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 oozing yellow organism has no neurons, but it can solve mazes, make decisions, and learn by merging together.
Sometimes, Audrey Dussutour enters her lab in Toulouse to find that one of the creatures within it has escaped. They tend to do so when they’re hungry. One will lift the lid of its container and just crawl out. These creatures aren’t octopuses, which are known for their escape artistry. They’re not rats, mice, flies, or any of the other standard laboratory animals. In fact, they’re not animals at all.
They are slime molds —yellow, oozing, amoeba-like organisms found on decaying logs and other moist areas. They have no brains. They have no neurons. Each consists of just a single, giant cell. And yet, they’re capable of surprisingly complicated and almost intelligent behaviors. The species that Dussutour studies, Physarum polycephalum, can make decisions, escape from traps, and break out of Petri dishes. “It’s a unicellular organism but it looks smart,” she says.
One reason the president cannot resist commenting on every issue in American life is that he seemingly cannot stand the actual work of American politics.
In a flurry of comments historically unsuited to any head of state, yet hardly shocking for the current American president, Donald Trump this weekend targeted the two most popular sports in the country and elicited sharp criticism from some of their most important figures.
On Friday, Trump encouraged franchise owners in the National Football League to fire players who protest during the national anthem. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired,’” the president said at an Alabama rally.
Trump’s comment provoked Roger Goodell, the typically reticent commissioner of the NFL, to issue a strong statement condemning the president’s divisive language. The comment was particularly surprising, since most NFL owners who elect the league commissioner are staunch Republicans. Many of the most prominent owners donated to the Trump campaign.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
A new film details the reason the star postponed her recent tour—and will test cultural attitudes about gender, pain, and pop.
“Pain without a cause is pain we can’t trust,” the author Leslie Jamison wrote in 2014. “We assume it’s been chosen or fabricated.”
Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” unpacked the suffering-woman archetype, which encompasses literature’s broken hearts (Anna Karenina, Miss Havisham) and society’s sad girls—the depressed, the anorexic, and in the 19th century, the tubercular. Wariness about being defined by suffering, she argued, had led many modern women to adopt a new pose. She wrote, “The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim.” Jamison questioned whether this was an overcorrection. “The possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it,” she wrote. “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”
In a speech Friday night, Trump urged NFL owners to fire players who protest. “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Speaking to a crowd in Huntsville, Alabama Friday night, President Trump said he hoped NFL players who knelt during the national anthem—which they've done to protest unjustified police killings of black Americans—would lose their jobs.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag,” Trump said, “to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” The crowd of supporters erupted in cheers. The president appeared to be referring to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last year began kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to unjustified killings of black men by law enforcement.
A North Korean official has hinted about conducting a nuclear test at sea, which would have severe environmental consequences.
The latest fiery exchange between the United States and North Korea has produced a new kind of threat. On Tuesday, during his speech at the United Nations, President Trump said his government would “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary to defend the United States or its allies. On Friday, Kim Jong Un responded, saying North Korea “will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
The North Korean leader didn’t elaborate on the nature of this countermeasure, but his foreign minister provided a hint: North Korea might test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
“It could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific,” Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told reporters at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “We have no idea about what actions could be taken as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong Un.”
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Two new books explore America’s changing romantic landscape.
C.S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, died of bone cancer on July 13, 1960. The next day, the famous author wrote a letter to Peter Bide, the priest who had married them, to tell him the news.
“I’d like to meet,” Lewis writes, suggesting the two grab lunch sometime soon. “For I am—oh God that I were not—very free now. One doesn’t realize in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.”
When it comes to romance, Americans are freer than they’ve ever been. Freer to marry, freer to divorce, freer to have sex when and with whom they like with fewer consequences, freer to cohabitate without getting married, freer to remain single, freer to pursue open relationships or polyamory.
The former Breitbart editor’s attempt to schedule a provocative event on the liberal campus featuring high-profile conservative speakers didn’t work out as planned.
At first, conservative agitator Milo Yiannopoulos’s Free Speech Week in Berkeley, California, seemed like it might be a major event. Four straight days of provocative events on campus featuring right-wing luminaries, culminating with appearances by conservative writer Ann Coulter and former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and all in the heart of one of the most symbolically resonant places Yiannopoulos could have chosen: the campus of University of California, Berkeley, a campus with a longstanding image as a hotbed of left-wing activism where protests shut down an event of his last year.
But things didn’t go according to plan.
Speakers whose names appeared on initial schedules have either pulled out or said they were never planning to go; the campus publication Yiannopoulos is working with, The Berkeley Patriot, never reserved indoor school venues and appeared to pull out Friday afternoon; and Yiannopoulos announced on his Instagram a planned march through campus on Sunday in protest of Berkeley’s supposed clamp-down on free speech. “It’s time to reclaim free speech at UC Berkeley and send shockwaves through the American education system to every other college under liberal tyranny,” Yiannopoulos wrote in his post. The event would have been an important step in reviving Yiannopoulos’s wounded image on the right after a clip of him appearing to defend pedophilia caused him to be barred from CPAC and lose his job as a Breitbart editor in February. Earlier this week, Yiannopoulos told me in a text message that “We will fight until the last man is ejected from the last step on Sproul Plaza.”