Movieguide.org, a US website that bills itself as “A family guide to movies and entertainment” has recently declared that the ratings system of the MPAA (American equivalent to our BBFC) has “failed”. In an article posted on their website on August 13th Movieguide founder Ted Baehr called for a return to “A standards based code of decency”. Baehr said “it is clear that the entertainment industry must return to the kind of system it had during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Golden Age of Television, when it was a wonderful life in America because Mr. Smith went to Washington, Ricky still loved Lucy, and the Bells of St. Mary's rang out across the whole land.”
The system he is referring to is that of the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code. The code, though adopted in 1930, was enforced between 1934 and 1968. Prior to the code censorship in America was State run and unpredictable, because producers had to deal with many different sets of censor, each of whom might have different standards. The code wasn’t forced on Hollywood; rather it was adopted as a way to avoid the advent of central governmental censorship.
The code set out three general principles:
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.
Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
These would seem to be a reaction to the gangster films that were popular in the early 1930’s, and certainly the code had a major impact on the original 1932 version of Scarface (a film still violent enough to get a 15 certificate in the UK, to be fair). The original version was judged to glorify gangsters, and so censors insisted on a title change (Scarface: The Shame of a Nation), the addition of a text introduction and the softening of the film’s ending. Director Howard Hawks disowned this version of the film.
The code’s more detailed rules and prohibitions were grouped together under headings like… Crimes Against The Law, Sex, Vulgarity, Obscenity, Profanity, Costume, Dances (i.e. suggestive movements), Religion, Locations (i.e. the bedroom), National Feelings, Titles and "Repellent Subjects" (extremely graphic violence). The code included rules on such petty considerations as how long a kiss could last (three seconds) and the position a couple could be seen in on a bed (at least one foot had to remain on the floor). Alfred Hitchcock, ever the prankster, circumvented the three second rule in this famously sexy scene from Notorious.
The code also included prohibitions that would today seem, at best, outdated and at worst - as in the forbidding of the depiction of interracial relationships - offensive in themselves. Of course Movieguide may not be suggesting that we re-adopt the Hays Code as a whole, but that we apply the morals of today to generating a new code. Fair enough. Whose morals? The answer, of course, ought to be ‘those of the majority’ which is, essentially, what MPAA and even the less restrictive BBFC do in applying their certificates. What Movieguide are suggesting, actually, is that movies should be governed by the morality of the small minority that is the Christian right, for no reason other than, well, that’s what they think.
The problem with basing censorship on moral, rather than legal, grounds is that morals change a great deal, in short space of time. Here is a film that, when first shown in 1896, got this notice from a contemporary commentator: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting." What do you think?
Okay, they aren’t the world’s best looking people, but surely there is nothing remotely offensive about that. At the time though people wanted it banned. Of course you can make the case that the reaction to that particular film was because film itself was so new that seeing these images was shocking, so let’s move forward a bit, to 1953. That year The Wild One came before the BBFC, it was deemed scandalous and dangerous, a charge exemplified by this famous quote:
Mildred: What're you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
The film was banned for 15 years, finally receiving an X rating in 1968. Forty one years later, The Wild One is a PG and few, I imagine, would try to argue that rating.
The other problem with basing a censorship system on morals is that everyone’s morals differ. Mine are not even the same as my parents’, so how can we possibly find a representative system this way? This is not to say that there aren’t films being made that I find morally objectionable, there certainly are, in fact there has been a glut of them this year. The thing that has troubled me most lately is that many Hollywood films seem to have adopted a vein of misogyny, played for laughs, which disgusts me. For example Summit Entertainment (a subsidiary of Sony) released The Hottie and the Nottie, a disgusting, body fascist movie that tells its audience of teenage girls that they must subject themselves to painful surgical procedures to fit the ideal of beauty. Lionsgate released Crank: High Voltage, in which every single woman is either a stripper or a prostitute and Columbia and Sony are both involved with The Ugly Truth, which tells women that if they want to meet and keep a man they must live as a reductive male fantasy. I find all those movies morally repugnant, and I would assume that Movieguide (and British counterparts like Mediawatch) would agree with me. The difference between me and them is that I don’t assume that my being offended trumps either a filmmaker’s right to say what they want to say, or anyone else’s right to watch them say it, even if it is repugnant.
Another problem with introducing a moral code is that it can be argued that offensive films (and books, and music) are actually good for us as a culture. A healthy culture has a wide variety of forms of expression, it allows people to tell the stories they feel they want or need to tell, in the way that best suits those stories. That might mean Pingu, but it might also mean Antichrist. Boxing filmmakers in with set of largely arbitrary and draconian rules will not enrich our culture, it will deaden it. Some of the greatest films ever made have been considered, in their own times, to be offensive. Take Universal’s horror cycle of the 1930’s and 1940’s, produced under the Hays code, but still judged so dangerous that the BBFC created a whole new certificate to cover them: H, for Horrific. Those films didn’t pass the Hays office without incident though. One of the best scenes in Frankenstein was long thought lost because the Hays office insisted on its deletion; that lyrical scene in which the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl is one of the most beautiful in James Whale’s film, it was restored in the 1980s for a video release. Also deleted by the Hays office was the climax of the scene in which the Monster is created, with Colin Clive shouting, “Now I know what it feels like to be God.”
Perhaps the most repugnant film ever made is DW Griffith’s 1915 landmark The Birth of a Nation. Racist doesn’t even begin to describe this adaptation of a story called The Klansman. It depicts black people (mostly played by white actors with boot polished faces) as little more than animals, and ends with the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of the main characters. However, hateful as the film is, you can’t deny its brilliance. Griffith pioneered many of the techniques that made film the artform it is today, without The Birth of a Nation cinema itself would be very different. You shouldn’t ban films like this, or like Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries, because they feature repugnant philosophies, and if you shouldn’t do that then you shouldn’t be able to suppress films on any moral grounds.
Blasphemy is an interesting case, largely because I imagine that Movieguide would consider a ‘blasphemous’ film a prime target for banning. Only one film is currently, officially, banned in the UK because it is blasphemous. Nigel Wingrove’s Visons of Ecstacy is a 19-minute nunsploitation short, eaturing a depiction of Saint Teresa of Avila caressing the body of Jesus on the cross. Here’s a clip, if you watch it please don’t send me mail about how offended you are, I’ve warned you about the content.
However, blasphemy has come up in reference to other offensive films such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Monty Python’s classic The Life of Brian (you can throw that DVD away if censorship is considered under a moral code) and even the Harry Potter films. Religious issues are also interesting because they have a tendency to expose the hypocrisy of those who seek to censor. Lets take a look at CAPalert, the site of Thomas Carder (who is, essentially, a more bonkers version of movieguide). Carder says that he makes no allowances for the message of a movie in analysing it for ‘sinful’ content. Well, in his review of The Passion of the Christ, while he notes how violent the film is, Carder offer excuses for the violence “The Passion of the Christ,… is viciously brutal and intensely violent, but it truthfully depicts what Jesus suffered for you and I that we might have eternal life.” He even suggests that you might want to let children see this (18 rated) movie “That it is truthful to the actual events does not excuse exposing your kids to it unless you, mom/dad, say so.” Let’s, just for a second, imagine that there was a film with the exact same content as The Passion of the Christ, but that it was about a man named Ted, rather than a man named Jesus. Would Carder then suggest that it should be seen by children, or indeed by anyone? Morals are malleable, and thus you can’t base censorship on them.
We need offensive films, just as surely as we need completely inoffensive ones, if only because if we attempt to remove all offensive material from films we’ll end up with no film at all, because whatever material you have you’re almost certain to find someone who for some reason finds it offensive.