Thursday 21 March 2019


Maria Schneider and
Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris'

John Boland

When Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now opened in Dublin in 1973 it was as the top half of a double bill that also featured Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, unknown then but destined to become a cult classic for reasons I've never understood.

But it did contain a startling, if idiotic, scene in which a nude Britt Ekland writhed orgasmically against a doorknob. How, we wondered as we sat in the Savoy cinema, did that get past then film censor Dermot Breen? Perhaps he thought Britt was engaging in some obscure form of calisthenics.

But he had no doubt what Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were up to in Don't Look Now and so he removed in its entirety the love scene that was at the emotional heart of the film and that is now celebrated as one of the greatest ever filmed.

However, he did leave in some fleeting visual references to it at the end as Sutherland's life flashed before him, thus leaving the 1973 Irish audience in a state of bewilderment -- what had we missed?

Bewilderment, though, was the order of the era. In 1962 Irish cinemagoers were mystified when, at the conclusion of The Loudest Whisper, William Wyler's screen version of the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour, the character played by Shirley MacLaine hanged herself.

The reason for her suicide? She had just confessed her love of fellow-teacher Audrey Hepburn and been spurned by her, but Irish audiences didn't know that, the censor having removed the confessional scene lest it offend Catholic morals.

Similar plot-muddling cuts occurred in many other movies, and it could be argued that this butchery of films -- in a period of 60 years, 11,000 out of the 50,000 films submitted to the censor's office were cut -- was worse than outright bannings (of which there were 2,000) or the notorious banning of books during the same decades.

Even when banned, the integrity of a book remained intact, surviving to be read at a later time or in copies smuggled into the country. Films that were cut, however, had their structure and shape and sometimes very meaning destroyed by the censor's scissors -- as in the case of Don't Look Now or Truffaut's Anne and Muriel or Malle's Souffle au Couer or Lumet's Network or Ashby's Shampoo or many other films from the same time.

Violence seldom posed problems for the various censors, whose noses were mainly trained to sniff out smut, and indeed the few explicit sex scenes that remained intact in movies of the 1970s were those that were followed immediately by violent retribution -- as when, to take just one example, a naked orgy in Magnum Force (the follow-up to Dirty Harry) was ended by the slaughter of the sinful trio. That'll teach them. Or if the sex was shown to be joyless and angst-ridden, as in Ingmar Bergman, it was deemed allowable by the arbiters of what we could and couldn't see.

It all seems a long time ago now and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has acknowledged as much in his announcement this week that the Irish Film Censor's Office no longer exists, replaced instead by the Irish Film Classification Office, with former film censor John Kelleher now becoming the director of film classification. "In a mature society," Mr Ahern said, "I think most of us believe that adults should be free, subject to the law, to decide for themselves what they may see."

That's what most sensible Irish people had always felt, and those of us who have railed against censorship for decades will applaud the Government's belated recognition of our freedom to see what we choose to see. So is there no limit to what we should be allowed to watch? Of course there is -- any normal human being, for instance, will support the repression of child pornography or of films that actively promote race or religious hatred.

But mainstream filmmaking itself has upped the ante on what's permissible to be shown, and with violence rather than sex pushing the boundaries of what's tolerable, from the shudder-inducing slaughter in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan to the nonchalant blood-lettings of Pulp Fiction.

More disturbingly, three times recently I attempted to sit through the Australian movie Wolf Creek, in which a trio of young backpackers are gruesomely tortured by a maniac and two of them are killed. I learnt their ultimate fates from a written synopsis because I wasn't able to endure the gloatingly detailed mutilations to the end.

Nor have I been able to keep my eyes on the screen for the duration of the Hostel and Saw franchises or for any other of the movies that some critics have described as "torture porn". And I can't imagine any justifiable reason for deeming these films to be entertaining. Who's being entertained? And in what way?

Does that mean I believe in censorship? Probably not, though if I had my way in my own private Idaho no one would go to see them.

But then the censor had his way in 1972 when he ensured that no one would see Last Tango in Paris and he also had his way back in 1946 when he decreed that the antics of Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep were far too decadent for our delicate sensibilities.

In other words, no one should have his or her own way in such matters. After all, a puritan is a person who believes that somebody somewhere is having a good time, and we've had too many decades of such puritanism in this country to ever want to return to them.

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