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I) Preamble

I’m a big believer in form and process, especially as a fall-back when inspiration fails.

The abstract for The Intent to Arouse was written in a very much inspired state, 24 hours in which everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve blogged about, everything I’ve experience making my movies seemed to magically distill itself into a few 100 characters. My fingers seemed to have a life of their own.

I can count on one hand the number of times that’s happened to me in the 20+ years I’ve been making my way as an artist. The rest of it has been, as Woody Allen says, just showing up. (Although in his case he claims 10% is something more than just showing up. The difference between his experience and mine is probably a measure of the difference of our respective talents.)

In any case, I’m going to use my abstract as road map to fleshing out my ideas. I’ll tackle each section, mostly in order, assembling ideas (my own and others) along with visual resources. Today it’s

The Preamble

   My name is Tony Comstock. Perhaps some of you have heard of my “Real People, Real Life, Real Sex” erotic documentary series, perhaps some of you even use our films in your work in research settings or clinical settings.

        The genesis of this talk began with the question I’ve heard dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times from people who know and love our work: from therapists and counselors, from people in pain about their sexuality, and from people enjoying their sexuality as part of full and wholesome lives. And that question is this: Why are films like ours, films that depict sex in a way that is joyous and cinematic, almost nonexistent? Why are art films that contain explicit sex always so downbeat? Why does pornography look and feel so different from the other sorts of visual images we see? And how does what we do-and do not-see in cinema affect our understanding of our own sexuality?

        I’d like to say the answer is that I have a special insight into the human sexual condition as it relates to cinema, but it’s a little more complicated than that. To understand why sex on film looks the way it does, we have to take a look at the history of sexual imagery in cinema, the history of obscenity laws,  and the business and technology of image making. Once we have that background, we’ll explore how cinematic images actually work, and how that relates to cinematic depictions of sexuality.

Lastly, I’ll take off my mortar board and tell you why all this matters to me, as an artist, as a father, and as a husband, and what I hope you’ll be able to take away from this lecture so that you might have a deeper understanding of the forces that shape the erotic imagery we see.

The first thing that I notice is that this preamble anticipates speaking before a clinical/therapeutic audience, and in fact it was a conversation with Dr. Thierry Guedj who is a teacher and counselor at Boston University that the idea for this lecture first sprang to life (thanks Thierry!) 

I met Dr. Guedj when it came to my attention that he was recommending our films in his counseling work. I called him, partly out of my own vanity, and partly to find out what it what he thought it was that made our films helpful to his clients. 

A confession: I have long been resistant to the idea of calling our films “educational”. For one, because of the way that censorship of erotic materials works, “educational/medical” has long been a way to bootleg erotic work into mainstream markets, and because of this there is a lot of crap work backed up by sham credentials. I don’t think that an interest in making or looking at erotic images need to be couched in educational language or academic credentials.

For another, I think calling a film “educational” lowers expectations in much the same way that calling something “pornography” does. It’s sort of like saying “Don’t judge this film by the same standards you’d apply to that fascinating indie doc you saw on the Sundance channel, because if you do, you’re just going to be disappointed.” Maybe it’s pride, but I hope that my films offer a bit of entertainment, a sense of being time well spent, even you don’t learn anything or get turned on. It’s not that I don’t think that watching one of my might be educating and/or arousing, I hope that it is! But education or even arousal is not my agenda, those are just means to an end. My agenda is to entertain.

Anyway, when I explained this to Thierry he must of sensed how important this is to me because he said the nicest thing, “But that’s exactly why I like recommending your films, because they don’t have an agenda. They’re just really nice films about love and sex that a couple can watch without feeling like something is supposed to happen.”

I guess that’s a meta-preamble to the preamble. Next up section II)  SEX, CENSORSHIP AND TECHNOLOGY: AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW, A)The history of self-censorship in Hollywood, from the pre-Hays Code era to the post NC-17 era.) 1) Erotic imagery in Hollywood before the Code.

Thanks for reading. If you have a thought to share, please leave a comment!

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2 Responses

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  1. orthodoxhe said

    I don’t see much distinction between educational and therapeutic. Esp as a genre of film. This should be a longer conversation but I think since your talk really focuses on the failures of the marketing apparatus and filmmakers to deal with sex in cinema then you might want to back away from this orientation toward education or therapy and come right out with that claim. Also, I find the line “how cinematic images actually work” a bit troubling – I mean, behaviorists, effects researchers, cultural theorists and everyone in between has been trying to convince us of their ideas on that for a long time but I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer, since (imo) there isn’t one. Like I was saying the other day about the meanings found in juxtaposing images – I think it’s an uncertain process – a lot about reception, etc. I’m sure you know that, but that line in your preamble raises the question for me immediately – as it would any audience of film scholars, so tread carefully!

  2. Tony Comstock said

    Hello Orthodoxhe and thanks for stopping by!

    As I said, what I notice first is this preamble anticipates speaking before a clinical audience, and (I think rightly) presumes a lower level of sophistication about the mechanics of cinema. For example, section II)C) Moore’s Law and  the Porn Revolution 2.0: How changes in technology mean that when everybody is special, no one is special. is likely to be more illuminating for a lay audience than for an audience of film scholars.

    Similarly, educational vs. therapeutic has a meaning to this audience that is probably a trivial distinction for film scholars, and I certainly don’t think this constitutes two different genres. But under the broad rubric “educational” I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it two different uses.

    And as far as my pride is concerned, that’s the key distinction. I’m not opposed to my films be used or useful; that’s hardly an ignoble fate. But I suppose each of us hopes the we have some intrinsic value, absent any utility. I hope the same for my films.

    Your comment does make me worry about the entire section III. and how it’s going to play at NYU and other film studies venues. “How images actually work” might be translated to “what I do in my films and why that’s revolutionary and kicks ass.”

    True as that may be, that’s probably better not said aloud, and a claim (no matter how veiled) I’d be wise to back from indeed!

    I really appreciate your feedback on this. I am (once again) in “undiscovered country”, at least personally, with only a self-made map. Advice and encouragement from the locals is very much appreciated!

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