In my first post I laid out the theme that I'd like cover during my time here: that Climax Ecology is a useful framework for understanding what aspects of the human sexual experience can be captured and distributed as a media product, and why those media products so seldom bear any resemblance to the common reality of loving, mutually pleasurable sexual relations.
In this post I'd like to talk about the most basic form of cinema, a form that film-studies people call "actualities" or "actual films".
Electrocuting an Elephant (may be upsetting)
Actualities are simple, direct, filmed accounts of an action or activity: a dancer dancing, a bustling city street, etc. Most home movies are actualities: This is our baby walking across our living room floor; this is my father blowing out the candles on his 80th birthday.
Modern audiences quickly tire of actualities unless the subject matter is of special interest, i.e. actualities of your children are delightful, actualities of other people's children are only interesting if dad gets hit in the crotch with a Wiffle ball bat.
But this wasn't always the case.
Turn-of-the-century audiences were captivated by actualities. Cinema was an entirely new invention, and no one knew what anything looked like "on film," and everything was fascinating. A filmmaker could simply train his camera on a subject, novel or familiar, and then screen the results to an enthralled audience. Amazing!
And of course, in the age of actualities, there were actualities of sex, too.
But what's interesting to me about these earliest examples of sexually explicit cinema isn't that they exist, (the impulse to train the camera on nudity and sexuality is as old as the camera itself), it's that they are every bit as cinematically sophisticated as their non-sexual counterparts.
Whether it's Thomas Edison's Electrocuting an Elephant, or the Lumiere Brothers Train Arriving at a Station, or an uncredited sexual encounter between a man and a woman, once you get past the subject matter, there's not much difference in the cinematic approach. This is happening while a camera rolls so you can watch it without actually having been present. The camera records the event, but does little more.
And to a modern viewer without a special point of interest—history, morbid curiosity, whatever—watching most actualities is pretty boring.
From these humble beginnings, cinema would undergo a rapid development in both technology and aesthetic approach. In a few short decades camera movement, the use of various angles, editing, synchronous sound, and color would evolve to a high level of refinement.
The business of filmmaking would also undergo a huge evolution; from something resembling a side-show curiosity to an industrialized form of mass entertainment, sitting at the very center of culture.
In 1915, D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was produced at a cost of $112,000 (~$2.41 million today) and grossed upwards of $16 million. The year 1939 saw the release of both Gone With The Windand The Wizard of Oz, films that are as modern in their approach as anything released today.
But sexuality would not be a part of this evolution.
1934, the year that saw the landmark obscenity case US v One Book Called Ulysses would also see the MPPDA (antecedent to the Motion Picture Association of America) establish a certification process enforcing a production code (aka The Hays Code) on its member studios. Among the various requirements of the code was the mandate that "the treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy," with the net effect being that husbands and wives were rarely shown sharing a matrimonial bed. (My uncle, the person whose vast laser disc collection was responsible for my film education, relates that at the time, he simply thought the people in movies were wealthy, and that's why mom and dad each had a bed of their own.)
The same year the door was opened to the exploration of explicit sexuality in literature, the door was slammed shut to all but the most veiled references to sexuality in mainstream movies. And as a consequence the exploration of explicit sexuality in cinema would remain in a state of arrested development for the next 60 years.
One last word about actualities.
The temptation is to think of the actuality as an archaic form, but it it's not. Every time a new cinematic process is invented, or a new subject matter is revealed, the actuality is "rediscovered". At present, super-duper slow-mo cameras have suddenly become orders of magnitude less expensive, and we are discovering again how captivating it can be to see even ordinary things through the lens of a novel photographic process.
But even as various captivating slow-mo clips start to populate YouTube and turn up on blogs, this super-duper slow-mo is sucked into the same evolutionary chain that has absorbed every other cinematic breakthrough. At first merely seeing the raw footage is enough. Then as our astonishment wanes, modest editing for interest emerges, and then finally the new process is incorporated into the "vocabulary" of the language of cinema.
In the next post I'm going to give a more in-depth explanation of Climax Ecology, and how it applies to sexuality in cinema. I hope you'll join me!
Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries.
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 First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
It is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.