Leading Man

Jon Lewis explores the art and business of American film
Jon Lewis

Photo by Frank Miller

Moreland Hall faces the picturesque Memorial Union in the heart of a historic college campus straight out of central casting. Rounding a corner on the way to film professor Jon Lewis’ modest office, you’d encounter a poster that makes it clear he thinks in Technicolor and speaks in terms just as vivid: “REAL SEX: The Aesthetics and Economics of Art-house Porn.”

Ahem. Well, then. Not your usual promotional piece for an academic presentation, but then Lewis is not your usual academic.

One of America’s foremost authorities on censorship and regulation, film history and movie industry institutions ranging from Francis Ford Coppola to the Motion Picture Association of America, Lewis would be at home at UCLA, NYU or any number of other campuses known for their connections to Hollywood.

That he has had such a recognized impact from his modest home base at Oregon State University, which has no film program, is both a tribute to the importance of his work — he’s written seven influential books and has two more in process — and to his ability to make the most of his circumstances.

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Straight Talk

“There is a kind of common-sense savvy in Jon’s work about the business, political and cultural aspects of the art form — he is really quick minded — but common sense in that he’s not approaching it as a economist or cultural critic,” says Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy, who has worked with Lewis on screenings and film discussions in Portland. Lewis’ writing portrays wisdom and insight, but readers can get it, adds Levy, while they’re “eating their eggs at a diner, too.”

A Baby Boomer who grew up on Long Island, New York, Lewis tried his hand at fiction writing at Hobart College before getting inspired at a campus showing of Out of the Past, a film noir with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.

Suddenly, everything came into focus. “I got it. And I knew this art form was something special,” he says.

It was the renaissance of film as art, and when Lewis published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, he became a film student with a reputation. During his doctoral program at UCLA, he worked part-time for a marketing company allied with Columbia Pictures and read scripts for an independent producer, “providing coverage,” as industry insiders say. This meant he would write a sort of CliffsNotes version so that the producer could give the appearance of being intimately familiar with the piece.

Hardcore Ratings

While researching an essay on “the new Disney” media empire, Lewis’ interest in the movies changed, as he began to see film as equal parts art and business. It’s a perspective that has informed his career deeply, manifesting in work such as the bookHollywood v. Hard-Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry, which became the basis for the 2006 documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated. Lewis appears significantly in the film, alongside directors John Waters and Kevin Smith and the chair of the MPAA rating board.

Filmmaker Kirby Dick (Outrage and Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) sought out Lewis after reading Hollywood v. Hard-Core. Unfettered by any need to stay on the right side of studio chiefs or other industry players, Lewis provides some of the most insightful commentary in the film, which has proven to be a cult favorite in Hollywood. “The common assumption is that censorship in films is all about morality,” he says. “The real story” — one that he has documented through archival research in libraries and Hollywood — “is that it’s about the market. It’s about making money.

“I was among the first film historians to insist on following the money. Most film history is about major films and directors, but it’s much more complicated than that. The real story is behind the scenes,” says Lewis.

With support from OSU’s Center for the Humanities, he scoured media archives and delved into records at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills for evidence of how ratings affected major studios and independent producers. He documented the relationship between industry regulations and market forces. “For a film to succeed, it has to play everywhere,” says Lewis.

One source that remained unavailable to him was the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board. The board’s deliberations are closed. Even the names of its members are kept secret.

“The MPAA is a PR outfit,” Lewis said in a 2006 interview around the film’s release. “It was started as a way to make nice with Washington, D.C. The current rating system was devised as a business proposition,” one that enables major studios to remain in control of theater offerings nationwide.

Accolades

As one might expect, Lewis’ subject matter is one that students gravitate toward, but it’s Lewis the teacher who captivates undergraduates and graduate students alike. Leading courses such as “The New American Cinema” and “History of the Documentary,” Lewis is an engaging classroom performer — equal parts Woody Allen and Ken Burns, delivering historical facts, insightful context and illustrative anecdotes with a good humor that prompts even the shyest 20-something to engage in the conversation.

The Oregonian’s Levy has known many former Lewis students. “Everyone I’ve ever talked to loves him, particularly on a campus where engineering and the sciences often get the lion’s share of attention,” says Levy. “Humanities students in particular are just overjoyed to find a guy like Jon. That’s why you go to college, to be engaged by that kind of a professor.”

In 2007, “that kind of a professor” published his most ambitious project yet through W.W. Norton, American Film: A History. The sprawling, 575-page work includes more than 250 images and traces the evolution of U.S. film through the work of early pioneers like Edwin S. Porter to current filmmaking, or “The End of Cinema As We Know It,” as he titled the book’s final chapter.

But don’t be fooled by that chapter title. Lewis is a believer in the film business. Try to engage him in the usual chatter about how lousy American movie making is these days, and Lewis responds with an endorsement of the quality he sees in such current pictures as Sugar, the compelling story of a Dominican baseball player recruited to play in the U.S. minor leagues, and Girlfriend Experience, director Steven Soderbergh’s provocative portrait of five days in the life of a high-priced Manhattan prostitute.

Two Thumbs Up

Paul Turner, owner of Darkside Cinema, Corvallis’ art house theater, has known Lewis for some 15 years, since the days when he, Lewis and Lewis’ two sons would sit in the projectionist room of Turner’s former theater and watch films together. “One of the things they say about Roger Ebert is that he’s been a champion of independent film, and that will be his legacy. Jon’s legacy will be in championing films that are even more esoteric and leading people to them,” said Turner, adding, “He has a heart the size of a small planet.”

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Independent films (see sidebar) interest Lewis, not only because they break, often interestingly, from the Hollywood formula; they illustrate the structure of the business. “The studios are doing what they always do, working to limit output, focusing on fewer, bigger projects,” he says. “But boutique film companies, which by the way are usually owned by big studios, are doing well and producing interesting movies.”

In 2010, the British Film Institute will publish Lewis’ study of Coppola’s 1972 magnum opus, The Godfather.

This and other projects are indicative of Lewis’ belief in the enduring power of films well-made and the enduring worth of film as a means of communication that deserves to be placed in appropriate context, analyzed, understood. And while film has long since escaped from the theaters that once were its only home, showing up today in such once unimagined places as iPods and mobile phones, Lewis has a soft spot in his heart for the movie-going experience.

“There’s a different dynamic of watching it alone or in a theater,” he smiles. “I hope that never goes away. It’s an American pastime.”
Online: a digital version of Jon Lewis’ 2002 celebrated book, Hollywood v. Hard Core, is available at books.google.com

To support the humanities at OSU, contact the Oregon State University Foundation.

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