Friday, February 19, 2016

Meet the Author: Film and Censorship

Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures:
Film and the First Amendment,
by Jeremy Geltzer

Jeremy Geltzer is an entertainment and intellectual property attorney who lives here in Burbank. He will be presenting an illustrated talk on his new book, Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment at the Buena Vista Branch of Burbank Public Library this coming Tuesday, February 23 at 7:00 p.m. It’s a story that should be of particular interest to those of us who live in a city that bills itself as “The Media Capitol of the World.” Geltzer says that the Q&A is usually pretty lively after he gives a talk, as everyone has a different point of view on these issues. Come and be a part of the conversation! You can get a copy of the book at a great price at the event (cash and checks only please!).

Geltzer has written an important history of the long fight of cinema for First Amendment protection. In its early years, the new medium of film was considered to be outside the protection of the First Amendment. Like circuses, carnivals, stage productions, and other mass spectacles, film was subject to the same local permits and censorship. The decision of a censorship board was not subject to judicial review. Filmmakers had to navigate a varied national landscape of censorship that left them uncertain about the market for their productions. Along with the challenge this posed to creative freedom, this uncertainty made it difficult to get financing for films and to establish a viable filmmaking industry. The author shows us how the fight for First Amendment protection for film set in motion a changing relationship between law and film, one that affected our ideas about the concept of free speech and expanded our notion of personal freedom in America.

Motion pictures were in trouble before they could talk. The Edison Company’s film
The Kiss, released in 1896, was only 18 seconds long, but that was not short enough
to escape the notice of the guardians of public morals. It inspired
regulation by censorship boards in the early days of film.

This is not dull legal history. It is an engaging popular history of film, one that traces how film producers broke down conventional and longstanding barriers on content and treatment. Many readers will recall the notorious films mentioned here, the ones that resulted in celebrated “milestones” in the history of the freedom of expression in America. Most of these challenges to censorship came from independent filmmakers. The major studios, in an attempt to deal with the landscape of censorship, had established internal codes and standards--self-regulation. For much of their history they had been successful in enforcing these regulations among members of their association. The films that pushed the boundaries and that became cases of litigation were films produced by independent or foreign filmmakers. Those who tried to show or distribute these films were frequently the plaintiffs.

Howard Hughes introduced his new starlet, Jane Russell and her remarkable cleavage,
The Outlaw (initially released 1943). Hughes flouted approval by the film industries'
Production Code Administration, as well as its organization that approved
film advertising materials. He also litigated against local censorship boards. 

Geltzer has woven an extensive selection of period illustrations into his narrative: movie stills, movie posters, and photographs of some of the key people involved. The movie posters are probably the most illuminating. It is clear what movie makers who pushed the boundaries thought would be attractive to their prospective audience. There was indeed a large market for more sexually explicit material, and much money to be made in meeting that demand. Filmmakers realized this even before the new and burgeoning pornography film market made this abundantly clear in the 1970s. One of the most interesting sections of this book is Geltzer’s look at how pornography was the content that drove the creation of the early home video market.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the fight for greater freedom was about nothing more than prurient content, even though that may have been its leading edge. A single word or scene in a film might cause the whole film, whatever its artistic or serious social merits, to be censored. And films were censored for a variety of reasons, not all of them having to do with sex: unpopular ideas, racial content, potential incitement to immorality or crime, sacrilegious content, and for espousing political points of view, as was the case in Chicago with some of the early anti-Nazi films that offended local populations of German-Americans. Judges struggled with the tangled nature of censorship issues. Geltzer has woven their opinions artfully into his narrative. You are able to read the actual opinions and follow the reasoning of the jurists. You might think legal opinions are dull, but you will discover here that many judges were literate and skilled writers whose prose is often elegant and illuminating. Through these excerpts, the reader becomes witness to an evolution of the law. That is something both exciting and instructive.

The censorship of Louis Malle’s
Les amants (The Lovers, 1958) by the state of Ohio
resulted in one of the most important Supreme Court decisions concerning
ilm and First Amendment protections. The case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)
distinguished protected expression from non-protected speech (obscenity).
The opinions expressed by the justices in rendering their opinion suggested that
future attempts to censor films would be viewed critically in the courts, as indeed they were.

Today most censorship issues revolve around the legal construction of “obscenity,” which has become an issue with films at the extreme fringe of pornography. Major studio releases today are not challenged for their sexual content. But it is important to remember that film was censored in its early years not only for its content but because of its power as a mass medium. It had to be controlled because it was seen as something more widely accessible and emotive than previous media, and therefore especially dangerous to established morals and order. Censorship is not always about the message; it often turns out to have as much if not more to do with the medium itself. This is something worth remembering as the technology of new media and modes of public expression lay claim to their rights and freedoms in what seems to be an ever-changing landscape of communication and public discourse.

No comments: