In a country (like Australia) where both ‘independent’ film-funding and film-censorship depend on government bodies, the real interest that questions of censorship have, from a film-making point of view, is of what bearing censorship decisions have on the prospects of film-production. Do the decisions to ban or ‘modify’ certain films, and to accept or reject scripts submitted for funding, reflect a common policy at a level higher than that of the respective statutory bodies, and the charters under which they function? Is there a common ideological or financial pattern to which both bodies ultimately have to conform – a ‘master-pattern’? Or not? Does the appearance of inconsistency in censorship rulings owe itself to unspoken criteria, anomalous to public reasons and ‘charters’ but to which these, however inconsistently, must conform?
Every independent film-maker interested in getting a project accepted for production has a stake in the answers to these questions; all have probably put them to themselves at one time or another. The inconsistency attending the decisions on a film like Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) seems to raise them of itself: banned in Aust. for 17 years, then given a certificate for exhibition, then re-banned (in 1998). Does the re-banning sound an ominous warning-bell to indies just completing a first draft for a submitable project? Has the storyboard writer just been put on notice, that there are limits beyond which you henceforth may not go? Or has the inhibitive process begun much earlier: at the daydreaming, at the imaginative, at the thinking and inventing stage?
And as audiences – what are we to look forward to from films bearing the Australian Film Commission logo, its Good Housekeeping seal of approval: more of the red-label, well watered mediocrity of the past three or four years? Or more feature-length clips of the Strictly Balltrap and Head-Job gene, bearing VCA or AFTRS pedigrees? (For this lapse into burlesque I make no apologies: it has been well earned.) If the answer to the preceding paragraph’s last question is ‘yes’, then so is the answer to both in this one.
Looking over a few of the better-known cases of film-censorship over the years, and the contradictory destinies of Salò (in Aust., this is), it might be asked whether the inconsistencies don’t form a consistent outline of their own; whether, in short, they don’t fit into a system over and above the changes of government and the charters to which decisions supposedly conform. If they did – if the outline from Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) to Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999) formed a broadly discernible pattern – wouldn’t this be at least the start of an answer to the puzzling particularities of cases, and the apprehensiveness with which indies face the future of their “craft and sullen art”?
It might be; indeed it might. It would bypass, for example, the silent presence of powerfully lobbied religious and moral minorities – of a decade’s standing or more – in favor of a much longer-term tradition of these in Australia: a tradition whose silence makes it hard to glimpse in particularities, but which may be implied in the way that cases over a long period have contorted around its contours. The usefulness of this would be in locating this tradition’s ‘bottom line’ on content, murky and changable as it may be – for one then finds the line, elastically reflected in these turbid waters, in crossing which a project is likely to strike trouble. (Likely: not certain. This is only an example, and the tradition to which the continued existence of such ‘moral’ groups is testimony may not be the most important factor in the fate of films. It is the response by the statutory censorship and funding boards that counts.)
And in the event, it would amount to a book-length monograph. To do both the topic and living memory justice, one would have to go back as far as 1964, diving a short way into the Menzies era, and the firm ban imposed on The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963: not leaving out the 15 secs. still cut from the movie-theatre scene on the film’s eventual Australian release in 1972, with an ‘R’ 18+ classification) – and end with the most recent case, that of Romance. Supposing any of the older documentation to exist, those with the patience to force it to the surface (and the interest in Australian cultural history) may want to undertake it sometime. It would probably be unreadable. Here we will limit ourselves to up-to-date cases (and documents), while bearing the pattern of past ones in mind. From harpooning first the general armature, one could proceed with a hiss of parting meat into the softer tissue layered around the individual case, to see how well or badly it fits the hypothetical carapace. Coming in from long-shot to close-up in this way has at least the virtue of saving time, in addition to providing a broad synoptic view.
Everything speaks for the fact that it is not to a film’s measurable, graphic ‘content’ (of sex, or whatever) that censors refer their actual deciding procedure, but to its potential and likely impact on audiences; i.e. to the film as experienced, not as offered, and to the possible effects therefrom. In other words, it is to cultural, ultimately ideological, coordinates that censors connect films: something wider than, and ‘outside’ their acetate skins. Their sensory, internal content counts for relatively little. Or it would be more correct to say, that the ‘internal’ is seen as comprising those wider connections – no film being viewable outside a context of some kind.
This is not a recent turn in censorship-criteria, whatever appearances may say. Back in 1968, Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967), a film filled with realistically depicted violence, found itself passed intact with scarcely a murmur; whereas the then-commonwealth censor refused to even consider Weekend – a film completely lacking in any convincing acts of violence – for classification. But the latter film was potentially far more explosive, more ‘violent’, in its actual effect than the former could hope to be, despite its very vivid assault on the senses (by fist, bludgeon, car, guns, and grenades, in turn). Not for nothing did Beatty originally want Godard to direct his film. Simply by tracking alongside a real traffic-jam on one of the French motorways, simply by listening to the ordinary speech and tones of his bourgeoisie, simply by taking their smirking closeups in strong outdoor sunlight, Godard had something potentially horrible in its long-term effects on the sensitized young of that period. “Horrible”, that is, from the point of view of the old shirtsleeved men governing Australia at the time – the Menzies protégés, the Holts, the Gortons. Not until well after the 1972 election of the Aust. Labor Govt. was Weekend granted a ‘Restricted’ (18+) classification.
(Today the situation might well be reversed, with Weekend looking a bit dated, and blunted in its impact; while Bonnie and Clyde, lacking the rosy hue of sixties spectacles, shows something far less romantic than anyone recognized at its time, thirty-two years ago. Such is the power of the cultural context over the experience of viewing a film.)
Now, from one point of view this says nothing very new. It simply means that censors are aware that no film exists in a vacuum; certainly none applying for an exhibition-certificate. Viewing is implicitly a part of every film. And so, therefore, are its ‘effects’. Well and good.
Yet here we encounter a first anomaly. In public statements accompanying cases of ‘Refused Classification’ or ‘Modification’, films are discussed both as if they had an internal character quite apart from any audience, and as viewed by an audience. The former viewpoint is expressed in such formulas as “the artistic merit and character of the film”, “appears to be a serious artistic work”; the latter, in such as “generally accepted community expectations and standards”, “standards generally accepted by reasonable adults”, “the likely audience for the film”. (These are quoted from the statement accompanying the initial Classification Board decision on the film Romance, dated 14/1/2000.)
Why this bi-lateral stance? Surely censors are only supposed to be concerned with possible effects – with the ‘exhibition’ end. Well, in the event of a reversed decision, as occurred with the same Romance, it enables the Classification Board to shift into the warmer latitudes of “recognized artistic merit and serious intent” with the minimum of fuss; one simply slides one’s other foot over the categorical line, with a sidelong glance at Customs: “…the Board noted the general principle enshrined in the National Classification Code that ‘adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want’.” – and Voila! All is resolved by the Principle in the Shrine.
Is it really necessary to point out that nobody, adult or other, can “want” to see something unless it is being exhibited? And that to be so, ipso facto, it cannot be refused classification, i.e. cannot have been ‘censored’? The “general principle”, if it is active, in fact contradicts the very idea of a Board being authorized to ban what “adults should be able to read, hear and see”, if they “want”. To ban something is to have refused them the choice our three-star Shrine General, with the other hand, holds out – and on a national scale! Or is it that our Principle is simply too general to bear application to each and every case? (I have cited it as quoted in the Board’s “Romance Media Release” accompanying the lifting of its ban on Breillat’s film.)
The question would be worth going into, as the Board, in coming to its original decision (to impose the ban), made reference to some specified criteria, quoting from guidelines published in government documents. The important point here is: to what extent are these statutory and binding? And, do they take precedence over the National Classification Code – or not?
I am emphasizing this point because any specified criterion applied in banning a work from sale, rental or exhibition would be in conflict with the cited principle in the National Classification Code (though not with the principle of classifying as such: setting limits to young age-groups, for example). Were the Board’s criteria statutory exceptions to the Code, and do these come attached to the Code? If not, why are there two (at least) separate and conflicting codes to choose from? For the record, the statement on the original ban says that the Board assessed according to “the statutory requirements set out in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, the National Classification Code and the Classification Guidelines for Films and Videotapes.” That makes three separate documents (and whether only the first is statutory or all three are is unclear in the statement as it stands): do they support or conflict with each other?
Indeed, it would be worth trying to answer… Being neither Lobbyist nor Activist absolves me from having to bore readers by quoting government prose. Those with the stamina may visit the Govt. Printing Office, or its website. However, there is no harm in having a little fun with the multiple criteria applied by the Board to Breillat’s film in lowering and lifting its ban. If, between the two, an outline faintly emerges of something betokening a system – implied through the press-release fog – then we shall have something to test against and compare with other documented cases affecting films.
Going back to its original statement, we find that a “minority of the Classification Board” argued for the “artistic merit”, good character and pedigree, etc., of Romance; but that a “majority” of its members felt moved to make reference to the Classification Guidelines, to wit: Sexual activity may be realistically simulated; the general rule is “simulation, yes – the real thing, no.” (Once more, we find a general nesting in the criteria; these rules and principles are full of generals! ) How is the realism of a “simulation” to be determined? Answer: only by reference to the “real thing”. And how is a “realistic simulation” to be distinguished from the “real thing” – and how could audiences distinguish it? Very amusing. The “minority”/”majority” distinction drawn in the statement implies that Board members had a hands-in-air vote on the issue. Which is most proper and democratic.
In opening its guns on Romance the Board noted “explicit” depictions of “actual sex” (well! – you could hardly get more explicit than “actual”), some “fetish activity”, and what it called, strangely, “an implied depiction of sexual violence.” Question: what on earth is “an implied depiction”? Something that started life as a depiction, but then stopped short of showing anything? Or is ‘implied sexual violence’ what is meant? Either way, the “sexual violence” in the Board’s sights comes out sounding a bit muffled, to say the least. Or is it a typical case of overreaction muffling itself?
The Board notes, irrelevantly, that the ‘X’ (Restricted 18+) classification doesn’t permit “depictions of sexual violence, sexualised violence or coercion of any kind.” It was never a question of what an ‘X’-rating permits or doesn’t, since ‘X’ is the last thing Romance‘s distributor wanted; it would limit the film to porno-dives and sex-shops where it would assuredly have had a very short life. It was only to ‘R’, and what the various bodies allow to be dumped under ‘R’, that the Board was to refer. But the reference to ‘X’ is only a rhetorical gesture: what it would not permit, ‘R’ a fortiori wouldn’t.
“Therefore, the Board in majority [note this safety-catch] determined that the film warranted an ‘RC’ classification.” Readers will be glad to learn that ‘RC’ stands for ‘Refused Classification’ and that it was only by “majority”, and not by unanimity, that Romance warranted a “Refused Classification classification.” It is not every film which is endowed with such an honor. Indeed, a minority of Board-members were not prepared to go as far as granting it the classification of being refused a classification.
After this tutti climax come three short explanatory paragraphs, in a descending slope of semantic and logical coherence. The first contains some revealing adverbial groups, supposedly descriptive of film and audience: in close order we have “standards generally accepted by reasonable adults”, then “the general character of the film”, followed by its “likely audience”, and finally its “literary, artistic and educational merit (if any)”. Generally, general, likely – and a conditional triptych of ‘merits’. As guiding standards and rules for reaching decisions, things seem seriously cloudy and blurred.
We next glance at Breillat’s artistic blue-book entry, and note an appearance of serious artistry in Romance. This is gladdening – until we ask why the same apparition is unlikely to be visible to its “likely audience”. But now we reach the bottom. It begins with a heavy clearing of the throat and a qualifying “However” – only to let us down with yet another general, once more accompanied by his major: “…the majority of the Board noted that generally explicit depictions of sexual activity have not previously been permitted in the ‘R’ classification in Australia.” Again, a minority abstained from crediting the notion that explicitness might be general – might be averaged-out from ‘more’ or ‘less’ – rather than either there or not. It also seems to have abstained from going on its knees before “previously”, before Precedents: that god of judges and politicians. (Be they ever so silent, thank the stars for our Minorities!)
Having once more affirmed the power of the vocal democratic “majority”, the Board concludes with a snippet from its own biography: “The Board’s role is to reflect and not to lead community standards in the application of statutory criteria.” Very modest – as befits such a democratic body. One would have thought that the Board’s “role” would be defined in those statutory criteria. To the extent that they really are statutory, “community standards” don’t come into it at all, for the criteria are already law. Where the exercise of judgement arises, statutory prescriptions are the only relevant guide; both “community standards” and the Board’s own guidelines are subordinate to them. If, that is, statutory criteria is really what that last statement means – and not one of those other two documents mentioned as Board-references (supposing them to be non-statutory). Going on the evidence of semantic care shown throughout the ‘RC’ Statement on Romance, the possibility of such a confusion is by no means to be ruled out.
In turning to the ‘Media Release’ upon the lifting of the ban, however, we find the NCC‘s General Principle quoted on adults being “able to read, hear and see what they want”, followed by a sudden belief that the sex in the film does not offend what the statement accompanying the ban said it did: the “standards generally accepted by reasonable adults”. We are then reminded of the artistry and “serious intent” etc., heavily underlined by a descriptive “recognized”, and conclude with our old friend the Majority – not of the Board this time, but of Australians, who in the Review Board’s belief “would agree that any adult wishing to see this film should be able to do so”. Again, this ‘belief’ is new. There is no mention of precedents this time, either. The whole brief thing is signed by someone new too, designated “Acting Deputy Convenor” of, not the Board, but the “Review Board”. (In other words, a different panel of assessors was ‘convened’, quite independent of that concerned in the original decision. This supposedly aids an unbiased assessment.)
Is that enough to account for the ease with which minds are changed on what the “community” will accept, and on the autonomy of adult audiences’ viewing-choices? Not quite. But here, at last, all our Generals are explained: what is only generally but not specifically “acceptable”, what is merely “likely” but not certain, a grey-area but not a quotable “majority”, allows a wide latitude of interpretation. In fact, it is an advance allowance granted by the Board to itself for ‘mistakes’ and ‘changes-of-mind’, without anybody having to explain them; for precisely the kind of reversed decision represented by Romance, and serving much the same purpose as having a choice of different criteria to refer to. Thus what is only a bit of placatory background-dressing in the RC statement – the “artistic merit” etc. – suddenly steps forward, flexing its muscles, as an effective agent in lifting the Romance ban. Thus a principle ignored in the RC release is now invoked, and a libertarian respect is accorded the old General in the NCC Shrine: “what they want”.
The only difference is that the choice of what ‘principle’ to highlight can also be found within one or another of the Board’s guiding criteria: not totally (as the reference to the NCC shows), but to quite a large extent. I noted above how cloudy and blurred the Board’s own guidelines and standards seemed in its closing remarks on the banning of Romance. If its case is a reliable indicator, the reason would seem to be clear: having principles from unconnected strata condensed together in one vague blur leaves the choice of which to focus on up to the Board (or Review Board – the difference amounts to a slight change of task and changed personnel.) Since guideline documents cannot be quoted entire, but only those bits relevant to whatever decision they have to support, this proves very convenient.
To summarize the outline from the Romance case, then:- we find the censors standing, with one foot, on the likely effects on an audience, ‘community’ concerns about sexual explicitness and violence, the lack of precedents for exhibiting such graphic depictions; and with the other foot, on the film’s integral character, its artistry, the reputation of its director, its exhibition in other countries, and the liberty of adult audiences to choose. From ban to lifting, the weight goes from one foot onto the other, along with a change of personnel, and the category of ‘precedents’ is silently dropped. Both times, there is a concern to indicate that a minority is in disagreement with a Board majority, each of whom directly contradicts its opposite number. Finally, several source-criteria are referred to, and within these, several quite different principles – the references falling on one or the other according to whether we are refusing or granting classification; the concepts in question being generalized enough to permit all the contradictions and changes-of-mind.
Before seeing if the detected outline can be applied systematically to the other notorious censorship case of recent times – that of Salò – mention must be made of the big omission in the Review Board’s press-release on Romance. Before it sat, a private screening of Romance was given to 17 public volunteers, more-or-less randomly selected from a middle-of-the-road market in Sydney, and feedback encouraged on whether adults should be allowed to see the film if they chose: it was positive. The result was published nationally in The Australian newspaper. This exercise apparently had the cooperation of the Office of Film and Literature Classification. So feedback was given the Review Board on what standards the ‘community’ was prepared to accept, and it certainly contradicted the notions about that of the original Board – which appears to have been in complete ignorance of what it was supposed to be assessing. But that is how it is sometimes, when you have so many Generals to deal with… It must be pointed out that our volunteer audience was ‘assessing’ a highly specific case; and that none of them were under the delusion that such a thing as a ‘general’ one exists.
So: the omission. We must commend the kindness of the Review Board in sparing their co-workers the embarrassment of having their risibility enshrined in a document of record.
Now, to Salò. To what extent can the summary outline, above, of the Romance case be applied to the media releases on its unbanning and rebanning? How well would it fit over both cases, and on the (invisible) hand guiding them? The answer, summarily, is: to a very large extent – almost in toto.
As with Romance, issues and principles common to both the releases are directly contradicted: a majority vote on an issue in the one release turning into the minority vote of the other, and vice-versa. As with Breillat, the initial release seems undecided whether it is assessing the film as an intrinsic work of art or as a possible source of offence to “some sections of the adult community” (in a phrase it quotes from the ‘minority’ members in the old 1976 statement accompanying the original ban). And as with Breillat, both releases assess with reference to several source-criteria (among which is the National Classification Code) – though here an interesting variant comes in, which I will look at in a moment.
For example: the 1993 release decides that the situation shown in Salò is clearly a metaphor, though plausibly realistic in terms of time and place; that erotic and “titillating” scenes are not depicted in an erotic or titillating way; that it is not the film, but its four main characters who degrade the unfortunate humanity under their provenance – and that identification with them is made practically impossible by Pasolini. To the 1998 release, the metaphorical nature of the setting and scenes seems only tenuously established (though it agrees that this is what Pasolini intended), the tortures go too far in the direction of degradation, and the artistic purpose in their depiction does not “outweigh” their offensiveness.
Again: the 1993 release starts out by “endeavouring to assess the film solely by reference to its intrinsic character” – and almost immediately begins discussing its extrinsic “notoriety”, its effects, its exhibition in other countries, its possible offensiveness, its likely audience, etc. The 1998 one, while ostensibly concerned with the ‘exhibition’ end, performs the same bear-dance. Again, both agree with the film being a serious work of art: the 1993 one plays it up, the 1998 one plays it down – ending, once more, with a dissenting “minority” view. The same ‘generally/likely/probably’ use of terms afflicts both papers, and we have the same elasticity of interpretation to take everybody off the hook. And the same change of personnel and of name – though inconsistently in this case, since the 1993 Board already called itself a Review Board in reassessing the old 1976 decision, but now finds itself referred to simply as the “Classification Board” by the new Review Board of 1998. (So much for the importance of names.)
The interesting part is what’s missing in the Salò case. A factor present in the Romance ‘ban’ release is absent from both of the Salò releases. Neither one makes reference to precedents. Indeed, it is hard to see to what precedents the rebanning could refer. It is already singular enough that a review-board should have its decision re-reviewed; it is absolutely unprecedented that a film, recognized across the board (and internationally) as a major work of art in its medium, should have a ban which was lifted from it reimposed five years later. The re-reviewing is not so much a case of double-negation as position, or rather double-imposition. How come? What changed from 1993 to 1998 to make such a thing possible in Australia?
A look at the declared assessment-criteria in each of the releases shows part of the answer. The 1993 one made reference to some “revised guidelines” of censorship classification, dated 1989, and took as its fundamental guiding principle the NCC‘s declaration on adults seeing, hearing and reading what they want (quoted above). Between that and the rebanning, a new and revised piece of legislation, affecting chiefly films and computer-games, was passed: the Act (1995), mentioned above as one of the three criteria of the Romance assessment. It is within the parameters of this Act, and of its two sub-adjuncts – the Classification Guidelines and the NCC – that all films must now be assessed, as the rebanning release acknowledges. But: both these have been modified in accordance with this new Act. The NCC‘s “what they want” principle is still in place, for example; but with new qualifying conditions to accord with the new Act (and replacing the old ones). As ever, they are interpretable, and allow the exercising of judgment. It is to these that the “detailed assessment” in the rebanning of Salò made reference. Which brings me to the other important variant between the Salò and Romance cases -:
Most release statements on a film’s banning/unbanning list or summarize in general terms what is, or is no longer, likely to be offensive, without going into graphic details. There is usually a heavy reliance on qualifying and descriptive terms – again at a general level. This is the style in the 1993 statement on Salò; this is how Romance is described both times. At no point, for example, is the lead character’s oral assault on a rather flaccid-looking male member graphically described and timed by the number of minutes into Breillat’s film. But precisely this is what occurs in the statement rebanning Pasolini’s film. The Review Board first shows (in bold type) the phrases in the classification criteria which are problematic in Salò – e.g. “Scenes of offensive cruelty with high impact” – then follows up with a graphic list:
31 mins.: prolonged scene of boy being whipped
32 mins.: girl eats cake with nails in it, screams, and blood runs from mouth
63 mins.: girl forced to crawl across the floor and eat faeces
71-73 mins.: all in the diningroom are forced to eat faeces as meal
102 mins.: girls tied up in a vat of filth (faeces and urine)
105-111 mins.: [A 9-bullet list of the tortures and killings at the end of the film follows]
This is repeated on the following page: graphic list, number of minutes, even snatches of quoted dialogue. All, naturally, taken quite out of context. As far as I am aware, this is unique for this kind of censors release in Australia. Simply a rhetorical stacking of the cards? Not quite: Salò, you recall, was publicly shown here and there, for a period of five years. The film, even among cinemagoers who hadn’t seen it, had built up a certain reputation; people were more or less aware of what parts of it showed. They were also aware that it was being showed. So there was nothing to hide – and plenty to justify. How do you justify withdrawing cinemagoers’ freedom of choice? The freedom to see it, or to stay away? Perhaps the style of the rebanning document provides part of the answer. Listing scenes baldly in this way, without a context, helps to give them their offensive high impact – on paper.
There was no comparative need to specify what the Board found bannable about Romance: no one had seen, and few had heard of, it or of Breillat in Australia – until the ban, that is. There also wasn’t quite the same prestigious scroll-border certificate of film’s and director’s artistic reputation: the kind that comes from being dead and a quarter-century old. Not quite the same degree of shame attached to one’s task – one’s mucky little task. An invidious statement, I realize; but made in the certainty that in the near future things will change in that respect, for Breillat if for anyone directing films today.
The real invidiousness is now in the record, implying as it does that Pasolini’s work has a dangerous quality to it that Breillat’s doesn’t – an impacted power, a reach. Which would not of necessity have to be true. But such are the side-effects of having a film censorship body in this free society Australians call their own.
In order to be done with the shameful case of Salò and summarize home, let’s quickly point out that the unbanning release of 1993 included in its list of six Board personnel two film critics, and that the 1998 release didn’t bother to list its Review Board members. The application to have the 1993 decision “reviewed” was the federal Attorney-General, acting “at the request of” the Queensland Attorney-General. Who the Qld. A.-G. was acting at the request of is not known. Was the new Board chosen with a view to obtaining the sought-for decision? Is “reviewed” euphemese for “overturned”? The case invites such questions: it reeks. Cinephiles and hopeful funding-applicants may make of it what they can.
All of which leaves us where? Can a recognizable line from do’s to don’ts be detected through the disgusting porridge of public service euphemisms dropped by double-stooled buttocks on a media-ridden public? – A consistent bottom line that you can’t cross in this country if you want funds to film, or films exhibited?
Yes: the same one that almost blocked Andreas Serrano and did block the Sensation exhibition. It’s called the ‘animal functions’; or more poetically, the ‘beast in the human’: outgoing chemistry, when shown unredeemed by any ennobling end, such as ‘conception’ or ‘heroism’ or ‘toil’ or ‘mourning’ (for, respectively, semen, blood, sweat, and tears). The depiction of humans as animals, the ‘functions’ shown gratuitously or just enjoyed for their own sake with no further end, in no matter what context – that is the bottom line which so upsets the silently-disapproving Tradition and the more vocal religious groups to see crossed, in Australia. Consistently, and over a long period. Whether the outgoing substance is come, piss, or – sorry, seminal, urinal or fecal, whether the faeces are a human’s or an elephant’s, whether it is Christ or Caligula relieving their baser urges, the lack of a visible ennobling purpose and further end will end in an exhibition-blockage. Or a production one: almost certainly. If you are an unknown semi-independent struggling locally to get a project off the ground, delete the ‘almost’. The ability of this wretched Tradition to ignore in a work contexts non-applicable locally when its back is up, has deprived Australia of more than a few celebrated titles over the decades. ‘Intentions’? About those we may sit up speculating until our windows are blue in the face – and it knows that very well.
Where does that leave a feature-length metaphor with nothing ‘literal’ to set it against? Where does the crystalline sinistrality of a universe where waste-product is eaten and words give birth to deeds fit into this tradition? Where do we mount this concentrating mirror, this concentration-camp inversion of all that we say we believe in – here too, in the Southern Cross? And where is the viewer to be found who can look into it and recognize the undisguised barriers-down, war-economy, pure-power shapes of consumption, slogans, ‘engineering’, tokens and slavery to risible rewards…?
Nowhere. That doesn’t belong, here.
There are many other forms of film-censorship in Australia that could be discussed: delayed release, release conditional on “modification” (euphemese for cuts), uncomfortable or stigmatizing exhibition conditions, distributor-pruning to obtain a wider audience rating…even the refusal to register or consider a film for future release altogether (the initial fate of Salò, under something called “Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulation 13(1)(a)”: it was not only banned but contraband). The history is a long and somber one, and cinephiles have always been at the shit end of the stick. I could also have talked about the minority-group bio-box butchers who take censorship decisions into their own hands, mutilating films which are nominally free to circulate uncut with an ‘R 18+’ rating: in a few Australian cities films like Last Tango In Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) and The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) have fallen victim to these crackbrained cranks.
On the whole, however, it is best to have limited the enquiry to cases with a likely bearing on the immediate future of filmgoing and filmmaking in this country – and to what can be discerned of the cultural ‘tradition’ behind them. The immediate changes; and the stabilizing line.
If you were an indie who suddenly had a visionary glimpse into the screen as a perfect mirror for a concentrated and terrible embodiment of some tendency, some common but taboo state – say, the widespread private bestializing of sensations, sex certainly included, by the most ‘normal’ of our business-hours exemplars, or anything else – the odds against your realizing it now or any time in the near future are high enough to say: forget it. Anything deriving its power from a too extreme stripping-away of daytime disguises or any other unreality, anything too blunt in the kind of truth you feel on your skin, is out. For here.
If, on the other hand, an ‘established’ feature-film maker decides to tackle a slightly out-of-the-way subject area, with a slight risk of controversy – say on the Cult Debriefing industry – we will end up with the latest bland cornflakes Campion opus, making all the right gestures, and lacking only some canned laughter to certify it as an approved satellite programmer to fill some very late and very quiet background.
So Australia for the present goes back to its traditional role: end-of-the-earth cultural laughing-stock, the backward colonial joke. Which in many respects it never stopped being, anyway. Was the 1993 lifting of a seventeen-year ban really such a boon? And would a change in the current dispensation, if it came from above, be that? Perhaps we shouldn’t be too sanguine about answering in the affirmative. Let Pasolini, in his last interview, have the last word:-
“So far, society has repressed us. Now it offers only a false front of permissiveness. One of the characters in my film says, in fact: ‘While society represses everything, man can do anything. When society begins to permit something, only that something can be done.’ This is the terrible double bottom of our new liberties.”
– Pier Paolo Pasolini to Gideon Bachmann: “The Last Interview”, Gallery International, February 1976, p.97.