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Who was your first kiss? Not the actual, physical kiss - that is really none of my business - but a witnessed meeting of two mouths on-screen? Was it the smooching pooches in 'The Lady and the Tramp,' their lips serendipitously joined by a strand of spaghetti? Jack and Rose in the boiler room of the Titanic? Jack and Ennis in 'Brokeback Mountain'? Cher and Nicolas Cage in 'Moonstruck'? Or was it an older, more canonical osculation, from the era when a kiss was as far as an on-screen pair were allowed to go, with or without the benefit of clergy? Bogey and Bergman in 'Casablanca'? Bergman and Cary Grant in 'Notorious'? Grant and Eva Marie Saint or Grace Kelly or Katharine Hepburn? Did you think it was gross? Boring? Sexy? Romantic? Did it get in the way of the action, or was it the action you wanted to see? Did you learn anything about your own desires or your techniques for fulfilling them? Were you moved to emulate what you saw on-screen, perhaps with the person sitting next to you in the dark? Were you able to keep watching?
Scroll through the famous kisses of classic Hollywood, and you find yourself in a dense forest of sexual semiotics. There is yearning and hostility, defiance and pleading.
These are loaded questions, and with some variation they have haunted every generation of ticket buyers and channel surfers, all the way back to the days of the nickelodeon. Cinema may not have invented kissing, but I suspect that over the course of the 20th century, movies helped make it more essential. What is undeniable is that movies - Hollywood movies especially, but far from exclusively - made kissing more visible. They established a glamorous iconography and an elegant choreography for an experience that, in real life, is frequently sloppy, clumsy and less than perfectly graceful.
Which is all part of the fun, of course. But one thing real kisses always are to the people engaged in them is invisible. What you see, if for some reason you keep your eyes open, might be the blurred bridge of a nose (your own? his? hers?), an errant lock of hair, a patch of ceiling, sidewalk or dashboard. But the movie camera has the uncanny power to reveal unseen intimacies, to frame and diagram what we otherwise know as a frenzy of sensation.
In other words, whatever else a kiss may be, it is for filmmakers above all a formal challenge. The camera adores the human face. The apotheosis of the cinematic art, the point at which it has been said (by wiser critics than I) to approach the condition of holiness, is the close-up, which endows an individual visage with aesthetic dignity and ontological gravity. The great movie stars are not necessarily the most talented actors, or even the best-looking human beings, but rather those whose eyes, mouths and cheekbones compel attention when rendered in two dimensions. Their magic is in their singularity.
What happens when you put two of them together? The very first moving-picture kiss, in a 25-second short made by Thomas Edison in 1896, shows the problem clearly. The man and the woman in the frame - a good-natured pair whose interaction is more playful than earnestly amorous - sit next to each other. He is in profile. She is snuggled against him, with her face turned away from his and toward the camera at about a 45-degree angle. Their first attempts at kissing, which interrupt a steady (and of course silent) stream of talk, are odd, sideways forays. The corners of their mouths meet while she keeps looking at the camera. And then suddenly, he pulls away, smooths his impressive mustache, turns her face toward his and plants one squarely on her mouth.
A subsequent Edison short, filmed four years later - and perfectly at home, like so much of the earliest cinema, on YouTube - displays a similar visual and performative dynamic. The couple, younger and friskier than the first, alternate between cheek-to-cheek and mouth-to-mouth canoodling, and also between self-consciousness and fascination. The man winks at the camera and shoots his eyebrows up and down. His smiling lady friend looks off to the side and upward, as if to avoid the camera's gaze. The kisses grow more frequent and the cuddles more energetic, leading the viewer, then and now, to wonder what might happen next and to raise, perhaps not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the tantalizing - and to some, worrying - possibility that the public might look at movies and get ideas.
Moviemakers, though, would have to work out some practical issues. The main one, already visible in those Edison shorts, is the tendency of kisses to erase the faces, to obscure their expressive features behind curtains of hair or shadows cast by jaws and foreheads. The evolution of editing would resolve this to some extent. Instead of having the two kissers unnaturally turn toward and away from each other, so that the camera could fully register their fluctuating, intensifying moods by looking at their eyes and mouths, the director could now cut back and forth between them. The classical grammar of contrasting shots - two people face to face in the frame, followed by a close-up of each and then another two-shot - was ideally suited to the kiss. In the silent era, you still see a fair amount of turning in and out, with cheeks pressed ecstatically together at least as often as mouths, but as the movies matured, they found a rhythm at once fool proof and flexible. When we see lovers in singular facial close-ups, they are not looking back at us but rather at each other. Once the kiss takes place and their faces disappear, we are not just watching what happens; we are also inside it.
A KISS IS STILL A KISS
But a movie kiss is never just a formal matter, a problem of planes and shadows and cutting. A kiss is charged with meaning, with a curious and contradictory power explicated, at nearly the exact moment Edison was making his shorts, by another inventor of modern consciousness, Sigmund Freud. If Edison, simultaneously with the Lumière brothers in France, invented the machinery of collective dreaming, Freud wrote the instruction manual. Kissing, it is true, occupies less space in his corpus than in the annals of Hollywood; his theories of sexuality were centered on places - the genitals, the unconscious - where the movie camera was as yet reluctant or ill equipped to go.
In the 21st of his 'Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis' - one chapter devoted to the General Theory of the Neuroses - Freud used kissing to complicate the distinction between 'normal' and 'perverse' sexuality, meaning, on the one hand, heterosexual genital intercourse aimed at reproduction, and on the other hand, just about everything else. The kiss was primary evidence in his argument that this separation was too simplistic: 'Even a kiss can claim to be described as a perverse act,' he asserted, 'since it consists in the bringing together of two oral erotogenic zones instead of two genitals. Yet no one rejects it as perverse; on the contrary, it is permitted in theatrical performances as a softened hint at the sexual act.'
Whatever the status of Freud's insight as a theory of the human libido, there is no doubt that he was identifying, in passing, a marvelous loophole in the morals of his time, one that would only grow larger over the next century. Kissing was permissible as a hint at 'the sexual act' that could not be directly represented; and in the movies, thanks to the enhancements of lighting, makeup, close-up and decoupage, it was an even broader and more suggestive hint than it was onstage. A movie kiss was also, for a long time and under various formal and informal censorship regimes, a substitute for everything else. A kiss was all the sex you could show on-screen, and it is precisely the turning of a particular, nongenital sexual activity into the whole of sexuality that fulfills Freud's definition of perversion.
In the present, where Internet video of any imaginable sexual act is a few well-chosen search words away, we sometimes look back on old movies as artifacts of an innocent, more repressive time. But it may be more accurate to regard them as the force that made perverts of us all, by invisibly smuggling all that other stuff in through soft, innocuous hints. The prudes who wrote the Production Code that reined in Hollywood's incipient salaciousness early in the sound era certainly suspected as much. Aware that they could not control every image and scenario, they mandated that 'special care be exercised' in a number of sensitive areas, including 'excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a 'heavy.' '
But lust and excess are in the eye of the beholder, and the audience is perfectly capable of projecting onto the screen much more than what the light beam passing through nitrate will expose. A kiss is not just the chaste signifier of other, naughtier pleasures - or of socially sanctioned, baby-making marital relations. It is a gateway drug, literal proof that the scolds have always been right.
Movies have always been about sex and have always provided, under cover of harmless amusement, the tools of sexual initiation. This is an open secret. The industry, the audience and the critics conspire to pretend that something other than erotic fulfillment is the reason for the art form's existence. And of course there are a great many ennobling and inspiring things that movies can do, other passions that can be aroused as we sit on soft chairs in the dark, surrounded by strangers. But every once in a while someone spills the popcorn.
In his poem 'Ave Maria,' Frank O'Hara exhorts the 'Mothers of America' to 'let your kids go to the movies!' The first reason is to give Mom a chance to pursue her own adult interests: 'get them out of the house so they won't know what you're up to.' But they will also have the chance to get up to some mischief themselves ('they may even be grateful to you/for their first sexual experience'), to cultivate 'the darker joys' that blossom in the dark of the movie theater and that include the possibility of 'leaving the movie before it's over/with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg/near the Williamsburg Bridge.' On the other hand, if the mothers don't listen to the poem's advice, 'the family breaks up/and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set/seeing/movies you wouldn't let them see when they were young.'
'Ave Maria' is a perfect refutation of the puritanical idea of the guilty pleasure. The guilt in O'Hara's poem comes from the denial and delay of pleasure. The kids will see the movies anyway, and also find what pleasures they can - how do you suppose they went blind? - but the thrill will be gone, and the happy domestic arrangement that made it all possible will have collapsed. Without free access to perversity - to 'candy bars' and 'gratuitous bags of popcorn' - the children will never be normal.
AS TIME GOES BY
O'Hara was a gay man, a New Yorker, consort of artists and a vanguard spirit of the '60s, when the old codes began to fall apart and when what a character in a Coen brothers film calls 'the new freedoms' began to take hold. But let us linger in the old days of movie going - the guileless and dangerous time evoked in 'Ave Maria' - for a moment more. The heterosexual kiss may have represented, for Hollywood at least, the entirety of human sexuality, but it also marked that tantalizing moment when cinematic pretending became literal. Everybody knew that everything on-screen was, to some extent or another, fake. The city street was a standing set on a studio back lot. The cowboy was a stuntman. The bullets were blanks. The car-stomping monster was 18 inches high. But the man and the woman were really kissing. They might have hated each other's guts or the smell of each other's breath - or, for that matter, they might have been sleeping with each other's spouses, or each other, or the director. But the kiss between them was nothing but the truth.
And as such the cinematic kiss is open to endless interpretation. Scroll through the famous kisses of classic Hollywood, and you find yourself in a dense forest of sexual semiotics. There is yearning and hostility, defiance and pleading, male domination and female assertion. There are unlikely physical contortions and suggestive compositions, sometimes imposed by the anti-lust provisions of the code, sometimes by the desire to breathe new formal life into a weary convention. You can find upside-down kisses, side-by-side kisses and various attempts to solve the problems of height difference and hand placement. There is a lot of hair-stroking, cheek-caressing and finger-clasping, activities that, like kissing itself, manage at once to suggest and to mask other things. And because those other things remain unshown, the kisses themselves function equally as foreplay and as refusal, proof that the pair will go to bed together or symbolic compensation for the fact that they won't.
In other cultures with different rules and taboos, the kiss itself could be implied and deferred. In India, until very recently, on-screen kissing was frowned on, and so the Bollywood musical developed an elaborate, often intensely sexual choreography of near misses, nose grazes and close-in, face-to-face singing.
Hollywood operated under restrictions of its own. There is a passionate male-male kiss - involving Gary Cooper - in 'Wings,' the silent World War I flyboy melodrama that won the first Best Picture Oscar in 1927. Three years later, in 'Morocco,' Marlene Dietrich, in a tuxedo and a top hat, kissed a woman while singing 'Quand L'Amour Meurt' ('When Love Dies') to a nightclub audience that included Cooper. But those were pre-code days, and same-sex kisses would all but vanish until the 1970s. The first interracial kiss arrived in 1957 in 'Island in the Sun,' inciting protests and refused bookings in the South. Miscegenation had been explicitly banned by the Production Code, and Hollywood remained squeamish about it until very recently.
And the kiss, meanwhile, has sacrificed its uniqueness, lost its glorious perversity. Other kinds of sex - the kinds involving genitals - no longer need to be implied. They can, like everything else on-screen, be faked. The actors, literally naked or strategically not-quite-naked, can arrange themselves in postures that suggest the real act and can make the appropriate noises, with or without accompanying music. Screen sex has gone through various stages of explicitness and stylization over the years. Sometimes - in 'Last Tango in Paris' or 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' - it has seemed shocking or brave or important. Other times, it seems rote and opportunistic. A lot of the time, it isn't all that interesting, or even all that sexy, but just another item to be checked off the list, like an exploding car in an action blockbuster or a mad dash to the airport at the end of a romantic comedy.
Kisses can also be clichés - in the rain, on a plane, in a boat, on a train - but they still seduce. When two characters in a movie kiss, it means that they have stopped talking, and that the emotion between them requires another form of communication. This is inherently powerful, whether the meeting of the lips is an act of aggression - think of Michael Corleone locking lips with his traitorous brother Fredo on New Year's Eve in Havana, a fratricidal kiss of death - or of tenderness.
Or something else. One of the most startling kisses I saw on-screen this year was in 'Wild,' Jean-Marc Vallée's adaptation of the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. In the movie, we see Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, in casual sexual encounters, all of which take place while she is still married to her husband, Paul. We never see the two of them in bed, and the only physically intimate exchange we witness takes place after their divorce papers have been signed. It's a goodbye kiss, warm and full, of the kind that might signal, in a different movie, the beginning of a sexual relationship rather than its end. For us, it looks like a first kiss, and for that reason it carries a bittersweet charge of unfinished, never-to-be-concluded romantic business. It also underlines the movie's themes of loss, solitude, intimacy and self-reliance.
Those are also, you might say, the themes of 'Boyhood,' Richard Linklater's groundbreaking coming-of-age story, which includes a lovely on-screen kiss between the titular boy, Mason, and his first love. But that movie's great kiss is one you don't see, and one that may not even happen at all. In the final shot, Mason, newly arrived at college, sits talking with a girl he has just met. They've eaten a pot brownie and hiked to Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas, where they look into the sunset and steal shy, furtive glances at each other, the kind that might lead to . . . well, you know. And at the very moment when they seem to run out of words, with the camera perfectly positioned in a classic, beautifully lit two-shot, the screen goes dark and the end credits roll. We don't really know what happens next. And yet we're pretty sure that the fundamental things apply.