Ever since the publication of “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson” in 1990, Camille Paglia, Professor at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, has been one of the most refreshing, albeit controversial voices in cultural criticism in the US. The half-concealed always implies a narrative, the seed of drama.
Camille Paglia, who has achieved a kind of pop celebrity status in the US, one that is rarely, if ever, achieved by members of academe, draws on a vast knowledge of cultural history when interpreting and analyzing works of the western canon as well as current trends in popular imagery. As shown in “Sexual Personae,” she does this in a way that – provided you’re able to take her polemics against second-wave feminism with a grain of salt – is as intellectually stimulating as it is highly entertaining. Hermann Vaske, who has just completed his documentary on the role of lingerie down through the ages, “Bra Wars – Hollywood’s Affair with the Bra. From Cleopatra to Princess Leia and beyond” for Arte, the European Cultural Channel, met Paglia to talk about breasts, bras, and the way women have been presented in popular culture – including, of course, in advertising.
Ms Paglia, when did the bra become an object of provocation?
The emergence of the brassiere as an artifact of provocation has its roots certainly in the strange flattening of the breast that occurred during the flapper era of the 1920s. It’s very, very odd, where almost as a kind of reaction to all of the young men being together in a kind of homoerotic way in the foxholes of WWI, women of the 1920s seem motivated to cut their hair off in a kind of boyish bob and to flatten their breasts, to totally remove anything that is a sexual signifier. And the whole change was so radical, occurring over the period of a mere decade and completely reversing the hourglass look of the belle époque, that great accentuation of breasts and hips and buttocks seen just a decade before. This is one of the greatest and fastest changes in the history of women’s clothing. And then breasts started to come back. As a historian of Hollywood, I identify Jean Harlow as the woman who brought breasts back, but there was no brassiere attached to it. Her breasts were large and sort of sloshed around, revealed by very sensuous silky fabrics. There is an amazing celebrity photography taken of her by the studio showing off her breasts. And, simultaneously, Mae West came in with her strange, nostalgic, retro look going all the way back to the 1890s. So you had a strange duality at first. The woman in the corset and then the woman unleashed. It took a while for the brassiere to emerge as an actual object that has a sexual connotation. I associate this with Jane Russell and the magnificent work of engineering done for her by her sponsor, Howard Hughes, who had a history as an aerospace engineer. He designed this amazing brassiere for her, posed her in bales of hay for the movie “The Outlaw,” and the photographs are so much more interesting than the movie itself. And there is Jane Russell for the first time, I believe, in the modern era, using the brassiere as a kind of weapon. And you can see the way the brassiere is pushing at the fabric, almost as if it’s about to take off, like a rocket.
This veneration of breasts, is it something purely western?
The eroticization of the breast is not universal. In Japanese culture, the breast is not a feature at all of the desirable woman. The breast is in fact flattened. The breast is associated with maternity, and therefore almost to be edited away, as insufficiently artistic. The west has had a very long history of a certain kind of conceptualization about the breast. You see very early on, in ancient Egyptian wall paintings and statuary, that the small breast was prized by Egypt and that there was clearly a kind of editing going on. A woman who had borne many children was still always shown with symbolically small breasts signifying youth and fertility and renewed life. It’s really a long time before you get the large breast associated with Eros.
The large breast is always utilitarian, even when you see it in the great mother statuettes, like the Venus of Willendorf. No way is the Venus of Willendorf intended to be beautiful – or even erotic. She’s simply a symbol of fertility and of the renewal of the human race. So, for me, the eroticization of the breast is a symbol of the very high level of civilization, which I think we probably see not only in Egypt but in Minoan Crete, where we have not a brassiere but a kind of corset being worn by the snake goddesses, which pushes the breasts up. They’re very full, they seem as if they’re nursing breasts. But there is a great contrast with a slim waist, implying that the woman is not pregnant. It’s one of the few times, I think, in the history of art that we’ve had that strange combination of a wasp waist, meaning a cinched-in waist, not pregnant, and yet the breasts of maternity, but it’s as if the breasts are a work of art.
There’s always been a class issue in terms of the breasts. The upper class woman, traditionally, may bear children, but not nurse them, because it was understood how, over time, nursing deforms the breasts. And babies were given out to wet nurses, since as long as a woman keeps nursing her breasts will continue to give milk. You see this on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. There’s a very old woman, a crone, and yet her breasts are full, because she’s used to working as a wet nurse. What we have is this cult in the Middle Ages of the mature woman with a kind of armored torso, small breasts, always the small breast. And no need for a brassiere as long as you have the cinch. It’s almost a kind of a chastity belt to keep men away. It’s really in, I believe, the 19th century, in the Victorian period, where motherhood had this enormous idealization attached to it, a glorification of women as mother, where you had the breast put on display in a really systematic way. It was Queen Victoria and her fecundity, her own valorization of the marital relationship and so, on that led to this.
But since then, since the 19th century, we’ve gone back and forth about whether it is the large breast or the small breast that is most worthy of erotic focus.
For Russ Meyer, it was obviously the large breast.
Yeah, oh yes! In the 20th century, we start to get the influence of cartoons and, later on, video games. And, all of a sudden, a strange kind of futuristic physique emerges, a kind of dream fantasy, of women who are very powerful and Amazonian and yet have enormous breasts like pontoons. So, yes, Russ Meyer is an example of it. Later on, you see this silhouette in Lara Croft, a body type that only Angelina Jolie was ever born with, which is a very slim body and yet, strangely, with this overdevelopment of the mammary.
It used to be said that Americans were fixated on large breasts in the 1950s because they drank too much milk, that American’s obsession with milk was related to their fascination with enormously large breasts, which we see in someone like Jayne Mansfield, who herself was a kind of cartoon version of Marilyn Monroe, whose breasts were actually smaller, with Marilyn Monroe already being a kind of cartoon version of something earlier, influenced by Jean Harlow and others.
But, for the first time ever, with someone like Angelina Jolie we now have this strange ideal where the modern professional woman is expected to be very lean or her body to be augmented by Pilates exercises and yet large breasts which are now surgically augmented. It’s extremely unnatural. These are breasts not meant for nursing. This is a body not meant for childbearing. The breasts have now become an entirely erotic appendage. They’re there for display only and not for use.
You know this famous Jayne Mansfield photo with the milk bottles?
Yeah, it’s her holding the milk bottles next to her breasts like that. It’s actually excellent. Yeah, and that’s also the period of someone like Anita Ekberg, or Diana Dors. There’s a lot of them. They’re all versions of Monroe, and yet when you see Monroe and her famous nude calendar picture where she’s like this (gesticulates) and the beautiful red fabric, her breasts were not that large. I mean, we think of Marilyn Monroe as being very full-bosomed but, no, we’re really seeing her through a lens of a cartoonish figure that she inspired.
You know that famous “Got Milk?” print campaign from the 1990s?
I do. To me, it’s a ridiculous image. I hate that. It makes celebrities look like children.
You said you grew up in the 50s and then the 60s came along and the whole bra-burning thing. How did you experience that?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, women’s clothing was highly structured, very confined and claustrophobic. We were expected to wear hats and girdles, and the brassieres were heavy and uncomfortable; even the bathing suits, the swimsuits, were like corsets, they were so heavi-ly structured with bones and then they poked at you and so on. All of a sudden, the 60s threw out, completely discarded everything. All of the constrictions on female identity seemed to be thrown out the window. Also, a kind of Amazonian ideal began to emerge in popular culture, perhaps best represented by a publicity shot Raquel Welch did for the movie poster of “One Million Years B.C.”
Actually, we have to go back one moment here. Because it’s really Ursula Andress emerging from the sea as a harpoon fisher in a magnificent bikini in “Dr. No,” with a knife strapped to her waist, that is an implication of the woman who is a new kind of femme fatale. Not the woman of the boudoir but a woman who knows how to handle herself in nature, against the forces of nature. And a man is simply one of many obstacles. And then the second one is Raquel Welch doing this amazing photo shoot for “One Million Years B.C.” The movie itself was stupid, there was absolutely nothing of interest in it, but she did the poster for it, which all of a sudden became a worldwide phenomenon – her large breasts but also her toned physique and the Amazonian stance that she took. Raquel herself says that she was not in any way directed how to pose for that. She simply took, as the trained dancer she was, the posture of confrontation, of alertness, of a woman, very sexy but ready to take on the world. So these two images really marked a sea change in the way women are portrayed in terms of erotic imagery coming out of Hollywood. Preceded feminism… in fact, to me, this embodied feminist ideals better than anything that came from the mouths of the actual leaders of the feminist movement. These women, Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch, they showed that they understand sexuality. And they’re ready to meet men as equals.
Then in the 1960s, in college, all of a sudden, I began seeing women outside taking off their clothing and going braless. It was a whole back-to-nature element, the Woodstock element of the 1960s. In addition to the hippie line, there was also this new look coming from London, the Swinging Sixties look, which favors a small breast, a rather elfin, even boyish look associated with Twiggy and Mary Quant over in London, but also with Edie Sedgwick, who was Andy Warhol’s muse and the It girl of the moment over here. All of a sudden, there’s a kind of a girl-boy quality and the ability to cast bras aside. The new kind of clothing favored no bra whatever.
And this actually went on for a while, the association – particularly by feminists – of the bra as an instrument of servitude, which is odd because the bra was actually liberating compared to the corset of the 19th century. They were so tight-laced that women actually fainted if they tried to breathe hard in one. You couldn’t move very fast, and we know that tight lacing in fact even caused terrible mutilations to the inner organs. So the bra was actually a symbol of liberation, not of slavery. Nevertheless, a tradition rose up that feminists burned their bras. But my generation tried to naturalize the breast, and there were many women I knew who were hippies who had the idea: well, why shouldn’t women be able to go bare-chested in the same way men can, and so on. So there were attempts at nudity, at not wearing any bra, but over time that fashion passed. Yet the bra really did not recover its prestige until Madonna burst on the scene in 1983 with her new style using underwear as outerwear.
Now the reason she was very into bras is because she was a trained modern dancer, but yet she had rather large breasts for such a small woman. So Madonna had always had a practical problem even when studying dance in college: how to deal with those rather large breasts. There’s never been a tradition of women professionally dancing with large breasts. Madonna had solved this problem by buying and wearing almost vintage underwear. So it is Madonna, single-handedly, who revived the fetishism of underwear. She is responsible for the enormous success of Victoria’s Secret, which is promoting a look of eroticism that dates and relates to the 19th century – which is strange, insane in fact, yet a reflection that the contemporary woman, the new woman, the emancipated woman, the feminist woman, the professional woman had lost some erotic mystique. In becoming free, she had become unerotic. Suddenly, underwear became a way for women to regain a sense of sensuality, and for men also to relate to professional women in an erotic way.
There was this congenial co-operation between Madonna and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s bullet bra for Madonna, so aggressive, so fetishistic. Amazing! To me, it’s one of the great artworks of the last quarter of the 20th century. Because it’s such a fantasia of the original bullet bras and rocket bras with their military kind of terminology from the 1940s and 1950s. As an object, it’s aggressive, it gives women a kind of sexual duality and power, and it also transforms the breast from a passive object of contemplation to a penetrating phallic, a military vehicle.
We talked about Angelina Jolie. Do you think she was the sex symbol of the 1990s?
Yes, Angelina Jolie was absolutely the catalyst for the surge in breast amplification. There’s no doubt in my mind that her own natural gift, the strange combination that she has of the lush breast combined with her very lean figure, is the model for what so many young women are striving for today, perhaps impossibly.
At the same time we had, you know, Quentin Tarantino entering the scene and he says one of his big influences is Russ Meyer. Do we perhaps also see the strong woman with Tarantino?
Certainly with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. I’m not sure that Tarantino glorified women’s bodies in the same way as someone like Fellini did. In “8½”, the childhood memory, the prostitute on the beach dancing for the small boys… I mean, there you see a true glorification of the female body, there’s an erotic charge to it. I don’t really feel the erotic charge in Tarantino as much. Similarly, Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita”, displaying this magnificent black gown, walking through the streets of Rome, putting a kitten on her head, feeding the kitten milk. I mean, in the whole thing she’s almost like a fertility goddess and then goes into the fountain as if she’s again the spirit of the waters.
That reminds me of a great scene in Vittorio de Sica’s “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” from 1963 with Sophia Loren, where she does this strip for Marcello Mastroianni.
Sophia Loren was certainly one of the major sex goddesses of the late 1950s and 1960s. You know, the sight of her wet look in “Boy On A Dolphin” was considered one of the great spectacles, almost a landscape tableau of Mother Earth. And Sophia Loren’s physique is entirely natural. She’s simply one of the glories of Italian cultural history.
Who else would you say represented archetypes of female sexuality in connection with lingerie?
Lana Turner. Back in the 1940s, she was called the sweater girl. There was the ‘sweater girl’ phenomenon. As the brassiere became more structured in the United States, there emerged a type called the sweater girl, a young woman wearing a simple cashmere sweater with breasts extremely prominent and a rather narrow, girlish waist. Lana Turner was the most famous of these and her way of standing was also very breast-centric. There’s no posture in a Lana Turner movie that did not in some way display her breasts for the camera. And we have to remember Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s. Elizabeth Taylor was phenomenal. I was absolutely fixated on Elizabeth Taylor when I was young. “BUtterfield 8” was a revelation to me, an absolute revelation. Growing up, as I did, in the United States in the 1950s, I experienced repression, conformity, puritanism. There was a cult of virginity enforced by Doris Day, and movie after movie defending herself against the approaches of men. Then came Elizabeth Taylor in “BUtterfield 8” playing a high-class call girl. I was thirteen years old. Elizabeth Taylor playing a bad girl, a femme fatale, was an absolute revelation. The first time we see her in the movie she is sewn into a white slip looking like a goddess with the round curves of her hips and her breasts on display. To me, it was like the end of one era and the beginning of another. And it was. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution.
And then also “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.”
In “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” she was very voluptuous, gorgeous. But she was playing a wife there, you know. The thing about “BUtterfield 8” is that she was playing a call girl. That’s the thing. That was so major. I mean to have a major star… I don’t think she was happy about it, actually, at the time and kind of diminished it whenever she referred to it. But, to me, that was like one of the absolute pivotal moments, a marker. They were about to unleash the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s. That’s clear.
What I consider to be an important movie for the 1980s is Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” with this post-punk fetish fashion introduced through Daryl Hannah, or Catherine Deneuve in “The Hunger.”
Oh, I loved “The Hunger” but unfortunately it was ruined for me by those foolish close-ups of monkeys in cages. I think it becomes an ugly movie after a while but, oh my goodness, the good parts in that movie are absolutely a dream.
They are but you can see he’s an advertising guy, Tony Scott.
That’s right. It was his first feature movie. There are such artistic eras, you know: degeneration into ugliness. But there are things that are so beautiful. Catherine Deneuve sitting at the piano with her Roman busts in the background. Susan Sarandon as the innocent young American versus European sophistication. Oh, Catherine Deneuve… do you want to talk about a huge fetish? I had a long, long Catherine Deneuve obsession period in graduate school.
What about advertising for bras? For Wonderbra, for instance, because that changed a lot.
The Wonderbra was an architectural landmark. By changing the definition of what constituted an attractive bosom. By pushing everything up and putting it on display, it was a return to a kind of brazen exhibitionism that had been absent for a while in the whole cult of the breast.
In the States, you had this famous campaign running for 10 years for Maidenform.
Yeah, oh my goodness.
Oh, yeah, forever. That was in my childhood, absolutely.
“I dreamed I went in my Maidenform bra,” you know?
There were so many of them. When I was young, there were advertisements everywhere in magazines. I dreamed I did this, I dreamed I did that in my Maidenform bra. Very strange, because it was of a woman who was starring in her own movie. It was like there was no other cast of characters but herself and her bra.
Yeah, it was a good concept. Otherwise it would not have run that long.
Yeah, obviously, but it’s strange. It is surreal, just what you said. It is surreal, ‘cause what is this thing about women? Because it was so exhibitionistic, strange, perverse in its own way. But, somehow, it became such a standard commercial in the United States that nobody noticed the strange concept, you know, almost like… I don’t know how to call it, of a woman, normally a nightmare of yourself, of exposing your underwear in public. Now the bras of the 1950s were almost like half-corsets. They were so constricting, so immobile, so shot through with metal, almost like a sort of armor. And then women for the first time became interested on a large scale in exercise in the 1970s, and it changed the look of models. You have Cheryl Tiegs, a long-legged Californian look, but also suddenly the craze for jogging. And in order to have a brassiere that can handle all of these physical factors and stresses in the body, a new kind of bra had to be designed. Using new fabrics, they were flexible and gave support. This was also a revolution, the idea of a brassiere that could facilitate a body in motion.
What do you think of the current way in which Hollywood stars and celebrities present themselves on red carpets?
In my view, American show business has completely lost any sense of the erotic. The body is put on display as a matter of routine. There is no sense whatever of any sense of taboo or transgression, and therefore there’s no erotic charge in overcoming the transgression. As a consequence, if there’s nothing that is generally naughty, what’s the point in exposing the body? And, you know, I find practically nothing coming out of Hollywood today that’s genuinely erotic. The only thing I find of interest are the candid shots that Rihanna does of herself with her own camera. The selfies that she does. Rihanna sort of lounging on her various trips to Barbados or in bed in the morning. And there is a definite sense of flirtation, perversity, still in Rihanna’s flirting with her sexuality and smoking marihuana and eating and drinking. There’s a sense that Rihanna, as a native of the Caribbean, understands the physical world, understands the connection between sex and the forces of nature, whereas I don’t find sexuality otherwise coming from any aspect of contemporary show business
Certainly not from Lady Gaga.
Oh (laughs). Don’t start me on Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga, a Madonna imitator, has no sense whatever of what is truly sexy. Because she’s simply aping or mimicking what Madonna did. But Madonna has a very strong sense of the sexy, because she was raised in a strict Italian Catholic way. In fact, Madonna’s most sexiest, most sensual work was done at the very start. She knew what she was doing. Offend and infuriate her father, okay. When Madonna suddenly decided that she had learned enough in life to go beyond Italian Catholicism and she embraced Kabbalah, that was the end of Madonna’s sexual vision and her status as a pioneer. Because in this all-accepting world of Kabbalah, there’s nothing sexy left.
Interesting. So why is Lady Gaga so asexual?
She has no original ideas. Every idea that Lady Gaga has is borrowed from someone else, whether it’s David Bowie or Grace Jones or Daphne Guinness. Young people have never seen the originals that people as old as me knew. And so they think everything that Lady Gaga does is new and created by her – but it isn’t. So there’s a very tired, a very fatigued sense to me about Lady Gaga. She’s someone going through the motions. There’s like a whole library in her head, and there is this Lady Gaga cadre or army of stylists, mostly gay men, who feed her ideas. And now that so many of them have left her, I mean the poverty of her imagination is becoming clearer and clearer. I find her vulgar, obvious, ugly, klutzy, what can I say? Also, the problem of Lady Gaga is, she’s utterly blind to the connotations of the items of clothing that she wears. I mean, each item of clothing has its own history. One of the problems facing young people today is that they have no historical sense, whether it’s in famous songs, in popular culture, or whether it’s items of clothing. So they don’t understand the symbolic connotations of each item… and Lady Gaga shows this. Lady Gaga just puts things on like she’s a child putting a Halloween costume on, whereas David Bowie put on his amazing designs. He, as a dancer, was trained in pantomime, he worked with the clothing, he understood that inside each item of clothing is a shadow body, even a shadow soul. And you feel that David Bowie became transformed by the garment and he entered that world of the garment. Lady Gaga just throws things on, poses for the paparazzi, runs through the gym, runs through airports. She has no sense whatsoever of what she’s wearing, and this is symbolic regalia that has to be understood and lived with. Drag queens, the great drag queens knew, you put a dress on, each dress had some architecture, its own bones, its own skeleton.
Some people say she has talent. Well, she doesn’t develop her talent. To develop your talent as an artist, you must be quiet and you must seek solitude. Recharge yourself in solitude, return to your essential self. But no, apparently she changes her clothes like five times a day. Her primary stylist, Nicola Formichetti, has quit because, he said, sometimes it was twelve costumes per day and had reached the limit.
Yeah. What’s the future of the bra? The Japanese invented a thinking bra with an app, you know, and this bra opens by itself when it detects true love.
The future of the bra depends on the future of the breast. Are we entering an androgynous future where genders have so melted that breasts will cease to have any particular sexual significance? Or are we heading towards some sort of total collapse of civilization with men having to become men again, and women having to become women again, in which case the bra will inevitably return.
To me, some of the sexiest images of the 20th century came out of the men’s magazines of the 1930s to the mid-1950s where you had women in Vargas drawings, in boudoir settings, wearing very flimsy underwear and nightwear, etc., looking absolutely like pieces of fruit you wanted to just pluck and eat. There’s a quality they had that’s been completely lost, and part of it is that sense of taboo that used to hover around women and women’s bodies. Women used to be the great unknown, and the world that their bodies implied was a world of sensual pleasure, of soft surfaces, almost like odalisques in French 19th century painting, a kind of heroine feeling. A sense that women had their own sphere, a kind of cosmos of sexuality that men would invade, men could spy on. All of that is lost in the contemporary times when women are now all too visible and have taken over men’s worlds, can do work in the office at the computer exactly like a man. So we’re in a period where there’s a great, um, difference in opinion of… the old-style feminists believed that humanity will prosper if the sexes collapse into each other, if women take on the roles of men and if men behave more like women. I worry about sexuality in such a world. Because the more you have that collapse of the genders, the less there is any kind of sexual charge. Now, women have tried to recover some of that with the sexy lingerie of today, but it’s merely external trappings because, ultimately, women in the western world no longer feel, it seems to me, that they have a peculiar and unique kind of sensuality to offer men.
I’ve always opposed the attack on pornography by American feminists. There was a very, very vicious fight that went on especially in the 1980s until the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the men’s magazines in the United States have been murdered because of the availability of pornographic images on the web. I still am someone who loves pictorial layouts and I really mourn the loss of those sophisticated magazines. Penthouse was my favorite because it used lingerie in an erotic way, whereas Playboy was… it was very girl-next-door, cheerleader, there was all this nudity without any sense of sexy clothing. I believe that Bob Guccione’s sensibility at Penthouse came partly from his wife Kathy Keaton, who was a South African dancer in London and who I think had a great sense of body language and the whole art form of wearing clothing and of the half-concealed. To me, lingerie is very important in eroticism because I do believe that the half-concealed is sexier than the fully nude. The half-concealed always implies a narrative, a second chapter that can happen at any moment. I think that something reserved is always more interesting, more conducive to sexual fantasy than the… I mean, total nudity is a step to what? For example, the Venus de Milo is not totally nude, rather she is shown with a nude torso, stepping into her bath and trying, with a slight lift of her knee, to keep her robes from slipping down to expose her genitalia. And there is something slightly erotic in that attempt to continue to conceal the genitals, as opposed to if she were totally nude. So, for me, the half-concealed has the seed of a drama. There is a storyline linked in it. And, also, I believe that a slight sense of modesty or shame is actually more interesting in terms of intensifying the sexual abandon that would follow.
Can you name some other landmarks in lingerie imagery from past decades?
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in 1960 was a landmark in many ways. By implying violence, which had not been permitted under the Motion Picture Production Code for thirty years, but also by putting brassieres on display in the person of Janet Leigh - to me one of the famous moments in cinema, with Janet Leigh first wearing a very Amazonian white brassiere and then wearing a rather Amazonian black brassiere. And Hitchcock is signifying, by the switch from the white brassiere to the black brassiere, that she has become a criminal in her mind, that she has gone from being a good girl, an obedient girl, to suddenly becoming the thief, the criminal.
Yeah, that’s a wonderful example. – There’s also the steel bra in Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant.”
Oh, one of my favorite films. Yes, that’s right (laughs)! There you have the heroine dressed in what’s almost a piece of armor, with this incredible fantasia on, yet trapped like a princess in the tower. Hanna Schygulla. Originally it was a play, then he made the movie of it. So I think the feeling of the play still survives in the claustrophobia of it. That movie is amazing. I mean, what an original piece of work that is! It’s just incredible. Oh my goodness. I can go on and on about it. And the big painting in the back, I don’t know whether it’s Venus and Adonis, you know, on the wall, or the secretary that never speaks until the very end, when Petra says she’s going to be nice to her: “I’ll be nice to you now.” And the secretary is so outraged she abandons her, she’s like a masochist that wants to be maltreated. It’s so wonderful. And Hanna Schygulla, is she wonderful in that! Oh my goodness. And I love the scene where Margit Carstensen, who plays Petra, is on the rug, on that floor, and the phone rings. There are these wonderful shots, Fassbinder’s, he must have been on the rug with the camera, ‘cause she’s on the rug, reaching for the phone. You know, you feel like you’re on the same level in this tiny space. It always seems interesting. How can you have an entire movie, you know, so contained?
Since you made favorable mention of Penthouse magazine, what did you think of Bob Guccione’s Caligula?
That was a disaster because it did not contain a sense of the rules that were being abrogated, of the rules that were being trashed, destroyed by the excesses of the hedonistic emperors. To produce true eroticism there has to be contained, within the storyline, some sense of the republican values and morality that were now being exploited. Without that you have just total access… to me, it was like rolling around on a garbage dump, a movie without the slightest interest, not sexy to me for one moment. Actually, early Hollywood did this very well. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood actually created a lot, a sense of sexual excitement by always having contained within the scene, or within the storyline, the whole establishment of the past, the traditional values of the parents’ generation, of society as a whole. You really saw it in movies like “Our Dancing Daughters,” movies that Joan Crawford starred in. She was celebrated for having won awards, for her Charleston dances and so on. And you have the women going wild, the young women throwing, tossing their bodies around and showing their legs and having this great sense of vitality, and then you have the older women, disapproving in the background. So you have it built in, just how radical the gesture of rebellion is. You cannot get the feeling of exhilaration of independence, of liberation without a sense of that past, the past which is now struggling to maintain the sense of moral order against this new release of the energy of dance.
Actually, European art films were always able to project a sense of sensuality, which is now completely lost. One of my favorite films – directed by an American director working in England at the time – is Joseph Losey’s “Eva.” I mean anything Jeanne Moreau was in… she could always create eroticism around herself. That version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” with Moreau, it was phenomenal. Or Stéphane Audran in Claude Chabrol’s “Les Biches,” with movie after movie after movie creating this sense of eroticism. Amazing. And Europeans just had a sense of sophistication about eroticism. I mean, there have – oddly - been very few Hollywood movies in that vein since the Code was abandoned. While the Code was actually in operation, you’d get more chemistry between men and women in films – because there was nothing they could show. You can’t show the body, you can’t show sex, so everything had to be implied. So there’s more eroticism that comes from Cary Grant sitting across a table in a dining car in a train with Eva Marie Saint, more eroticism going on, more sense of suggestion about the possibility of sex than in all of the nudity in present-day Hollywood. So the thing is, we’ve lost this sense of suggestion and that is why the art form of lingerie must remain central to our civilization.
Fantastic ending but let me ask you a final question: Why do you do what you do? Why are you creative?
I am a product of a highly repressed Italian Catholic background at a time when American culture was like a prison of imagination. In my childhood everything was hidden. I’ve never quite said this. This is kind of interesting. Everything was hidden and therefore (laughs) I have spent my life uncovering and discovering.