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 condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
A recent push for diversity has been blamed for weak print sales, but the company’s decades-old business practices are the true culprit.
Marvel Comics has been having a rough time lately. Readers and critics met last year’s Civil War 2—a blockbuster crossover event (and aspiritual tie-in to the year’s big Marvel movie)—with disinterest and scorn. Two years of plummeting print comics sales culminated in a February during which only one series managed to sell over 50,000 copies. Three crossover events designed to pump up excitement came and went with little fanfare, while the lead-up to 2017’s blockbuster crossover Secret Empire—where a fascist Captain America subverts and conquers the United States—sparked such a negative response that the company later put out a statement imploring readers to buy the whole thing before judging it. On March 30, a battered Marvel decided to try and get to the bottom of the problem with a retailer summit—and promptly stuck its foot in its mouth.
The office was, until a few decades ago, the last stronghold of fashion formality. Silicon Valley changed that.
Americans began the 20th century in bustles and bowler hats and ended it in velour sweatsuits and flannel shirts—the most radical shift in dress standards in human history. At the center of this sartorial revolution was business casual, a genre of dress that broke the last bastion of formality—office attire—to redefine the American wardrobe.
Born in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, business casual consists of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts. By the time it was mainstream, in the 1990s, it flummoxed HR managers and employees alike. “Welcome to the confusing world of business casual,” declared a fashion writer for the Chicago Tribune in 1995. With time and some coaching, people caught on. Today, though, the term “business casual” is nearly obsolete for describing the clothing of a workforce that includes many who work from home in yoga pants, put on a clean T-shirt for a Skype meeting, and don’t always go into the office.
Why is the president putting ISIS in the same category in which he places Rosie O’Donnell?
Donald Trump has coined a term to describe terrorists like those who murdered 22 people on Monday in Manchester: “Losers.” White House officials claim he came up with it on his own.
That’s not surprising. As USA Today has noted, “losers” is Trump’s go-to epithet. He’s applied the term to the Standard & Poor’s credit-ratings agency, Rosie O’Donnell, George Will, Cher, Salon, Huffington Post, Karl Rove, Graydon Carter, Marc Cuban, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, the Club for Growth, Anna Navarro, The New York Daily News, a Scottish farmer who tried to keep him from building a golf course, and the Republican Party, among others. Maybe the term will prove effective in undermining the aura of rebellious cool that attracts some young Muslims to ISIS, as my Atlantic colleague Uri Friedman suggests, although I have my doubts about Trump’s ability to arbitrate what young Muslims find hip.
What started as a cold meeting between the pontiff and the U.S. president turned friendly after a brief closed-door discussion.
Meeting Pope Francis can really mess with a guy. The day after then-House Speaker John Boehner met with the pope during his visit to the U.S. in 2015, the Republican politician tearfully resigned. The former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly spent the morning of his last day with the network in Rome, where he met Francis in the Vatican receiving line.
Depressed liberals who hate President Trump and (incorrectly) see Pope Francis as a global avatar for their progressive agenda might have hoped something similar would go down during the meeting between the two leaders at the Vatican on Wednesday. It’s unlikely that their wishful thinking will come to pass, but the two men seem to have warmed to one another during their visit. The Italian newspaper La Stampa noted the tension in the room when the meeting began: Posing for press photos, “Trump smiled, Bergoglio a little less,” they said, referring to Francis by his given name. After a half-hour-long closed-door meeting, though, “the slightly tense climate that marked the beginning of the visit melted,” the newspaper reported. By the end of the visit, members of the two delegations were joking and laughing. “I will not forget what you said,” Trump said.
What the dystopian series does not imply about the role of religion in politics
As someone who likes to build up my capacity to imagine the worst, I’ve been finding The Handmaid’s Tale, the new television series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, harrowing to watch. The show is an investigation into religious totalitarianism and patriarchy, and perhaps more interestingly a meditation on collaboration and complicity. I’ve been struggling with it because it seems, at times, so plausible, but also so far-fetched.
In creating the fictional Gilead—a theocratic regime that comes to power in the United States after falling birthrates and terrorist attacks lead to mass panic, then a culture of enforced sexual servitude—Atwood was issuing a warning. That the television series has come out in the era of Donald Trump has apparently helped make it a sensation. “What if it happened here in America?” viewers and critics areasking. Yet, something like Gilead couldn’t happen here, in part because it hasn’t happened anywhere.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Five years ago, on a boat off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, I met the largest animal that exists or has ever existed.
The blue whale grows up to 110 feet in length. Its heart is the size of a small car. Its major artery is big enough that you could wedge a small child into it (although you probably shouldn’t). It’s an avatar of hugeness. And its size is evident if you ever get to see one up close. From the surface, I couldn’t make out the entire animal—just the top of its head as it exposed its blowhole and took a breath. But then, it dove. As its head tilted downwards, its arching back broke the surface of the water in a graceful roll. And it just kept going, and going, and going. By the time the huge tail finally broke the surface, an unreasonable amount of time had elapsed.
Today’s tech giants dominate the U.S. economy like automotive companies did before them, but what that dominance means has changed.
Over the last 20 years, the technology industry has become the most powerful industry in the world, boasting seven of the 20 most profitable companies. Last year, Apple literally doubled the profits ($53.4 billion) of the second-most profitable company, J.P. Morgan Chase ($24.4 billion). And when it comes to market value, tech companies sweep the top five: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. These companies are not only huge and profitable; they’re also growing.
By most measures, though not all, this power is concentrated in one specific region, the Pacific Coast, and even more tightly centralized in the San Francisco Bay Area. Incredibly, three of those five most valuable companies are located in three adjacent little towns in Silicon Valley. The total distance from Facebook in Menlo Park to Alphabet (née Google) in Mountain View to Apple in Cupertino is just 15 miles.