Making a killing in videos: Censorship is a dirty word, but unrelentingly violent films have made it a necessary evil

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The Independent Online
'Would you,' asked Mervyn Griffith-Jones during the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in October 1960, 'allow your wife or your servant to read this book?'

How we laughed - and still laugh - at that ponderous silliness] The poor man appeared to have fallen asleep in 1910 and never woken up. Allow your wife, for God's sake] And, by 1960, how many of the middle classes had servants? Dailies maybe, nannies possibly, but servants never; the word had died with the invasion of Poland.

'It isn't for me to pass judgment on their upbringing,' said Mr Justice Morland at the conclusion of the James Bulger murder trial last week, 'but I suspect that exposure to violent video films may, in part, be an explanation.'

We did not laugh at these words. They did not sound like the Edwardian witterings of a legal mind, but the thoughts of an honest man considering the modern world.

But, if those words were reasonable, what was so wrong with the words of Mervyn Griffith-Jones? All he was trying to say was that, in the wrong hands, some works might have unacceptable consequences. Change the context, remove the silliness and his question might become: would you allow Robert Thompson and Jon Venables to watch Child's Play 3? Or perhaps: would you allow an ill-educated, culturally deprived, unemployable underclass unlimited access to violent pornography?

Of course, there is a huge gulf between the two cases. Griffith-Jones was discussing a bad, erotic book, redeemed somewhat by being the work of a major writer. Mr Justice Morland referred to an irredeemably trashy horror movie that provides violent thrills with the realism made possible by technology. The first was about sex, the second about violence; the first a literary cause celebre, the second an urgent matter of social order with real blood.

But the issue of censorship connects the two cases - the issue of who, if anybody, permits or bans and of whom, if not the wife and the servant, we wish to protect.

The recent history of this debate has all been one way. Ever since the battle in the Fifties to free the theatre from the grip of the Lord Chamberlain, it has been assumed that we were moving steadily and healthily from oppression to liberalisation; that most forms of censorship should be overthrown in the name of a morality of individual choice. Maybe, it was conceded, there was a case for protecting children, but there could be no case for denying adults their pleasures.

This anti-censorship view had its roots in hard politics but was largely driven by aesthetics. It was felt to be absurd that the artist should be shackled by so pompous and archaic a figure as the Lord Chamberlain or, indeed, by anybody. Modern art from Baudelaire to Bacon had dealt with the extremes of human experience. So, in our day, it seemed that if we were to have great art, we could not also have censors. The absolute freedom of the artist to pursue his vision wherever it might lead was to be celebrated as the primary attribute of the civilised, secular society.

This aesthetic argument was made more respectably political by the insistence that the use of the extreme and the revolting was often obligatory for the artist. It was, in some sense, the task of art to shock and disturb, or, perhaps, simply to reflect the underlying violence and extremity of the modern world. To hinder the pursuit of this task with censorship was as much an act of political oppression as were the book burnings of the Nazis.

This obligation-to-shock argument is infantile. But it is generally harmless in that it is only of significance in the narrow world of high art. The same can be said of most of the artistic fruits of the victory of libertarian individualism over censorship - they are harmless because they are so specialised. We may not, for example, particularly admire a gruesome Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of some sadomasochistic rite exhibited in a Mayfair gallery, but we are unlikely to conclude that it leads to truancy and violence in Liverpool.

But the freedom of the artist to shock is expressed not only in Mayfair: it is also expressed in every cinema, video shop and through every satellite receiver. For film is the medium that transforms and intensifies the argument. Film is both the most aesthetically dynamic and the most popular of modern art forms. Through cinema, the masses have in the past consumed the high art of Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, just as today they consume that of Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. Yet, equally, through the same media, they consume Child's Play 3 and the thousands of other splatter movies that are now used to fill the Sky schedules and the video stores.

This cinematic co-existence of the worst and the best is made even more painful by the fact that the best often looks suspiciously like the worst. Scorsese's Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver are wonderful films that are full of the most appalling violence. And the critical and popular triumph of such films confirms the industry view that violence and the movies form some kind of natural partnership. Indeed, violence might now be said to be the primary expressive convention of the cinema.

Consider, for example, a newspaper advertisment for the super-respectable W H Smith, run in the midst of the anguished head-clutching over the Bulger case and Child's Play 3. W H Smith is selling videos for Christmas. Six films were pictured, they included: Universal Soldier, Basic Instinct, Patriot Games and Alien 3. The appeal of each is, overwhelmingly, the appeal of violence, expressed more vividly and brutally then ever before. Twenty-two years ago the violence of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs made people fear for the future of the cinema. Now Basic Instinct, a numbing, nihilistic, unspeakably violent hymn of hate directed at all women, is blithely sold for pounds 10.99 over the cosy caption 'There's More to Life with W H Smith'.

Certainly, films are still censored, but the censor's lines have shifted so much and the prevalence of film violence is such that we are now in a movie world that does not feel censored at all and, indeed, it is difficult to imagine what would change if censorship were abolished tomorrow. Thanks to Basic Instinct, we already know what an ice-pick piercing a nose looks like. Without censorship there would be an escalation, but it would merely be quicker, not different in kind.

The point which now has to be faced is that if you win the censorship battle - either by outright victory, as in the theatre, or by stealth, as in the movies - you don't just get Mapplethorpe for the connoisseur, you also get vicious drivel for the masses. More painfully, you also get unarguably fine films such as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, which, if you are honest, you would rather were not watched by certain types of people. And this problem is not going to go away because of any future change in film culture. Quentin Tarantino is now the great hope of serious American movies, and the film that earned him this position was Reservoir Dogs, yet another brilliant, bloody film that I would prefer not to be seen by the criminal classes or the mentally unstable - or by inadequately supervised children with little else in their lives.

There is a smart but easy way of dealing with this while avoiding paternalism and keeping your aesthetic credentials intact. These films, you might say, are but products of the culture, responses to the market. As such they are evidence of a deep cultural malaise. The need to make them and the desire to consume them are symptoms of a contemporary sickness unto death. To censor them would be to apply a sticking plaster to a throat cancer. The real issue is deeper and wider. This posture - it has been my own for some years - has a pleasingly tragic aspect. Paring his nails and casting his forlorn but appreciative gaze over the works of Scorsese and Tarantino, the tragedian observes the decay of the culture into violence and depravity.

But it is, of course, an absurd cop- out. These films are not passive expressions of the culture, they are deliberately made to exploit, stimulate and nurture a taste for blood. Other films could be made but are not because the convention of violence now exercises such a grip on both the best and the worst film-makers. We are kidding ourselves if we think that only by loosening the bonds of censorship can we have an artist of the calibre of Scorsese.

The only honest answer, sadly, is censorship; the application of deliberate pressure against this choking culture of violence. It may not work - the global media explosion will probably ensure that people can get whatever they want - but lying supine before the bloody technological invasion is not a serious alternative. It isn't freedom, either.