In Ways of Showing/Ways of Seeing, Part 1, we took a look at the dawn of cinema and "actualities," and noted that in short order cinema developed rapidly: technologically, creatively, commercially--except for cinema dealing with sexuality. Explicit sexuality never became more than a primitive, underground form, and by 1934, with the official adoption of the Hays Code, sexually suggestive themes were self-regulated out of mainstream movies as well.
In the post Climax Ecology, I gave a brief overview of this ecological theory, and posited that the periods from 1968 to 1975 and 1999 to 2006 can be understood as "clearing events" during which it became possible to tackle sexual subjects impossible in the years prior, and which a few short years later would become impossible again as the underlying socioeconomic ecology began to reassert itself.
In this post I'm going to give a timeline of important court cases, movies, and MPAA decisions that led to the MPAA abandoning the Production Code (aka Hays Code) in 1968, and replacing it with a four-tier content advisory system that included an adults-only rating available to producers whether or not they were working within the MPAA system.
This decision--to make the new, quasi-official X-rating available to anyone who wishes to apply it to their film--would change the meaning of an "adult movie" forever.
1934 - The US vs ONE BOOK CALLED ULYSSES
Justice Woolsey rules that James Joyce's masterwork was not obscene because it was "emetic, not aphrodisiac." On appeal, Justice Augustus Hand writes, "We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many."
In subsequent court cases this standard--"the intent to arouse"--will be replaced by more liberal standards, but even after "the intent to arouse" loses currency as a legal dictate, it will ultimately prove the most durable and important influence on the evolution of explicit sexuality in film.
1952 - JOSEPH BURSTYN, INC. V. WILSON
The New York State Board of Regents suppresses the Italian film The Miracle on the grounds that it is "sacrilegious," and the case finds its way to the US Supreme Court. Excerpted from Justice Clark's decision:
It is urged that motion pictures do not fall within the First Amendment's aegis because their production, distribution, and exhibition is a large-scale business conducted for private profit. We cannot agree. That books, newspapers, and magazines are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.
We fail to see why operation for profit should have any different effect in the case of motion pictures.
Burstyn v Wilson is generally recognized as the case which firmly places cinema under the umbrella of First Amendment protection. Prior to this, producers had no such assurances, and after, producers, distributors and exhibitors would more boldly explore the boundaries of just what this protection permitted. (56 years later the argument of profit motive will be employed to deny First Amendment protections in the case Dible v City of Chandler.)
1956 - ROTH v US, excerpt:
All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance -- unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion -- have the full protection of the guaranties, unless excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests; but implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance...
[But] sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press. Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.
1964 - JACOBELLIS v OHIO
After viewing Les Amants (The Lovers) the Supreme Court ruled (highly abridged):
The Lovers involves a woman bored with her life and marriage who abandons her husband and family for a young archaeologist with whom she has suddenly fallen in love. There is an explicit love scene in the last reel of the film, and the State's objections are based almost entirely upon that scene. The film was favorably reviewed in a number of national publications, although disparaged in others, and was rated by at least two critics of national stature among the best films of the year in which it was produced. It was shown in approximately 100 of the larger cities in the United States, including Columbus and Toledo, Ohio. We have viewed the film, in the light of the record made in the trial court, and we conclude that it is not obscene within the standards enunciated in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, which we reaffirm here.
Jacobellis also gave us some of the most famous words ever handed down by the high court. From Justice Potter Stewart's concurrence:
It is possible to read the Court's opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts,1 that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography.2 I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. (emphasis added)
1964 - THE PAWNBROKER
Initially denied a Production Code seal over a brief showing of a woman's bare breasts. The studio appealed and won. The Pawnbroker becomes the first film with female nudity of any sort to be released under the Production Code.
1966 - WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
After script negotiation with the MPAA, the film is released with some alterations to Edward Albee's dialogue and with the Production Code seal, but still contains language never before heard in a Production Code film.
1966 - BLOW-UP
The film was denied a Production Code seal. MGM turned its back on the MPAA and its fellow member studios and released the film without changes and without a Production Code seal. (This will be reprised in the VHS/DVD era when MPAA member studios will release R-rated cuts for theatrical distribution and then promote unrated versions as "uncensored" to the home video market.)
1968 - MPAA PRESIDENT JACK VALENTI INTRODUCES THE RATINGS SYSTEM
Faced with the prospect of mass defection by its member studios, the MPAA replaces the Production Code (a code of restrictions on language, imagery and themes) with a four-tier content advisory system that is the basis for the G, PG, PG13, R, NC-17 system we know today.
Let's take a moment to recall other events that happened in 1968, the year the MPAA abandoned the idea of content restriction and replaced it with parental advisory:
Prague Spring, the Battle of Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, Martin Luther King assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy assassinated. Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing atop the winners podium at the Mexico City Olympics with their fists raised, the Zodiac Killer is on the loose in San Francisco, Apollo 8 orbits the moon, and a young James Fallows pens a letter to Harvard criticizing the banishment of the ROTC.
There will also be a quirk in the MPAA's new system. The MPAA trademarks the G, PG, and R ratings, and producers seeking to carry these ratings must submit their films to the MPAA for review. But the MPAA leaves the Adults Only rating--the X-rating--as an untrademarked, self-applicable rating.
On the surface this appears perfectly sensible. The MPAA's new rating system is construed as advice to parents, and producers making films intended solely for an adult audience could simply label their films as such, with no MPAA review.
In modern parlance, the X-rating is "open-source."
G, PG, and R are indications of age-appropriateness for children as judged by the MPAA. X is simply a new name for a well-established concept; films tackling subject matter, language, and imagery not suitable for children. And by making their adults only rating, the X-rating, available to anyone to use, the MPAA is making it clear that they are no longer in the business of deciding what member studios may or may not include in their films, or regulating what adults can and cannot see.
But because it is not trademarked, and is available for use by anyone within or outside of the MPAA system, the X-rating will end up being applied (by the MPAA and others) to everything from Academy Award-winning films to peepshow masturbatory fare.
In the next post, we will look at films made between the years 1968 and 1975, an era regarded by many as both the high point for grown-up movie making in Hollywood, and the Golden Age of pornography, a time when people lined up outside theaters waiting to see sexually explicit films.
We'll take special note of how the X-rating is used to market those films, and see how the inability to satisfactorily define the X-rating as an indication of content will ultimately render the "X" a barren no man's land for filmmakers of all persuasions.
But before we go, here's a clip from The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). As you watch it, keep in mind that this is the same year that the producers of Midnight Cowboy will petition to have their R-rating restored, but a year later producers of A Clockwork Orange will release their film with an X-rating, and *two* years later Last Tango in Paris will be released with an X-rating. As I said, exciting, confusing times!
Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries.Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.