The Price of Pleasure, Part 2

by Tony Comstock

"The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life." -- Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Boxing Champion

In October of 1980, I suffered a concussion during football practice after a head to head collision with a teammate during a tackling drill. But at the time we didn't call it a concussion. We called it "getting your bell rung" and I didn't give a second thought to the lost time between the hit (which I can still remember, and fondly!) and finding myself seated, seeing stars.

I happily shook it off and happily kept playing. Only 30 years later, when football safety would become a topic of popular concern, would I reflect on that day and re-evaluate what happened.

On November 13, 1982, I watched Duk Koo Kim fight Ray Mancini on TV. It was a thrilling fight and Kim, the underdog, was courageous beyond measure.

A few days later, Kim would die as a result of the punishment he absorbed during the fight. A few months later, Kim's mother would take her own life. On July 1, 1983, Richard Green, the fight's referee, killed himself.

In 1995, my wife and I began a series of private studies exploring ideas I had as to how to shoot and edit sex in a more naturalistic, cinematic fashion. From my documentary work I intuited that the feeling that I wanted to achieve would be dependent on a genuine connection between the subjects. So to that end, we worked exclusively with couples in long-term relationships.

Over the course of the next few years, on the condition of privacy, we documented several couples. The results of these private studies were promising. But it is one thing for a couple to consent to being filmed in private and quite another to make the choice to have one's lovemaking laid open to the entire world.

In 1998, Marc Wallice, a prolific adult film performer, tested positive for HIV. Subsequently, five women who had appeared with him also tested positive for HIV, and it was alleged that Wallice forged his test results. (Performers routinely exchange test results with each other before having sex.)

In 1999, our first daughter was born.

In July of 2000, I traveled to Zimbabwe to make a short film about HIV/AIDS orphans and the phenomenon of child-headed households. It was not my first tragedy-related film, but it was the most profound. Although I was exceedingly proud of the film I made, I was also troubled by the fact of making my living out of the suffering of others. A friend gave me his copy of My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. In the weeks and months after the film was finished, I read and reread it several times.

In July of 2001, we shot Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story. Marie and Jack were married, but also adult film performers, so the prospect of being filmed having sex for public distribution posed no special dilemma for them.

Every New Yorker has a 9/11 story. I am grateful not to have been in the city that day, nor was anyone I know personally killed or injured. Nine months later, it was my privilege to produce a small documentary film about the day, and the weeks and months after the attack. My feelings about that film were much the same as my feelings about the HIV/AIDS orphans film I produced in 2000: intense pride in my work, but also a disquieting feeling of guilt.

In 2003, I traveled to Kenya to work on several short films promoting various non-governmental organization initiatives. The project was poorly managed and frustrating in the extreme. Upon my return I suffered a short, acute depression. By happen stance, about a week after various medical tests had ruled out physical causes for my stomach troubles, I found myself in Peggy's Cove on the fourth anniversary of the crash of Swiss Air Flight 111 disaster, listening to a CBC radio documentary about the traumatizing effects that recovering bodies and parts of bodies had had on the local fishermen. I snorted darkly when the narrator mentioned an increase reporting of gastrointestinal symptoms in the normally taciturn community.

2005 saw the birth of our second daughter. 

In 2006, the Kenya project started in 2003 was finally finished. By that time, I had also been to Serbia and several locations in the U.S. In my estimation the resulting film did not justify the time and money that had been spent. Better footage had been shot, and more interesting and humane versions had been edited. I had developed a shooting and cutting technique that allowed character-driven simultaneous translations of indigenous language testimony, but my client rejected the edit and the use of first-person story telling as being "threateningly ethnic and tribal." I was furious and disappointed.

In 2007, my fifth film, Ashley and Kisha: Finding the Right Fit was set to have its world premiere at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. By coincidence, the British film Destricted was having a screening at the Australian Center for the Moving Image, also in Melbourne. Both films featured explicit sexuality.

The Destricted screening at ACMI went off without a hitch (other than the fact that more than half the audience left the theater before the film finished).

Meanwhile, across town in a small theater in the Fitzroy district, the Australian government made good on its threat to stop the screening of Ashley and Kisha by sending two police officers with orders not to allow the film to be shown. Again, I was furious and disappointed. It was beginning to be a habit.

* * *

My very temporary colleague Jeffrey Goldberg says "pigs should not be eaten because they are noble and intelligent creatures," which I suppose is a good reason not to eat them.  I eat them because I always have, and even after having spent sometime around barnyard pigs, I don't find that I think of them differently than cattle, or sheep, or fish; which is to say, I don't have any trouble looking past whatever endearing qualities they have as living beings and seeing them as food.

That doesn't mean that Jeffrey Goldberg is wrong. It means that I eat pork. 

* * *

I have very strong feelings about what I will and won't do in order to make my films. I work only with couples in ongoing relationships. I never ask a couple to engage in any sort of sexual activities in front of our cameras that are not already a part of their ongoing physical relationship, including whatever measures they take to prevent unintended pregnancies or guard against disease transmission. Before committing to making a film, I spend many hours, over a course of months, talking to a couple, making sure that they are on the same page with each other, and with me about why we are making our film.

I used to think I was showing, by example, that it was possible to make well-crafted, entertaining, explicitly erotic, profitable films, without resorting to production methods that exposed the people appearing on screen to a greater degree of physical risk than the people behind the camera (me, my wife, my crew) or the audience would be exposed to in the course of of what is generally regarded as a normal, healthy adult sex life.

But I'm not so sure of that now.

I'm proud of my erotic films, maybe even more proud of them than I am of my Zimbabwe Orphans film or my 9/11 film, because I know, if I hadn't made those films, someone else would have. 

I used to worry that when people saw how easy it was to do what I do, to simply let people be themselves, to simply let them love one another, a filmmaker with real panache would step in and do it bigger and better than I could ever hope to do.

I don't worry about that any more.

(This clip contains no explicit footage or workplace-inappropriate language.)

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. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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