Absurdity Strikes Back: When the Censor Tries Too Hard

For the last part of this trawl through the annals of cinematic censorship, I’m taking a look at the oddities; subjects that the censor overreacted to, and places that he should simply not probe. Many of the examples I’m going to talk about here do not appear to have a common theme, but this actually isn’t the case, because this time around it’s all the times the censor wields the knife when he’d probably have been better advised to stay out. This is the oddities round; films that got into trouble for non cinematic reasons, and films that were censored on grounds that frankly do not make any sense whatsoever. Sometimes the actions and motivations of our guardians defy reason and while, to a modern audience their behaviour is completely inexplicable, it isn’t to say that what is now an anachronism was not then a reflection of public opinion.

I AM YOUR CENSOR!!!

Morality for the masses, dictated by the asses.

I am, personally, not in favour of this at all. Nevertheless, in many cases the rise of censorship is a direct response to a public outcry over something. In fact, the very roots of Censorship in America and the MPAA lie in a stupid reaction to perceived public concern by the powers that be. In the early part of the last century, The American Public was inflamed. Nay! They were outraged at their perception of Hollywood as being morally bankrupt; as cinema purveying little more than filth that would no doubt cause the collapse of civilisation. I, for one, hail our new monkey overlords, and as soon as they feel like taking power, I’m well on board. I just want them to hurry up, given that we’re nearly 100 years on from when we should have been tearing at each other and fornicating like wild beasts in the street.

The tipping point came with the trial of Fatty Arbukle. America was, apparently, disgusted and so something had to give, and in a frankly inexplicable move, the MPAA (as it would come to be) turned Federal Censorship over to one Will. H. Hays, Republican Lawyer and all-round slimeball. The thinking behind this is incomprehensible to me, how on earth was Hays remotely qualified for this gig when his previous post was Postmaster General? Insane. Nevertheless, this was the man charged with rehabilitating Hollywood’s tarnished image.

This was a role that Hays was singularly unsuited for. Chosen, in part, for his strong right wing credentials (former chairman of the Grand Old Party, dontchaknow), Hays was a highly religious character, a deacon of the church, and in many senses an offensive bigot. In consultation with other religious figures, notably Father Daniel Lloyd (another turd), he compiled a list of subjects that Hollywood would be best to avoid in 1927. This was in turn codified as originally “The Hays Code” but more formally “The Production Code”.

I am not, by the way, excusing his horseshit under “it was the times”. It wasn’t, being little more than bigoted and obnoxious credo given an official mandate. While Hays was very much a product of his period, there is no earthly justification for many of the demands his code made, particularly those regarding miscegenation (not to be shown), homosexuality (not even to be referred to), childbirth (not to be shown), the sanctity of marriage, the depiction of the stars and stripes and so forth. This was a morally rigid and utterly absurd dogma, and one that effectively worked to stifle freedom of expression. Hays was, effectively, concerned with morality, yet ironically his moral stance was at the far end of intolerant. The code, sadly, carried huge power for over 30 years.

I did look for a gay tram. Couldn’t find one. Sorry.

A Streetcar Named Censorship

Spoilers Ahead

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? Well, it was. To use a very famous example, the stage version of Streetcar Named Desire differs markedly from the screen version. For those that haven’t seen Tennessee Williams most famous play and film, this is a very, very truncated plot synopsis: A lonely woman moves to the city to stay with her sister and her husband. She has a secret in her past, and she gradually provokes the husband until he eventually rapes her. Whereupon her mind shatters and she’s placed in a sanitarium to rely on “The Kindness of Strangers”.

On the stage? No problem. Tennessee Williams melodrama stands uncensored. Whereas on the screen? Big Problems. Huge. The real concern is that Williams was explicitly dealing with sexuality. Thus, Williams play was not allowed to stand unmolested for the screen. The head of the PCA (The body charged with enforcing the code) was a maggot called Joseph Breen. Breen outlined three basic problems with Streetcar: Blanche’s nymphomania, the sexuality of her husband and the climactic rape sequence.

Streetcar, you see, ran exactly against the very first lines of the Hays Code: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” There was simply no way at all that legendary director Elia Kazan could possibly get this past the man with the knife.

The big problem, funnily enough, wasn’t the rape. It was, bizarrely, the depiction of Blanche’s husband. In the original play, this is a coruscating scene where Blanche bears her soul and admits to basically driving her husband to suicide after catching him in flagrante with an older man. Breen, unsurprisingly, wasn’t having any of this, so his solution was simply- any and all references to Blanche’s husband being gay were substituted for him being “weak”. He, apparently, cried a lot and basically wasn’t a man. Yes, Kazan’s fix still allows the perceptive viewer to read between the lines, but it frankly guts the brilliant piece of dialogue, and the devastating “Afterwards we pretended that nothing happened” line that foreshadows the end of the play.

Stanley’s Lynx effect was wearing off.

The thing about this meddling that I struggle to get over, is that it served no purpose. Streetcar, and particularly the depiction of Blanche’s husband, is actually an incredibly negative portrayal of homosexuality in comparison to the raw sexual energy of Stanley. The problem here is that the very thought of gays existing was anathema, and it was irrelevant as to their treatment in the film. I consider this to be a somewhat strange point for a censor protecting morality to take, given that the punishment for homosexuality in Streetcar is shame and death.

By repressing the original dialogue, they actually do Blanche’s character a great disservice. Instead of her being a broken woman at the end of her tether with a great fear of cruelty, Breen’s changes force her into a regretful bully; a sadist who has broken her great love. The irony here is that the change was an act of bullying driven by one man’s bizarre personal credo, and while Streetcar is still a stunning film, it’s simply not on the same level as the play.

Ironically, I got this from a religion website. I find this mildly amusing.

Guarding the hearts and souls of the cinema audience from evil and pernicious imagery

Or “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”. This is, as I like to think of it, where personal prejudice really delivers a knockout blow to the concept of freedom of speech. I’ve spoken at great length about the censor being human, and therefore reacting to whim as a human and subject to those prejudices we all have, but this is where it becomes absurd. The censor, in many cases (particularly in Britain) has had a somewhat skewed view of many a film that has caused them to spectacularly miss the point.

Take, for example, A Rebel Without a Cause. This was inexplicably banned in the UK. Yes, we can talk about it being overrated, and a product of its time, but the British censor was adamant that this Yank perversion wouldn’t corrupt the youth of our green and pleasant isle. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, they insisted on taking individual scenes out of context; and particularly those scenes that they believed offended some ludicrous ideal- which was missing the point in its totality.

What are you rebelling against? Men in aprons.

There’s a scene in Rebel where James Dean arrives home to see his father in an apron cleaning crap off the floor. This, actually, carries the crux of the movie: he’s rebelling against the weak and pathetic male role models that he can see. The point is, that these “weak” men are nothing to aspire to, and by rebelling against it, he’s striking a blow for the angry youth who want a return to the days of men being men. This is the very heart of the film.

Yet not to the British censor. There was absolutely no way in hell that they were allowing a film with such a depiction of masculinity to pass. Never mind that the scene was not meant to be applauding such men (forerunners of those despicable proto-feminist “new men” of the 90’s), and if anything it was highly critical. Yet, the censor just wouldn’t have it, despite the fact that if you remove the scene it renders the film an irrelevance: the equivalent to those “rebels” nowadays that sit in a dark room listening to The Smiths and cutting themselves creatively. So, the director refused to cut the scene and the censor simply banned it.

You’re letting us down, but more importantly, you’re letting yourself down.

As with The Wild One, when the film was belatedly released with an X certificate, it was, in fact, remarkably tame. There was nothing in it that was worthy of such censure, and nothing that anyone could possibly be offended by. In context, the depiction of masculinity, or rather the criticism of such a lack of masculinity in a role model is perfectly within any moral standing. Hell, you aren’t meant to aspire to be the father- you’re meant to think he’s a weak and pathetic freak and the world would be a better place if Dean punched his lights in.

In a way, I can understand taking a moral stance. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but there is an element of courage to this, albeit extreme, position. They had their opinion, and won’t someone please think of the fucking children, so let’s stand on it. The problem is that their view of morality seems frozen in amber, a Jurassic mosquito harbouring dinosaur DNA. As such, this frequently renders the decision to censor bizarre.

I have nothing to say about this.

Bizarre you say? Well trampoline wildebeest to you, and good morrow to your kipper because we’re going to cut you till you bleed

Then there’s the frankly surreal. James Ferman had served as the British Censor for longer than is healthy, and had taken some remarkably libertarian stances to despicable garbage such as Salo, but eventually the stress of the role began to get to him.

In the wake of the endless stream of Tabloid drivel about violence in the movies in the 1980’s, Ferman simply cracked. I’d like to give it a more scientific explanation, but, actually, I haven’t got one- he quite frankly went off his rocker. Developing a bizarre fetish for martial arts weaponry on screen, he decreed that the depiction of nunchucks (despite nobody being able to get them, let alone use them) was simply not acceptable for the British Public.

By popular demand? Who?

Not a problem, you would think. Well, you’d be wrong, because he made this frankly insane quantum leap in the late 1980’s just as the Ninja Turtles were starting to become popular. So, for British Audiences, not only was the name “ninja turtle” far too violent for our ears (seriously), and thus they were renamed “Hero Turtles”, but more importantly, Michelangelo’s weapon was a huge no-no for Ferman. Never mind that Leo had a big fucking sword, and Donatello clobbered people with a stick, it was the utterly ridiculous weapon that you have to be highly trained to use that got his knickers in a twist.

So, the Ninja Turtles film was cut. Extensively. Yet, as is the way, it was a massive global fad so the film made money and so we were then treated to a sequel: The Secret of the Ooze. I haven’t seen this, and will bet large amounts of money that it’s garbage, but it is an example of one of the most insane pieces of censorship ever conducted by any nation.

Not generally recognised as a deadly weapon

Ferman was still pouting about the nunchucks in the first film. If anything, he’d grown to be more evangelical about the depiction of ninja weaponry on camera. So, when the second Turtles movie came about, he wasn’t having any of it. Purging the film of all references to Michelangelo actually using his weapon wasn’t enough- he wanted to eradicate it in every way. This meant some incredibly, and inexplicably weird, cuts were insisted upon.

The most famous example is a masterpiece of surrealism. In a scene played entirely for laughs, and with no visible weapon, Michelangelo demonstrates his mastery of Ninjitsu by, er, arseholing about with a string of sausages. He twirls them about, strikes a few poses, and generally doesn’t hit a single person on the head with the delectable pork product. Yet, for some reason, Ferman thought that this implied acts of gratuitous nunchuckery, and was therefore verboten.

So, still with me? Right, in a film about 6 foot tall mutant Turtles commanded by a talking rat Sensei, the British Censor had a scene cut because one of them is messing around with sausages (not even in a threatening way) because it vaguely reminded him, and only him, of the use of nunchucks. You really can’t argue with that one.

On a mission from god.

It’s not just the movies they’re saving us from…

Finally, for this section, sometimes the Censor simply makes a decision without watching the film. Take, for example The Driller Killer, Abel Ferrara’s dark tale of an artist’s growing obsession with possibly the worst painting in the history of art. Sure, eventually a few people get drilled in the head, but it’s hardly lurid. What this is, is a pompous and grossly boring art film.

But not to the British Censor it wasn’t. Yes, alright a few tramps get drilled, but honestly you see worse things crossing the street. The Driller Killer was, according to the censor at the time, almost single handedly responsible for the Video Nasties Act, and why would he lie?

Because I suspect he’s not seen it. I have no proof of this, but there’s nothing, literally nothing, in that film that warrants a ban. It’s so fucking boring that my brain tried to commit seppuku to end the frigging misery. If I want to watch Abel Ferrara in his scuds staring at a mostly black painting of what, I think, is a buffalo, before going out with a drill with battery life that would make Duracell come in their pants to kill a few itinerants, then this is the film for me. Except it isn’t the film for anyone, because it’s fucking dire, boring, and not even exploitative.

Or is it? Well, the UK distributors (this turd didn’t get a cinema release) thought that possibly, if they produced lurid enough marketing then it would get in the gorehounds and possibly make a bit of bread. So, out they went and produced this video cover with the above appalling tagline, revelling in the violence. This completely misrepresents the film. Yes, individual screen shots are gory as hell, but the film, actually, is surprisingly tame.

There’s a typo here. The sentence initially read “This film should not be played at all”

I would, genuinely, Orangutan of Doom this film. It’s crap. It just simply isn’t exploitation, and thus, when Abel Ferrara was challenged with his film being responsible for the Video Nasties and he replies “Well, the cover was”, he’s not lying. I’ve seen this shit twice, and I genuinely cannot come up with any justification at all for the ban, let alone the wave of fascism that followed.

So, congratulations, Vipco, you ruined cinema for a whole generation by trying to make a fast buck of an intentionally nasty video cover. You flaming idiots. More importantly, though, what the hell was the censor/ the tabloids doing reacting to an inflammatory cover? Driller Killer was hardly a popular film. There’s, again, no arguing with idiocy like this.

Capricious, moi?

This all comes back to the same problem that I’ve been banging on and on about. The censor is apparently, a human being, and functions on an utterly arbitrary level. So, here I’ve had a brief look at prejudices and inanities, reasons for censorship that just defy rational explanation.

Maybe there’s a lifespan to being a censor- where if you’ve been doing the job for a certain amount of time then you cease to be a functioning, reasonable, member of society. If this is the case, and you start to see sausages as an offensive weapon, or lurid posters as a reason to ban, then you should, probably retire.

God’s waiting room.

I simply don’t have the answers for this nonsense, and this is the first of these essays where I’m explicitly anti-censorship. I have no defense and cannot explain any of these decisions as they’re either mired in bigotry or borderline insane. If the censor abandons reason like this, then you have to question his role- and maybe the MPAA is right: fixed terms for those with the power to ban.

Next up, despite Droid’s wishes I’m not reviewing The Driller Killer. I am, though, going to pick on one of these stupid decisions and give it a kicking.

Until then,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

8 responses to “Absurdity Strikes Back: When the Censor Tries Too Hard”

  1. Jarv says :

    Only the review, which I think is probably going to be The Wild One, and Video games left in this.

    It’s been some of my best work.

  2. Continentalop says :

    Good write up Jarv.

    Interesting thing about the Hays Office is that they really had no power until about 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code started finally to be enforced. You can watch a lot of really interesting movies during the late 20s and early 30s where they do stuff they probably couldn’t do again until the late 60s.

  3. tombando says :

    Have seen Secrets of the Ooze aka Yo ninja Rap w Magilla Ice. Harmless, bad, ummm forgettable.

    • koutchboom says :

      The second one is a lot of fun, but the first one holds up amazingly well, one of Nolan’s favorite for sure.

  4. ThereWolf says :

    Good stuff, Jarv.

    Ludicrous, what they did with the ‘Turtles’ – the thing with the sausages is beyond farcical. He really did seem sensible for awhile, Ferman – then he got his trolleys in a twist about something or other and it was ‘adios, logicos’.

    I remember being dead excited to watch ‘Driller Killer’. At the end I thought, ‘Yeh, that was cack.’

  5. Droid says :

    Forget about Driller Killer. You should review Secret of the Ooze! Snag-Fu!

    It’s funny, but I can’t really remember an instance of the turtles actually using their weapons properly. In the first film anyway, since I don’t remember the second one and haven’t seen the third. Leonardo, for example, just uses his swords to kind of take the legs out from under people. Flipping them over. It’s all very kid-friendly, in terms of how they use their weapons.

    Good stuff.

    • Droid says :

      Consider the violence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with another film that came out the same year. The glorification of inflicting pain on another human being, otherwise known as Home Alone.

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