Fascism Past and Present: Anthony Marra on What the Censorship of 1940s Hollywood and Italy Can Teach Us
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Fiction writer Anthony Marra joins Fiction/Non/Fiction hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss how his new historical novel, Mercury Pictures Presents, echoes the right’s current embrace of authoritarianism in the U.S. and globally. By looking at censorship in 1940s Hollywood and the fascist regime of Italy during that same period, Marra teases out truths about conservatives’ current interest in controlling popular opinion.
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From the episode:
Anthony Marra: Mercury Pictures Presents is, shall we say, a long-awaited novel. It was during the run-up to the 2016 election when I first began to really see the parallels between so much of what these characters are struggling with and what many people in the U.S. in 2016 were in terms of trying to understand this rising threat.
Whitney Terrell: One of the ways that your book works, and I was very impressed by, is by resurrecting stories about life under actual fascism, particularly in Italy. It helped me imagine how such a regime might happen here in the United States. I was particularly interested in the character of Giuseppe Lagana, who’s a lawyer, and who gets caught up, sort of at odds with, Mussolini’s regime. Could you talk a little bit about him and how he gets into trouble?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. So, Giuseppe is the father of the novel’s central character, Maria Lagana, and he works as a defense attorney in Rome, primarily defending socialists and anarchists prosecuted by the state. And to me, he is this heartbreaking figure in that he continues to believe in the rule of law and the impartiality of the court and the nobility of defending the accused, even as Mussolini’s regime chips and chips and chips away at the underpinnings of the justice system, eventually instituting these tribunals that pass sentences without trials altogether.
And Giuseppe’s way of trying to quietly resist that is simply to document the lawlessness of these tribunals, which eventually leads to his own arrest. And he is sentenced to confino, which was a system of internal exile, in which opponents of the fascist regime were sent to isolated towns in southern Italy. My great-grandmother’s family is from Lipari, which is an island off the coast of Sicily. And this was one of the largest of these confino settlements. And so Giuseppe’s arc going from defense lawyer to defendant to a convict who can only escape confino with the help of an actual criminal, is representative to me of the gradual collapse of rule of law in Italy.
It’s one of those things where you can see sort of through Giuseppe, through his gradual realization that the world that he believed he was living in had slipped away much earlier than he had thought, and I always felt as I was working on that during the Trump years, just just seeing how much of things that I believed in about America turned out to be empty, and how many aspects of my own relationship to my country were built on this sort of false mythology—that was certainly something that Giuseppe’s character helped illuminate for me in my own personal life.
V.V Ganeshananthan: Giuseppe is also one of my favorite characters. I was reminded actually of conversations I’d had with lawyers who would tell me that they were documenting for precisely the reason that Giuseppe documents, which made it feel very alive to me. There’s a remarkable early scene where Giuseppe and Maria, who you spoke of, are attending a showing of the movie The Monster of Frankenstein in Rome, and the showing is broken up by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, who bust into the theater and declare the art decadent, and there’s this parallel action going on in the movie and their destruction, and they’re fascinated by the movie. It’s an amazing scene.
In LA after Maria has fled Italy, she and her boss Artie Feldman, battle U.S. censors who consider Artie’s films decadent and too critical of fascism. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the role of censorship coming from different actors in the novel.
AM: The forces of reactionary conservatism have obviously long embraced censorship as a way to mold society to their liking. And the great irony in all of it, of course, is that it’s the very people waving around pocket-sized Constitutions who are the first to ban books. In the period covered by this novel, all movies were censored by an organization called the Production Code Administration.
And a lot of this resulted in truly ridiculous forms of censorship as the production code strove to make movies gratuitously inoffensive. For decades, you couldn’t show a pregnant woman on screen because it might raise uncomfortable questions about where babies really come from. You couldn’t show a couple on the same bed unless both of their feet were planted on the ground. If you remember the movie Psycho, it was chiefly scandalous for the fact that it was the first movie in about 30 years to show a toilet bowl. In the bathroom scene, there’s a toilet bowl, and a toilet bowl had not been seen on screen since the early ’30s.
Of course, much more insidious than this priggish sense of morality was the production code’s prohibition on politics. If you only received your news in the 1930s from your local picture house, you would have thought that the American South was untouched by Jim Crow, and that Europe was untouched by fascism. By the late ’30s, filmmakers were beginning to push back against this censorship often by very convoluted means. For instance, there was a movie made in the late ’30s, about the Spanish Civil War.
But the only way that the filmmakers could get past the censors was to make it an absurdly unfaithful depiction of the conflict. So they actually brought experts in who had participated in the Spanish Civil War in order to make sure that the movie was meticulously inaccurate. They made sure that the uniforms were all wrong, that the settings were incorrect. And so the only way to make a movie about a true and contentious subject was to turn it into pure fantasy.
In September 1941, there were enough of these anti-fascist movies that isolationists in the U.S. Senate began to hold hearings to investigate so-called Hollywood war propaganda. The heads of the major studios all testified there, and they really acquitted themselves brilliantly. They more or less used the opportunity to reveal the hypocrisy behind the investigations themselves. And three months later, following Pearl Harbor, those filmmakers and executives were fully vindicated.
VVG: One of the ways the different kinds of censorship intersect across borders here is in the figure of Maria, who corresponds with her father, who is confined in the manner that you described earlier. They’re corresponding and his letters are censored, and then she uses her knowledge of how things are censored or how to get things past censors in the film industry, which I thought was so interesting. There are characters who are in really quiet ways censoring themselves or by strategizing about censorship or who, behaving in response to censorship, are altering what they might say in ways that they almost don’t recognize.
AM: I feel like we have a certain number of themes that we keep returning to, a certain number of ideas that kind of animate our work. And for whatever reason, censorship is one that I’ve returned to in several of my books. Do you all find that in your own work that you’re kind of almost like reshuffling the same deck of cards in each new project?
WT: Yeah, I have themes that I go back to you all the time. Sure, absolutely. I think that’s true for everyone. I wanted to point out, back to the lawyer thing, when Trump was appointing so many judges, that’s when… the way that the legal system in Italy changed in the ’30s, to cease to be really a legal system and be like an authoritarian legal system that doesn’t apply rule of law any more… I started realizing, Oh, that was kind of the idea. That’s why it was so important to him to get judges. If you can end the way the court system works, you get around that, then you start moving toward authoritarianism.
Similarly, when you start controlling information and you start leaning on calling things decadent, you can use “decadence,” like the kiss in the recent Buzz Lightyear movie, or whatever it is you want to call decadent, to suppress political content that you don’t like. And that’s what you’re also talking about here is that the real reason that censorship was going on in the ’30s and ’40s, and in your novel, the head censor is a Catholic, surely not an accident, and he is really concerned about not hearing a lot of criticism for fascism. So he uses sex as an excuse to basically censor that political side. And I feel like that’s exactly what’s happening today.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. Criticisms toward changes in culture are camouflage for these very specific and intense political ideologies and agendas. I’m curious what you all think about the changes in censorship over time, because one of the things that I was thinking about over the last several months, just reading the news and seeing, talking about, book bannings and all of that is just how much less effective censorship is today.
I’m not sure if it’s a result of technology, just giving us so much access to information that if your local library bans a particular book, there are just so many more venues for you to find it in. Maybe it’s also that in the present day, we’ve just become hopefully somewhat more educated about the intentions and motivations behind the censorship… But I could be talking complete bullshit. So I’d love to hear your thoughts, Sugi.
VVG: I don’t think you’re talking complete bullshit, but I guess I wonder who are the “we” who know how censorship operates? Because there’s obviously a whole set of people who are buying what’s being sold. There’s this list of books that have been banned in, I think, Utah, that’s going around, and it has a huge number of LGBTQIA-associated books, and then some of them are bestsellers.
And so there’s this increased surveillance, but then there’s also these increased ways to get around it and a population that maybe is better at getting around some of the things that we might expect to be censorship. But then it does seem like there’s this other set of people who are… who’s the audience for the propaganda? Someone’s putting out the propaganda movies and someone sits in the audience and cheers and feels good about watching it. There are parts of me that like a good montage and a movie with a rousing Hans Zimmer score; I can’t pretend that that part of me is not there. How has censorship changed over time? I think that my wariness of the American government has certainly increased. I’m curious what you would say about this, Whitney.
WT: We did a couple episodes on book banning earlier on. And one of the things that came out is that when you’re in a conservative state or a state that’s run by conservatives like Florida, the teachers start getting really worried about what they can and cannot teach. So when you’re dealing with public school teachers, or even public university professors, professors are a little bit more protected than school teachers. But I do think that censorship and state rules on what you can and cannot teach really will start to affect what high school and middle school and elementary school teachers feel comfortable teaching. And that actually can change how the kids are educated. I think that’s why conservatives are concerned with that.
Frankenstein • Psycho • Lightyear • S5 Episode 13: Farah Jasmine Griffin: Censoring the American Canon • S5 Episode 12: Intimate Contact: Garth Greenwell on Book Bans and Writing About Sex • Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann • Billy Wilder • Three Days of the Condor • Jason Bourne franchise • Ban on 52 Books in Largest Utah School District is a Worrisome Escalation of Censorship – PEN America
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf.