How do we learn?
In a previous post, If you happen to be in Uruguay next month…, I announced that three of my films are being shown this September at the Sala Cinemateca Festival. In announcing this I made good on a promise to myself to no longer actively promote the work to which I devoted the better part of 15 years, but also to not let any easy opportunities to call attention to it go unanswered.
I also (wryly? bitterly?) made mention that two of my films will soon go out of print as DVDs and without access to a mainstream venue like Apples iTunes store, they will no longer be available to the public, and that this will be the fate of the entire body of work. Retrospectives like the one Sala Cinematica is presenting will, in time, be the only (legal) way that new audiences will see these films. A fitting end to Tony Comstock’s career, I think.
The post elicited exactly one comment, from Glyph, which is quoted in its entirety below the cut.
Hi David, I watched the linked preview clip, and another one that YouTube popped up automatically after this one ended.
As I watched them speak, I found myself sort of…embarrassed I guess is the word? Maybe this is partly due to some sort of residual American Judeo-Christian shame about sex, but I don’t think it was (I am really no prude, I am OK with whatever makes any consenting adults’ socks roll up & down).
I think it was rather a sort of embarrassment at witnessing others’ intimacy…like I was hearing these people’s secrets and I was never meant to. I am a pretty mind-yr-own-business-anti-TMI kinda guy; the private should usually be private, etc. So it felt uncomfortably like I was ‘eavesdropping’. (I know it’s not remotely the same thing at all, but I avoid a lot of so-called ‘reality TV’ for the same reason – Not My Business).
I know from the previews and the other things you have written about your film work that exploitation, voyeurism and cheap titillation are the farthest things from your mind – that your intent is to depict, in an artful way, real people sharing the sort of beautiful intimacy, communication and joy together that all human beings should be so lucky as to experience, as often as possible, in their lifetimes (and that in reality is probably so common as to be nearly unremarkable, if we didn’t have such taboos against depicting it publicly).
I guess what I am asking is, is my initial emotional reaction as a viewer (let’s call it ‘Intimacy Shame’ rather than ‘Sex Shame’) a common one in your experience? And, if it is, in your experience do those feelings persist throughout a complete viewing of the work? Of course, even if I remain uncomfortable throughout and after, I know that does not diminish the work in any way, and depending on why it makes me uncomfortable and what I ultimately get out of that discomfort, it may enhance the work’s value to me.
I guess what I am saying is, I am intellectually very intrigued by the project, but not sure if I am emotionally ready. 😉
Plus, as I have said, I find the concept behind the work laudable and fascinating, and I admire your bullheaded attempts to make the world listen on this front. And since nobody else had yet commented on this post (who’d’a thunk that sex sells everywhere but at the LoOG?), I wanted you to know that.
This is a thoughtful, emotionally honest comment, and in responding to it the first thing I’d like to do is simply to thank Glyph for taking the time to write it, and having the courage to post it. Laying yourself bare before the world, even pseudonymously, is no small thing.
Secondly, if my irritation of where my work stands in relation to copyright minimalism and the algorithmic parsing of culture is the primary source of my frustration about the work has been received, the failure of the films to gain traction and provoke serious critical discussion of the issues and emotions they raise is a close second.
In short, in comparison to films like DESTRICTED, 9 Songs, Shortbus, or Anti Christ, I don’t think the work got a fair shake. And because of that, and because I’ve promised not to let an easy opportuity go by (even if that opportunity comes on the wings of an pseudonymous commentor on an independent blog) I’d like to respond (as best I can) to the questions and concerns Glyph’s comment raises.
To start with, I’d like to quote from a letter I wrote to the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification. What occasioned my writing the OFLC was their threat to fine and/or jail the director and/or board members of the Sydney International Film Festival if they went ahead with their plans to screen DAMON AND HUNTER: DOING IT TOGETHER as a part of their 2006 queerDOC film festival:
I have been a photographer my entire adult life. In the name of bearing witness to the human condition I’ve documented unspeakable suffering, violence, and death; and for that I’ve been praised as a courageous witness. When I review the scope of people, places and events that have passed before my lens, I am unable to comprehend the censor’s rational for “protecting” adults from photographic images of sexuality. Adults have the capacity and the right to choose for themselves what sort of images they wish to see. They do not need to be protected from images of sex, and least of all from a film like DAMON AND HUNTER. In the face of horrific images we are exposed to each and every day, the OFLC decision is not only unfair, it is perverse.
The letter failed to have any effect, and two episodes of a gay-themed British sit-com were substituted for the already sold out screenings of DAMON AND HUNTER.
Since that time my views on the cultural placement of explicit sexuality in film have become more nuanced. The question “Why is it okay to show someone getting their head chopped off*, but it’s not okay to show a woman’s bare breast?” is usually inflected rhetorically. But from 2008 through 2011 I spent a lot of time read, thinking and writing on that question as one that deserved serious consideration.
To answer Glyph’s first question, “Is my reaction a common one?” the answer is yes. We’ve had excoriating 1-star Amazon reviews that were clearly provoked by the viewers’ discomfort, not with the sexually explicit footage, but with the emotional candor. More than once we’ve had (women) declaim they were enthusiastic consumers of pornography, but found they were not comfortable watching one or another of our films because it felt too intimate.
The question as to whether or not this discomfort would persist is a difficult one. Currently my own position is that sex is about the most personal and contextual of human activities. I have a close friend, someone I admire, someone who has expressed admiration for the films similar to Glyph’s, who also classes his feelings about the films as “not ready”. I have another friend, who’s offered similar praise, who says simply, “I”m glad these films exist. I laud your courage for making them. I know they’re not for me.”**
In 2006 I might have dismissed these views as prudery, or closed-mindedness, or simply fearfulness.
I don’t feel that way now. I now accept that that sex is intensely personal and contextual, that a person can have comforts and discomforts around sexual intimacy that are very different from my own without it being an indication that they are less evolved, thoughtful, open-minded, or capable of loving and being loved.
Bill and Desiree feel that way too, which is a big part of why I wanted to make a movie with them.
*In fact, a promotional documentary I produced for a religious organization contained footage of a murder by beheading during the Rwandan genocide.
** In 2002, another friend said nearly the exact same thing about the film I made about 9/11.