Cab For Cutie
Built To Spill
AND MUCH MORE!
thing truly visceral about Cube's voice that made his
ever-present snarl that much more serious. As he barked
on Death Certificate and Amerikkka's,
he was the nigga you love to hate as well as the wrong
one to fuck with."
though Sonic Youth grabbed Cobain by his hypodermic
needles and helped foist him into the spotlight, alterna-fans
du jour didn't return the favor when the New York
noisemakers lobbed this bottom-soaked missile their
are more aware of the world that they want to live in,
and now they have to realize that they can actually
create that world and fight for the things that are
worth fighting for and not feel apathetic. We are all
going to die. There is no point in holding anything
a scene in Richard Link-later's Waking Life
where the protagonist crouches down to read a note
in the street that says, 'Look to your right,' which
he does, only to come face to face with a speeding
car aiming right for his head. That's what it's like
to listen to Mars Volta's De-loused in the Comatorium
for the first time."
well, well. President George was in one hell of bind
when it turned that that Saudi Arabia funded Al Qaeda,
not Iraq. Realizing we'd invaded the wrong country,
Bush did the honorable thing: he's come out against
it comes to learning from its mistakes, corporate
America has fallen off the rehab wagon more times
than Robert Downey, Jr. A quick glance at last
week's papers reveals that it's monkey business
as usual on Wall Street."
the time this page fully loads, Guided By
Voices' Robert Pollard will have probably
composed, performed, mixed and pressed yet
another tightly coiled pop-rock nugget."
his friends and neighbors turn bitch and
completely bail on him, the hyperskilled
Lyrics Born will be here later this day,
that day or whatever day, until he's too
old to physically rhyme or sing anymore.
In that, perhaps he can take some solace,
dropping that baggage off at the door in
is no doubt in my mind -- and in this
I seem to have a lot of company -- that
Transatlanticism is Death Cab For
Cutie's best album so far, not bad for
a group that's been professionally plugging
away for just over four years now. And
there is also no doubt that Ben Gibbard
is one of pop music's finest talents.
is no one thing to know in Lord of
the Rings more important than the
fact that everything is disappearing,
and disappearing fast. Jackson's final
film in his peerless trilogy tenaciously
latches onto this theme and never lets
some thing in our psyche, this kind
of right or privilege to resolve our
conflicts with violence. There's an
arrogance to that concept. To actually
have to sit down and talk, to listen,
to compromise, that's hard work. To
go for the gun, that's the cowardly
ists wouldn't know what to do with Harvey
Birdman. Its ingenious brand of adult
animation owes as much to absurdists
like Ionesco and Duchamp as it does
to Bugs Bunny and Bullwinkle. Same goes
with the other shows in Adult Swim's
Uncensored: Cinema Before the Code
Why the long face, baby? "It's the Depression, you're piss-poor, and your father's your pimp. What's a young girl to do?"
The next time you
get into an argument with a social conservative (though these are best
avoided, foolhardy you) about sex and violence in today's liberal media
and the need for stricter controls, ask them if they think Frank Capra
or Noel Coward poses a threat to the moral fabric. When they laugh,
offer up this little bit of history.
In 1934, the self-styled
guardians of American morality had decided that enough was enough. The
sex and violence polluting the silver screen was exacting a toll on
the country's moral health, and nothing but the threat of massive boycotts
would stop it in its tracks.
That the boycotts
would not have been massive (box office receipts in the early '30s were
at a record high, despite the Depression) -- and that it was fomented
by a small percentage of the population with a deceptively loud voice
(sound familiar?) -- was still enough to make Hollywood's moguls quail.
Fearing the threat of government-imposed censorship, film land's leadership
succumbed and, in a preemptive strike, girded the loins of their own
censorship system: The Production Code. It's newly revised motto was
simple and sweeping in its stated purpose: "No picture shall be produced
which will lower the moral standards of those who see it."
that had previously been seen by audiences of all ages were suddenly
off-limits. Howard Hawks' Scarface? Banned. James Cagney in
Public Enemy? Outta here. Noel Coward's Private Lives? Gone.
Frank Capra's groundbreaking early films (Platinum Blonde, Miracle
Woman, Ladies of Leisure)? Taboo.
In short, just about
every seminal film of the early thirties found itself on the wrong end
of the censor's stamp.
Life's a Lubitsch. "Noel Coward's witty menage a trois was right at home on Broadway, but its film version was a prime target for moralists."
What were their
sins? They contained gangsters, machine guns, premarital sex, drunkenness,
foul language, drugs, prostitution, lust, infidelity, and the absence
of moral consequences (read: death or ostracism) for much of the above.
They would not be seen again, intact, for another 20-odd years, and
the Production Code's final death rattle would not be fully felt until
the late '60s, and the advent of the '70s cinema revolution.
For those of us
used to the ridiculously sanitized morality of Hollywood's "Golden Age,"
pre-Code films are a charming surprise. They're gritty, raw, profane
and wised-up. Female sexuality is unfettered, urban violence springs
from the harsh economy that bred it, and the morality of the day is
far more elastic and forgiving than post-Code films would lead one to
More important is
the aesthetic freedom filmmakers had to depict stories and characters
realistically, as apt reflections of their contemporary world. A world
in which people did not sleep in twin beds, kiss with their mouths closed,
abstain from cussing, or tragically die after the commission of a sin.
A world much more like ours, in fact. And one which never went away.
Except on the silver
So here are some
salient examples of old-fashioned Hollywood freedom. Some are dated
and creaky now, others surprisingly current and fresh. They may break
no modern-day boundaries, but they're an effective retort to our current
would-be censors. For if this is what got panties into a twist in 1934,
how equally unthreatening are those works we seek to proscribe today?
Better dead than red? "Harlow is deliciously naughty and amoral as the unapologetic homewrecker."
(1932) d. Jack Conway; with Jean Harlow, Chester Morris
Jean Harlow knocked more than a few hats back with her unrepentant sexuality
in this sly tale, scripted by Anita Loos, about a small town golddigger
cutting a swath through her society "betters." Harlow is deliciously
naughty and amoral as the unapologetic homewrecker, digging into her
character's sexual voraciousness with a wink and a shrug and abundant
good humor. Pre-Code heroines don't get any better than this.
(1932) d. Victor Fleming; with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor
Harlow again, as the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, rescuing Clark Gable
from a steamy tropical melodrama. Again, what would have been unthinkable
post-Code is presented here as completely natural and, in fact, preferred:
Harlow's prostitute Vantine dwells comfortably in her sexuality, makes
love freely, falls for Gable and, in the end, gets him. Without shame
or apologies. At heart, it's a buddy film, with Gable and Harlow as
the sparring pals, and Mary Astor as the married upper-cruster who comes
between them. If made after 1934, Vantine would have been cleaned up
into a wisecracking (but chaste) singer/dancer/whatever, and Gable and
Astor might have kissed, but never had sex (as they clearly do here).
The Production Code would also have cut lines like Vantine's (to the
parrot who's cage she's cleaning): "What have you been eating, cement?"
Nothing so impure would pass muster after 1934, and in such small ways
was the depiction of real life reduced.
(1932) d. Frank Capra; with Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners
One of a quartet of Pre-Code films that Stanwyck made with Capra (Ladies
of Leisure, Forbidden, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen
being the others), this one stands out for its topicality and its
stance on religious hypocrisy. A thinly-veiled riff on the career of
evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, it's notable now for how much more
sanitized Stanwyck's compromised preacher would have been after the
censor's axe fell. It's also a chance to see Capra finding his feet
as a director (already pretty solid) and employing those populist sentiments
that would later define his work. Some fine acting shines in a now-creaky
plot (and you have to hand it to Capra: when did he ever get less than
great performances from his actors? A director's most underrated gift.).
Screwing your way to the top. "Chatterton's auto magnate tromps the competition while using her male secretaries for pleasure -- and dispatching them when they object."
d. Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle; with Ruth Chatterton, George Brent
How many films of the '30s, '40s or '50s detail a female executive's
rise to power whilst plowing a sexual path through her boy toy underlings?
Not many, needless to say. But this 1933 hit starring Ruth Chatterton
turns the tables on the classic male executive's droit de seigneur (what
we'd term sexual harrassment today), with Chatterton's auto magnate
tromping the competition while using her male secretaries for pleasure
-- and dispatching them when they object. She uses sex as unapologetically
as any man, and her business acumen is unquestioned. For all its latent
morality (a man does come along who's her match and "teaches her a thing
or two"), the film's depiction of female power must have been more than
heartening to Depression-era sisters struggling into the early '30s
work force en masse. Food for thought: it took another forty-odd years
before Faye Dunaway's Network executive turned the tables on
sex and power within the corporation, but that film's gimlet-eyed treatment
of her role, for all its satirical implications, had none of the generosity
of 1933's Female.
(1932) d. Howard Hawks; with Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Boris
A natural remake candidate for the '70s-spawned era of new directors,
and Brian De Palma's version more than equalled, in contemporary terms,
the shocking violence of the original for 1930s audiences. That violence
is in no short supply in Howard Hawks' seminal gangster saga, where
gang wars, bootlegging and lurking incest all culminate in a virtual
symphony of machine gun fire. Audiences had never before seen anything
so noisy, so gritty, so morally corrupt -- and they attended in droves.
This film, along with Public Enemy, Little Caesar, I
Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and sundry other gangsta pix of
the Pre-Code era are as good an argument as any for just how much sooner
the '70s era of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver would have
arrived on screen without the interruption of the Production Code. They
were already nearly there, as the following entry proves.
Fear of a Cagney planet. "Canny, brutal and painstakingly unsympathetic, Cagney's young hood was easily recognizable to urban audiences, who saw him on every street corner, or even at the dinner table."
(1931) d. William Wellman; with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell
Mean Streets circa 1931. For those used to the high production
values of late '30s films, or even of film noir's heydey in the '40s,
the gritty realism of this William Wellman-directed gangster saga is
startling and disturbing. The movie made James Cagney an overnight star,
and there is no questioning why. At a time when many film stars could
still barely speak before a camera, this stage-trained actor had a precocious
verbal and physical dexterity, and an uncanny naturalism, that made
his Tom Powers leap off the screen. Canny, brutal and painstakingly
unsympathetic -- his famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene here smashed
all previous norms of "star" behavior -- Cagney's young hood was easily
recognizable to urban audiences, who saw him on every street corner,
or even at the dinner table. The movie itself takes pains to disavow
its protagonist's choices, while reserving its real indictment for the
crushing poverty and corruption that offered him so few alternatives.
Audiences were stunned at the film's grim conclusion, and its haunting
final image of Cagney still has the power to unnerve today. You can
pretty much date the birth of the American anti-hero to this film and
this performance, without which it is hard to imagine the subsequent
careers of Gable, Robinson, Bogart, etc.
BABY FACE (1933)
d. Frank Capra; with Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent
It's the Depression, you're piss-poor, and your father's your pimp.
What's a young girl to do? Burn down the house and make for the Big
City, that's what, where bigger suckers await the lessons you learned
at Daddy's knee. Stanwyck is both scary and sympathetic as the ruthless
player wreaking havoc on a New York corporation in her rise to the top,
and this downbeat tale is the perfect Depression-era answer to the sunnier
Cinderella fantasies which the Code would later demand.
(1932) d. William Dieterle; with William Powell, Kay Francis
An absolutely delicious farce from director and arch-stylist William
Dieterle. William Powell is the urbane jewel thief, Kay Francis the
very well-kept socialite who falls for him in a love-among-the-sophisticates
meringue that brooks no opposition to extra-marital sex, crime or even
drugs. Famous for its marijuana-smoking scene, it is also a dazzling
display of the speedy editing, dissolves and wipes that made the early
talkies' land-locked camera move again. A gem.
I vant to be a bisexual. "Greta's bisexual Queen kisses her female lover and trysts memorably with John Gilbert as she struggles with the responsibilities of power versus love and personal happiness."
(1933) d. Rouben Mamoulian; with Greta Garbo, John Gilbert
Along with Camille and Ninotchka, one of Garbo's greatest
performances, and a priceless pre-Code artifact (though artifact is
too small a term to apply to anything directed by the incomparable Rouben
Mamoulian). Greta's bisexual Queen kisses her female lover and trysts
memorably with John Gilbert as she struggles with the responsibilities
of power versus love and personal happiness. Witty, heart-breaking and
gorgeously filmed, this is a prime example of cinema's sophistication
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
(1932) d. Ernst Lubitsch; w/ Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis
The famous "Lubitsch Touch" was always deliciously amoral, suspending
all ethical considerations before the gale-force strength of l'amour-be
it pre-marital, extra-marital, intra-marital or…whatever the hell. It
was a predilection he had to subvert somewhat with sops to the moral
majority post-1934 (and even then he was craftier than most), but this
1932 classic has all the easy wit and unquestioned frankness about love
between adults that was later banished by the Code. Crime does indeed
pay, after a fashion, when his two jewel thief lovers pull a con on
a wealthy Parisian socialite, only to have their love and loyalties
turned upside down into the bargain -- with Lubitsch keeping you always
guessing as to who will win. And that's just the point. All are sympathetic
here: thieves, con artists, illicit lovers, misbehaving widows…but such
easy expansiveness was exactly what the Code targeted, and it would
be upwards of two decades before such a light souffle was taken off
the censor's list.
DESIGN FOR LIVING
(1933) d. Ernst Lubitsch; with Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Miriam
Noel Coward's witty menage a trois was right at home on Broadway, but
its film version was a prime target for moralists, in spite of -- or
perhaps because of -- its more cerebral than erotic portrayal of a woman
in love with two men, and how the deuce to work it out? A threesome
is the only, ultimate, answer -- and this faithful screen adaptation
was subsequently forbidden for re-release or re-make after 1934. 'Nuff
All films made prior
to July, 1934, are officially pre-Code, and contain much that would
later be censored. For more info
on the pre-Code era, check out Mick LaSalle's two excellent books on
the subject: Complicated Women (St. Martin's Press, 2000), and
Dangerous Men (St. Martin's Press, 2002).
09 February 03
Laura Picard is
a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has staked her claim to originality
by refusing to write a screenplay in 2004. She has written for American
Online, Turner Classic Movies and the august publication you are now reading,
Top Films of 2003
In a year that brought us an intractable global war, the
darkly personal film shined just as brightly as its big-ticket
counterparts. And whether the subject was cocaine, the Columbine
massacre, zombie rampages or marriages on
the brink in Japan, there was simply nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere
to hide . . . MORE
"Using Language Against Itself"
With one foot in the art world and another outside of it,
guerilla poster artist Robbie Conal is assuming
the position. After all, taking garish potshots at Important
White Men won't exactly make your friends in the echelons of
power. But Robbie just wants them to feel the Burn.
Our interview explains . . . . MORE
Year of the Fake
Look back in anger, indeed. In the so-called greatest country
on god's green earth, justice went blindly after bong makers,
almanac readers and whistle-blowers while ignoring the liars,
cheaters and swindlers. So where did that leave the truth,
in all its ugly glory? In the gutter, where Bush likes it. Honesty
has left the building . . . MORE
Five Reasons Culture Didn't Suck in 2003...
on who you ask, 2003 was either the year that the world came together
or became irreparably polarized. We tend to take the middle
road, and say that it more or less sucked but had some
bright, history-making moments. In fact, whether it was
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings juggernaut or
the rise of Howard Dean, life as we know it may never be
the same again . . . MORE
...and Five Reasons Why It Really Did
There were so many laughable failures in 2003, that it would
simply be impossible to list them all. So where should we start?
How about with an oil whore -- uh, war -- dressed
up to look like a 9/11 payback? Or perhaps the sellout
Democrats that let it all happen? Or maybe we should turn away from
politics and just enjoy the lesbian lovefest between Madonna,
Spears and Xtina? Or . . . . MORE
2003: Revolution Accomplished
Lies, lies, lies. If 2003 had a running theme, it definitely
had something to do with the constant barrage of bullshit
escaping from the mouths of Bush, Rumsfeld, Blair,
Thurmond and many, many more. But the year that was didn't
stop there. There was also apocalypse, terrorism, and Jacko.
Look back in anger . . . MORE