WE LIVE ALONG a cultural fault line that constantly threatens the vitality of the arts in America. On one side of this fault is the commonplace complaint that there is too much sex, violence, and offensive material in art and media. On the other side is an equally strong force that defends speech and expression in absolute terms, that resists anything that smells of censorship, and that elevates art of all kinds to an irreproachable level. Occupying but often lost in the cultural space between these two positions is a delicate ironic stance. This is an irony that contextualizes the concerns of both sides but remains independent enough to resist the Manichean terms of the debate. Without such irony we get riots over cartoons, churches boycotting movies with gay characters, and museum curators staunchly defending urine-soaked crucifixes.
It was the absence of such irony that made a recent documentary so noteworthy to me. In 2005, Brian Grazer, a producer of Hollywood hits and a recipient of Academy Awards, released a documentary about the notorious 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat. The result, Inside Deep Throat, characterized the most successful porn movie ever made as a kind of cultural landmark—a symbol of resistance against forces of repression and censorship. In the summer of 1972, New York City police officers, acting as part of a citywide crackdown on pornography, confiscated prints of Deep Throat from the Manhattan theater at which it premiered. And while few claimed either in 1972 or in 2005 that Deep Throat was a great film, many suggested that the public had a right to see it because we live in a democracy.1
Thus, Inside Deep Throat created the impression that all cultural expressions have inherent legitimacy, and that even one as dubious as Deep Throat is worthy of defense. But a defense based on what? Sheila Nevins of HBO Documentary, the distributor of Inside Deep Throat, offered a classic rationale. She related how Grazer had convinced her that Deep Throat was "much more than a silly comic romp that featured fellatio as its centerpiece." Indeed, she came to view the legal storm surrounding it as an "emblem of repressive forces attempting to halt a certain kind of expression." Nevins recounted: "Brian was incredibly convincing when he talked about how, in some ways, 1972 and 2005 aren't so very different in terms of repressive forces and that maybe America hasn't changed so much in three decades." It is true that since the early 1970s, Americans have come to accept a strange hypocrisy: they express moral indignation when faced with modest displays of nudity (as was recently illustrated by the outrage elicited by Janet Jackson's exposed breast) but continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on pornography. Yet in her defense of Deep Throat, Nevins identified the source of this hypocrisy without necessarily understanding the implications of it. She noted that while Deep Throat was not a great movie, "it has a right to exist in a democracy." Why? Because it was a "political movie . . . almost a First Amendment movie in a strange way." Fair enough, but what does that defense suggest about culture? Isn't it a bit naive to see porn as progress?2
The New Yorker's film critic Anthony Lane thought so. He skeptically observed that the makers of Inside Deep Throat imagined with a kind of wistful nostalgia a bygone era brimming "with Ambrosian innocence." Indeed, the documentary rehashed an old argument that when Deep Throat entered the mainstream, American culture had reached the apex of a pluralistic age in which all artistic expressions could at last compete in a kind of paradise of audience choice. Thus, Deep Throat represented an intellectual and artistic vanguard—a moment that coupled filmic liberation with sexual liberation.3
However, that argument perpetuated a strange kind of intellectual misconception: that in a democratic culture, in order for anything to be created, everything must have cultural worth. This is a misconception that has many well-meaning supporters. For example, the very able film historian Jon Lewis (one of the on-screen defenders of Deep Throat) goes so far as to suggest in his book Hollywood v. Hardcore that the mainstreaming of porn was not an unintelligent fad but rather something that "spoke . . . to and for a number of late-sixties/early-seventies phenomena ranging from the sexual revolution to women's lib and the civil rights movement." An attack on porn represented, according to Lewis and evidently the makers of Inside Deep Throat, nothing less than an attack on democracy. The implicit lesson of the film was that the only alternative to defending Deep Throat was censoring Deep Throat. Of course, the subtext of almost any discussion of a controversial piece of culture is that to reject it or refuse to defend it leads in one direction — repression.4
Thus, Inside Deep Throat illustrated a common conundrum in evaluating controversial culture—one that typically pits the free speech folks against the moral code folks. Both groups take popular culture very seriously, so seriously that they are usually willing to resort to abstractions and extremes in order to defend their positions. Free speech absolutists protect every cultural expression as if it might be the last—as one libertarian critic put it regarding Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, "the First Amendment protects bad art as well as good." That might be true, but that defense strikes me as a cop-out; bad art can hide behind a legal abstraction rather than face an aesthetic test. Advocates of a universal moral code find every transgression against their standards to be part of an invidious invasion that if left unchecked will destroy the very edifice on which their belief system rests. Speaking about the Hollywood release Brokeback Mountain, one commentator concluded that this single movie had "a pernicious effect on society." Surely the sexuality of gay cowboys is less of a threat to our social health than the cigarettes they smoke. Nonetheless, we are caught between arguments that flow from abstractions. Both make sense to a certain degree. Should not movies and other artistic expressions be protected as free speech? But it also seems sensible, at the least, to address concerns about the accumulation of offensive culture.5
These positions, though, actually say more about how we see each other than about what we are watching on movie screens. Even though both sides appeal to the idea of democratic culture, their actions illustrate that they don't trust anybody very much. Free speech absolutists distrust all authority and therefore dismiss any attempt to restrict culture out of fear that something meaningful will be lost; moralists distrust human nature and therefore seek to restrict culture out of fear that something meaningful will be found in culture they dislike. And each side works from the assumption that the world would be a better place if only its vision won out—in a democratic forum, of course. Under such pressure, democratic culture has become a clash of egos—a conflict that reduces discussion about culture to a game of winner takes all.6
I see this predicament as a consequence of flawed logic that fails to appreciate the irony of taking movies too seriously. I do not mean that we in the audience can't be offended or that there is no recourse when we are. Yet I am consistently amazed at how easily we are manipulated by controversies seemingly manufactured — and definitely marketed—to get a rise out of us. The titles of movies that do this are almost interchangeable, the themes consistent: sex, violence, religion, and occasionally politics. At the same time, however, it is disheartening to watch how quickly and somewhat mindlessly offensive movies are defended—many are barely worth protecting as bad art, much less as significant speech.
To get a better understanding of the culture that gave rise to a defense of Deep Throat, this book investigates debates over controversial films, debates that began almost immediately after the Second World War and flourished primarily in one city, New York. While not the only place where audiences watched controversial movies, New York had critics, media, theaters, audiences, and censors that, taken together, transformed moviegoing into an intellectual and cultural circus. Moreover, debates within New York movie culture illustrated that the public exhibition of a film such as Deep Throat was more than merely the sum total of changes to laws. In other words, while the courts gradually outlawed the practice of prior censorship — censoring a film before the public sees it—a conversation took place in New York over the expectations and concerns of a postcensor movie culture. That conversation has had consequences for our own time because it remade the idea of confrontational cinema into a kind of intellectual style. The appearance of outrage has grown more important than engaging what provokes it.7
From the beginning of American cinema, New York had been the largest market for every type of film and, as a result, was a place in which moviegoing often became a public act of defiance against cultural authority. New York served as the center of a web of control that had the potential to ensnare any movie shown in the United States. Almost every movie that played in the United States premiered in New
York, but before a distributor was allowed to book a movie in theaters in other parts of the country, it had to receive the approval of the most influential state censorship board in the country, the New York State Motion Picture Division. Moreover, the New York City license commissioner possessed the power to close down any theater that played a movie deemed obscene by his office. New York was also home to millions of Catholics, a fact that helped amplify the influence of the Legion of Decency—an organization established within the Catholic Church to influence moviegoing through widely publicized reviews and, more ominously, the threat of public boycotts against films "condemned" by the Legion. Assisting the Legion in the prevention of "immoral" films was the Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood's in-house censorship board. The PCA maintained a New York office that carefully scrutinized movies under a set of standards that had been written at the insistence and with the cooperation of the U.S. Catholic Church. So even though Hollywood was the undisputed filmmaking capital of the country, New York was the place that could make or break a movie.8
In the early postwar period, challenges to this regime of control were part of a general intellectual movement that sought to legitimize mass culture while protecting it from censorship. Those who opposed censorship believed that censoring movies not only failed to realize an idealized version of American life but amounted to antidemocratic containment of a legitimate form of speech and art, thus preventing the production of better films. Brooks Atkinson, a cultural critic for the New York Times in the 1940s, offered a concise illustration of that argument. From his rather privileged post at the Times, Atkinson railed against both censors and the popular disposition that supported censorship because he believed this regime of control was both arbitrary and wholly undemocratic. He seemed especially outraged by a disjunction that he believed was inimical to New York City—although the city was fast becoming the cultural capital of the world, its culture was still under the control of bureaucratic simpletons.9
As an example, he pointed to the administrative code of New York City that allowed the city's commissioner of licenses to inspect and close down a variety of establishments, ranging from unclean kitchens to theaters that showed "dirty" movies. "No free society can afford," he declared, "to delegate to any one man or any group of people authority to censor ideas, points of view, morals or manners by any process that evades the courts and remains outside the law. . . . To be fully democratic, such cases should be tried before legally constituted juries of citizens. For it is the citizens of a community who in the last analysis have a right to decide questions of this nature." Atkinson concluded that a collective public conscience would regulate movies much better and more fairly because movies were, in a very real sense, the people's art. He trusted that in a democratic culture, the rational nature and sympathies of the people would ultimately prevail. "Even without court action or censorship," he argued, "the public would never tolerate as accurate a portrayal of everything that happens among human beings in the ordinary course of daily affairs." Was he wrong?10
Ultimately, he was, and the lines of people waiting to see an "accurate" portrayal of sex in Deep Throat proved that. Yet Atkinson's faith that both movies and audience taste for them would improve with the elimination of censorship, while a bit naive, was understandable. He was responding to a sensibility that was hopelessly limited.
Atkinson defended the movies as free speech to counter the work of stalwarts such as Martin Quigley, who for nearly thirty years, from the 1930s through the early 1960s, was a fixture of the censorial establishment. As a staunch Catholic, Quigley believed in the moral imperative to constrain the power of movies. He was also the publisher of the influential industry journal Motion Picture Herald, and as such used his position to become a major force behind the creation of Hollywood's Production Code. This was a commercial arrangement—one that proved to be lucrative for both Quigley and the studios because the studios paid Quigley to ensure the safety, and therefore the financial viability, of their movies. And yet Quigley also offered an intellectual rationale for his stance. In 1958, near the end of his career, Quigley told an interviewer that he did "not believe the concept of 'unnatural behavior' at any time or under any circumstance provides acceptable subject matter for mass entertainment. . . . I see no relation whatsoever between 'out-and-out vulgarity' and a 'work of art.' . . . Art of all kinds has as its primary purpose the ennoblement of man, and however excellent a work of art may be—a so-called work of art may be—if its influence is a depraving influence and not an ennobling influence, I do not believe it's entitled to be labeled a work of art." Quigley subscribed to a view of culture that rested on a simplified version of Matthew Arnold's dictum that defined culture as the best that is known and thought in the world. For those like Quigley who supported censorship, the Vic-torianism of a nineteenth-century British critic made sense because it suggested that social responsibility—the betterment of society—was at the heart of restricting movies. Not surprisingly, Hollywood's moguls found it exceedingly difficult to challenge such an approach without denigrating their industry's image and losing their audience. Moreover, it was an approach that appealed to those civil servants—state and local censors—who were charged with protecting the public from mass entertainment.11
Quigley's view undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the ability of the film industry to deal with certain subjects or to show certain scenes. No doubt such constraint was unreasonable because the standards on which it was based showed little faith in the intelligence of filmmakers or moviegoers. However, Quigley's objections also raised a fundamental dilemma for popular art. As popular art, movies have always required a defense that goes beyond a circular argument that whatever can be captured or portrayed on film has inherent worth. of course, distinguishing good art from bad is a much more vexing problem than deciding what should be censored. In other words, in the absence of censorship, there still needs to be a way to guide public taste.
In the postwar period, two seminal New York critics established the parameters within which the broad discussion of postcensor movie culture would take place. Gilbert Seldes and Susan Sontag, writing from different generations and from different intellectual positions, offered insight that revealed both the great promise and the great problems of freeing an expression as popular as the movies from the effects of a censoring mind-set. Their insight was especially significant because it took shape within New York's movie culture—the crucible of a new popular aesthetic.
With the publication of his first book in 1924, The Seven Lively Arts, Gilbert Seldes established himself as the most judicious observer of the popular arts in America. In 1950, Seldes's second book appeared, The Great Audience. In the intervening years, Seldes had observed that the popular arts had begun to influence and even replace the traditional arts in significance and relevance to a majority of Americans. That development, he mused, led to a broad revision of taste. Unlike in his first book, though, Seldes was guarded in his celebration of popular culture. The popular arts, he concluded, "create their own audience, making people over; they create the climate of feeling in which we all live. The other arts are private and personal, they influence the lives of those who enjoy them; the effect of the public arts cannot be escaped by turning off the radio or television set, by refusing to go to the movies; neither indifference nor our contempt give us immunity against them." Seldes seemed to suggest that the cumulative effect of millions of people watching hundreds (perhaps thousands) of movies had once and for all altered the calculus of art. A film could be a work of art in its own right and, more important, the culture that surrounded a film— the relationship it had to its audience—made moviegoing almost as significant as the work on the screen. Thus, even though a movie might be dismissed as artistically negligible, the numbers of people flocking to it gave it cultural power. That power translated into money for the producers and a realignment of popular taste.12
Seldes feared this great audience because, if left unchecked, its taste in movies threatened to turn American culture into an Orwellian nightmare—the "great audience" as the core of cultural fascism. Popularity, relevance, and taste would merge into a mass of vulgarized entertainment. Here he shared and anticipated the concerns of other critics who issued grave warnings against the pervasive influence of mass culture.13
But Seldes found hope in a financial crisis that hit Hollywood during the early postwar period. For decades the American industry had pumped out a product that tended to be generic; it was a system that allowed Hollywood to treat moviegoers with a kind of industrial arrogance. That began to change in the late 1940s, as movie attendance suffered a dramatic decline. "All we can be sure of," Seldes contended, "is that to attract a large audience the movies would be compelled to satisfy many more kinds of interest; they would have to become a genuinely democratic, instead of a mass-minority, entertainment; and in a democracy like ours, encouragement of individual interests and satisfaction of many various desires are the surest protection against the constant threat of robotization and the ultimate emergence of the mass man." Seldes hoped that Hollywood, out of commercial necessity and in line with the era's democratic atmosphere, might create a movie culture that accommodated a wide diversity of preferences but avoided the leveling of all cultural expressions. The result would be culture for the masses but not mass culture. And the model for this alternative movie world was New York, because it had sizeable audiences for almost every kind of film available—from the first-run Hollywood productions to avant-garde shorts.14
Susan Sontag believed that New York's diverse movie culture had to influence not merely the kinds of movies produced but the style of criticism needed to understand them. By the mid-1960s, Sontag provocatively dismissed the prevailing opinion that mass culture had to meet a standard that would somehow ensure better movies and a more refined audience. In a series of radical essays published in 1966 as a book entitled Against Interpretation, Sontag argued that American culture needed a way to transcend the ideal of linking culture to society's moral health. In one of her manifestos, she contended that a "new sensibility" had emerged that rejected the evaluation of art based on content and social purpose. She dismissed older forms of judgment as misguided because they had overlooked the aesthetic pleasure of form. Art didn't need to be intentional or political or social; in her terms, the act of understanding a work of art or even a movie rested on personal, almost instinctual reactions rather than interpretation shaped by an overly cautious—and overtly political — elite.15
The problem was, however, that Sontag did not necessarily want to advance the democratization of criticism — not all opinions were equal. She continued to believe in a rigorous notion of taste, but not one based on criteria external to the individual observer. As critic Craig Seligman suggests in a recent book, Sontag relished taking a position that opposed both prevailing authority and the masses. Yet such intellectual gymnastics ultimately trapped her in a cultural conundrum. In "Notes on Camp," her most provocative essay in the book, Sontag set herself up for disappointment. "A sensibility," she coyly began, "is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." Indeed, Sontag had created an interesting dilemma: in celebrating camp for its ability to subvert the stodgiest manifestations of traditional criticism, she had made it possible to discover new cultural avenues without feeling silly or irrelevant. But camp could also be used to champion transgressive culture as an end in itself. A camp sensibility seemed to promote the willful disregard for anyone else's sensibility.16
Her criticism promised a curious distinction to those who embraced it—it was ambiguous and yet clever in its promise of power. "To share a sensibility in words, especially one that is alive and powerful," she cautioned, "one must be tentative and nimble." So nimble, it seemed, that even Sontag got caught in the rush to adopt the camp sensibility. Seligman relates that Sontag "cringed at 'the speed at which a bulky essay in Partisan Review [became] a hot tip in Time'; the ten thousand readers of Partisan Review, she once joked to a student audience, 'were all the readers I ever wanted to have — until I was dead, of course.'"17
So how did Sontag's work become so hot? She wrote it in New York about a culture that was emerging around her at a moment when that city had become attractive to the rest of country as a symbol of cultural subversion. The force and popularity of her essay on camp, though, burdened Sontag with a dubious legacy—she has been blamed for the decline of criticism by, in Hilton Kramer's words, ennobling the idea of "failed seriousness." Seligman dismisses Kramer's accusation but also acknowledges that it was Sontag who made it intellectually respectable to embrace art as a primarily adversarial act. In Sontag, we can see how cultural experience morphed from Seldes's rather optimistic notion of culture as individual diversity in pursuit of a common goal to Sontag's ultimately cynical notion of criticism as a secret cabal that exists to subvert whatever is mainstream. In short, Seldes hoped New York's movie culture might alter American moviegoing; Sontag suggested the force of New York's influence would simply make traditional moviegoing irrelevant.18
Nothing illustrated the troubling implications of Sontag's revolt better than her serious defense of pornography. In 1967, Sontag published "The Pornographic Imagination." Her intention in the essay was not to defend all porn but to advance a discussion about obscenity in art beyond the social effects pornography had on society. Sontag pointed out that it was nearly impossible to measure the effects of any cultural expression on an individual. However, it was possible, she contended, to imagine changing artistic standards to accommodate works of art that were offensive but still significant.
To be fair, Sontag elevated works of literature. And it is hard to ar gue with her evaluation that in the past many of the greatest works of art had initially been scrutinized solely for their potential to corrupt the public. Yet, in a strange twist of logic, Sontag at once rejected the rationale of censorship but also relied on moral codes that made art controversial. For her vision, an artist acted most strongly when he or she was transgressive. The only way to be transgressive was to violate laws and standards that mattered. She believed that an artist was a "freelance explorer of spiritual dangers . . . making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness." It was a role that allowed an artist more latitude than the rest of society in both what was explored and how it was reported. This was, she explained, the "dialectic of outrage." The artist "seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; in short, to give what is, or seems to be, not wanted. . . . The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness." Thus, this kind of artist had to be brutal and dangerous in order to be effective—something traditional authorities had wanted to protect society from.19
Sontag's vision struck a chord in the late 1960s because it reimagined the heroic artist as something made possible only when the audience joined the heroic project of transgressing boundaries. While the artist offended public norms, the audience was expected to acknowledge the obscenity and, following the new sensibility, to become an accomplice to the cultural crime. She called this the "poetry of transgression." "He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not; and he knows something the others don't know." How intoxicating it was to imagine knowing something that others do not. There are few areas of knowledge more off-limits than pornography. Taken to its logical end, the combination of the new sensibility and the pornographic imagination made defending pornography as art a heroic public act.20
To discuss literary pornography in the abstract might seem reasonable, since there must be a place at which the vestiges of humaneness meet the edges of brutality. However, seeing pornographic films as mere abstractions simply provided a rather glossy veneer for a pretty shabby experience. And this was Sontag's unfortunate and probably unintentional contribution to the age that made Deep Throat significant. It became intellectually chic to think of pornography as an art form in need of a defense.
We can forgive Sontag for being hopeful, yet we must mourn her naïveté. While she had no illusions that the expansion of culture to include pornography was going to make better citizens of everyone, her type of criticism turned democracy and pluralism on its head. Rather than propose a world where everyone is a critic, the new sensibility and the pornographic imagination, taken to their ultimate conclusion, could thrive only in a world without critical thought. If Sontag had hoped to shift the discussion about American culture from what was good and bad to what was a worthwhile experience, she succeeded. But instead of adding worth to culture, she ensured that the debate would dissolve into one over permissibility rather than suitability.
This was the other side of the looking glass—what had been high culture was denigrated as inauthentic; what had been obscene culture was elevated to new heights of promise. But armed with a new sensibility, all experience could find an aesthetic. In a fine critique of Sontag's argument, cultural critic Rochelle Gurstein noted: "What is at stake here is not only our judgment about which kinds of aesthetic experience are worth having but, more fundamentally, the limits of knowledge and the limits of representation."21
Yet how should these limits be set, and who should set them? After all, we don't need a public watchdog or gatekeeper protecting us from our own tastes, do we? I believe we need something more than what we have now. I do not want censors or courts telling us what is good art and what is bad. Rather, I want a culture that encourages us to defend our tastes—our aesthetic decisions. We cannot fall back on legal and moral abstractions when aesthetic concerns are at stake. When we rely on abstractions we lose a necessary irony. Without this irony we become incapable of distinguishing the controversy over Deep Throat from one that erupted at the same theater twenty-two and one-half years earlier. This book aims to change that by returning to December 1949.
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