This image from "Four Rooms" is a rare example of of a mainstream filmmaker winking at the audience about his bondage scenes. "Four Rooms" contains one of the all-time great gag scenes with Jennifer Beals, but earlier in the movie, we see this image in an unrelated vignette, clearly an homage to Irving Klaw/John Willie fetish imagery. It's as if the filmmaker were announcing his intentions in regard to bondage imagery with the picture, before introducing it full-scale in the Beals vignette.
copyright 2005 by Pat Powers
Why do I pay attention to mainstream bondage scenes when commercial bondage scenes are so much sexier, so much better done and more, ahem, satisfying, than mainstream bondage scenes?
For me, mainstream scenes will always have an illicit thrill that commercial bondage scenes do not. Commercial bondage filmmakers know what they're doing when they create a bondage scene, that's why they're so good. They're dealing directly with the sexual aspects of the scene, fully informed by their own bondage fantasies as to what they should be doing.
Mainstream filmmakers have no idea what they're doing. Mostly they're working strictly from their subconscious, which explains why their work is often half-formed, badly thought out, badly lit and generally plays out like something you might see in a dream. Half the time the bonds are in serious danger of falling off the damsels if they aren't careful.
Because they don't know what they're doing, they're often more revealing, in an unintentional sort of way, than those who know what they're doing, i.e., commercial bondage filmmakers. Mainstream filmmakers and TV producers are like mental patients who try to carefully present the "right" mental state to their keepers, but who unknowingly reveal themselves when asked to examine ink blots or make drawings.
I think most of the time when there's a bondage element in a mainstream movie or TV show, the subconscious motives work in parallel with the dramatic motives for the scene. That is, you tie up a damsel so there will be suspense -- will she escape, or will she be rescued before something bad happens to her. And if something bad does happen, how bad will it get?
But in the matter of the sexual element, things tend to be murky, because most of the time the directors and actresses playing the damsels aren't dealing directly with it. A commercial bondage actress who's tied naked in a hogtie and ballgagged with another naked woman tweaking her nipples and rubbing her pussy understands that there's a sexual element to her bondage. An actress standing fully clothed with her wrists tied together in front of her might not understand it. (Her director certainly does not understand it, or she wouldn't be tied like that.)
You could even have some outstanding writhing while in bondage, as in Perils of Nyoka from 1942, stuff that would be considered way over the top nowadays, but which went right under the radar back then.
As public awareness of the sexual element of bondage scenes has grown, a curious bifurcation has occurred. The sexual elements of bondage scenes are either minimized (as in most chair tie scenes) or maximized (as in, to name two chair ties that are exceptions to the rule, "Die Watching," with Melanie Goode hurling her enormous hooters hither and yon, and "Cyclone" with Heather Thomas scooching her little round butt all over her chair with her camel toe exposed).
In the 90s we began to see more and more influences of commercial bondage imagery in movies, with ballgags in movies like "Night Visitor" and "Candyman many others up until 1998 when it all went to hell. Nowadays, however, sexual bondage themes and scenes are occurring in movies with A-list actresses, like Nicole Kidman in "Birthday Girl" and Heather Graham in "Killing Me Softly."
In the post-millenium years we've seen blatant bondage imagery move into television as well, as in Lexx's P4W episode and the sexual bondage scene in Farscape. There have also been some "under the radar" sexual bondage scenes which don't acknowledge their sexual content but clearly have a ton of it, such as the writhing-couple scene in the "Shadows of P'Jem" episode of Enterprise, or the "Periculum" episode of Witchblade. (Note that these are all science fiction and fantasy films series -- kinda strange to see science fiction and fantasy television taking the lead in bondage imagery when for so long it was almost completely unproductive.)
There's no conscious plan on anyone's part to make bondage imagery more sexual in movies or television, but it's definitely happening. Because it's happening in such a slow, submerged way, without any fanfare or "public" notice, it remains under the radar, but those of us who have super-sensitive radar for trends in bondage imagery can enjoy watching it emerge.