[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too. Continue reading

[1937.7] Lost Horizon

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

We mythologize utopia as some lost dream from past society or some future to work toward. We can be certain that no such society exists where moderation is maxim and utility is perfectly cached: the desires of men are too disparate. And yet some faction of Utopian flag bearers, somewhere, still pushes the cause for a form of direct democracy where every member of a perfect society lives in harmony, balancing free will and freedom with equality and efficiency. This equilibrium, if ever achieved, is bound to be ephemeral if the conditions upon which it is tenuously based change in any way. In a society of more than one actor (by definition), these conditions can be near infinite. Yet we yearn for perfection, for redistribution, at the expense of neoliberalism, upon which our real, capitalist society is based. Why?

Lost Horizon is a shallow dive into this question. In this (the first, and most successful, of many), legendary director Frank Capra supposedly shot over one million feet of film to capture the balance between the visual and the aural cues behind societal and physical perfection of mind and place. Often what makes for good tonal and internal conflict within a two-hour film is severe realism versus capricious mysticism. Searching for voice, a director will sometimes (perhaps more often than not) film with hopes of reflecting points onto which an audience can latch. This is why we often see a story through the point-of-view of a protagonist instead of an antagonist, in the grand hope that Good can overcome Evil, or that the down-on-his-luck insurance salesman can push through adversity to escape into someone – or something – else. The trick with Lost Horizon is that neither option – Utopia nor status quo – is particularly good or evil. Whose voice we follow, Robert Conway, canonizes the mood of Perfection; of non-linear, human life and desire. Conversely, Conway’s brother, George, idealizes the need to break out from what seems a trap; the linear, skeptical, human life and desire. With whom are we supposed to identify? Is it fair to assume Robert just because Capra decides as such? Why is George, a “realist,” derided?  Continue reading