Erotic ’90s

Maria de Medeiros and Uma Thurman in Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990)

For the moment—and for the fun of it—let’s set aside the perfectly legitimate argument that slicing recent history into swaths of ten years and assigning distinguishing characteristics to each decade is an arbitrary and useless exercise. Let’s also oversimplify with abandon. If, in the 1980s, conservatives exacted their revenge for the 1960s—Reagan and Thatcher in sharp-angled shoulder pads usurping peacenik rock-and-rollers with their psychedelics and love-ins—it’s astonishing, as Karina Longworth emphasized in Erotic ’80s, the recent season of her outstanding podcast You Must Remember This, just how much sex there was up on the big screen.

Directors such as Adrian Lyne, Paul Schrader, and Brian De Palma funneled the id unleashed by such early-1970s cultural quakes as Deep Throat and Last Tango in Paris into noir-tinged thrillers, while teen comedies titillated and MTV quickened the pace and polished the sheen of the prevailing aesthetic. As Longworth tells Dan Mecca and Connor O’Donnell, cohosts of the Film Stage podcast The B-Side, one impetus behind the series is to “try to understand” why Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was “the end of everything.”

The twelve episodes of Erotic 80s, then, only get us halfway there. On Tuesday, Longworth will launch Erotic ’90s, a series of twenty-one episodes delving into the era of grunge and trip-hop, the Information Superhighway, and the impeachment of the first Baby Boomer president over a lie about a blowjob. Partnering with the American Cinematheque, Longworth will also host Erotic Tuesdays, a series of screenings at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles that opens tomorrow with a presentation of Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990) on 35 mm.

Starring the late Fred Ward as Henry Miller; Uma Thurman as his wife, June; and Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin, Henry & June is, in the words of Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott, “unapologetically erotic: it effortlessly pairs that oddest of all couples, sexual desire and cerebral activity. It is, as a friend commented in a phrase Nin and Miller would have loved, ‘an erection for the mind.’”

The program also features the two collaborations between director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct (1992), perhaps the quintessential erotic thriller of the 1990s, and Showgirls (1995), the subject of Adam Nayman’s 2014 book-length defense, It Doesn’t Suck. Other European directors trying their hand at arousing American audiences include Louis Malle, whose Damage (1992) stars Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche, and Uli Edel, who directed Madonna and Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence (1993). Longworth will discuss Pretty Woman (1990) on the podcast, but for the LA series, she’s selected another Julia Roberts vehicle, Sleeping with the Enemy (1991).

As Longworth writes in her program notes, the first episode of this season of the podcast will serve as “a prologue,” covering topics such as the “disastrous rollout” of the NC-17 rating as well as “the evolving state of both porn and feminism at the dawn of the ’90s, David Lynch, Harvey Weinstein, ‘pro-porn’ feminism, ‘the new morality,’ video stores, Magic Johnson, date rape, and much more.” In the run-up to the new season, Longworth steps back with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast to take the long view and chat about “what exactly is the state of the broader cultural conversation these days.”

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