A Caution for Visionaries

This will never do.

Or such was likely the first thought of an old desert tribesman on seeing the line of petitioners winding through the encampment.  The line ended at the tent of his son-in-law.

The younger man had done well for himself.  When they parted he was an exile.  He returned now as the leader of a people.  And the older man had heard stories about how this came to be.  But the younger man had little sense of his surroundings and the limits they imposed.  He grew up as the adopted grandson of a king, and accustomed to having slaves hanging about out of sight, anticipating and delivering needs and desires.  The upbringing also steeped him in stories that somehow elevated a mortal human king above the forces of earth and sky.  He consequently seemed to have a rather blurry sense of personal limits.

Bedouin Tent, Syrian Desert
photo by Kok Leng Yeo, Wikimedia Commons

The older man was Jethro, priest of Midian.  He was grounded in a way that his son-in-law was not.  On the one hand his position as a holy man brought prestige.  On the other there was the poverty of his situation.  When they first met Jethro lacked adult sons and his flocks were not large enough to support hirelings to tend them.  They were also too small to attract the interest of suitable matches for his daughters.  Jethro cultivated his prestige and was very careful how he used it.  His status protected his daughters from physical harm when they tended his flocks.  But it did not prevent intimidation when they brought the stock to water.  Water in the desert was life, which meant it was often wielded as a cudgel by the strong.  So Jethro lived in a balancing act between his position as priest and the limits of his actual power as the leader of his family.

But then a headstrong young fugitive waded into the midst of his daughters’ tormentors and beat them black and blue.  Jethro was quick to recognize the potential. The fugitive became a relative and grandsons were added to Jethro’s little family.

There was some understandable consternation a few years later when the son-in-law proclaimed an encounter with the I AM.  The encounter was followed shortly by a return to Egypt.  Jethro knew whispers of the I AM from his service to the gods.  But the vision of Moses dictated a confrontation with Pharaoh and survival seemed unlikely.  Fortunately Moses left his family behind in the relative safety provided by the Midianite tribes.  The children were the future.

And against all hope Moses returned.  Jethro found himself learning something new of the I AM.  But he also could see that the favor of the I AM did not apparently not bestow the good sense that comes with successfully navigating treacherous limits.  So, Jethro stepped into the problem to bring a bit of that good sense.  Again he was carefully trading on his status, this time as the family patriarch.

Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?

Jethro could see that this was not going to end well.

The thing that you do is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone.

Moses did not yet grasp the significance of divisions between what he must do, what the I AM must do, and what others must do.  Jethro brought his experience to bear on the divisions.

You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God.  You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.  Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.  Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you.

Fortunately, Moses listened.  Not every visionary leader does.


Quotations are from Exodus 18 in the public domain World English Bible.

Peaky Blindness

flickr CC
flickr CC

In the course of our recent Netflix binging my wife and I started watching Peaky Blinders.  This is a BBC television series set in post-WWI Birmingham, England, and is centered around the activities of a street gang for which the series is named.  What the gang actually looked like is debated but the name is said to originate in the style of cap and a practice of sewing in razor blades to create an improvised weapon.  It’s an intriguing story and the core conflict in the first season is between the leader of the gang and a police detective who intends to stamp the thing out, by any means necessary.

But as of the fifth episode we are done.  The issue for us was the simulated sex.  I wrote about this last year after reading about interviews with actresses Dakota Johnson (here) and Rosamund Pike (here), following the release of movies referenced in the interviews.

It is one thing to set up or imply an affair and it is possible to argue as a matter of taste about the specifics of how this is depicted.  But the problem with physically simulating the sex itself is that calling it mere acting places the issue in a hair-splitting and artificial frame.  This framing comes from what happens on a film set being a fairly mechanical process; a good bit is about tricks involving camera angles, pillows, and strategic cover-ups that are intended to protect the dignity of the participants*.  Or so the argument goes and some of the production might be merely that.  But two partially (or mostly) naked people making out in direct physical contact IS sex, and artificially isolating the process from actual arousal and coitus doesn’t make it anything else.  We’ve just gotten so used to this over the last several decades that we can no longer see it for what it is.

At some point this contact places the performers inside of boundaries that ought to be crossed only in healthy relationships between consenting adults.  And what I would like to suggest is that the relational wreckage strewn throughout the film business at least in part attests to the results of treating those boundaries like they don’t exist.  At a cultural level we can quibble over what such healthy relationships might actually entail, and no, you can’t draw a straight line between cause and effect.  But the functional context is an industry that simply ignores the matter to turn a profit.  This seems like the textbook definition of exploitation and we’re just blind to that.

So let’s reset the production with appropriate strategic angles and coverings, and make it a stage play.  Oh, and bring a phone with a decent camera.

Can you see it now?


*Shooting Film and TV Sex Scenes: What Really Goes On

Exploitation in Westworld

whisky-glass-croppedSomewhere during the last couple decades the bartenders in the mainstream entertainment business slipped over a line. Sexual themes once seemed to be served up to be sipped in glasses of art (admittedly often in poor taste). Now they come straight up as shots of one hundred and fifty-one proof exploitation. A recent Time Magazine post describes criticism of HBO for a contract that requires extras in the “Westworld” series to consent to sexual contact on camera, including “genital-to-genital” touching.

Once upon a time we had to sneak off to imbibe this in seedy windowless “gentlemen’s clubs” in shabby districts of big cities. Now subscription TV and the Internet will provide the swill on tap right in our homes – and garner critical awards in the process.

As I said when I commented on Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey this is not about art. It is about our insistence that in the name of art we expect the participants in a production to violate boundaries, ones that should only be crossed in private, within healthy adult relationships.

So we can pay to watch those boundary violations.

We want to teach young adults to appropriately navigate issues of consent regarding their personal boundaries. But the machinery of the entertainment industry just seems to ride right up and over top of that.

Grayed Out Boundaries

I had no intention of addressing Fifty Shades of Grey , which was released in theaters in mid-February. The critics’ reviews seem generally poor. Much of the viewer reaction to the film (and the book) has to do with the thematic elements. While I have opinions about this enough has been said already on the matter. But as with Gone Girl the production of the film poses an issue which is different from themes presented, and distinguishes it from the book on which it is based. As noted in the earlier post, in order to practice and act out the scene the actors are crossing boundaries in ways that might be not characteristic of healthy, adult relationships.

So here we go again.

That the participants are aware of these boundaries on some level can show up in interview comments, such as what follows, from the March 2015 issue of Glamour Magazine*. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had this to say:

“We left anything that was emotionally difficult or of a sexual nature until the last few weeks of filming. By that point we had time to get to know each other, to build that trust, which was important to be able to go into the next realm. Those days on set were calm, but you could definitely feel tension.”

If all of this is fine, why is there tension? It might be possible to attribute the tension to the uncomfortable thematic elements, but it seems to me the roots of the tension are shown in the following quote by actress Dakota Johnson:

“…if I can be an advocate for women to do what they want with their bodies and not be ashamed of what they want, then I’m all for that. My mom came up for a day [during filming]. She’s proud of me. But I don’t want my family to see [the movie], because it’s inappropriate. Or my brothers’ friends, who I grew up with. I think they’d be like, Blegh [mimics vomiting]. Also there’s part of me that’s like, I don’t want anyone to see this movie. Just kidding.”

So how is seeing this movie inappropriate for her family but somehow appropriate for a few million anonymous movie viewers?

a broken fence.
a broken fence.

The question I would like to pose for anyone considering watching this movie is this: do you personally know normal, psychologically healthy, people who could act in the production of simulated sex scenes, such as in Fifty Shades?

And if you think you do, let’s try flipping Dakota Johnson’s interview response around. Think about your sister, wife, mother, or daughter in the roles. If thinking about them in this way bothers you, that’s a good thing. It means you still have some healthy boundaries left.

*The interview is previewed here but is available in its entirety in Glamour 598, March 2015, pp 233-234

Gone Boundaries

While there are some films that really ought to be seen on a theater screen I can’t often bring myself to spend money on overpriced movie tickets. Last fall I relented and went to Gone Girl. The movie is coming around again through premium video services and is garnering awards. It’s a disturbing film, effectively layering deceit in a murder frame concocted inside the facade of a marriage.

I strongly recommend against seeing the film, any positive reviews notwithstanding. The simulated sex is the most disturbing aspect of the film, and one which the critics hardly mention.

Lest this comment be simply dismissed in a culture that has come to see such things as normal, it is not an objection to artistic use of the human body. It is not about putting clothes on Michelangelo’s David or painting over Renaissance nudes. Or for that matter, “cleaning up” the nudity in movies like Schindler’s List and Amistad. None of these need any such attention. It is not even about sex as a major plot element. An affair and its fallout, after all, is a theme in Anna Karenina.

This is different.

In an earlier time this would have been restricted to peep shows in unmarked bookstores and sleazy theaters in bad parts of town. But graphic scenes have been a part of mainstream film for several decades now, under the banner of artistic freedom. In the past I’ve walked out of movies that contained them. The only constructive thing about sitting through this film was actually thinking about what was wrong with it.

A very telling Glamour Magazine quote was picked up by ABC News. In it the lead actress Rosamund Pike described rehearsing a sex scene with actor Neil Patrick Harris:

“It was very funny doing [rehearsals for our sex] scene. [Director David Fincher] left Neil and me alone on that set for like two hours to make sure we could do it. But when it’s just two of you, basically kind of [having sex] on a bed, it feels so inappropriate.”

It felt inappropriate because it was inappropriate.

a broken fence.
a broken fence.

In order to practice and act out the scene the actors are working inside of boundaries that should only be crossed in private, within healthy adult relationships. We can argue at a cultural level about what that specifically might look like.  But the personal wreckage strewn about the film industry suggests that the ability to publicly* violate these boundaries might not be a sign of an emotionally healthy adult.

The scene in question ended in a murder that was concealed by what a Huffington Post writer described as “…a fake rape allegation in the hands of a sociopathic female…” So after herding the participants across their boundaries, the director then stands what we commonly understand about sexual violence on its head and assaults the audience with the whole package. It raises questions about the level of respect that David Fincher has for his viewers.

So what do we make of directors, writers, and producers that exploit intimate personal boundaries for money?

In another context they would be considered pimps. So what does that make me for paying money to see what they produce?

*The privatization of sex reaches way back in our social history. For a broad overview see Before The Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (p. 168ff) / Nicholas Wade, Penguin Group US.

A High pH

Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)
Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)

Once upon a time a ring from the wall telephone signified a crisis of some sort if it occurred outside of certain times. We just never thought to call anyone early in the morning, during dinner, or late at night. We stayed outside the boundaries of each other’s private spaces until such time as it was polite to knock. Not that stuff didn’t spill over from time to time – that couple fighting in the courtyard of the apartment complex was hard to ignore. But the boundaries were clear and the spillage said things about the emotional health of the couple that went beyond the obscenities they were shouting at each other.

Something has happened to the boundaries. We’re in each other’s private spaces in a way most of us would have found intolerable a couple of decades ago. Cell phones were involved somehow but it is difficult to say whether they are a cause or a marker.

My first cell phone stayed in my car. It was a foot-long “bag phone” that needed frequent charging from the cigarette lighter plug. I acquired it second-hand but it was expensive to operate and was used only for work. Even the original hand-held phones didn’t intrude much into our personal spaces. That obnoxious businessman at the next table with the original Motorola brick was an aberration.

This changed when the device shrank to it fit in my pocket.  Now cell phones showed up everywhere, like the movie theater, the car in front of you in the traffic jam, and pretty much every public space you can think of, as well as a fair number of formerly private spaces.  Messaging was added and then email.  Then we graduated to having the Internet in the palm of our hands and the relative cost has fallen so much that keeping the old residential telephone is a waste of money. In a post at Rough Type , Nicholas Carr observes that the smartphone is cooking all of our media down into a “singularity.” It is dissolving the boundaries between our music, books, news, and pretty much everything else and condensing it all into one space that fixates our attention in the palm of our hand.

The smartphone seems to be dissolving more than just differentiations between media. Somewhere in its development this little device acquired a very high social pH. Corrosive substances can be extremely useful in the proper place, such as the sulfuric acid in your car battery. But they are a problem on your clothes and hands.

We have spilled the smartphone on our bare skin. It is an extremely useful device, but one which we seem to have no sense of how to use.  It seems to be obliterating the separations between our personal, work, and social spaces. Couples are messaging other people when out at dinner together.  Employers and employees are emailing during non-work hours and days.  Acquaintances are messaging each other at times we used to consider phone calls rude. And a failure to respond causes anxiety in the recipient and sometimes consequences from the sender.

We are losing our sense of what is appropriate to say to whom, and when it is appropriate to say it. And we have lost some ready reference points for where you end and I begin.