the DVR. “I like commercials!” she protests).
Consider, if you will, the red-band trailer. This is a preview of coming attractions like any movie trailer, only this one is rated R. You will rarely see a red-band trailer in a movie theater. It’s made for the Internet, and its purpose is to create buzz for a film a few months before its release by offering up a movie’s dirtiest bits and foulest talk.
A few of them, notably one for a horrible comedy misfire last year called Hot Tub Time Machine, feature out-and-out topless female nudity. Others, like the recent ones for a medieval comedy called Your Highness and a comedy tearjerker called Love and Other Drugs (which opens this week), simply feature characters talking about sex in the crassest possible manner.
Then there’s Friends with Benefits, about twentysomethings who sleep together without strings attached, in which the mother of the girl says to the boy, “So what is my daughter, your slam piece? I’m just kiddin’. Slam away.” The trailer then cuts to him performing a sex act that makes the girl scream.
The sex is not especially graphic in these red-band trailers or, indeed, in the movies that feature them. Graphic depictions of sex have been tapering off onscreen since the 1970s. Rather, the sexual content in the red-band trailer is intended to shock momentarily, titillate for a second more, and then leave the viewer with some kind of hunger to see the whole thing.
This all dates back two decades, to When Harry Met Sally. In her introduction to the published screenplay, Nora Ephron writes about how upset she was when Rob Reiner went on Johnny Carson and showed the movie’s iconic scene of Meg Ryan faking an orgasm on the night before the movie premiered. It was the breakout moment, and by blowing the surprise, he was compromising their work. “Nora, we need the movie to open,” Reiner told her, meaning: We need to put up good box-office numbers the first weekend.
The successful use of the movie’s most ribald moment changed the way movies were marketed. Thereafter, promoting a movie meant not hinting at the glories to come but showing its most arresting moments. And since When Harry Met Sally’s big scene was a sex joke, marketers figured it was not the joke but the sex that sold it. And here we are, 20 years later, living with the fallout.
The problem is that the red-band trailer is an act of exhibitionism, and like all exhibitionism, it conveys a sense of anxious desperation: See what I’m willing to do to please you, to grab you? They are not only cringingly crude; they fail to do the job. Most of the movies promoted in this way are abject failures at the box office. Even the sniggering adolescent to whom the red-band trailer is supposed to appeal knows when he’s being condescended to.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.