“During the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, the cinematic kiss was not a kiss so much as a clutch, a desperate groping, a joyless and highly stylized bear hug whose duration was limited by official censors who also stipulated that the actors' mouths remain shut at all times, thus preventing even the appearance of French kissing, which was supplanted by a feverish yet passionless mashing of unmoistened lips. This oddly desiccated contact contrasted dramatically with the clawing fingers of the actresses' hands which, glittering with jewels, raked down their lovers' fully clothed backs, their nails extended like claws, full of aggression and hostility long after the star had thrown caution to the winds, abandoned her shallow pretense of enraged resistance, and succumbed wholeheartedly to her illicit longings. And then, after the ten fleeting seconds allotted by the Legion of Decency had passed, the inopportune entrance of another character often sent them dashing to opposite corners of the room where, their clothing rumpled, their hair a mess, their faces infused with fear and suspicion, they fiddled with tchotchkes on the mantel or stared pensively at spots in the carpet, retreating into the solipsistic isolation of their guilty consciences. The stiff choreography of this asphyxiating stranglehold sug gests apprehension rather than pleasure, the misgivings of two sexual outlaws who live in a world in which privacy is constantly imperilled, in which doors are forever being flung open, curtains yanked back, and unwanted tea trolleys rolled into occupied bedrooms by indiscreet maids.”
In actuality, the Legion of Decency permitted only three seconds. I must admit, I don’t recognize that desperate groping in, say, the kiss Grace Kelly gives Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.” But there is something to Harris’s vision in the kiss that Rita Hayworth gives Orson Welles in the San Francisco aquarium in Lady From Shanghai. “Take me quick”, she says, and quick it is – although the three seconds are cleverly extended by a cut away to the unwanted presence of a group of school children, who in that instant come around the corner and see them. This kiss was long in coming – at the center of the movie is a fight between rich plutocrats aboard the yacht of Hayworth’s rich, crippled husband, which was followed by a song from la belle Rita with the sign off line: “don’t take your lips or your arms or your love … away”. This is a case of illicit longings indeed.
Even if I don’t take Harris to be accurately describing the entirety of the heyday of romantic Hollywood films, he is onto something in the censored administration of a kiss.
“Hollywood kisses are carefully arranged compositions that invite the public, not only to approach the necking couple, but to slip between them and examine at close range every blush and gasp of an act that, on the one hand, optimizes the conditions for viewing and, on the other, makes a bold pretense of solitude, of barring the door to the jealous intruder and excluding the curious stares of gaping children who stumble upon adulterous fathers while seeking lost toys in presumably empty rooms. Lovers are frequently filmed in stark silhouette against a white background so that, for purposes of visual clarity, their bodies don't obscure each other, a bulging forearm blocking from view a famous face, the broad rim of a stylish chapeau a magnificent set of wistful eyes brimming with desire - a cinematic feat of separation similar to that performed by pornographers who create a schematic type of televisual sex by prying their actors so far apart that they are joined, like Siamese twins, at the point of penetration alone.”
Ah, the cathected interdiction, the fetishized prohibition! Bataille’s insight, which was taken up by Foucault, was that here, sexual desire is secondary to its interruption. Power is not repressive so much as productive, a maker of the perversions it spends its times blotting out.
Disappointingly, after this promising start, Harris anchors his insight in a realistic ideology that has no historical basis whatsoever:
“The exaggeration of privacy in a culture that has become, relatively speaking, morally lenient is symptomatic of the distortions that occur in novels and films when artists can no longer satisfy the demands of narrative by drawing directly from their daily experiences, since actual behavior and its fictional representations are drifting further apart.” In fact, of course, this account of some realistic paradise in which artists satisfied the demands of narrative – a curious phrase, as though narrative were some hungry domesticated animal – with their “daily experiences” is entirely bogus. It was the aesthetic trend of the post-code era – of the sixties – that encouraged the idea that “daily experience” was equivalent to the authenticity that would allow us to enjoy imagined stories and poems without being accused of being childish and non-productive. The confessional is a really a bow to the puritanical edict that art must teach us something, that dedication to the aesthetic in itself was frivolous, not to say vicious. Nor is the dip into daily experience something that was encouraged by realism in the classical sense, which was, contra Harris, a matter of showing that daily experiences are always drifting away from narrative – from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Julian Sorel, the “realist” hero par excellence, gets his narrative about himself not from his daily experiences, but from his reading of Napoleon’s memoirs. The “demand” of narrative is actually the demand of the narrator, who, grammatically and existentially, is the one who can demand. Encoded in this idea of some fatal drift between the daily experience of the artist and the art is the sovereign consumer, the hero of neo-classical economics, whose choices have an unimpeachable logic, follow Arrow Debreu’s theory of preferences, and has no personal tie to limit his only reason for existence – accumulation.
That ideology blights Harris’s essay, but I like to think about the way the cut and edit of the kiss scenes in classic Hollywood cinema accidentally gave birth to the loops of porno films, which, although seemingly all about unending coupling are, in reality, as time constrained as Rita Hayworth’s kiss. Once one begins mapping sexual desire to the time of its representation, sexual desire becomes another factory made assemblage – a matter of intentional efficiencies. Kisses roll right off the assembly line. Is there, in the behavioral sciences, a basis for the three second kiss metric? I wonder. But its arbitrariness creates a basis for further metrics and transgressions of metrics. For instance, Hitchcock, in Notorious, got around the three second by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss for two seconds, stop, then kiss again, and so on.
How this influenced the natural history of kissing in America is a curious question I leave to the reader.