Monday, 31 August 2009

Hollywood vs Hard Core.

The title of the book - if not the subtitle - is a bit misleading, in that there is a lot of history of Hollywood from the 1920s onwards before we get to the showdown between Hollywood and hardcore in the 1970s.

Moreover, even then it perhaps isn't so much a direct encounter as an indirect one, with Hollywood being saved through primarily through the actions of Republican politicians. Nonetheless, this can be forgiven in that the longer historical perspective proves informative as well as ultimately tying everything together.

In the 1920s and 1930s attacks on the movies came from two main consistuencies: small-town and rurual Protestants and big city Catholics. Whatever their other differences - as exemplified, for instance, by the KKK - one thing both groups had in common was a widespread anti-Semitism that was played into the fact that most of the studio bosses were Jewish.

The Studio Code was thus brought into being and belatedly enforced. Truth be told the major studios did not mind too much, for the self-regulation it entailed worked to their advantage and, coupled with control over the majority of the first run theatres in the cities, ensured the money kept coming in.

While the New Deal administration had began anti-trust action against the restrictive practices of the studios, the Second World War put things on hold. By the time of the anti-trust action in 1948, Stalin and Communism had replaced Hitler and Nazism as the chief threat to the American way of life, a shift emphasised by the rise of McCarthy and the HUAC. (Another player here, who would become more significant 20 or 25 years on, was Richard Nixon.)

Tapping into an anti-Semitic legacy seemingly little reduced by the Holocaust and heightened by the likes of the Rosenberg case, HUAC duly rounded upon Hollywood Jews. Though some, like their non-Jewish counterparts, were merely anti-fascist and liberal rather than actual communists, they were all tarred with the same un-American brush. Not, however, that the old entrepreneurial capitalist studio heads necessarily escaped either, as they were increasingly replaced by anonymous (and WASP) corporate management.

Into the 1950s and 1960s, the Studio Code became more a liability than an asset. With the rise of television, the teenager and the European art film - which Jon Lewis astutely recognises, per David Friedman, was targeted to different audiences in different ways - the old idea of the movie for everyone became untenable. Meanwhile the Studios increasingly became parts of wider corporate portfolios, with possibilities for synergistic marketing.

1968 saw the introduction of a new ratings system, one that has stated in place, with modifications, for the past forty years. Central here was the division between the R rating and the X non-rating, with which its new president Jack Valenti hoped to draw a line between the studio produced or distributed R film, with its MPAA certification, and the independent X film, without an MPAA rating.

The idea was that the R would allow Hollywood film-makers, many now modelling themselves on the European auteurs, to make more adult films attuned to the increasingly profitable counter-cultural zeitgeist, whilst also keeping the likes of Russ Meyer ghettoised.

For a few years the fate of the idea was hanging in the balance. The likes of Brian De Palma, with Greetings, John Schlesinger, with Midnight Cowboy, and Robert Aldrich, with The Killing of Sister George made films that were released as X rather than R, while Meyer was ironically contracted by a major studio to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls shortly after. Porn films, meanwhile, first soft then hard, began to emerge and sported their X or, later, XXX certificates as a mark of pride:

"Independent distributors could not release a picture with a G, M, or R rating without first submitting their film to the MPAA/CARA board. But nothing stopped independent, even hard-core distributors from applying the X rating to their films. Independently made and released (mostly soft-core) X-rated films were made somehow legitimate because they shared a rating designation with a studio prestige picture like Midnight Cowboy. While the indie titles seemed to gain respectability by association, the Schlesinger film suffered by comparison. It, like all those awful indie soft-core pictures rated X in 1969, was, for some filmgoers at least, just another dirty picture."

June 1972 to 1973, the period of The Godfather, Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones was pivotal. Though certainly containing violence unacceptable pre-1968 - what is Sonny's killing but Coppola's response to the end of Bonnie and Clyde?- the film, the biggest grosser of the year, was R material. The X-rated Deep Throat, however, was probably far more profitable in terms of return on investment. It was also technically crude, with little that could be said about it in film-critical terms rather than cultural ones. Mainstream reviews of The Devil in Miss Jones only months later were of a different order: Here was an X rated hardcore porn film with decent production values and direction, performances that were just as accomplished in acting as sexual terms, and a degree of intellectual cachet via its Sartrean allusions. It was, in other words, closer to another key film of the time, the major studio backed Last Tango in Paris, than was comfortable. It was also very successful at the box-office, this despite increasing legal problems.

For it was around this point that the Republican right, under Nixon, stepped in to save Hollywood. The previous administration's commissioned report on pornography, which had taken a liberal, no demonstrable harm stance, was rejected. Eventually, under Reagan, a new commission was formed and duly reported what their masters wanted to hear, that it was bad. Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and other porn films were taken to court and, while winning some cases, lost others. Often the decision hinged upon the specific jurisdiction, highlighting a distinction between liberal and conservative, blue and red states that has continued into the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 1990s and beyond.

The crucial point, however, was that times were a changing back (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) and that Nixon's own criminality had not yet been found out. Thus, the possibility that the independently produced X film might seriously challenge the major studio R was effectively closed off.

So too, after a few more years, was most of the innovative Hollywood film-making that had briefly flourished when the studios were in disarray. 1975 brought Jaws, 1977 Star Wars. In between them we had Taxi Driver, where Scorsese desaturated the colours in the final bloodbath to secure an R. After Star Wars we still had the independent Dawn of the Dead, which Romero valiantly released with an X. But safe, non-threatening movies that said less about politics in the wider sense were increasingly the order of the day. After all, have not Craven, Romero and others long since gotten used to the contractual requirement of turning in an R as they have sucked from the corporate teat, even if there are then also the requisite "unrated" - cynically, perhaps even also contractually obligated - scenes for today's DVD releases.

Jon Lewis's reading of this key period is intriguing for what it says and does not say. On the one hand, he posits that porn cinema allowed for the new right to attack the counter-culture by proxy, that the "different strokes for different folks" message with which Deep Throat concludes had to be refuted. On the other hand, in light of his earlier discussions of anti-Semitism's role here, he does not engage with the apparently disproportionate involvement of (non-religious) Jews in US pornography.

So, what is it?

Was it that Deep Throat was a Mafia production, with the only Jewish involvement as far as I am aware being that of the (now born-again Christian) Harry Reems?

Was it that the mob-connected but Jewish Reuben Sturman, perhaps the most important figure in porn at this time, was not a film-maker?

Is the Jews in porn thing a later development?

A myth subsequently promulgated by the religious right?

Reservations about the exploitation movie type title and some omissions aside, a thought-provoking read.

May Jack Valenti rot in hell, preferably being sodomised by an AIDS-ravaged John Holmes out of his mind while freebasing ;-)


K H Brown said...

I should also add, for the rest of us not in the US, that their hegemonic presence means this all impacts on us as well: Hollywood films are made for a US audience, and then an international one, with no thought of (intentionally) shocking either.

Muslims = Terrorists, as a Hollywood trope, but one that does not sell in, say, Malaysia or Indonesia, may be interesting here...

Anonymous said...

Don't know if it's the book or your post, but it seems to me there are a couple of interesting ideas here, but not necessarily a connection between them. The porn / Hollywood comparison or angle is already one that has mostly been used by researchers approaching the topic from "porn's side of view", but also one that has been widely refuted in pretty much every other research.
Don't know what the Jewish influence in US porn has to do with anything either and the X certificate for Hollywood films also developed independently of the XXX label used by porn companies (which only had a marginal effect o the introduction of the NC-17 rating).

The post just seems disjointed to me, but maybe I'm just missing the underlying theme?

K H Brown said...

The post is probably disjointed.

I think the porn/Hollywood thing is hampered by a) no one on either side speaking the truth and b) the inability to do a like with like comparison, though certainly subsequent research has indicated studio/non-studio divisions.

The Jewish aspect is what I felt the author didn't pursue, that it was an issue in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, but then declined.

The XXX label developed because the MPAA did not copyright X, because they hoped to establish a R/X MPAA/non-MPAA distinction. I think they did NC-17, but by that point anything beyond R was unacceptable.

The sex-violence distinction is the most visible manifestation of this.

Elliot James said...

The MPAA serves no purpose. It is simply a money-making business. R-rated and NC-17 content can be accessed by younger audiences on their own simply through cable, satellite or DVD (and now the web).