Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why I Love Censorship

When I started writing about films, it was usually in magazines and books devoted to exploitation cinema, that idolised Argento, Lucio Fulci and Jesus Franco. We were unbelievably pretentious in our desire to cloak prurience in the mantle of serious artistic connoisseurship, and some pretty bold claims were made, even for Franco.
Whether we did any harm or not, I don't know. I doubt it: we preached to the choir. But we were wrong.
Censorship enraged us: article upon article savaged James Ferman (the then head of the BBFC) and bemoaned the idiocy of our not being allowed to watch anything we wanted with the full blessing of the law. Some of us wrote faux-learned treatises on pornography, I specialised in horror, but our message was the same: Censorship is an insult to adult sensibilities and the enemy of art.
The joys of exploitation cinema are hard to describe but potent indeed, and you either get it or you don't. If you do, Lugosi's heartfelt delivery of Ed Wood's meaningless dialogue in Bride of the Monster or the spectacle of Mickey Hargitay running rampant in The Bloody Pit of Horror stay with you forever; they are part of a vital, dynamic cinematic tradition that makes a virtue of its deficiencies and makes up for in sheer eccentric creativity what it lacks in genuine artistry. Men like Wood, or Herschell Gordon Lewis, or even Lucio Fulci are artists of a sort, certainly they are passionate about their work in a way that the average Hollywood hack never was. But on the whole, what really counts in movies is what Halliwell had always said counted: solid, careful professionalism, infused with the characteristic touches of a distinctive presiding imagination.
Which basically means Hollywood in the twenties and thirties.
This instantly calls into question the anti-censorship position I had adopted and retained so blithely throughout my film writing apprenticeship. After all, how do we square the notion that censorship is opposed to artistic excellence with the fact that the greatest films of all time were made under the most strictly censored conditions in film history? Would they have been even better without it? If so: why? How?
The conclusion I am forced to accept is that not only is it a myth to say that censorship stunts creativity, it actually inspires it. And the need to imply rather than state or show outright those aspects of the narrative that are not allowed free expression is the more artistic option.
Yet for most film writers, nothing spells fanatic more surely than nostalgia for the Hays Code. You can bemoan the decline of cinematic standards in a restrained, slightly ironic way and just about get away with it. But say a good word about the Code and it's like saying that Joe McCarthy was a nice guy or that they should bring back national service. People will actually throw things at you.
Now, as it happens, my favourite films are the ones made in the early thirties just before the Code was enforced, and I'd have been happier if their standards were the ones that had been codified and enforced, but all the same, the Hays Code is pretty rocking. I'm a fan.
The trouble begins when you start trying to get people to admit that the Hays Code had the kinds of beneficial effects it so obviously did. Most people can go so far as to admit a fundamental difference, at least in the kinds of merit displayed, between older and newer forms of cinema, music and even television, even if it is only to concede that you can get a lot further on a lot less talent these days. Most can see a general decline in creative aspiration, narrative skill, care and style. Yet they will virulently defend the standards of the present, partly because to do otherwise would call their own into question, and partly because they come in a package with equally obvious improvements in special effects, gimmicks and gadgets, things people find it almost impossible to do without.
But surely the day has long since dawned, whether in spite or because of a critical dialogue on the subject that has persisted unchanged on either side since Straw Dogs, when it is no longer possible to deny that a brutalised culture marches hand in hand with a brutalised society?
True, the basic good-spiritedness of Hays-era culture can still be written off by a wily prosecution as an imposed fantasy acting in denial of an external reality far more similar to that of a modern film than any made at the time. It is a seductive argument, and we can all think of something about the thirties or forties that seem to bear it out.
But I think a) that would still make it a good thing anyway, b) we should not rush to underestimate the influence of cultural censorship in helping to contain the incidence of such events (a brutalised culture may or may not 'inspire' crime and violence, but it certainly provides their perpetrators with linguistic and stylistic - and therefore fetishistic - frames of reference), and c) even once accepted, it's not a point that adds up to much.
The mere fact that a film industry, which exists solely to make money, managed some thirty or more years of making censored films which drew adults from their homes and sent them back satisfied, is a far more important point. Golden age audiences didn't feel demeaned or patronised because they couldn't see Margaret Lockwood and James Mason going at it like knives on the back of a stallion. They didn't skulk from cinemas cursing the censor boards for treating them like children because the Marx Brothers didn't say fuck. They felt like adults, they felt the culture reflected them. So either they were complete berks, or cinema was faithful to their basic attitudes and outlook to a greater degree than we now find comfortable and are willing to accept.
We laugh as we say that people were once terrified by King Kong. But shouldn't the fact - couldn't it, at least - horrify, rather than amuse us? If children now chuckle at what adults once found terrifying, isn't that a regression rather than an advance? Can't we stop being so pleased with how sophisticated we are for one second and see how jaded we have become? As Peter Bogdanovich once reflected, the fact that Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise was made for the American mass-market should give us all pause. When were the movies, when was the world, that subtle?
Arguments against censorship add up to nothing; none of them are any good at all. Here they all are:
1. Censorship is immoral. If people want to watch violent or sexually explicit materials, they should have the right to do so.
Says who? Why should they? And why do they want to? What of the consequences?
2. But explicitness in culture has never been proved to be the cause of crime or disturbance in real life.
Define 'proved'? Or rather, tell me in advance what standard of proof you are prepared to accept. Not 'reasonable assumption', that's for sure. How much anecdotal evidence do you need before it starts to look like proof? Seriously, let me know.
3. Censorship is a slippery slope, and the banning of 'offensive' popular culture is the beginning of a process that ends with the suppression of free speech and the right to air inconvenient or anti-consensus views.
That's rich coming from you. Of course this is not true. Film censorship boards are entities entirely separate from any other form of authority; the idea that their jurisdiction may somehow be extended is ridiculous.
4. Censors are basically perverts getting off on what they don't allow us to see.
Your evidence being what? Come on, now: are we scientists or are we children? What was that about proof again?
5. Censors are basically hypocrites: if what they see doesn't affect them, why should it affect us?
Because they are not perverts, murderers, misfits, thugs or sadists. Some people are. You might have seen them on the news or read about them in the papers. Censors are bureaucrats doing a job in an environment utterly separate from the vicarious experience of seeing a film as a consumer. We are not all the same, and it is madness to legislate as if we were, especially if we take the most well-adjusted and restrained among us as standard. Do you apply the same logic when choosing a baby-sitter?
Now I've got a question for you. What great film of the twenties, thirties or forties was seriously compromised in its effects or achievement by imposed censorship?
It's not that you can't think of any. It's that you can think of the exact same three or four that I can think of. The ones you always hear about. But as a general rule...
The only real problem with the Hays Code is that it wouldn't work anymore. Film-making is no longer in the hands of four or five canny but fundamentally respectable old men. Anyone with a camera and internet access is in the production and distribution business. The only way a production code of any sort could regulate the tide of crapulous drivel thus unleashed is by a degree of force that would be as unproductive as it is unthinkable.
To work today, a censorship code would have to be voluntary. But each generation automatically views the standards of its elders as too repressive and moves them on again, and their chasing after sensation will always be characterised as the heroic defiance of pettiness, bigotry or irrationality by wimpy intellectuals ever happy to ascribe the highest motives to cheap pornographers and sadists. So the endless push towards greater and greater freedom, ending, presumably, in a return to the spectacles of the Roman arena may be slowed, but it cannot be stopped. It's a sobering reflection, and it makes the flickering delicacy of golden age cinema seem like objects not just of fascination but almost of reverence.
The Hays Code never restricted anybody. Not being able to do something the easy way gives tremendous impetus to the creative imagination, and imagination is the defining declining commodity in cultural regress.
Ever noticed how every change, every advance, must bring with it a reduction in the amount of work the audience must themselves contribute to sustaining the illusion? It is practically how the word 'advance' in this context is defined. Theatre to film, silent to sound, black and white to colour, imagining an act of violence to having it recreated before our eyes. But why should these changes be considered advances? It is all gimmickry, as surely as Cinemascope and 3-D. Such things are props, crutches - they have nothing to contribute to the art of storytelling.
. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that what modern film-makers and their defenders in print are telling us is basically that it is impossible as well as insufferable to expect them to be able to produce competent work under the shadow of any commonly agreed code of conduct as to what may or may not be shown. That censorship of any kind is a kind of tyranny, and that they have a moral duty to fight it, as well as a professional interest in the outcome. That the great masterpieces of Rouben Mamoulian or Cukor or Chaplin or Frank Tuttle or Lubitsch or Wilder or Hitchcock or King Vidor or Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or Norman Z McLeod or Busby Berkeley or De Mille or Von Sternberg or Tod Browning or James Whale or Val Lewton or Mitchell Leisen were flukes, achieved with all the odds stacked against them. And the fact that the stew of idle sensation that passes for product in the creative wilderness of modern cinema seems so infantile by comparison is... well, is what, exactly? I don't know. Irrelevant? Not true?
I go along with Mamoulian. In 1977 - as early as 1977! - this crazy old genius got up on his hind legs at some film luncheon or other and came out with this:
I've heard that films are a reflection of life. Is that all? Is that what the films are, is that what theatre is, a reflection of life? Is it enough just to put a mirror and reflect what you see? I don't think it is. Films are not as much a reflection as a revelation of life. While obviously we are of our time and we have to function within the texture of the times we live in, and portray the world as it is, it is very important for us also to indicate in that same film the way the world should be, the way we would like the world to be.
Modern film-makers either do not recognise any such obligation (nor feel any creative impulse in its direction), or else they are such gorillas that they like the modern world just fine, or else they simply don't have the talent to do anything other than point a camera at whatever boring provocation comes easiest to them. (Or a combination of all three.) I don't care which, actually. But I do know that for Mamoulian, as for all the names listed above, censorship was a creative aid, and when any modern director comes up with something a tenth as good as the worst film he ever made, maybe we'll sit and discuss the matter again.
In the meantime, I salute the Hays Code in the name of all the great film-makers it inspired, and all the great stars it helped to immortality. It demanded resourcefulness and inventiveness of the writers and directors, contributed immeasurably to the mystique, the glamour and the eroticism of the great screen icons, and it led to works that delighted everybody who saw them.
Isn't it time we grew out of pretending achievement of this order is somehow comic, and somehow beneath us?