Archive for MPAA

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.

Dick Without a Dictaphone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2009 by dcairns

My second ever interview. I still suck at it, but I’m improving, possibly. Maybe if I get a tape recorder things will go better. For the time being I am trying to record things with my brain, with the aid of scribbled notes. This tends to break the flow, and when I write down my impressions of a conversation with a few scanty quotes from the “subject,” there is a danger of creating the impression, entirely false, that I am the articulate one.


Kirby Dick’s feature documentary OUTRAGE tackles the alluring subject of prominent Republican politicians who are gay, in the closet, and voting against gay rights. Like Clerici in THE CONFORMIST, it seems like a protective strategy, joining the enemy and finding safety within it. The movie explores the subject politically, socially and psychologically, with a very articulate set of commentators. Having just re-watched KD’s previous movie, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, I detected a sort of connection — the idea, expressed in TFINYR, that people put their sexuality in a kind of compartment to separate it from the rest of their lives. A previous Dick film (don’t titter, it’s a very fine and Scottish surname), SICK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST, looked at a character who had very successfully integrated his sexuality with the rest of his life, to the point of turning a very difficult situation into something positive.

So it seemed as if connections are becoming apparent between the various movies in the Dick oeuvre.

“At last!” he laughs. Rather than consciously staking out a territory, the filmmaker feels that “each new film seems to alienate the audience of the previous one.” And the films do cover a lot of ground. The Flanagan film was followed by CHAIN CAMERA, about  kids in racially-diverse LA high school, with the kids themselves given a camera to shoot the film. That was followed by DERRIDA, which is quite a jump. And then SHOWGIRLS: GLITZ & ANGST could be said to occupy a different plane from its precedssor, with 2004’s TWIST OF FAITH heading into fresh territory, exploring the issue of child abuse within the Roman Catholic faith. Dick hasn’t found himself typecast yet, and hasn’t really faced pressure to carry on in one vein, apart from the desire of backers to get something commercial.  Such as? “You know, anything with kids in it. Kids and competitions. I’m not sure if there’s actually been a good film made about that subject, but…”


The top half of a man, interviewed in I AM NOT A FREAK.

As part of my extensive research I’d gotten hold of a very early Dick film, I AM NOT A FREAK, his third work according to the IMDb. I definitely think he’s improved since then. Part of the trouble is that the subject of disability and deformity has become a staple of supposed “science shows” especially here in the UK. These shows don’t contain any science, really, they’re an uncomfortable mix of human interest and freakshow. I AM NOT A FREAK doesn’t wholly escape that trap — I’m not sure if it’s possible to do so. Maybe just acknowledging the trap would be enough. I wondered if there was anything Dick regretted.

“Mainly I wish I’d been a producer on that. Because I didn’t get paid much and I have a feeling it’s made quite a bit of money over the years. Because the subject is kind of evergreen, you know.” The film’s best quality is it’s empathy for its characters, which is a quality it shares with all Dick’s films. “I think I have empathy for all my subjects — except Joan Graves in THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED.” Graves is the ratings board chairperson who denied the film a rating, thereby assuming the role of villain within the film itself. I asked if Dick was surprised at what he found out in the course of making that film. Not really. He’d been aware of the problems within the MPAA for twenty years. Hiring a private investigator to identify the raters, whose identities had been a closely-guarded secret, Dick was able to expose the studios’ ethically dubious stranglehold on the system of film censorship (which you’re not supposed to call censorship) in America.

Because Dick isn’t really on the studios’ radar, he didn’t have any trouble in the aftermath of the film — as an independent he’s not likely to be going cap-in-hand to the studio people who are connected to the MPAA. And once again with OUTRAGE he’s made a film which in some ways confounds the expectations created by his previous work. While TFINYR addressed head-on the MPAA’s discomfort with homosexuality, it had a “strong heterosexual appeal, due to all the clips we were able to use.” But then OUTRAGE, which is all about homosexuality, isn’t necessarily a film with a specific appeal to “the gay audience” — it’s more likely to appeal to an audience of gays and straights and whatevers that wants to see politics dealt with in an intelligent way. One would like to think that audience is large…

OUTRAGE is so articulate and well put-together that I struggled to actually come up with useful questions, but I was intrigued by the figure of Dan Gurley, who was basically forced out of the closet by another of Dick’s interviewee’s, Michael Rogers. I got the impression from the film that Gurley was still a bit upset about this, even though he’s now working for gay rights and seems to have become a far more positive figure as a result of coming out. “Yeah, he’s still angry.” Dick wanted to bring Gurley and Rogers together for a discussion, and nearly managed to organise it, but Rogers’ reputation for ferocity intimidated Gurley and it didn’t quite come off. Nevertheless, the access Dick was able to get to politicians and political commentators was more than sufficient. Many of them had their own first-hand experience of hiding their orientation from the world, and “They want people to know the damage of the closet.” One of the film’s most moving sequences is a montage of same-sex weddings — after an hour of talk about repression and oppression, this has the same freeing impact as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. As John Lennon cries, “We’re out!”

Of course, people like Charlie Crist and Larry Craig, still officially heterosexual, would never appear in a film like this, but even if they did they would simply deny everything in that robotic and uncomfortable way, so the archive material Dick uses serves the same function admirably.

I wondered what other Republicans think. Do they know these guys are gay? It seems pretty obvious. “I don’t think they care. They kind of have a live and let live attitude about it. From a liberal attitude, you think, ‘Why would you vote against yourself?’ But from a conservative vantage, it’s not about aligning the personal and the political, it’s about keeping them separate.”

This is where the empathy factor is most effective. It’s a fundamentally different film from a Michael Moore agit-prop affair, because it’s all about the impact of the personal and the political. “Personally I feel that politicians should be allowed all the sex they want. It’s a tough job. It’s stressful enough.”

Me: “Yeah, we don’t want a stressed man with his finger on the button.”

Kirby: “Or woman.”

I picture the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, and imagine the sexual energy and finesse of Denis Thatcher being the only thing standing between mankind and doomsday, and simultaneous shudders run up and down my spine. We’re all lucky to be here.

I ask if Kirby Dick has plans for his next film.

“I do. Can’t talk about it. Don’t want the assholes to know I’m looking into it.”

Legs Wide Shut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2008 by dcairns

The uncensored version contains what seems to me a near-impossibility: performing oral sex while wearing a full-face mask. Don’t try this at home!

Thanks to the ever-great DVDBeaver for these images*. I was always very very amused by the idea that the U.S. release of Kubrick’s dirty swan song EYES WIDE SHUT had been censored, by having additional figures inserted into key shots to block our view of the orgiastic activities taking place at Sidney Pollack’s Bilderburg-like exclusive shagging palace. It sounded so goofy!

(It should be noted that the U.K. version was also censored, but in this case the issue was with the soundtrack, which contained sacred Islamic texts chanted over the scenes of illicit rumpy-pumpy. The score was re-jigged to defuse religious wrath.)

Now at last I’ve seen frame comparisons of both versions. Pretty funny stuff. Fiona was particularly amused by the nude blonde sitting, her head resting on her masked and cowled beau’s shoulder, as they watch the hot boy-girl action. So sweet.

Why did the scenes have to be occluded in this way? Kubrick apparently researched the U.S. censorship system as best he could, to find out what was acceptable, but still found himself looking down the barrel of an X Certificate when he presented his film to the industry bluestockings. The principle in question was one of buttock-thrusts, and he should really have researched further, because Alan Parker had come up against the same problem with ANGEL HEART. The M.P.A.A. had strongly objected to the sight of Mickey Rourke’s heaving buttocks, arguing that more than three consecutive thrusts of the buttocks in one shot constituted obscenity. Parker, ever the street-fighting man, protested and won, but the principle that obscenity has a numerical value measured in pelvic thrusts obviously remained on the sexy statute books.

(The M.P.A.A. being the odd organisation it is, did not object to the blood pouring down the walls of the room, over Rourke and his paramour, Cosby Show graduate Lisa Bonet. In Britain, the censors for a long time maintained that any conjunction of blood and breasts was liable to act as a Rape Trigger, turning male audience members into slavering beasts. They squabbled with Michael Winner over his prurient remake of THE WICKED LADY, in which Faye Dunaway bullwhips a topless Marina Sirtis, and again, a stroppy Brit managed to overcome a censorship decision just by making a big fuss over it, aided by respected industry figures like Lindsay Anderson coming to the defense of his, er, art. Maybe Kubrick should have done the same. Happy ending — at least Marina S., who has to get nude in every one of her WICKED LADY scenes, had Star Trek: The Next Generation to look forward to.)

From Parker to Barker: the other person who could have helped Kubes out would be Clive Barker. When making his first feature, Barker had run up against a narrative problem. Clare Higgins’ character in the film is besotted with a particular lover, so much so that she raises him from the dead in order to continue enjoying his affections. At a certain point in rehearsal, it became clear to Barker and his cast that it would be necessary to spell out what, exactly, this kinky couple were into. Eventually, Higgins said, “*I* think she’s into spanking.” Barker clapped his hands together: “Great.” They shot a scene.

Barker’s American producer called the next day. “We’ve just seen yesterday’s footage. Sensational. We can’t use any of it.” Turns out there was an absolute Thou Shalt Not Spank commandment in force. Barker was frustrated: “You’ve got to come clean and tell me what the rules are, then. I can’t go on guesswork.” It turned out that there WERE rules, despite the M.P.A.A.’s insistence that each case was judged on its merits. Censors don’t like to make their rules known because it makes them look silly. Splitting pubic hairs is not an occupation with a lot of dignity. It’s similar to the way that executive producers and funding bodies often don’t like to admit that they’re looking for particular kinds of material, since it implies that they’re not creative and flexible.

Anyhow, Barker was DELIGHTED with his new set of rules. “It did wonders for my sex life,” he attested. “I now knew the exact moment when I was crossing over into obscenity.”

That fourth thrust is the one that does it, folks. Try to climax before then, to stay out of trouble.

The kinkiest touch — one girl holding the other’s wrists — is also hidden. Fiona points out that the same couple is back in this shot, having presumably darted through a side exit, scooted ahead of Tom Cruise, and assumed their seats moments before his arrival. “People in masks are not to be trusted.” ~ Fessick the Giant in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Anyway, Stan’s difficulties with this sequence illustrate again my ground-breaking thesis re Kubrick.

*DVDBeaver is a terrific DVD review site. Not porn.