For Mature Audiences Only

"R" rating of Motion Picture Associa...
Image via Wikipedia

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”.

Film Noir Night At The BowTie Cinema

Film Noir Night at The Bowtie Cinema


It was a perfect night for foul play. A cold front hidden by a black slate cloak of persistent rain was moving stealthily up the Sound to settle over the New England countryside.  Fog and mist swirled, playing tricks on drivers as their dimly lit lights slowly cut narrow ridges through the pea soup of an inclement April night.

Outside the great bay window, the driveway street lamp glass shook, scattering broken light from a slap of 20-knot wind that swooped and rose across the tops of the hemlocks and hickories. It was a night of dark intent. 

I moved to the video library and selected the only logical entertainment for a spring evening that had lost its promise and descended into madness and mayhem.  Like a cordon bleu chef’s menu, this visual meal must be a Hitchcock and not just any thriller but Olivier and Fontaine in the 1939 classic “Rebecca”.  Supported by George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Joan Fontaine and sinister Judith Anderson, this classic motion picture transformed my den into a spiral staircase of deceit, broken promises and murder. 

I dimmed the lights, cocooning myself in a shaneel blanket as Leo, MGM’s ubiquitous lion, roared into motion the 60-year-old classic.  My daughter opened the den door, peering into the darkness.

” Whatcha watchin’, Dad?” 

I quickly perked up and enthusiastically described the film – which was my first mistake.  ” Does anyone die?” She asked with sociopathic indifference.  ” Well, yes, but that’s all part of the mystery.” “Sounds boring,” she said as she turned into the lit foyer moving off to find her Mac.

The boys were next to poke their heads into my cave upon hearing Joan Fontaine’s dramatic cry, “ don’t jump!” 

” Guys, I’m watching a mystery movie where a lady dies and no one knows why. Come in and watch it with me.” They slowly fell into the darkness.  My ten year old froze upon seeing the opening credits.

” Oh, wait. Is this black and white?  Forget it. Those movies are so boring…” They fled the room as if I was suddenly offering free root canals. With my spouse preoccupied, I was alone again – an old soul in a darkened screening room. The door opened again – one final time and hope sprang eternal.  The gentle patter of paws announced my inseparable canine shadow, Brody, who predictably settled at my feet – a musty tri-color blanket of unconditional love.

The film opened to Monaco’s Grand Massif as a solitary figure ponders suicide.

For a moment, we were peering across the sequined waters to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with Brody looking for French poodles and I looking for a tuxedo shop so I might discretely shadow Olivier on his dark journey.  The film concluded in a conflagration of epic proportions and I emerged from my pod of nostalgia exhausted and longing for the return of movies that used lighting, dialogue, innuendo and a star studded cast of supporting actors and actresses to help you forget about whatever troubles were swirling outside your windows.

Rebecca was filmed in 1939 during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Europe was embroiled in the first stages of the Phony War and the world was holding its breath.  It was a time of terrible uncertainty in America.  Radio, magazines and film were one’s primary lens to a combustible and foreign world.  To hold a cinema ticket was to purchase a pass to exotic locales where men and women led noble, exciting and desperate lives.

Since that time, the movie theatre has been repeatedly administered last rites as home entertainment, DVDs and the digital age conspired to change the medium of film.  However, the theatre and motion pictures survive and transcend the efforts of those who might condemn them to iPod screens the size of postage stamps. It would be, after all, a form of aesthetic sacrilege to attempt to watch Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or any other epic by Sir David Lean on an MP3 player.


My love of film started early and hit its peak in college, when I banded together with other celluloid loving film majors to drive an hour each weekend into Hollywood’s NuArt theatre to watch foreign films – – the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Truffaut’s “Blow Up” or De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”.  The silver screen was the best place to appreciate the entire canvas that these ground breaking directors and cinematographers utilized to tell their stories.  Just as Ansel Adams revealed the simple genius of black and white photography in Yosemite and The Range of Light, so the full power of black and white celluloid is only realized when presented in a cinema. 

I am convinced that the best movies lie, gathering dust, abandoned on the Gramophone Video Store shelves, victims of a parochial prejudice against the absence of color and graphic violence.

As I watch the consequences of the recession settle on our small town, I see people creatively trying to reconstruct simpler routines and lives. What if we turned could convince Bowtie Cinema to dedicate one theatre one evening a week to a double bill featuring the great films of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? Each Thursday, we could transform our town into a gilded family night at the movies.  Perhaps we start with Academy Award candidates from 1939: Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mister Chips and of course, Gone With The Wind.

How about a month featuring the films of Hitchcock – Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, Rebecca and The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

If the kids want adventure, how about the original “The Four Feathers” with Ralph Richardson teamed up with   “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.  February and Valentine’s Day could be Bette Davis month with All About Eve and The Little Foxes followed by musicals like “West Side Story,” “Paint Your Wagon”, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Top Hat” with Rogers and Astaire.

Who would not want a little film noir with a good Robert Mitchum or Dick Powell melodrama.  You won’t be the same after watching a pathetic Erich Von Stroheim and bugged eyed, insane Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: ” I am ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.” Give me Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat or Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

On All Hallows eve, we could show “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Canterville Ghost” with Charles Laughton.  For Thanksgiving, we feast on some fantasy with “ A Guy Named Joe”, and the little known “ Tales of Manhattan” about a custom made tuxedo with a curse. At Christmas, it’s Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” along with “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  New Years concludes with William Wyler’s seven Oscar masterpiece of veterans returning home from WWII in  “The Best Years of Our Lives?”

If we build it, they will come. I can see it all now – multiple generations from all over Fairfield County appearing once a week to fill a single theatre to see movies the way the director’s intended – on a big screen, alone yet together, bonded by a twitch of an eyebrow in Witness For The Prosecution, the utter abandonment of a blacklisted writer who writes the screenplay for a western called “High Noon”, or listening to the chaotic strings and the tilted mise en scene of post war Vienna in Orson Welles’ “The Third Man. 

I can’t get my kids to watch these old movies at home.  But just maybe, on a quiet weeknight, I could talk them into the last picture show at the Bowtie. For a single price of admission, I can treat them to a Jimmy Stewart double bill: leading off with “Harvey” and concluding with a civics lesson about a naïve first year Congressman almost destroyed by corruption in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

There is hope.  I came home the other day and found my daughter and a friend watching a black and white movie.  Disguising my utter joy, I casually queried,” so what’s on, guys?”

 “Citizen Kane….”

I smiled as I watched the corrupt, lifeless hand of Charles Foster Kane drop his dime store snow globe and whisper, “Rosebud!” – a relic of lost innocence and like the golden age of cinema, an echo of a simpler and magical time.