Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Propaganda Review: "Pages of Death" (1962)

It's a long-lost anti-porn screed featuring a former Heisman Trophy winner and two dudes doing their best Joe Friday and Bill Gannon impersonations. It's not quite Reefer Madness, but it's still some pretty out there stuff. 

By: Jimbo X

Generally, I tend to feel that we, as a collective, simply don't appreciate the vast access to information the Internet has given us. 

Think about the World Wide Web today, from the perspective of someone living in 1994. Let's say you want to watch a movie. Any movie, in the whole goddamn world. Well, all you have to do is click open your browser and in less than a minute (depending on how fast you can type), you're instantly streaming it. If it's not on Netflix or Amazon Prime, it's probably on YouTube or Dailymotion. And if that doesn't work, you can always hit up the torrents, where not only can you find the obscurest of the obscure media, but sometimes, mainstream, first-run Hollywood productions before they even hit theaters ... for free. 

As for Mr. or Mrs. 1994? Unless that movie is at the local video store, he or she is S.O.L. Missed that brand new episode of The Simpsons last week? Well, too bad, motherfucker, because unless you taped that sumbitch on a VCR, you won't be able to see it again until it's re-aired six months later. Want to watch something REALLY old, like a football game from five years ago? Just forget it, man, just forget it.

In that, the Internet today is nothing less than a miraculous techno-heaven. The very same SNES and Genesis games people paid $80 for 25 years ago can now be played without owing anybody a penny on your phone. Want to hear a song - ANY SONG - from 30 years ago? You probably only need to click your mouse three times, and there it is. Sites like The Internet Archive store literally MILLIONS of pieces of media - from classical literature by Booker T. Washington to the SNK arcade game Beast Busters - and you can access it anywhere, anytime, sans ANY kind of financial cost. 

With so much freedom of information - I still can't get over the fact that I can watch fucking International Guerrillas anytime I see fit - perhaps it is only fitting that today's kids foster a fascination with the unobtainable. Indeed, there are entire wikis dedicated to so-called "lost media," which is basically all the old movies, video games, TV recordings and music that AREN'T available on the Internet, for whatever reason. Whether something old and forgotten is worth experiencing is irrelevant - in a world where everything is so accessible, that which isn't linkable suddenly becomes highly coveted. 

Which brings us to Pages of Death, a 1962 anti-porn propaganda flick that, in all sincerity, should have been LONG forgotten about decades ago. 

At just 27 minutes in length, the film is hardly anything more than an extended commercial for the Citizens for Decent Literature, a Catholic anti-smut group formed by Charles Keating - yes, the very same Charles Keating of the 1989 Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal that only cost U.S. taxpayers a good $3 billion and triggered a mini-recession

Conceptually, the film is very much in line with stuff like Reefer Madness, only with the hysterical anti-weed agenda replaced by a hysterical anti-porn agenda. Long considered lost to the ravages of time, a bunch of archivists in Oregon recently unearthed a fairly in-tact version of the flick, and yes, it is every bit as over-the-top and absurd as you'd hope for. 

Because without that "city dump" sign, I would have had
no idea what that garbage-strewn wasteland was
supposed to be. 
Our narrator is Tom Harmon. Never heard of him? He played college and pro football back in the day (he even won the Heisman Trophy in 1940) but he's probably best known for being the father of actor Mark Harmon. You know, that one guy from NCIS? Not ringing a bell? Ok, how about the guy who played Ted Bundy in that old TV movie The Deliberate Stranger? Still got nothing? All right, he was the teacher in Summer School - yes, that old '80s flick with the two guys who really love Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that black dude who was in the bathroom for three months who still got an A on his final exam. NOW you know who I'm talking about. 

Anyway, Tom is sitting at a desk, showing us a photograph of 11-year-old Karen Fleming. He lets us know that her parents THOUGHT they could keep her safe ... then, she turned 12. 

So, we jump into your stereotypical, post-WWII, pre-Vietnam happy suburban home. Mom is worried Karen isn't home for dinner, but dad, in typical dad fashion, assuages her by saying she's probably hanging out with her school chums or something. 

This leads to a montage of mom and dad making phone calls, as they get more and more distressed. Enter a pair of investigators wearing matching brown jackets, who ask the parents all the usual missing person questions. Mom starts freaking out and the investigators ask for a photograph.

The investigators then pay a visit to Mr. Baker, the proprietor of a drug store who squints a lot and makes a lot of off-handed jokes - so, essentially, he's a prototype for the bicycle shop owner from THAT episode of Diff'rent Strokes. He tells the police detectives the only other kid who was in the store earlier besides Karen was Paul Halliday, who just so happens to be the son of George Halliday, "a big wheel on the city council." In passing, Baker scoffs at the investigators for rallying behind a failed anti-"obscene" literature ordinance. 

As expected, the investigators then visit the Halliday household. Cue this J. Edgar Hoover-tastic quip from one of the detectives: "We asked for a city ordinance to help clean up some of the smut that Baker and those other guys are peddling to the kids, but according to Halliday, we attacked the free enterprise system, we tried to legislate morals, interfere with business and destroy the freedom of the press." And as a result, he continues, "any kid with a quarter and a four cent stamp can order girlie mags in the mail."

Daddy Halliday lights up a smoke and tells the detectives they ought to be out catching criminals instead of trying to turn the city into "A nine o' clock town." Enter Paul, your stereotypical pre-desegregation, squeaky-clean-looking all-American honky teenager. Cops shows him Karen's picture and he tells them he doesn't know who she is. 

The investigators return to the Fleming residence. They tell Karen's parents they really can't do shit at this point. Then the phone rings. The colonel is on the other end of the line, and he informs the investigators that Karen's body has been found in the city dump. And yes, the detectives do indeed travel to the dump themselves to make sure she's dead, and yeah, she's dead as a doornail, all right. 

The investigators visit one of Karen's former teachers. She reads one of Karen's old papers, talking about how her communion was the happiest day of her life and how she was really looking forward to growing up and becoming a teacher and that her home life is great and that she really likes meatloaf and kittens. The teacher says she hopes the investigators find her soon - to which one of the investigators replies "we already have." Unfortunately, it wasn't followed up by a ominous "DUN DUN DUN" sound effect. 

So we return to the Hallidays. Mrs. Halliday says she hopes the cops find the man ... no, THE BEAST ... that killed that poor girl. The investigators then barge into Paul's room, which is adorned with wooden panels, pendants, a globe with a hat on it and, most interestingly, a pair of tar and gravel-matted shoes. His mom remarks that his room has never been this messy before and that for some strange reason, he has just lost any interest whatsoever in doing homework.

The investigators say they need to take a closer look, and apparently, in 1962 you didn't need a warrant to do that. They pop open his drawer, and what do you know, the dude has a treasure trove of porn in there, including publications with such lurid monikers as Scorching Sex Stories, Shows All Tells All, Home of the Stripper and Night of Horrors ... although that last one may actually be called Night of Whores, these actors really aren't the best at enunciating. The detectives continue to root around in Paul's private belongings, uncovering additional film strips and slide. "This is strictly hardcore stuff," one of the investigators remarks. 

In walks daddy Halliday. The cops show the parents all of Paul's spanking off material. Mom and dad remain in denial. "This is the kind of stuff you'd find in skid row," quips the father, because fuck poor people. One of the cops corrects him: "nope, now it's something you can buy ANYWHERE."

I can only imagine the rest of the contraband consisted
primarily of assorted lotions and bathroom tissues
of fluctuating ply and absorbency. 
The cops start grilling Paul. They want to take a look at his car. Then they show him the dirt and gravel caked shoes. At that point, he breaks down and confesses to murdering the young girl. He keeps saying he "didn't mean to," and he doesn't know why. "I think we do, Paul," shouts one of the cops, who then angrily throws down one of smut rags. 

Back to Baker's shop we go. The owners says he is glad Paul was caught, adding you really have to keep an eye on those quiet kids. One of the detectives tells Baker the stuff he is merchandising to kids is too strong for hardened criminals, and all that shit is perverting an entire generation of American youths by convincing them love and lust are the same thing (which, uh, might actually be the film strip's first quasi-valid point.)

"You got your murderer," Baker tells the cops. "Yeah, one of them," the cops riposte. Cue a close-up on another kid with a buzz cut, chewing gum and reading a mag that may or may not prominently feature titties. 

We go back to Harmon, who says THAT kid very well could be the next sex crime murderer in your neighborhood. He says that although Karen is fictitious, the movie is based on a real murder committed by a sex-crazed teenager who had his brain fried by too much porn. And that letter the teacher read earlier? That's an actual composition read by the real-life victim. (Of course, there is no way to prove any of that to be factual, but let's just go ahead and presume it is a bunch of bullshit due to a lack of evidence.) The same tragedy can befall YOUR CHILDREN, he states, citing a statistical rise in sex crimes in tandem with smut mag sales (more on this assertion in just a bit.) Harmon informs us that J. Edgar Hoover - notorious racist, fascist and probable transvestite - recently said that porn is making madmen faster than they can build jails. 

Anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of all "obscene" literature ends u with kids, Harmon continues. However, he said the $1 billion a year racket can easily be thwarted by city ordinances, and if you want to stop the masturbatory peril in your community, all you have to do is write a letter to Citizens for Decent Literature, and they'll tell you exactly what you need to do. 

Making things even more hilarious, I'm pretty sure the address today is now home to a medical marijuana dispensary

More of an infomercial than a film, it's pretty easy to see why Pages of Death was so easily forgotten. I'm not quite sure what the print run of the movie was back in 1962, but I can't imagine too many copies of the movie ever getting out there. Indeed, the film more or less disappeared from the face of the Earth for a half century, before being "rediscovered" by the Oregon Historical Society in Jan. '16

As for the organization behind the film, Citizens for Decent Literature, they actually trucked along all the way up until the early 2000s under the name Citizens for Decency Through Law, which according to the Wikipedia, grew to 300 chapters and more than 100,000 members nationwide at its zenith

As something of a precursor to the Moral Majority, the CDL and their ilk were instrumental in goading the Supreme Court of the United States to establish a new definition of what constitutes "obscenity" in the landmark 1973 case Miller vs. California, which revolved around an unfortunate mail order smut peddler who got arrested after sending brochures to a restaurant in Newport Beach that, well, wasn't too keen on all that nudity. 

Interestingly enough, the three-pronged "Miller Test" remains the default definition of what "obscene" material is in the U.S. to this day, despite being an incredibly vague standard prone to a vast amount of subjective interpretation. Just how vague, you ask? Well, to qualify as obscene, something has to nail all of the following criteria: "an average person, applying contemporary community standards" finds the work is designed to provoke sexual excitement, the work itself depicts "sexual conduct or excretory functions" in a "patently offensive way," and taken as a whole, the work is sans any sort of "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." So yeah, it's hardly any better than Potter Stewart's infamous definition of obscenity in 1964's Jacobellis v. Ohio - "I know it when I see it." 

Needless to say, if the Dragnet wannabes from Pages of Death were aghast at all of that ink and paper debauchery in JFK's day, they'd probably blow a gasket after taking one peep at the virtually endless array of easily accessible porn all over the Interwebs. Alas, there's still plenty of debate raging about whether porn viewership makes people more violent and prone to rape, with most of today's hardcore anti-porn crusaders either the last vestiges of the Jerry Falwell/Focus on the Family mega-prude set or, ironically, their political opposites over in the radical feminist contingent

Alas, despite a whole bunch of conjecturin' on their parts, a 2009 literature review revealed that not only was there no correlation between watchin' smut and sex crimes, there actually appears to be an inverse relationship, with high rates of porn consumption syncing up with a lower likelihood of engaging in sexual assault. In fact, since the arrival of the Internet  and with it, that bottomless buffet of free cyber porn, the forcible rape rate has dropped by nearly half in the U.S., declining from a high of 42 rapes per 100,000 people in 1992 to just 26 per 100,000 in 2014. In short, pretty much everything the masterminds behind Pages of Death railed against appears to indeed be the very things that wound up preventing all of the nefarious sexual shenanigans they said would come about if jackin' off material was open and accessible to all. 

Granted, it is pretty easy to look back at the hysterics of the flick and laugh, but behind the apoplectic ranting and raving the film nonetheless represents a still-palpable threat to our First Amendment civil liberties. Remember, folks, there were people GOING TO JAIL and having their lives ruined for publishing nude photos at the time of Pages of Death, and even today, manufacturers of legit, non-CP works like Rob Zicari and Ira Isaacs are still being prosecuted for FEDERAL CRIMES. 

Even staunch free expression proponents tend to shy away from defending pornography, that unabashed vortex of sexism and misogyny and homophobia and machismo and stupidity that it is. Alas, if there right to produce and make money off scat videos and fake-rape simulations is squelched, we all lose in the grander scheme of things

Remember that line earlier where the detective criticized the city councilman for saying that anti-porn ordinances are attempts to "legislate morality?" Well, that's very much going on today, with free speech haters on the right and the left going after everything they don't like (which, strangely, almost always seems to be things that represent counterpoints to their own unquestioned ideology) in the name of family values or political correctness

Citizens for Decent Literature didn't give a shit about free expression, and neither do all those neo-conservative evangelical dingbats and gender-supremacist, man-hating hyper feminists. It's all about getting as much control as they can, to amass as much power behind their own rigid totalitarian dogma so they can force it down the throats of everybody else. 

And porn - that disgraceful, disgusting, degenerate anti-art form -  is a superb place to begin legislating their own group norms and ideals for everybody. After all, who in their right mind is ever going to come out and publicly defend Gang Bang Horse "Pony Sex Game" or 1001 Ways to Eat My Jizz?

As goofy and over-the-top Pages of Death is, it's fascistic, sexuality-shaming mentality still runs rampant today. And sadly, much as we did back in the 1960s, we're totally OK sacrificing a slice of our civil liberties - hinging, no less, on an abstract definition of what's "offensive" - in order to NOT appear sleazy or wrongheaded in front of tyrannical special interests groups. 

And in that, this long-forgotten piece of pre-Hippie agitprop remains a reason for all of us - no matter our political leanings - to be concerned. 

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