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from Arabian Nights of 1934

Arabian Nights of 1934 is a journey through the counter-reality embodied in American movies of the early 1930s, leading up to the enforcement of the Production Code in July 1934. It distills a thousand and one nights of Depression-era movie-going—situations, images, cityscapes, jokes and retorts and frantic outbursts—into a streamlined parallel life, the stories bleeding into one another as they did in the minds of the viewers whom they helped sustain.

City Streets

Back in the city every minute of the day was a different kind of parade. And the nights weren't bad either. It was a kick to see the whole works laid out clean and sleek and for free. It's the greatest town in the world and don't let anybody kid you. Each body stood full length, trim like a stage performer or a mannequin in a shop window. It was a catalogue of poses, as good as the Follies or the most up-to-the-minute fashion salon. Fluent curves of bakelite figurines behind glass. No more dust or clutter, no more bulky old satchels or thick shapeless cloaks. Every item on display with plenty of air around it. Like posters showing off the newest line in everything from earrings to bedroom slippers. You felt like moving the way the objects were shaped. The world was starting to wiggle to a new and snappy cadence. There was a knack to every little thing: the way a hat should fit on a head, the sound that shoes should make on a dance floor, the tempo for taking a car around a sharp corner. An art form, or a whole syncopated collection of art forms. This was how to walk through a door. This was how to hail a cab. This was how to hit the street at five just when the office slaves were throwing off their chains and streaming out of the elevators into the big gleaming lobby. And then after a jazzy sequence of raps on the door he would step into his girlfriend's cold-water flat doing a soft shoe routine, launching into the beginning of a song: Life is just a bowl of cherries. What a wink he gave her. The gall of the man. Pure nerve. Even a gangster's whole biography was a dance number, a dance number ending in death.

City people lived in canyons and scrounged around trying to find the best view. LOVE FOR BREAKFAST. DO YOU INHALE? IS MARRIAGE A MENACE TO ROMANCE? WHY CAN'T MOVIE STARS STAY IN LOVE? DOUBLE YOUR WEEKEND FUN WITH A KODAK. SPEARMINT STEADIES THE NERVES. Slogans looked down like the gods of the mountain over humming sidewalks and aisles and side streets jammed with people talking fast all day long and into the night. You'd have to write everything down in a notebook to keep track. That guy moved like a rocket. Didn't have a dime in his pocket but he sure had plenty of talk. – You look familiar.I'd like to be. In the city you would be knocked out of the box if you couldn't keep it coming. You're about the niftiest trick I ever saw, why don't we give it a whirl? Footloose guys on Saturday night wanting to let the world know they were there. – Take a gander at that one. – Did you say a gander? I wonder how she'd go for a goose. Giving every girl the eye until they got called out for it. Take a good look. It's free. Talking was fighting. All the time it was slickers against yokels, roughnecks against prudes, wiseguys against greenhorns, girls from finishing school against barflies from the school of hard knocks, effete art dealers against hard-case mobsters, high hats against panhandlers, and no telling who was going to get the best of it. The toughest mug in Chicago comes out here and gets trimmed by a lot of fags with handkerchiefs up their sleeves. None of them ever stopped cranking it out—try this on for size, more laughs than a barrel of monkeys—the spiels of traveling salesmen and old carny hands, the dirty jokes of drunken conventioneers—say you oughta be in pictures with a line like that—the intricate hard luck stories of a con man preparing to nail his mark, old-timers with the gift of gab who if they wanted to could take a long slug out of their bottle and call up everything they'd ever listened in on, play it back like a phonograph record, the pep talks of football coaches, the harangues of prison wardens and drill sergeants, the barroom grandiloquence of well-educated soaks, wild-eyed sermons delivered by missionaries who'd gotten bounced for hitting the bottle too hard, the back street gallantries of burnt-out ladies' men, the back street comebacks of women too wise to fall for them. Save that gag for the tourists. I came to be paid, not pawed. You do all your talkin' with your hands.

A girl—barely out of her teens, if that—slipped out alone into the middle of the noise. The quiet one. The serious one. But it wasn't the noise she craved. She just wanted to be somewhere else, apart from everything that had always surrounded her. On some terrace, or in an alcove blocked off by screens or blinds or elegant folding doors. A secluded table in the corner. High above it or deep inside where the rest of the mess couldn't get at you. She'd been hearing the noise all her life but that didn't mean she was used to it. Something died inside her at the idea that another day was beginning just like the ones that went before. She kept her thoughts to herself because none of those lugs would understand anyway. She was angry, she was sorry for her father. She hated her father because he had become one of them. She hated her mother because she wouldn't let her father alone and had driven him to drink in the first place. She was sensitive and discontented, she wanted to stand alone by the railing on a ferryboat watching the pattern its wake made. If there was nowhere else there was the rooftop. Even in the most ragged neighborhoods no one could take away the stars. She was still impressed by the first poem she had ever read, a sonnet in a book a teacher had given her as a graduation gift. She had never knowingly told a lie up until now. She didn't understand why people had to be so cruel. Her eyes moved over the surface of things—the rusted radiator, the washed-out floral wallpaper, the broken toy truck abandoned on the stoop, the closed window shade of the room where the sickly child struggled to breathe, the haggard face of the milkman's beaten-down wife across the way—as if she was seeing it all for the first time.

The great struggle of life amounted to getting hold of a rented space, didn't matter how tiny, where you could lock the door behind you. Your very own interior, vacuum-sealed. How about with uniformed attendants at the front desk? To be modern was to have the right to be alone. To exist at all, for a few precious uninterrupted moments, was to be alone. You could be alone watering a plant. You could be alone with a book open on your lap and managing not to take in a single word. Just daydreaming, I guess. You were playing back images of a private apartment hung with drapes. A waiter rolled in a tray with platters of delicacies and champagne in an ice bucket. Your companion made you laugh in spite of yourself. With him certainly you no longer felt alone. He was a concert pianist who had picked you out of the crowd for the intensity of your gaze during the Rachmaninoff. The sincerity of your emotion was instantly apparent to him. A roguish guardsman caught sight of you hanging laundry on a line in a courtyard—he on horseback, in the shadow of the chateau's ramparts—while the other peasant girls sang from one end of the meadow to the other, one smile giving way to another as in a daisy chain. The tableau blurred into the metal boundaries of a fire escape. The cage's edge, the smallest corner carved out for refuge.

To be modern was never to be alone. You were in a car—your friends were in a car—weaving deliriously past midtown marquees. DESERT NIGHTS. THE MIDNIGHT KISS. THE GIRL FROM NOWHERE. JAZZ HEAVEN. GATEWAY TO THE MOON. You were a creature for whose use roads and vehicles had been built. Radio talked to you and played music for you—song hits with titles including the latest slang—Diga Diga Doo Diga Doo—coming live from the famous Alpine Room. You moved under the shadow of the newly-built skyscraper which was the temple of dawn. The city was shaped like your body, it had parks and centers and pools. It moved to what had become your rhythm. Speeding until the lights became a gleaming blur, swooping under bridges and out into the zone of foxtrot contests and dim-lit waterfront fish joints. Keep going until you reach the wider domain where surprise is waiting. Dangerous fun. When it was dark everything became bright. Lights streaming down like waterfalls. The night of saxophones had come. Dance bands jammed at full throttle until your ears hurt. Never knew anybody could play that loud. Showgirls took their clothes off at the Midnight Frolic. A novelist became wittier the more martinis he drank. They were all whipping themselves into a fever.

In the morning you got the drift from the keyhole brigade in the daily papers. And then after dark when America's favorite columnist pitched into his nightly broadcast you would get even more suggestive hints. It was like hearing the echo from a choo-choo train of chatter ripping through salons and parlors and boudoirs. In front of a thousand mirrors the women applied the finishing touches to their makeup and tried on a succession of hats. Nothing would do but the one with feathers. They were on their way to an opening or to a cocktail party—the party after the opening—to compare notes on their trips to Nice or Havana. Once they got where they were going there would be frank talk about marital secrets. The next time I get married I'm going to live on the Pacific coast—it's so much handier to Reno. Frank talk about roving eyes and illicit trysts. What a den of vipers it could be in that social level. Bits of barbed commentary on what other women were sporting. I've heard of platonic love but I didn't know there was such a thing as platonic jewelry. Up-to-date jokes about Elinor Glyn and Peggy Joyce and eugenics and monkey glands. There's that quite good-looking young playwright, you know, the one from the South that writes so indecently! Pansy art connoisseurs trading tips on the latest French painting. That heavenly blue against that mauve curtain, doesn't that excite you? Highly informed conversation about Hatha Yoga and the teachings of the Hidden Masters, vegetarianism, face lifts, the canals of Mars, Ming vases, contract bridge, hypnotism, health spas, pedigreed dogs. The world's greatest bridge expert was immersed in a game on the other side of the room, but he wasn't in the mood for company: I hate people who breathe on me, it spoils my concentration. Invaluable advice from continental hairdressers: Henna is ze very latest craze, madame. Bright young men were full of amiable flirtatious chitchat. What is there to be serious about: The income tax? Tonsils? The decline of the white race? Of course there's always sex.

Where the lights were dim the talk liquefied into moans and giggles. In nightclubs with secret passwords gangsters hobnobbed with socialites. Slumming parties. You had to watch your step in joints like that. Don't give your right name if there's a raid. Banjo player with fixed smile and neatly plastered-down thinning hair. Pinpoint eyes the sign of a hophead. A bald-headed banker whose head had fallen forward on a table. Streams of confetti. Colored dancers in grass skirts. Muted cornet solo in smoke. It's only a shanty in old shanty town. The fun they cranked out was the latest thing since sliced bread. Plenty hot stuff. As if everybody had just managed to break loose from the Middle Ages. Back when they used to keep tabs on what everybody was up to. A drunk college kid was sounding off to his pals. That's a lot of Puritanism… I've got my own life to live and I'm gonna live it my own way! So what if the kid wanted to go to Paris and marry an artist's model. It was the modern age and the young people needed to be free. Hoodlums in the shadows sized them as prospects for recruitment or blackmail or just a plain old stick-up. When the kid asked what happened to the girl he was buying drinks for he'd get the answer all right, from the guy with the face like a brick wall. She took a run-out powder.

The Crash

The numbers went spinning in dizzying circles. Wheels on top of wheels and click upon click as the thin strips of paper streamed out. Hoarse voices yelled out stock orders. In a market like this a second is a lifetime and a minute is eternity. Clerks on their lunch break bet their week's salary on a good lead. Soda jerks clustered around pay phones to catch stray tips they could buy into on margin. Men told their wives to flirt with dinner guests to tease out their investment secrets. I solicit tips with my charm and you convert them to money. Sometimes I'm half sick with shame over the things I do. The hired help eavesdropped at fancy dinners to hear what the brokers were talking about over cigars. You remember that terrific killing in Cobra Copper. They thought they died and went to Heaven. Spending dough like a sailor in a dream. In their dreams. Anyway the dream didn't last long. Money's a little bit tight everywhere. Or maybe all the fun had just been a wild-eyed rumor. By the time the word spread to the hinterlands the party was already over. It's a crisis. The newspapers say so.

It seemed like a hundred years ago they stepped into a dark deluxe palace for a few hours. It was like being in ancient Egypt, deep in some mystic tomb. When they came out everything had changed. Maybe it had been more than a few hours. The organ had been playing continuously until they lost track of time. They went in there to lose themselves. It got to be a habit. One picture melted into the next picture. Petal upon petal floated down into the meandering stream. Messages were delivered on scrolls. The crescent moon from out the Syrian hills had flung aloft its livid signal. The day of sacrifice had come. Within the gates of pagan temples unclad maidens bowed down at the place of immolation. By firelight the shining blades of bronze weaponry cast ominous shadows. Goat-footed idols stooped over the bound bodies of gauzy-robed beauties. It wasn't really happening, it was an opium vision orchestrated by a bearded hypnotist within the stone tower to which he lured unsuspecting debutantes. As they went deeper into the dream the organ music grew ever more somber and tremulous. They saw more than they could ever find words for. Nobody could make them tell what they had seen there. There was no need to put an exact label on what they imagined they caught sight of among the folds and flurries. Couples in flowery bowers could not resist each other. Blinking eyelashes beckoned into brocaded interiors. A kiss filled the whole screen. They were transfixed by images of eddying water swirling toward a dark abyss. They bathed in wordless splendors. They were shocked when the music stopped and even more shocked when they stepped outside.

Now peddlers were selling the cast-off debris of a suddenly vanished world on street corners. Things haven't been so lucky for me since they had to close the plant down. Solid places had evaporated without warning even while the phonograph record continued to play the songs about cherries and bananas and cream and coffee. You can't get enough dough in your cash register to buy a kitten cream. She tried to block the moving men when they started to roll the piano out of the parlor, even though she knew they were just doing their job. A destitute banker went down on his knees for the loan that even his father-in-law wouldn't give. Assets? What assets? You haven't got any! You've been making loans on worthless collateral. The final cocktail frolic broke up in the shadow of a hard-luck investor taking a dive from a high window or blowing his brains out in the men's room of a ritzy hotel. A store manager fired for incompetence had no recourse but to take the last leap as horrified customers looked on. A mental patient—his brain damaged in a car crash that happened after he drank too much at the country club—jumped out a window so his wife would be free the marry the doctor she really loved. Suicide could sometimes be a way of making it up to the people you'd let down. Clear the way for their happy ending. The beloved father who drank too much and made bad investments could solve everyone's problem by flying his private plane into a mountainside.

Or else it was a way—when there were no board members left to bully into submission, no bankers left to blackmail into floating dubious loans, no competitors left to crush by brutally unfair tactics, no mid-level managers left to shame into jeopardizing their marriages by working overtime every night, no loyal assistants left to exploit sexually for years on end while still finding time to take advantage of an intern fresh out of high school—spiking her drink at a penthouse pool party if necessary—to take the only possible exit from the top floor of the skyscraper that was his own creation, the embodiment of his obsession. Or was he pushed? Nothing short of murder, a resentment long repressed suddenly surging up, could have cut short the forward march of the irresistible Napoleon of retail. There's no room for sympathy or softness. My code is smash or be smashed. Seductive and cruel, the picture of hard-shelled arrogance in a tux—he was still the only man who could save everybody when disaster landed on them. The pleasures he seized were abrupt and without tenderness. When the intern woke up in a strange room in a negligee that wasn't hers it took a stunned moment or two to figure out how the boss's private party had ended. He didn't know the meaning of soft, but he could mimic it when he needed to, long enough to convince her that her file clerk husband needn't ever find out what happened.

The boss scarcely permitted himself to sleep. Too much sleep makes a man brain-dull. Fun, relaxation, good times, weekends and vacations, those were goods peddled to suckers to get them to take their eye off the ball. He was a hard guy but you had to admit that only someone made that way—devoid of scruples or sentimentality, possessing the savage instincts of a predator just barely kept in check by social norms, equally adept at organizing industrial espionage, conjuring operating cash by sleight of hand, and keeping his work force in a state of fearful gratitude that they had a job at all—could keep it all together in times like these. It was a tough and complicated world and feelings did not help prop it up. It wasn't about fun. It wasn't about passing the time playing gin rummy. Fat-headed saps who wanted to get married and have babies, who dreamed of lace curtains and china table settings out of a catalogue, who cared about the quality of the music coming from their radio (they had gone without cigarettes to save up for an Atwater-Kent), all those well-meaning simps would have found the floor collapsing under them a long time ago if he hadn't had the whip hand. Somehow they had always known that, right until the moment when he let them down.

It's pretty tough to lose your job in times like these. Day after day she wore out her heels on streets where no sign gave welcome. NO JOBS TODAY. NO HELP WANTED. She might have to end up hiding in the department store, dodging the night watchman so she could sleep in the model home display. Always one step from the edge. Down to slinging hash for a boss with only one thing on his mind. Your thoughts are just like your kitchen—dirty. Even a kid with a college degree found himself scanning the want ads. SALESMAN – Young and neat; must be able to furnish bond. The trouble was he didn't have any experience except hanging out at the track and staying up late in nightclubs. His wife left him because she was fed up with his bellyaching. You do nothing but complain and drink and lose your job. Now he was finding out what it was like to start at the bottom. Tried to pawn his fraternity ring and they laughed in his face.

Just another weak young man disposed to feeling sorry for himself. He hardly had a chance once he started giving way inside. Guy can't help it if he gets caught in a speakeasy raid, can he? Just my luck. A guy can't even have a good time anymore without getting into trouble. All it took was one moment of yielding to temptation, trying to roll a rich drunk for his wallet or obeying that sudden crazy impulse to smash a jewelry store window and grab that bracelet. It seemed like there was nothing else to do. A dollar and a quarter would have saved him. He was green at that game. Amateurs got caught and if it was their first offense that was just too bad. There was already too much of that stuff going around. The judge wanted to send a message to society at large. He had his mind made up before he even looked at you. If you were from out of state it was worse. Put the chains on and nobody on the outside would ever know what happened. Might as well have been thrown into a dungeon in some foreign country where they don't even have laws. Try to lam out and they slapped on another ten years. He had nowhere to run to anyway. It was only by accident that he found out about his mother. A page in a hometown paper that someone used for wrapping. She had never been the same after he left home.

The Advent of the Code

Some of them were reform school girls, some were work farm boys. They were doing time for everything from burglary to assault to sexual delinquency. One at a time each of them was ushered in to talk to a man with a notebook who sat at the other side of a table. He was there to conduct a survey. They didn't have to worry about a thing and everything they said would be in confidence. He certainly didn't look threatening and it made for a break from their usual routine. The man started asking them questions about how they had lived and why they had ended up where they did. Then he started in on the moving pictures. What had they seen, and how young were they? What did they like? What did they remember? Did the movies give them ideas? Did they learn things about life? Were they afraid of Chinese people because of the movies? Did they ever try out any of the things they saw? Had they seen people smoking cigarettes in the movies? Did people kiss? Did they do bad things? Had people taken things that weren't theirs? How did they do it? Did they climb through windows when people weren't home? Did people pick the pockets of drunks lying in the street? How did it make them feel when they saw the people kissing? What kind of dresses did the women wear? Were they different from the clothes that other women wore? Did the men have a lot of money? Drive expensive cars? How did it feel to look at those cars and clothes? Did they go dancing? What kind of places did they drive to? Was it late at night? Was there music playing? What kind of music? How would you describe the type of dancing that went on there? Did the men with the roadsters leave big tips? How do you think they got the money to leave the tips? Did people like that know things most people didn't about secure hiding places and messages in scrambled code? Did they have their own private slang so they could make plans without any snooper being the wiser? Did they carry concealed firearms? Were they one up on everybody else?

None of the "subjects"—they didn't know they were called that in the notes where he classified them by age and racial origin—ever got to see the report about how boys and girls could get stirred up by going to the pictures. Their idea of freedom was to go out and have a good time but watch your step. If a boy wanted to have relations with a girl all he had to do was take her to one of those photoplays. Later on at parties they had hot times talking about the pictures they saw. This world went too fast and you didn't have time enough to think. Everything happened on the spur of the moment. A guy was passing by a joint and he went inside and got drunk without ever planning to. What he wanted was always to have plenty of money and ride around in swell machines and grab off a girl whenever he wanted. Be one of those that were playing dice and holding people up and taking their money. Jimmying windows open and cutting the wires on burglar alarms. Drowning out gunshots by backfiring a car. Any double-crosser he would take for a ride and shoot him. Be flush enough to give girls diamond bracelets and rings and fur coats. The girls loved the movies. There wasn't anything they hadn't seen in the movies. Her mother told her movies weren't good for her but she acted like a sneak and took money from the kitchen drawer so she could go. She saw girls in movies going in cars to road houses. When she saw pictures like that she went wild. Once the kissing started she had a hot feeling going through her and wanted to do everything bad. She craved nothing but love and wild parties. At parties she met the men that were crazy for fast life. The future? She was spending her days until her time was up thinking of how to make money while she was young, faster than you could make it working in a factory or a doctor's office. She'd seen it done in all kinds of ways.

The monsignor submitted his rough draft to the committee.

This is a call to the youth of America. If you care about staying strong and healthy, if you care about the kind of right living that will make those who love you feel as though their dreams were fulfilled, you will want to join the struggle for a cleaner nation. The merchants of pollution have targeted you. You are the ones they want to corrupt—yes, even though you have never dreamt of such a thing, they have marked you as the next victim of their scheme to turn every young American into a dedicated patron of spectacles of degradation. The Roman Empire fell when it debased human virtue for the applause of an intoxicated rabble. The great nations of Europe sank into decline when they allowed the most vicious practices to become common pastimes of an enervated elite, an elite only too eager to consort with the lowest merchants of filth and immoral servitude. And such merchants are with us today. No mere ocean barrier could keep them out. They have used every trick of gaudy display and cheapjack finery to elevate the muck of depraved exploitation into a veneer of respectable entertainment, inviting the public and most especially you—the young spectators who hold the promise of the future!—into those emporia with their sweets and soft drinks and velvety seats, with their dim lights encouraging the stolen kiss and the furtive caress, where they spread out their enticing and poisonous wares. It's not only your money they want, those hard-earned coins that you have been persuaded to plunk down to lay eyes on the latest bare-shouldered beauty or the latest piece of sophisticated immodesty cooked up by cynics of Broadway who have drunk the wine of mockery—it isn't only your money, as dearly as they want that, but so much more—your bodies, your minds, your very souls. Is it not the voice of the tempter you hear in those sonorous fanfares that announce their newest unveiling of tantalizing promises, in those entrancing flirtations issuing from the lips of a nightclub dancer or woman of pleasure as she beckons you into that bower of self-gratification that is in truth as bitter in its aftertaste as the ashes of Sheol? I do not mean to denigrate the movies. We have all loved the movies. The movies represent perhaps the unlooked for and incomparably radiant flower of our technical civilization. What great delight we have taken in the natural wonders and feats of skill that we have witnessed—the pinnacles of art and architecture that we have been able to explore as if we were there ourselves—mighty dams and other triumphs of engineering—the inspiring visualization of glorious episodes from literature and history and scripture itself. We have laughed at the fun of good-natured clowns. We have thrilled at heroes on horseback riding to the rescue of innocence in distress. We have been moved by the depiction of great human stories told with sincerity and high dramatic art. The movies are our heritage. At their best they can be a vehicle for the finest human thoughts and aspirations. But that heritage is at risk. You don't want to believe it, but it is so. The men who try to appropriate it for themselves do not care a fig for noble thoughts or immortal aspirations. They serve the golden calf, not the divine commandments handed down on Sinai. They serve it as only those can do who are so steeped in degeneracy that their eyes are blinded to all that is fine and their ears deaf to all that cries out for pity and succor. The spawn of cramped and foreign cities, where human life is worth no more than the handful of coins for which it is routinely exchanged, they are not the ones who will lift up their eyes to the far hills or heed the inner voice that commands decorum and reverence. If they offer you, in your place of relaxation, images of the harlot and the gangster, the narcotic addict and the adulteress and the cheap and whiskey-addled newspaperman who would sell his soul for a headline story—if they show you women stripped naked for the perverted enjoyment of slavering strangers, and men reduced to the lowest levels of brutal aggression and feckless self-indulgence—it is because they are not capable of imagining any higher human destiny. They want to drag you down into the miasma where they themselves dwell. In vain would you turn to them for charity, or forbearance, or respect for the tender near-angelic grace of the as yet unformed child, or, indeed, respect for anything but the demands of a rapacious greed, a devouring hunger for the very marrow of the human spirit. Shall we allow this? Shall we let them buy us for a mess of celluloid pottage, a handful of false flickering dreams? Surely we are made of better stuff than to let what is most precious fall into the hands of street peddlers and heartless traffickers. We are called upon to build a culture—to build a world—that embodies the best that we are and may become. We are called—and you in particular, my young friends, as is ever the burden and challenge of youth, are called—to be warriors. Fight the filthy films. Let us have clean art in a clean America. Join the legion. Join the boycott.

The production head sent out a memo:

There's been a lot of talk about the recent changes in the industry because of the enforcement of the Production Code. I don't want to discuss anybody's objections to what the Code spells out because frankly that train has left the station. What I want to talk about is what's wrong with our pictures and the fact that we may now have a golden opportunity to make them better. Our pictures haven't been delivering because they aren't giving the public what it wants, the whole public, not just a specialty crowd. Our pictures are threadbare. Ho-hum. Flat as last night's beer. Walk into a movie theater and what do you see? A worn-out hooker watching the rain fall out the window of a broken-down hotel. A young guy whining about how he can't find a job. Or maybe a couple of stuffed shirt butler types standing around like statues in what was supposed to be Broadway's bright new hit except they forgot to tell the audience. People don't want to go the movies to see the same stuff they could see looking out the window. And they don't want to see actors who look like they just got defrosted and who speak English like they've got a broom up their rear end. Audiences want to be lifted out of themselves. They want to be surprised. They want to feel good about things. And we can make that happen. We have the talent and the skills and the equipment but we haven't been getting one-tenth of the juice we could out of them. Our writers come up with some good lines, they ought to for what we pay them, but when you see the picture the lines are thrown away. Half the audience doesn't get it, doesn't even hear it. Did anybody care? Did the writers care? Did the director care? We make them feel dumb when we ought to be making them feel like they're on top of the world. We confuse them with words and names they've never heard in their lives, and people who talk too fast, or foreign accents where they can hardly make out a word. We give them risqué witticisms and they're embarrassed because they don't understand the point, and then resentful because they figure we did it on purpose. From here on in we've got to set up situations and scenes and characters so that every line hits home. Everybody laughs or cries at the same time. Anybody that doesn't feel like laughing or crying, they're free to react any way they please, but I assure you they will be in a minority and we don't make pictures for minorities. Everybody in the audience should know what he's feeling, know who he's rooting for. I don't want anybody sitting in a movie house wondering what the hell is going on, who's supposed to be the hero, what kind of a picture is this, is this supposed to be a comedy or a tragedy or some kind of informational program. Some people may grouse about the new restrictions on sex stories, salty language, and the like, but we can bring in customers who stayed away because of the sensational stuff. It may come as news to you, but for most of the ticket-buying public New York isn't the center of the world, it's just a temporary aberration. And they never heard of George Bernard Shaw or Carl Jung either. Don't worry about the old customers, they're not going anywhere. They like movies too, and they'll stick around because there's nowhere else to go. From now on every picture we make is for everybody, everywhere. One film, one plotline, one audience. Save the sex stories and the salty language for your private amusement, I know that won't be a problem for any of you—and while you're at it save the German camera angles and the James Joyce literary references and the allegorical dream sequences—and let's all get back into the business of making great and profitable motion pictures.


Geoffrey O’Brien

Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Dream Time: Chapters from the Sixties (1988), The Phantom Empire (1993), The Browser's Ecstasy (2000), Sonata for Jukebox (2004), The Fall of the House of Walworth (2010), and Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002-2012 (2013). He has published eight collections of poetry, most recently The Blue Hill (2018). He lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

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