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First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

In a possibly vain attempt to lend an, ah, up-beat air to the censorship debate, we recently asked some prominent Australian fans and horror professionals their views on what the censorship laws should be.

Appropriately, we got a variety of responses, from the succinct to the... less so [note that all contributions are not yet in the archive]. Well, enough from us (about time, you say), and take it away...

Rod Williams (Skinned Alive)

The current censorship laws claim to allow adults to watch whatever they want, within the confines of the so-called "community standards". In reality these laws impose heavy, irrational restrictions on the types of film classified.

In brief, my own guidelines would include the current guidelines and also:

  • The expansion of the R-rating to accommodate any level of gore special effects, no matter how realistic and/or gratuitous it appeared to be. I cannot see the difference between a brief, impactful gore scene in one film, and 90 minutes of total gore in another. If a small portion of gore is acceptable, why prohibit an excessive amount of it? Also, to hell with this pretentious "must be essential to the plot" rubbish.
  • Allow similar subject matter in an unrestricted form in print, including depictions of sexual violence -- this area has been policed stupidly in recent times.
  • Only prohibit material containing child porn, snuff and criminal instruction.
  • If a movie was cut to obtain a lower rating, the distributors would have to clearly state on all advertising that the movie had been censored.
  • Only one rating for computer games should exist: Restricted or Unrestricted.
The classification of material is working okay, and the consumer advice seems to be effective, but the MA rating is totally unnecessary.

Violence

Its Purpose in Fantasy and Art and Censorship

Steve Carter (Charnel House)

In light of the current fanfare over the issue of the use and depiction of violence in fiction and art perhaps it's time to look at the role violence plays in films, literature and art.

To begin with, violence has always been an ingredient of fantasy and fiction. We find it in everything from the Bible, Shakespeare and faerie tales to modern art: films, comic books, novels etc. It frequently serves to give a work impact and intensity, in varying degrees, and often serves as a pivotal point in many plot-lines. Violence is used to enhance dramatic conflict and action, the framework around which most stories are based; from the simple action tale to complex works of fiction which dissect the human condition on countless levels.

In fact, a violent incident is regularly used to illustrate the point of a story by bringing attention to that point -- Macbeth's gruesome end, which illustrates the ultimate result of his and Lady Macbeth's irresponsible and tragic insanity. Goliath's slaying by David, which exemplifies David's courage. Neither of these tales would have been as effective without the ingredient of violence. Can you imagine Macbeth being counselled by a social worker and put on tranquillisers? Or David and Goliath sitting down to a friendly chin-wag to talk over their differences? These tales could well be rewritten this way and become long-winded and dreary, but their points would be lost. It is the intensity that an element of violence gives them which makes them such strong tales, and that same intensity has inspired and excited audiences time and again over many generations, held their attention and drove the point of the stories home without meandering about or watering the message down.

Excitement and pace -- another aspect of the use of violence in story-telling. Imagine how dull Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry would have been had it relied on politeness and political correctness rather than criminal insanity and anti-social behaviour? It might well have become ideologically sound and socially acceptable but it would have been an entirely different film, and a terminally boring one.

One area where violence plays a major role is in crime and horror fiction. Here horrific events are played out and utilised to entertain the reader or viewer with some simple shocks and thrills on a basic level, and to deliver a whole pot-pourri of messages and subtext on a deeper one. The two are usually integrated: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, for example, is a film which mixes intense and explicit violence with multi-faceted, intellectual satire to great effect. American Psycho is a modern, mainstream novel which does much the same. In both works the element of violence is very explicit and extreme, giving them an entirely new perspective. They are confronting and compelling works. Both push the boundaries of their given forms to extremes; pushing the use of violent and horrific imagery into new directions.

They are not alone. New and extreme forms of rock music on the fringe of the mainstream are virtually doing the same thing; escaping the binds of the formularised, traditional and sanitised mainstream by embracing horrific imagery, aggressive, violent rhythms and an ever-expanding new technology to open up new frontiers. This material is often intense and, far from being threatening, its violent energy generates excitement amongst its listeners and inspiration amongst its creators.

One form of this new music -- death metal -- has attracted the attention of censorship bodies due to its uncompromising use of violent and explicit imagery, along with many other modern art forms, including films, books et al.

There are those in our society who feel threatened by the overt use of violent imagery in any art form. They claim they are offended by such material and that the use of violent imagery in this way is dangerous. In a great fanfare of hysteria, paranoia and histrionics they scream for its prohibition and will not rest until it has been completely abolished -- an impossible and unrealistic ideal. This kind of purification requires the wholesale conformity of every single individual in any given community or society and is the pursuit of fanatics. There is not a community in existence which exists in such a state. Human nature, being what it is, has assured that we are all branded with the stamp of individuality.

However, that doesn't deter the misguided and the persistent. Minority groups are becoming ever more vocal and in their efforts to promote their censorious ideals they continuously redefine the meaning of violence and what represents a danger to society. Within their ranks are politicians seeking votes, rabid moral reformists of all description, new-age feminists, amateur film critics, amateur psychologists and God only knows what else. From their mouths and pens issues a jet-stream of propaganda concerning the plight of women, the safety of our children and the prevalence of violent crime. All of these things, they assert, are directly and negatively influenced by the content of violent imagery in our fiction, music and art.

According to their arguments real people are no longer responsible for their actions and whatever crimes they commit: works of fiction are! It was a fictitious character out of a horror film which killed James Bolger. It was the image of a naked woman in a magazine which promoted the current rise in sex offences. The satanic lyrics on a death metal CD drove an otherwise stable and responsible teenager to suicide...

They can't be serious!

Unfortunately, they are. They are extremely serious and have been ranting and raving for so long that governmental institutions have been catering to their whims for some time. Now, anything considered to be in questionable taste is restricted at best, banned at worst.

Evidently, no-one wants to seriously question the real motives or the sanity of James Bolger's killers. It's far easier to hold a plastic doll responsible; real children could never be that evil and nasty. Real children are innocent, clean slates. An awkward suicide is best explained by the rapid tempo of and wicked words on a death metal CD -- the devil made him (or was it her?) do it! We all know that all teenagers are perfectly stable and haven't a problem in the world, and they're so innocent and perfect that it's best not to expose them to the potential dangers of death metal. And most men don't even think about sex unless they see a picture of a naked girl in a magazine. Only then do they turn into psychopathic rapists with more sexual hang-ups than a cocaine-addicted Sigmund Freud.

It's best and safer for all concerned to ban violent imagery. The only ones who will object are the "violence freaks" who crave to feed their unnatural and ideologically incorrect yearnings on a diet of action cinema. That's right, folks, only abnormal and sociologically maladjusted people have any time for violent imagery. Anything which uses such an element is obviously inferior and has no merit. Just ask the Beatles, Dali, Max Ernst, Alfred Hitchcock and a whole plethora of cultural icons. They've been there and done that.

Each and every one of them, you may well be surprised to learn, has been the victims of such censorship movements. The Nazis considered the works of Ernst, the Surrealists and Dadaists as "undesirable elements" in their society and had them condemned as entarte kunst (degenerate art). The Beatles found themselves in the centre of a controversy over their music when it was alleged that songs on their White Album inspired the Manson clan to commit mutilation murders in California at the close of the 1960s.

Whether or not a work has "merit" is a matter of individual perception and personal taste. Now the matter is decided according to the personal viewpoints of a handful of arrogant, amateur critics who employ words like "gratuitous" and "demeaning to women" to legitimise their decisions. Imagine that: unless a work comes up to some vaguely defined standard of production and is perceived to have been conceived with a specific and correct attitude in mind, it can be outlawed.

Absurd, you say? Well, be that as it may, but such loosely defined terms as "gratuitous violence" and "offensive to the average member of the community" are in the censorship guidelines for film and literature and they are abused with a vengeance!

But the big issue is violence -- especially if it's combined with sex -- anything touching upon this delicate area is brought under intense scrutiny and rarely survives intact without some form of over-compensatory restriction or editing, if it is not banned outright. The only violence I can perceive here that is worth worrying about is that which the censors themselves inflict upon our basic rights to freedom of expression and freedom of choice.

We are supposed to be living in a democracy! We fought the fascists during the Second World War to uphold our democratic freedoms. Written into the legislation of the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification is the basic principle that "adults ought to be able to make up their own minds about what they want to watch, what they want to read..." and the current Chief Censor loudly proclaims that "...we do not censor films..."

The fact is: they do censor films. They ban them, too. But the censors do not define what they do as banning or censoring. They call it "refuse to classify". They presumably think this sounds nicer, more polite and politically correct. But it amounts to the same thing in anyone's definition.

Anything refused classification is automatically banned. Many films or books that have been refused classification have been edited (offensive pieces taken out) and then resubmitted. Some of these are then classified and released. These are censored versions. This is what happened to the film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer and some others. They were censored as a direct result of decisions made by the censorship board. In short: the Board of Film and Literature Classification does, indeed, censor and ban films.

Contrary to claims otherwise, we do not have a basic democratic right to watch and read what we choose. Even mainstream special effects horror and action films are banned and censored in this country. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is one example of a commercial film that is banned in Australia. There are several others. The reason Texas Chainsaw Massacre II has been banned is primarily because of its content of violent imagery. It's too intense for some. Very offensive to others; therefore it has been banned -- simple as that, or so we are told by a small group of people who have decided to speak for everybody.

But in this society, we are supposed to be able to make up our own minds as to whether such a film has merit, is too violent, is brilliant, is just trash, and whether or not we want to see it and find out for ourselves.

Sadly, not so.

Violent imagery has been decreed dangerous and unnecessary by a small panel of self-appointed experts. As things stand, we have no choice but to live by their decisions, just as the Europeans did when the fascists decided that Surrealist and Dadaist art were too subversive, dangerous, offensive and "undesirable".

Evidently, this situation is not going to change. If anything, it appears to be an escalating trend, perpetuated by media-generated propaganda which supports the notion that violence in fiction and art is dangerous, even unhealthy. Those who do not wish to think for themselves, or no longer can, have adopted attitudes which concur with this dogma without question. Among many people it is now considered fashionable to frown upon violent imagery and to be offended by works which are labelled as confronting or "undesirable". Violent imagery has been defined as being bad for you, and no-one wants to be seen to want to tolerate anything which is "bad for you".

And that's the mechanism by which such censorship is accepted and perpetuated: because the object in contention has been defined as being bad for you and is prohibited for your own good. There are plenty of examples of that: firecrackers, death metal, hot rods, horror comics, firearms, "toy nasties", et al.

Mind you, some of these items may or may not be bad for you, but do adults in a supposedly free thinking society really need to be governed over such matters by petty legislation and government bodies? Whatever happened to education in such matters? Or the right to choose or to risk one's own health? Suddenly we seem to be locked up in some kind of jail, subject to the proverbial old matron. Is that what we have become? An old matron society wherein everything is dangerous and bad for us and it has to be prohibited for "the common good".

Is there ever going to be an end to it?

Is violent imagery really so dangerous? Is it really responsible for all of society's ills? Obviously not. Violent imagery is just that -- imagery. It is not real and it never really happened. Unfortunately, society's ills are real and their causes are many and complex, ranging from individual instability and irresponsibility to a multitude of socio-economic factors. A single film, piece of artwork or a death metal CD may well reflect society's ills but it cannot be held responsible for them or, by the same token, be expected to solve them.

There is also the issue of the degree and intensity of violent imagery. Is there such a thing as being too explicit or going too far? In this matter, it must be understood that what may be considered as being too explicit or going too far by one person may well be not far enough for another. Only the individual can decide that for himself. One thing is certain, no censorship mechanism will ever be able to truly define such a limit -- the only limit here should surely be the imagination of the individual and not some arbitrary line drawn up be a self-designed regulator. The human imagination is not designed to conform to such a limitation.

One artist may choose to express him or herself by using nothing but endless images of extreme violence to the exclusion of all else, while another chooses to exclude all such elements. Both are equally valid means of self-expression -- or self-indulgence -- and the issue of going "too far" is not really relevant. Ultimately, there is no such thing as "going too far" or "not far enough" in art. One only goes as far they feel their work requires. The same applies to those who view the given work.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not those who are in the business of creating or having a preference for works containing violent imagery are sociologically maladjusted or mentally unhealthy -- something that has been alluded to by persons supporting the censoring of violent imagery. To answer this, we first have to look at the very nature and background of ourselves as human beings and our civilisation. We certainly have a history of being fascinated by violence, not to mention our basic predisposition: we evolved from predatory omnivores. Violence is in our very nature whether we want to accept it or not. It is always seeking an outlet and throughout history our society has done its best to find that outlet, albeit, not always in the best possible way.

One of out most obvious but negative outlets is warfare. Among our less destructive outlets are found competitive and often aggressive sports of all types, everything from boxing to hunting. Then we have the more lateral and intellectual outlets, violently energetic music and art, for example, wherein no-one is actually injured or killed but a considerable amount of violent energy is expended through the use of imagery alone. And we have horror and crime films. These certainly serve as an outlet for violent energy on some level. We can stage the most gruesome deaths imaginable but no-one is ever hurt; it's perfectly safe and we've come a long way since the days of the Roman Arena.

Which brings us back to the purpose of violent imagery is fiction and art. In some way it certainly serves as an outlet for violent energy. And legion are the fans of action films and horror movies who lap it up, having harmless fun while they do. Can they really be mentally ill, as some people suggest?

It seems that our inherent tendancies towards violence need to be recognised and accepted, not supressed. It also seems self-defeating and even somewhat stupid to censor and ban those works which contain violent elements. Suppression always has its problems and one of them is the the unpredictable but inevitable outbreak of that which is suppressed, usually in a much more unacceptable form: look at what guilt-ridden suppression of human sexual nature has created, for example...

Do we really need to censor and ban things containing horror imagery? No, I think not.

Does violence have a purpose in the creative world of fiction and art? It certainly seems so, and probably on several levels. One thing can always be said of films which contain a lot of violence. They are seldom boring, and when we watch films, we do not want to be bored.

Does that mean we are all really nothing more than "violence freaks", as some censorship advocates suggest?

Perhaps...

And if we are, is it necessarily a bad thing? Does it mean that we are all blood-thirsty subhuman freaks with no control over our basic desires and urges? Hardly. We have come to rationalise this thing called violence. We study it, scrutinise it and endlessly theorise over it. We can certainly learn something from it, and we probably already have.

Unfortunately, some of us seek to control it by censoring the only form of violence that actually is harmless -- that which is found in fantasy. But no amount of censoring fantasy will ever control the violence that represents the real problems: real violence. There is nothing to be gained or learned in the practice of censorship.

In the meantime, you can be sure that violence will crop up in our fantasies time and again, regardless of attempts to regulate it through that most useless of all of society's placeboes -- the ugly beast of censorship.


Back to your humble editors. Theoretically all this is talking about two different levels of censorship without much distinction between them: the suppressing of personal and political expression, and the suppressing of extreme sexual and violent material. Certainly there are works that exist solely to gratify anti-social desires (and frankly, literally, so what? It's always happened, mass-culture is always pretty basic, and it is the few who can be a visionary and raise themselves to the heights of social empathy all the time). But if that is the argument, again... who tells them apart? I'm sorry, but American Psycho is a wonderfully moral and well-crafted book, about a man who is always in pain. We know, we've read it. Lucky us, that we can.

Bibliography

Brought to Book -- Censorship and School Libraries in Australia, Claire Williams & Ken Dillon, ALIA Press (Australian Library and Information Association), 1993.

Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, ed. William Zerzel, the New York Public Library, Oxford University press, 1984. Excellent series of essays with a broad historical perspective.

[137] 50 Ways To Fight Censorship, and important facts to know about the censors, Dave Marsh, Thunders Mouth Press, New York, 1991. A lively look at the subject, with a heavy American bias.

[138] What the Censor Saw... And We Didn't, Phil Edwards, in Shocking Cinema, Meatmare Press, Australia, 1987. A highly recommended article, especially for the Australian perspective.

 

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