I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

SNEAK PEEK! Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl at Union Docs 10/23

Posted: October 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Pre-Release Screening of “Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl” at Union Docs in
Brooklyn, NY
Curated by Colin Weatherby, and followed with a panel discussion exploring cinema,
sexuality, gender, and love with Velvet Park Managing Editor Diana Cage, Cinekink
Film Festival Director Lisa Vandever, and yours truly, Tony Comstock
Saturday, October 23, 7:30PM
322 UNION AVE
BROOKLYN, NY 11211

Official Union Docs Listing

Facebook Event Page

Brett and Melanie Pre-order Page at the Comstock Films DVD Shop

Diana Cage at Velvet Park

Lisa Vandever’s Cinekink Film Festival

I hope I see all of you there!


Tony Comstock, Live and In Person, One Night Only, National Coalition Against Censorship!

Posted: September 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Okay, this is last minute.

But.

I was just invited to be a panelist at the National Coalition Against Censorship free screening of DESTRICTED, this Monday (9/27) at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Here my event bio:

Tony Comstock is a documentary film director. Subjects of his films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. He is best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of erotic documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. Reaction to these films has ranged from critical and popular praise, to being banned from film festivals and police raids on DVD retailers.

Here are the details:

Web Page for the Event:
http://www.ncac.org/How-Obscene-is-This

SVA Theatre
333 West 23 Street, by 6:00 PM.
Screening 6:30
Panel about 7:35

The event is free and you can RSVP here:
http://decencyclausefilm.eventbrite.com/

Whether or not you can make it to the panel, you can help us make the most out of this event by posting something about it on your blog, your Facebook page, Twittering, or whatever else you do.

And if you do show up, let’s say we all go out for cheesecake after. Sound good? See you there!


It does get better.

Posted: September 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

More and more I find myself less and less impressed with what all this technology stuff is doing for the art I love. I think that photos made with a Rollie look better, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, but especially if you do.

But every now and then something comes along that makes me say, “Yes, that’s doing it right. That’s using the tools we have today to do something that wouldn’t have been possible 20, or 10, or even 5 years before.”

Dan and Terry’s “It Gets Better” is one of those moments.

Comparatively speaking, I had it pretty easy in junior high school. I was weird and didn’t really fit into any of the social groups. But I was good student, and a good athlete, and a good musician and I wasn’t afraid to fight if I had to. Sometime I got picked on (at this moment I wonder if what my wife calls my ‘queerness’ was the reason) but I never got picked on more than I was willing to allow. That meant a few trips to the principal’s office, but my parents, most especially my father always backed me up.

By high school I had mostly found my footing, but as easy as I had it, I wouldn’t wish my junior high school or high school experience on anyone. I still remember hearing adults saying “You’re going to look back on this as the best days of your life!” and thinking “I sure as hell hope not.” And when I try to imagine what would have been like to be small, or timid, or not knowing your father had your back, just imagining it makes me feel like crying.

So Kudos to Dan and Terry. I hope a lot of people make It Gets Better videos of their own, because it does get better. It gets a lot better. Just hang in there and it will.


“Bigger than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.”

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Browsing The Atlantic Wire this evening I came across the provocative headline Why College Kids Need a Course on Porn.

Tracing back to the source I came across this remarkable claim:

“There are an estimate 370 million Internet porn sites, and industry revenues surpass earnings by Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.”

Now just hold on a minute. I know, it seems like porn is all around us, especially on the internet, but com’on. Bigger than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined? Get out a calculator and run a few quick numbers and ask yourself, does that make any sense at all?

I happen to think how sex is depicted is important. I’ve explored it both empirically by making films about sex, and theoretically over at TheIntentToArouse.com.

But I get a little discouraged when these sorts of claims about the hugousity of porn get tossed off unchecked; at The New York Times, at Time Magazine, by Harvard economics professors, and even at my beloved Atlantic Magazine.

And of course it makes you wonder what else they’re getting wrong.

For about the bizillionth time, some real reporting on the size of the industry:

Forbes Article One

Forbes Article Two

You’re welcome.


Who Defending Craig’s List, Who’s Not, and the Future of the First Amendment

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Craig’s List has (once again) come under fire for its Adult Services ads section. These ads are no different from the ads you can see in any Arts & Entertainment “street” paper in any medium sized city.

They used to be free, until a man used the Craig’s List ads as a way to make contact with prostitutes and then kill them. And although the data-trail left by Craig’s List helped find the killer, it’s not surprising there was some uproar about ads offering illegal services being on Craig’s List to begin with, and in the end Craig’s List relented to pressure to remove the adds entirely by beginning to charge for the listings, hiring lawyers to screen the ads, donating some of the ads proceeds to charity.

But apparently that was not satisfactory to a group of 17 States Attorneys General, who sent what amounted to an open letter to Craig’s List, accusing them of facilitating forced sexual servitude of adults and the sexual exploitation of children, and demanding that Craig’s List remove it’s Adult Service listing entirely.

And that’s what happened.

Whether or not people have the right to prostitute themselves is question sure to spark heated debate among those who care to debate it. Whether or not Craig’s List makes the business prostitution more or less chaotic, I don’t know. Whether or not the removal of Adult Services listing from Craig’s List will reduce sexual crimes against adults or children, I don’t know, but I doubt it.

What I do know is that over at Wired.com,  Ryan Single makes a pretty convincing case that the same laws that protect Google from being held responsible for videos that users upload or from being held responsible for comments users leave also protect Craig’s List:

CDA 230 protects Craigslist — and also WordPress, Yelp, Google Groups, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Topix, Yahoo, The New York Times and Wired.com to name a few. Google’s Blogger isn’t responsible for any libel in any posts, Twitter isn’t responsible for Tweets from drug dealers, Facebook isn’t responsible for uploaded incriminating photos, Yelp can’t be sued if someone posts a libelous review, and no news site is legally responsible for what any commenter says.

Later in the same column, Single accuse the internet’s big players being afraid of taking a controversial position:

Craigslist’s complete retreat was from a compromise position it agreed to, two years ago with same said attorneys general — a few with political ambitions. Despite — or perhaps because of — Craigslist’s unconditional surrender, this group is amping up its assault on the 12-year old law that has allowed the net to flourish. And now Congress is getting into the righteousness with a hearing during which two representatives from Craigslist will face public flogging from politicians in the midst of an election season.

While we can expect this kind of showboating and moral grandstanding from politicians, the reason they’ve gotten this far has everything to do with companies like Google, Yahoo, Yelp and Facebook standing on the sidelines, silently allowing Craigslist to be pilloried out of fear they’ll be tainted as supporting prostitution and child-sex–trafficking if they stood up for an open internet.

But I would like to suggest that that the reason that WordPress, Yelp, Google Groups, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Topix, Yahoo, The New York Times, etc haven’t spoken up isn’t because their afraid. In fact, quite the opposite. The reason for silence from this who’s who of internet heavies is because they are not afraid. And the reason I say this is because when they are afraid, they pipe right up. Here’s a July 3rd, 2010 editorial in the New York Times entitled The Right to be Wrong:

The Supreme Court has long held that newspapers and other publications have the right to be wrong, as long as they did not err deliberately or with negligence. As Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in 1974, “the First Amendment requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters.” Unfortunately, the court missed an opportunity to uphold that principle when it refused to take an important First Amendment case last week.

In the case, the publisher of a financial newsletter promised a hot stock tip, based on inside information, to people willing to pay $1,000. About 1,200 people agreed to pay, but the tip did not pan out, and the stock failed to soar. The Securities and Exchange Commission sued the publisher for securities fraud, and the lower courts agreed that the publisher, Frank Porter Stansberry and his company, Agora Inc., should be penalized.

It was the first time the S.E.C. had gone after a publisher who did not have a stake in the stock in question. Normally, the laws against securities fraud are designed to prevent insider trading or manipulation by people who stand to profit through ownership of a stock.

Mr. Stansberry’s actions might seem unorthodox or even unethical by the standards of most reputable publishers, but that does not make them illegal. The implications of the S.E.C.’s action are potentially profound: newspapers or Web sites promising their paying readers stock information that later turns out to be untrue suddenly leave themselves open to fraud charges. Any financial commentator who passes on bad information in good faith could be sued.

A large group of newspaper publishers, including The New York Times, urged the Supreme Court to reverse the decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that Mr. Stansberry was liable for his actions. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press called that decision “a significant threat to the free dissemination of news about the financial markets and specific investment opportunities.”

Without comment, the Supreme Court refused on Monday to review the decision. Congress now needs to fix the problem by adding an exemption for the news media to the securities fraud law, as it has done in other financial legislation. In the meantime, if the S.E.C. does not begin to stick to actual securities fraud and stop whittling at the First Amendment, financial journalism could become more cautious and less robust.

The sorts of listing that used to be found in the Craig’s List Adult Services section have already started showing up in other, less regulated areas of Craig’s List, and elsewhere on the internet. The State’s Attorneys Generals’ actions amounting to little more than a sweep of the internet’s best known, best lit and best tolerated red light district, temporarily dispersing vice until it congregates in another neighborhood that the State can afford to ignore. Ryan Single’s argument maybe be logical, but it’s not practical, so it will be largely ignored.

The Stansberry case is more interesting, or at least it’s more interesting to me. Here’s why.

In recent years, much has been made of the idea of the Citizen Journalist, and I lay much of the appeal of the phrase to the high status of the Citizen Soldier in our national mythology; the Everyman with his cellphone cam replacing the Kentucky Rifleman as our great hero in the struggle between citizens and State and (now) corporate control.

But when I look at the evolution tools of war and the evolution of the Second Amendment, what I notice is a widening gap between what we see as reasonable limits on what the Second Amendment protects and the weapons of professional soldiering. Today, Second Amendment cases revolve around carry laws, or possession laws, but no one makes the argument that the right to “keep and bear arms” includes the right of the average citizen to own grenades, or claymore mines, or a rocket launcher.

So now it would seem that in the face of the growing power of the information and communications tools available to the average person, the courts are faced with determining reasonable limits on what uses of these tools are protected by the First Amendment, with (as now) those who can successfully argue journalist status afforded a greater degree of protection than mere citizens. And as with Craig’s list, where these boundaries lie will be determined both by what we can afford ignore, and what we can afford police.


How Film Festival and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Film, Part 1

Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

(First publish on February 3rd, 2009 at The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films)

Marie and Jack real sex erotic documentary DVD cover

Back in 2001 when I shot MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY I was, to put it mildly, rather naive about the indie film game. Silly me, I thought in a world where a serious approach to sex on screen was defined by aggressively sex-negative films from directors like Gaspar Noé and Catherine Breillat, the guileless earnestness and sincere eroticism of MARIE AND JACK would be a welcome breath of fresh air. I thought that film festivals were about putting provocative new works in front of cinephilic audiences, and that a film that made audiences feel good about seeing true love in all its glory was about as provocative an idea as a filmmaker could have about sex and cinema.

Silly me. I hadn’t yet learned about the “intent to arouse” doctrine. I didn’t yet know that in Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, sales of a film like MARIE AND JACK are prohibited by law. I didn’t know about these sorts of things and how they still affect the way that people — including festival programmers — think about what they can and should put in their festivals. After 18 months of sending off screeners to every festival I could think of, I had more or less struck out. Not even a no-name festival in my hometown was interested in screening MARIE AND JACK. (Yes, I know, there are laurel leaves on the box cover. The very few venues we played were very different festivals with a very different mandate and mission. More on the value of these sort of festivals in a post DVD world in the next entry.)

But as ignorant as I was about the social and legal climate that dictated our collective understanding of what it meant to be “serious” about sex and cinema, I was even more ignorant of the business of independent cinema; by business I mean quite plainly box office grosses, DVD units, and how much money ends up back in the pocket of a film’s producers.

The fairy tale narrative goes something like this:

Scrappy gang of young artists put together a film on a shoe-string budget. Invariably a key to their success is a just-now available to consumers product (high limit credit cards, “prosumer” video cameras, desktop video editing, etc.) Said shoe-string budget film goes on to be the darling of the film festival circuit. From there it’s a distribution deal for the film, and a three picture deal for the film’s director. The film pulls in about $16M at the box office. Not a big deal by Hollywood standards, but a stunning 50:1 ROI. Another rags-to-riches, hard work and derring-do success story!

Thank God my ignorance saved me and my films from such success. Here’s how it really works.

Naive young artist makes film. If she’s smart, she uses whatever the shiny new prosumers gizmo is in her production. This is important because if she uses (for example) the new Sony HDV camera and makes something that isn’t crap, Sony will give her a lot of free publicity. The shiny new gizmo could be FinalCutPro, MagicBullet, or a Panasonic HDX 200. The important thing is that it’s not the shiny new gizmo that everyone already has. There’s no marketing value for Sony in cheering a film shot on last year’s model. Next stop, the film festivals.

When you stop and think about it, film festivals are some kind of amazing. They get their films for free. They get a lot of volunteer labor. They get sponsors and underwriters. In some countries they even get government funding. Ticket prices are often higher than regular films at for-profit theaters. Overwhelmingly they are non-profit and get special tax treatment.

Yet in spite of all these advantages, film festivals can’t seem to find a way to pay filmmakers for showing their films. Oh maybe there’s money to fly you in, maybe even a hotel to stay in, maybe even a token screening fee. But mostly “doing the festival circuit” is a big financial drain. If your film is a “success” on the festival circuit, hundreds, even thousands of people will see your film, and you won’t see a dime.

So why do filmmakers participate in a system that is gamed against them? It’s all in the hopes of getting a coveted a “distribution deal,” with all the fame and fortune that goes with it.

Fame? Maybe a little (anyone remember Daniel Myric and Eduardo Sánchez?) Fortune? Most certainly not. Here’s how it works:

By the time you get to the end of the “festival circuit” you are dead broke. Maybe you shot your film on a cell phone in a favela in Brazil, but the airline tickets and hotel rooms and meals for the circuit take cash money. Plus if you’re “out on the circuit” you’re not working. Unless you’re a trust-fund baby, you arrive at negotiations with distributors in the weakest possible position.

So there you are. In spite of a well-received festival run, you’re in debt and a large portion of the cinephile audience has already seen your film. Of course your film isn’t available on DVD, because film festivals don’t play films that are already available on DVD, so people who read about your festival success, (the best press your film is ever going to get,) can’t give you their money. Things are bad. But they’re about to get worse. You’re about to get offered a $50K advance for your film.

Of course that’s if you took the grand jury prize at Sundance. If your film wasn’t quite so successful, you’ll get offered less. But just wait till you hear the terms.

“Advance” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? It sounds like it’s the beginning of the money; something to tide you over until the royalties start rolling in. Maybe you’ll use it to take a long and well-deserved vacation to St. Barts and by the time you get home, your first statement will be waiting for you; and more importantly your first check. But that’s not the way it’s going to work.

Your film is about to become the bubbly brown liquid in a giant marketing and hype machine. As essential as it is, that magical combination of water, sugar, and carbonation is a financially trivial part of what makes Coke Coke. Your film is about to get the same treatment. Here’s why.

Big budget Hollywood movies run on about a 3:2 production to marketing ratio; the figure I’ve read is that the average Hollywood film has a production budget of about $60M and a marketing budget of about $40M. But for independent films, the marketing ratio puts makes the film a much smaller part of the financial equation. Harvey Weinstein once said that even if he got a film for free, he’d still have to spend $20M on marketing, and “break-out” indie films (films that might make $10m-$20 at the box office) routinely have marketing and promotion budgets that are 10 or 20 or even 50 times greater than their production budgets. So much for the ROI on a half-million dollar picture. And so much for those royalty checks.

Read the hype and you’d think that the film is a big hit. In fact all the “profit” has disappeared into advertising, press agents, photocopies, and a zillion other expenses (if you think $4 for an aspirin on a hospital bill is outrageous, just wait till you see a distributor’s expense report!) Once the distributor is finished tallying up the score, the theatrical run will turn out to be a loser; a bunch of hype in the hopes of broadcast and DVD sales. And guess what, before a single royalty check is cut, the TV and DVD sales have to fill in the financial crater left by the theatrical run. The filmmaker with the “breakout” hit is never going to see another dime.

And that “three picture deal”? That’s not a guarantee of financing for your next three films. That’s an option for the distributor to get first right of refusal, at a price they set, on your next three projects.

Next. Part 2: A Tale of Two Indie Films


The last film I made that wasn’t about sex.

Posted: September 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

My first erotic documentary, MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY, was shot in July of 2001, in the bedroom of our Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

It turned out to be a pretty good little movie, but the truth is at the time I thought the shoot was a near miss, and I didn’t think I had a movie. I thought their lovemaking was very nice, but I was disappointed with the interview. It had way too much material there was no way I could illustrate, and I just didn’t see how it would cut into a movie. I took the footage to the studio, cut the sex footage into a very crisp 5 minute vignette, figuring that after 5 years of experimenting with couples in private, at least I now had a model-released, shot to be seen by the public demonstration of my vision of how sex could be photographed and edited.

How I would use interview to create character and story and then wed that to the lovemaking would have to wait for another day.

Then nine years ago, on a morning very much like this one, the world turned upside down.

Two weeks earlier, my wife had flown to Oregon to take my mother up on the offer to give us her Mustang convertible (a crappy late 80s one, not a classic) and Peggy had only arrived home the night before. There was a beautiful swell running, and after two weeks of sitting on the beach with our baby, I was out the door early.

The waves were big and clean. The wind was lightly offshore. The sky was, as it is this morning, clear early Autumn bright. It was a perfect day.

Then strange and confusing rumors started coming out with fellows paddling into the line up. An airplane had hit one of the Trade Center towers.

How could that be? I knew that a plane once hit the Empire State Building, but that was years ago, at night, in a fog. How could a plane hit the Trade Center on a bright clear morning? Anyway, the waves were good, and I kept surfing.

Then more rumors that made less sense.

I kept surfing.

Then one of the regulars paddled out. There had been an attack and towers were on the ground. He was a recently retired Manhattan fireman, so I figured if he said it, it must be true. Immediately I thought of my uncle and my sister-in-law and figured they must be dead.

But it was a perfect day, so I kept surfing until I couldn’t take the anxiety anymore. I caught a wave, rode it to the beach, and drove home.

Contrary to her habit, my wife was up early that morning. When she checked her e-mail there were a bunch of “Are you alright?” notes from her online friends. She turned on the television just in time to see the second tower collapse, and when I got home she was collapsed in front of the TV, sobbing.

“They’re okay!” she burst out as I came through the door. Family members had called to let us know that my uncle hadn’t gone to work that day, and that my wife’s sister, although she had been thrown from her chair by the impact of the plane, had been able to escape without injury.

We spend the next three days watching the TV and crying.

Our business came to a complete standstill.

In October I finished MARIE AND JACK in one non-stop 4 week editing session, and although it was not the movie I had set out to make, it wasn’t as bad as I had first feared. In fact, some people were telling me it was the best integration of character, story, and explicit sexuality they had ever seen.

Unfortunately, those people were not festival curators or film distributors.

In January we sublet our apartment, in February we let the lease run out on our studio, and in March I sold my rapidly devaluing AVID editing system.

Then in early May the phone rang. I was asked if I would be interested in producing a film about pastoral counseling and 9/11. Of course I said yes, (please don’t misunderstand, I had produced many explicitly religious films, for this client and others.)

There was one condition: would I agree not to put my company’s name in the credits for the film. There was some concern that in this context “Crumbling Empire Productions” might upset people. Of course I said yes.

SUDDEN SHOCK: SPIRITUAL DOUBT AND RENEWAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11 was produced in three days of principle interview photography and one day of second unit photography.

From the outset I made the decision not to show any footage from the day of the attack, feeling that it was a waste of resources to show people images that were already well-known, and the intensity of the images risked overwhelming the smaller, personal stories that would comprise my film. The film was edited against a September 1 deadline so that it would be ready for the 1st anniversary, a relatively short amount of time to turn 25+ hours of testimony from more than 20 subjects, and 2 hours of second unit photography into a 25 minute film. The film was well received by the client, by my friends and colleagues, and by its audience.

But for me, the aftermath of SUDDEN SHOCK was mixed.

Unbeknownst to me, SUDDEN SHOCK was tangled up in a larger power struggle within the organization that commissioned it. Outwardly the film was a tremendous success, and I was asked to begin work on a larger piece for the same organization. But when I found I myself sitting at the very first meeting of stakeholders with a woman screaming at me that SHOCK was a waste of money and that I was “taking food out of babies’ mouths, I knew that project wasn’t going to go well. That next film took more than a year to finish, contradictory agendas born of the above power struggle caused delays and waste, and while the resulting film was perfectly fine, it did not realize the investment that had been made in the project. It was the first time I had had a project spin so completely out of control, and I was bitterly disappointed; both by the fact that I hadn’t been able to make the film I knew was “in the can” and by the pettiness that had prevented me from doing so.

The disappointment faded, but the above project gave me a more lasting gift.

The project took me to Kenya for a month, and upon my return home I had a terrible stomach ache, and was generally lethargic. I underwent a series of tests to see what sort of nasty African bush bug had taken up residency in my guts, but all the tests came back negative. But my stomach ache got worse, and it was finally determined that it was a psychosomatic stress response, and I was in fact suffering from a bout of depression. (The unmowed lawn and disinterest in anything else should have been a clue.)

Later, when I was recounting my mental misadventures with Souha Nikowitz (the Lebanonese psychotheripist in SUDDEN SHOCK) she said, “Well think of what you do. You go to all these terrible places and hear people tell you all these terrible things. Then you come home and lock yourself in a dark room and listen to it over and over and over again. This is not behavior that is conducive to good mental health!”

The day before yesterday I noticed my stomach hurt. In fact it hurt enough that I went to bed early.

When I woke up yesterday it still hurt, and it hurt throughout the day, becoming particularly bad last night. Then I thought about what an exciting and productive week it had been, with essays about Lower Manhattan and Google Instant, and a lot of e-mails back and forth with friends and colleagues about “Big Ideas”. And then I looked at the calendar, and knew that in a few days my stomach ache would likely pass.

The blurb on the DLR Films website reads as follows:

Sudden Shock: Spiritual Struggle and Renewal in the Wake of 9/11 is a documentary focusing on the work clergy, chaplains, and other faith-based caregivers have been doing in and around New York City since 9/11. The work takes an emotional and spiritual toll on these men and women, but it has also given them renewed hope and reinvigorated their faith. It’s a small film about a big idea: that love is more powerful than fear.

I wanted to embed it here at the bottom of this post, but WordPress is being cranky. If you’re so inclined, you can watch SUDDEN SHOCK online at the DLR Films website. As I said before, there are no images from that day in the film. Just testimony and some footage of life “getting back to normal” a few months later, and a beautiful score.


What’s Happening with Google Instant Didn’t Happen Overnight

Posted: September 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »


“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” – George Orwell

So now everybody knows — there are some things that Google doesn’t want to show you.

This is not news.

In December of 2006 I broke the Great Google Sex Bug story, a story that was covered by outlets as varied as SearchEngineLand.com, Boing Boing, PBS.org, and the New York Post; and in the years that followed, I chronicled a systematic campaign by Google to control and suppress sexuality-related returns.

Specifically relating to Google’s autofill, in November 2008 I wrote about an internal Google database that prevents certain search strings from being include in Google’s “Suggest” feature, which autopopulates its search box.

In that same month, I discovered and wrote about gender bias in Google’s treatment of proper medical terms for sex organs.

My mistake is that I wrote about all of this on The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films, thereby relegating my observations to the back alleys of the internet. I was idealistic to the point of foolishness.

But in May of this year, James Fallows was kind enough to post these and other of my observations about how Google’s search algorithms affect our company, with an eye to the broader implications.

But it wasn’t until yesterday, when Google rolled out its new Instant search product that the world took notice of the fact that Google has some pretty strong opinions about what you do and don’t want to see. What can I say, except welcome to the party, folks.

Over at Kevin Marks’ blog, in a post about Orwell and Google Scribe, Kevin wrote:

[Our dependance on algorithms] has only got worse since then; in some ways the computers programmed to write and evaluate prose are analogous to the computers programmed to securitize and trade mortagages – they are growing large enough to outweigh and destabilize the human activities that provides their reason to exist in the first place.

Considering how the computerized securitization and trading of mortgages turned out, that’s a pretty unsettling thought, isn’t it?


The only thing I’m ever going to say about the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Posted: September 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments Off on The only thing I’m ever going to say about the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Skin in the game:

My wife’s sister was in one of the towers that morning, but made it out alive. My uncle would have been, but didn’t go into work that day. For a few hours that morning I thought they were both dead.

Thought:

If you have employees who are smokers and you don’t provide them with the time to smoke, a place to smoke and a place to put their cigarette butts, they’re going to smoke at times and in places that are inconvenient or even dangerous to themselves and/or their co-workers, and there are going to be cigarette butts all over the place.


My Daughter Swears an Oath

Posted: September 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Tomorrow is the first day of school, and our eldest daughter is going into the sixth grade.

Right before our very eyes, our daughter is changing from a child to a young woman, and the process is simultaneously gladdening, startling, and makes me a little wistful. Everyday she is a little less dependent, a little more autonomous, a little more responsible for herself, and a little more exposed to the indifference of the universe.

Her first great leap in this process is that this summer we began to allow her to go to the beach with a friend, but without parents along, and she reveled in her new-found freedom, returning from her first day at the beach declaring it “the best day of her life!”

Another step in her walk toward responsibility is her declaration that, although some of her friends have begun to use profanity, she is determined to abstain until high school. Furthermore, she has decided that she is not going to use exclamations that are merely thinly disguised versions of stronger words: no “shoot” or  “crap” or “dagnabit”. I am proud of her, for her choice, her sense of appropriateness; but even more so for the fact that she’s thought it through and made a choice.

I don’t know if the work Peggy and I do makes us more sensitive to issues of sexuality, profanity, and age-appropriateness, but you certainly don’t have to make sexually explicit documentaries to find yourself neck-deep in these questions; and not always at the place of your choosing. From a couple years back on Peggy’s blog:

So while Google is busy doing its part to (presumably) keep our nation’s impressionable youngsters “safe” from sexual terminology and content (check out Tony’s blog for more,) I get called upon to explain erectile dysfunction to my nine year old daughter while innocently trying to watch a PG-rated show at 9:00pm on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Hilariously, I’m almost afraid to type the brand name of the product being advertised for fear the Google-bot will find the offending name on this blog and penalize the Comstock Films site as a drug-spamming, malware breeding, den of iniquity. We’ve got enough problems with the Google-bot already, thanks. So let’s just say the commercial was for a drug, name beginning with the letter ‘C,’ famous for featuring attractive and affluent looking middle-aged couples lounging in side by side bathtubs with smarmy faux-cool jazz playing in the background. (Because nothing says intimacy like individual high-walled ceramic pods-for-one, but that’s a head-scratcher for another day.)

So, back to the sofa in the Comstock family den, daughter #1 and I curled up for our weekly dose of implausible science-fictional fun, and whammo: commercial break after commercial break, here comes that smarmy faux-cool jazz and alarming quick-spoken fine print babble about “erections lasting more than four hours.” Wonderful family viewing, piped right into our home, no searching required! Fabulous!

“Mom,” daughter #1 asks finally after being bombarded by these ads, wrinkling her little brow in consternation. “What is E.D.?”

I’m a good little arugula-munching liberal: I’ve talked about sex with her before, she’s got a copy of Where Did I Come From, she’s seen me go through a pregnancy, etc. — she knows the basics. I assure you, none of that made it any less awkward to have this “teachable moment” thrust upon me unawares by the good folks at Eli Lilly and the SciFi Channel while I was just trying to enjoy a little escapist TV.

But hey, this is life as a parent, isn’t it? You don’t always get to pick and choose where your teachable moments come from. Even the best filters don’t always work. Life comes at you and your kids, and you are responsible for seeing them through it. You stay involved with your kids’ lives, you watch what they’re watching on TV, you stay aware of where they’re going online, and you talk with them about their experiences and understandings. Sometimes, you have to explain things that make you uncomfortable. Sometimes, you have to (try to) explain society’s strange hypocrisies and priorities.

For my kids, for my family, this responsibility — no matter the subject — is not Google’s job, it’s not the Sci-Fi Channel’s, it’s not some arbitrary filter’s. It’s mine.

Meanwhile, as outlined in the previous post, we have embarked on an exploration of age-appropriateness, censorship, community,  disintermediation, gatekeepers, status, and all the other hoary gory stuff this new networked world has opened up, and made a part of people’s lives in ways many of us never expected. Last week I had a great chat with Tony Hey, Senior Rater at the MPAA, and over the weekend I submitted a project proposal to Kickstarter, had a cordial tete-a-tete with high-level members of the YouTube community, and send a query letter to Vimeo about helping us create a content-appropriate version of  our upcoming film to serialize on their service.

Lastly, when I started this work,  I was just trying to find a way to make images of sex that didn’t make me feel ashamed. But in the 15 years of experimenting with technique, making and marketing our films, and trying to keep up with the huge changes in how (and how much!) information swirls around us, the work has taken on a larger meaning for me. Through this work I’ve tapped into “big ideas” and time and time again pursuing this work has forced me to re-examine and reevaluate what I think, what I feel, and what I believe.

For those of you who are long time readers of my blog, and supporters of our films, I hope you feel the same way. And I hope you’ll stick around for whatever’s next!


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