Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009

Obscene, Indecent, Etc.

By David Luhrssen
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When they were introduced in the 1890s, motion pictures were a marvel in an age of marvels. Cities were being lit by electricity and crowned by skyscrapers, telephones carried distant voices and pictures began to move in a jerky semblance of real life. But with new technology came old controversy. One of the first movies shown publicly in New York, The May Irwin Kiss (1896), drew fire. Only 18 seconds long, shorter than the average blip on YouTube, it featured the stars of a current Broadway hit reenacting their stage kiss.

Stephen Tropiano's book Obscene, Indecent, Immoral, and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, andControversial Films (published by Limelight Editions) recounts this as one of the earliest outraged responses to a film. An artist writing in a cultural journal found The May Irwin Kiss “near being indecent in its emphasized vulgarity,” differentiating the screen kiss from its theatrical prototype for being “Magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over.” The writer called for “police interference.” Interest by the authorities in monitoring and proscribing movies would not be long in coming.

OIIM (as we’ll call the book for convenience) is fascinating and frustrating. What makes it a compelling read is its chronicle of censorship by city and state boards, local officials acting as lone rangers, activist groups of various stripes and Hollywood itself, which by 1934 enforced a strict Production Code in order to stave off the specter of federal regulation. The Code was modified over the time and finally dropped in 1968, replaced by a ratings system similar to the G through NC-17 system used today.

What’s frustrating is Tropiano’s failure to articulate a perspective on censorship beyond making fun of its proponents (while giving a pass to censors going after films originating on the right side of the political spectrum). About censoring the pro-Hitler Triumph of the Will (1935) and the pro-KKK The Birth of a Nation (1915), both films of aesthetic importance despite their content, he has little to say but to note the organized efforts to ban or protest the movies. A snarky tone permeates much of the book. Tropiano calls Chicago’s censorious early 20th century mayor George B. McClellan “McScrooge” and often postures like an academic eager to appear cool in the eyes of his sophomore class. The nuances of the historical periods covered by OIIO are ignored, as is any attempt to understand the motivations and roots of censorship.

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