At 130 minutes, Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies has a clear trajectory. Well, make that a clear enough trajectory. Dipping its toes into present-day before going back to the 1880s, Danny Wolf’s documentary wafts through the expected checkpoints: the pre-Code era, the reign of the Hays Code, the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America. There are but three or four major tent poles in the film’s structure itself. But despite such a wide scope, it manages to lack enough context to form its own argument, or to say much of anything that new.
It’s a bit peculiar too. Wolf, who co-wrote Skin with Paul Fishbein, doesn’t seem entirely focused on the history of nudity itself at first. Instead, he uses the #MeToo movement’s skyrocket from 2017 onward as a sort of framing structure. The first and last five minutes use this context to bookend the picture, so what’s in the remaining two hours? Well, everything but the kitchen sink from Fatal Attraction, it seems. If there were one word to describe Skin, it would be tenuous. Its collections of tidbits and talking heads point to a deeper analysis, but they don’t go all the way.
You want to know about the first body double in cinema history? Wolf makes sure that’s there. Are you curious about the disconnect between American and European views on the human body? It skims across that too. And that’s fascinating. But how do those things fit together, and to what extent? Skin isn’t entirely sure how to attach its anecdotes and analyses from actors and academics. Instead, it’s a watery tableau, and unfortunately, it’s too diluted.
Take a moment early on when art historian Mat Gleason talks about nudity in paintings––how the nude is “seen as eternal.” Parallels arise between the canvas and the cinema screen, but the noticeable wrinkle here is how, all too often, nudity only seems to stumble into “tastefulness” when it’s entirely still. With that logic, one could say that nudity is only acceptable in our culture when it’s all but dehumanized. Skin is full of these deeper implications, and it’s at these points when it gets the closest to actually making a statement. Never mind that, though: Did you know that Maureen O’Sullivan was the first actor to get a body double back in 1932 with Tarzan the Ape Man?
It would be easy to suggest this information is trivial. It isn’t, though; it’s that Wolf’s film doesn’t thread the needle between observations and tidbits. It’s with this that the documentary feels more tangential in structure and themes than it ought to. Talking heads often go on long enough to distract from the overall thesis, and the runtime, while not particularly long, buries its own arc between the then and the now. Things have changed; that’s no grand statement. But how ethics have changed on both sides of the pond––and how some performers have suffered from the lingering conservatism––gets lost in the mix.
Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is now available digitally.