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IN MOVIES, KINKY BECOMES THE NORM\
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IN MOVIES, KINKY BECOMES THE NORM\

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As movie audiences get more and more difficult to shock, film makers will go further and further. This year, a number of films that are labeled sexually perverse are giving people a chance to explore sex beyond conventional limits.

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The heroine of the upcoming film ``Kissed' is a young woman who has such a thing for dead bodies that she likes to cuddle and snuggle and boogie with them all night long. She's a necrophiliac, and while her relationships are one-sided and not exactly consensual, she's happy, and the movie is happy for her.

``Kissed' is just one sexually perverse film making its way into theaters in 1997. But wait, there's more. What's the sexiest film in theaters right now? The obvious answer is David Cronenberg's ``Crash,' about a small group of oddballs who get off on car crashes, like to press themselves up against cold metal and are turned on by scars from accidents.Then there's ``Bliss,' the touching tale of a married woman (Sheryl Lee) who goes to an unconventional sex therapist (Terence Stamp), who turns out to be very unconventional. (None of these movies has opened in Greensboro.)

``There is certainly a lot of sex in movies today,' says John De Cecco, director of human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University. ``In the process, there's obviously going to be a lot of interest in moving out to the margins of what is conventional.'

Perversion is so popular these days that there's a film in the works called ``Female Perversions,' which is not even about perversion. And a documentary about a masochist, ``Sick,' was considered a highlight of this year's Sundance Film Festival.

De Cecco points out that ``sexual perversion' is a 19th-century term. ``Perverse was meant in the sense of ... not taking the conventional route of marriage and procreation. So even homosexuality fell under that rubric.'

So did extramarital sex. Take a look at the treatment of illicit affairs in early feature films. Hollywood's first vamps, such as Theda Bara and Nita Naldi, weren't just naughty. They were virtually supernatural agents of destruction. In these early films, death was presented as the logical consequence of sexually daring behavior.

``People have been moving toward a view of sex in the more recreational sense; that includes all kinds of exploration beyond the conventional limits,' says De Cecco. ``To present this kind of behavior as sick, to pathologize it, allows us to have our cake and eat it, too. We get to keep the subtext that kinky sex is bad and dangerous, while having whatever vicarious thrills it might provide.'

In '40s films, all a man and woman had to do was get sexually involved outside of marriage and, more often than not, one of them ended up dead. These days most people don't think of adultery or homosexuality as perverse. Drag queens and transvestites are often presented in film today as lovable eccentrics.

But though the definition of perversion may have changed, the price for what we do consider perversion remains the same. In Hollywood films, perversion generally ends in death.

In ``Crash,' eroticism and death are interchangeable. The characters pursue death as the ultimate turn-on, and eventually one of them gets what he wants. That has been the case in just about any film with a sexually perverse element.

Both the 1932 and 1983 versions of ``Scarface' explored the title character's repressed longing for his sister. Brother and sister both died in those movies, as did the daughter involved in incest with her father in ``Chinatown' (1976). ``The House of Yes,' which opens in the fall, deals with brother-sister incest. Things end badly in that house, too.

A pivotal plot element of the Sean Connery thriller ``Rising Sun' (1993) dealt with a woman who liked getting strangled at the point of orgasm. She wound up being suffocated. She wasn't presented as a particularly nice person, either.

``Sex in more and more people's lives today is play and adventure,' De Cecco says. ``It's romance, and it's also theater. Yet movies about sex usually contain some evil and dangerous elements. Women who explore sex not tied to marriage are presented as whores, as dangerous, as subversive to morality.'

One movie that attempts to break that pattern is ``Kissed,' a film about necrophilia that's not really about necrophilia, according to its director, Lynne Stopkewich.

``It freaks me out, totally,' she says. ``But to me the film is about passion; it's about someone pursuing her desire. She knows who she is. She's a strong female protagonist, unashamed of her sexuality.'

In ``Kissed,' a little girl who starts off kissing dead animals and smearing their blood on her cheeks grows into a woman who sleeps with dead bodies. ``I'm not into what she does,' says Stopkewich, ``but I like her.' Stopkewich believes that making viewers feel the same way about the character puts them ``in a really interesting position.'

Yet even in ``Kissed,' which takes a feminist approach, the woman's odd sexual behavior results in a death. That end seems logical in ``Kissed.' It seems appropriate in other films, but why? Do we want retribution? A restoration of order? Are some forms of behavior so startling that we can't imagine a placid aftermath in which nothing much happens and life goes on?

It's difficult to say. But what's certain is that there is something within human beings that makes us want to watch and understand extreme sexual behavior. As audiences get more and more difficult to shock, film makers will go further and further. This year's crop of sexually perverse films might not be a coincidence or a one-year trend, but a portent of cinematic outrages to come.

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