Ways of Showing/Ways of Seeing

by Tony Comstock

"If an adult human that knew nothing about the Wall were in a shuttle looking out the window, would they go 'Oh hey look! A wall!'?"
–A J. Fallows Contributor, "A Thought Experiment: Technology Meets the Great Wall," 7/2/2010

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 Wind and 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.