Who controls what we see on the movie
screen is one of the most contentious cultural issues of our
Of course itís not a new problem, but the current proposed
changes to the operation of the Censorship Board in Australia
raises fundamental issues which need to be openly and urgently
discussed. Sadly this issue is not exclusive to the moving image
but now extends to all the arts, including the Internet where
this article is being published.
The spark for this latest concern is the announcement on December
27 1996 by the Federal Attorney General's Office that a new
structure for reviews of censorship decisions will be introduced
to "ensure community involvement" in classification of
films, videos, literature and computer games.
The new measure proposes the establishment of a Community
Assessment Panel to review decisions of the Classification Board.
In addition the criteria for the selection of the Board itself is
now under review.
This is a double win for the forces of ignorance and
conservatism, and will inevitably contribute further to what most
in the cultural sector see as a retrograde and insidious decline
in the value of cultural activities in Australia since the
election of the new Federal Government in March 1996.
Born in the emotional distortion of what might be called by the
media, 'national feeling', after the Port Arthur incident, the
proposed changes to censorship regulation clearly imply that by
'hiding' images of violence the risk of further 'massacres' will
There is no evidence for such a belief. In fact there is
substantial; evidence that it is not images on a screen people
affected by the larger social problem of prosperity and power
unattainable to the socially disinherited and those who feel
psychologically alienated, who are likely to have uncontrollable
social resentment .
The new proposals put in doubt the notion that professionals,
with specialist knowledge, critical and analytical skills, have
any value in the censorship ratingsí procedures, whilst in
the name of democracy those ignorant analytically are given the
chance to rule.
The problem of censorship is the conflict between fundamental
freedoms which are challenged when those rights come into
conflict with a community sense of self protection.
The context in which an image is 'used' should have some
influence over the degree of control exercised in its
distribution. There is a great difference between cinema and
television with regard to the selection of their respective
Television is controlled by time whilst cinema is controlled by
To watch a film at the cinema is a deliberate act at a specific
venue under conditions which are clearly acknowledged. Under
these circumstances the argument for any censorship other than
'ratings' is defeated.
Television, on the other hand, is a casual structure with a
floating audience who might enter or leave the room at any time
during a broadcast and may change channels easily at any time.
None of these structural conditions apply to cinema.
One ironic dimension of censorship which might prove frustrating
for those who now so fervently believe in it, is that so called
'popular taste' moves in very clear cycles of acceptance. Some
personal examples from 20 years of tertiary teaching will
illustrate the point.
When I studied film and literature in the early 1970's Vladimir
Nabokov's novel Lolita was on the curriculum, and the works of
the Marquis de Sade were definitely banned. Today I would have
considerable trouble putting Lolita on a reading list whilst the
complete Marquis has been re-issued to cater for the recent
interest in bondage and domination sexuality. Yet Nabokov has
continued to be critically seen as the superior writer.
Similarly, there are examples of films from the same period such
as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris or Antonioni's Blow Up, which
were deemed at the time of their release to signal the end of
civilisation and an affront to community standards. Now, when I
screen them as part of a film survey course, my students cannot
understand what all the fuss was about.
The 'fuss' was in fact the presence of an overbearing and
moralistic censorship code which was (erroneously as it turned
out) claiming to be based on a sense of what the general
population would accept. The attempts to ban these films, with
only a few years hindsight, were clearly misguided and
This deceptive form of popularism, which now re-appears in the
guise of Community Assessment Panels, has been the refuge of
censors for centuries and has allowed dangerous political forces
to assert an exaggerated power over access to popular culture.
The result, in recent years, has been the wholesale attack on all
mediums of artistic expression. I remember being spat at and
having my clothes torn when trying to enter a cinema to See
Godardís Hail Mary at the Sydney Film Festival in 1986, a
film which quickly assumed the status of a 'lesser' work in the
great director's oeuvre.
In America the process began with the refusal of grants through
the National Endowment for the Arts to Robert Maplethorpe and was
extended to other artists. In Australia recently there has been
the attempted censorship of films such as Dead Man, and in the
English city of Westminster, the banning of the new David
Cronenberg film Crash.
These actions have been supported by a boom in opportunistically
conceived books such as Michael Medved's Hollywood Versus America
which propose the curtailing of artistic freedom because supposed
community consensus is that artists have failed in their
obligations to society.
Ultimately the role of artists and the highest use of artistic
freedom of expression, is not to copy like an obedient mirror the
existing state of society, but to propose ideals for life and
often warn of terrible futures.
That might include presenting unpalatable visions whilst
containing great truths. It is our collective responsibility to
ensure that we have access to those expressions in our local
bookshop and cinema.