A few remarks on the “virtues” of censorship

“I hate censorship, but there is something to be said for the creativity censorship imbues into artists of all crafts.” — Brad Brevet

This is not a new argument.  People who have identified their own as the highest form of moral caliber have been employing it for centuries.  The basic function of censorship is not to suppress creativity (they argue), but to protect the Greater Good.  If some things must be outlawed as taboo in order for the larger number of people to benefit, then so be it.  But how do we weigh these so-called benefits?  One of the many problems with censorship, though, is that, because of its deep, insidious roots in our culture, people frequently mistake it for something else.  A few years ago, Kirby Dick made a film called This Film Is Not Yet Rated, in which he laid  the American film industry’s creative problems at the feet of the Motion Picture Association of America.  (I only mildly hyperbolize.)  He argued that the contradictory and arbitrary standards held by the MPAA ratings board — which decides what rating a film gets before general release — have curbed the original “vision” of many filmmakers to the point that their films are creatively crippled.  Clearly, the removal of three pelvic thrusts from a sex scene is the crucial difference between creative freedom and repressive fascism.

No, not really.  People who carp about the MPAA being a repressive institution that destroys the creative freedom of filmmakers may be correct in identifying its awful arbitrariness and the fact that it has largely outlived its usefulness.  To a degree, it is true that it enforces a kind of censorship, but not in the way people think.  The MPAA rating system was devised precisely to circumvent federal censorship regulations — U.S. studio filmmakers gained tremendous freedom because of the rating system.  Plus, the entities that enforce the consequences of MPAA-mandated “cuts” in order to get a more marketable rating (which is usually where the controversy lies, though not always) are the studios and the theater chains that refuse to show NC-17 films.  The important distinction to be drawn here is that the elaborate web of cooperation surrounding the MPAA rating board decisions is ultimately a form of self-censorship at worst.  I’d argue that it doesn’t really constitute “censorship” at all in the way that most people understand it.  It’s a network of mutually-agreed-upon creative choices that are frequently miscommunicated among the various parties involved in the massive undertaking that is making a major motion picture in America.  There are a number of exceptions to this analysis, of course, but by and large, people both within the industry and outside of it deliberately make fire of all the smoke they’re blowing.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have people who actually advocate censorship while trying to maintain the illusion that they’re not advocating the forcible repression of creativity.  Religious majorities in particular shoulder the blame for a lot of the moralistic censorship that is pressed upon various cultures in the world.  In the U.S., that majority happens to be Christian.

The Catholic Legion of Decency is probably the most notorious group of self-righteous, ill-informed suppressors of creativity in America.  Will Hays, who took over the post from Joseph Breen as the head of the Production Code Administration, which was an arm of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association.  (The MPPDA later became the MPAA.)  Since almost the birth of public screenings of motion pictures, progressives and religious activists had been vigorous in persuading the censors in the various states of the union either to ban certain films outright or to force cuts to be made to them.  The MPPDA was Hollywood’s first attempt to get around state censorship by collectively agreeing to regulate the moral fiber of their films.  Rather than have ignorant busybodies or the courts mandate cuts, the honchos at the major studios decided to appoint their own man to censor films.  That way they could at least manage the censorship process from the ground up.  Hays is probably the most infamous of the PCA administrators because he’s the one who formulated the even more infamous Production Code that became known as the “Hays Code.”  And the conservative Presbyterian drafted that code with lots of input from the Legion of Decency.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Christians have done more to steer the direction of censorship in this country than any other recognizable group.  For the most part, pro-censorship groups (religious and otherwise) generally advance the notion that if we permit our arts and culture to feature immoral behavior, our society will, as a result, become immoral.  Hopping on this toboggan, societal collapse soon follows the pervasiveness of immorality, and at the very bottom of this slippery slope is the cliff’s edge that overlooks the Abyss of Total Anarchy.  Other censorship advocates do their best to avoid endorsing this kind of idiocy, and instead take Brad Brevet’s tack, as outlined in a recent article for Rope of Silicon: extolling the positive boon that censorship can be to the artist.  This argument tends to gain some traction.  I touched on it in my earlier reaction to Mark Harris’s jeremiad.  Unfortunately, this is where the general misunderstanding of what “censorship” actually is gets us into trouble.

As I explained above, a lot of industry insiders and outsiders — those of us cinephiles who care about the health of mainstream filmmaking — take a very dim view of the MPAA.  Many feel that what the MPAA stands for is, in fact, censorship.  Some feel that, in practice, what the MPAA does is just facilitate efficient packaging and marketing of movie product for the general audience: a film’s suggested age-appropriateness does a lot in terms of targeting different demographics.  A film like Blue Valentine, as Brevet notes, would not even be shown in a lot of theater chains with a NC-17 rating, even if it could get a surge in business from being an Oscar nominee, so a R rating is more desirable.  Similarly, a PG-13 rating for a violent film like Casino Royale or its sequel, Quantum of Solace (which has an even higher body count) is more desirable than a R rating, because the studios know that teenagers are a huge component in the film’s financial success.  That’s why, even though a lot of people are murdered in those films, the deaths are bloodless.  You get the drift.  And I don’t think anyone would disagree that anytime a film is essentially watered down purely for marketing purposes, it’s far more likely to be an artistic failure.  Nobody wants that.  Except perhaps the studios… so long as the artistic failure is not a box office failure.

Where Brevet and the anti-MPAA crowd overlap is in their understanding that Hollywood product tends to lack grace and wit.  They are both concerned over the perceived lack of attention to craftsmanship and the lack of serious commitment to original thinking on the part of the producers who cut the checks.  But Brevet is apparently convinced that the MPAA, rather than helping to suppress artistic ambition, is too permissive, and that filmmakers are too liberated, rather than too restricted.

“Subtlety and leaving aspects of a story up to the audience’s imagination is a thing of the past and it’s something we’re not likely to get back, at least not en masse.” — Brad Brevet

Yes and no.  Yes, subtlety and trusting the audience’s imagination are two things at which Hollywood tends to fail.  No, the past was not a comparative treasure trove of subtlety and audience trust.  And no, I’m not sure it was ever something that was ever practiced “en masse” — again, not the way that you think it was.  More to the point, “subtlety and leaving aspects of the story up to the audience’s imagination” are traits that are not exclusive to films made under the aegis of a Production Code.  Nor are they the direct consequences of censorship.  Brevet makes a leap in logic that exposes the fault in his basic premise: what he terms “censorship” is not censorship; it’s the process of making creative decisions.  This is an assumption that leads to all sorts of frail assertions throughout his article.

The dictionary definition of “censor” as a noun is this:

1. an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds. 2. any person who supervises the manners or morality of others. 3. an adverse critic; faultfinder.”

By extension, “censorship” therefore means “the act or practice of censoring.”  Understood correctly, censorship entails an enforcement of morality by someone in legal authority, or someone whose purpose is suppression of ideas, rather than someone whose purpose is to facilitate expression.  The MPAA ratings board, is therefore, by definition, not a censor.  It does not have the legal authority to mandate alterations to a film.  In many cases, even the filmmaker might not be in a position to censor his or her own work.  That all depends on the terms of individual contracts.  The voluntary system by which studios currently self-rate films and distribute them may carry the stigma of censorship, but this is inaccurate.  Equally inaccurate is Brevet’s notion of a filmmaker as a “self-censor,” since no artist in the history of the world has been interested in suppressing his or her own expression.  That would defeat the entire purpose of being an artist.  Instead, an artist chooses one of many potential possibilities at each stage of the artistic crafting process.  Some ideas are suppressed, but not necessarily for the purpose of simply keeping certain “objectionable” ideas unuttered; on the contrary, the artist positively chooses the ideas that advocate a certain perspective.

Brevet’s arguments fall short of making this distinction on several levels, and since they are emblematic of the arguments frequently made to assign some sort of intrinsic virtue to censorship, let’s look at them in more detail.

“I think most of us will agree Blue Valentine should have always been rated R and The King’s Speech could have been, and probably should have been, rated PG-13. However, that’s not the issue I’m here to discuss. Both were able to hit theaters as their directors originally intended them to be seen. Thus, in terms of freedom of expression, today’s rating system is obviously an improvement. But in terms of eliciting more creative ways of telling a story, can we agree it isn’t exactly helping? Especially when we get out of the realm of independent cinema.” — Brad Brevet

Brevet’s assertion about the rating system being more conducive to creative expression is arguably correct; at the very least, it’s a far sight better than the Hays Code.  But he’s already neglecting a lot of Hollywood history when he says Blue Valentine and The King’s Speech “were able to hit theaters as their directors originally intended them to be seen.”  The way Hollywood worked under the Hays Code was a little more complex than that.  Directors often did not originate projects; they were hired by producers, and even many producers were assigned projects from higher up the corporate ladder.  Original scripts and adaptations of properties to which studios had purchased the copyright were often subject to negotiation in terms of potential code violations — sometimes before the screenwriters tapped the first key on their typewriters.  Endless memos and notes would be passed back and forth between the Production Code Office and the producers as the project went through pre-production, the story that would wind up on screen taking shape even as costumers considered how much cleavage was appropriate or how gritty the production design would be permitted to be.  Little was overlooked.  Once the crew was set up with a schedule, even directors that had the clout to bring their own pet projects to fruition would negotiate behind the camera as scenes were shot, and editors would receive new instructions regularly as they assembled the footage.  And at the end, yes, the dictates of the Production Code might require some scenes to be sliced or dropped altogether.  But the idea that the filmmaker’s original vision was preserved during the shoot and clipped only once the “director’s cut” was censored by the Hays office is dead wrong.

The reality is that film production has always been subject to the vagaries of public taste and the pressure of special interest groups — not to mention budget constraints, conflicting egos and visions of what the film should be amongst the creative personnel (independent of morally questionable ingredients), and production accidents, capped off by the way that most big budget studios try to respond to public taste… and shape it.  The Hays Code was just another factor that went into the myriad of concerns attached to the production of any feature film.  Anything that is made with the intent of turning a profit is subject to reworking.  The job of any filmmaker isn’t just following through on an “original vision.”  It’s the job of making decisions, big and small, on a minute by minute basis.  That’s why it’s not particularly exceptional that a world class director like Krzysztof Kieslowski would argue that the political censorship imposed on his films and those of his colleagues by the communist government of Poland was a creative challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle to his creativity:

“It was a game, a kind of ski slalom. They positioned the poles, and we had to get around them. They positioned the poles more and more cleverly, and we skied better and better and got around them.” — Krzysztof Kieslowski

It may be true that, after the fall of the communist bloc in Europe, a lot of filmmakers stopped trying to be clever and started getting lazy.  But it’s worth noting that Kieslowski went on to make the masterful “Three Colors Trilogy” in the wake of Soviet collapse.  Few would argue that his Blue, for example, represented a creative disaster, simply because Kieslowski no longer had to maneuver around government censors when he made it.  In fact, many consider it to be his masterpiece — which is saying something, given the man’s other achievements.  Abbas Kiarostami, who has spent most of his life making movies under the incredibly repressive Iranian regime, has a similarly philosophical view of censorship: “Not that I endorse [censorship], but I simply say to the censors, ‘You do your job and we’ll do ours.’  In the final analysis, it’s [the filmmakers’] work that survives.”

I submit this: a master filmmaker on the order of Kieslowski or Kiarostami will make masterful films whether or not a government censor was there to force him to slalom more adeptly.  Similarly, Brevet cherry-picks about two dozen titles from the “Golden Age of Hollywood” to prove his case that the Production Code forced filmmakers to make better, cleverer films.  Nobody is going to argue the status of films by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, or John Ford.  But it seems highly unlikely to me that filmmakers with the sheer talent of these artists would necessarily make less clever, more inferior films simply because there wasn’t a Will Hays standing over their shoulder, making them imply a sexual liaison rather than showing it.

Brevet exposes the paucity of his argument when he makes this assertion:

“The Golden Age of Hollywood is said to have ended in the 1960s. Guess what happened at that time. That’s right, new head of the MPAA, Jack Valenti deemed the current Hays Code as out of date and instituted the MPAA ratings system still used to this day. From that point forward the ratings changed over the years but the effect didn’t as we saw the addition of the PG rating in 1970, the addition of the PG-13 in 1984 and X being replaced by NC-17 in 1990.” — Brad Brevet

That’s all well and good, except for two things.  One, a majority of critics contend that the 60s and 70s represented a flowering rebirth of vitality in American cinema — one that, in the estimation of those who lived through it, rivals the earlier Golden Age.  Two, a lot of the films commonly cited as the greatest examples of 60s/70s cinema are among the least commercial projects ever greenlighted by Hollywood.  Brevet argues that “Censorship became a marketing tool rather than a creative tool. A PG rating said one thing to a parent, a PG-13 said another and once you get up to the R and NC-17 ratings you may as well begin reconsidering the number of people that are going to see your film.”  But parents are not everything.  Not all movies are for kids.  And sometimes a harder rating can be an asset, depending on your audience.

That’s almost beside the point, though.  From his point about the coming of Jack Valenti, Brevet reasserts his main point:

“The films I listed above as classics of the Golden Age all came as a result of the studio system operating under the new set of production codes.” — Brad Brevet

Mr. Brevet, sir, I regret to inform you that you have said a stupid thing.

As previously established, every feature film ever made has been subject to a number of factors that impose restrictions on the practical filmmaking considerations of its makers.  Censorship may have been one of those factors, but a great many others equally apply.  In other words, saying that the quality of the films he names is a direct result of production codes — as opposed to, say, the talent and skill of the filmmakers — is flatly false.  If Brevet has any working knowledge of the filmmaking process, it is not on display in this article.

Another important (and poorly supported) assertion is Brevet’s implication that the films of Hollywood’s Golden Age represent the best of all cinema.  The era that saw Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others operating at the height of their nascent powers somehow qualifies, in Brevet’s view, as the Beginning Of The End of quality cinema.  In order to buttress his argument, he ignores American independent filmmaking for the most part.  He also, apart from Kieslowski, ignores international cinema.  Apparently Kieslowski is only as useful as his out-of-context remarks on the relationship between communist censorship and the ways in which Polish filmmakers got around it.  If word got out that Akira Kurosawa produced both Kagemusha and Ran in the 1980s, the whole kit ‘n caboodle might go right out the window!

I also find it nearly impossible to consider that there’s nobody at all in contemporary American mainstream filmmaking that is not the equal of the past masters.  I readily agree that the bulk of Hollywood product is mediocre or bad.  Some of it may be quite good, but it’s probably not going to be considered “classic” a hundred years from now.  But as I mentioned in my earlier ruminations on Harris’s essay, it’s not like most people nowadays offer up rhapsodies about the Our Gang comedies.  Random example: the Internet Movie Database says that 1,203 were released worldwide in 1946, right in the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Of those 1,203 titles, I doubt that even the most ardent film buffs would say that half of them are of any real significance.  A full 663 of them have not received a single vote.  Ardent TCM fans may have seen several of the less popular U.S. films (such as Mr. Ace, starring George Raft), but the vast majority of these films made so little impact upon their release that only 152 films have received 100 votes or more.  That’s 12.6 percent.  I’m no statistician, and my methodology is about as scientific as holding a wet finger in the air to determine the price of tea in China.  All the same, it is abundantly clear that the imposition of censorship does not bestow durable quality upon a film.

In short, not every film is Citizen Kane.  A fact which is painfully obvious to everyone except Brad Brevet and those who agree with his line of reasoning.  It stands to reason that for as many films as Hollywood alone produces each year, whether that year is prior to 1960 or after 2011, most of them are not going to be very good.  When people talk about how great it used to be, they are letting their perspective be colored by the benefits that natural selection bestows upon artistic posterity.  For all I know, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a fine film, right on par with Make Way for Tomorrow, and Frank Wisbar is an unjustly unheralded craftsman, a la Leo McCarey.  But there’s no particular reason for me to think so, since until I was looking up 1946’s film releases for the rhetorical purposes of this blog post, I had never heard of it.  No critic in the world that I’ve ever read has made a point of praising its virtues.  The relaxation of censorship policy in America and around the world has not yielded the floor to worthless tripe; the percentage of worthless tripe inflicted upon the viewing public has, in all probability, remained about the same all along.

Do I wish that filmmakers would be more subtle and clever in general?  Sure.  And I do wish that some forms of filmmaking — the MGM musical, the physical comedy of Chaplin and Keaton — were still as prevalent as they had once been.  Since I’m a bit of a prude, I do wish that comedies relied less on gross-out gags and embarrassingly frank sexual banter; since I have a weak stomach, I wish that horror films relied more on atmosphere and carefully crafted tension than heinous bloodletting.  I don’t know that my personal preferences are synonymous with the golden standard for quality filmmaking, and there are still films being made that satisfy my yearnings: Jackie Chan and Pixar do as much to honor the vaudeville antics of the silent era as anyone could expect, while low-budget thrillers like Paranormal Activity give me the creeps without inducing hemophobic nausea.  But I have no illusions about the nature of subtlety.  The patriotic fervor and biographical whitewashing of Yankee Doodle Dandy — an adequate and diverting film — isn’t too far removed from the fleet comedy of manners we see in this year’s The King’s Speech.  Just because one film has no f-words doesn’t automatically place it on a higher artistic plane.

Brevet doesn’t seem to grasp this point, any more than most Christians who object to the so-called “pornification” of pop culture seem to understand that a film’s craft and morality have a complicated relationship with the characters’ behavior and the images, and that what we see on screen is, in most cases, not nearly as important as what we get out of the experience of watching the screen.  It’s a common misunderstanding, fomented by a total lack of cinematic education in our societal infrastructure and practically encouraged by cultural leaders (usually on the political and religious Right, but not always), who latch onto surface aesthetics as a springboard for sermons and thunder because it’s easier to do than to dig into cinematic language and think about what it really means and implies.  There’s plenty of critical thinking that goes entirely unthought; articles like Brevet’s endorse this non-thinking.

“Censorship will simply evolve to the point almost anything goes and it will be up to the filmmakers to censor themselves, or come up with other ways to get across their films’ underlying messages rather than beating the audience over the head with them.” — Brad Brevet

Thus Brevet bemoans the death of creative filmmaking, even as he proposes the virtues of stifling certain avenues of creative expression.  He thinks that, just because it’s possible for filmmakers to use blunter imagery that it must be impossible for them to use such imagery creatively.  This is completely untrue.  What Brevet calls “censorship” is simply the set of criteria that gifted, ambitious filmmakers try to meet, whether they’re working with NC-17 rated material or G rated material.  If history shows us anything, it’s that most filmmakers will beat us over the head with aesthetics, polemics, and artless entertainment for no other reason than they’re getting paid good money for it.

Thankfully, we can be heartened by the fact that the medium that gave us Buster Keaton, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrew Stanton will continue to bring us filmmakers who are willing to challenge — but not censor — themselves in order to enrich humanity with their art.

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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