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A review of the flawed but flesh-filled documentary that delivers exactly what the film's title promises, no ifs, ands, or (ahem) butts.

By Jack Anderson KeanePublished 3 years ago 7 min read

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is a surprisingly comprehensive and fascinating delve into the correlation between the creation and evolution of cinema as an industry and art form, and society's fluctuating political, religious, and moral attitudes over the past century and change, all of which are bound up with humankind's everlasting hard-on, figuratively and literally, for capturing images of nude bodies.

Be it through paintings, photography, or the advent of motion pictures - whose invention (much like with any new technology) was almost immediately seized upon as a means to view and create content containing naked people - a voyeuristic adoration of the unclothed human form has always been with us, and right alongside that, there's always been a push-pull against the tides of censorship, repression, expression, rebellion, conservatism, liberalism, feminism, and so on.

The arguments about nudity's positive or negative connotations are likewise always in flux. It can be by turns empowering or exploitative, inherently sexual or only sexual to the viewer, career-making or career-breaking, shameful or shameless, acceptable or unacceptable, and so on and so on, ad infinitum.

However, to the doc's detriment on the thematic side (besides its flaws on the technical side, with its frequently slapdash editing, and glaringly inconsistent audio quality), Skin kind of shirks getting too deep about the darker complexities of the whole issue. It flirts with it occasionally, like with the bookending mentions of the #MeToo movement, and the industry's newfound implementing of intimacy coordinators for any love/sex scenes actors may perform, but they kind of feel perfunctorily added to stave off certain criticisms that could be levelled at the film, rather than something the documentary would willingly choose to explore, lest it get in the way of cramming in as many more nude clips as it can get away with.

Then you have the moments where certain interviewees divulge some discomforting information pertaining to their on-screen nudity.

Pam Grier, while talking about taking her clothes off for a shower scene she had in the women-in-prison exploitation flick, The Arena, briefly alludes to it being reminiscent to her of some form of sexual abuse she experienced as a child.

Rena Riffle, who played a stripper in both Showgirls and Striptease, says someone she once dated shamed her for her nudity in the former film, and she ponders whether she was taken advantage of by the male filmmakers to act as an object of softcore titillation.

Cerena Vincent, who went nude in Not Another Teen Movie and Cabin Fever, talks about how she got angry correspondence from those who were fans of her when she was in the kid-friendly Power Rangers franchise, as well as the negativity she felt about herself when she saw her naked body on the big screen.

Relatedly, but on a much darker level, Erica Gavin, who was the title character in boob-obsessive cult director Russ Meyer's film Vixen, talks about how seeing the imagery of herself naked on such a huge, blown up, big-screen format took a deep psychological toll that resulted in her developing anorexia, with her directly attributing the night of the Vixen premiere to the beginning of her becoming sick.

These kinds of moments are all brought up and kept within the film's sprawling narrative and lengthy runtime, but are hastily brushed past without any further expansion or interrogation. Yes, I know that if the documentary had wanted to make this a bigger aspect of its narrative, it would've done, but still... with Pam Grier in particular, the speed with which it skips right past her implication of immense childhood trauma (and I don't think ever returns to her throughout the rest of the film) meant that I was compelled to have to find out for myself, seeing as the film deemed it unnecessary to follow up or give any further explanation.

(Side note: Pam Grier has lived one hell of a life. That she's survived and emerged from the other side of all that pain shows she's even more of a badass than she already obviously was, and she has my utmost respect.)

While I'm sure this flippancy on the film's part was not done with malicious intent, it does make more sense when you take into consideration that one of the producers of the film, as well as one of the talking head commentators, is none other than Jim McBride, or as he's most commonly known, "Mr. Skin" of Knocked Up fame himself.

Ergo, it would kind of be in his best business interests to maintain the documentary's ostensible mood as being just this fun, fluffy, sexy cinephile romp, rather than go so far as to poke too many holes into that facade with niggling notions regarding female objectification, capitalistic commodification of nudity*, the concept of the male gaze, the overt undue expectation and anticipation female actors always have placed upon them to do nudity, and the potential consequences of nudity over-saturation and desensitisation, among other things.

* (To clarify, I don't mean this in the same sense of how sex workers consensually use their bodies for their own monetary gain, as that's an entirely valid enterprise I'm not besmirching. What I mean by this is the way the film and TV industry often commodifies the inclusion of nudity as a cynical ploy to drum up extra business for their product from those in the audience looking for T&A in the media they consume. An example of this that's brought up in Skin is during an interview segment with Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge, and one of that film's stars, Elizabeth "E.G." Daily. The latter mentions how the inclusion of nudity in Valley Girl was "simply a distribution deal necessity", before Coolidge follows that up by explaining: "Atlantic Releasing said it when I met with them... they said, 'Well, you know, we've made them agree you're going to show naked breasts in four scenes in this movie. Is that a problem for you?' And I said, 'No. Is it a problem if I do it whatever way I think of?' And they said, 'No, we don't care how we see 'em, we just wanna see 'em.'")

Now, granted, the movie's vast selection of movie clips isn't solely narrowed down to women's unsurprisingly prolific and long-held entry in the canon of cinematic nudity, and basically just all of art in general, as there is also plenty of talk regarding the breaking of barriers surrounding male nudity in movies likewise, with small and large swinging wangs a-plenty, even going so far as to include that scene from Borat, which Ken Davitian himself turns up to talk about the making of.

(Also worthy of note: Kevin Smith's typically hilarious anecdote - which he's probably mentioned at some point in one or more of his myriad podcasts over the years - about Ben Affleck being shown Zack and Miri Make A Porno by Smith, upon which afterwards Affleck noted to Smith that he'd noticed Jason Mewes had shaved his pubic hair into the shape of a heart for his one big full-frontal scene, to which Smith rib-ticklingly cajoled Affleck for having been looking so closely that he was able to see that particular detail.)

In the end, I suppose the best way to view this film is like the non-satirical documentary equivalent of the Tim Minchin song, 'Confessions':

"I think we men are pathetic / How we seem to judge aesthetic / As the measure of a woman's worth. / I'm ashamed on behalf of my sex / For making women feel like objects... / Fuck, I love boobs, though!"

If for nothing else, it's worth watching Skin's cavalcade of boobs, butts, balls, and bell-ends just the once if only to hear Malcolm McDowell spill some tea about the making of Tinto Brass's notorious Caligula, the swords-and-sandals drama epic turned into a full-blown skin-flick after the fact by Penthouse Magazine's Bob Guccione, with such choice McDowell quotes and anecdotes as:

• On whether or not he knows what Caligula's about:

"Do I know what the plot is of Caligula? I haven’t got a fucking idea!"

• On the conception of Caligula's character:

"We kind of came up with this thing that he was an anarchist, that he was destroying the Roman Empire from the top. [*subtly gives a Jim-from-The Office knowing look and smirk to camera*] Sound familiar...?”

• On the subject of a scene where Caligula happens upon a random instance of two women having sex, and he grins at what he's beholding, McDowell asserts that when he shot the scene originally, he had actually been looking at a falcon that was off-camera, and the entire point of that scene was completely different. It was only when the film was released with the additional unsimulated hardcore sex scenes, inserted (so to speak) by Guccione, that McDowell saw his "looking-at-a-falcon" reaction shot had been Kuleshov Effectively transformed into a "looking-at-two-lesbians-sixty-nining" reaction shot.

• On finding out that the film he and the rest of the cast and crew had signed up for had been subsumed into some kind of weird grand-scale porno they never planned on participating in:

"I hated it because, you know, somewhere when you watch that movie, you realise there is really a wonderful movie here, that’s been sort of hijacked by Bob Guccione, who was the publisher of Penthouse. But he had absolutely no taste, and all you had to do was look at his magazine to figure that out!”

And best of all:

• On coming across co-star John Gielgud one day, after Gielgud had walked in on the set where a massive (simulated) orgy was to be filmed, McDowell quotes actual legendary Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud as having hilariously exclaimed:

"I’ve never seen so much cock in all my life!"


Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is available to stream on Hulu, and Amazon Video.


About the Creator

Jack Anderson Keane

An idiot pretending not to be an idiot.

You can also find me on Twitter (for memes), Instagram (for the pictures), Letterboxd (for film reviews), Medium (for a Vocal alternative), Goodreads (for book reviews), and Spotify (for my music).

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