Charles Taylor

The War Against Movie Critics

Sometimes I think the day-to-day lives of most movie critics could be summed up by a line Amy Madigan speaks in "Streets of Fire": "Everywhere I go, there's always an asshole."

The winner of that distinction this week is Peter Bart, editor in chief of Daily Variety, who, in the Jan. 6 edition of that Hollywood trade publication, published a remarkably misinformed little screed targeted at film critics. Regarding the year-end 10-best lists that most critics have just published, Bart asks, "How could anyone conjure up such a mixed bag of cinematic effluvia?" He goes on to identify three schools of critics.

First, there's the "pop culture is yucky" school, meaning critics who reflexively reject any movie that has found mass acceptance. Most critics file their reviews before movies open and therefore don't know whether a film will be commercially successful or not, a detail Bart neglects to address. Second is the "obscurantist" school, critics who protect their air of authority by only praising obscure movies no one else has seen. Third, there's the "I admit to brain damage school." Apparently this is the category I fall into, since I fit Bart's criterion for brain damage: I praised Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale." But since Bart admitted that the Guy Ritchie/Madonna "Swept Away" would have been on his own 10-best list, I don't think I'll be getting that CAT scan anytime soon.

The categories may be new but the arguments are the same tired horseshit dragged out every time some blowhard feels the need to condemn movie critics. Big bad Bart huffs and he puffs, but he can't come up with anything more original than the idea that critics are elitist by nature, snobs who can't stomach anything popular, who will only praise the most esoteric, unheard-of movies, and who bear such a heavy workload that their judgments cannot be trusted.

It's the second school, the "obscurantists," who particularly get under Bart's skin. Two of the New York Times' movie critics, Elvis Mitchell and Dave Kehr, come in for his special ire for including "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" (Mitchell and Kehr) and "Morvern Callar" (Mitchell) on their 10-best list. These choices, obscurities according to Bart, are a defense against a "civilian" challenging their opinion. "There's no way to contradict a critic if his favorites were shown only at the Ouagadougou Film Festival." Bart doesn't bother to mention that Mitchell, Kehr and their Times colleagues A.O. Scott and Stephen Holden also list such "outre" choices as "Chicago," "Catch Me If You Can," "About Schmidt," "Adaptation" and "Gangs of New York." (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know all four of these critics, and Mitchell and Scott are good friends.) But facts, as we shall see, are inconvenient things to Peter Bart.

The best way to judge the alleged obscurity of both "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" and "Morvern Callar" is to simply list the facts. In 2001, "Warm Water" played at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Palm Springs film festivals. Theatrically, it played in -- brace yourself -- New York (including Long Island); Hartford, Conn.; Boston; the San Francisco Bay Area; Houston; Durham, N.C.; Honolulu; Los Angeles (and surrounding suburbs); Cleveland -- hey, Pete! Just give a shout anytime we're in the neighborhood of Ouagadougou! -- San Diego; Minneapolis; Laramie, Wyo.; Las Vegas; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Wilmington, Del.; Rochester, N.Y.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Juneau, Alaska; Scranton, Pa.; Milwaukee; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; New Orleans -- embarrassing, ain't it? -- Bismarck, N.D.; Miami; Burlington, Vt.; Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Des Moines; and Tucson, Ariz.

So much for only critics being able to see it.

In addition, the film's director, Shohei Imamura, has, in the course of a long career, been nominated five times for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won twice. Bart doesn't bother to mention this -- if he's even aware of it -- since Imamura's acclaim and stature would be at cross purposes to his argument.

As for "Morvern Callar," the film opened a few weeks ago in selected cities and will be opening across the country in the coming weeks. It didn't make it to Ouagadougou (isn't he the kid in "About Schmidt"?) but, in 2002, it was in the Director's Fortnight in the Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the prize for best film, and it played the Chicago, Toronto, Telluride, Edinburgh, San Sebastian and Mill Valley film festivals. The "obscure" star of this "obscure" film, Samantha Morton, was nominated for an Oscar for Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" and co-starred last year in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." And the next project for director Lynne Ramsay is adapting that "obscure" little novel "The Lovely Bones."

How did Bart miss all this? Especially since Variety covers film festivals and reviews every movie that opens in the U.S. Are we to assume that the editor in chief is simply unaware of the contents of his own publication?

The real answer, I think, and the real subtext of his article, is that if a movie isn't released by a major studio, if it's foreign or independent, it isn't worth your time. Insisting that it is proves you're an elitist snob. If Samantha Morton stars in a movie by Allen or Spielberg, it shows up on Bart's radar. If she stars in a movie by Lynne Ramsay, it's obscure and elitist.

It seems that the one thing Bart cannot tolerate is a diversity of opinion. Quoting Newsday critic John Anderson's contention that the diversity of movies given awards by critics' groups has blunted critics' impact on the Oscar race (which never amounted to much), Bart suggests that critics prove their unreliability by offering different opinions on which movie is the best of the year. It doesn't occur to him that a moviegoer might see that diversity of opinion as offering an array of movies to check out. When you consider the movies that have won the recent round of critics awards -- "Chicago" from the Dallas-Fort Worth critics and the New York Online Film Critics; "About Schmidt" from the Los Angeles critics; "The Pianist" from the National Society of Film Critics and the critics in Los Angeles and Boston; "Far From Heaven" from the New York critics -- it simply blows away Bart's argument about critics championing movies no one else has heard of.

At this point, it might be useful to consider just who Peter Bart is. Before becoming editor in chief of Variety, Bart was a production executive at MGM and Paramount. His own contributions to the art of movies include producing "Revenge of the Nerds II" and the Rob Lowe hockey drama "Youngblood." It may be more pertinent to his arguments to note that he also appeared as himself in the 1998 movie "Junket Whore."

Clearly, this is a man who has never left the mind-set of studio executive behind. And he is precisely the wrong man to attempt to address the question he does, "What purpose do critics serve?"

Bart's search for the answer is comical. To find out what purpose critics serve he turns to "three top studio ad execs" -- which is like asking the Detroit automakers what purpose consumer product safety groups serve. After talking to these pundits, Bart comes back with the answer that critical quotes in advertisements are little more than "felicitous decoration." Oh, really? Is that why Sony invented a movie critic to provide blurbs for "The Patriot"? Is that why it was once common practice for studio publicity departments to concoct quotes that they would then attempt to get real critics to put their names to? Is that why every holiday movie ad is top-heavy with critical quotes?

Were this the Warren Report we could simply dismiss Bart as the Lone Ignoramus. But the significance of his blast is more insidious than that. Given his attitude toward movies that fall outside the mainstream, it's no surprise that Bart dismisses the "traditional defense" of critics as writers who help readers discover overlooked movies. (There is no such thing as an overlooked movie in Peter Bart's mind-set -- just ones we've all heard about and deservedly obscure ones.) It's not surprising that this former studio exec doesn't mention one of the most important functions of movie critics. In a culture increasingly dominated by promotion, where "making of" TV specials are little more than commercials for an upcoming release, and where Sunday supplement interviews are advance publicity for a star's new movie, critics are the only thing that stand between moviegoers' wallets and the studio publicity departments with their kazillion-dollar ad budgets.

By taking the line that critics serve no purpose Bart is -- intentionally or not -- doing the bidding of the studios, which, while maintaining a blase public attitude toward critics, would love to be rid of them. What industry chief doesn't dream about being able to market his product in an atmosphere where the public has no information save that provided by the manufacturer? That's why, whether you like us or hate us, agree with us or think we're full of bull, you as consumers need movie critics. When the editor in chief of the publication known as "the Bible of showbiz" takes this public stand against critics, it's a fair bet that Hollywood is no longer feeling shy about making its true feelings about movie critics known. That's why, as moviegoers, you should feel nervous about Bart's article.

But if Bart is bringing New Year's cheer to the hearts of studio execs, he is also speaking the thoughts of a good many newspaper and magazine editors and publishers. In 1975, Francois Truffaut wrote, "Every person on the editorial staff of a newspaper feels he can question the opinion of the movie critic. The editor in chief, who shows careful respect to his music critic, will casually stop the movie critic in the corridor: 'Well, you really knocked Louis Malle's last film. My wife doesn't agree with you at all; she loved it.'"

Nowadays you'd be lucky to find an editor who knows who Louis Malle is. A critic is more likely to get called into his editor's office because he didn't like "Men in Black II," as happened to a critic I know. Or he's likely to be stopped by an editor who tells him that his 11-year-old daughter thinks "The Sixth Sense" is the best movie she's ever seen, as happened to another critic of my acquaintance.

These are rotten times to be a movie critic. In a bad economy, an independent voice delivering judgments on a multibillion-dollar industry that represents a tremendously lucrative source of ad revenue is likely to be perceived as a detriment. It has become increasingly common for critics to be pressured by their editors (who themselves may be under pressure from the sales department) to change their opinions. Pressure that no paper would think to bring to bear on their Op-Ed writers is routinely applied to movie critics. This has nothing to do with the quality of a critic's writing but solely with the content of their opinions, the area where a critic is supposed to be given free rein.

It risks the elitist label to say that critics should know more than their readers about movies, but it's really just common sense. Don't we expect a foreign correspondent to know more about the Middle East or equatorial Africa than the readers do? Do we second-guess our plumbers about our clogged drains, or our doctor about our clogged arteries? But expertise in an area where everyone assumes they are an expert is assumed to be snobbery. That proceeds from the assumption that a critic is telling his or her readers how to think instead of helping them to think for themselves -- whether or not a reader's conclusions are in sync with the critic's.

So we have incidents, as happened a few years ago at a New York paper, where an editor tried to pressure a critic to take the foreign films off her year-end 10-best list because, he claimed, readers would not have heard of them. And the assumption behind that is that the only purpose of a critic is to tell people what they already know. In any area of journalism, that spells death.

To Bart and to the people he is speaking for -- editors and publishers as well as studio execs -- a world in which only highly promoted movies would be covered and praised would be paradise.

In the current climate, where many local critics are being replaced by syndicated writers (in effect standardizing opinion), where critics are under pressure to praise the big movies, where so many media outlets share the same parent company with Hollywood studios and where conglomerates are trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to relax its antitrust laws to make even bigger conglomerates possible, I would propose that the truest measure of any newspaper or magazine's commitment to the free exchange of ideas and to journalistic ethics lies in the freedom it allows its movie critics.

It may be that the only reason movie critics still exist at all in many newspapers is that it allows the editors and publishers to cover themselves with the fig leaf of journalistic ethics. In the back of their minds they may well have entertained the thought of how many people would be happy -- themselves, their advertising department, the studios ready to spend those ad dollars -- if there were no critics at all. The people who don't figure into that equation are the readers.

The most common type of letter my colleagues and I get from readers is from someone who has seen a movie and come home to search out reviews. Whether they agree with us or not, the fact that they want to read criticism tells me that Peter Bart and his ilk are dead wrong about the purpose critics serve. And the power to make sure that outlets accord their critics editorial independence lies with you, the reader. Let publishers and editors know that you value movie critics, that you want critics to operate free of advertisers' interference.

Bart ends his piece by saying, "I'm not a film critic. And I intend to keep it that way." A statement of pride for him, it should come as an enormous relief to everyone except studio execs. For critics and moviegoers, being told that Peter Bart has no intention of becoming a movie critic is like being told that Frank Abagnale isn't managing your mutual funds. But the voices Bart speaks for are increasingly influential in journalism, and should be revealed for what they are -- forces who want to do away with the only independent monitors of a hugely profitable industry.

Some years ago, the dance critic Arlene Croce penned a line about the relationship between critics and the people they write about. It can also stand as the definitive summation of the relationship between critics and their critics: We are frequently wrong about them. They are always wrong about us.

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.

The Shadows of Motown

Twenty-three years ago, Greil Marcus described a compilation album called "The Motown Story" as "the history of James Jamerson's bass playing, on fifty-eight hits." Jamerson, one of the greatest of all rock bassists, was part of the uncredited Motown house band, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, who from the late '50s until the early '70s were responsible for the ineffable sound on records by Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Little Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and others. It wasn't until Gaye's 1970 album "What's Going On?" that any of these musicians were actually credited on any Motown recording.

Think about that for a moment. Robert White, the guitarist who played the indelible opening riff of the Temptations' "My Girl" -- a musical phrase so perfect, so sublime, that the late critic Mark Moses once said it was nearly impossible to imagine a time when it didn't exist -- did not receive credit for it. Not long before White died in 1993, he was having dinner with the writer Allan Slutsky in a Los Angeles restaurant when "My Girl" came over the music system. "Hey!" an excited White asked the waiter, "Do you hear that?" "Yeah," answered the waiter, whereupon White suddenly told him to forget it. "You were going to tell him that was you, weren't you?" Slutsky asked. Yes, White answered, adding that the young waiter would probably think he was just some crazy old lying guy.

The obscurity of men who performed some of the most popular and beloved music in the history of pop inspired Slutsky to tell the story of Jamerson in his book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," also the name of a new documentary partly inspired by the book. The director, Paul Justman, wants to rectify the anonymity of the Funk Brothers. He has gathered together the remaining members -- Jack Ashford, Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina, Uriel Jones and Johnny Griffith -- to reminisce, to recall their lost colleagues (in addition to White and Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, Eddie Brown, Earl Van Dyke and Richard Allan), and to perform their music with a host of newer stars taking over the vocals.

It's a noble undertaking. But why isn't it a better movie? Told in scattered fashion, the movie only intermittently lives up to the stories and faces and music of the men who are its subject. Part of the problem is the narration, written by Walter Dallas and Ntokaze Shange, and delivered by Andre Braugher, which glazes the film in the sort of dumbed-down generalizations you find in any installment of "Biography." "They were the days of American innocence ... a fairyland where dreams came true for the young stars ... timeless classics," are just some of the stale phrases used, so vague and recycled as to be meaningless. (Isn't it time for writers and filmmakers to learn there never was a time of "American innocence"?)

There's also a fair amount of misinformation in the narration as well, starting with that false old chestnut that "white performers" (read: Elvis) simply smoothed out black music for a white audience (a profoundly ignorant claim that takes no note of the culture Elvis came out of or the wide variety of music that influenced him). The narration also claims that black musicians had no success in reaching pop audiences. This is stated over a clip of performers like Jackie Wilson, who hit the Billboard Top 40 chart (not the R&B chart) 20 times from 1958 to 1963, and Ruth Brown, who sold more records for Atlantic than any other performer in the '50s. Justman's filmmaking is only too happy to fall to the level of the narration, for instance cutting away from a performance of "What's Going On?" for a montage of cops beating up civil rights protesters, the March on Washington, combat footage from Vietnam.

Maybe the idea of matching the Funk Brothers with contemporary performers was supposed to make some point -- as if it needed to be made -- about the timelessness of their music. But that music, songs like Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave," Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and David Ruffin's majestic "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" deserve a hell of a lot better than the treatment they are given by mediocrities like Joan Osborne and Ben Harper. "Motown was America's introduction to soul music," says Harper. And you're America's goodbye to it, I felt like saying.

Me'shell NdegeOcello at least doesn't stink up the place with "You've Really Got Hold on Me" but her approach has none of the tension of Smokey Robinson's original (or of John Lennon's even better vocal on the Beatles' cover), none of the erotic rising and falling sense of a climax approached and then sublimated. Gerald Levert, whose specialty is slick bedroom-eyes soul, proves himself a lot gruffer than you'd think when he covers the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There" but the damn fool filmmakers cut away from him (they don't, at least, make a similar mistake when he covers Junior Walker and the All Stars' "Shotgun"), just as they cut away from Montell Jordan and Chaka Khan on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

Even at their best, the guest vocals are only adequate, which gives the lie away to one fellow who's interviewed and says that Deputy Dawg could have sung on these songs and made them hits. Uh-uh.

What holds the movie together is the Funk Brothers themselves. These men obviously take great (and justified) pride in what they accomplished, and the bond between them seems fierce and durable. In the movie's most touching moments, Meshell Ndegeocello asks bassist Bob Babbitt if, after the Detroit riots of 1967 and Martin Luther King's assassination the following year, he ever felt unwelcome because he was white. Babbitt starts to talk to her about how he was accepted by his fellow musicians, he tries to relate the love he feels for and from them, and he simply stops, choked up, unable to go on. And I was moved by Ndegeocello's response, the way this young black woman lays her hand on the shoulder of this older white guy.

It seems fair to deduce from various comments made in the film that there is no love lost for Motown founder Berry Gordy. The Funk Brothers often worked 14-hour days seven days a week for what seems like not much pay. They moonlighted on other artists' recordings and in Detroit clubs to supplement their pay, while Motown tried to recruit Eddie Willis to spy on them so he could tell who was breaking their exclusive contract (Gordy didn't want others to get the Motown sound). Willis, to his credit, took the job, at $100 extra a week, and lied. (When they realized he wasn't providing any information, the company ended the arrangement.) Not only did Gordy not credit the Funk Brothers on the records, but they suffered other insults as well: A few months before James Jamerson died, he had to scalp a ticket to get into the taping of the Motown 25th-anniversary television special.

Maybe the Funk Brothers didn't want to badmouth their old boss. But I wish Justman were a more probing interviewer, that he had gone more into the label's treatment of the musicians. The timeline of the movie is roughly chronological, but apart from the mention of individuals like the producer Norman Whitfield, who tried to adapt psychedelia to the Motown sound, there's very little consistent sense of how the sound developed and changed. Often the contributions are treated in lackluster fashion. The powerful keyboard playing of Earl Van Dyke is given a large buildup. But the editing fades out his introduction to the Four Tops' "Bernadette," a piece of music that defines the power and drama of his playing, a perfect match for the force of the Tops' vocalist Levi Stubbs.

The sense of Motown history is often patchy. Gaye's "What's Going On?" is hailed as Motown's topical breakthrough, but nobody mentions that Berry Gordy didn't want to release it. And frankly, other Motown hits -- tougher, harder, more uncompromising songs -- had taken Motown into topicality before Gaye's personal statement. I'm thinking of two numbers in particular, the Temptations' horrifying and seductive "Cloud Nine" (which, like their even greater "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," puts much of rap to shame), and "Love Child," which remains Diana Ross and the Supremes' greatest moment. The accelerating desperation of Ross's vocal belies the sensation the song gives, a sensation akin to the way time stretches out in the seconds before a car crash.

But there is one thing that "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" does accomplish, almost unintentionally. While giving the Funk Brothers their due, it also gives Motown its due. Why does Motown need respect at this point? Well, like the eternal and pointless arguments about who was better, the Beatles or the Stones, Motown has long been locked in a critical battle with the rougher soul that came out of Atlantic and Stax/Volt from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. And, like the Beatles, Motown has been found wanting, accused of being smoothed down for a white pop audience. Critics have pointed to the finishing school Motown had for its performers to prepare them for playing supper clubs.

But by far the most harm done to Motown's reputation was ironically one of the things that jump-started its latter-day popularity: "The Big Chill." What was offensive about the use of Motown in that movie was the way in which it reduced the music completely to nostalgia, making it a relic for yuppies instead of a still-potent force. That work has been taken up by the proliferation of oldies radio stations, which, by divorcing the music from any present-day reference, attempts to remove it from history. Or at least to use history as a synonym for what is archaic and finished. Maybe it's the pleasure the Funk Brothers still take in playing this music that allows "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" to make it sound so vital, but I don't think that's entirely it.

Had the movie relied entirely on recordings and not shown the musicians playing a note, it would still sound vital. The movie implicitly ridicules the notion that this music was polite pop, not just by citing the obvious examples, the gruff drama of the Four Tops, the sexy ebullience of Martha and the Vandellas, but also by reminding us of the glories of the smoothest music Motown produced, the gossamer eroticism of Diana Ross and the Supremes -- and of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, who may have achieved sublimity more often than any performers except the Beatles. If "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" sends anyone back to their Motown LPs and CDs to marvel at music that has become so familiar that we take it for granted, then it will have triumphed over its ragged, indistinct shape.

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.

The Unbearable Joy of Sex

joy of sexCheeriness is not sexy. A smile -- salacious, conspiratorial, sly -- is. And so are shared jokes, dirty or otherwise. But cheeriness, which can imply a sort of pep-talk falsity, is a real turn-off. And "The Joy of Sex," just reissued in an edition said to be "Fully Revised & Completely Updated for the 21st Century" (of which more later), fairly reeks of cheeriness.

When "The Joy of Sex" first came out in the early '70s, I was too young for it to be more than something I'd peek at surreptitiously in bookstores or upon chancing to find it in someone's house (and I found it in houses I wouldn't have expected to). By the time I was old enough to look at it, it was something of a joke -- particularly the illustrations of the hairy Lawrentian hippie male, his hirsuteness nearly matched by the thickets under his partner's arms. The text itself often sounded like the work of a doddering hippie eccentric who was more taken with his cuteness than anyone else would be. Comfort's division of sex into "Appetizers," "Main Courses" and "Sauces and Pickles" sounded less like an erotic invitation than the menu at one of those restaurants where the food is plentiful without any of it tasting very good. It wasn't until I saw Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as the hairy, academic lovers in the "Saturday Night Live" sketches that I thought, "That's exactly the sort of people this book is for." You know the sort, the ones still reading "Siddhartha," wearing macramé vests, and saving for that summer sojourn to Mykonos.

Comfort died in 2000. It's not clear whether this revision was finished before he died or if others worked on it. And obviously, with 5 million-plus copies sold in the U.S. alone, lots of different kinds of people have read it (or at least own it after receiving it as a gift). When I began reading through this new edition, though, it took me a while to figure out why the book gave me such a swift pain.

It's easy to be superior or dismissive when evaluating sex manuals, easy to decide a book isn't hip enough or daring enough and forget that plenty of people need information on the basics before they get advice about setting up a threesome or using a dildo on their partner. More than anything else, these people need simple, informative, reassuring, honest talk that tells them they aren't freaks or perverts.

In a lot of ways -- for heterosexual couples at least -- "The Joy of Sex" delivers that. Comfort's underlying argument is for communication and tenderness (which needn't preclude passion or even aggression) in sex. He has no time for cads of either sex, and he believes that every sexual encounter should be marked by respect for your partner. He also stresses that adults have to take responsibility for their sexual behavior, not just by practicing safe sex but also by taking note of a partner's emotional and physical state. He doesn't completely shy away from the element of aggression that always exists in sex, and he's not so squeamish or unrealistic that he links sexual aggression to hatred or sadism. While he warns against the damage that lying can wreak in a sexual relationship, he makes the same warning about absolute candor. Sometimes, he just offers good practical technical advice. If, for instance, you've ever tried to have sex standing up with a partner much shorter or taller than you, you might be grateful for Comfort's tip that a couple of telephone books can make things easier.

So why would "The Joy of Sex" be among the last books I'd recommend to anyone seeking sexual information? It all circles back to Comfort's goddamned cheerful tone. He keeps saying that sex should be adult play, but Jesus! does he make it sound like work! And of course, sex is work, particularly in a long-term relationship. Comfort is right that sex needn't start (or finish) in the bedroom. Everyday attention and tenderness needs to be part of it. Even in brief encounters there's an obligation to find out what your partner likes and to be attentive to him or her. And Comfort is right that a large part of that comes from our ability to relax.

But when he includes sentences like "The main dish is loving, unselfconscious, intercourse -- long, frequent, varied, ending with both parties satisfied, but not so full they can't face another light course, and another meal in a few hours," he's expecting Olympian endurance in people who may just want to know how to get started and have a little fun. Using his food-as-sex metaphor, Comfort says "chef-grade cooking doesn't happen naturally." It comes with practice and experience. Does that mean, though, that people who aren't yet up to chef-grade cooking should feel inadequate? And how does he expect people to relax if he's planted the idea that they can do better?

Imagine a woman who likes sex but has trouble reaching orgasm reading this sentence: "Multiple orgasm comes easily to many if not all women if they are responsive enough and care to go on." What about the women who can easily come more than once but, at a certain stage, find their genitalia too sensitive to go on -- even if they would like to go on? Comfort doesn't do much better by men. Try to imagine a man who needs a little time to recover before continuing sex coming across this nugget of wisdom. After assuring men they should not let the idea of attaining another erection become "a self-aggravating worry," Comfort concludes, "It matters not a jot provided you can get another erection inside half an hour." This is sex as "Beat the Clock." God forbid it should take you 43 minutes, or even that you may be done for the night.

Reading "The Joy of Sex," I kept thinking about what people with kids do, or people whose schedules don't allow them to take a full afternoon for sex. And if somebody has to get up and work in the morning, are they somehow failing the holy grail of sex by not being able to devote hours to it the night before? Yeah, sometimes you have to make time for sex, especially in an economy that dictates that both partners have to work. But the last thing people in that situation need is more pressure.

Elsewhere, Comfort just seems misinformed. A new section, designed to address sex in the age of AIDS, includes this under the heading "Anal Intercourse": "In the light of present knowledge, this is best avoided altogether." Even for monogamous couples who know each other's sexual history? It's hard not to reach the conclusion that Comfort was one of those guys who get a bit freaked out about ass play. "Single dildoes with a harness," he writes, "are intended for woman-woman relations." If the aim here is to make people comfortable with their desires, doesn't this just reinforce the male fear that enjoying anal stimulation makes you gay?

But then, Comfort isn't too well informed on sex toys for women either. After reassuring his readers that vibrators are "no longer an embarrassing aid for the lonely or inexperienced" (shouldn't that be perceived as an embarrassing aid ...?) he goes on to say, "Vibrators are no substitute for a penis." I'd say it depends on the vibrator and the penis. But in any event, Comfort's statement is just great news for women who have no current sexual partner. Or for couples who have happily incorporated toys into their sex life, whether by choice or because of some male dysfunction. Comfort's message may as well be, Sorry, ladies, but if you happen to be in a loving relationship with a man who has trouble getting an erection and you've still achieved a mutually satisfying sex life, that aid you've got is just a consolation prize.

That's just one of the more visible signs of the book's weird, hard-to-pin-down male bias. Most of the names Comfort gives his various positions are on a level with Austin Powers' reference to the "Chinese Shag Swing." One deserves mention, a position where the woman rests on her elbows and knees, locking her legs behind her lover's knee to draw him into a rear entry. Comfort describes it as "a deep position in which she becomes a true lady by taking the weight on the arms." A true lady? Because she's in the submissive position? And what are we to make of this position's plantation-fantasy title, "The Negresse"?

Again and again, Comfort's peculiar method is to offer his readers reassurance and then to wreck that reassurance with a demurral that usually reflects nothing more than his own ignorance. Pornography is a perfectly acceptable sexual aid, Comfort tells us and then goes on, "The only drawback to the commercial stuff" -- as opposed to what? -- "is that because it is based on fantasy, and often inexperienced fantasy at that, it's not much help with sex practice for real lovers." But who, besides adolescents, takes porn to be anything but fantasy? Fantasy is the whole appeal of porn, particularly when it's used by couples.

"Real couples are worth watching," Comfort tells us, which brings to mind the unappetizing sight of those middle-aged swingers you can see on HBO's "Real Sex." He then goes on to note that "the bored, semi-erected participants in blue movies seldom merit the trouble." What porn was Comfort watching? That deep cache of films that employ guys who can't get it up? And if Comfort is so concerned about reality in our voyeurism, why is the couple in the book's illustrations trim, young and healthy? Why is the couple in the photographs smooth and tan and looking right out of a Bally's ad? The answer is that people want good-looking people to fuel their sexual fantasies. Undemocratic or -- God help us -- "looksist" it may be, but that's the fact, Jack.

And speaking of the illustrations, as in previous editions since the first, that hairy male lover has been replaced by a guy with an ordinary crop of hair. His partner, however, still has noticeable tufts under her arms. Some things change, but apparently Comfort's underarm-hair fetish never did. "In my opinion," writes Comfort, "shaving is simply ignorant vandalism. Hairs catch a woman's natural scent which is irresistible to a man ... Kissing deeply in the armpit leaves a partner's perfume with you." To which some of us may respond, ewwww. OK, Alex had a thing about pits. Fine. No shame should attach. But his contention that in sexual encounters deodorant should be "banned absolutely" is a bit more, uh, continental, than some of us may be willing to go.

He's also gaga on the subject of pubic hair. Even though he claims that trimming is fine, something in Comfort revolts at the thought of less pubic hair. He can barely contain himself explaining the 101 ways to have fun with your bush. "It can be combed, twirled, kissed, held, even pulled," and perhaps washed, set, and styled as well. "Men can shave if they like," he writes, "or if their partners like, but it's difficult to shave the scrotum." True, but you can always practice on a bag of Ruffles.

If "The Joy of Sex" has played a part in opening up your sexual enjoyment, then my objections will be nothing more than quibbles. And I don't want to underestimate the fact that when it came out, few above-the-counter books had anything like its degree of liberalism. Nor do I want to fall into the trap of assuming that people who seek advice from sex manuals have already attained a certain degree of hipness. There will always be a need for a sex manual that is heartening, encouraging and not intimidating. But if our sexual maturity has grown at all in the three decades since this book appeared, then the best sign of that growth would be for "The Joy of Sex" to be consigned to the relic heap where it belongs.

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.

The Morality Police

One of the most unbelievable conversations I've ever had took place a few years ago with a friend, a writer, who was in the midst of preparing for a visit from some relatives, including a young cousin of about 10.

My friend told me that he'd gone through his house putting away any "inappropriate" material that his cousin might see. We're not talking porn here, or removing Henry Miller or "The Story of O" from the bookshelves, but stashing the copies of "Esquire" and "Entertainment Weekly" in the magazine pile in his living room.

Why, I asked, would you feel the need to hide those? Because, my friend explained, they had swear words in them. I pointed out that the worst thing his cousin was likely to see in "Entertainment Weekly" was, as it's so delicately printed in that magazine, "f _ _ _," something the boy had certainly already heard in the schoolyard. But my friend wasn't buying. Why, he wanted to know, can't magazine articles be written so that they're suitable for everyone?

I felt as if I had been asked to justify why water had to be wet. Here was someone who depended for his living on the right to free speech, who wrote as an adult for other adults, who was advocating the false assumption that lies at the core of the censorious impulse: Children need to be protected from vulgarity and obscenity.

At the heart of that argument is the belief that society should be remade for everyone, not just children. Basically, my friend was arguing that all adult discourse should be rendered suitable for kids, that entertainment or writing specifically intended for adults is somehow dangerous and that, as journalists, we should all be required to adhere to a phony "family newspaper" standard.

He didn't come out and say that, of course. He fell back on the protection-of-innocence arguments that censors have used for years and that courts have upheld. There's an understandable impulse behind the desire to protect children, an awareness of their physical fragility, a wish for them to be able to enjoy their childhood and a frustrating sense that out in the world dangers await them that we are powerless to stop. But too often we have lost the ability to distinguish between what's inappropriate for kids and what is actually harmful to them. And, acting on fear and suspicion and assumption, we have, with the best of intentions, created situations that are potentially more harmful to kids and teens than what we want to protect them from.

The tradition of censorship in the name of the little ones is the subject of Marjorie Heins' new book, "Not in Front of the Children: 'Indecency,' Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth." Heins, the director of the Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship, has essentially written a précis of various legal rulings that have cited the protection of youth as justification for limiting free speech. Heins is blessedly clear on the legal ramifications of the obscenity prosecutions she considers. As a lawyer she's adept at pointing out the contradictions, false premises and just plain unconstitutionality of those decisions.

But Heins' book is essentially a long legal brief, and that narrow focus is disappointing. Put it this way: No one is likely to attempt to write a history of how in 20th century America free speech was denied and narrowed in the name of decency and protecting minors without consulting this book. But we are still awaiting the great piece of social criticism about modern society's fetishistic construction of childhood as a time of asexual innocence.

By any reasonable standard, that fantasy has to be counted among our most destructive and costly delusions. It's a poisoned tree that has borne the fruits of censorship; of teenage lives stunted or ended by denying minors access to birth control, abortion and sexual information; and of adult lives destroyed by the urban legend of ritual cult child abuse (best dealt with in the 1995 book "Satan's Silence" by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker) or by the junk science of repressed memory syndrome (the subject of Frederick Crews' pitiless and incendiary "The Memory Wars").

Cloaking themselves in concern for the welfare of children, censors have managed to successfully paint the people who oppose them as willing corruptors of children. And in the midst of outbreaks of mass hysteria, such as the '80s vogue for stories of Satanic ritual abuse, or the not-yet-abated horror stories about the Internet, speaking out against measures like the Child Pornography Protection Act (which got one man prosecuted for renting a video of Oscar-winning German film "The Tin Drum"), the Communications Decency Act (which would have meant that the article you're reading could have cost me a quarter of a million dollars and landed me in prison for two years) or the Child Online Protection Act, essentially the same legislation (whose constitutionality the Supreme Court has decided to review), is often enough to get you labeled as some sort of pervert willing to countenance the sexual exploitation of children. What kind of person, after all, would oppose a bill called the Child Pornography Protection Act?

Well, anyone who wanted to teach "Romeo and Juliet" for one. The CPPA outlawed the portrayal of sex between minors. Under that definition, child porn could be defined as the wedding night scene in "Romeo and Juliet"; the hugely popular family comedy "Big," in which Tom Hanks plays a 12-year-old who, in one scene, goes to bed with Elizabeth Perkins; the episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where Buffy sleeps with Angel on her 17th birthday. (Bob Dole, however, leering at Britney Spears over his Pepsi, would have been safe.) Unlike obscenity laws, the CPPA, since overturned, provided no exception for "redeeming social value"; if something fit the description, it was child porn. And lest those examples sound like exaggeration or worst-case scenarios, let me reiterate that the statute was used to prosecute a video store owner and the customer who rented "The Tin Drum."

Heins must have realized she was striding into a minefield. Shrewdly -- but also, I think, honestly -- she focuses on the harm done to children by censorship laws. She questions how children who have been so stringently shielded can be well prepared for life (especially when at age 18 -- poof! -- they magically become "adults"); how, under the Constitution, some citizens can be judged to have fewer free-speech rights than others; and how you can claim to be protecting children if, in the case of birth control or sexual information, you are depriving them of something that, especially with the public health crisis of AIDS, could save their lives. Some parents love to wag their fingers condescendingly at those of us without children who oppose free-speech restrictions. They say, "You'll change your tune when you have kids of your own." But why would anyone wish for a world in which their children would have fewer rights?

The notion that words and images and ideas can cause harm to young minds has become such an article of faith that it's hard not to feel a sense of futility when you point out that there is not a shred, not an iota, not an atom of proof that exposure to images or descriptions of sex and violence does children any harm. In the face of people who are certain about the evil Pied Piper effect of the media, insisting on the facts becomes pointless, even though every expert who tries to claim otherwise gives himself or herself away. On May 6, the Associated Press reported news of an American Psychiatric Association panel on online voyeurism in which a University of Michigan psychiatry professor named Norman Alessi testified that "the potential of seeing hundreds of thousands of such images during adolescence -- I have no idea what that could do. But I can imagine it must be profound." God knows psychiatry isn't science, but you'd expect a doctor to be a little more circumspect when he has only his imagination to go on.

Yet this is exactly the kind of "data" that Congress swallows whole before coming up with some new way to put the screws to Hollywood. And witnesses who do try to testify to the facts are often treated with contempt. MIT professor Henry Jenkins appeared before the Senate in the hearings that convened in the panicked aftermath of the Columbine killings and found himself to be the only scholar present who didn't take it on faith (because there's no other way to take it) that media violence promotes real violence. Jenkins described a Senate chamber festooned with "hyperbolic and self-parodying" posters and ads for the most violent video games on the market. "Senators," he said, "read them all deadly seriously and with absolute literalness."

And why wouldn't they? What do senators, what do the most vocal media critics for that matter, know about video games, rock 'n' roll, current movies and television? Joe Lieberman admitted to "Entertainment Weekly" last week that he hasn't seen a movie since going to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" just before the Oscars. Think he had a chance to see many during last year's campaign? Think that will keep him from opening his yap about the sinister effects of media violence during debate over his new bill (sponsored by three other Democratic senators, Herb Kohl, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Byrd), which would allow the Federal Trade Commission to fine companies that promote adult material in markets with an audience that consists substantially of kids?

I have never come across one -- not one -- critic protesting the perniciousness of media sex and violence who had any sense of irony, or any substantial or direct experience with the way audiences experience sex and violence and the different ways they're portrayed. I know a 16-year-old girl who has seen "The Faculty" 14 times. Now, I can imagine what Lieberman or Henry Hyde would do with that tidbit -- turn it into the story of a teenager obsessed with a movie in which students take up arms against their teachers. The fact is, my friend has seen it repeatedly for the same reason she went to an opening night IMAX screening of "Pearl Harbor": because she thinks Josh Hartnett is adorable.

Why we resist facing the facts in this debate is understandable. People don't have to be stupid or corrupt to look at school shootings, or violence in America in general, and feel that something has to be responsible. And as someone who spends much of his time looking at pop culture, I won't deny being disturbed by some of the more mindless violence out there, of having felt cut off from an audience that was grooving on mayhem. People feel so overwhelmed by violence that they think there simply must be a connection between media bloodshed and the real thing. But the truth is that violent crime is down in America, and it has been going down for some years now.

Just because I think extreme protectionism is misguided doesn't mean that I think children should be exposed to anything and everything. Parents have to make those decisions for their own kids. And while I sympathize with their frustration over the proliferation of outlets like the Internet, video and cable that makes those decisions more demanding, parents' frustration isn't a good enough reason to limit the First Amendment. It sickened me when I heard stories about parents dragging along their young kids to see "Hannibal." But we see that kind of idiocy even with a damaging movie ratings system in place. Teenagers may be better able to handle material than their younger siblings are, but they too are the target of obscenity laws that don't distinguish between a 6- or 8-year-old and a 14- or 16-year-old.

Some will insist that there have been findings indicating a causal link between violent entertainment and violent behavior. But those studies have profound flaws. Is it really that surprising that toddlers become markedly more rambunctious after being kept in a room watching "The Three Stooges" for five hours? I have some faith in science, and it seems to me that if there really were a cause-and-effect link between real violence and media violence, then it would have been proven by now. At the least, people who believe in that link should work the flaws out of their methodology.

Would-be censors are often aided in their mission by the news media. Assigned to write a breaking story involving a movie or book or piece of pop music, and usually scrambling against deadlines, reporters often resort to the most simplistic, alarmist characterizations, failing to familiarize themselves with their subject, unable to put it in cultural context. When I worked at a Boston newspaper in the mid-'80s, the local news was dominated by a murder case in which a couple were suspected (but never proven guilty) of raping and killing their infant daughter. When it became known that the couple had gone to see "The Terminator" on the afternoon of the murder, a reporter asked me to tell him what the picture was about. I told him it was the story of a killer robot from a future ruled by machines, sent back in time to murder the woman who would eventually bear the rebel leader who would rally the humans to victory. When the reporter's story appeared, "The Terminator" somehow became a film whose plot prominently featured the murder of a child.

These are the "experts" who are feeding the suspicions and fears of parents. I understand that love isn't always rational. But too many parents seem to have thoroughly banished memories of their own youth in favor of the fantasy that childhood and adolescence are a time of purest innocence (which, Heins reminds us, is not the same thing as inexperience). Kids love dirty, gross jokes; they find bodily functions hilarious; they can be cruel and selfish; their energy often expresses itself in the sort of aggression that causes them to run riot around the house. My friends and I used to exhaust ourselves trying to hit my Superman punching bag so hard it would stay down -- what could be cooler than knocking out Superman? I'm willing to bet that most teenagers, at one time or another, have fantasized about blowing up their school or cocked a finger at some kid making their life miserable and made a shotgun noise. The adults who see such actions as alarming evidence of corruption are the ones who live in a dangerous fantasy world.

The most revealing and appalling expression of the parental fantasy of childhood innocence that I've ever run across was in a recent Salon Life article called "Click on and jack off" by the pseudonymous "Margot Nightingale." Unable to explain why her 12-year-old son, in his first year of junior high, goes from being a straight-A student to a distracted one with indifferent grades, Nightingale eavesdrops on phone conversations with his friends and peeps into his computer to discover that he's been visiting porn sites. While those of us who haven't blocked out the memory of sneaking peeks at dirty magazines might find it perfectly natural that a 12-year-old boy would be interested in the contents of, it causes Nightingale to hit the panic button.

Worried that she's losing her little boy, Nightingale and her husband sit him down for talks that are predicated on false assumptions (for example, that pornography degrades women) when they aren't just plain nonsensical. (The poor kid is reminded that "he has sisters." What is he supposed to do, think of his sisters whenever he feels a sexual urge toward women in order to evaluate its propriety?) Nightingale is careful to hit all the "tolerant" notes, telling her son that masturbation is perfectly normal. But how is he supposed to find it normal after being told that his fantasies are depraved and dangerous?

None of this, though, compares, to the next step Nightingale takes: Obtaining "an anonymous e-mail address from another Internet provider, I wrote to my son, pretending to be a stranger, a male stranger. I said something like, 'Hey, wasssssup, guy? Enjoying our Web sites? How old are you, man? See you around. Write back.'" He never does, but he spends nervous hours trying to figure out who this mysterious e-mailer is. Nightingale tells us she had no other choice, because she is trying to "raise this child into a responsible and caring man in the blitz of Celebrity Sex and Free Fuck Theatre." But who seems more normal to you -- a 12-year-old boy who'd rather waste time on video games with buddies and Internet porn than do his homework, or a mother who attempts to regulate her son's sexual fantasies and assumes the guise of an Internet stalker to frighten him into obedience, all in the name of holding onto her "sweet boy" just a little bit longer?

Nightingale sounds like she has a smart kid who'll survive adolescence. She also sounds as if she's outsmarted herself. Nothing attracts kids' curiosity or spurs their resourcefulness faster than what's forbidden to them. Have a shelf of books or videos you've told your kids are for Mommy and Daddy only? I guarantee you they've perused it. And sure, as kids all of us at one time or another came across things that upset us or confused us or gave us nightmares. I had to stop watching "Rod Serling's Night Gallery" because it gave me insomnia. And I vividly remember the unsettling mixture of queasiness and thrill in the pit of my stomach in elementary school when a classmate brought in some grainy black-and-white porno photos of a woman giving a man a blow job. But do you know anyone who's been done lasting harm by looking at dirty pictures or watching a violent movie who wasn't already emotionally disturbed to begin with?

There's a big difference between wanting to screen what your kids are reading or watching -- in other words, nudging them toward good stuff to balance the mountain of available crap -- and wanting to keep them in a hermetically sealed bubble that admits nothing of the outside world. The latter approach, which is the "good parenting" at the basis of so many government attempts to restrict kids' access to information, is, at root, an insult to kids, a presumption that they are too stupid or fragile to be given information about the real world.

And of course it's a threat to the civil liberties of the rest of us. Perhaps out of an instinct for the politic, Heins doesn't address the arrogance of parents who think that in order to solve their child-rearing problems, the rest of adult society should have key freedoms curtailed. It's time to put the responsibility for deciding what is and isn't appropriate for children squarely on parents.

I know often this is a question of time. I see how hard it is for friends to balance raising kids with the financial necessity of having two working parents. But parents' convenience isn't a good enough argument for measures that narrow the free-speech rights of adults. Consider: The Communications Decency Act could have landed me or any Web journalist in jail simply because a young reader accessed an article we wrote that his or her parent didn't consider appropriate. Internet "filters" that were proposed for public libraries would have blocked access to adult users as well. Television and radio broadcasts are subject to vague "indecency" standards that, Heins points out, operate under the same principles that have been found unconstitutional for books and newspapers.

And the granddaddy of all nincompooperies, the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system, originally supposed to protect filmmakers from interference, has instead resulted in studios contractually obligating them to cut their films to what's acceptable for a 17-year-old. Otherwise, they can't avail themselves of crucial newspaper and television advertising. (Many outlets won't accept ads for NC-17 films.) The ratings have never been constitutionally challenged. There's no telling how the current Supreme Court would rule on the system, though there's no doubt of its unconstitutionality. The courts have consistently ruled that adult discourse cannot be required to be conducted at a level suitable for children.

A few years ago I got into a heated discussion with some parents over the ratings system. It was startling because it revealed how much some parents believe the rest of us owe them. I argued that ratings should be abolished not only because they were they unconstitutional, and have led to de facto censorship, but also because even a cursory glimpse at a review from a critic they trust would give parents better information about the content and tone of a movie. The parents I was talking to seemed outraged that they should have to read a review before deciding whether they would allow their kids to see a movie. Ratings, they insisted -- demonstrating that their minds were much more innocent than the ones they were protecting -- made sure their kids were only allowed into movies their parents had approved. When I asked why parents couldn't accompany kids to the box office to ensure the same thing, it was as if I had suggested some Herculean task.

I think it's fair to ask how parents who feel that reading a review or driving their kids to a movie theater is too much work ever manage to pull off the greater responsibilities that parenthood entails. What amazed me during this discussion was that the parents seemed completely willing to abandon their responsibility to be informed about the culture their kids were growing up in to some anonymous watchdog. And that willingness makes them much more susceptible to senators who know that calling for decency is always good for political capital, to citizens or religious groups that feel they have the right to make their values the standard for everyone else, to professional witnesses and "experts" who use their degrees and studies the way real-estate swindlers use phony deeds. Sure, it's easier to believe that "The Matrix" or "The Basketball Diaries" provided blueprints for the Columbine massacre, or that Eminem is promoting mother raping and homophobia. It's always easier not to think.

But fear and ignorance are never a good basis for making any decision. In the broadest terms, this insistence that children see only material that teaches approved values is a way of stunting kids intellectually. It institutionalizes the William Bennett definition of art as a delivery system for little object lessons on virtue.

I'm not saying that art (and even books and movies that may be less than art) has nothing to teach, but what it does teach is the complex and contradictory nature of experience, experience that resists easy judgments. So by making art abide by narrow and vague standards of decency, we're making kids ill-equipped not just to experience art but to experience life.

And there's a more urgent danger. In the midst of a public health crisis, denying minors access to sexual information is an insane way to "protect" them. Heins cites a 1998 study that puts our teen childbirth rate ahead of all European countries. Even Mexico, a country where the Catholic Church is such a strong presence, offers much more forthright public health information to teens.

By contrast, by the '90s a Phyllis Schlafly-inspired program called "Sex Respect" had gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grants and was still being taught in one out of eight public schools. "Sex Respect" informed students that the "epidemic" of STDs and teen pregnancy is nature's judgment on the sexually active; that "there's no way to have premarital sex without hurting someone"; that HIV can be contracted through kissing; that premarital sex can lead to shotgun weddings, cervical cancer, poverty, substance abuse, a diminished ability to communicate and death. Heins describes one video in which a students asks an instructor what will happen if he wants to have sex before getting married. The answer: "Well, I guess you'll just have to be prepared to die."

You have to admire the honesty of that response. Because of course, whether or not they admit it, the people who want to deny teenagers access to sexual information (to say nothing of access to condoms or abortion) are implicitly saying that kids should die rather than have their innocence sullied. It's always a temptation in the culture wars to sound superior, to give in to ridiculing the values and beliefs of others. But some values need to be ridiculed. The people keeping kids in the dark may be articulate and well dressed and prosperous, but the morality they're selling is that of hicks and ignoramuses and yahoos. How many times in the past 80 years has America proved that it hasn't learned one basic lesson: Prohibition doesn't work. The bodies pile up from our war on drugs and still we haven't learned it. How many teenage bodies need to pile up before we apply that lesson to our national preoccupation with decency?

Charles Taylor is a Salon contributing writer.