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.
Anxiety and listless days as a foreign-policy bureaucracy confronts the possibility of radical change
The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness. “People are usually coming in for meetings, there’s lots of people, and now it’s so quiet.” The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”) As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.
Imagine listening to the president’s address to Congress as if it were the first speech he’d given.
During Richard Nixon’s years as a slashingly anti-Communist U.S. senator and vice president, The WashingtonPost’s famed cartoonist Herblock (Herbert Block) was a relentless critic. His trademark was portraying Nixon with a heavier and heavier five o’clock shadow, caricaturing him as a thug.
Then in 1968, when Nixon returned to Washington as president, Herblock drew a famous cartoon saying in effect, “every new president deserves a clean shave” and began presenting a better-looking Nixon (for a while).
I decided to approach Donald Trump’s speech tonight to Congress in the “clean shave” spirit. During the campaign I was not an admirer. I thought his inaugural address was unique among such speeches in its dark divisiveness, and since the inauguration I’ve considered his actions more abrasive than even I had foreseen.
Glowing reviews of the president’s first address to Congress miss the crucial respects in which he fell short.
President Donald Trump wore a non-sparkly tie last night. His suit fit. He seems to have upgraded his haircut too. After some initial hesitation, Trump found something positive to say about Black History Month and something negative about anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Better still, Trump worked his way through more than an hour of television without insulting or demeaning anyone. He did not mention his crowd sizes, argue about his vote margin, or attack the press. Although he again trafficked in misleading or deceptive statements, he eschewed outright lies.
Different people will have different reactions to Trump’s spotlighting of a Navy SEAL’s widow to immunize himself against accusations that he cavalierly and ignorantly ordered troops into a poorly considered combat mission—but clearly, many TV viewers found the moment inspiring and affecting.
The ride-sharing giant’s full-blown PR crisis is getting worse.
It took eight years and at least as many back-to-back-to-back-to-back controversies to break Travis Kalanick.
After a stunning month of scandals at Uber, Kalanick, its founder and CEO, sent an emotional and uncharacteristically apologetic memo to his employees Tuesday night. “This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help,” Kalanick wrote. “And I intend to get it.”
Uber has always been controversial, but never like this.
Kalanick’s message came hours after a video surfaced that showed dashboard-camera footage of him arguing with an Uber driver who had just given him a ride. In the video, Fawzi Kamel, who gave a recording of the conversation to Bloomberg, tells Kalanick that he and other drivers suffered as a result of lower fares for riders. “People are not trusting you anymore,” Kamel tells Kalanick. “I'm bankrupt because of you... You changed the whole business. You dropped the prices.”
Calvin College is no fundamentalist Christian school.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—It would be easy enough to drive past Calvin College without giving Betsy DeVos’s alma mater a second thought. Six miles southeast of downtown, the school is a sprawling cluster of nondescript buildings and winding pathways in a quiet suburb. But to bypass Calvin would be to ignore an institution whose approach to education offers clues about how the recently appointed U.S. education secretary might pursue her new job, and about the tug religious institutions feel between maintaining tradition and remaining relevant in a rapidly diversifying world.
DeVos is now Calvin’s most famous alum, and in recent weeks, the school has been painted in some circles both online and in conversation as a conservative, insular institution that helped spawn a controversial presidential-cabinet member intent on using public dollars to further religious education. But that is a grossly simplified narrative, and one that obscures the nuances and very real tensions at the school.
In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote that “conspicuous abstention from labor … becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.” In other words, the richer one gets, the less one works and the more likely one is to try to show off one’s ample leisure time.
For a while, Veblen’s theory held, with few exceptions. But no longer. In the U.S., one can now make a good guess about how rich somebody is based on the long hours they put in at work. The wealthiest American men, on average, work more than those poorer than them.
With this workaholic lifestyle, though, comes quite a bit of prestige, a perk that the researcher Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, has found Americans to be all too aware of. Bellezza is the author, along with Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan, of a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.
One of the most volcanically active countries in the world is not ready for a devastating eruption.
Thirteen days before Christmas, somewhere in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, a massive volcano unexpectedly rumbled back to life.
Just like that, Bogoslof volcano began its first continuous eruption since 1992, belching great plumes of ash tens of thousands of feet into the cold sky over the Aleutian islands, generating volcanic lightning, and disrupting air travel—though not much else.
The volcano is on a tiny island about 60 miles west of Unalaska, which is the largest city in the Aleutians. It has a population of about 5,000 people.
Bogoslof hasn’t quieted yet. One explosion, in early January, sent ash 33,000 feet into the air. Weeks later, another eruption lasted for hours, eventually sprinkling enough ash on the nearby city to collect on car windshields and dust the snow-white ground with a sulfurous layer of gray. Over the course of two months, Bogoslof’s intermittent eruptions have caused the island to triple in size so far, as fragments of rock and ash continue to pile atop one another.
The president’s focus on crimes committed by members of one particular group singles them out for blame.
Donald Trump is worried about violence by unauthorized immigrants. When he spoke before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, he invited three relatives of people that unauthorized immigrants had killed to attend as his guests.
In that speech, he called for the Department of Homeland Security to create an office focused on the victims of immigrant crime. And in a January 25 executive order, he instructed the Homeland Security Secretary to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”
The company powers much of the Internet, but its cloud facilities are difficult to find.
Once in a while—not quite often enough to be a crisis, but just often enough to be a trope—people in the United States will freak out because a huge number of highly popular websites and services have suddenly gone down. For an interminable period of torture (usually about 1-3 hours, tops) there is no Instagram to browse, no Tinder to swipe, no Github to push to, no Netflix to And Chill.
When this happens, it usually means that Amazon Web Services is having a technical problem, most likely in their US-East region. What that actually means is that something is broken in northern Virginia. Of all the places where Amazon operates data centers, northern Virginia is one of the most significant, in part because it’s where AWS first set up shop in 2006. It seemed appropriate that this vision quest to see The Cloud across America which began at the ostensible birthplace of the Internet should end at the place that’s often to blame when large parts of the U.S. Internet dies.
The president outlined a three-part agenda in his Tuesday address that divides Republicans and disadvantages his voter base.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump outlined a three-part economic plan. First, he called for an increase in military spending—his budget would reportedly raise it by about 10 percent, or $54 billion, while cutting similar amounts from agencies including the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Second, he called on Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Third, he reiterated his support for tax reform, which, if it follows his previous proposals, would cut taxes by almost $10 trillion, with the benefits largely accruing to corporations and the rich.
Together, these three proposals would represent a dramatic shift away from the policies of the Obama administration: from diplomacy to weaponry, from environmental protection to national-border protection, from public-health spending to private health spending, from eight years of favoring redistribution to a period of falling taxes on the rich, and from a term of falling deficits to the re-emergence of large deficits.