inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #0 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #1 of 70: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #2 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #3 of 70: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #4 of 70: 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.   
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #5 of 70: (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 inkwell@well.com -- please
 include "Controversial Films" in the subject line.)
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #6 of 70: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #7 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #8 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #9 of 70: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #10 of 70: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #11 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #12 of 70: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #13 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #14 of 70: 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
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #15 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #16 of 70: 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)
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #17 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #18 of 70: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #19 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #20 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #21 of 70: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #22 of 70: 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).


 
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #23 of 70: Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 20 Mar 09 21:17
    

TEAM AMERICA was so wonderful.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #24 of 70: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.349 : Stephen Tropiano, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
permalink #25 of 70: 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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