Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cinq à sept vs. the Censors: LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, CHLOE, LOLITA, BABY DOLL, ON THE TOWN, RED DESERT


Censorship has been a constant bane of our great country, but the need to outwit dogmatic Christian 'morality' has inspired great writers and directors to new heights of sneaky double entendre. One of my favorite tricks of theirs is a common enough thing in Paris but unknown to the Christian right: the afternoon tryst. The censors of the 50s-60s never could grasp the idea of love in afternoons; sex to them was limited to one position (missionary), one place (bedroom), one time frame (night after everyone had gone to sleep). Having boys and girls even in the same room at night it was presumed someone would be pregnant by morning, but in the middle of the day these girls were safe as Fort Knox.

If anything this proves censors are both unimaginative and vile. The more you try to control something the more paranoid you get, and the more limited in thinking. Thus their misguided sexually repressed fear leads this warped idea that men change into monsters as soon as bedtime looms, as parodied in this hilarious 2008 SNL sketch:



If someone did sleep over in a post-code film, for example if there's a fade to black after a kiss between two lovers at night, we can never go right to the next day or morning, the scene must always end with him going home alone, or being interrupted by the terrified maid announcing some sinister distraction, OR you could cut away to something, like a clock tower (in CASABLANCA) and come back to the scene with the lovers still fully dressed, but now smoking, and later that night, and then you might presume (if you were over 18) that they were both just very fast dressers. But you had to show her leaving nonetheless, later that night, and leave room for reasonable doubt. If she or he does stay over, the butler might be shocked to see a girl lounging in his master's bed, but then find his employer not in bed beside her but in a knot of sheets on the living room couch.

In the days of the small town idyll of the soap opera 50s there was plenty of post-war modern sex colliding with pre-war small town moral hypocrisy, and movies and novels lolled in the horrific toll taken when a young free spirited girl and boy stifle their romantic impulses to please the shrewish old gossip next door. A kid hangs themselves to be free of all the slander in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and in A SUMMER PLACE (1959), Sandra Dee comes home from spending the night on the beach with her boyfriend to find her mother (Constance Ford) waiting with a doctor to examine her hymen. What the fuck is this, you think, Taliban rule?  No, just a reminder, perhaps, that the censorship boards are terrorist-affiliated, very very misogynist and backwards, prizing virginity, which is something only a very sexually insecure, small-dick punk would do with no idea of what's involved. There, I said it.

That's what that moron Sam Neill in Jane Campion's THE PIANO (1993) also doesn't understand. He'd be much happier if he just rolled with the sensual blowback from his new wife's affair with Harvey Keitel. But this baster Neill is so sweaty and repressed and easily led along by colonialism's backwards ideas of propriety that he thinks it's much saner to mutilate her hand instead. In short, he is a natural-born censor.

Censors even insisted husbands and wives had to sleep in separate beds, which makes no sense if you're trying to endorse marriage as desirable. No doubt sex was present, but censors suspected even husbands of turning into rapists once the lights were out, though of course the night table between the beds was considered be enough to repel them. Laymen will also bring up the rule of lovers having one foot on the floor on each side of the bed but I've never seen that. Still it's pretty damning evidence of the sexophobic Catholic censor board.

Thus it's natural that one of the most interesting ways the filmmakers sought to baffle the censors is through time (the way lovers in the 20s would fool the dozing chaperone by moving the clock back).

It took most of the later 30s (from when the code was implemented in the back half of 1934 through to the late 60s) for screenwriters to bamboozle the censors while providing what the code was all about -- enough doubt over what happened in the fade out to let innocents think nothing happened and sex maniacs to think something did. Two examples most film fans should be familiar with are CASABLANCA (1942) and THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). The former cuts from an embrace to an airport watchtower and back to the lovers, still dressed, smoking and looking out the window. Since it's only later that night, and the lovers are still formally dressed, they can smoke and look contented.


In FALCON, there's a fade-out with Bogart leaning down to kiss Mary Astor that moves away from them (we never see them kiss, just Bogart bending down past the window towards where she's sitting) and out the window, where a figure in a trench coat watches up at the window like a ghost wondering if a womb might be going up for rent. We move from this to the next morning but the censors couldn't stop it because a) we never see them even kissing before the fade out, and b) the assosication with danger (the gunsel) and sex is subtextually implied anyway, and c) they are very far from the bed at the fade out, and not even shown in any representational manner.

But the easiest way to baffle and flummox the censors was love in the afternoon, which is a common French practice, as I never get tired of mentioning, and which decadent directors and screenwriters (excuse the redundancy) use to their advantage, making fun of the censors' lack of earthly carnal experience. Here are some worthy examples:

BABY DOLL (1956)

Elia Kazan's masterpiece takes the “did they or didn’t they” aspect of production code censorship and makes it the focus of the story, something they could never forgive him for. As the censor / prurient viewer stand-in for whom all things must be clear and literal, hick cotton gin owner Karl Malden goes insane trying to figure out whether the hazy dissolve in the nursery where Vacaro takes a nap in baby doll’s bed late in the afternoon signifies sex.  And this was the way Hollywood dealt with the issue of “did they or didn’t they:" the narrative split. If you expect a yes or no answer and really try to find one, you will go insane. In the tree of sex, the cardinals can rest easy in one corner, and the horny bald-spotted Maldens can go nuts in the other... it must be so, or society cannot function. BABY DOLL calls attention to this split however, and ridicules those who would prefer one side over the other... if you feel the need to insist "they did it," you are a pervert, and if you insist they did not, you are a prude. As such, BABY DOLL poses an affront to the pious and phony moralizing of so-called "decent" citizens, which may account for the huge Catholic protest the film created.

After Vacaro and Baby Doll wake up from their nap, neither Archie Lee nor we in the audience know if they did or didn't have sex. Rather than confront them directly, Archie Lee hems and haws around the issue, and Baby Doll and Vacaro play up their flirtations... but is solely for Archie's benefit? Yes. What makes this scene so “dirty” is not the seductive play between Vacaro and Baby Doll, but its performative aspect. They exaggerate their seductive fire for each other in order to enflame the jealousy of Malden. Their kisses are passionate in direct relation to Malden’s proximity; the harder Malden tries to control things, the steamier their interaction gets.

The lesson to be learned is how to let go of control: Vacaro wins Baby Doll via a constant ebb and flow of masculine aggression, a flow that pushes her boundaries and then moves back a bit to let her catch her breath. He chases her but when she stops running, he stops chasing. When she chases him, he runs. Thus play is introduced into the mating ritual, letting Baby Doll assume a more pro-active role. Once he has her where he wants her (trapped on an attic beam) instead of demanding sex he forces her to sign the statement against her husband. Why this film outrages the Catholics may lie more in this area than in the idea of a man obsessed with an "underdeveloped" woman (Baker doesn't seem the least bit under-developed, merely inexperienced). There's an implicit notion in code-sanctioned romance that the sex must be dealt with quickly -- one dissolve between a kiss / fade-out and a cigarettes-in-full-dress afterwards. BABY DOLL lives in the twilight realm of that fade-out, stretching that black bar until it forces Malden into a corner.

LOLITA (1962)

A whisper, a fade, no mention of anything ever. But what did happen in that hotel room the next morning? We're still wondering... in removing anything remotely even double entendre, the film makes Debbie Reynolds movies look raunchy by comparison, yet the whole film fairly sizzles over because of our fascination, or censorial-prurient desire to look deeply into the did they/didn't they crevasse... (more here)

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957)

It's kind of weird to think that Billy Wilder's LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON came out a year after BABY DOLL. It's classy enough for the 30s but naughty enough for the early 60s. (Wilder was an unrepentant fucker-with of censors). Audrey Hepburn visits millionaire Yank wooer Cooper at his killing floor hotel suite (which he keeps stocked with a band of serenading gypsy troubadours) only in the afternoons, while her detective father Maurice Chevalier is at work (Chevalier gets a lot of cases trailing errant wives to Cooper's apartment), then splits in time to deal with her dull musician geek boyfriend, cello homework, etc.). She acts all worldly and experienced, almost a burlesque of the women she reads about in her father's lengthy file on Cooper, and slowly uses his own playboy image to slowly infuriate him with jealousy ("if it's any comfort to you, Mr. Flanagan, you are the first American in my life"), gradually shifting the power seat from his worldly wiles to her playful manufactured put-on. Her elaborate imagination with conjuring alpine guides, Spanish bullfighters, and Dutch alcoholics recalls the Lady Eve train scene. Meanwhile the censor gets easily sidestepped through ingenious pans away from the lovemaking to the swoon-worthy gypsy musicians, each song keyed to a stage in the seduction. The censor can't say shit about an orchestra, but when we pan back it's clear something has happened. As long as they're still on the couch, and more or less dressed (even if the clothes are mussed and they can't find a shoe or two), and it's not yet night, all is well, as far as 1957 is concerned.

I really resonate with this film for a few reasons, and one of them perhaps hinges on my whole enamored feeling towards the French cinq a sept (5-7), a tradition whereby one visited one's mistress between work and going home for 7:30 dinner. I still long for mine, now some seven years gone. Notes Chevalier in Wilder's film, "In Paris people make love . . . well, perhaps not better . . . but certainly more often. They do it any place, any time," but the film didn't do well, and as Film Projector notes, a lot of that was maybe the age difference:
Hollywood has a long tradition of teaming older men with younger women (and also that there is psychobiological evidence to explain such mutual attraction: men tend to equate youth in women with fertility, while women tend to equate age in men with the stability and material resources necessary to maintain a family), and such a romantic pairing as Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn—although certainly not fashionable in today's more age-conscious world—doesn't seem entirely implausible. (more)
Damn straight, age-consciousness --one is a dreamer wooer quite getting along in years, the other Hepburn in prime gamin beauty and jubilance, innocent but visibly intrigued. May-December relationships are as stigmatized today as gay relationships used to be. But it goes deeper than how an older man is in a much better position to benefit a younger woman, sharing wisdom and gallantry galore, while all a younger man can really share is surly petulance and vitality. I also think that goes both ways, and older women should take younger men lovers as often as they please. Why not? It's good all around, and might even save this fucked up country from its current quagmire of gender and age relations. And it's very French, n'cest pas?

But rest assured, these relationships exist, behind closed doors, denied in public, deep in the closet, and safe from the censors by making love mainly in the afternoons (by evening, the old man is usually too tired anyway, at least pre-Viagra).

ON THE TOWN (1949)

The war was over but girls were still being nice to guys in the service, and a certain sexual leeway was perhaps implied, especially between the working girls of New York (or San Francisco as with Dorothy Malone and that cute cabbie in THE BIG SLEEP - 1946). Once she gets rid of her roommate, taxi driver Betty Garrett all but devours Sinatra during the afternoon while Gene Kelly chases Miss Turnstiles and fellow sailor Jules Munshin hooks up with sassy sketch artist Ann Miller. We don't see much of that hook-up but it sure is great watching Garrett devour Sinatra: "I like your face," she tells him. "It's empty, know what I mean?" At least she keeps her goals reasonable -- going for Frank. "I knew you'd come back. They all come back." And since they all meet later, 8 PM I think, up in the Empire States Building, the unchaperoned nooner between Frank and Brunhilde (as Garrett is named) goes off without a hitch. The censor dozes right on through it. It was the war after all, or had been. Girls could hook up with sailors before marriage as long as they didn't stay the night and made it to their wartime riveting job on time the next morning. (see also High Society Matrons of Frank).

 CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON (1972)

Eric Rohmer is a quiet genius when dealing with sexual tension of first kisses and hook-ups, and that genius is on big display in this tale of a Parisian man who runs into an old friend-of-an-old-girlfriend and starts hanging out with her in his lunch hour, gradually leading closer and closer to cinq a sept territory while his pregnant wife waits at home. Sure it might be a mid-life crisis and sure I can't give away the ending, but it's a great example of that love in the afternoon...


In closing, sex in the afternoon is such a great loophole to the conventional mores of the life-choking censors that it's naturally Parisian in origin. Paris, where people have sex rather than obsessing about it (to paraphrase Marlene Dietrich). What a delight censors can be confounded so easily!  Here sex is displayed all over the place as the ultimate status symbol: the stakes are high, and every one is holding out for a perfection they'd only run away from (or would run away from them) if they ever actually found it. We put all this pressure on the third date sleepover to deliver a wonderful mythic poetry that we can spend the next week analyzing and/or bragging about in long phone conversations with our friends; is it any wonder we're so single and so eager to settle? Ladies and gentlemen, let our great country discover the cinq a sept, and stop expecting sex to deliver all the answers... only film can do that.

RED DESERT (1964)

It's Antonioni's big art joke --the modernist response -- writ fast to the frisson disconnect of censorship - Vitti, her husband, her maybe lover, and a few assorted wives, secretaries, managers and swinging bosses all rendezvous for lunch at a brokedown shack by the docks. A conversation about the aphrodisiac properties of fertilized bird eggs leads to one of Vitti's few outbursts of ease-in-the-skin, "I want to make love," and this big bedroom space in the shack, painted red, is gradually full of bodies all being drawn to each other, dancing and slowly acting on their lusty interlocked blase cool. Have they gathered for an orgy? Or is just one almost happening? Is it a matter of Italian censorship that Antonioni can't be specific or is this the modern art genius? Yes, of course it's both, as in all these 5-7 movies. If we demand to know what did happen in the fade-out then we are like Karl Malden in Baby Doll, and we will lose our mind! Ah... Modernité!


Anyway we have the dissolve to darkness and when we fade in it's clear some great energy has been expended, or they ran out of wine or there's just one of those momentary lulls that occur sometimes among people having a really good time and almost having an orgy, but then backing off and feeling their good mood turn on them, pissed they chickened out. We're not meant to know, and by accepting never knowing we realize that's the point and that's why Vitti is crazy because even she doesn't know yet there is no knowing. She's the 'awake' character beginning to realize that all these other people know stuff she doesn't, that they have lives between frames, scenes, before and after, which she lacks. But is there really anything to lack? Again, that's the genius - no questions - we must embrace ambiguity as a pre-requisite to waking from the dream of consensual linear time. The result of our collective slumber to our true reality is what is poisoning the world. We miss the beauty of the trees so lose them. We 'don't know what it's got til it's gone,' but even when it's gone we don't know - unless we first get enough perspective, enough distance from our beds. So wake up, sleeper! The nap is over, the mistress is sated and watching the clock. The censor will be getting home soon; time to feign dignity and dishwater dull decency, until tomorrow, same time, same brief candle. The best part of it all is, you can wait.

2 comments:

  1. jervaise brooke hamster26 August, 2013

    Erich, this article summed up superbly why the 20th century will always be remembered by future historians as "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION" and we`re the poor bastards who had to live through it, and you wonder why i`m so bitter ! ?.

    ReplyDelete
  2. jervaise brooke hamster26 August, 2013

    For me Eric Rohmers films are like the emporers new clothes, theres just nothing there ! ! !.

    ReplyDelete

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