For anyone looking for plot (or dialogue or characters or themes), 2006's "Death Valley" is not the film to watch. Written and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, director of Fifty Shades of Grey, the eight-minute film shows a man (Chris Raines) masturbating to completion in the desert. And that's it. The question of whether it's art or porn could be debated endlessly — and really, why can't it be both? — but it's an interesting look at how Taylor-Johnson approached filming sex nearly a decade before making the steamy (but distinctly not pornographic) Fifty Shades of Grey.
Obviously "Death Valley" is more explicit than Fifty Shades: The sex here is unsimulated. Its focus is also distinctly male, as opposed to Fifty Shades, which has ample female nudity but only the briefest hint of penis. In both "Death Valley" and Fifty Shades, however, Taylor-Johnson seems fixated on pleasure, more than the act of sex itself. In Fifty Shades there are constant close-ups of Ana's (Dakota Johnson) O-face as Christian (Jamie Dornan) introduces her to restraints, blindfolds, and good old-fashioned penetration. In "Death Valley," there are no close-ups — but the man's face is always in full view. His arousal plays out as much in his eyes and mouth as it does in his crotch.
This may seem like a minor point, but it's a significant deviation from how standard porn is filmed, with multiple angles and plenty of close-ups. Because the sex in Fifty Shades is simulated, Taylor-Johnson can't show the penetration in detail — but would she have chosen to, anyway? That's impossible to say, but given the film's relentless fixation on Ana's ecstasy — one of the most progressive aspects of Taylor-Johnson's direction — perhaps little would have changed. More of Christian's manparts, sure, and less careful camera angles that reveal Ana's pubic hair but not her vulva, but it's easy to imagine wide shots that show the fucking as two bodies coming together, with the expressions on their faces as central as the naughty bits.
Again, this is all speculative. Several years have passed since Taylor-Johnson made "Death Valley," and it's a vastly different project than Fifty Shades of Grey. But there's something telling about the way "Death Valley" avoids the money shot: The camera could zoom in, as any mainstream porn movie would do, but instead it holds back. The only real indication that the man has climaxed is in his face and body language. In a film like Fifty Shades, which earns a hard-R but never comes close to an NC-17, the restraint may be by necessity, but as Taylor-Johnson shoots it, the orgasm is again about the person, not the person's parts.