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.
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.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
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.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack.
While Saint Nicholas may bring gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe's Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways—or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. In keeping with pre-Germanic Pagan traditions, men dressed as these demons have been frightening children on Krampusnacht for centuries, chasing them and hitting them with sticks, on an (often alcohol-fueled) run through the dark streets.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.