SKIN: A HISTORY OF NUDITY IN THE MOVIES -- An Informative but Hollow Examination of an Important Topic in Media
Review by Sean Boelman
The depiction of nudity in film has been a contentious topic among critics and conservative viewers since the dawn of the medium. Danny Wolf’s documentary Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies offers a (mostly) comprehensive look at said issue, but has a few significant blind spots that prevent it from reaching its intended level of scholarship.
In the documentary, Wolf tracks the role of nudity in film from its origins in the early days of silent films through an era of censorship to an awakening in which nudity is used as a means of reclaiming one’s sexuality. While this story undoubtedly will be of more interest to those who have a fascination with cinema history, there is a discussion not too hidden within the subtext that is pretty fascinating.
The more compelling aspect of the documentary explores the idea of morality in art. There is a brief portion devoted to the role of censorship and morality within the film industry, and while informed viewers will already know about the Production Code and the MPA, Wolf offers a discussion of how their influence extended beyond the obvious.
Another thing that the documentary does really well is presenting the perspectives of actors and actresses who participated in famous or controversial nude scenes as they discuss their own comfort and how the use of nudity in their movies made them feel. Eventually, this evolves into a discussion of the #MeToo movement and the role that toxic sets played in the matter.
However, there are certain parts of the discussion that aren’t addressed, and if they are, only minimally so. The most problematic of these is the double standard that exists between male and female nudity. While this issue does get some time, specifically in relation to the controversy involving Midnight Cowboy, it’s a much bigger issue resulting in a lot of exploitation of actresses.
Wolf had access to a pretty extensive library of footage to use as evidence for his argument, but the way in which he utilizes it can be questionable at times. Although these nude scenes are necessary as a means of telling the story, there are some that are presented with insufficient commentary, undermining the message of the documentary as a whole.
At over two hours and length, the documentary is pretty intimidating in stature, particularly for those who are not eager to embark on what is essentially a lecture on morality. It’s simply not very accessible outside those who are cinephiles, especially given the level of historical knowledge that is required to pick up on some essential context.
Like Danny Wolf’s multi-part documentary on cult films, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is undeniably well-researched. Still, an information deluge isn’t exactly what most viewers are looking for, particularly with its noticeable gaps.
Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies hits VOD on August 18.