While bored in New York City on a chilly winter night I decided to venture out and see a movie at the IFC Center in the West Village. Of all the cinematic offerings in NYC, I specifically wanted to go there because I had significant influence on the economic conditions that allowed IFC to acquire the historic Waverly Theater in the early 2000’s. My claim of great influence on the media outlet formerly-known-as Independent Film Channel is less self-aggrandizing than it is a comment on the ridiculousness of the Nielsen rating system in the 1990’s that allowed a horny teenager like myself the viewing power of tens of thousands.
It was hard for a teenage boy in the mid-1990’s to set his eyes on the disrobed female form. My childhood home in rural Connecticut didn’t have dial-up Internet until 1999, so I would have to wait until my later teenage years to discover online porn. My family’s cable plan didn’t include premium—uncensored—cable stations, but it did include the newly founded Independent Film Channel. The channel didn’t fit my tastes of sports, action movies and sophomoric comedy so I largely paid it no mind.
Then one day while flipping through the channels I stumbled upon Walkabout, a 1971 film by Nicolas Roeg about two white kids stranded in the Australian Outback who were helped by an Aboriginal youth on his coming-of-age walkabout. I had read the book of the same title by James Vance Marshall in seventh grade, so the film sparked my interest. Then with no lead up, the protagonist, a teenage girl played by British actress Jenny Agutter, is shown swimming naked in a remote water hole exposing all that she was born with. The scene was far from sexual, but for a small-town teenager from a church-going family, all female nudity was sexual.
Around that same time Nielsen, a market research company, contacted my parents and asked if they would be willing to have Set Meters connected to the our household’s three TVs to record our viewing habits. My parents agreed and for the next five years my viewing habits represented tens of thousands of people, most of eastern Connecticut.
After seeing one set of bare breasts on IFC I wanted to see more. The old copies of National Geographic and coffee table books of Renaissance art that satisfied my prepubescent curiosity with the female figure were no longer cutting it; hair was sprouting, I was painfully awkward around girls I was attracted to, and IFC was there to ease the transition.
I started watching the channel almost every night. Switching to it during commercial breaks of Seinfeld and SportsCenter. I was disappointed when films like Exotica (1994) had far less nudity than I would expect, and I was thoroughly disturbed by the presentation of both the sex and nudity in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But, films like Killing Zoe (1993), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Stealing Beauty (1996) both engrossed me and fulfilled some of the visual desires of my adolescence.
Over the course of a year or so I found myself no longer watching IFC simply to see the bare breasts of independent and foreign actresses, I found myself truly enjoying independent film. It was actually a breakthrough in my youthful development. My world was small. My tastes where largely shaped by MTV and mainstream radio—in my adulthood this has caused me to loath most all alt-rock and pop-rock of the late 1990’s. I can also thank IFC for being the inspiration for the highly marketable film minor I earned in college.
I contacted Nielsen and IFC to see if I could get data for IFC’s ratings in the late 1990’s, and/or a comment on how one loyal viewer with a Set Meter could spark the channel’s growth. Neither responded. I assumed the lack of response was due to the ridiculousness of the situation: either my own ridiculousness for assuming that my teenage thirst for breasts was largely responsible for the development of the network, or, and more ridiculous than the former, how the much-criticized rating system was set up in that a way the a horny teenager could have actually been a key driver in a networks success.
It was fitting that the film I saw at the IFC Center was the NC-17 rated Blue is the Warmest Color. Yet far from the solitary confines of my parents’ basement, I was definitely aware of a few audible chuckles as I, a hetero male, walked into a small theater alone ready to see a significant amount of female nudity. I guess I shouldn’t have worn the trench coat that night—kidding.
While it could be true the seemingly never-ending lesbian love scene could have been for the pleasure of the male director, I am more inclined to see it as a solid bridge between film and porn. Relationships often develop their passion and intensity from the x-rated moments when two naked bodies enthralled with each other intertwine for hours. It’s difficult for films to capture the graphic power of these moments, and porn, well, the majority of porn is made for dudes to get their rocks off quick, intimacy be damned. If movies were to get real, and truly depict how and why many relationships develop there would be much more penetration and genital tasting…but, I digress.
It could be laziness, or the simple fact that I have more important investigative projects that need my time and attention, but I am without the data and expert analysis that would really give this 20-year-old story legs. If anyone out there in Internetland has some info that could lead to a definitive conclusion, pass it on. If anyone at IFC reads this and agrees with my original premise, maybe the appropriate act of good will would be to pony up a few million for the film I have yet to write.