Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Hollywood Before the Code

Depending upon which pop cultural dilettante you choose to read, “Pre-Code Cinema” is confined to the first few years of the sound era, the period from the industry adoption of sound in 1929 to the enactment of the Motion Picture Production Code that began on July 1, 1934. Some may expand the period to include Hollywood’s early silent era, arguing the pre-code era should include films made from 1921 through 1934. In any case, the term has become synonymous with a time period (narrowly) characterized by cinematic expressions of the forbidden, daring subject matter, and certain deliberate provocations. In this view, the Hollywood movies of the so-called “pre-code era” blended a daring social consciousness with a certain frankness in its portrayals of the American social scene, not unlike the “problem pictures” of the post-World War II era (e.g., The Best Years of Our Lives, The Pride of the Marines, Crossfire, Pinky, The Snake Pit). Warner Brothers in particular made such pictures in the pre-code era, with “hard-hitting,” “socially conscious” films such as I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Wild Boys of the Road.

However, unlike many of the “problem pictures,” the most daring pre-code films never made the yearly Top 25 box office hits list. For example, the “problem picture,” The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Thus, the designation, “Pre-Code Cinema,” seems perilously close to a marketing ploy, the assumption being that the daring, socially conscious films of the pre-1934 period are valuable precisely because they were, if not exactly avoided, neglected by moviegoers, who preferred more traditional, old-fashioned entertainment. The Criterion Collection’s forthcoming box set, Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers, trades on the pre-code era as having a certain cultural cachet, the films’ significance a consequence of their daring, outré subject matter (a tautology), but—most importantly—due to the fact that they were neglected at the time of initial release (always an essential feature for any project of rehabilitation). I have seen two of the three films in the “Sideshow Shockers” box, Freaks (many times), and The Unknown (I have taught the film on a couple of occasions in order for students to study the performance of Lon Chaney, above), but I have never seen The Mystic (1925) and look forward to seeing it.

The reduction of “Pre-Code Cinema” to “forbidden” topics or to “hard-hitting” provocations impoverishes the films, ignoring how film genres evolved due, in part, to experimentation—the aforementioned films of Tod Browning were made possible because there was not yet a tendency toward genre consolidation or homogenization. If one wants to make the argument that “pre-code” Hollywood films differ from the films made after July 1, 1934, then it is possible to argue that genre homogenization (stereotypical narrative units, predictable conclusions, etc.) may have been an unintended consequence of the production code. It is naïve to believe that sex and violence vanished from Hollywood films after 1934; after all, sex and violence was (and is) Hollywood’s bread and butter, and the studio heads knew it. It is important to remember that the Motion Picture Production Code came about because the Hollywood studio heads endorsed it: the Hollywood film industry chose self-regulation as a way to protect itself from government regulation and censorship. “Pre-Code Cinema” simply names an earlier way of doing the same old business.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Matrix at 25

Filmed in the first half of 1998, released in 1999, The Matrix is now 25 years old. The movie that was once considered the exemplar of avant-garde pop cinema has become déclassé. In his Variety review of The Matrix Resurrections (21 December 2021), Peter Debruge observed, “a property that was once so appealing for being cutting-edge is now being mined for its nostalgia value.” Clearly, in the pop cinema world, a quarter of a century is a long time: heavy-handed symbols such as red pills, blue pills, and disposable batteries have aged as poorly as non-fungible tokens. Few of those born after 1999 understand what a phone booth was for, the purpose or function of a (telephone) “operator,” or why this “operator” has to search for an available telephone in order to enable a character’s “exit” from the matrix (or “insertion” for that matter). The dial-up internet access that informed The Matrix is now as antiquated as a 1960s telephone switchboard. The green numerals of the opening credits, inspired by archaic CRT computer monitors, now appear self-consciously arty, and the greenish hue that influenced the color scheme of the film now seems quaint and affected. The virtual reality plot can now be seen for what it is, a variation of the time-travel plot, or asynchronous parallelism—co-existing parallel worlds on different time tracks—one time track being “subjective” reality, the other “objective.” The cumbersome dial-up access to the matrix occasionally gave rise to narrative implausibility, for instance, the betrayal scene, in which Cypher secretly meets with Agent Smith: how is Cypher able to insert himself into the matrix without the aid of an operator, and subsequently extract himself from the matrix without an operator’s assistance? However, given that its plot shifts are as abrupt as someone cutting the hard line, and given that its visual stylizations (e.g., "bullet time") take precedence over narrative coherence, one lasting achievement of The Matrix has made asking such questions seem improper.