Nymphets and Ultra-Violence

Paper by Audrey Carganilla.

“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.” says Stanley
Kubrick, one of the most critically acclaimed directors in history. His words can reflect almost anyone’s thoughts, but let’s put it in perspective of who his work is directed to: moviegoers. In the 1960’s, weekly movie attendance and box office revenues were at an all time low due to several factors such as the American people adjusting to life after the war and the invention of the television as mentioned in Jon Lewis’ book, American Film: A History. What was also mentioned was how the younger viewers who were the majority of moviegoers were getting tired of whatever the film industry was producing and clearly wanted something new. Just as Kubrick says, they did not know exactly what they wanted in film, but they definitely knew that they did not want what the industry was currently giving them. In this essay, I will be discussing how the shift of content in film from the 1960’s to the 1970’s due to the abolishment of the Motion Picture Production Code and implementation of the rating systems using Stanley Kubrick’s films, Lolita (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), allowed for more controversial topics to be displayed in film, which ultimately benefited the US film industry and viewership. I will use the history of the Motion Picture Production Code to show how Lolita weaved past the censorships and how A Clockwork Orange would have defied the code if it were released in that time period by comparing scenes from both films and using research of the rating system and how it made A Clockwork Orange possible while also enabling future films of that decade to be released, causing a revival in the film industry. I think this period in film history is important today because without the change from the code to the rating system, several films released today would not have even made it pass storyboarding and the rating system’s impact on 1970’s blockbuster films saved the film industry from collapsing.

The Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code, was the basis for films for many decades. With the failure of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA for short) initial proposition of Will Hays’ list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”, the MPPDA “turned to a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel A. Lord, and a devout Catholic journalist, Martin Quigley” to make a more comprehensive list, the Hays Code, which was published in 1930 (Lewis 111). Despite this code being present, it was not necessarily enforced, thus leading the film studios to defy it. This is evident in films like Paramount’s She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933) and early gangster film Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932). In writer Jeff Saporito’s article on Screenprism , “Filmmaker’s Handbook: What was the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code)?”, he writes that “The code expected movies to mirror the values of a conservative American society and not damage the morality of those watching the pictures.” This is reflected in some of the areas of concern in the updated Hays Code. An example would be crimes against the law such as overt murder, methods of criminal activity, and anything involving alcohol as the Prohibition was still in effect. A few more prominent examples included sex, vulgarity, and respect of religion (Lewis 112). It was not until 1934 when the MPPDA created the Production Code Administration, also know as the PCA, where they would oversee movie productions. This meant that the film studios would have to comply to the Hays Code or their film would never see the light of day.

After almost 40 years of existence, the Motion Picture Production Code ceased to exist and was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system. The decline of the Hays Code was due to several factors including adjusting to post-war America, the invention of the television, and the steady decline in box office revenue due to lack interest. With the success of Otto Preminger’s 1963 film The Moon Is Blue which was produced and released against the Production Code Administration’s wishes, Jon Lewis writes that “it became clear that something had to be done about the PCA” (279). Before the implementation of the MPAA film rating system, many films were still being released that further challenged, even so much as to defy the codes.

Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita differs greatly from the novel it was based off of with the same name by Vladimir Nabokov. In Elisa Pezzotta’s book, Kubrick: Adapting The Sublime , it discusses how Nabokov actually wrote a script, except it was too long for a feature film. Kubrick tried to rework it, and the passage said that “although he does not share writing credits with Nabokov, he revised his script during the pre-production and production periods” (19). Through these revisions, we are able to see how Kubrick adapts key points from the novel to the big screen.

The depiction of the main characters, Humbert Humbert, in the film shows the difficulty in translating a dubious novel to fit the production codes. In the novel, Humbert is the narrator so there is more of an in depth understanding of him through his words. As film is a medium that relies on both visual and oral representations, the importance Humbert’s inner thoughts are lacking despite the narrations. There is also the fact that the film exempts Humbert’s backstory which includes where his pedophilic nature comes from. In Jerold. J Abrams’ book, The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick , in relation to Kubrick’s more sexually charged films such as Lolita , he writes, “Sexuality is darker and less controllable than we typically care to admit, let alone seek to understand” (3). As the MPPC forbids any “sex peversions”, it would have been too difficult to include this portion, which would explain to the audience where his desires stem from, thus not fully understanding his character. The novel also has Humbert referring to Lolita as Lolita solely in his diary. The film changes this, and instead has everyone referring to Dolores Haze as Lolita. What this does is reduce Humbert’s obsession over Lolita by ignoring the dehumanizing effect that referring to her as something other than her name does. Although, because there is no way to evade Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, Kubrick had to work his way around it using simple edits and humor. As Lolita was originally 12 in the book, Kubrick made it so she was aged up a little more to please the code. Kubrick also made the decision to set the tone of film using black humor, which also lessened Humbert’s pedophilic intent. It downplayed his disturbing attempts to attract Lolita and while that still warrants for a ban, Gary Susman’s article on Moviefone , “ ‘Lolita’: How Stanley Kubrick Turned Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel Into a Mainstream Hit” mentions how films by 1961 such as The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961) and Advice & Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962) dealt with homosexuality, which was banned by the Hays Code. Susman then adds that “Rather than fight everyone, the Code office amended the rules to permit depiction of “sex perversion” as long as it was presented with taste and discretion.” As Lolita dealt with its sexual content by adhering to the suggestions of the Code office, it was still able to be released. The trouble it took to adapt this story into film shows how lenient and restricting the Motion Picture Production Code was.

Six years after the release of Lolita came the Motion Picture Association of American film rating system. As non-PCA-approved films were garnering more success, the studios felt by abiding to the Hays Code, it was costing them too much money. To solve this, the MPAA hired Jack Valenti as their president “to fix the box-office problem and modernize the PCA” (Lewis 244). By the fall of 1968, Valenti was able to accomplish this by releasing an outline of the new film rating system which would replace the production codes. It initially comprised of the categories G, M, R, and X which would further be modernized in the following decades. The industry’s switch to this newly proposed system began just weeks after. Lewis notes that “the task of classifying films in advance of their release fell to CARA” also known as the Classification and Rating Administration (283). Although the new MPAA rating system was a new direction for Hollywood, the shift over led to an industry slump. This was not directly because of the system, but because all the films of the past era were being still being released.

Just three years after the switch to the MPAA’s new rating system, Kubrick releases A Clockwork Orange . This film immediately pushed the boundaries of the rating system and was categorized in the X Rating, which meant that no one under sixteen was able to see it and that it did not receive a MPAA production seal. According to the IMDb’s parent guide section, A Clockwork Orange was Rated X “for strong brutal violence, strong language, adult situations, drug and alcohol use, a scene of graphic rape and for graphic sexuality and sensuality.” All of these categories would have exceedingly defied the now defunct Hays Code. The Hays Code condemns all of these explicitly in its wording and if Kubrick were to try and produce this film during the reign of the production code, it would have never have been seen by the American audience. Fortunately, with the new ratings system, A Clockwork Orange was able to be seen without being tied down to censorships unlike how Kubrick’s other film, Lolita, was.

As A Clockwork Orange came out after the MPAA’s film rating system, one is able to see the difference it made in terms of potential film content in comparison to before its implementation by comparing it to Kubrick’s other film, Lolita . Both films cover the taboo topic of sex, and the more extreme form, rape but handle it differently. In Lolita , the scene in the hotel where Humbert finally has Lolita to himself, it has Lolita “consenting” to having sex with Humbert. This passes the production codes’ criteria for “seduction or rape” as the film builds up Lolita’s character to be a “nymphet”, or a young, precocious girl that is sexually attractive, so her saying yes somehow cleared that up despite being a child. Instead of showing them consummating the night, it simply cuts to black. By doing this, it also avoids the production codes criteria for “scenes of passion” (Lewis 112). While Lolita was more tactful in hinting at sex or rape, A Clockwork Orange had a more blatant display of the subject. In an earlier scene, we see Alex and his “droogs” break into the home of Mr. Alexander and his wife and violently attack Mr. Alexander while also sexually assaulting and raping his wife. A later scene involves a depiction of rape in Alex’s aversion therapy session that was still just as shocking as the earlier scenes. A Clockwork Orange fully displays the act of rape with forceful imagery while in comparison, Lolita is more subtle in its approach as it merely fades to black.

Another subject matter both films share is violence. This is addressed in the production codes “crimes against the law” section where it says “subsections on murder (no instructions please, and no brutality)” (Lewis 112). In Lolita , they skillfully abide to this rule in the opening scene with Clare Quilty and the death of Charlotte Haze. The opening scene, which is actually a flashforward of the ending, has Humbert finding and hunting down Quilty after he ruined what Humbert had with Lolita by taking her away. This ends in a one sided chase with Quilty hiding behind a large painted portrait before being shot multiple times by Humbert’s gun. This scene is able to avoid being cut by its clever composition. The gun is not in the shot, so we do not see the weapon or person executing the action and only see the bullet holes penetrating the portrait instead of Quilty’s body. The portrait would also obscure any bloodshed caused by the murder, so it is still in line with the code. There is also the scene when Charlotte Haze, heartbroken at the discovery that Humbert does not love her, but instead her underage daughter, runs out the house in despair only to be hit by a car and killed. This action is not directly shown, and only acknowledged after Humbert received a call that informs him of the situation. The next scene, we see the wreckage of the crash and also the lifeless body and hidden face of who is presumably, Charlotte Haze. As the moment of her death was not shown, it does not violate the code. A Clockwork Orange , however, was not held back by the MPPC and instead exhibits violence in a glorified manner. An early scene that depicts violence was when Alex and his “droogs” consume milk laced with drugs to get them ready to commit “ultra-violence”. They do so by beating up an elderly homeless man. The scene was in full display, showing them kicking and hitting him with their canes. Another scene is when Alex breaks into the local wealthy old cat lady’s home and gets caught, which commences a brawl between the two. This is settled with Alex bludgeoning the woman to death with a large phallic object. This incident also did not shy the camera away. These scenes would have been barred by the MPPC, but since this film was released a few years after the change to the MPAA film rating system, it was able to get away with it. By comparing scenes from the films Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, we are able to see how in just less than a decade with a new set of rules, the limits of filmmaking was lifted drastically.

The revival of the film industry would not have been possible without the fall of the Motion Picture Production Code and the application of the MPAA film rating system. Although there was an industry slump the following few years after the switch, this was soon overlooked by the later successes of blockbuster hits such as The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), followed by Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), and lastly Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). These films made such tremendous amounts of profit, they rejuvenated the film industry. As the new rating system allowed for creative leeway for directors and all those involved in the process of filmmaking, films such as those mentioned above were able to be created. These young directors understood the desires of the American audience, and now, given the chance to express themselves and these stories, they were presented with a whole new world of possibilities. Film, as we knew it, was experiencing such a radical change in terms of how powerful this medium was truly becoming.

In Roger Ebert’s review of The Isle (Kim Ki-duk, 2000), he mentions a woman in a personal anecdote who asks why a movie would show something she did not want to see, to which Ebert replies, “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds.” Similar to the rigid censorships of the Motion Picture Production Code, it restricted the American audience to only seeing these same looking, formulaic films. With the MPAA film rating system, it allows for the expansion of human curiosity by allowing directors the creative freedom to make what they and the audience wants. Through films such as Lolita and A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick, we are able to see the difference less than a decade of defiance of the rules makes by observing and analyzing how the same topics were handled. Not too soon after the new film ratings system, we began to see the positive outcome of it through the new concept of blockbuster hits. This concept is still prevalent today as we see movies specifically being produced and marketed to become that blockbuster hit in the box office such as the return of the Star Wars franchise through films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) and Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016) or through the Marvel film franchise with titles that include The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014). The pivotal time in film history of the shift from a production code to a rating system impacted the film industry because it allowed for films that were unimaginable just ten years prior to be released, which ultimately saved the industry from collapsing and forming the foundation for what we know as film today.

Works Cited
Abrams, Jerold J. The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick . The University Press of Kentucky,
2007.
Ebert, Roger. “The Isle Movie Review & Film Summary (2003)” RogerEbert, 31 Jan. 2003, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-isle-2003. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History . W. W Norton & Company, Inc, 2008.
Pezzotta, Elisa. Stanley Kubrick : Adapting the Sublime . Jackson, US: University Press of
Mississippi, 2013.
Saporito, Jeff. “Filmmaker’s Handbook: What was the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code)?” Screenprism , 29 Jul. 2016, www.screenprism.com/insights/article/the-filmmakers-handbook-what-was-the-motion-p icture-production-hays-code. Accessed 12 Apr. 2017.
Susman, Gary. “’Lolita’: How Stanley Kubrick Turned Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel Into a Mainstream Hit” Moviefone , 11 Jun. 2012, www.moviefone.com/2012/06/11/lolita-stanley-kubrick-vladimir-nabokov/. Accessed 13 Apr. 2017.
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“A Clockwork Orange – Parents Guide” The Internet Movie Database , www.imdb.com/title/tt0066921/parentalguide. Accessed 13 Apr. 2017.

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