Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 16 Mar 09 06:59
It's our pleasure to welcome Stephen Tropiano to the Inkwell. Stephen Tropiano is director of Ithaca College's Los Angeles Program, where he teaches film and TV history, theory and criticism. He is also the author of The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on Television (2000) and Rebels & Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie (2006), and is currently editor of the Journal of Film and Video. He earned his PhD in cinema from the University of Southern California. Leading our discussion is CJ Philips. CJ has been a member of The WELL since 1995 and is a cohost of the Gardening conference. She's a writer, translator, and painter when she's not otherwise engaged in this online community. One of her first memories is of seeing "Bambi," and this juxtaposition of horror and delight blew her little mind for good. She?s been a fan of the big screen ever since.
the secret agenda of rabbits (cjp) Mon 16 Mar 09 09:54
Thanks, Lisa. And welcome to The WeLL, Stephen! First off, I really enjoyed this book and learned more than I ever expected about film censorship in the U.S. Perhaps I should start off by asking you what your impetus was for writing this book. Was it the "Tin Drum" case you mentioned in your preface, or was it the effect of Ashcroft et al. on our national ideas of morality, or was it something else entirely? Also, what direction do you see censorship taking in the near future, particularly when in comes to American films?
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Mon 16 Mar 09 12:07
Thanks for the invitation to participate! The reason why I wrote this book is twofold. The TIN DRUM incident was indeed horrific and it certainly touched a nerve because this was happening in 1997 (as opposed to 1937 or 1957). The events surrounding the case (illegally obtaining names; the unlawful seizing of the tape, etc., the declaration that isolated scenes in the film were obscene) was positively frightening to me. Although this was an isolated incident, it was a preview of things to come as the wave of neoconservative would soon begin to permeate both our private and public lives. My second reason for writing the books stems more from my own academic interest in the ambiguity that has always surrounded censorship in the United States. What the film industry practiced through the Production Code Administration and later the MPAA Ratings System is considered "self-regulation," but when someone is reading over a script and following a Code which determined what could and could not be said and shown on the screen--that's censorship. I decided to write thebook after reading through the Production Code Administration files housed in the Motion Picture Academy library in Los Angeles. I was fascinated about the detailed notes that were made on each script as well as the state/regional reports that are also included in the files which outlined additional cuts that had to be made if you wanted audiences in Pennsylvania and New York to see your film.
the secret agenda of rabbits (cjp) Tue 17 Mar 09 00:42
Really really interesting about the TIN DRUM, a movie I adored the first time I saw it back when it first came out, and strangely horrified the second time I saw it a couple years ago. The same thing happened to me with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which you discuss in your book as well; I was in junior high when I first saw it with a bunch of my friends, and it became the center of our little universes for a while, so much so that we read Burgess's book and copied the slang and all. Then, when I saw it again a short while ago, I was shocked at how violent and nightmarish it was, particularly the rape scene, something which didn't register that much on my juvenile brain. I wonder if young brains just aren't as susceptible to being alarmed at sex and violence on the big screen as adults think they are. Do you know?
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Tue 17 Mar 09 17:28
I am not sure about the physiological part--but perhaps we are more immune to screen violence when we are young (late teens, early 1920s) as opposed to watching it today because at a younger age we are exposed to less violence than when we are older. In other words, older folks have a greater awareness of real violence that permeates society, so it would make sense that the film would touch a nerve. I don't know if 9/11 will have changed all that for younger people who "witnessed" the tragedy.
(dana) Wed 18 Mar 09 09:47
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- please include "Controversial Films" in the subject line.)
mother of my eyelid (frako) Wed 18 Mar 09 11:24
Hello, Stephen, welcome to the WELL! I also enjoyed your book immensely and it's had a definite effect on the slant of my teaching this semester. For example, in my global-cinema-since-1960 class, I emphasize which scenes were cut out of foreign films in order to be shown in the US (examples are BLACK SUNDAY, BATTLE OF ALGIERS). And in my US-cinema-before-1950 class, I make a point of mentioning which scenes from pre-Code films were cut out for their post-Code re-releases (examples are GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, KING KONG). Last night we discussed how the script in John Ford's STAGECOACH managed to allay Code worries about depicting an alcoholic, a whore, a pregnant woman and an avenger. Speaking of being unfazed by on-screen violence when we're younger, I told my students how much more sensitive I am in my old age to seeing horses fall down on their noses after being tripped by wires. That brought up yet another avenue of discussion on censorship: showing violence toward animals, and the whole history of wrangling between the MPAA and the American Humane Association. I recently saw the 1975 FOOD OF THE GODS, which shows rats being shot (by something, maybe just globs of red paint) and possibly being drowned in slow motion. I'd love to know exactly how they were treated. Anyway, I don't have any questions right now, but I'm very much looking forward to our discussions!
Bob (bob) Wed 18 Mar 09 12:06
Yes, hello Stephen. I was already somewhat acquainted with the recent censorship issues, that (aside from your book) were most concisely summed up in the doc "This Film is Not Yet Rated". Among other things, I was fascinated by the Edison company's "Kiss" demo, and how censorship was happening even at film's "Adam and Eve" moment. Watching that (of course, quite mild) piece, I'm struck by a wish that those early censors could be brought to the future and strapped down and forced to watch Pink Flamingoes.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 18 Mar 09 14:13
For those of us who haven't read the book, could you summarize briefly the Tin Drum episode you and CJ are referring to? Thanks.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Wed 18 Mar 09 14:32
These are all great comments & questions! On the subject of Animals: The original draft of the 1930 Production Code did include restrictions on the "representation" of animals on the screen. Under the heading "Repellent Subjects," the Code required the "branding of animals" and the "apparent cruelty to children or animals" be treated within the careful limits of good taste." Of course this said nothing about how the animals were treated during the production of the film. Cut to 1940 when the American Humane Society created a "Film and Television Unit" that would oversee the welfare of animals on the sets of movies. The creation of the unit was due in part to the tragic death of a horse on the set of JESSE JAMES (1939), in which a horse was forced to jump off a cliff into a raging river (they used a slippery platform called a "tilt shute" to get the horse to slip off the cliff). There is more about the treatment of horses in western productions in Jane Tompkin's WEST OF EVERYTHING: THE INNER LIFE OF WESTERNS, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Wed 18 Mar 09 14:49
THE TIN DRUM is an adaptation of a 1959 novel by Gunter Grass. It's about Oskar, a little boy living in Nazi Germany who refuses to grow up. His prize possession is a tin drum, which he receives at the age of 3. He can also make a high pitched piercing shriek, which can shatter glass. As time goes on, he grows older, yet he remains in the body of a little boy. His refusal to grow up is a protest against the "adult world." He feels grown-ups are self-centered and discontent. The scenes that caused so much controversy involved Oskar performing oral sex on an older woman. The actor was 11, but playing 16. The actress was 24. The film was banned as child pornography by the Ontario Censor Board. Director Volker Schlondorff testified at the Oklahoma trial that there was no sexual contact between the actors. The judge in the case ruled it was not obscene.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Thu 19 Mar 09 09:10
Thanks for the Jane Tompkins book referral, Stephen. I've ordered an exam copy. I've done only a little research on the Code and the depiction of animals, but I ran across an article that said there was public outrage over the "tilt chuting" of that poor horse off a cliff in JESSE JAMES (1939) that you mention above. I think it's great that viewers were actually angered by something I would think they'd ignore or suppose was just an illusion of danger, since in the next shot they'd see a living horse in the water with Henry Fonda. Apparently this public anger prompted the MPAA to allow the American Humane Association to start monitoring animal action on movie sets a year later. I guess one of the unfortunate byproducts of the cessation of the Code in 1966 was also the end of that animal-action monitoring. Which makes me wonder if, in 1975's THE FOOD OF THE GODS, rats were actually being shot and drowned on-camera. I understand that a scene in HEAVEN'S GATE (1979), in which a saddle rigged with explosives blew off and severely injured the horse, led to the Screen Actors Guild calling for the AHA to have its regulatory power restored.
the secret agenda of rabbits (cjp) Thu 19 Mar 09 09:46
Good grief. It's hard to believe that someone would actually rig explosives in a saddle and not expect the horse to be badly hurt. I'd be interested to find out about the rats, too. It seemed to me that the crux of this book was the 1960 statement signed by such filmmakers as Bogdanovich and Frank. In Stephen's book (p. 135), he notes that these members of the New American Cinema Group denounced commercial Hollywood cinema "as 'morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring.' Stephen explained, "Their manifesto posed basic yet very pertinent questions: 'Who are the censors? Who chooses them, and what are their qualifications? What's the legal basis for censorship? These are the questions that need answers." From what I've read and seen, it's 40 years later and those questions still haven't been satisfactorily answered. Have critical documentaries like THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED done anything to prod the MPAA into opening up their process for rating films?
Bob (bob) Thu 19 Mar 09 10:27
And on the tangent of animal cruelty, let's not forget Disney shipping a bunch of lemmings and mechanically chucking them off a high cliff for their nature documentary. Death of some animals, birth of a metaphor. More on topic... With R rated films now allowing pretty rampant violence and a fair amount of nudity, and with explicit sex now having its own well established market, you'd think the MPAA would just give up and stick to the job of categorizing films for the sake of letting people know if they can play the film on a laptop while riding a bus. But no, they still have to do their petty moralistic meddling with artists like Kevin Smith.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Thu 19 Mar 09 22:25
GODS/HEAVEN'S GATE: I have never heard anything about FOOD OF THE GODS, but I have heard the HEAVEN'S GATE story. There is some great interesting historical information on the American Humane's Society Film & TV Unit's website http://www.americanhumane.org/protecting-animals/programs/no-animals-were-harm ed/legacy-of-protection.html
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Fri 20 Mar 09 10:52
NEW AMERICAN CINEMA GROUP (You can read the entire statement at http://www.badlit.com/?p=675) The issue of censorship in the United States is definitely a tricky one. We are essentially in a culture in denial. We want to believe that we are guaranteed freedom of speech and that the airwaves are public. While I do believe that there needs to be some form of regulation, we forget that the decisions that are being made about what Americans can see and hear really comes down to a small group of people. The MPAA is an excellent example and if you haven't seen it, you should see Kirby Dick's documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED. He does a terrific job of exposing the problems with the MPAA's ratings system in the United States, which is in the hands of 9 anonymous individuals (not so after Dick's film) and the chair, Joan Garry. The only qualifications they seem to have is they are all parents. While I understand the ratings system is designed to educate parents so they can make informed decisions about the films their kids can and can not see, there remains a shroud of mystery surrounding how these decisions are made (the filmmaker is informed the final decision and the reason why). Another issue is the clear bias the board has against sex, nudity, sexuality in movies as opposed to violence (films containing the former tend to get rated R or NC-17 ratings). The appeals process is even more problematic as filmmakers are not allowed to have a dialogue with the appeals board (and mention other films when disputing the ratings of their films). The reason why there has been no campaign to change this system is the ratings board is part of the MPAA, whose members include the big studios.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Fri 20 Mar 09 10:57
Changes in the MPAA's system? One of the changes that was occurred as a result of the film is that filmmakers challenging their ratings to the MPAA appeals board were allowed to mention the titles of other films to make the case (source: imdb.com)
Bob (bob) Fri 20 Mar 09 12:11
One of the problems with the MPAA these days is that they seem to reserve the right to be quite arbitrary, particularly when dealing with filmmakers who they apparently don't like. I recall reading an interview with one (or both) of the South Park guys, who said that they were prohibited, under threat of NC17, from titling their film "South Park Goes To Hell". Of course, as we learn from your book, Stephen, issues over the H-word got pretty well settled well over a generation ago, and there have been plenty of "Hell" titles for decades now. And yet they can't resist abusing their power to jerk people around anyway.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Fri 20 Mar 09 12:53
Exactly--and there are so inconsistent. If there was anything positive to say about the Production Code, at least it spelled out in terms of some issues what you could and could not do, show, and say. Granted, it was ambiguous and problematic on every levels (especially in its mission to dictate morality), but at least it was in writing...it seems with the MPAA there are many "unwritten rules."
the secret agenda of rabbits (cjp) Fri 20 Mar 09 13:18
Is there any way of knowing who writes those rules? Is the MPAA as controlled by clergy as censorship boards used to be? It's hard to believe that South Park couldn't get a movie with the phrase "goes to hell" in it in this day and age, especially after SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT made it through all right. Kind of reminds me of those coded license plates that everybody but my maiden great-aunt would get.
Bob (bob) Fri 20 Mar 09 14:47
What I recall from the same interview is that the MPAA tried to stop them from using "Bigger Longer and Uncut" too, but only after it got officially approved; they were slow to get the joke. I should note that with a hasty web search, I find (on an Ebay page, for what it's worth) that "Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the MPAA, denies that any film was ever submitted with that title and states that the MPAA did not reject the use of the word 'hell' in the title." So who knows, maybe this was a case of Trey & Matt jerking around the MPAA, not that the larger point about MPAA being arbitrary doesn't remain true.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 20 Mar 09 18:17
For those of us who are not reading the book, would you please say more about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE? Although I was in college, not junior high school at the time, like CJ, my friends and I were completely blown away by it and went to see it every Wednesday night (because, of course, no video), and we also got caught up in the slang and the dress, and like you, the rape scenes seemed unreal, really, as did the violence, which was literally choreographed. What's the story with ACO, then?
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Fri 20 Mar 09 20:24
SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT The animated comedy was reportedly screened six times by the MPAA before it received an R rating. At the time, Parker and Stone were vocal about their disdain for the ratings board, which they believed were out of touch with culture. According to Parker, the original title was SOUTH PARK: ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE, but the MPAA told them they could not say "hell" in the title of the film. In the same article, Parker said they did approve the title they went with, which was an obvious penis reference that the Board did not get. Source: Amy Wallace, "MPAA's Dozen Judge Movies for Millions," LA TIMES 18 July 1991, page 1. Is it possible they didn't get it? We don't really know. I don't think the ratings board are necessarily the sharpest tools in the shed, though it would be difficult to miss what they would mean by "bigger, longer & uncut." of Of course Parker & Stone had problems again with TEAM AMERICA (the trouble had to do with the puppet sex scene, which is recounted in Kirby Dick's film).
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 20 Mar 09 21:17
TEAM AMERICA was so wonderful.
Stephen Tropiano (stropiano) Sat 21 Mar 09 11:08
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: When Stanley Kurbrick's film was first released in the United States it received an X rating from the MPAA, though Kubrick decided to cut the film to an R (so more people would go to see it because X). The film was actually pulled from circulation for about 60 days (a requirement of the MPAA) and re-released with the new rating. What's ironic is that it wasn't the rape sequences that were trimmed, but the sequence in which Alex has sex with the two girls in the hotel room, which is shown in fast motion to Rossini's "William Tell Overture." I found this surprising because at least when I think of this film, it's the rape/violence I remember! I think it is also a good example of how the MPAA has historically not held violence to the same strict standards as sex.
the secret agenda of rabbits (cjp) Sat 21 Mar 09 12:11
So, is there any way of knowing who writes those rules? Is the MPAA as controlled by clergy as censorship boards used to be?
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