“Nude on the Moon’s exploitation is as innocent as the Good Christo-Nudist’s reclaiming of a pre-figleafed (albeit non-recreational) Eden.”
What do you consider most humane?
— To spare someone shame. — F. W. Nietzsche
We have all been washed too well in Christian moralism’s filthy legacy — even decades of belligerent atheism cannot fully exfoliate those layers of shame acculturated and inculcated during the months we spend as toddlers twiddling with our bizarre appendages and groping through fantastical stages of Freudian anality. Following the terrific yearnings of adolescence and brazen awakenings of young adulthood, we at last cast aside every folk neurosis and totemic inheritance with which our irrational upbringings smothered us. We soon become overconfident in our sophistications, as complexly layered in their denials as our toddling naivetés once were in their credulities. We watch Pasolini during tea, page through Civilization and Its Discontents in the tub, and employ Erwartung as the soundtrack for our weekly nosehair tweezings, so what possible meanings can New Testament shame, ruler of the unlettered and beguiled, still portend for us, who’ve endured and absorbed every cultural revolution?
But when we come face-to-face with the ungenerous bathroom mirror, our years of erudition falter, our superiority buckles, and our intellects are bullied by reflections of a jowly visage, drooping flesh, retreating hairlines, and the slow, genetic sprouting of an ursine hirsuteness. We are reminded instantly of materiality and inevitable organic decay — Freud can’t help us now. At least anorexics and bulimics take matters into their own bony hands and recoil against nature, even if Madison Avenue air-brushers are twisting their arms; I, pathologically lazy, am (dis)content to let everything droop into oblivion. Would that the framed mirror were a painting like Manet’s Olympia, a nude that Stephen Kern sees as “blatantly provocative” as it “stares challengingly at the viewer,”1 despite the model’s modest concealment of her pubis. But knowing that I, in my physical decrepitude, must conceal everything, I conceal nothing, knowing the game, the “challenge,” to be futile. Staring into an abyss of oily breasts and grease-fed thighs, animalistic and artless, I succumb to the long-buried yet never-killed shame that conquers all.
For all of Christianity’s historic horror and social damage, I sympathize with its demonization of pride — certainly, much warfare would cease if all Christians were the conscientious objectors their dogma commands them to be. On those occasions when I’ve allowed myself to feel pride, it usually stabs me in the back — this is why I bury pride as most people bury shame. A simple anecdote here will suffice.
One evening several years ago I returned to the Marriott Hotel where I was spending the night only to discover a wallet innocently dropped inches from the dimly lit side entrance. Such moral dilemmas are typically relegated to the egregious didacticism of 1970s sitcoms or Sunday school sermonizing, but here was I, improbably faced with a real-life cliché. At first, any ethical wrangle seemed gratuitous: life having been generally unkind to me, and sorely needing the crisp wad of hundreds I imagined tucked within, I was prepared to pocket the booty and run. But an inspection of the contents humanized me: there were only $63 in cash and, more lamentably, a laminated badge identifying the owner as a twenty-four-year-old employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Pathos drowned my avarice, even in anonymity. How could I pilfer the few dollars of a young man — his expressionless face frozen forever onto a slice of industrial plastic — unlucky enough to slave as a reviled state functionary? His dreams had already been dashed; it was unthinkable to punish him doubly.
Twain’s famous remark that “Man is the only animal that blushes . . . or needs to,” is trenchant in its misanthropy but perhaps too easily equates human folly with post-Christian habits of socialization. In The Unfashionable Human Body, an amusing tour through history’s garment neuroses, Bernard Rudofsky describes “an unauthorized easterly version of the Fall [in which] the first man and woman are described as sexless; only after having sinned ‘were the halves of the forbidden apple grafted unto them in the shape of breasts and testicles.'”3 This “unauthorized” Eastern Orthodox incarnation of Eden, wherein developmentally arrested Adam and Eve are instantly socialized through some fruity magic, makes abundantly clear Christianity’s equation between abstract, totalized knowledge and bodily knowledge per se — an equation both neurotic in its reductions and logical in its identification of the body as the source of primal knowledge, a Platonic notion that reaches its apogee in Rousseau’s Emile. Our familiar Western version of Eden is coy to the point of discomfiture: the fruit, once digested, becomes an internalized desire (shame) to cloak the sex organs in leaves, rather than becoming an externalized manifestation of the organs themselves. Though more blatant in its associations, this Eastern version refuses to equate sexual knowledge with knowledge totalized, or the procreative act with all productiveness. Had this been the version on which we were socially weaned, perhaps our nudity neuroses might be at once more intensified and more limited, compartmentalized in a special place in our collective conscious as a unique category of sexual-bodily knowledge distinct from the illimitable sensory investigations of every innocent, autodidactic Emile.
The performative postmodernist may turn to clothes to rebel against and remake nature (even if the materials of this remaking are mass-produced in Thai sweatshops), but too often performance addresses the effect without confronting the cause, for without clothes, whether conventional or transformative, we still cower in shame. Clothing’s multifariousness may proffer infinite personae and attendant performative freedoms — for clothes are, in a commedia dell’arte sense, personae in themselves — but this freedom only deepens our enthrallment to the cruelly controlling history of textility, which has often been a vehicle to enforce economic, gendered, and sociocultural meanings. Thankfully, the most egregious oppressions of the apparel industry vanished with the rise of liberal democracy, but the oppressions linger still in different skins.
Women no longer contend with the intestinal diseases routinely incurred from squeezing their torsos into Victorian corsets and wire crinolines,5 but must today compare meekly their spread flesh against the beauteous deformations of virtual airbrush technology. This is to say nothing of surgical technique, which crafts a second skin from our first, stretching decrepit skins into crisscrossed maps of mortality. Elsewhere, the British legalist’s periwig still sits atop colonized lawyers; Islamic veils conceal the illegal provocations of female faces and their forbidden blushes; the homophobic spandex of modern Olympians continues to affront their free Greek forebears; and skullcaps infantilize the worshipful, even though, God being everywhere, He likely lurks, too, in the dark crevasse between yarmulke and Hebraic scalp.
We momentarily can put aside the institutional social controls of prison, military, and parochial school costumes, and I will overlook those maniacs who outfit their pets in petticoats, for we are dealing here with mass neurosis, not advanced psychotic disorders. It is, however, worth recalling the irony inherent in the general practice of adding artificial layers (clothes) while removing natural ones (hair), until the denuded female, her underarm hair as superfluous as stockings, retains only the lower bush (and any genital pests therein) to remind her mate that she is, at last, an animal. The shaved bodybuilder, meanwhile, is so thickened in unnatural exoskeletal display that he is, paradoxically, never naked but always clothed in aberrant muscle. This is precisely why his synthetic and rarely bulging compulsory loincloth is so preposterous on the competition stage — it not merely conceals the one steroid-shriveled part hopelessly out of sync with his general excess, but undoes the very Godliness the narcissist seeks. Yet the bodybuilder’s paradox is perhaps appropriate, for God, the sexless patriarch, at once wields phallic omnipotence and cannot be reduced to petty criteria of biological materialism.
Recently, however, I’ve become aware of the growing trend of theological nudism, particularly among libertarian Christians wishing to recapture the unashamed Edenic innocence that preceded the Fall. Sprouting across the landscape are schismatic flocks as diverse as the Fig Leaf Forum, the Natura Christian Fellowship, Tampa’s long-standing Florida Naturist Park with Adjoining Clothing-Optional Church, and the family-values-centric AARN (American Association for Nude Recreation), itself sometimes affiliated with the Bare Buns Bikers and the Entertainment Weekends that bear their name.6 But this is no mere lifestyle — it is an ideology, a holy charge, an awakening.
We are not naturists, for the Lord looks down on hedonistic, recreational lifestyles. But in the House of God, we kneel with the most devoted kind of humility and faith . . . We are lambs before the Lord, and every Sunday we give thanks to Him with all of our body and soul. And [this] includes the sacrifice of our garments, for it was when Eve ate from the Tree of Life and gathered fig leaves that mankind fell into sin.8
Such declarations will prompt the uninitiated and conventional to leap into derisive badinage, but sniggering denial cannot negate Christo-Nudism’s potential catalogue of revolutionary imagery: the clitorises of devout grandmothers sighing freely in harmonized prayer; chilly breasts alert in the confessional; bare anuses ready to eject the remnants of the holy wafer; newly budding testicular hairs brushing against the sweet wood of olden pews; the gluttonous gentleman’s weighty breasts — heretofore an affront to the nailed Christ’s penurious, emaciated beauty — unfurling before a constellation of stained-glass angels; and the priest’s undraped, unconscious erection slowly mounting during a homily on Sodom and Gomorrah. Far more than sterile debates about abortion, stem-cells, or redefining marriage, it is this fruitful, life-affirming exposure, this epistemological denuding, that could undo Christianity’s irrational revolt against pagan nature and empirical reality.
Owing to the basically aesthetic nature of religious ritual, Christo-Nudism is poised to reconfigure a number of preconceptions regarding bodily representation. As Texan Baptist Nudists of all ages kneel, bow, and jubilate in ecstatic concordance, they become a kind of nude performance art, grafting the heavenly enfleshments previously relegated to Renaissance painting or semi-anatomical sculpture onto their wrinkled toes, taut, ticklish midriffs, or what-have-you.9 What had been acceptable in the abstract now becomes acceptable in unframed praxis. The unreality of the statue is no longer the reality of the man.
Admittedly, all of this remains highly speculative and optimistic. Nudity is still most frequently encountered in the shower, during masturbation, with steady partners, promiscuous strangers, or in the dreaded mirror; for most, nudity exists only for recreational or hygienic ends, a temporary vacation from tight trousers (why don’t obese Americans adopt looser African dress?) and asphyxiating neckties that act like directional arrows to our groins.
But there is cinema, too.
Nude on the Moon demands that we cast aside the term “exploitation filmmaking,” for this exploitation is as innocent as the Good Christo-Nudist’s reclaiming of a pre-figleafed (albeit non-recreational) Eden. The term “exploitation” is, moreover, only a derogatory term for whatever is both socioeconomically marginal and fixates on the body, either in its state of nature or in the libertine spillage of its fluids. Surely asking a young actress to bare a nipple or buttock is less exploitative than, say, forcing her to employ the Method to relive childhood terrors so she can convincingly embody a victim of psychological abuse and make art-house patrons experience fallacious catharses. Mainstream film production depends on saddling the marginalized with a bad name — such is its legitimacy. But I digress: it is enough to say here that in the nudist idylls following The Immoral Mr. Teas, purity and pornography, innocence and masturbation were returned to their natural states of indistinguishability, and not, according to that barbarous turn of Christian anti-knowledge, made Manichean polarities.
Filmed in vivid Eastman Color and accompanied by a breezy score, Nude on the Moon concerns a young rocket scientist using the three million dollar inheritance from wealthy furrier Uncle Ted to construct a history-making moon missile. Following some tourist footage of Florida and a series of moral and astrophysical debates regarding the treacheries of lunar travel, the scientist and an avuncular professor pile into a thin, metallic space penis and blast themselves off. Curiously, the cockpit effects of blastoff are identical to those of orgasm, as the heroes moan, squint, and achieve a climatic paroxysm from the initial rush of the engines before sighing in relief. When these Vernian heroes finally reach their destination, Wishman (here using one of her many pseudonyms, “Anthony Brooks”) treats us to a shock cut of them descending from their craft, unexpectedly clad in green and red jumpsuits, over which shoulder pads and a flimsy yet bulge-occulting aluminum codpiece have been overlaid.
Once the plot disappears and the frolicking commences, the film delights, becoming a welcome respite from narrative cinema’s needless contortions of plot and endless characters, all with names, as if fiction’s act of naming ever convinced us of anything. Light jazz on piano and vibraphone continues throughout the semi-nude scenes, and is a thankful replacement for the tenor saxophone that earlier in the film heralded the appearance of an earthly secretary’s piercing tits (as if the earthbound bosom were a freemasonic horn the filmmakers could toot handily at will). Like progressive Unitarians who prayerfully undrape their vulvae in the House of God, or adolescent Nudo-Baptist boys unashamed of unscheduled erections in full view of the laity, the film is easy to mock until we realize our laughter is one of denial, feigned superiority, and utter conventionality. The plotlessness of Nude’s second half weaves a spell as beguiling as any Busby Berkeley number, a panorama of shapes and innocent pleasures.
But, of course, cinematic nudity circa 1961 was not quite innocent (i.e., nude) enough, and we cannot fully fetishize clichés of lost innocence where innocence was still suppressed, as it was in Wishman’s previous Hideout in the Sun (1960, above), which, filmed in Nude-arama, falsely promised viewers an “escape to a modern Garden of Paradise where Nature’s sun-kissed daughters walk forth in all their natural beauty!” This was a bizarre cultural-historical moment when cinema’s gradual assault on decency could only pretend to salaciousness, when sun-kissed daughters could, in fact, walk forth in only some of their natural beauty. True, the naturally gravity-resistant breasts Wishman displays are anatomical marvels compared to today’s stuffed, synthesized concoctions, and Nude’s women are happily liberated from the brassiere manufacturer’s contrived cleavage. But the lunar sunbathers’ Sears & Roebuck panties dispel any whiff of lost Edens, while the astronauts’ fixed foil codpieces, secreting the crux of virile privilege, ensure that the very notion of nudity remains so alien that it literally and forever belongs to a different heavenly sphere.
Because the frank meretriciousness of the exploitation film (again, I use the term for lack of a good neologism) is linked to nudity not only economically but ideologically, we encounter truly naked meanings not only in the films themselves but in their trailers, which distill texts down to pure id and pure tone. Today the trailer — gone soft, corporate, and humanistic — is simply an elongated television ad; trailers of previous eras were assaults on the audience, brandishing film titles like declarations of linguistic war. To my knowledge, no full-length study exists on trailer aesthetics, though such an endeavor should appeal to post-Foucaultian academics who prattle endlessly about the production of pleasure — for the successful trailer, like a good ballet suite, can please more than the original, un-rearranged article. The trailer, stripping the text of the extraneous bourgeois baggage of setting, plotting, and character development, is about the pleasure of essences, and the essence of pleasures.
The terrible conflict within a person born with a man’s body
That secretly harbored a female vagina [we may question the consequences of harboring a male vagina] Was he really a man, or someone queer?” [we see the hero confusedly buying dresses] There was one solution — Finland!
The doctors gave him a great gift
He was now a she . . .
And could enjoy a normal sex life without the humiliation and disgrace of a homosexual.
At times, a trailer’s shocking epistemological claims can be overambitious. When the Americanized trailer for The Cats (actually Kattorna  of Henning Carlsen), wherein jailed women “have two kinds of sexual urges . . . and find . . . in themselves physical tendencies they never knew they had,” explains that “only the Swedish talk so freely about heterosexuals, and now bisexuals,” we reserve the right to skepticism on nationalistic grounds. Elsewhere, the poorly-accented female narrator of the trailer for Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterley11 (1967) claims that “the real truth is that which comes from a female relationship,” a boldly anti-Platonic statement that attempts to goad us into questioning the main premises of Plato’s Theaetetus. Nevertheless, as previews from Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterley treat us to the spectacle of a nude woman dispensing punch from the massive bowl in which she ceremoniously squats (is that what a female relationship looks like?), the narrator explains that, “This motion picture is different . . . the people are different!,” a seemingly harmless claim until we realize that today’s films strive for radical similitude.
A padlocked shed [we hear an ominous snare drum] Hooks of cold steel [the hooks terrify us] And a maniac on the loose [the maniac — that’s us in the audience, according to rules of spectatorship] Torn flesh, impaled, slowly swaying to a cadence of death [show us!] A measured beat only they can hear! [the snare drum grows louder] Three on a Meathook! [exquisite–all three economically on a single hook!]
Certainly, sensational hyperbole was the bread and butter of the exploitation trailer in its heyday, but even in gross exaggerations we can still sense a forthright, anti-humanistic, denuded intent that antagonizes bourgeois sentimentalism. The trailer for late auteur Girdler’s Asylum of Satan (1975) assures us that its heroines are “. . . doomed at their last meal, with death as the dinner guest,” only to be “awakened by a mutilated crazed animal who seeks [their] beauty to appease the bloodlust of a devil bride groom, pursued to the canyons of hell, to the edge of sanity, for the bestial cravings of the prince of darkness!” Jazz music then accompanies the image of a woman fleeing down a corridor, only to be caught, once again, in a fatal freeze frame.
Captured in the clutches of a sex hungry madman with no one to turn to for help! [We, of course, are collectively the madman delighting in virgin terror] . . . Whether battling whole armies or just fighting one on one, these women . . .
[We now see and identify with these hotpants-clad women — some of whom appear to be transsexuals — as they are tortured with barbed wire and roasted over spits] . . . aren’t gonna give in for a second
Because nobody pushes around The Virgins from Hell! [Suddenly, we are The Virgins, poised for revenge and conquest]
“This is one motorcycle gang those bastards have been pushing around too long,” opines the leader of these rebellious female (and/or shemale) bikers, at which point our sadistic identifications come full circle, for we now imagine ourselves as stuffed snugly into hotpants, overcoming a jungle dictator. Similar shifts in audience identification are employed in the American trailer for The Brutes (1970, actually Mädchen . . . nur mit Gewalt), which sadomasochistically implicates us in its opening scene of rape:
“I’ve been raped!”
Say it! [We must obey his command] I’ve been raped! [Yes, in one way or another, we all have been raped] How did he force your legs apart? [With cunning and persistence] Did he come once, twice, three times?” [I wasn’t counting] The Brutes! [You’ve switched from the second person to the third! — please do not abandon me!] They’re prime for pleasure! [Wait a moment, I’m prime for pleasure — now I’m a Brute] . . . they take turns . . . [in raping, you mean] Does she really hate it? [No, as long as you stay in the third person]
That is it . . . exactly it . . . precisely what we ask from pictures. The cinema in its true nakedness revealed — I can indeed ask no more.
- Kern, Stephen. Anatomy and Destiny. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1975, p. 24. [↩]
- The highest of the eight tiers of Maimonidean tzedakah is to enter into a business partnership with the disenfranchised, thereby treating him as an equal rather than a charity case. Unfortunately, Maimonides’ rules of tzedakah betray insular communitarianism, applying only to Jew-on-Jew interactions. [↩]
- Rudofsky, Bernard. The Unfashionable Human Body. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1971, p. 15. Rudofsky also cites a Nepalese version of the Fall that describes Adam and Eve as hermaphrodites, perhaps a transcultural negotiation among Christianity, Asian tribadism, and the account of human origins given in Plato’s Symposium. Ibid., p. 17. [↩]
- The textile industry epitomizes the marketing of shame but obviously doesn’t dominate it; car manufacturers, for instance, can only sell compensatorily phallic sports cars if adolescent boys and middle-aged men are shamed sexually. [↩]
- Corset diseases were so common that new and improved, allegedly medicinal ones began to appear in the late 19th century. Rudofsky points out that “Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset” of 1883 claimed to impart “to one’s system the required amount of Odic force which Nature’s law demands” — a reference to the 19th-century quack-notion of Od, a quasi-psychic sensitivity to the natural world. Ibid., pp. 107-108. [↩]
- See here. [↩]
- A random Google search unearths far fewer nudist websites affiliated with competing religions, Abrahamic or otherwise. The search terms “Jewish nudism” or “Jewish nudist” yield primarily this, a page extolling the eccentricity and pride of a geriatric female Jewish Psychic Nudist offering “peekaboo psychic readings” and “mythical goddess attunements.” Searches on terms such as “Zoroastrian Nudism,” “Islamic Nudism,” “Confucianist Nudism,” and “Jain Nudism” invariably disappoint. “Zionist Nudism” likewise seems a subject for future research and development. Yet it is logical that fringe Christians, whose mother religion fetishistically equates bodily knowledge with knowledge itself, should trailblazingly advocate nudism as revisionist theology cum epistemology. [↩]
- See here. [↩]
- True, there are forms of dress-like embellishments to the body possible only in art, such as halos, beams of light, grafted-on horns, etc. [↩]
- It is worth mentioning that the cast of semi-nudes is mainly in their thirties; the hirsute men, clad in tight trunks, evince a maturity not seen in the underground gay soft porn of the time, which tended toward neoclassical ephebophilia (e.g., Bob Mizer’s AMG shorts, etc.). [↩]
- Directed by Barry Mahon, of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) infamy. [↩]
- Still, we should be chary of the definite article — as if there were only one vice syndicate. When asked by a telephone pollster if “the country was moving in the right direction,” I responded that I couldn’t answer because the question erroneously assumes that a country can only move in a single direction at a given time. [↩]