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The Boston Phoenix Yesterday's Prudes

PBS gives us all that jazz

By Robert David Sullivan

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Movie theaters "offer a trip to hell for a nickel," warned a now-forgotten guardian of morality almost a century ago. That threat wouldn't have fazed Huckleberry Finn. In the early pages of Mark Twain's comic novel, a teacher tells our hero that he's on his way to Hades and Huck blandly responds that he doesn't much mind: at least it would be a change from his dull home town.

Racy movies and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with early jazz and Édouard Manet's painting Olympia, are examined in Culture Shock, a four-part documentary series airing over the next two Wednesdays on PBS. Each segment deals with a once-controversial form or piece of art, and it's no surprise that the series consistently comes down on the side of free speech. The token voices pleading for restraint -- a mother objecting to kids' having to read the word "nigger" even in the anti-racist Huckleberry Finn, a spokesman for Morality in Media pointing out that some damn fine movies were made in the days of the Production Code -- seem more pitiful than dangerous.

Culture Shock implicitly makes the point that resistance to the new is futile and that you should keep any objections to yourself if you don't want to make a cameo appearance as a jackass in a documentary about rap music 80 years from now. (William Bennett, ahead of his time, already has a touch of the jackass in his Culture Shock appearance.) But the references to the culture wars of the 1990s are fleeting, and the series is not likely to change anyone's mind on any current controversy. The "Hollywood Censored" episode, for example, includes several montages showing how cinematic sex and violence have evolved over the years. If you agree with Mr. Morality in Media, you'll be appalled by the escalation from Mae West's double entendres to Glenn Close's shedding her panties for a quickie in Fatal Attraction. Otherwise, you may see the two scenes as merely different expressions of the same idea.

That said, Culture Shock is fairly interesting as a history lesson. The segments, which come from different producers, have some striking elements in common. In each case, the opponents of innovative art claim to be acting "for the children." Best example: a maternity hospital that fights the opening of a music club next door because "jazz emotions would be implanted in the babies." At least in the three episodes set in America, the offending work of art ignites a fear of "foreign" races and ethnic groups. Both jazz and early '30s films were thought to encourage "race mixing," and the Production Code eventually adopted by Hollywood forbade racial slurs but also any hint of interracial romance. (As Culture Shock makes clear, we can thank the Roman Catholic Church for enforcement of the Code, and some Catholic leaders still seem pissed off that they somehow lost the power to inflict movies like Going My Way upon American audiences.)

Another common theme is that the upholders of decency always seem to suspect that they're the victims of some huge practical joke. They simply couldn't believe that a novel written in the vernacular (such as Huckleberry Finn) or a record of "jungle music" was being taken seriously by the intelligentsia. This point is clearest in "The Shock of the Nude: Manet's Olympia" -- the strongest of the four segments, at least for me, because it featured the least familiar topic. (It also has the weirdest choice for a narrator: 3rd Rock from the Sun's John Lithgow, who keeps saying "nyude" as if telling a smutty joke. Only John Cleese could have been more disconcerting.) The problem with Manet's painting was not that it depicted a nude woman but that it depicted a "brazen nude" -- a plain-looking prostitute, at that -- who looks straight out at the viewer. Museum patrons accustomed to more idealized depictions of the human form couldn't figure out whether Olympia was supposed to be a parody or perhaps some kind of challenge to middle-class sensibilities. Confusion was an effective fuel for outrage.

"The Shock of the Nude" also contains one of the series's best quotes. "It's hard to revive the shock," an art historian says with some regret. "There's a great loss to accepting something as a masterpiece. It rests in masterpiece heaven, with all the other dead things." Indeed, I can imagine living in another era and buying into all the racist and sexist attitudes that appall me today, but I find it impossible to imagine turning off a Billie Holiday record. Just about all of us like to think that we would have responded to the campaign against the "Devil's music" by signing up for a trip to Hell.


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