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II)B) Landmark cases in obscenity law and the long  shadow of language.

There’s quite a back and forth in the last post between orthodoxhe over the effect the MPAA has on the depiction of sexuality in cinema. Historically I think that effect has been huge, but my position is that looking at contemporary influences, the MPAA is vastly over-estimated and the effect of obscenity laws, both historically and contemporarily, is vastly underestimate and generally misunderstood.

The legal concept of obscenity is pretty startling if you sit down and just think about it for a minute. As a legal concept, “obscenity” is the notion that there are some ideas about sex that are simply too inflammatory/repulsive /vile to be expressed publicly, that doing so constitutes a crime, and that it’s the state’s natural function to suppress the expression of these ideas.

We don’t have this concept around religion, or politics, or economics any other other ideas that (sometimes) send countries to war against each other. Only around sex.

And while over the years the laws over what might constitute obscenity have become more tolerant, but there has yet to be a successful challenge to the idea that the regulation of the expression of sexual ideas is a natural and rightful function of the state. 

I am not a legal scholar. I don’t know where this idea of obscenity originates. But as a filmmaker my entire body of erotic work lives in shadow of this concept; and as a citizen I am under the constant threat that my ideas will be accused of being obscene,  that my right to put express these ideas publicly will be denied, and that the state will deprive me of my liberty and property.

I understand that for many readers this is going to sound hysterical, so I will go into some specifics on how the threat of obscenity prosecution has directly effect my work. But first I want to lay some groundwork  by touching on historical obscenity cases that (from my point of view as a filmmakers and distributor) continue to cast a shadow on the cinematic landscape. Language from these cases, some of which have been overturned by later decisions, continues to have a “chilling effect” on the marketplace of ideas.

The next post will be on the 1934 court case US vs. One Book Called Ulysses, which paved the way for the publication of James Joyce novel here in the US. But more the 70 years later, we can still hear loud echos from that case, in censorship decisions other countries, and in marketing decisions here at home, and in a way that I believe is prejudice against eroticism in cinema.

Tomorrow: II)B)1 US vs. Ulysses: The origin of  ”intent to arouse” as legal doctrine.

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II)A)5) The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America.

6AM Independence Day! What in the world am I doing up at this hour?

The answer is that actually I’ve already been up for about two and a half hours, having been startled awake by the oddest dream wherein I was on the phone in a yelling match with Hugh Heffner, and I’ve been padding around the internet since about 4 this morning. The light’s just coming up now and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I hope you all are spending it with friends and family, and if you’re here reading this, I’ll hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the fact that although things are not perfect here in the US, my films have never faced the sorts of problems with the government that they’ve faced in places like Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, or Germany. Now on with the show!

The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America.

I first started thinking about this post when we started selling our Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series on Amazon. This was about the same time that Kirby Dick’s MPAA expose doc This Film Not Yet Rated came out on DVD. Kirby and I have rather different takes on the MPAA, and whether or not the MPAA functions as a de facto censorship body; and I think This Film Not Yet Rated, while making some valid points about the vagaries and inconsistencies of the MPAA’s rating system, does a real disservice to the conversation around grown-up movie making by conflating the function and scope of a trade organization with censorship and by promulgating myths about the NC-17 rating.

Of course Dick’s film was enthusiastically received by the indie film community, and not hard to understand why. Indies films often deal with provocative subject matter, and the idea of the Big Bad MPAA destroying maverick films and maverick filmmakers by assigning the dreaded NC-17 rating is an appealing one, or certainly one I found appealing, especially in light of the sort of violence that receives an R-rating.

But in the course of making and marketing our films, I’ve come to believe that the way the system works actually suits exploitation filmmakers like me and Kirby Dick to a T. To understand why, let’s first get a working definition of an “exploitation filmaker.”

Unlike most other counties, here in the US there is no government mandated rating and censorship process. In counties like Australia or the UK, before a film or DVD can be released a film must be submitted to a government censorship board, which decides whether or not a film can be release, and if so, what rating it receives. 

There has never been any such requirement here in the US. So even back in the days of the Production Code (aka Hays Codes,) there were films that were not produced within the MPAA system and were not released with an MPAA seal. Many of these films would have qualified for a seal, but for whatever reason did not go through the MPAA system. But for the purposes of this discusion, we’re going to define exploitation filmmaking as films that go “too far” to be granted a Production Code seal, but no so far as to attract attention from law enforcement. As such, “exploitation filmmakers” do a sort of creative arbitrage between what the MPAA will not permit and what the law will not allow, and the days of the Production Code, this is a healthy little niche.

But with the advent of the four-tiered system (G, PG, R, X), this niche threatens to collapse. The four-tiered system wipes out the idea that anything is off-limits in an MPAA rated film; sex, violence, it’s all fair game now, and exploitation filmmakers are faced with the prospect of competing with films like Bonnie and Clyde (violence) or Last Tango in Paris (Sex) or A Clockwork Orange (both!) This is not good news for people like me and Kirby!

But who comes along to save us? The MPAA.

I believe the decision by the MPAA not to trademark the X rating was made with the best intentions. I believe the MPAA’s failure to respond to the effect of the co-opting of the X-rating was stubborn. I believe introduction of the NC-17 as a trademarked “adult only” rating was too slow and when it finally came it was handled clumsily. But I also believe that in combination these things saved exploitation filmmaking. Here’s why.

Whether the reasons are real or imagined, the fact that NC-17 is considered a box office kiss of death, the result is a reestablishment of the space between what Hollywood will do and what can be sold in legitimate venues. Occasionally a film will take the NC-17 rating (Lust/Caution, Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story) but more often than not, films that go “too far”, that is to say past what would receive an R-rating, are released without an MPAA seal. Everything old is new again!

And even better, now you can beat the drum, “Unrated! Uncensored! Uncut!” The subtext is clear, “We’ve got the good stuff! Come and have a look at what those moralists at the MPAA didn’t want you to see!”  Wow that must be hot stuff, right? And just like the 60s, when MPAA studios cut and ran on the Production Code when they thought there was money in it, MPAA studios do the same thing today. From John Frithian’s 2007 speech:

[W]e call for our studio partners to abandon the practice of releasing unrated DVDs of the same movies that played in our theatres with a rating. We know that unrated DVDs—unlike unrated movies in our theatres—can do brisk sales. But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is “unrated and uncensored.” 

Of course the “uncensored” part is just a lie. When the MPAA assigned the NC-17 rating to  Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story, Senior Rater Tony Hey told me he thought Marie and Jack was “a well-made, entertaining film that really delivered the goods—just the sort of film the NC-17 rating was made for.” There was no request that we alter the film in any way, and the NC-17 rating is entirely appropriate. In fact, given the laws in this country regarding showing sexually explicit material to minors, it’s impossible to imagine the film earning any other rating.

But I do wonder if we might start “tarting up” the marketing for our films. The Independent Film Channel was using “Unrated, Uncensored, Uncut” for a while, and even though they never aired anything that would have earned more than a PG-13 or maybe an R-rating, the tagline did make them sound edgy and rebellious. Maybe that could work for us too!

But for the foreseeable future, the NC-17 rating remains a dead zone. We didn’t see any benefit from getting a rating for Marie and Jack, so our next five have been released without an MPAA seal. Lust/Caution wasn’t a failure, but until there’s a real blockbuster released under the NC-17 banner, I don’t imagine we’ll see any significant studio efforts in that direction. Variety reports a studio exec at the same 2007 ShoWest at which Frithian spoke as saying, “There really needs to be a good, commercial movie that can break through the tide. The problem is, most of the NC-17 films have been niche or arthouse. It’s unclear whether the problem is the rating or the movie.”

And until then, DVDs films like The Dreams9 Songs and Shortbus will continue to be marketed as the “unrated version”, as if there’s another, less sexy version the MPAA tried to force on us, save the heroic defiance of the producers.

Section II)A has explored eroticism and sexuality in cinema from one side of the “exploitation” space, the boundary between mainstream Hollywood film and exploitation cinema. In the next section II)B) Landmark cases in obscenity law and the long  shadow of language will look at instances when decisions about eroticsm and sexuality were made in the courts and backed up by the full power of the state.

Till then, happy birthday America and happy Fourth of July to all of you!

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II)A)4) How “X-rated” became synonymous with “porn,” and the death of movie making for grown-ups.

This essay first appeared on my blog at Comstock Films in April of 2007

The poster for LAST TANGO IN PARIS, including X-rating symbol

(click to enlarge)

Fad23 is absolutely right. The X-rating was a part of the MPAA four-tier system first introduced in 1968.

But unlike G, PG, and R, X was not a trademarked MPAA property. The X rating was conceived of by the MPAA as a rating meaning ‘not suitable for children’ that could be and was self-applied by producers who did not feel their film needed and/or warranted a less restrictive rating.

But there have always been films deemed “not suitable for children,” and long before X or NC-17 there was an “adults only” classification, given to films like DUAL IN THE SUN, BABY DOLL, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, TO EACH HIS OWN and others that, by the standards of the day, were deemed to be inappropriate for children. (More about this in my uncle’s very excellent comment on the previous post.)

But in the 1950′s “foreign films”, made outside the (self imposed) Hayes Code that governed Hollywood production, began to make their way into the US. These films frequently addressed issues of sexuality in a manner that was far more frank than the coded subtexualized language required to address adult themes within the strictures of the code.

Poster for THE LOVERS, the film at the center of Jacobellis v. Ohio.

The 1950s also saw the breakup of the studio system, particularly the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, which considerably loosened control on what theaters could and would screen, and by the 1960s cultural mores had shifted to the point that the old production code was becoming increasingly irrelevant. In response code was revised in 1966, and in 1968 the production code was abandoned in favor G,PG, R and X system (originally G, M, R, X.)

But it’s important to remember that from the start, the X-rating was always intended as a rating that could be self-applied by producers, and unlike G, PG, and R, the MPAA maintained no control over the X rating as a trademarked property. It’s also important to remember that when the system was introduce “X” had no special stigma, any more than the previous rating of Adults Only rating give to DUEL IN THE SUN, et al.

Around the same time, there were court decisions established the legality of both producing films depicting actual sex acts and showing them in theaters. This new legal climate gave rise to the open production and theatrical screening of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts. Because X, which meant “adults only” was a self-applied rating, producers of these films were free to give their films an X-rating with or without the MPAAs approval.

At first this was done to give these sexually explicit films an air of legitimacy, but with no control over who could or could not use the X-rating it quickly became associated with very low-budget products concerned with little more than creating a vehicle for the presentation of explicit sex. It was at during this time that films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and others moved to have their ratings changed from X to R. Sometimes this was done by petitioning the MPAA to re-evaluate the rating, sometimes by simply editing out the “offending material”.

The stigma of the X-rating was further deepened when some producers began using XXX an gimmick to communicate that their films were especially raw or filled with sex, as opposed to merely X-rated, which could and did refer to films (such as MIDNIGHT COWBOY or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE,) that were unsuitable for children, but contained little, if any, explicit sex or nudity.

42nd Street, circa 1975 (click to enlarge)

This was also a time when many urban areas were in decline, and many theaters were turning to sexually explicit movies to draw audiences to theaters that would otherwise have been empty (think Times Square in the 70s.) In response, theater landlords began to write “no x-rated films” into their leases. Also theater chains enforced “no X” policies on their fanchiseese, and many newspapers had “no X” advertising policies.

Now remember, R means a film may be suitable for suitable for children when accompanied by an adult; X meant a film is not suitable for children at all. The concept of an “adults only film”, a concept that had existed from the beginning of commercial cinema, suddenly collapsed. It became impossible to advertise or exhibit a film that that was not suitable for children. For a film to be able to advertise in most newspapers, or play in most theaters, it had to have an R-rating, and that meant the omission of any element–sex, violence, language, drug use–that was not suitable viewing for children.

This collapse was not some grand conspiracy on the part of the MPAA to put an end to films for grown-ups. It was the result of the collision of changes to the MPAA ratings system, court decisions that allowed the production and public exhibition of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts, demographic and social changes that altered theater going habits, and the odd quirk that the MPAA had allowed their X-rating to be “public property”.

As a result, the X-rating was more or less abandoned by all parties. Hollywood producers weren’t going to invest millions of dollars in a film that couldn’t be advertised or screened in legitimate venues, and restricted their “adult” efforts to R-rated films. And producers of sexually explicit film and videos preferred to label their product as XXX, rather than the seemingly milder X. According to their own website, no films were rated X by the MPAA during the entire decade of the 1980s, (and virtually none in the 1970s.)

What that means is that for 20 years, all films produced by the Hollywood establishment that were produced within the confines of what could conceivably be shown to children. Moviemaking for grown-ups died.

Poster for HENRY AND JUNE, 1990, NC-17

In 1990 the MPAA attempted to reestablish a “legitimate” adults-only movie-making space with introduction of the NC-17 rating. Not wanting to repeat their mistake with the X-rating, the NC-17 is a trademarked property that can only be used if you submit your film and advertising to the MPAA process. But it was too little too late.

Not understanding the history of the X rating, and convinced that the MPAA was simply trying to put a new name on porn, most exhibition and advertising venues simply re-wrote their rules to prohibit the exhibition and advertising of NC-17 films. To this day some of America’s largest theater chains will not exhibit NC-17 movies, and many of America’s largest media outlets will not accept adverting for NC-17 movies. A few NC-17 art-house films were made, mostly in the nineties, and in 1995 MGM/UA gambled (and lost) on the NC-17 rating with the laughably bad big budget feature SHOWGIRLS. But in this decade (2000s), only a small handful of films have been rated NC-17, (including our own MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY.)

Now lest I be seen as an apologist for the MPAA, I think they were slow to understand what was happening to the X-rating, slow to take action, (nearly 20 years!) and when they did finally introduce the NC-17 rating, they did “drop the ball”. More over, as far as I can tell, they’ve done precious little since then to correct their mistake.

These days there’s very little movie-making that is truly for grown-ups. Even “serious films” that have no interest in attracting a teen audience have to be made “suitable for children” to avoid the dreaded NC-17, so even “realistic adult dramas” have an odd lack of candor in the way that sex is depicted visually.

The situations are adult, the language may be frank, but the sex and nudity is strangely demure. Sex is always under the covers, or with the lights low, or the camera-angles are cheated just enough to the left or the right to preserve the all important R-rating.

As a result we have a cinematic landscape where every other aspect of the human experience is rendered in vivid detail (with often a special fetishization of violence,) but the simple truth of what people look like naked, or what people look like when they give themselves over to sexual desire remains largely unexplored by filmmakers, and remains largely unseen by audiences.

Production still from MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY, 2002, NC-17

Since I first wrote this essay I’ve had conversations with Joan Graves at the MPAA and John Frithian at NATO, and some of what I wrote about NC-17 is just wrong. There are no meaingful restriction on advertising NC-17 films. Blockbuster Video and one major theater chain refuse to carry or exhibit NC-17 movies, but other venues are indifferent. If there were NC-17 movies and DVDs that people wanted to buy, theaters and stores would be happy to carry them.

And in light of new information, I’ve re-evaluated my opinion about what the MPAA has and hasn’t done to try and re-establish a truly grown-up movie making space. This passage from his 2007 address by Frithian to NATO is telling:

[W]e call again for efforts to revitalize that important category through the release of significant movies under the NC-17 rating. Contrary to often-repeated myths, most theatre companies will play NC-17 movies that are appropriate for their markets, and most newspapers will run advertisements for the pictures. NC-17 movies on average make $3.9 million, while unrated films on average make $1.8 million. Serious filmmakers need to take NC-17 seriously. Everyone in the industry should resist any temptation to treat NC-17 as a negative judgment, rather than an integral part of the rating system that contemplates entertainment for both children and adults. 

In addition, we call for our studio partners to abandon the practice of releasing unrated DVDs of the same movies that played in our theatres with a rating. We know that unrated DVDs—unlike unrated movies in our theatres—can do brisk sales. But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is “unrated and uncensored.” That cheap shot at the rating system undermines everything we strive to accomplish in partnership with America’s parents. The integrity of the system, and the respect it thereby earns from parents and government officials alike, depends on demonstrating, first and foremost, our own respect for the system. Ideally, all movies in every venue would be rated. At an absolute minimum, no movie should ever be marketed on the basis that it flouts the rating system.
(Emphasis mine.)

More about the “Unrated and Uncensored” marketing in the next section: The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America.

I also found a great cache of X-rated movie posters that help trace the emergence of the self-applied “X” rating on graphic sexploitation films. There is also a reverse movement on marketing attitudes towards the “X” rating. At the same time mainstream Hollywood releases are petitioning and re-editing to trade in their X ratings for R ratings, a counter current emerges in the sexploitation films. Films like Emmanuelle want the connotation of explicit sex that comes with the X-rating, but are trying to separate themselves from the pack with marketing lines like “X was never like this before” or “X has finally come of age.”

This last line makes me chuckle, because with films like Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange, X started out as a very grown-up rating for very grown-up films, but even these cinematic masterpieces couldn’t stand against the onrushing tide. I remember Emmanuelle being a watchable and sexy film, but it certain wasn’t nearly enough to rehabilitate X’s ruined reputation.

And find of finds! I found a poster for A Clockwork Orange with the X-rating. I wasn’t even sure it was out there. The internet can be a marvelous thing!

A brief run down. I’ll get the rest of art online soon:

1967 Big Bang, no rating call out on poster

1967 The Pleasure Machines, no rating call out.

1968 Spread Eagles, no rating call out on poster

1969 Starlet, “So adult one X isn’t enough.”

1969 MPAA gives Midnight Cowboy an R, but UA Arthur Krim self-applies X. 1970 resubmitted to MPAA for R rating w/out cuts

1970 The Marriage Manual, Eastman Color call out on poster

1971 Clockwork Orange released in as X, cut and re-rated as R in 1973

1971 I Feel it Coming self-applied X and Eastman Color Color call out on poster

1972 Zorro, “The First Movie Rated Z”

1972 Deep Throat released with self-applied X and Eastman Color call out on poster.

1972 The Devil in Miss Jones, X reviews from New York Mag, Newsweek, Playboy, Variety

1973 Last Tango in Paris X-rated

1974 Hot Shots released with self applied X on poster

1974 Emmanuellle self-applied X “X was never like this.”

1974 Amour A La Bouhe, La / Mannequin “X has finally come of age.”

1976 The Opening of Misty Beethoven, “A quality adult film” X inside of Q

1978 Hot Lunch release with self-applied X on poster

1978 Debbie Does Dallas with XXX call-out on poster

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II)A)3) The Collapse of the Studio System and the Rise of the “Art House.”

I hope I don’t sound condescending when I suggest that perhaps a modern audience might read the Production Code [previous post] and wonder how anyone could produce creatively and financially successful films under such limitations. In fact, the Code-era coincides with Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I have an ongoing discussion with my uncle (who is somewhat more conservative than I am) about whether or not the code restrictions were a good thing our a bad thing. He loves the movies of the Golden Age, and abhors the casual vulgarity and violence that is so common in contemporary-culture.

I appreciate the classics (and as a low budget filmmaker find them especially informative for basic film-craft. The best advice I ever got about editing was “watch old movies and study how they get people in and out of rooms.”) But also find them mannered. Watching movies from the Golden Age, I don’t feel transported in quite the same way that I do watching something like The Wire.

Where my uncle and I meet is in the very grown-up movies of the late 60s and early 70s – Carnal Knowledge, Klute, Midnight Cowboy, etc – the films made in the very first few years after the demise of the Production Code. But before getting into those movies, why they suddenly flourished and then just as suddenly disappeared, I think it’s worthing taking a look at the forces that brought about the end of the Production Code.

The detective’s maxim is “follow the money,” and when I follow the money I end up in the government forced break-up of film studios and theaters.Up until the 50s, Hollywood had been a vertically integrated opporation. Studios produced films to show in theaters they owned (or visa versa) and there wasn’t an easy path for films made outside the this “close-shop” to find their way to an audience. After the devestiture, films made outside the studio system and outside the Production Code had a way in.

My uncle remembers Italian and French films from this era as being strikingly different from American fare. They were gritty and grown-up n a a way that American films weren’t, and dealt with adult themes with a frankness that American films couldn’t. It wasn’t so much course language or nudity (though there was both in these films), it was that these films seemed more “real”, and by comparison typical Hollywood fare suddenly seems quite artificial.

That writers, directors, and actors were eager to get in on this is no surprise. New themes and new approaches are like new paints or new filmstocks, and any creative person clamors to play with new toys. But more important (in my mind at least) is that the studio bosses wanted in too, and were willing to go to the mat for “creative freedom” and the box office receipts that came with it. Three movies seem to stand out.


Thelma Oliver in The Pawnbroker (1964)

In 1964 The Pawnbroker was initially denied a Production Code seal over a brief showing of a woman’s bare breast. The studio appealed and won. The Pawn Broker become the first film with female nudity of any sort to be released under the Production Code.

In 1966 after “negotiations” with the MPAA Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was released under the Production Code seal with some alterations to Edward Albie’s dialog, but also with language never before heard in a Production Code film.

In that same year MGM’s Blowup was denied a Production Code seal, and MGM turned its back on it’s fellow MPAA member studios and released the film without changes and without a Production Code seal.

Now if you’ll permit me  personal detour.

In 2006, as required by Australian law, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival requested permission from the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to screen my film Damon and Hunter: Doing it Together at the seventh edition of the festival. The OFLC denied the request, and MUFF went ahead and screened the film anyway. (So many people showed up an impromptu screening was set up in a second room!)

Maybe this sounds sort of like MGM defying the MPAA over Blowup, but in fact it’s nothing like that at all, and here’s why.

Two months later queerDOC, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian International Documentary Film Festival scheduled Damon and Hunter for two screenings in their 2006 festival. But when the OFLC became aware of queerDOC’s intention to screen my film, they threatened the festival with a fine, and it’s director Lex Lindsey with jail. queerDOC subsituted a gay-themed sit-com in place of Damon and Hunter.

In 2007, again as required by law, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival requested permission from the OFLC to screen Ashley and Kisha: Find the Right Fit at the eighth edition of the festival. Again the OFLC denied the request, and informed festival director Richard Wolstencroft that if he screened Ashley and Kisha he could face fines and jail time. Wolstencroft responded with an open letter to the OFLC stating that he intended to comply with the OFLC’s demands.

None the less, on the night of the proposed screening the OFLC had officers from the Melbourne Police Department despatched to the theater to make sure that, unlike 2006, MUFF did not go ahead with the screening. Two member of the Melbourne Police Department, wearing side-arms stood by, while a round table on censorship was held in place of the OFLC cancelled screening.

This is why I get a little short tempered when I hear people talk about the MPAA and/or the Hays Code as censorship. I have yet to read anywhere any suggestion that the MPAA sent armed agents of the state to MGM to prevent the release of Blowup.  Whatever its excesses, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings, in its past or present incarnation, it’s not censorship.

Blowup was the last straw. With studios ready to bolt in pursuit of artistic integrity and the profits they hoped would follow, the Production Code was dead. What quickly came in its place was a four-tiered system of “parental notification” – a system that would usher in opportunities and excesses of its own.

Next post: How “X-rated” became synonymous with “porn,” and the death of movie making for grown-ups.

Thanks for reading. If you have a thought or correction or a different point view, please do chime in!

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II)A)2: Enter the Legion of Decency, or, How come my parents don’t sleep in twin beds?

I’m 43, which means I was a kid in the 70s watching I Love Lucy reruns. Even if I didn’t have words for it, I understood that the sexual mores of the 70s were different than times past, and I guess I sort of accepted without too much thinking about it that Lucy and Ricky sleeping in separate beds was a reflection of those mores. (Plus I watched a lot of those re-runs at my Nana and Pop-pop’s house, and they did sleep in separate beds, so it all seemed to add up.)

My uncle is 30 years my senior, and as he was watching movies like The Thin Man series contemporaniously, he had to invent a different reason that the husbands and wives in movies slept in separate beds, while his own parents made do with one. His answer? People in the movies were richer, and thus could afford the luxury of two beds.

Apparently my uncle and I were not alone in puzzling over this. From Yahoo Answers (thanks to Ell for the link!):

Jay C

Did couples actually sleep in twin beds in the “olden days”?

On tv, we see married couples in twin beds, but was that actually commonplace, or was that just so that viewers would not be offended? (silly viewers. I’m more interested in what actually occurred than what was on tv. I am wondering if the stuff on tv reflected reality.

The source of this warped view of matrimonial bedroom life was neither wealth nor a generation of spouses that eschewed the pleasure and intimacy of a shared bed. It was the Hays Code (named for Will H. Hays).

With a sterling conservative pedigree, Will H. Hays was hired in 1932 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America as an answer to increasing calls for government censorship, and as an industry advisor as to how to deal with with hodge-podge of local censorship boards.

What I think is very important to remember is that Hays was hired by Hollywood to head off government regulation, and even today, the United States is one of the only countries that does not have mandatory government censorship of films. My own Real Life, Real People, Real Sex series is distributed in defiance of these government “ratings” bodies in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Censorship bodies like the OFLC or BBFC are government mandated and have the power to ban films from being exhibited and stop DVDs from being sold; and these bans that are backup by fines and/or jail.

The approach in these Commonwealth Countries is the rule throughout most of the world. The freedom to distribute films without government mandated ratings that we enjoy here in the US is the exception.

Anyway, Hays struggled with the what to show/what not to show question until 1930, when Catholic priest Father Daniel A. Lord authored what would come to be known as “The Hays Code”. Although not adopted fully until a few years later, it would become “the law” for mainstream movie production, and the reason that married couples were shown in twin beds.

The Production Code would persist until 1966, when MGM, an MPAA member studio,  released Blowup without a Production Code seal.

I’ve posted the Production Code in it’s entirety below the cut. The next post will be II)A)3) The collapse of the studio system and the rise of the “Art House.” But it wasn’t really the arthouse that killed the Production Code. Ultimately it was the MPAA member studios themselves.

 
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code)

If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind Continued…

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II)A)1: Erotic imagery in Hollywood before the Hays Code.

II)A)1: Erotic imagery in Hollywood before the Code.

A short post today. My uncle, who commented on this post over at Comstock Films, is a tremendous resource for film history, came over last week. He’s got an enormous collection of DVDs and movie books: it’s like having my own private film historian/librarian! Some movie titles he left for me to peruse.

Ben Hur, 1907
 
Flesh and the Devil, 1926, Clarence Brown

Sign of the Cross, 1932, dir. Cecil B. DeMille.

Baby Face, 1933, Alfred E. Greene

I will try to get some clips ripped and uploaded soon. (My turn to cry “Fair use!)

Nothing in these movies is shocking by a modern standard. But the imagery (bare breasts, flower garlanded nude women about to be eaten by crocodiles or raped by apes) is startling compared to the highly constrained the sexual and erotic imagery in movies for the next 30-odd years. It wouldn’t be until 1964 , in The Pawn Broker, that a bare breast would appear in an MPAA certified film.

Up next: II)A)2) Enter the Legion of Decency, or, How come my parents don’t sleep in twin beds?

We’ll have a look at the actual production code, it’s most notable (to me at least) manifestation:the phenomenon of the divided matrimonial bed.

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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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My name is Tony Comstock and I am a thought criminal.

Hello and welcome to the website for The Intent to Arouse: A Concise History of Sex, Shame, and the Moving Image. My name is Tony Comstock and I’d like to tell you a little about myself.

I am 43 years old. I have been married for coming on 13 years. My wife Peggy and I have two children.

I used to say that I split my time between New York City and the East End of Long Island, but that’s less and less true with each passing year. Mostly I am in our home, writing, working on our films, taking care of our children and fixing up the “handy-man’s special” that we bought more than 10 years ago.

I began pursuing photography at the age of 19, when I took an evening session of Photography 101 at Southern Oregon State College from Doug Smith. 

I count this as one of the great happy accidents of my life. Not only did I find that the camera suited my temperament, but I was also very simpatico with Doug’s teaching style. This was doubling serendipitous, because Doug was substituting that year for a professor who was on sabbatical. Doug’s class changed the course of my life, and by 25 I was a working commercial photographer with my own studio.

I have alway been interested in the erotic photographic image. I made my first erotic photo, a casual snap-shot of my girlfriend, just weeks into that first course, and have made thousand more in the 25 years since then. The unique evidentiary quality of photography lends a quality of provocation to sexually explicit photographs that is absent in writing or painting. The only thing that comes close are images of food or violence.

In the course of my professional life have made images of all three -food, violence and sex – but it is only in that last case that I have to consider anything beyond my own or my clients’ agenda in the creation of the images. My ongoing erotic documentary series “Real People, Real Life, Real Sex” is made and marketed under the ever-present threat that we will be cut off from legitimate markets, or subject government censorship and prosecution.

The title The Intent to Arouse: A Concise History of Sex, Shame, and the Moving Image is drawn from the 1934 court case The United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses. In that court case, Justice John M. Woolsey rule that the 1922 James Joyce novel Ulysses was not obscene for the following reason:

“[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

This ruling by Woolsey has gone on to become foundational in both the legal and commercial regulation of sexual expression. In the US and elsewhere, the “intent to arouse” is the dividing line between work that is considered  serious inquiry into the human condition, worthy of legal protection and a place at the “grown-up” table of commerce; and work that is subject to marginalization, socially,  legally and economically.

This blog will explore those forces – social, legal, economic – and how they effect the erotic images we see, most especially in cinema; and in turn, how the images we see effect how we see ourselves.

This blog will also serve as an adjunct resource for a lecture I will be giving throughout the next year to film schools, university sexuality departments, professional and academic conferences, and to anyone else who will listen. A calender of dates will be posted soon.

Thank you for reading. I hope you’ll return, and perhaps leave a comment now and then.

– Tony Comstock  June 17, 2009

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