Author Stephen Tropiano has written a detailed, informative and involving account of this dark legacy in his new reference book, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned and Controversial Films (Limelight Editions; 2009).
Tropiano's discourse commences in the year 1896 with Thomas Edison's technological marvel, the Vitascope.
In particular, one eighteen-second film produced for that format quickly proved both titillating and controversial. It was called The May Irwin Kiss and the short film (consisting of just one shot...) apparently scandalized as many viewers as it enthralled.
However, one prominent New York critic not only disliked the new technology and its early product, but went dramatically further. He termed the Vitascope and The May Irwin Kiss horrific things that called "for police interference."
This call for law enforcement action against a work of art represents, perhaps, the very genesis of film censorship. Accordingly, Tropiano's first chapter details this incident and other early attempts to suppress, ban or destroy films in the Silent Cinema Era. Among other things, he notes the 1909 creation of a "National Board" of censorship (a coalition of progressives, educators and Churchgoers...). An early Moral Majority, perhaps?
Tropiano's purpose in this text is to examine how the medium of film has contended with such institutions and censors, with organizations and individuals who believe (even, to this day...) that it is their "God-given" duty to determine what movies can and cannot say and show. Tropiano names names too, profiling such fascinating personalities as Miss Emma Viets of Kansas, who ruled over a state censorship board from 1920-1930. She considered it her duty, apparently, to protect the people from "displays of nude human figures," "passionate love scenes," and "loose conduct."
But importantly, Viets didn't simply suppress films she didn't like...she re-cut them according to her own sensibilities and belief system. She even re-cut the ending of an Academy Award nominated film, 1927's Sorrell and Son. She objected to an ending which involved euthanasia, and re-edited the film's climax to remove it. She did so with the excuse that the movie played too long and could stand cutting. Everybody's a film critic...
If Tropiano's book merely gazed at censored films and the personalities of censors over the last century, it would make for an interesting read, all right, but Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive is much more than that. Never one to ascribe matters to black-and-white interpretations, Tropiano devotes considerable time and space raising the question if censorship is ever acceptable or justified. Before you say "no," consider some of the examples that he provides.
Take Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker who created a documentary "love letter" to Adolf Hitler called Triumph of the Will (1935). By all accounts, it was a film of brilliant, pioneering technique...and utterly loathsome content: an "aesthetic expression of fascist ideology and the grandeur, order and power of the Third Reich." So...are censors justified in banning this particular film (one that, by the way, has occasionally been viewed as an inspiration for the final scene of Star Wars )?
Well then, how about D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation? It's another landmark film in terms of history, specifically in regards to technical acumen. Yet it is plainly racist in narrative and even pro-KKK. So is censorship the answer? Do viewers deserve the chance to see these films for themselves and decide their value (or lack thereof?) Or does the simple act of viewing Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation poison, debauch and corrupt the innocent?
Interesting questions, and Tropiano doesn't lecture or force his conclusions on us. He's a historian, not a moralist, and the stories are so intriguing, so bizarre so...messy...that it isn't necessary to editorialize (at least not often). Tropiano remembers in detail, for instance, the protests that surrounded The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He points out that many of the "devout" people so actively picketing showings of the Scorsese film had not even seen the film they were protesting, and this raises another point. Don't censors have a duty to first actually watch things that might be considered objectionable before condemning them?
Scorsese's deeply spiritual film was hated by the religious right-- hypocritically -- while Mel Gibson's "torture porn" epic, Passion of the Christ (2004) , which was more violent and gratuitously gruesome than any horror film ever could hope to be, was applauded by the same crowd. Again, Tropiano doesn't shout "hypocrites," he simply compares the response to the two religious films.
Meticulously researched, impeccably written, and original in conception and execution. Tropiano makes for a studied -- and often very droll - tour guide through this material. He examines specific films and controversies (such as the one surrounding Clerks), the development of the ratings systems (PG-13, NC-17, etc.) and movie-oriented legal/crime scandals (there was a period in the 1970s when it seems Kubrick's Clockwork Orange was blamed for every violent crime committed in England...).
Obscene, Indecent, Immoral, and Offensive is thought-provoking, well-researched and broadly inclusive. It's a splendid chronicle of some of the biggest scandals and battles over "free speech" in our nation's popular culture. You can purchase the book at Applause/Limelight or through Amazon.com, and do so with my highest recommendation.