Picture of the Week #4: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut Censored version [Click to Uncensor]

[Click on the image to uncensor it, i.e. to see it as it was originally intended, but beware the naughtiness within…]

OK, adults only for this one. Spectacular Attractions is usually a family show, but this is a different kind of Friday. Here, go and look at Pinocchio, or possibly the Muppets.

A frame grab from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died shortly after completing the film, having promised to deliver an R-rated movie (apparently, he watched a bunch of Hollywood’s more sexually explicit films in order to gauge what would be considered acceptable to receive such a rating). The sequence in which Tom Cruise visits a masked orgy was considered to be NC-17 territory, a rating which ostensibly marks something out as unsuitable for children, but which actually decreases its chances at the box office, rejection by self-righteous finger-waggers and unwarranted controversy from a wide variety of spoilsports. However, although MGM surely would have just snipped out the relevant glimpses of humping, they found themselves hidebound by their commitment not to re-edit or cut a frame of Kubrick’s footage. What to do? The simple answer would be to suck it down and release the film unadjusted, take the reduced box office safe in the knowledge that you hadn’t compromised the artistic vision of a man on whose name you’d been happily trading for years. Alternatively, you could take some digital people and graft them onto the film to cover up those dangerous bits of flesh. Very clever – loyal to the exact wording of their commitment to Kubrick, but actually snuffing out the spirit of it in one quick application of polygons. The result can be seen in the image above.

Barbara Creed saw this as an advance notice of the coming age of the synthespian, when human actors would routinely be replaced by digital substitutes. She suggested that as they took over, we might have to change the way we relate to people onscreen, since the virtual actor would have no Unconscious, and thus not be “subject to the same experience as the living star, experiences such as mothering, Oedipal anxiety, hunger, loss, ecstasy, desire, death.” But then, she also predicted that porn stars, already artificially augmented beyond the realms of realism, could be doubled by virtual actors. It all sounded a bit William Gibson to me, and this week’s picture instead made it look as though digital people were just going to show up in films where they weren’t wanted and spoil everyone else’s view.

The Sign of the Cross: The Devil has all the Best Tunics

Poster - Sign of the Cross, The (1932)_07A slideshow of images from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 epic of persecuted Christians in ancient Rome. I’ve been testing out the compatibility of the various pieces of my online “presence”, e.g. Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and all those other bits and pieces that should make online life more coherent rather more fragmented. These slideshows allow me to include more images to illustrate a film text when a single still image just doesn’t make the intended point. By uploading frame grabs to Flickr, I can then use another website, Vodpod, to automatically generate a slideshow that I can embed in a WordPress post. It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of co-ordinating the various sites, it’s pretty quick and easy. Let me know, though, if you don’t like the new approach. You can see more of these pictures, with labels, download them or enlarge them by following this link, or click on the slideshow to watch them in sequence. You can fast forward, pause or enlarge to fullscreen:

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OK, so I’m really just testing out a little gadget, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the contents of the slideshow, too. It’s a real cavalcade of debauchery from DeMille, for whom the best way to illustrate the importance of virtue was to catalogue a veritable spaghetti of sins. The question will always linger that maybe the Biblical advocacy on its surface was really just a disguise that allowed him to draw the crowds to a sensational parade of violent erotica. There would certainly seem to be more flesh and blood and show than is absolutely necessary, and a worryingly imaginative commitment to the full range of naughtinesses, whether it’s the titillating spectacle of Claudette Colbert, almost revealing all in the asses-milk bath sequence, Elissa Landi being tormented for her virtue at a lascivious Roman orgy, or the elaborate execution methods in the Colisseum: nearly-nude women attacked by crocodiles or a gorilla, Amazons impaling/decapitating pygmies, lions eating Christians etc., etc.

Rather than try to resolve the issue of DeMille’s sincerity, I instead see the film illustrating the ambiguities and intricacies of spectatorial positions in cinema studies. Surely DeMille has given us a vision of a dangerously seductive world and shown the fate of some of its victims (the Christians), persecuted for their passive resistance to Roman reiligious prohibitions. It is then up to the viewer whether or not to disregard its righteous message and revel in the rush of disgraceful scenes: DeMille shoots all of them with the same ecstatic overflow of style that he uses for his enlightened martyrs. Whatever the sincerity of DeMille’s Christian mission, he seems to embrace the commoditisation of epic cinema, and its use value as a vessel for  religious messages; there is little division between the raptures induced by communion with either divinity or spectacle and illusion.

Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate

Tarzan-1932-poster[This post refers to the first two Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)]

Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head.  I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.

Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:

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It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:

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Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.

Poster - Tarzan and His MateLooking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and  their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:

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You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:

Tarzan the Ape Man Vignette

If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:

Tarzan the Ape Man

Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream:

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Mild Muppetry

[Look away now if you were hoping for something more substantial than a short blog inspired by a little sticker on a DVD case. I’m writing another post about Yasujiro Ozu. Come back when that’s ready.]

Today, I took delivery of my DVD boxset of season three of The Muppet Show (don’t ask!), which was not as exciting as the package I was hoping for: my book came out this week, and I have yet to see a copy. My author copies have still not arrived, perhaps lost in the post or stolen by a postman angered by my misrepresentation of Destination Moon. Anyhow, the Muppets will have to serve as some meagre compensation.

Aside from the fetching Fozzie-faced packaging, my eye was caught by the BBFC guidance on the back cover. Although the Irish Film Censor’s Office has approved the series with their ‘G’ certificate, ‘FIT FOR VIEWING by persons GENERALLY‘, the British Board of Film Classification has seen fit to warn me that, although it carries a ‘U’ certificate (‘Universal: Suitable for All’), it ‘contains infrequent mild sex references, slapstick & dangerous behaviour’.

After my disappointment that the sex references were all going to be ‘mild’ and ‘infrequent’ had subsided, I noticed that this consumer advice was on a sticker placed over the original statement that the boxset contained ‘no material likely to offend or harm’. Quick consultation of the BBFC website (they give advice for each individual episode) revealed that the comic violence was perpetrated in the shows involving Spike Milligan, Lynn Redgrave and Roger Miller, while Leslie Uggams attracted associations with ‘potentially dangerous behaviour’ and Roy Clark indulged in ‘very mild innuendo’. Alice Cooper was a perfect gentleman. Somebody must have forgotten to total up the levels of debauchery and concluded that, on aggregate, The Muppet Show was inoffensive and harmless but, thankfully, some bright spark noticed that there were, nevertheless, examples of naughtiness to be found in a small number of episodes and intercepted the DVDs just in time to slap a premonitory label over the ‘all clear’ stamp that nearly made it past the censor and into the hands of the unsuspecting hands of innocent consumers unaware that they held in their hands a muppetic timebomb. I hope this has cleared up any anxieties you may have had.

This reminds me (because of the Muppety link more than because of the gravity of the censoriousness) of the Sesame Street controversy from last year, when DVDs of the earliest episodes came with the following warning: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

I guess the point of the Muppets was always to have a bunch of frustrated variety performers straining at the boundaries of taste and decency, performing like cartoon characters and railing against the limits of being puppets, but still faced with the realities of having to make a living on the stage. It makes sense that they would occasionally overstep the mark. That’s exactly what kids like me found exciting about them in the first place. However, I haven’t actually watched any of season three at time of writing, so if I discover a scene in which Spike Milligan is kicked to death by Gonzo’s chickens and flambéd by the Swedish chef (oh, for the days of casual xenophobia on kids’ TV!), I’ll gladly withdraw my endorsement of this filth.

Ready for some more slightly adult Muppet fun? Try these. Warning, this stuff is pretty puerile. But it is the weekend:

The Jim Henson Company’s puppet improv troupe has clips from its shows here. The jokes are not always golden, but the puppetry is as imaginative and nuanced as you’d expect. Well worth a look, and proof that the Henson legacy is not (and never has been) just for children.