Cornish, pasty

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2017 by dcairns

“Doesn’t this one have some kind of political subtext?” asked Fiona as I prompted a viewing of PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, Hammer’s sole walking-dead opus. And it sort of does. It might be due for a revival, actually, since Trump is supposedly bringing coal back.

I couldn’t remember if I’d seen this before. And possibly a year from now I won’t remember having seen it. But it’s not devoid of interest, the points of interest just didn’t come thick and fast enough to entirely satisfy.

I’d read about the film in the Gifford and had a strong memory of the image of a zombie, face contorted in a horrible mask-like grin, holding an unconscious — in fact, as I discovered, DEAD — girl. I hadn’t realized that the girl was the striking Jacqueline Pearce or that the zom was Ben Aris, best known as a comedy actor. He executes one of the great pratfalls of all time in ROYAL FLASH, having been hit with a champagne bottle at a locomotive christening ceremony. Of course, he was tall, which is why he was chosen here. Hammer nearly cast loveable CARRY ON film dope Bernard Bresslaw as the creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, you know. Had they done so, and then gone on to cast him as Dracula, probably none of us would be here today.

I also remembered reading Leslie Halliwell’s snarky remark, in an otherwise fairly positive review — why doesn’t the Cornish tin mine owner simply employ normal workers instead of reanimating the dead? Well, obviously a zombie labour force would have advantages, not needing food or rest, and being incapable of independent action and thence, industrial action. And in any case, the film tells us that the history of fatal accidents at the mine is what put off the living employees. Using animate corpses is Health & Safety Gone Mad!

As ever in Hammer, the unsympathetic portrait of the landed gentry is balanced by an unappealing depiction of the lumpenproletariat, with surly local yokels and a stupid, scowling policeman played by the inescapable Michael Ripper.

The B-list cast is helpful in some ways — André Morrell, a fine Dr. Watson, is here cast as staunch Dr. Forbes — the good guys, of course, are solidly middle-class. And the fact that he’s not Peter Cushing allows us to forget, some of the time, that he’s playing an absolute Peter Cushing role. John Carson, doing his very best James Mason voice, is a fair but un-sexy substitute for either Christopher Lee or, at a push, Charles Gray. When the good doctor starts talking about waiting for a recently deceased female to reanimate, we know we’re in terribly familiar terrain.

Famously, director John Gilling anticipates a lot of Romeroesque imagery and action with a dream sequence in which he goes hand-held and deutsch-tilted as the recently deceased haul themselves from their graves and surround the hero in billows of dry ice fog. It gives the film a boost, and makes you wish they had gone for more ad hoc cinematography more of the time, though a pursuit sequence with fox-hunters chasing a girl — borrowed from HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES — also benefits from a lot of panting wobble in the camera department. Throw in some full-blooded crash zooms and you have something a bit more modish in technique that Terence Fisher’s classical approach.

The lighting only gets seriously stylish in the mine interior, where the sulphurous coloured gels make for an almost Bavaesque look, and Gilling gets some nice compositions by posing some of his undead workmen close to the lens, staring sightlessly past us.

Miniature coffins are always creepy, but sadly the plasticine and ketchup approach to voodoo dolls is disappointing, and the female dolls all have big boobs, which looks silly.

Framegrabbing the climax, where the mouldy miners catch fire, we can see the flame-retardant masks worn by the stunt artists, and very scary they are too. Only Aris’s zombie makeup is very effective — the other stiffs, with their pancake pallor, seem slapdash — so the masks, which looks a lot like actual mummified bodies, could have been a good way to go. They also remind me of this mask, worn by the Reverend Alexander Peden when he was a fugitive in Scotland in the 17th century. The original Leatherface!

Halloween soon. Try making one of these. Your neighbours will shit themselves.

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The Sunday Intertitle: The Be Carefuls

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 15, 2017 by dcairns

As stated yesterday, the nice people at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society kindly invited me to join their blogathon, The Great Breening.

My initial reaction to discovering there are people who think the Hays Code was a good thing was a bit like when I learned there are people who think the Sandy Hook massacre never happened. Incredulity and dread. But, having gotten over this, I spoke to them a bit and they seem awfully nice. And they agreed that Rule 6 prohibiting the portrayal of miscegenation was a very bad rule. So, in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, I’d taking part, in my own way.

(The PEPS people have responded very politely to yesterday’s article here. They’ve invited me to respond and I think I will, later,)

In addition to their list of Don’ts, chiseled into granite tablets using Will Hays’ nose, the initial 1927 Production Code had a second, longer list which, like the Pirate Code, could be viewed as “suggestions rather than rules.” The Be Carefuls are subjects which filmmakers should be careful when dealing with. Arguably filmmakers should always be careful when dealing with any subject. Joe Breen could have saved on typewriter ribbed and just hammered out the words BE CAREFUL and left it at that. Nevermind, here’s the list, with annotations.

One) The use of the flag;

I’m not sure why, historically, Americans are so serious about their flag. You might think that all nations are, but in fact, the star-spangled banner gets treated with a reverence appreciably more demented than that applied to other national symbols. All those injunctions against flag-dipping. And the obsession about standing for the national anthem is part of it. This nation founded on the separation of church and state by pilgrims fleeing religious persecution seems to have invested a kind of religious zealotry shading well into idolatry towards the flag, national anthem, and constitution.

But sure, whatever, be careful with the flag. Store it in a cool, dry place.

Two) International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);

There’s already a Don’t applying to this exact thing. So, Don’t do it, and Be Careful when you do it. Seth Rogen.

Three) Arson;

I think this one is to do with portrayals which might help arsonists in the pursuit of their craft. Avoid handy hints. I don’t find that unreasonable.

Four) The use of firearms;

This is something else again, I think. They’re not warning filmmakers to avoid showing how guns work. I think it’s about avoiding glamorising the use of guns for criminal purposes. Guns is another subject the US is slightly crazy on. So I don’t imagine they’re asking for gunplay to be minimized.

Five) Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);

Good to see the sensibilities of the moron are being taken fully into consideration by Hollywood. This is perhaps a combination of anxieties — will the exciting depiction of crime inspire imitation? — will the films provide helpful information useable by criminals? I’m generally in favour of being careful when potentially giving criminals lessons in criminality, but most crime happens because of dreadful intent rather than dreadful knowledge. It might be fun to have a rule that says crimes depicted in movies should always contain a secret, fatal blunder, not alluded to in the plot, so that copycat criminals will screw up and get caught if they try to perpetrate the offense in reality.

Six) Brutality and possible gruesomeness;

Two of the staples of entertainment right there. We don’t need to point to Shakespeare, do we? Remember, it’s NOT REAL. We agree, it would be very bad if it were.

Seven) Technique of committing murder by whatever method;

In practice, most movies depicting murder use techniques which would work. Stabbing, shooting. You could create quite an interesting national cinema by insisting that all murders shown in films must be committed by striking the victim upside the head with a soft cushion.

Eight) Methods of smuggling;

Just read in John Frankenheimer: A Conversation: While shooting FRENCH CONNECTION II in Marseilles, Frankenheimer was approached by actual drug smugglers who asked him to change the script as the smuggling method used was a bit too close to reality. They happily suggested a convincing alternative and he happily accepted their notes, in exchange for their help getting cooperation from the city.

Nine) Third-degree methods;

This would rule out much of 24. It seems strange to me that such a series existed so recently: a series dedicated to creative torture and threats of torture. Anyhow, don’t want to give the cops ideas.

Ten) Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;

I’m perturbed and confused by the word “actual” here. I would agree with Messrs Thalberg et al that we don’t want any snuff movies carrying the MGM logo.

Eleven) Sympathy for criminals;

Practically an essential element of any dramatic treatment of crime, since without a degree of sympathy, insight is impossible.

Twelve) Attitude toward public characters and institutions;

Don’t give me any of your attitude!

Thirteen) Sedition;

Don’t know what it means.

Fourteen) Apparent cruelty to children and animals;

Does this mean it’s fine if it’s ACTUAL?

Fifteen) Branding of people or animals;

Extremely weird that this has an entry of its own. But I guess there had been a fair bit of it after DeMille’s THE CHEAT.

Sixteen: The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;

Like I say, the idea of being careful is not a bad one. Meanwhile, White slavery is on the Don’t list.

Seventeen) Rape or attempted rape;

It’s just weird to find this here and not on the Don’t list along with drugs and profanity. But I guess they just thought it was too useful a dramatic situation to exclude altogether. In practice, it was rarely even implied.

Eighteen) First-night scenes;

At the theatre?

Nineteen) Man and woman in bed together;

This became really crazy later. When it was pointed out that there was nothing wrong in a husband and wife sharing a bed, the censors said that the audience knew the actors weren’t really married, and so it would be a potentially corrupting sight to show them between the same sheets. Which makes me wonder if casting a real married couple would have then allowed the depiction of a double bed? I imagine it wouldn’t help. There’s nothing wrong with a husband and wife having sex, either, but Breen wasn’t about to allow THAT to be shown in a movie.

Twenty) Deliberate seduction of girls;

It’s really hard to pull it off accidentally.

Twenty-one) The institution of marriage;

I’m not sure quite what you have to be careful about. Usually this means “careful not to lampoon it” but lots of movies do. It pretty well always IS in fun, and there are very few movies which actually proselytize AGAINST wedlock,

Twenty-two) Surgical operations;

I guess we shouldn’t lampoon these either?

Twenty-three) The use of drugs;

Are these the same illegal drugs we’re not allowed to talk about at all?

Twenty-three) Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;

Titles? So JUDGE PRIEST might offend both rule twenty-three and rule twelve?

Twenty-four) Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

Heavies need love too. Still, anything excessive must be bad, mustn’t it? I can agree that if the kissing proceeds to the point where the two skulls actually fuse, they’ve probably gone too far for most tastes.

I wanted to briefly reflect on the effect of the Code itself. I agree with those behind the Great Breening Blogathon that the period of the Code produced some of the finest American cinema, but I am reluctant to give Breen and his office too much credit. I do agree that the Code provided what the industry wanted from it: some protection from local censorship boards and from the threat of official state censorship. I differ with them in that I do see it as censorship, even though it was imposed by the industry itself, not the government. If a filmmaker can’t deal with a subject or show an image because it violates a set of rules, that is surely a form of censorship. And one of the most insidious forms of censorship is self-censorship. We know of films which couldn’t be made, and films that had to be heavily adapted to be permissible, but how many countless films never got past the notional stage, because writers or producers told themselves, We’ll never get away with THAT?

Hollywood in the 30s and 40s was immensely profitable. The studios had a virtual monopoly, controlling production, distribution and exhibition. They could buy in the best talent from all over the world, not only enhancing their own product, but depleting other countries’. They made films in bulk, which meant they could afford the occasional artistic risk, and with so many talented and smart people on the payroll, they enjoyed a high rate of artistic as well as box office success.

In the pre-code era they enjoyed a degree of freedom in what they could show and discuss, but the studios had to be cautious still about offending public taste and local state censors, which kept things within reasonable limits most of the time. Compare a racy 1933 film and a racy 1973 film and the distinction is clear. But predicting what will cause offense to a shopkeeper in Illinois or a politician in Tennessee is not an exact science, and while the studios wanted to be cautious, they also knew that sex sells, sensation sells, and so there was a commercial pressure to see how much they could get away with.

Under the Code, filmmakers had a better sense of what was allowable, and the back-and-forth discussions with Breen allowed studios to anticipate problems before making costly commitments to movies or scenes that would end up cut. Financially, this made total sense to them.

And unquestionably, filmmakers became adept at implying story content that couldn’t be treated openly because of the children in the audience. Had a ratings system existed that kept kids out of films intended for more mature viewers, more adult themes could have been treated — but probably the studios would have seen this as limiting the financial prospects of the adult films, and it would have required a wholesale restructuring of the way Americans consumed movies — you can’t just rock up at the “theater” (as Americans quaintly spell it), not knowing what’s on, if you might not be able to get in, or bring the kids, or if you don’t like more mature content. Ironically, nowadays such a system would work fine, but Americans still don’t have a working certification system that protects kids. If the R were adults only, kids would be better protected and more sensible decisions might be possible about what kind of images really need to be restricted. The MPAA’s weird tolerance for extreme violence coupled with prudishness about all forms of sex, but especially gay sex, is partly to do with anxieties about children, and partly to do with the organisation’s history as a largely Catholic outgrowth of a largely Jewish business. Violence — i.e. the crucifixion — can be part of a morally uplifting story — but sex must always be shut away.

But the Code, and the less articulated thinking that went along with it, did make it flat-out impossible to tackle certain themes, and I don’t believe there are any themes that should be forbidden to art. I don’t really care for official restrictions about the WAY themes can be tackled, but creative types can work within strictures of taste as well as those of time and money, so this aspect of the Code wasn’t destructive, it just created a certain artful stylisation when it came to sexual passion, violence, and other hot-button material. The real harm was not in the Be Carefuls, it was in the Don’ts.

All intertitles from DW Griffith’s THE SORROWS OF SATAN.

The Don’ts

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on October 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, I got an unusual and intriguing invitation to take part in a blogathon — that in itself is fairly unusual, but the NATURE of the blogathon in this case is out of the normal run of things. The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is running a celebration of Production Code supremo Joe Breen, with the underlying belief that the code was a boon to American movie-making and would transform American culture for the better if it were reinstated today.

I think this is incorrect, but the people at PEPS said they’re happy for me to take a dissenting view, so why not? I did check their opinion of the Code’s infamous sixth commandment, prohibiting “racial miscegenation” — they’re against it. It wasn’t part of the original Code but was added by the studios themselves, as they wanted a provision to keep them from getting into trouble with local censors in the South.

(What the USA needed, post-Civil War, was surely a massive indoctrination campaign equivalent to that which de-Nazified Germany. I don’t know how that was accomplished — convincing people they’ve been on the wrong side isn’t exactly easy — but it seems to have been very successful. Large parts of the South still don’t seem to have learned the rather important lessons of that war. That “War Between The States” stuff needed stamping out.)

So, having established that my genial hosts were not horrible racists, I felt I could do business with them. Because, hopefully, dialogue between different viewpoints is a good thing. (I haven’t asked their opinions on Trump yet.)

One of the suggested gambits for this blogathon is “Breening,” whereby a modern film is reimagined as it would be if produced under the Code. The point of the exercise being to show how it would be improved. I was tempting to choose LOVING, a film which would presumably cease to exist under the Code, or else the whole thing would play on a torpedo boat. But I’ve decided not to Breen anything. Instead, I’m going to start off by considering the provisions of the Code to see what can be said for them.

I don’t think the Pure Entertainment people will be shocked by my views. But we’re coming at things from different perspectives. Charles Grodin recommends that when liberals argue with conservatives, it’s best not to start by assuming the other side is less compassionate. While conservatives worry about the erosion of abstract but deeply-held “values”, liberals worry about “harm.” So I’m looking at the Don’ts in the Code and asking “Who actually gets hurt if we ignore these rules?” and “Who gets hurt if we obey them?”

These Don’ts are actually from the 1927 Code proposed by the industry and accepted by Will Hays. The Breen Code later adapted these somewhat.

One) Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;

I can be a little prudish about “pointed profanity.” I don’t like to hear little kids swearing; I don’t like any loud swearing in public. And swearing in the movies probably does have an influence on real-life use of swears. But it isn’t, in itself, hurting anyone. Even the Bible is only mildly against it. There’s not a Commandment about vulgar language, just about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And do we seriously want a cultural rule that prevents realistic representation of dialogue in order to spare the feelings of one religious group? My rule is, the religious can follow whatever precepts they like, within the law of the land, but they oughtn’t get to prohibit non-adherents from doing or saying what they like, within the law of the land.

Two) Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;

I like how they cover all the bases here. You can’t show a character lecherously noticing the nudity of a character who you also can’t show. In practice, of course, ALL nudity was deemed licentious/suggestive from 1934 until the Code disintegrated, with the exception of dogs, horses etc. Why do they get a pass? Rin Tin Tin spent his whole career gallumphing about starkers with his tongue hanging out, and when he noticed lady dogs I’m not so sure his intentions were pure. Personally, I sometimes enjoy looking at attractive naked humans, and it can be useful to occasionally see less attractive ones so I feel less inferior.

I realise that distinguishing between licentious nudity and the healthy, outdoors kind would have involved a lot of hairsplitting, which is not easy to do while staring at someone’s bottom. And it’s probably safe to assume that most movie nudity has suggestive intent, given the kind of people who make movies. But of all the kinds of god I don’t believe in, the kind I don’t believe in hardest may be the kind who created the human body and then doesn’t want it ever to be seen.

Three) The illegal traffic in drugs;

This one’s just mad, isn’t it? You have to warn kids about drugs, so they won’t think it’s a great idea to accept them when offered (but they’ll probably do it anyway). If you want kids to be aware of the dangers of drugs (including the danger of getting busted and having your life ruined), banning any reference to them from movies is a pretty counter-intuitive move.

Four) Any inference of sex perversion;

Since inference is something done by the audience, this seems to be asking for the moon. How are the studios going to stop the audience inferring whatever it likes? My favourite example of this is Ben Hecht’s suggestion that whenever the screen fades to black, the occupants of the scene we’ve just been watching immediately drop their trousers and begin fornicating in the dark. Such an interpretation of film grammar enlivens the most moribund BOSTON BLACKIE programmer.

But even if we assume the Code meant to say “implication,” I’m against it. This to me is as bad as the miscegenation rule, even though it’s easier to understand in its historical context. However we define “perversion” (the Church has often gone with “anything which adds pleasure to the sexual act/s”), I’m in favour of implying it, inferring it, flat-out portraying it, and doing it, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Public sex should generally be closely contained, but sex or its impersonation on a movie screen certified Adults Only seems harmless to me, in itself.

And since sex is wrapped up in a lot of anxiety, it can do audience members good to see people in movies who are into the same twisted but harmless peculiarities they themselves enjoy.

Five) White slavery;

But Black slavery is fine, apparently. See GONE WITH THE WIND. Both hues of slavery seem like unpleasant facts of life which can and should be dealt with in movies — I would move them to the Be Careful list. Rape is on the Be Careful list. Why this distinction?

Six) Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);

See above. Censorship often draws a sort of diaphanous veil over things we know are there. what are we being protected from? Practically every African-American owes some of their DNA to rape under slavery. “Miscegenation” was driven by the white slave-owning class. It’s proof is in every coffee-coloured face we see. And the proof of sexual intercourse is present in every human being we see. And the proof of sexual perversion is present inside our own minds.

Seven) Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;

Don’t talk about it. It’ll go away.

Eight) Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;

Ditto. And putting these two items in the same column is weird.

Nine) Children’s sex organs;

I don’t have the energy to mount a campaign for More Children’s Sex Organs Now, but isn’t this a strange one to get absolutist about? I think sexualised images of children are worrisome, and they don’t have to involve specific organs. And we want to be careful of providing images that feed pedophile fantasies, even while they might seem innocent enough to normal people. This just seems like an area where more nuance would be useful.

Ten) Ridicule of the clergy;

Nobody should be safe from ridicule. The deeply religious indulge in a strange form of projection which means we all have to follow their rules. Joseph Breen shouldn’t ridicule the clergy because he’s a Catholic. I’m an atheist. Ridiculing the clergy is central to my existence. And when an unbeliever mocks Allah, they’re mocking something they don’t believe is there. That can’t be as bad a sin, surely, as a devout Muslim disrespecting his own deity.

I recall hearing that Prince Charles, over dinner, once argued that the Salman Rushdie fatwa was understandable as he’d offended people’s most deeply held beliefs. I like to think I would reply that MY most deeply held beliefs include the importance of freedom of expression. Do I get to write a counter-fatwa?

Eleven) Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

The eleventh commandment. Breen would have had ten but the studios had to go one better than God. This one’s a nice sentiment, but in theory it includes Satanists, and in practice it included Nazis pre-war, and didn’t really include other races. Except that it’s so hard to tell when offence is willful, sometimes. But this seems like the 1930s version of an injunction against hate speech, and thus not far removed from the kind of thing most of us would endorse today. Banning the incitement of hatred towards a race or creed seems like a better way of getting the desired result. I’m not sure if “nation” means a populace or a leadership, here. Hatred of Germany, as constituted under Hitler, was evidently fine during WWII. Hatred of the Japanese people as a race was also encouraged. So the Breen Office didn’t always follow its own injunctions.

A separate post on the Code’s twenty-five Be Carefuls? And then something on the effect of the Code. Because the funny thing is, I agree with the Purity people that the thirties and forties were a really great time for American cinema. We just disagree a bit about WHY…