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Undressing Hollywood

Published March 11, 2021

A behind-the-scenes peek at nudity, sexism and sexual intimacy on the set 

 

Originally published in the fall 2020 edition of QUEST Magazine, a quarterly publication focusing on outstanding research by CSULB faculty.

 

Words by Emily Holland 

 

Since Thomas Edison’s 1896 film “The Kiss,” on-screen displays of erotic pleasure have been a powerful way in which many people received a sex education. Now, in what is being called the “New Golden Age of Television,” themes of sexuality are more explicit and prevalent. Women’s bodies are often seen nude or scantily clad, fragmented in voyeuristic close-ups and as plot devices for a male character. Because film and television are among the most popular ways we learn about the world and our place in it, this is fraught terrain. Assistant Professor Helen Hood Scheer, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, is producing and recording sound for a feature-length documentary tentatively titled “Body Parts.” This work-in-progress investigates the process of making scenes that feature nudity and intimacy for main-stream film and television, revealing lesser-known aspects of “movie magic” and candidly exploring the impact on cast, crew and the world at large. 

 

With support from the Sundance Institute, California Humanities and Cal State Long Beach, the film traces a cinematic legacy of exploitation and ingenuity through to the entertainment industry’s current grappling with remedy and redemption. Ironically, work on “Body Parts” started a few months before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. “For decades, we’ve been troubled by the way women are represented on screen and the lack of female representation behind the camera,” Scheer said. “Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and I want to be part of the movement helping to reinterpret what has been wrong, and what can be right, about the media we consume. The goal is to have viewers consider how our culture needs more ethical and authentic ways to deal with sex and power.” “Body Parts” takes an ambitious artistic approach that interweaves interviews from a wide range of perspectives, verité behind-the-scenes footage, reenactments that convey actresses’ perspectives, and animations that transform film and television clips.  

 

Actresses, such as Jane Fonda and Rosanna Arquette, tell about being pressured into taking their clothes off. Eminent writers and directors, including Jill Soloway, Angela Robinson and David Simon, discuss messages we learn from what we see and why it is important to show consent and non-heteronormative sexuality. Behind-the-scenes technicians talk about their craft while making pubic wigs and prostheses of “private parts.” “Body Parts” also explores the world of intimacy coordinators, who help prepare actors to feel safe while performing scenes with nudity and simulated sex. The intimacy coordinator is a new addition to the production crew and has become increasingly popular as the entertainment industry attempts to correct past wrongs in the post #MeToo world. “The intimacy coordinator brings the historical and abstract ideas to life and demonstrates the positive changes in the industry as they're happening in real time,” Scheer said. Scheer, who heads the creative non-fiction track for the department of Film and Electronic Arts, won Cal State Long Beach's Advancement of Women Award from the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 2020. Scheer has worked in various aspects of documentary filmmaking for nearly two decades before she started teaching. Her career in film began with an internship at the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, where she helped record interviews of Holocaust survivors.  

 

After working her way up to producing documentaries commissioned by major networks such as PBS and HBO, Scheer made the leap to directing her first film. “JUMP!” - an award-winning documentary feature acquired by Showtime, which follows kids who are in pursuit of winning the World Rope Skipping Championship. “That film is more about collaboration than competition,” she said. “The jumpers I followed taught me an enormous amount about the value of play and creative risk-taking.” To help promote learning, Scheer likes to take students on field trips to prestigious documentary film festivals out of state. Chalisa Phiboolsook, a documentary undergraduate student who attended the True/False Film Festival with Scheer in 2020, reflected on the experience. "It made me excited to be in this field because of the impact I can produce with the tools I am gaining in school,” Phiboolsook said. “It helped me visualize where I want to be in the future. I loved taking part in this opportunity with my peers and professor to further develop our relationships.”  

Assistant Professor Helen Hood Scheer is producing and recording sound on“Body Parts,” a documentary feature film work-in-progress.

Scheer received a $50,000 grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to purchase cameras for students in the creative nonfiction track, which gave everyone much-needed access to equipment. “It’s diversified who is filming projects and it has leveled the playing field,” Scheer said of the equipment. Scheer and her students have enjoyed winning first place in the documentary category for the California State University (CSU) Media Arts Festival for the past four years. Samantha Hernandez, who graduated in 2018 with a B.A. in film, said Scheer was the reason she studied documentary filmmaking. What followed that decision was an unprecedented sweep of awards for the nonfiction track in the 2018 CSU Media Arts Festival. Hernandez won the all-around Jury and Audience Choice awards in addition to Best Documentary. Hernandez said Scheer’s training, knowledge and support helped her create the lauded film. “I started out as an unsure, fearful, second-guesser and Helen helped shape me into the confident and empowered woman in film that I am today,” Hernandez said. 

 

Banner image: An original film clip from "Lost Highway" is transformed and critiqued in "Body Parts" using original animation created for the documentary by artist Kelly Gallagher.