Steve Jobs, Dick Cheney, and a Bullfrog Walk Into a Bar ...

by Tony Comstock

"It's hard to look at today's Internet and feel that it's short on sexually explicit material."
–James Fallows, "A Different Aspect of the Internet and Freedom Story," 7/9/2010

Hello, Atlantic readers. My name is Tony Comstock, and I'm a filmmaker. The last time my writing appeared in a venue not of my own creation was in 1992, as part of a public awareness ad campaign for the Rogue Valley Transportation District in rural Oregon. It's rather a long leap from there to here, so I hope you'll bear with me as I find my footing.

The first order of business is simply to say thanks to James Fallows and his colleagues at The Atlantic for giving me a chance to step atop their soapbox, to my fellow guest bloggers, whose experiences and accomplishments make me think "what am I doing here?", and most of all, thanks to you, the readers of The Atlantic magazine. I am one of you—a long-time subscriber and enthusiastic commenter here on the website. None of this happens without your (our) passionate interest and engagement. I'll do my best to give you the thoughtfulness you expect from this venue.

Next, I'd like to lay out in the broadest of strokes what I'd like to do with my time here. This being the third week of guest-blogging, the format has been well-established. Today is my first post; my last post will be on Sunday, February 13, the day before Valentine's Day.

Between now and then what I'd like to do is expand on the concept of Climax Ecology as it applies to explicit sexuality in cinema.

No, "climax ecology" is not a pun. It's an ecological theory first developed around the turn of the 19th/20th century. As theories often do, it fell out of favor, only to enjoy a resurgence in the late 20th century, when I was a student. That probably seems like quite a detour from sex and cinema, so let me see if can explain.

We live in an age when extremely graphic, often lurid or even upsetting sexual imagery is but a mouse click away, while at the same time, images that explore and celebrate sexuality in the context of love, commitment, and mutual pleasure are vanishingly rare.

This is something that bothers me, and it's something I've devoted a good portion of my professional life to trying to change. In the course of this work I've come to realize that my efforts take place under the influence of an an array of forces that transcend ideas such as individual vision, will, or effort; ideas that are often held in high esteem by artists and their admirers.

Climax Ecology is a way of understanding how a set of underlying conditions will drive the flora in an ecosystem towards a predictable end state, and using this framework has better helped me understand my own work. Climax Ecology is where I left off on the last post to my film theory and history project The Intent to Arouse back in August of 2009, right before I decided to chuck it all and sail away for some much needed R&R.

The idea exploded back into my consciousness shortly after my return in the spring of 2010, when I watched the video from the New America Foundation board meeting that was posted on this blog last June, "Internet: Friend to Dictators or Dissenters?"

James Fallows' opening remarks for the panel ("If we were trying to have this discussion when New America was being founded in the late 1990s, we simply couldn't have had it ... ") combined with Tim Wu's observations about the recurring cycles in communications technology crystallized thoughts that had been churning in my head for a couple of years, and I pounded out a response to the panel discussion that was posted on this blog a few days later, "A Different Aspect of the Internet-and-Freedom Story."

I'm drawn to the metaphor of Climax Ecology as a framework for understanding how sexually explicit photographic imagery exists in society because for me it offers a better explanation—both of my own experience making and distributing my films and, of what I observe more broadly—than theories rooted in guesses about what men or women do or don't like, or guesses about what does or doesn't go on in bedchambers across America, or in accusations of prudery or licentiousness, and most of all, in the suspicion that there is something ineffable about sexual love that the camera simply cannot capture. I've documented death with humanity and compassion; surely the same thing is possible with carnal love.

To explain why I think an ecological metaphor is well suited to exploring these ideas I'm going talk about how law, custom, economics, and technology interact to create and enforce a wide gulf between the well-crafted but surprisingly coy depictions of sexuality in mainstream film and television, and the poorly made, and often cartoonishly vulgar depictions that seem to characterize the collision of explicit sex and the moving image.

Along the way I'll touch on subjects of more general interest, including: algorithmic morality, boiled frogs, what you can and can't see from outer-space, boxing, Steve Jobs' liver, Dick Cheney's heart, gun-control, and dog fighting. Time permitting, I may also call out some people who haven't received the recognition I think they deserve.

There may be some mention of beer.

To close this first post, I'd like to tell you a little about myself.

I am 45 years old. I am married. My wife and I have two daughters. I made my first dollar in photography in 1986 working as a photo-assistant for Lou Manna, a New York food photographer. In 1992 I opened my first studio in an abandoned swine slaughtering house in Ashland, Oregon.

A year and a half later I packed up my equipment into a Honda Civic and came to New York City. The first time I moved an audience to tears was in 1994 when I was asked to produce a short film memorializing Dinah Shore.

I've been making documentaries since 1995. Subjects of my films have included 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and the visualization of God.

I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series, a series of documentary films that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema.

I shot the first of these films, Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story, in July of 2001. Last month we had the premiere of our seventh film, Brett & Melanie: Boi Meets Girl at the New York LGBT Community Center as a part of their Women's Film Series. The excursion I'm asking you to take with me this week, the connections I'll make, and the reasons I think it's important are informed by the experiences I've had in my nearly 10 years of producing and promoting these films.

Any questions, comments or corrections can be sent via the EMAIL FALLOWS link at the top of the page. I look forward to hearing from you!

Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries.