A Pseudo-Orwellian Examination of the 1930 Film Code Principles

Earlier in the semester, Professor McCoy introduced to us the “Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.” After recently watching the 1950 film Harvey, I was reminded of the film-code’s existence, and its heavy-handed influence on motion pictures at the time. This inspired me to reinvestigate the language of the document, so as to identify any incongruencies with diction, syntax, meaning, and so on. Moreover, as I scoured the text for such ironies, I discovered that large segments of the code are blatantly ambiguous. As George Orwell communicated in his 1949 classic 1984, authoritative bodies will often use intentionally confusing language to deceive their readers into believing they are viewing a document of substance. In reality, the documents are riddled with nonsense, and the “Motion Picture Code of 1930,” is no different than the Newspeak Dictionary presented in Orwell’s dystopian Oceania. The connections between vagueness in official documents, and public complacency regarding those documents that Orwell conveyed in his novel, are applicable to the film codes studied in class. The purpose of this post is to highlight the absurdities of the sub-section “Principles Underlying the Code,” with a relative Orwellian lens, so as to maybe inspire closer examination of similar documents in the future. 

The ridiculousness begins with a contradiction between the first principle and fourth principle of this section. They read in order, “Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which as been placed in them by the people of the world, and they recognize the responsibility to the public because of this trust.” And, “Motion pictures are an important form of art expression. Art enters intimately into the hearts of human beings. The art of motion pictures has the same object of other arts — the presentation of human thought, emotion and experience, in terms of an appeal to the soul through the senses.” The code claims that filmmakers have a “responsibility to the public,” but goes on to say that “The art of motion pictures has the same object of other arts — the presentation of human thought, emotion and experience.” The “responsibility to the public,” contradicts the “presentation of human thought, emotion and experience,” because it is inherently difficult to create a film that conjures substantial emotion without diverging from some sort of social standard. One needs to look no further than this year, with the blockbuster Joker, to witness the incompatibility of maintaining public diplomacy, and creating an impactful movie. Although it ravaged box offices, and was awarded numerous accolades, media outlets and certain spheres of the community were skeptical of its message, and its methods of portrayal. Good films (which of course are matters of perspective) cause controversy, and challenge the “public,” to rethink the “responsibilities,” they have placed on filmmakers, and other such groups or individuals; as did The Defiant Ones, as does Joker, and as will countless films to come. 

Principle number three also presents some laughable concepts. It reads as follows: “It is recognized that there is entertainment which tends to improve the race, and entertainment which tends to harm human beings, or lower their standards of life and living.” Let’s unpack this. Right off the bat, infecting the word “entertainment” with positive and negative connotations is alarmingly dystopian. The denotation of the word has jovial overtones, “The action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment,” but is ultimately an unbiased construct. A dog barks to frighten an opponent, but a dog also barks when they are playful. One would not say that a dog is barking positively or negatively, he is just barking. While it is true that the word “entertainment,” can have negative connotations as observed with the line: “Are you not entertained,” from the 2000 film Gladiator (where the protagonist is expressing sarcasm for the crowd’s love of brutality.) Contrastingly, in the film codes “entertainment,” refers to the literal definition, not its implications. How can entertainment, an abstract concept gifted a word to facilitate understanding, be either good or bad? The circumstances surrounding entertainment can be less-than-desirable, as with the quote from Gladiator, or via Buffalo Bill’s apparent sexual arousal when he captures his victims in Silence of the Lambs, but entertainment itself is neither positive or negative.

Onward to principle five, the last principle, and perhaps the most absurd, and unenlightened of them all. It reads: “No motion picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience must never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin. Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” Wow. Is that an attempt at trying to promote citizenship throughout the country, or indoctrination to follow the government’s every whim without question? Considering that the 1930’s saw a rising communist threat develop in Europe, the fabrics of the “Red Scare” were sewn during this time, and Principle Five is undoubtedly a subtle statement of intent from the United States government to practice the latter. It must be acknowledged however, that at the time of publication, psychology was not as advanced as it is today. It was still believed that disturbing media, would yield disturbed people. In fact this myth as somehow persisted despite numerous scientific studies that actually prove the opposite. Increased exposure to media of all characteristics provokes a relative “enlightenment.” If one never plunges into the deep end of a pool, how can they possibly learn to swim? If one lingers where their toes can still graze the cement below them, are they swimming, or drifting? With that question aside, the depiction of sympathy as something tangible to be “thrown,” is a majorly misguided mindset. Sympathy is not tossed back and forth like a ball in a game of catch, rather it is hammered deep within the forge of one’s supramarginal gyrus (yes I had to look that up.) Sympathy is a product of thought and reason, and by simplifying thought and reason to something that can be tossed around like an inanimate object is a “sin,” itself. Without films such as The Defiant Ones or Joker that vocalize the sentiments of the marginalized (black people, criminals, and the mentally-ill,) it is impossible to have a dialogue regarding relevant recurring social issues. This is a notion that Orwell warned of in his works such as the aforementioned 1984, and in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” As one simplifies language either physically (such as with the expulsion of the word “retarted,” which could constitute its own post) or stylistically as demonstrated above, one sacrificies meaning. 

The “Five Principles Underlying the Film Code,” draws many parallels with the tyrannical party slogan of the Oceanic government in 1984: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Although considerably less obvious, the film code’s principles are essentially communicating the same message. Barring the first juxtaposition, the codes restrict freedom through guilt, and promote ignorance through censorship. A director or producer is unable to create the work they envisioned because they have a “responsibility to the public” to maintain societal conventions. Moreover, they are confined to the utopian delusion of only observing light when darkness exists in equal measure: “sympathy of the audience must never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin.” For the United States government at the time, and probably to some degree still, a movie about the sun surely scored better than a movie about the moon. In conclusion the “Principles Underlying the Film Code,” not only represent the power of language to dictate what is, and what is not; but conversely to demonstrate how diction and syntax despite their innate ability to define, can be just as murky as the lake they are naming. 

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