The First Amendment; Film Censorship
The First Amendment and the Free People Weekly examination of civil liberties in the media in the 1970s produced by WGBH radio Boston in cooperation with the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University. The host of the program is the institute's director Dr. Bernard Rubin. Our subject tonight is censorship of Motion Pictures alternate views about and I have two very well-qualified guests to talk on this subject. The first is the close L. the film coordinator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also a lecturer in art history in the department at Tufts University a writer and author who has been for four and a half years film editor with The Boston Phoenix. And for a couple of years photography editor with The Boston Globe he's also had his articles appear in such journals the American film cinema and Christianity in crisis and so on. Roger Mann bill. It doesn't have to be introduced to anybody who knows about his books he's of course a visiting professor of film at Boston University formerly the director of the British Film Institute in London
and editor of The International encyclopedia of film and many books on films and related subjects such as his very fine book which is now available in paperback called film. And the second world war also his biography of Joseph Goebbels and of Charlie Chaplin. I'm going to start off gentlemen by imposing a very heavy question on you and that is if we have to have censorship at all. What is the basis for it in your view. Well it must I think proceed out of the culture that it wants to organize such a such a censorship. The difference is for instance between American censorship which has always been very sensitive to issues of sex issues of nudity and European censorship which is much more sensitive to issues of politics.
Some of the good are films of the nine thousand nine hundred six were banned or censored at various levels in France for under under a wonderful category they were censored for their intellectual and moral anarchy. And I think that by and large the kinds of censorship that have we have seen in Motion Pictures has come out of the naturally out of the culture in which another the legal system and relationships which that culture sets up. One of the assumptions of your questions is that we needed in the first place you know that's my question. Doing it in the first place. No no. Roger Mandel do we run this table. We do it in the first place was we. I think I take up from what Dick was saying that one of the problems of the film industry as a whole is that those films that get around the world that are the products of America or Britain or France or Italy are made first of all within the culture that Dick was
describing. But to get their money back to in fact to be viable. They all evil American films have to be shown abroad where they enter into other cultures and go through therefore meet other kinds of audience. To me they're one of the grave problems of film censorship. And one of the reasons why in fact it exists on different levels in different countries is to protect a particular country from the product coming in from abroad. To what extent therefore my answer to your question re to what extent does a particular public in a particular kind of community to particular kind of level need protection from the kind of fool who may well have to receive from overseas. Well to get from your statement to Dick's view of Godard's film was one of one of his films was once criticized by a man who said he wondered whether the purpose was catharsis or kicks.
And obviously felt that the emphasis was on the kick side in the vernacular. If we have a good look at comparative censorship systems. How would you rate systems and I know that you are interested in the systems in Sweden and places like that. Could you tell us a little bit about how other societies rate films. They are sensitive to different issues at different times. You know censorship can be political. It can be stylistic. social. With regard to interpersonal relationships or whatever it's rarely It can be all three. And one of the very few places where all of those categories have applied to censorship to the control of the Motion Picture medium was in the Soviet Union between about one thousand thirty one thousand nine hundred fifty or into the 1950s if just a few years because of
Soviet film to be comforted to be produced and to actually reach the screen inside Russia I had to go through. Censorship of social censorship or thematic censorship as well as a stylistic censorship there were certain kinds of inventions and experiments that were being done in the Western film through that period the just more allowed weren't considered a part of the aesthetic appropriate aesthetic vocabulary. And this essentially strangled the Soviet film during that period so that by oh nine hundred fifty two. Only six films were made. Only six new films were made in that year in Russia. More usually the case is that we see one or another of those kinds of categories taking predominance in Sweden for instance during the 1960s and 70s. The most highly censored films were American films because the Swedish were very sensitive to the issue of violence and sadism and the use of animals and nature.
And one of the most highly censored all of American films in Sweden with the James Bond films from the novels of Ian Fleming which certainly played all over the United States without any question whatsoever. And even now have been on American television without raising any eyebrows or any questions particularly whatsoever yet this was considered the most dangerous kind of entrained entry into Swedish society at that time. The French with their ideas of moral into the intellectual anarchy in South America censorship tends again to be very political where you have a dictatorial government or one which wants very much to express only particular political points of view and to regulate the kind of view which the citizenry is having in this country I think. Again we're sensitive to the issues of sex but but we've we've done that mostly through self regulation there has never been a national legislation about motion picture censorship in the United States and we have industry itself through the motion picture producers of
America or other groups Legion of Decency after 934 have attempted to keep certain standards of production as a voluntary basis using the dual pressures of producers and capitalists who want to make money with films and the marketplace and consumers. Most negotiating between those two pressures to find something is acceptable to both sides of the American equation. Is it true that they have a little more success than they're having currently in liking as a moral influence let's say the Legion of Decency or any such similar group. Well one of the very interesting things that's happened in American culture as a whole over the past 10 or 15 years is that we've enlarged the idea of what American culture is and we now include within that culture various styles of life styles of language and speech habits of action and thought and undertaking which may very well have existed in the 30s and 40s I don't know that you know we used to call that jazz language from the black jazz musicians and
now we call it street language say I think this is existed for a good long time but the arbiters of American culture never thought that this is you know one spoke to NBC English or Harvard English. And if one was cultured and we've sent in an in and large ng the idea of what American culture is and what its vitality is we've also enlarge now the kinds of things that can be represented on motion pictures. If you take say south New Jersey. Tough ghetto film theme which is something that everybody in down in that area knows about and you show it in the middle of Indiana or Iowa or western Oklahoma or the panhandle of Texas. People who had always thought American culture was only one thing are going to object and I think that's where a lot of the discussion and controversy comes right now. Roger when we take a look at the censorship imposed by governments or suggested by governments one of the one of the countries that we've actually based our own censorship plan on the current one
is the pun the English system. In your opinion how would you look upon both of these letter rating systems ranging in this country from G to X.. Well the system has combines two approaches it provides an approach to they artifact self the film they object which lay of the sense of you will cut they will pass on up balls they will suggest cuts or no cuts this is a system which operates well in two directions at once it looks as I say at the film. It also looks at the audience. You can in fact sense our audiences as well as film. Would you go and you go into that loo. Yeah you would you do it in the States we do it in Britain you preclude certain age groups from seeing certain films. Would you permit the other age groups. This is one way of approaching censorship when you were asked all along and I think there still needs to be answered what the systems are and
the origin of the systems of censorship. I was think than this country the States and Britain. Censorship is rather like a cork on the social why it reflects closely at the taste of the time. And censorship is no absolute. If you have a written code as we emerged in the states of the 30s or if you don't have a written code because our censorship system has never had which originated I am horrified to have to tell you. As early as 1912 13. Way way way back on these systems can be very hardline if you have a code it's difficult to shake a code. It's very much easier to shake a non written code. So the cork on the wave analogy which I'm trying to suggest which reflects what you can get away with as a film industry with your public image is more sensitive. If there is no code to observe than if there is one so the first thing to answer your questions. And
by now you pose many which I think over complicated ones is that the system will impart reflect the needs of the society. The system will also reflect the needs of the industry and this in turn means where is this source of censorship and the source. In Britain and in the States is really the industry the industry set the censorship codes all known codes are the systems up as self protection in order that governments indeed should not step in and themselves city by city or state by state. Set up their own ideas of what should be cut. That's how they were first cause which came from the Motion Picture producers and production Association the old end PPA came about out of fear that the Congress would step in. Exactly where Same with us. But on the other hand I think you'll find both in the States and again in Britain. There is yet another complication in this thing in the local authority whatever it may
be whether it be city maybe state maybe county whatever the area of authorization is also steps and they may or may not accept the rulings given by the body set up by the industry to regulate. And they might alter the regulation under the various categories that have been agreed. We have this constantly operating in Britain that say London will as a city authority authorize the showing of films which the Sun saw as either not past the top or was given a different rating to the one that London. Authorizes Now this makes the whole thing seems to me to put the whole thing really in doubt. And also when I make a final point because I said at the beginning you can censor from the point of view of audiences protrude films certain films being shown to certain audiences. To what extent is it possible indeed to regulate in this way you suggest as an exhibitor stands outside the theater for the birth certificates of everybody coming in and says you are allowed or you are not allowed because you are
18 or under 18 to see the particular film I'm showing today. It cannot in practice be operated in the long run. From the audience side it is the parents or guardians who operate whether an under-age person should see on the world Rodger that there that that is one way to operate on the basis of governing the audience. The major problem though seems to be on governing the content. And many people object to that Deacon. You said that that you object to censorship we don't think it's a necessity. And yet like that 1930s phrase anything goes almost anything goes no. I know that at lunch today you discuss the snuff film perhaps you might want to just take off on that point. Well this is a very disturbing and extremely underground extremely private sector it seems to be the newest wave and the ultimate pornography really in my view. There are
circulating now and for the past two years around the country some films which show the the actual murder of a human being on film not a simulated not a simulation not an acting catharsis but the physical act of murder. And these are films are being sold privately some of them have been made in South America and some others I think have been made in this country in various places there are a limited number of them in the marketplace where this is a marketplace where a quote collector unquote will purchase a print at a very high price to undergo the experience of seeing this. I think that there are limits. There's a very calm disturbing. Appearance in any culture to see this kind of Killing for Sport undertaken. Certainly I don't know whether that one needs to have the censorship of a film in that case or the arrest under laws that are already standing
for the killing of a human being in such a case which might be the appropriate way to go about prosecuting this kind of situation I mean that's a rather unique situation in that most of the kind of film censorship we've seen in any country is the censorship of a dramatic undertaking or a fictional undertaking. Are you suggesting the definition of obscenity is being different from the say the concentration with nudity and gynecological problems which has infested current discussion and passed over to a discussion of obscenity and pornography which has nothing to do with producing creative work but which has to do with how you treat your fellow human being yes I would say very deaf and very definitely. I've thought for a long time that an unbroken string of Doris Day films were probably much more obscene in their impact on the American public than say oh those famous cases we've seen of I Am Curious Yellow Swedish film or other censorship cases. My reasoning being that.
To illustrate a life as being quite so simplistic and quite so joyous in an undertaking without any of the realities of interpersonal relationships as proposed by the slightest most superficial commercial films has a much more debilitating impact on society in our times. We tend to have a whole false idea of what life is really like and what it's really about. I must confess you're absolutely right Raj before I got here just a little a little personal aside I was brought up on Mickey Rooney films and I never wondered at the time why Mickey Rooney was a very tender age had a hundred and seventy three year old father played by Louis I mean the stage set in the backyard my parents were entirely too young. I just I'd like to I'd like to go one one other thing into the pot here from a point that Roger brought up about the difference between self regulation and a written rewritten code of regulation and that is that from oftentimes from the viewpoint of the artist the creator of the work this is a very different undertaking. The
most politically aware filmmaker probably that I've ever talked with was a man named Abraham Polonsky who was one of those blacklisted between 1048 when he did a film called force of evil with John Garfield and 968 when he did another his first film in 10 years and he was. Number that blacklist the committee for a long time and he spoke extremely articulately and vividly against the idea of self-regulation against the idea of not having a code because he said when there is no written code no one knows where you stand is much harder to make the courageous decision to undertake a theme to work with a particular kind of imagery or than it is if there is a code and a good example he raised and I would raise in this context is the the kind of new wave of films we saw in the late 60s from Czechoslovakia firemen's ball loves of a blonde the Saturn of Czechoslovakia like most of the socialist cum countries has a very well-defined pattern of film censorship pre
censorship of scripts and during the making and then upon completion and before release and yet we saw some very political films come out through the use of analogies on Main Street and the house on Main Street a shop on Main Street off your main street the fifth horseman is fear. Really tremendous run of films and I think in part that was because the artist always knew exactly what he could and couldn't do and his audience because they knew the code and had lived with it for a number of years also knew exactly what he could and couldn't do and so various kinds of analogies or symbols and plot lines could be worked out so that everybody knew what was really being talked about there and you had a tremendous group of political critics socially critical films being produced which gained worldwide fame which could never have been produced if there were no code. Roger how do you react to that. Well what I do have by now is that all this was in the style extraordinary complexity level those the number of issues that are
involved the transect each other that act like us like knitting trying to undo knots which have got totally knotted. There are so many factors and censorship. There are so many aspects of it which are of variables but at what point do you censor to the to the point of inhibiting the creative spirit. Both of the artist and the curious feelings of their their clients the general public in one way or another. This is happening all the time to everybody. And I think you were related to films of films on expensive products to make money has to be derived from the public to sponsor them unless under Simon. Some say socialist discipline just possible for the state to put up the money but even if the state puts up the money it expects the box office and Russia and checks and back all the other countries they still expect the box office to bring in some kind of return. But from the artist's point of view and we've not really talked much about this or just begun to talk about it as distinct from
the public's the state's censorship systems go on this look from the artist's point of view the maximum freedom obviously should be allowed as he should or she should. Given that they have what they feel is an important analysis solves a psychological issue a social issue they should have the maximum possible freedom to bring this issue before their public. So the ones who say well hey where's the money to come from for them to make this statement which is cheap on paper but vastly expensive on film. Who is going to exhibit the film once it is married and who is going to purr for those and see how as a public to be attracted to come to see this product in sufficient numbers in fact to receive the message that the artist gives in films this is much more complicated than any other art form and yet all of us I'm sure on this table wish always the artist to be as free as possible to use this marvelous medium in this way and in fact this is what is happening now. But
I would say that to examine the censorship you have to see first of all going back to our first principles you have to see what society comes out of say Swedish society a Danish society. It may well be easier for the film to emerge in the case of Bergman's films from such a society. I'm from ours and America or Britain where the economics are much more stringent and difficult to arrive at. Therefore we look often to the smaller industries. To promote the more advanced artists take these risks on the lower economy of production as I think yours is one of the factors. Secondly it comes to the point that when the film arrives in your community how the cork on the wave of public taste at that time will permit the censor to let it through without cuts. If you let it through without cuts it may be he will have to delimit the audience to which it is permitted to be shown as another factor which may enable a film to be made and to be released. Which of the two it probably could not on the earlier systems of
censorship which took thing universally and said the film was unfit to show to a child is unfit to show anybody short of the most inhibiting thing an artist could ever be faced with. How could she also how Could Shakespeare have been fixed. We know we have the other's point of view that if it's fit to be shown to everybody it's fit to be shown to children. Well that's a tricky individual decision because children vary so much or a friend of mine once took his 9 year old daughter who had been studying Romeo and Juliet in her school to see the Franco Zeffirelli film of the same name a few years ago. And she loved it. Knew the Queen Mab speech by heart and whatnot and riding home in the car on the way back he said well you know we'll come back again you've really enjoyed this so much you will bring your brother Martin who's 8. And she looked at her father and she said Oh no doubt you know the nude scenes in this film they were handled with such delicacy I Martin is much too young this is a film for mature people only. But I'll try to respond in that way is different perhaps than another
nine year old who would respond differently. I find that our our generation is much has much more difficulty with the visual than with the verbal. We we will have very brave about the verbal. And now our youngsters are very brave much braver than we are about the visual. Yeah. They in fact condition us to change in the few minutes that are left could I ask this this final question of the two of you if we have to have censorship and I guess that both of you despite your protestations see some. Sometimes for it. Are we able to maintain our own lives as we want to. At the same time that everybody else can do what they want to. In other words despite Roger's view that the marketplace will determine a good deal of what films are made some films are made merely for shock value and may shock us out of what are convenient theories of government ought to be.
Well I will be able to maintain our own lives as much as we are in any highly organized and ever more homogenized society I think and in the terms you are suggesting here. Censorship really becomes just a part of that. I paid income tax not long ago and my life would have been very different if I hadn't had to pay quite as large a sum as I did. I personally do not carry credit cards M. charges and things like that around the limit certain kinds of things I can do certain places where those are accepted rather than other kinds of things are accepted and in the terms you're suggesting. Yes I think we will be able to maintain our lives and in the way that you're suggesting but only in so far as we can with all of these kinds of impositions and regulations and changes that are brought about by a highly organized highly centralized more and more highly centralized
large society. Actually it was a set up question and I'm glad you brought in true product if a from the Internal Revenue Service Roger. I think the price of freedom is a certain degree of control. One cannot have that degree of absolute freedom in which those who wish to witness public executions will arrange with the state to have a few criminals publicly executed in the spring for their fun. We've passed that and so we've given up that particular freedom. So I think in the arts one has although it's a very dangerous ground permits one society to widen Only in and ahead direction but not to widen. If that is the word to narrow in my view in a backward direction therefore some degree of regulation. Thank you. Business Roselle and Roger Manville for a very fine discussion. This is Bernie driven saying goodnight. The First Amendment and a free people weekly examination of civil liberties in the media in the
1970s. The program is produced in cooperation with the Institute for democratic communication at Boston University by WGBH radio Boston which is solely responsible for its content. This is the station program exchange. This is NPR National Public Radio.
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