A PAUSE IN HONOR OF THE PRODUCTION CODE (PRE MPAA MADNESS)
I thought, while I had your attention, I'd attempt to interest a few of the newer readers of this modest blog who joined us once production commenced on "City Island" to the blog's original intention--the celebration of my twin obsessions, old movies and jazz, as purveyed clip by clip on the wondrous thing known as youtube. (Jesus that's a long sentance. Anyone still reading?) The vehicle for this would not be un-"City Island" related, however; I've found a quite amusing montage that a youtuber named Nicoley132 built revolving around the pre-code era and, among other things, people making out in old movies.
Briefly, the Production Code was established circa 1933 in order to rid movies of salacious behavior and improve the country's low impression of Hollywood's notoriously low morals. But before the code anything went, short of pornography. Sex was much more open in the late silent and early sound era than it ever was again until the late 1960's. Violence had an edge that wasn't matched until decades later as well. And gay characters were part of the movie landscape as well--albeit in a comic way of course, but still they were there, in a refreshingly uncloseted way.
I bring this up because of the curious form of self-censorship that filmmakers now practice. Since the collapse of the Production Code (a gradual process that began with the use of the word "virgin" in Otto Preminger's "The Moon Is Blue" in 1953) and the installation of the bizarre group known as the MPAA (they're the ones that assign movies a rating), the burden has shifted to the filmmaker to decide what is appropriate to include in his or her movie. When making a movie like "City Island", for instance, we were conscious of attempting to appeal to a wider more family-driven audience--which leads to the assumption that the rating we wish to acheive would be a PG-13. But what exactly constitutes the standard of this rating? The MPAA will never tell you. From past history, though, it can be assumed that only a modicum of foul language will be tolerated. For some reason, the characters in my movie exclaim "Shit!" quite a bit. Would this be an issue? Perhaps. But it goes without saying that "Fuck" gets you an "R". I wonder why the sexual connotation of "fuck" is deemed more offensive than the excretionary connotation of "shit"? Doesn't the former refer to the optimistic promotion of the future while the latter refers to the despised detritus of the past?
Then there's sex, which the MPAA seems much more concerned about than violence. A good make out session is probably OK. But what happens when hands start reaching for parts of the human anatomy? Generally the theory is to avoid this if you want to stay in the land of PG-13. There was an interesting documentary made a few years ago about the people who actually comprise the membership of the MPAA and how the power to rate movies has fallen into the hands of this strange cabal. (The filmmaker's name is Kirby Dick. Which sounds like what you have to do to get a PG-13). When you see who these folks actually are, you begin to understand why violence in movies is more tolerable than sex. Let's just say that Obama's brilliantly true comment (which he was forced to back away from) about bitter people clinging to guns and religion comes to mind when putting a face on the MPAA. It's a game without a playbook and the filmmaker is never sure of where the chips will fall. Alternate versions of scenes are frequently shot for language reasons. Sometimes an appeal can be made to the MPAA and they will suggest changes that might alter the rating. Other times they are implacable and silent; nothing will move them to reconsider the rating they've bestowed.
Such was almost but not quite the case with "City Island", which initially received the astounding (for a gentle family comedy) rating of R. When we asked why, two "F" words were indicated as problems...as well as a few shots in the strip club scenes that made the MPAA "uncomfortable". Now I shot that strip club with an eye on a PG-13 and anyone who's seen the film can attest that it is the least provocative strip club imaginable--the girls wear tops fer chrissakes! But when pressed, we were told that there was excessive "grinding and use of the pole". This, then, was what was going to cause our movie to be lumped in the same rating category with movies that routinely explode and annihilate whole populations in the name of entertainment. There was a little consternation from the producers as to how I--who had final cut--would take the news that we'd have to do further trimming to the film. They needn't have worried. I didn't give a damn about dropping a few grind shots. I cared that the movie not be branded with a rating that was going to turn away a significant part of our audience. And that group wasn't the young folks, who the rating seeks to protect. It was always clear to me that we had a movie that could be very appealing to seniors--a much overlooked demographic. Seniors can often be heard lamenting the violence, bad language and gratuitous sex that they're treated to in so many R rated movies. And who can blame them? Many of the older ones grew up on Astaire-Rogers movies. The newly minted seniors grew up on Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee! I wanted a PG-13 for them as much as anyone else. And, in the end, we got it and--to my immense satisfaction--our 'early bird' shows (the one pm screenings) tend to do as high numbers as our evening shows...which means the seniors are discovering the movie.
Oh for the pre-code era and the code era...and no doubt one day we'll be looking fondly back at the MPAA.
Below see a nice montage of pre-code revelry, set to the great Sinatra recording of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes". Normally I eschew these homemade youtube montages--preferring to post proper chunks of movies and performances, but this person did a nice job of cutting picture to the record. And they had the taste to pick Sinatra. And tune in Monday for the real thing...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 5:35 AM