An exciting annoucemet!
Beginning February 7, I’m going to be spending a week as one of 3 or 4 guest bloggers standing in for James Fallows at The Atlantic magazine website during one of 10 weeks he’ll be away finishing a book. Needless to say, it’s a great honor, and I’m more than a little excited.
A broadcast e-mail went out to me and the other 20+ guest bloggers outlining the parameters and expectations; which in a nutshell was “write about what you think our readers would be interested in.”
I have been writing on the internet, as Tony Comstock, and in my capacity as the director of the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex documentary series for something like 8 years. In that time I’ve participated in online forums public and private, chats, kept my own blog, commented on other people’s blogs, Twittered, etc.
And in that time, every single word, every single keystroke, has been in service of one purpose: to impress the reader with the quality of my thought and the uniqueness of my perspective, in the hopes of convincing them that my approach to cinema and sexuality might be something new and noteworthy.
Think about that for a moment. That’s hundreds of blog posts, thousands of tweets, and who knows how many blog comments in service of a single purpose; to get the reader to think “Hmmm. I’ve never heard anyone put it quite that way before. I like the way he thinks. Maybe I should take a chance on one of his DVDs.”
That is not the sum and total of my life (thankfully!) But it is a large portion of my life, and it is the sum and total of my online life. And if living online isn’t quizzical enough, living it the way I have lived it is positively bizarre.
I’m not sure what I’m going to write about during my week. This morning in the shower a series of thank you letters to teachers whose lessons and kindness are still with me seemed perfect. There’s my pet-theory of free surface effect in socio-economic-information systems. There are thoughts sponsored by living 17 out of the last 36 months a boat.
And of course there’s sex and cinema, and the recognition that this is a tremendous opportunity to tell a wider audience about what I do, why I think the way I do it different and special, and why I think it’s important.
BRETT AND MELANIE is having its premiere tomorrow night, a benefit screening with proceeds going to The Center: The NY LGBT Community Center. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a film screen publicly before it came out on DVD — you know, like it was real movie or something. Fancy that.
The film has a lot of laughs, real burst out laughing funny stuff, perfect for seeing in a theater with an audience.
And the sex is hot. Really hot.
I hope I’ll see you there!
In a world awash in sexualized imagery, why does so little of it speak to the common pleasurable reality of sex? In his 20+ years as a filmmaker and photographer, Tony Comstock has explored this and other aspects of the human condition. Subjects of Comstock’s films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and the visualization of God. His current focus is the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series. Reaction to these films has ranged from film festival laurels and critical and popular acclaim, to police raids on screenings and intimidation of DVD retailers.
As this Wikileaks story continues to unfold I’ve read discussions pointing out that Mastercard and Visa are still doing business with the KKK (this post from Julian Sanchez is especially good.) I suppose if they wanted to, Mastercard and Visa could stop doing business with them, or stop doing business with us for that matter.
That in turn has reminded me of our long-standing troubles with where Comstock Films sits inside Google’s peculiar, algorithmic universe, and the shifting border between what Jay Rosen calls the sphere of legitimate controversy and the sphere of deviance. [Click to hear him discuss this and other things Wikileaks related with James Fallows and Jay Ackroyd.]
I first wrote about Google’s autofill feature in this post in November 2008 at The Art & Business of Making Erotic Movies:
[blowfish] is on it. [blowback] is not. [nina hartely] is on the list. [annie sprinkle] is not. [tony comstock] is on the Google “no fly” list. [peggy comstock] is not.
In each of these cases, and many others, the common thread to whether or not a search string will auto-populate in Google’s search field is whether or not there are potentially “objectionable” websites with high rankings the search returns; so Google will “suggest” [sexual intercourse] or [sex offender], but not [sex toys] or [sex education].
Of course by “objectionable”, Google means “sexual”. [stormfront], [nazi], and [white power] all auto populate, and searches on those terms give high rankings to stormfront.org, americannaziparty.com, and whitehonor.com respectively.
And then again in June 2010 at James Fallows’ blog at TheAtlantic.com:
Comstock’s case is worth considering, because of (a) his distinction between the “standard” porno that abounds online and what he presents as expressive speech worthy of notice and protection, and especially (b) his emphasis on the power of private as opposed to governmental info-czars. He begins by contrasting the “autofill” function that plays such a role in Google — an algorithm that guesses what you’re trying to find and gives you helpful hints — and the way it handles sexually freighted topics, including his company’s name, versus typing in a politically controversial term like “stormfront,” for which autofill provides suggestions of a white-supremacist organization you could be looking for.
And then last September at the Kōan of Silence when Google rolled out “Instant Search” and the internet freaked out a little bit over all the strange things that didn’t search instantly:
So now everybody knows — there are some things that Google doesn’t want to show you.
This is not news.
As of right now [stormfront] (awhite-supremacist organization) no longer autofills in Google search, a change from when I wrote James Fallows last Spring. Neither does [white power], a change from when I wrote about this back in 2008.
Strangely enough [storm front] does autofill and gives instant search results. (Stormfront.org is the #1 return.) And still no word on when Google might be able to find a SafeSearch return for the medically accurate term for a woman’s primary pleasure organ, homologous to a man’s glans.
As previously mentioned, we’re going to be having the world premiere of BRETT AND MELANIE: BOI MEETS GIRL on January 21, 2011 at The Center, the NYC LGBT Community Center, with proceeds from the screening going to support The Center and all the great work they do.
The seventh in the ongoing Real People, Real Life, Real Sex documentary series, Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl is an exploration of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. ”Brett and Melanie” depicts a butch/femme couple, and opens up questions about strength and vulnerability in the context of how we portray and interpret gender. Throughout Brett and Melanie’s interview, there is a constant dance of who is strong for whom, of who is vulnerable and who nurtures; and this dance continues when Brett and Melanie make love.
By including frank footage of Brett and Melanie’s lovemaking along with their candid testimony, the film also opens up questions about the meaning of reality in the context of documentary filmmaking, and explodes preconceptions about the place of sexuality and eroticism in cinema
In support of the screening we’ll be doing a poster and palm-card campaign throughout New York City, and that’s where you (my young, hungry, talented designer friend) come in! Help us get the word out about the screening and we’ll help you get the word out about your fabulous design talent!
WHAT WE NEED:
Design for an 11″x17″ CMYK Poster to go up in all the best places around New York City
Rework of the above for a 4″x6″ palm-card
The design should incorporate the phrase “Love, uncensored”
The poster should include all pertinent date/time/venue information and include a sponsorship bar
WHAT YOU GET:
Complete creative freedom in the design of the poster/palm card!
Your name/logo/credit in the sponsor bar on both poster and palm-card!
Access to Comstock Films design resources!
5,000 palm-cards and posters of your work distributed throughout New York City!
A complete set of Comstock Films DVDs!
WHAT THE CENTER GETS:
100% of every ticket sold! In 2009 the screening of ASHLEY AND KISHA raised well over $2000 for The Center. With your help this year we’ll do ever better!
Please e-mail us a print-ready file per PSPrint requirements
(tony at comstockfilms dot com)
Submit your design by December 21, 2010
Selected submissions will be posted at ComstockFilms.com and TonyComstock.com
The winner will be announced in early January!
If you have any other design related questions, please feel free to write peggy at comstockfilms dot com
We’re looking forward to seeing what you’ve got!
(The was a guest-post at The League of Ordinary Gentleman)
Launching the Loose Moose II
“Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing poorly.” — Lon McQuillan
Bob Wise is a sailor, boat-builder, and filmmaker. He’s also my friend and where film and sailing are concerned, my mentor.
At present he and his wife Sheila are living on a CAL 34, “SO IT GOES…” in St. Croix USVI while they put the finishing touches on a hand-built, wood-epoxy composite mast stayed with Dyneema Cord and hand-milled fittings to replace the stock rig that unceremoniously and precipitously decided it would be happier at the bottom of the sea than stepped on the deck of their boat.
Bob is what used to be called a “free thinker” back when religion held a sway over Western culture. As evidence of Bob’s penchant for thinking outside the box, I offer a short, extremely incomplete list of examples:
- Bob was an early adopter of the Steadicam, and against the advice of nearly everyone, spent ungodly amounts of money (for an itinerant filmmaker) to buy his own camera-rig. As a result, Bob and his rig proceeded to be very much in demand and Bob started making ungodly amounts of money (for an itinerant filmmaker.)
- When Bob and Sheila lived in Paris (the story of how that came to pass is best told/heard over rum, or while fairing a hull) they bought a small, unserved by the elavator (take the lift to the top then walk up one flight) former servant’s quarters apartment on the top floor of a Paris building for a surprisingly small amount of money because “no one wants those tiny apartments, and no one wants to walk up either.” When they moved out of the apartment (and on to a peniche in the Seine) rental of the apartment proceeded provide them with a small monthly stipend, and does to this day.
- After more than 15 years of working nearly non-stop (Bob was one of the only Steadicam owner/ops in Europe, and Sheila was one of the first geek-girls, administering one of the largest computer networks in Europe) Bob and Sheila decided to retire, build a boat and sail away. “Out of the box” thinker that he is, Bob ended up building a 11 meter ocean-going plywood box designed by the notorious iconoclast Phil Bolger. Derided as heretical (and worse) in nearly every port she visited, the LOOSE MOOSE II cruised France’s canal system, the Med, the west coast of Africa, travelled 200 miles up the Gambia River, and ultimately crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
- Not long after Bob’s son graduated from Harvard, the two of them celebrated Bob’s 50th birthday by taking a de-mining course together in Cambodia. (The graduation exam entails finding and deactivating a landmine in the Cambodian countryside.)
These days Bob writes about the art of living at (the frequently mistaken for a sailing gear blog) Boat Bits. His recent post Old Tech vs. Next Gen struck me as relevant to discussions about sustainability and technology taking place at various places around the blogosphere. (For example, heritage turkeys at The Atlantic or Tim Wu’s The Master Switch and digital exceptionalism); and resonated with longer standing questions I have about how we become trapped inside our own ideas of what constitutes freedom, and how to achieve it.
“[Why replace] something that works just fine for something newer, shinier, hipper and expensive that will, when all is said and done, do exactly the same thing as the one you are replacing. This of course is not just about wind-vanes but encompasses next gen anchors, new electronics, or whatever…”
This prompted me to e-mail Bob:
“I have to replace stuff that works because otherwise this money will just pile up and then I won’t be able to say “I can’t do the things that I want to do because I don’t have enough money” and losing that excuse would be very disorienting…”
And Bob responded:
“A guy wrote and asked my advice about buying a used Aries for $500 [the Ford F150 of self-steering gears]… His plan was to head over to the Bahamas this season and points further as he was unemployed but had some income etc. Then he wrote to tell me that he was going to have to buy a Cape Horn [a new Toyota Tacoma] which would cost about $5K because it was “better” than the Aries… Of course the plan is now put on hold as he somehow has to come up with the $5000…
“But you actually nailed it as simply an excuse to not go.”
(Now as it happens, back in 2007 I was the guy writing Bob for advice about an upcoming trip to the Bahamas, and Bob’s advice was “Get a windvane. If do you a little dock walking and swap meet prowling you’ll be able to find one for about $500.”)
It’s easy to dismiss this fellow who’s decided to delay his trip until he can purchase the $5,000 Cape Horn windvane as a day-dreaming dilettante. He has time. He has money for the perfectly serviceable Aries windvane. He should be half way across the Gulf Stream. But instead he invents excuses for not doing what he says he wants to do, and languishes ashore.
But opting out of the system is easer to talk about than it is to do, isn’t it? Here’s Alan Jacobs, writer and English professor at Wheaton College, who blogs about technology, literature, education, and other things at Text Patterns:
“I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.” [Read the rest of his post here.]
But it’s not just the investment of time and energy in these hegemonic systems, or at least it’s not that for me. The larger difficulty is an attachment to a self-image of powerlessness and a desire to take the socially reinforced route that borders on addiction. This is from 1999, when I realized that many of Phil Bolger’s larger “escape vehicles” (like Bob and Shelia’s Loose Moose II) were no more complicated than the 12′ Teal I had just built:
“There’s nothing so awful as the moment you realize your dreams are within reach. I have literally been reduced to tears by the sudden epiphany that the only thing standing between me and living the life I want is the doing. When I look at the plans for the the Loose Moose II, or Illinois, or Wyoming, or Breakdown Schooner, I am faced with the terrible knowledge that they are all within reach; that if that’s what I really want, it’s something I can do; that my day of reckoning has arrived.” [You can read the rest here.]
These reckonings arrive over and over again, in build-able boats and buyable steering gear and all the other opportunities to author our own lives that we let slip through our fingers while we wait for God or fate to intervene, while we wait for the stars to align just so. We choose fear and hope over courage and optimism.
We have never been better fed, but instead of being healthy, we are fat. We have never been more prosperous, but instead of being rich, we are in debt. We are better armed than anyone in the world, but we don’t feel safe.
“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” — Auntie Mame
November 2009, somewhere between Montauk and Bermuda, an Aries windvane, purchased for $460 on a Georgia dock, steers the sloop INTEMPERANCE through rough seas.
Two years ago it was my privilege to see ASHLEY AND KISHA: FINDING THE RIGHT fit play a sold-out show at The Center on 13th Street in New York City.
When the show was over, the programing director for the Lesbian Cinema Arts said, “If you ever have another film like this, let me know. We’d be happy to have you back.”
Well two years later it will be my privilege and honor to have the world premiere of BRETT AND MELANIE: BOI MEETS GIRL down on 13th street.
More information later. But for now, mark your calenders and I will see you there!
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” – Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavy-weight boxing champion
I recently found myself in a conversation with a young fellow, just out of school, working for a New York PR firm.
Until last Tuesday, he had been working for the Paladino campaign; and whatever his personal politics were, I had to ask him what it was like trying to manage press relations for such a train-wreck of an enterprise.
As it happens, his own politics were pretty far away from Mr. Paladino’s, so the various gaffs and mishaps were not only professionally challenging to this young fellow, it was also profoundly personally embarrassing for him to be in the position of trying to put the best face on it for the press. He told me about being in meetings where he literally sat on his hands and bit his tongue, lest he say something professionally inappropriate.
After listening to this lad’s squirm-making, cringe-inducing, but hilarious stories, I shared one of my own, from when I was about his age.
When I was in my mid-20s, I lived in Eugene, Oregon. By luck I managed to hook up with fellow not too many years older than me, but already well down the “being a grown-up path.” He was married, had two children, a mortgage, and had already established himself is the go-to guy for commercial photography in the South end of the Williamette Valley and beyond. He had talent, drive, ambition, a generous and likable personality, and was a natural teacher. I had to good fortune to be his assistant.
One day we were on a shoot for a new, but potentially big and steady client; an RV manufacturer.
We were shooting interiors, so it was a small set; just me, my boss David, and the in-house art-director for the client. We were shooting the galley, and the pantry door was open, with shelves lined with various kitchen goods to show off the well organized, easily accessible storage.
As David and I fussed with the lights, he asked the art-director if he could “make the boxes and cans in the pantry look beautiful” — shorthand for taking a moment to arrange them in an artful juxtaposition of shape and color.
“Oh sure. Make me do the nigger work,” replied the art-director in a jocular, clueless and collegial tone.
I cringed, and in a frozen moment debated whether or not I would say anything. And then I did.
“Jim, I’m not comfortable with that kind of language.”
Another frozen moment.
“Oh, okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it,” came Jim’s response, tinged with equal measures of embarrassment and annoyance.
The shoot continued without incident, and we did more work for that client. Jim never said anything like that again, or at least not within ear-shot of me. David never said anything to me about it all.*
I finished telling the young PR guy my story and finished with this:
In the 20 years since that happened I’ve concluded that I was entirely out of line. As the assistant I was on the set as an organ of the photographer and it was not my place to speak up.
Moreover, in comparison to to David, I had very little at stake. It was his place to decide when, if and how he wanted to manage his relationship with this client and its art director, with his business and family’s livelihood hanging in the balance. It was presumptuous in the extreme for me to usurp his position, to put tens of thousands of dollars in the balance, all for the sake of my convictions.
Yet at the same time, we only find out what our convictions are when our convictions are tested. If I had chosen not to speak up, I think I would still be ashamed of not saying anything even to this day. I don’t regret speaking up, yet at the same time, I’m horrified that I did. If I contemplate advising the young me, I would ask him to take a moment to think beyond himself; but if he still chose to speak up, I cannot find fault with that. 20 years later, I can’t say if I did the right thing or the wrong thing, or what I’d do if I had it to do all over again. I only know what I did.
Let me close this post by saying I do not offer any of the above as an example of courage. Yes, I like to think of myself as a courageous person, but more than once my courage has failed me in moments of far greater importance than whether or not to let a thoughtless N-bomb pass.
*Strictly speaking this is not so. I’ve stayed in touch with David, but now when we talk it’s as friends and colleagues. I recently reminded him of that episode in the galley of the RV, but he could scarcely recall it. So it turns out that in that moment, maybe I had more at stake than he did.
“The most lesbionic docu-real-world flick I’ve seen in like… ever!” (Screening BRETT AND MELANIE at Union Docs)Posted: October 27th, 2010 | Author: TonyComstock | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »
“There is something magical about being in the dark, with a group of people you’ve never met before, responding to the film as one.” – Tony Comstock, September 2006, An Open Letter Regarding the Cancelled QueerDOC Screening of DAMON AND HUNTER
Last Saturday night Peggy and I enjoyed a rare treat. We got to see one of our films play in a theater, in front of people who paid for their seats, and find out of BRETT AND MELANIE had what it takes to meld a group of strangers into that most magical of all entertainment entities – an audience!
Well I am pleased to report that BRETT AND MELANIE was up to the task!
From the opening stanza the audience laughed, chuckled, guffawed, snickered, sighed, chortled, and murmured at all the right places for all the right reasons. During the unfamiliar experience of sitting through an extended, explicit sex scene, the audience stayed right there with the film. No restless shifting in the seats; no nervous giggles. And when the scene (and Brett and Melanie) reached its climax, a warm sense of pleasurable resolution washed over the room. Then the credits rolled, the audience applauded. It was lovely.
Of course what was a rare treat for me was a rare experience for the audience as well.
Where the depiction of sex is concerned, there are well-observed lines in cinema, and (for a variety of reasons) films that cross those lines are vanishingly rare, and even then, when a film does cross these lines, the manner of the transgression is well proscribed.
Even at fellow panelist Lisa Vandever’s Cinekink Film Festival, a festival devoted to sexuality and eroticism in cinema, less than a third of the films presented contain any explicit sexuality. This isn’t squeamishness on Lisa’s part. She’d love to show more explicit erotic films, but says it’s nearly impossible to find depictions of sex that are sufficiently engaging to hold an audience’s attention in a theatrical setting. (More about the how and why of this at TheIntentToArouse.com).
Against these proscriptions, the chance to be a part of an audience and to watch a film about the grown-up pleasure and joy of love and sex that actually shows what grown-up love and sex looks like is not an experience you can have at the local cineplex, or even at the local indie arthouse.
No, to have the experience requires collaboration between filmmaker, venue, and people willing to take a chance on something most of them probably have never done before, and that is a rare collaboration indeed!
And then of course there’s the fact that Brett and Melanie are a lesbian couple. Or as my co-panelist and Velvet Park editor Diana Cage put it in her post promoting the screening:
How often do you get to see films with a real lesbian couple talking frankly about their relationship and sex life, having sex, and genuinely being authentic and open? What? Never, you say? Oh yeah, I forgot, lesbians are a completely underrepresented minority in popular culture. We rarely see images of ourselves, and the ones we are treated to are often exploitative, or vaguely unappealing.
Indeed, how often do any of us get to see any couple, gay or straight, black or white or any other color “talking frankly about their relationship and sex life, having sex, and genuinely being authentic and open?” Regardless of who you love or how you love, the answer is: almost never.
Diana’s response to the film was effusive, and during the panel she talked about the affirming aspect of seeing women she identified with up on the screen, treated as if their lives, their story, their erotic nature was every bit as worthy of being celebrated as anyone else; and the normalizing effect of seeing that two women having sex with one another, something described as “queer” really isn’t so queer. That when it’s placed in the context of love, it seems as natural and normal and beautiful as any other aspect of the human experience.
Which brings me to my favorite reactions to the film, which are simulaniously paradoxical and yet completely consonent with one another.
The first is from Grace Moon, founder of Velvet Park:
This movie was pretty amazing. Kudos to Tony for making the most lesbionic docu-real-world flick I’ve seen in like… ever.
The second was from a straight woman who was there with her documentary filmmaker boyfriend:
I didn’t really feel like I was watching a “sex film” or “queer cinema”. I felt like I was watching a movie about two people who love each other very much – and what could be more human that that?
I’m not religious, but I used to do a fair amount of documentary work that told stories from an explicitly religious point of view. When I made these films I was always trying to tell the stories in a way that would make people who shared the religious convictions of my subjects feel affirmed without doing it in a way that would make people from a different religious background, or no religious background feel excluded; and in my mind the key to doing that was to make sure that when I was telling a religious story that I was telling a human story as well.
I try to do this in the films I make about love and sex too.
Throughout the entire process I keep it in my head that every one who watches one of my films is going to come to it with their own unique life experience — about sex, gender, race, even about the very act of watching a film of other people having sex — and I want to make films that are as welcoming as I can make them, without denying the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, or betraying or denying the humanity and life experience of the people in my films.
But whatever my hopes and intentions, there’s no real way to know if this has been accomplished without seeing the film play in a theater, in front of a group of strangers and find out if the film can transform them into an audience.
Thanks again to Union Docs and Colin Weatherby for giving me that chance; to Diana Cage and Lisa Vandever for basking in the afterglow with me; to my wife Peggy for her support and partnership all the way along; and most of all, to the people who came out to Union Docs and took a chance on something rare. There is something magical about sitting in the dark, with a group of people you’ve never met before, responding to a film as one. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
(This essay was first published May 26, 2008 at The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films)
I would guess that many of you who enjoy reading this blog also enjoy reading Ms. Naughty’s blog, and are already aware that Ms. Naughty and I find ourselves embroiled in a vigorous disagreement over recent events surrounding the photography of Bill Henson. At the heart of our disagreement is the strong exception I take to Ms. Naughty’s invocation of the word “art” as a justification and or defence of how Mr. Henson creates his work.
Mr. Henson’s work is problematic in that he feels the best way he can explore and express his ideas is by taking naked pictures of adolescent girls; a practice generally frowned upon on the grounds that children are not capable of giving consent to such activities, and that it is inappropriate for their parents to consent on their behalf.
The truth is, I don’t know how I feel about Mr. Henson’s work habits. On the basis of the facts as they’ve been reported, I find the particulars of how Mr. Henson makes his images disquieting. I am myself a parent, and have trouble imagining delivering my own daughter to Mr. Henson’s set where she can serve as a “vehicle for expressing the things that interest [Mr. Henson] about humanity and vulnerability.” Read the rest of this entry »