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.
Lip service to the crucial function of the Fourth Estate is not enough to sustain it.
It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg set out to dismantle the news business when he founded Facebook 13 years ago. Yet news organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse.
A sprawling new manifesto by Zuckerberg, published to Facebook on Thursday, should set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.
Facebook’s existing threat to journalism is well established. It is, at its core, about the flow of the advertising dollars that news organizations once counted on. In this way, Facebook’s role is a continuation of what began in 1995, when Craigslist was founded. Its founder, Craig Newmark, didn’t actively aim to decimate newspapers, but Craigslist still eviscerated a crucial revenue stream for print when people stopped buying newspaper classifieds ads.
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.
Early on a Wednesday morning, I heard an anguished cry—then silence.
I rushed into the bedroom and watched my wife, Rachel, stumble from the bathroom, doubled over, hugging herself in pain.
“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.
This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.
So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.
Radical longevity may change the way we live—and not necessarily for the better.
“So, you don’t want to die?” I asked Zoltan Istvan, then the Transhumanist candidate for president, as we sat in the lobby of the University of Baltimore one day last fall.
“No,” he said, assuredly. “Never.”
Istvan, an atheist who physically resembles the pure-hearted hero of a Soviet children’s book, explained that his life is awesome. In the future, it will grow awesomer still, and he wants to be the one to decide when it ends. Defying aging was the point of his presidential campaign, the slogan of which could have been “Make Death Optional for Once.” To (literally) drive the point home, he circled the nation in the “Immortality Bus,” a brown bus spray-painted to look like a coffin.
He knew he’d lose, of course, but he wanted his candidacy to promote the cause of transhumanism—the idea that technology will allow humans to break free of their physical and mental limitations. His platform included, in part, declaring aging a disease. He implanted a chip in his hand so he could wave himself through his front door, and he wants to get his kids chipped, too. He’d be surprised, he told me, if soon “we don’t start merging our children with machines.” He’d like to replace his limbs with bionics so he can throw perfectly in water polo. Most of all, he wants to stick around for a couple centuries to see it all happen, perhaps joining a band or becoming a professional surfer, a long white beard trailing in his wake.
On the Internet, search queries are used to target vulnerable consumers.
Google knows the questions that people wouldn’t dare ask aloud, and it silently offers reams of answers. But it is a mistake to think of a search engine as an oracle for anonymous queries. It isn’t. Not even close.
In some cases, the most intimate questions a person is asking—about health worries, relationship woes, financial hardship—are the ones that set off a chain reaction that can have troubling consequences both online and offline.
All this is because being online increasingly means being put into categories based on a socioeconomic portrait of you that’s built over time by advertisers and search engines collecting your data—a portrait that data brokers buy and sell, but that you cannot control or even see. (Not if you’re in the United States, anyway.)
On Saturday, the president slipped away from the doubters in Washington to address a Florida crowd filled with loyal supporters.
MELBOURNE, Fla.—After four miserable weeks of being locked up in presidential prison—starved of affection, suffocated by bureaucracy, tormented by the press—Donald Trump made a break for it Saturday.
Touching down just before sunset here in the heart of Trump Country, the president was greeted as he emerged from Air Force One by an adoring crowd of 9,000 super-fans, many of whom had stood in line for hours to see him speak. Trump made no effort at masking his gratitude. “I’m here because I want to be among my friends,” he told them, adding, “I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news.”’
The rally was widely trumpeted in the press as a return to the campaign trail, and it’s easy to see why. The event had all the trappings of Trump-style electioneering—he deployed the same slogans, recycled the same stump-speech rhetoric, and walked out on stage to the same soundtrack. What’s more, the White House made clear earlier this week that the rally was being funded not by the federal government but by his campaign, making this perhaps the earliest launch to a reelection bid in history.
Moscow grapples with a strange week in Washington.
Well, that didn’t last long. As President Donald Trump wrapped up his fourth week in office, the romance between him and Russian president Vladimir Putin seemed to have cooled suddenly. The week began with the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn amid revelations that he lied about his phone calls to the Russian ambassador. Then came reports that members of the Trump team had been in repeated contact with Russian intelligence agents. It ended with Vice Admiral Bob Harward declining to replace Flynn, and Trump giving a press conference in which he said his administration is “running like a fine-tuned machine;” toyed aloud with the idea of firing on a Russian spy ship in international waters off the East Coast; and dismissed allegations of collusion between his aides and the Russian government by saying, “Russia is fake news.” It was a performance that raised eyebrows in Moscow, with one Kremlin-friendly paper saying Friday that “you need to be drunk to understand the U.S. president’s true position.”
A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.
Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.
We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.
During the late 19th century, blacks and whites in the South lived closer together than they do today.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s, Sevone Rhynes experienced segregation every day. He couldn’t visit the public library near his house, but instead had to travel to the “colored” library in the historically black area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that used to be in the center of Charlotte. He attended a school for black children, where he received second-hand books, and where the school day was half the length of that of white schools, because the black school had too many children and not enough funds. Sixty years later, he says, Charlotte is still a segregated city. “People who are white want as little to do with black people as they can get away with,” he told me.
This is, unfortunately, not a surprising account of North Carolina, or of the South more generally. The South of the 1950s was the land of fire hoses aimed at black people who dared protest Jim Crow laws. Today, schools in the South are almost as segregated as they were when Sevone Rhymes was a child. Southern cities including Charlotte are facing racial tensions over the shootings of black men by white policemen, which, in Charlotte’s case, led to massive protests and riots.
Protests against the administration have spread to Republican strongholds, but it remains unclear if they will sway GOP members of Congress.
Massive crowds have gathered in cities like Washington, D.C., and New York to protest actions taken by the president since he took office. But those protests aren’t confined to liberal strongholds. Even in red states, some frustrated and anxious voters are protesting the administration and putting pressure on Republican lawmakers to stand up to the White House.
In some of the most conservative parts of the country, voters without much experience in political organizing are taking a page out of the Tea Party playbook, while existing Democratic organizations are channeling discontent with the administration into protest. Red-state Democrats point to the agitation as evidence that opposition to Trump and his agenda is widespread, and they warn that elected officials of both parties may pay a price if they write off the activism as inconsequential.