1939 is considered by most film critics to be the Golden Year of Hollywood. Classic films such as “The Wizard of Oz”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Goodbye Mister Chips”, “Ninotchka” and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” were across the marquees of America. Films of the late Thirties, Forties and even early Fifties relied on character actors, great screenplays, innuendo and film noir lighting to depict suspense, eroticism or violence. After all, the viewer’s imagination was infinitely more vivid and could conjure images more powerful than any a film censor might seek to leave on the cutting room floor. In 1945, America came home from a world war and a generation of grey flannel suits, flooded the cinemas – – a little less innocent and a little more open to confronting the taboos of a changing society.
The films of the fifties began to chip away at social issues in movies such as “Twelve Angry Men” “The Blackboard Jungle” and “Invasion of The Body Snatchers”. The Sixties broke open dated, conservative levees with a deluge of personal expression and social indictment. Directors like Kubrick, Peckinpah and Losey sought to turn the violence and dystopia of modern society into an art form where one did not leave the theatre reassured but instead questioned the veneer of our own civility. America had lost its innocence in the jungles of Laos and Cambodia and with banishment from Eden, we sought to come to grips with our traumatic coming of age by questioning everything. Pitted against a backdrop of iconoclastic writers, directors and producers and an audience eager to witness a more graphic vision of its own imperfection, stood those who must rate films to protect us from ourselves.
The motion picture rating system that resulted in PG, R and X films established an era of rationed viewing holding just out of reach to anyone under 18, a celluloid apple from a delicious and corrupt garden. An R or X rating instantly perfumed a film to a point that any boy under the age of 14 would risks eternal damnation for the glimpse of Julie Christie’s breast. Most parents lied – attempting to explain to their children that if they actually saw an X rated movie that their head would explode, various body parts would fall off and the remaining bits would be used by Satan to feed his pot belly pigs. We were not eating from this self-righteous trough of lies.
We became knights in search of the holy grail of explicit films. It was each boy’s quest to see an R or X rated film. Perhaps your brain might melt, but like many other trappings of adulthood – you would enjoy every minute of it. As I sat perched on a Pasadena hillside watching across a summer purple twilight, I could see a skyline to the West of colliding searchlights. Somewhere in distant Hollywood, the premiere of an R rated film was ushering in a new aspect of popular culture.
My father worked very hard and got little relief parachuting into a hostel of four truants each evening. He found his catharsis in violent detective and action films. He called them “shoot-‘em-ups” – – mostly PG 13 and R rated gangster and detective movies. The smooth handed, film noir gumshoe of the 40’s and 50’s had morphed into a hardened vigilante determined to purify society of its vermin and he loved every minute of it. In a world where bad guys often slithered their way out accountability on a liberal legal technicality, there was nothing more reassuring than to see justice administered with a .44 magnum.
My mother experienced milder versions of crime and punishment every day raising her boys and found no escape in films like “ Death Wish”, “The French Connection “ and “ Shaft”. On those evenings when he could not persuade her to join him at the movies, I would stand wistfully by the door like a dog waiting to be let out, hoping that I might serve as her surrogate at the Esquire theatre in Pasadena. My Dad would catch my eye, and my mother would mount a weak protest. I would soon be settling into a rich faux velvet seat supplied with popcorn and my pregnant anticipation. It was sheer joy spending a school night watching Charles Bronson rid the world of pimps, two-bit hustlers and injustice. With the final credits, I would slump into passenger seat exhaustion only to awaken to the sound of the rhythmic ticking of the car’s turn indicator and the reassuring sound of an engine idling in a garage.
I would dream all night of drug deals gone bad, tough gangsters and yes, female anatomy. I would hold court the next day in school and recount every frame to a wide eyed and thoroughly jealous band of fifth graders.
Yet, as with all good things, the R rated gravy train did not last. Our attendance of graphic films ended one fateful night when my father convinced my mother to bring the entire family to a new Western called “High Plains Drifter” with Clint Eastwood. Our prepubescent entourage included my then, five-year old younger brother due to a shortage of baby sitters. My parents had once again had a date night foiled as their dwindling list of care givers had cancelled at the last moment.
With four boys under age 12, we had been scandalously labeled as “incorrigible” by a past sitter and word had spread through the babysitting ranks to a point that we could only attract higher risk or higher cost sitters. The short list included unemployed hippy sons of friends and blue haired ladies who would drink my parents liquor and tip over at 8:16 while watching Lawrence Welk.
Desperate to escape the house that evening, my mother consented to attend the movie that my father described as ” a brilliant avant garde Western that got great reviews.” As we listened through the heating duct, he went right to the hard sell her for bringing us along. “Look, it’s a 9:45pm movie. They will all be asleep by 10pm. They won’t make it past the credits.”
In a rare moment of weakness, my mother relented. When we pulled up to the box office, she was very unhappy to see that the film was rated “R”. We were delighted. I sat as far from her as I could so she could not cover my eyes during the more graphic parts of the movie. The film opened to a dusty high desert town in some remote, god forsaken part of the American West. Across heatwaves rising like phantom snakes off burning sand, a lone rider suddenly appears out of thin air – a demon on a mission.
I glanced over and saw that my youngest brother was still very much awake and watching as the rider, dismounted and entered the windswept ghost town. A provocatively dressed woman with a parasol appears strolling down a storefront sidewalk. To the chagrin of several of the town’s “upright” female citizens, she is clearly attracting attention from men inside the stores, bars and barber shops. She stops as she sees the stranger dismount and walks toward him – clearly trying to get the stranger’s attention. When the Clint aka The Man with No Name does not acknowledge the woman, she curses him – chastising him for not tipping his hat to a “lady”.
In a vintage burst of erotic violence, Clint hoists the woman over his shoulder and into a local barn where he proceeds to have his way. At first, she resists violently but slowly and inevitably yields. The scene concludes with a vertical shot of Clint buttoning his trousers while the woman lays exhausted on a dirty pile of hay. You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. Suddenly, an innocent voice broke our cinematic silence, “What did he do to her, Mom? “.
The entire theatre burst out in repressed laughter. My mother, horrified by the fact that my brother was still awake and suddenly self conscious that we were the only children in this movie immediately insisted to my father that we leave. I can still see him hanging back as we exited the movie – trying to get one last glimpse of Clint as he visited vengeance on the corrupt townspeople. It would be a six year drought before another Turpin male would get a bite from the R rated apple again.
In the 80’s and 90’s, cable television and the internet changed everything. X became M. M became R. R became PG 13. PG 13 became PG and G meant animated or Disney. The graphic film, once condemned as a symptom of the decline of society, became a mainstream feature of popular culture. While more liberal people viewed this evolution as a natural result of a more liberated society, others viewed it as a popular culture declaring war on us. A new generation of adolescents no longer needed to skulk in backyard tree houses perusing someone’s discarded Playboy magazine or sneaking into “Dirty Harry”. One merely had to now turn on cable TV at 11pm on a Friday night or Google any part of one’s anatomy to end up at a website offering graphic images.
While the years have exposed me to images considered unfit for society in the 70’s, I am still convinced my body parts will fall off and my head will explode. However, the collateral damage now arises out of frustration — trying to assemble firewalls and filters to prevent my curious and resourceful kids from sneaking into these highly accessible peep shows.
I sometimes feel like a hypocrite having seen a Clockwork Orange before my 14th birthday. However, the specialists reassure me that my upbringing was truly a result of being raised in the Jurassic period of parenting and as such, I am allowed to be as two-faced as I want to be in the name of protecting my kids from the barrage of negative images and graphic, senseless violence all just a click away.
I admit to also falling into that he’s almost a man rationale where I will allow my guys to watch some blood and guts. However, half the time that I consent to allow them to see a questionable film, i am finding out that they have already seen it at a friend’s house. I actually once considered letting a group of boys on a sleepover watch the Omen to retaliate for Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the Saw marathon that my son witnessed at another person’s home.
It is a battle that rages in our household every week over what movies and television shows are appropriate. Being raised on ultra-violence, I am not the best enforcer ( that was a good movie with Clint Eastwood ). Technology and shifting social mores have introduced many advantages but it has also allowed “popular culture” to invade our homes and seep into the porous and fragile minds of our impressionable kids.
In retrospect, a few R rated movies did not turn me into Ted Bundy or put me on the roof of a building with a high-powered rifle. However, I remember those dreams after coming home from those movies. It was a restless sleep where the world was either a disturbing futuristic dystopia or an urban cesspool populated by sociopaths, indifference and a single vigilante who like Christ, sacrifices himself to save an indifferent world. While I wore these cinematic rites of passage to school like medals of honor, the experiences were also a burden to a child who could not process all that he had seen. I could not resist taking a bite from the apple and with it, came banishment from Eden – the real price of admission to an R rated film and adult knowledge.
In the Jurassic 70s, no one really realized the mild PTSD that accompanied Dirty Harry like a cheap cologne, but I now understand why my wife wants me to draw a harder line on R rated movies for the kids.
As The Outlaw Josey Wales once mused, “a man’s got to know his limitations”.