Who was your first kiss? Not the actual, physical kiss — that is really none of my business — but a witnessed meeting of two mouths on-screen? Was it the smooching pooches in The Lady and the Tramp, their lips serendipitously joined by a strand of spaghetti? Jack and Rose in the boiler room of the Titanic? Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain? Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck? Or was it an older, more canonical osculation, from the era when a kiss was as far as an on-screen pair were allowed to go, with or without the benefit of clergy? Bogey and Bergman in Casablanca? Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious? Did you think it was gross? Boring? Sexy? Romantic?
Did it get in the way of the action, or was it the action you wanted to see? Did you learn anything about your own desires or your techniques for fulfilling them? Were you moved to emulate what you saw on-screen, perhaps with the person sitting next to you in the dark? These are loaded questions, and with some variation they have haunted every generation of ticket buyers and channel surfers, all the way back to the days of the nickelodeon. Cinema may not have invented kissing, but I suspect that over the course of the 20th century, movies helped make it more essential. What is undeniable is that movies — Hollywood movies especially, but far from exclusively — made kissing more visible.
They established a glamorous iconography and an elegant choreography for an experience that, in real life, is frequently sloppy, clumsy and less than perfectly graceful. Which is all part of the fun, of course.
Kissing was permissible as a hint at “the sexual act” that could not be directly represented; and in the movies, thanks to the enhancements of lighting, makeup, close-up and decoupage, it was an even broader and more suggestive hint than it was onstage. A movie kiss was also, for a long time and under various formal and informal censorship regimes, a substitute for everything else. A kiss was all the sex you could show on-screen, and it is precisely the turning of a particular, nongenital sexual activity into the whole of sexuality that fulfils Freud’s definition of perversion. In the present, where internet video of any imaginable sexual act is a few well-chosen search words away, we sometimes look back on old movies as artefacts of an innocent, more repressive time. But it may be more accurate to regard them as the force that made perverts of us all, by invisibly smuggling all that other stuff in through soft, innocuous hints.
Movies have always been about sex and have always provided, under cover of harmless amusement, the tools of sexual initiation. This is an open secret. The industry, the audience and the critics conspire to pretend that something other than erotic fulfilment is the reason for the art form’s existence.
And as such the cinematic kiss is open to endless interpretation. Scroll through the famous kisses of classic Hollywood, and you find yourself in a dense forest of sexual semiotics. There is yearning and hostility, defiance and pleading, male domination and female assertion.
There are unlikely physical contortions and suggestive compositions, sometimes imposed by the anti-lust provisions of the code, sometimes by the desire to breathe new formal life into a weary convention. You can find upside-down kisses, side-by-side kisses and various attempts to solve the problems of height difference and hand placement. There is a lot of hair-stroking, cheek-caressing and finger-clasping, activities that, like kissing itself, manage at once to suggest and to mask other things. And because those other things remain unshown, the kisses themselves function equally as foreplay and as refusal, proof that the pair will go to bed together or symbolic compensation for the fact that they won’t.
In other cultures with different rules and taboos, the kiss itself could be implied and deferred. In India, until very recently, on-screen kissing was frowned on, and so the Bollywood musical developed an elaborate, often intensely sexual choreography of near misses, nose grazes and close-in, face-to-face singing.
And the kiss, meanwhile, has sacrificed its uniqueness, lost its glorious perversity. Other kinds of sex no longer need to be implied. Kisses can also be clichés — in the rain, on a plane, in a boat, on a train — but they still seduce. When two characters in a movie kiss, it means that they have stopped talking, and that the emotion between them requires another form of communication. This is inherently powerful, whether the meeting of the lips is an act of aggression — think of Michael Corleone locking lips with his traitorous brother Fredo on New Year’s Eve in Havana, a fratricidal kiss of death — or of tenderness.