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Posts Tagged ‘Film Censorship’

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s motto is “Ars Gratia Artis”, it appears on the company logo inscribed into a ring of film that surrounds “Leo” the roaring lion that is at the heart of the companies brand image. The Latin phrase translates to “Art for art’s sake”, but how many studios truly believe in this concept. Is the motion picture industry the one art form where cash is king and art is an afterthought? More so than any other art based industry including music, the bottom line comes first and if they make some art along the way that’s a bonus.

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Where would the movie industry me if the money men took a step back and let the artists run the industry? Would it be a case of the lunatics running the asylum and all the studios would go bust, or would the products be so great that they would make money along the way? To go back to the comparison with the music industry, manufactured bands who want to be rich and famous often make it big for a short time, make lots of money then disappear without a trace. Whatever amount of success they have often pales in comparison to genuinely talented artists who are in it for the love of the music.

The late 20’s through to the end of the 40’s is often referred to as the Golden Age of Cinema. Many people dispute this as it was controlled by the big studios and their moguls, it was also the time of a huge amount of censorship. It was the time of the “Studio system” where stars were bound up in studio contracts and the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition was designed to dominate the industry. But constraint often inspires creativity and this era produced many classic movies, Citizen Kane and Casablanca to name just two. The system came to an end in the late 40’s following a Supreme Court ruling and things would never be the same again. But did they really change that much from an artistic point of view?Casablanca

The lunatics did run the asylum for a while, or at least the actors ran a studio when in 1919 D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded United Artists. By the end on the 1940’s the studio existed in little more than name, producing and distributing very few movies. Of the original stars who set up the studio only Pickford and Chaplin remained. Following the US government revoking Chaplin’s re-entry visa the pair agreed to sell the studio to Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, a pair of lawyers turned movie producers. Throughout the 50’s 60’s and 70’s the studio produced many classic movies and launched the James Bond series, but it was a long way from the ideals of Griffith, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks.United Artists

Then came Heaven’s Gate. The director Michael Cimino, had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for The Deer Hunter (a film I don’t think has aged that well and its crown as a classic may be slipping) and was given unusual creative freedom. There are lots of articles about this by people who know the story far better than me, look them up. The important thing here is the result and the fallout. The film had a budget estimated at $44 million (around $140million when adjusted for inflation), it took around $3million at the US box-office. Around this time the company was sold by Transamerica (a holding company that had acquired it a few years before) to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is estimated that they paid around $350 million. Was this for the artistry of the companies back catalogue or its value in the emerging home video market? I will let you decide. So there we are back at the beginning. The company that proudly bares the slogan Art for art’s sake purchased the company that was set up by artists for arts sake.

Heaven’s Gate may have seen the end of what is often referred to as New Hollywood, but the echoes of the era are still been felt and many exponents of the time are still making movies, they include: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski and Ridley Scott. There are also great directors who work outside or on the edge of the system like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater. Their films may sometimes suffer from being bloated and or self indulgent but this is a small price to pay. Most interestingly are the directors like Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle who work within the system but make it work for them in a similar way to the auteurs of the golden age.raging bull

So what’s the conclusion? Sadly I have no insight or profound words. As a cynic, I truly believe that the studios are in it for the money but as a film lover I believe there are artists (actors, writers, directors and other creative people) in the industry who are in it for the love and for the art, and once in a while they create art. True art, Art for art’s sake.

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UK cinema goers may have noticed a change in the style of the certificate cards recently. These retro style cards are part of The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)’s celebration of its centenary. Who are the BBFC? Put simply they are a none-profit organisation that is independent of film industry and more importantly the government. It is funded by the fees it charges for its services in classifying movies. As mentioned above, it has been in existence in one form or another for 100 years having been set up in 1912 as The British Board of Film Censors. Strictly speaking the true power lies with the local authorities throughout the UK but except a few exceptions always follow the guidance of the BBFC.

For a long time my feelings towards UK film censors were less than positive mainly due to the joke that was the Video Recordings Act 1984. In essence a harmless and sensible legislation that helped close a loophole bringing video recordings in line with cinema releases. Previously attempts had been made to prosecute under The Obscene Publications Act (1959 and 1964), this was clearly not fit for purpose and something was needed to clarify the issue. Unfortunately thanks to the ridicules and overblown “Video nasty” scare of the 1980’s it became a divisive law that pitted film fans against authority. Think of the misguided moral outcry against rock and roll music in the late 50’s and you get the idea. At the time I was too young to know anything about it, but just a few years later could not accept that there where films I could not see because of my age, and even worse that there were films that were banned outright. I’m not talking about the extremely gory horror movies but mainstream action films like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies The Terminator (1984) and The Running Man (1987), the seminal action movie Die Hard (1988) and Mad Max (1979) to mention just a few. These came with 18 certificates preventing me from seeing them in the cinema or (legally) renting them on video.

Then in 1993 opinions were polarized by the murder of James Bulger. The horrendous crime was committed by two ten-year-old boys. There was some suggestion that the actions of the murderers were inspired or “encouraged” by video nasties with particular emphasis on Child’s Play 3. Despite Merseyside Police saying there was no connection, most people remembered the rhetoric of the tabloid press under the old adage don’t let the facts interfere with a good story. And thus begun the second age of the video nasty scare. In truth Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 clarified the rules rather than changed them and also gave The Secretary of State more power. It didn’t stop a tabloid led outcry that shamelessly used a tragedy for their own propaganda. At the time I had mixed feelings what was happening mainly because I was seventeen and had been able to pass for eighteen for some time and therefore could watch what I wanted. It was also around this time that I saw The Exorcist (1973) at the cinema, this was at a time when it was still not available on video and before its 1998 general re-release. This was my first experience of local independent cinema. I was back a week later to see Reservoir Dogs (1992). Two years after its original cinema release it was the only way to see it legally as BBFC initially refused to grant a home video certificate. Another hangover from Video Recordings Act 1984, UK releases are required to be certified separately for cinema and home viewing. My other memory from the time was of Natural Born Killers. Much anticipated as the release was delayed amid accusations that there had been copycat in countries that it had been shown. It was eventually shown in 1995 in the UK but not Ireland.

More recently there has been a new debate around the current 12A certificate. The Woman In Black was cut by the bbfc “to reduce moments of strong violence / horror” at the request of the distributor in order to achieve a 12A classification. The distributor for The Hunger Games showed an advanced cut of the movie to the BBFC and took advice on how to achieve a 12A classification. The finished film still strayed into the 15 category so a few alterations were made, digitally removing blood and “A number of cuts were made in one scene to reduce an emphasis on blood and injury”. The process of consulting the censor to achieve the desired classification shows a level of maturity and common sense that is a little saddening when compared to maverick filmmakers of the recent past who have pushed the boundaries of the medium. It is however in its own way an example of pushing boundaries and has resulted in its of criticism. Listeners to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews on radio 5 have commented on the classification of both movies. Some horror fans resent The Lady in Black being cut to give a more child friendly rating. On the other hand The Hunger Games has been accused of being too violent for a 12A audience. There is a school of thought that the none violent killing seen in 12A movies is more dangerous to an audience in its formative years to the violent and bloody killings of Battle Royale (2000). Then I look back on the movies I mentioned above, is The Running Man much more violent than The Hunger Games? The answer is yes and no, it is no more violent but it is more graphic. To compare it to more contemporary films, If The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and 300 (2006) can achieve 12A and 15 classifications respectively, The Hunger Games looks about right.

It wasn’t until I hit thirty and started looking back at all the films I have seen when I realised the censors can be a positive thing. When you look at the Motion Picture Production Code and the inventiveness of movies like The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or the ambiguity of Detour (1945) used to work with in the rules. But more importantly than that we need to look at films that pushed the boundaries or even broke the rules like Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). While I am more on the side of those who break the rules, where would we be without the rule breakers?

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