Monday, 25 May 2015

I saw a film today, oh boy

Adam Sandler is clearly some sort of Max Bialystock-level genius. I don't know how he's pulled it off, but somehow his current (very successful) career consists of:
  • writing a movie script while putting in the least possible amount of effort
  • flying out to exotic locales (the Caribbean, the Sahara) on his production company's dime in order to vacation while he films his movie
  • casting his friends in these movies so that they can all pal around in their vacation spots while occasionally taking breaks to do actual work, and
  • somehow, no matter how badly his movies flop, continuing on in this vein with no sign of professional or financial collapse.
Like I said: genius.

Sandler doesn't come up in the news very often- at this point, even professional critics are tired of flogging this dead horse- and when he does it's usually related in some way to his movies pissing people off. Sure enough, the latest news story is exactly what you'd expect from Sandler at this point: First Nations actors have walked off the set of his latest movie, "The Ridiculous Six," citing the script as being offensive towards their people and culture. Sandler and co have responded to these accusations with "it's a COMEDY, tcha," the tried and true refuge for everyone who's ever told a shitty joke and had to stare down a stone-faced audience in the aftermath. The movie will undoubtedly go on, as will Sandler's career- at this point, I don't think anything short of a massive fire at Happy Madison Studios is going to stop him. But some of the responses to this news story gave me pause- specifically, the cries of "our culture is too PC!" and- intriguingly- "censorship!"

Censorship? Really?

Here's the thing: the definition of the word "censorship" has gotten so warped in the past few years, very few people understand what it actually means. It's an especially egregious misuse in this case because no one is even trying to shut Sandler down; publicly calling his movie offensive is not the same as trying to halt production. One private citizen has every right to decide that he doesn't want to participate in another private citizen's business venture- which is, at the end of the day, what Sandler's movies are. Moviemaking is a business. No one is required to work at a business whose ethics they disagree with, or whose scheduling they don't like, or whose uniforms they think are ugly. That concept, "private citizen" is key to the entire censorship debate: it marks the difference between what censorship is and what it isn't.

Most of the time, cries of "censorship!" are accompanied by references to the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Let me quote it in full here, since it's not that long:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (x)

I bolded that first bit on purpose. Censorship happens when a government stops its citizens from the free distribution of thoughts and ideas. A government. Hollywood is not a government, and the actors who walked off the set of "The Ridiculous Six" are not senators. If the United States Congress passed a law saying that they as a legislative body found Sandler's work juvenile and offensive and that he was therefore prohibited from releasing it in the United States, that would be censorship. This is, in fact,t he opposite of censorship- these actors are exercising their right to free speech in order to criticize what they see as a film which harms the public perception of their culture. They have that right, just as Sandler is within his rights to make the film anyway, and put it on Netflix. Freedom from censorship is not the same as freedom from criticism, especially when that criticism is coming from one private citizen to another.

Another case frequently cited as censorship is the imbroglio that happened over "The Interview" this past winter. To wit, if you missed it: Seth Rogen and James Franco made a movie in which their characters assassinate the prime minister of North Korea. North Korea took umbrage to this, and threatened to attack theatres in which the film was shown. Sony, the company the film was made under, responded by pulling it from circulation, eventually compromising by releasing it to Netflix and video on demand services. Honestly, I'm more than a little tempted to think that they cooked up the whole ploy themselves: it turned the latest bro-stoner comedy into a cause célèbre, with people lining up to prove that Kim Jong-Un couldn't tell them what movies to watch, dammit! (And lining Sony's pockets as a result, naturally. The greatest trick capitalism ever played is convincing people that spending money was equivalent to taking political action.) Now, if North Korea truly was behind these threats, that's horrible. But is it censorship?

Here's the thing: no, it's not. Because North Korea is not the American government. North Korea has no sovereignty over American citizens, and its only recourse in deciding what Americans read and watch comes by way of terrorist threats. The threats may have influenced the decision to pull the movie, but the decision itself was Sony's- and Sony, as a private company (I know, I keep beating this drum) is well within its rights to choose not to release a film. Film companies pulling films from release is not actually a new thing; they do it whenever they think that the film's release will hurt the company more than help it. It's just that this particular release was accompanied by such a media firestorm, it became- as I said- a cause rather than a mediocre movie being pulled from rotation. (I have to ask, did anyone feel that their lives were truly enriched by watching The Interview? Were the jokes about Rogen and Franco's bromance really vital to your understanding of the human condition?)

The interesting thing is, there is actually a history of Hollywood colluding with the American government to censor movies- and it hasn't been done with the intent of appeasing pissy liberals. Throughout the 1920s, various state and municipal governments came up with laws to keep movies that they disliked off the screens: in response, Hollywood scrabbled to find some way of appeasing them, and came up with the Motion Picture Production Code. Rather than having to make cuts after sending the film prints out, the reasoning went, they would make all the necessary changes before
Hi I'm Joseph Breen, and I'm here to ruin your day.
anyone outside the studios ever saw the films. The Code was originally overseen by Will Hayes (hence the common nickname "Hays Code") who had resigned from his position as the head of the Republican National Committee days before taking on the job at what would become known as the Production Code Administration. He was later replaced by Walter Breen, a Roman Catholic layperson who once charmingly referred to Hollywood's Jewish directors as "the scum of the earth." Breen's anti-Semitism probably contributed to Hollywood's extreme reluctance to release any films criticising Nazi Germany: while filmmakers attempted to make movies that criticized the Nazi concentration camps, they were shut down by the PCA, and only permitted to move forward after it was discovered in 1938 that Nazi spies had infiltrated the American government. Here are the "don'ts" of the Hays Code- the things Hollywood films were absolutely not allowed to portray:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion [homosexuality]; 
  5. White slavery [prostitution];
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed

So PC. Much liberal.

Directors either complied with the Code or found ways to skirt it (kissing scenes of longer than three seconds were forbidden, so Alfred Hitchcock got around it by having the actors come up for air every three seconds during a two-minute makeout scene in Notorious) and it remained in place until 1966, when the Hays Office closed. This happened for a variety of reasons; America was beginning to shift away from the rigid religious morality that had governed the Code, and the lack of an MPPC certificate was no longer a barrier to a film's financial success. Most significantly, a 1952 Supreme Court case, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, handed down the verdict that films were protected under the First Amendment (a freedom that had not previously existed, as per the Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision of 1915) which means that state boards could no longer control what content was and was not acceptable in their movie theatres. The government could no longer control what movies the public watched.

So that's when film censorship ended, right?

Well, Kind of.

You may have seen "This Film is Not Yet Rated," the 2006 documentary detailing the inner workings of the Motion Picture Association of America- the ratings board that replaced the Hays Code. The director of that film, Kirby Dick, found that members of the MPAA were generally laypeople when it came to child development and psychology, that their appeals process provided no clarity to directors who wanted to know why their film had received the rating it did, and that a disparity existed between films with heterosexual content and homosexual content. But most pertinent to the current discussion is the fact that Hollywood frequently works alongside and in cooperation with none other than the Pentagon- aka, a branch of the American government. The Pentagon provides military vehicles, weapons, and expertise to filmmakers, but can and will yank their support if the film portrays the military in a way that they disapprove of. Here is a partial list of films produced with Pentagon assistance (the full list can be found at the link):
  • Iron Man
  • Transformers
  • True Lies
  • Star Trek IV
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Battleship
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Captain Phillips
So, does the Pentagon's involvement in Hollywood constitute censorship? Not under the First Amendment, no. The Pentagon isn't Congress, and the First Amendment specifies that Congress cannot interfere with the freedom of speech. However, the Pentagon's relationship with Hollywood- and Will Hays' quick job turnover from the RNC to the Production Code Administration- comes closer to government interference in filmmaking than anything else under discussion. It is perhaps worth noting that the First Nations actors criticising Adam Sandler do not work for the Pentagon- and the American government does not have a history of either cooperating with or uplifting its First Nations constituents. So unless Obama comes out with a presidential decree shutting down Happy Madison Studios, it might behoove Adam Sandler's fans to consider the fact that he operates and has always operated with impunity as far as censorship is concerned.

After all, he's not inferring "sex perversion."

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