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Freedom to Offend

Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Freedom to Offend
    Book Description:

    In the postwar era, the lure of controversy sold movie tickets as much as the promise of entertainment did. In Freedom to Offend, Raymond J. Haberski Jr. investigates the movie culture that emerged as official censorship declined and details how the struggle to free the screen has influenced our contemporary understanding of art and taste. These conflicts over film content were fought largely in the theaters and courts of New York City in the decades following World War II. Many of the regulators and religious leaders who sought to ensure that no questionable content invaded the public consciousness were headquartered in New York, as were the critics, exhibitors, and activists who sought to expand the options available to moviegoers. Despite Hollywood's dominance of film production, New York proved to be not only the arena for struggles over film content but also the market where the financial fates of movies were sealed. Advocates for a wider range of cinematic expression eventually prevailed against the forces of censorship, but Freedom to Offend is no simple homily on the triumph of freedom from repression. In his analysis of controversies surrounding films from The Bicycle Thief to Deep Throat, Haberski offers a cautionary tale about the responsible use of the twin privileges of free choice and free expression. In the libertine 1970s, arguments in favor of the public's right to see challenging and artistic films were twisted to provide intellectual cover for movies created solely to lure viewers with outrageous or titillating material. Social critics who stood against this emerging trend were lumped in with the earlier crusaders for censorship, though their criticism was usually rational rather than moralistic in nature. Freedom to Offend calls attention to what was lost as well as what was gained when movie culture freed itself from the restrictions of the early postwar years. Haberski exposes the unquestioning defense of the doctrine of free expression as a form of absolutism that mirrors the censorial impulse found among the postwar era's restrictive moral guardians. Beginning in New York and spreading across America throughout the twentieth century, the battles between these opposing worldviews set the stage for debates on the social effects of the work of artists and filmmakers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7215-6
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Cinema Naïveté
    (pp. 1-12)

    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...

  5. 1 The Web of Control
    (pp. 13-38)

    WHENTHE BICYCLE THIEFpremiered in 1949 at Manhattan’s World Theater, it revealed what was wrong and what was right with American movie culture. The story line of the film had little in common with the typical feel-good picture produced in America. Vitorrio de Sica, the film’s director, depicted the pathos of postwar Italian life through the story of a young father’s search for his stolen bicycle. Film historian Gregory Black suggests: “Had Hollywood gotten its hands on the script Antonio [the father] would likely have recovered his bicycle, and the last scene would have shown him riding off to...

  6. 2 The Miracle and Bosley Crowther
    (pp. 39-60)

    FILM CRITICS RECEIVE letters from moviegoers all the time. Most letters, of course, take issue with a negative review of a popular movie. In January 1951,New York Timesfilm critic Bosley Crowther received a letter from a man who had something very different to say. He recounted the experience he and his wife had trying to buy a ticket at the Paris Theater for a trio of foreign films entitledThe Ways of Love:Marcel Pagnol’sJofroi, Jean Renoir’sA Day in the Country, and Roberto Rossellini’sThe Miracle. The man told Crowther that they encountered a picket line...

  7. 3 Baby Doll and Commonweal Criticism
    (pp. 61-89)

    IT LOOMED ALMOST as large as the Statue of Liberty, and its symbolic significance was, in a certain sense, comparable to that homage to freedom. TheNew York Timesdescribed it as a “Red-Blonde Beauty with 75-Foot Legs.” What was it? “Why,” theTimesdeclared, “it’s Baby Doll of Times Square!” Throughout most of the fall of 1956, artist Robert Everhart had constructed a billboard for an upcoming steamy Hollywood movie entitledBaby Doll. The lead actress and main attraction of the film was a movie starlet named Carroll Baker. Director Elia Kazan had the idea to create an advertising...

  8. 4 Amos Vogel and Confrontational Cinema
    (pp. 90-118)

    ONE OF THE unique aspects of postwar New York was the existence of parallel movie worlds. The first world had Hollywood premieres, influential daily critics, and censors. The second world operated underground, outside the traditional bounds of criticism and censorship. Of course, there was interaction between these two worlds: foreign films often thrived in both, and a few critics and censors were aware of, if not actively engaged with, the underground. Yet because the cinematic underground did not operate under the same constraints as the mainstream, it proved to be especially influential in determining how American culture might handle controversial...

  9. 5 The “Flaming” Freedom of Jonas Mekas
    (pp. 119-151)

    ON THE EVENING of 3 March 1964, at the New Bowery Theatre in the East Village, New York City police detective Arthur Welsh observed what he considered an “indecent, lewd and obscene film” and, acting in his capacity as an officer of the court, arrested four people on the charge of obscenity. The film was Jack Smith’sFlaming Creatures, and those arrested included two ticket takers, Garry Sims and Florence Karpf; the projectionist, filmmaker Ken Jacobs; and Jonas Mekas. In Welsh’s initial report of the incident he listed Mekas first, as the defendant who “did supply and distribute [the] lewd...

  10. 6 The End of New York Movie Culture
    (pp. 152-176)

    HOW DO YOU know when a revolution has succeeded? How should progress be measured? By the mid-1960s, two developments in New York City’s movie culture seemed to signal the dawning of a new era in American cinema: the regime of censorship that had controlled movies since their inception had almost completely unraveled and an underground sensibility became popular. In New York City, the protagonists who fought for a free screen and to “free cinema” had much to cheer about, not least because they had done a great deal to make this revolution successful. In 1965, the two organizations that had...

  11. 7 Did Bonnie and Clyde Kill Bosley Crowther?
    (pp. 177-201)

    BY THE LATE 1960s, Bosley Crowther began to understand what made Andy Warhol popular. The ironic detachment from social concerns and aesthetic standards that had disappointed Vogel and Tyler had gone mainstream. It struck Crowther as a sensibility that had contempt for anything serious and for anyone who wanted to be serious. Crowther was most disappointed by the fact that the hard-earned freedom that had emerged by the mid-1960s seemed to lead to a decline in taste among the public. Rather than demand better films that could explore difficult subjects in mature ways, moviegoers seemed to relish the exploitation of...

  12. 8 The Failure of Porno Chic
    (pp. 202-223)

    IN 1965, BOSLEY Crowther had observed that the category of obscenity was the last frontier that the movies could not venture into. When they did, it was up to judges, rather than the old moral guardians and official censors, to impose standards of taste. At the time, that seemed like progress. “The difference is,” Crowther pointed out, “that now the charges of offense must be aired in open court and the public is given some inkling of what it is being protected from.” But he also knew that simply breaching these new boundaries had consequences. Thus, he wondered: “Is it...

  13. Conclusion: The Irrelevance of Controversial Culture
    (pp. 224-230)

    WE NEED CONTROVERSY in culture. Offensive art that transgresses cultural boundaries plays a vital role in preserving—not merely challenging—aesthetic and moral traditions. For how will we know what matters to us otherwise? However, we still need to retain some way to distinguish constructive transgression from that which is destructive. In other words, we need to be able to recognize and dismiss gratuitous controversy that shocks the public without asking much from it other than to be shocked.¹

    In her 1996 book,The Repeal of Reticence, cultural critic Rochelle Gurstein laments what she observes as a growing inability to...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 231-250)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-258)
  16. Index
    (pp. 259-266)