Wild World


This paper was presented at a panel on Censorship and the Arts, a public event held at Melbourne Town Hall (Australia), 21 October 2002.


Like (I suspect) many people, I have intensely mixed feelings about censorship of the arts. In principle – and sometimes it is an excessively abstract principle – I am one of those people in favour of unfettered artistic expression, in favour of a tough art that raises tough questions, an art that is unafraid to confront us with the contradictions of the time we live in.


On the other hand, even I have my limits, and I believe that a social consensus can and should decide on its collective limits. In other words, as a movie and media critic, I am all for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and the French film Baise-moi (2000) made by Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Thi; but I am not at all for kiddie porn, snuff movies, or the public televising of executions.


But, in any discussion of censorship, we do have to face the fact: it’s a wild world out there. I find it helpful to think of society, culture – and even life itself – as rather like the local video shop. In that shop, there are all kinds of sections and shelves that you or I never go near. It’s not like we actively, militantly reject those parts of the shop; mostly, we just mentally erase them, casting them into a kind of blind spot. Of course, you and I may differ in our tastes, our tolerances, and our agendas, not to mention our fantasies. Some people never go near the trash sections of their video shop, the violent horror movies and action movies, and the strange-morbid-cheap documentaries about serial killers. Likewise, some people never get out of the trash section of the video shop – for them, it’s the art movies, the foreign movies, the “quality” miniseries and delicate middlebrow dramas to which they will never wilfully expose themselves.


This video shop model works for many sectors of culture – like bookshops, for example: we only know and enter the ones we care to know about, especially when it comes to all the odd little specialist bookshops around town and around suburbia, be they devoted to erotica, true crime, science fiction or long-forgotten military campaigns.


Culture is full of furtive, secret chambers – subcultures, we tend to call them. But most subcultures are not really hidden underground. They’re around the corner from the street where you live, they’re in the phone book, and especially these days, they’re on the Internet – a random Google search under almost any topic these days will teach you more about the variety of the world than you surely ever wanted to know. Subcultures are open secrets, and they survive and flourish, fortunately, because of that tacit live-and-let-live agreement that governs most of our individual experiences of the world – a contract that says: I don’t really mind what you are into, as long as you don’t insist on shoving it in my face and make me too aware of it.


Let’s be frank: diverse people have extreme tastes, and we all know that every one of those people can somehow find what they’re after on video or DVD, especially in the Internet mail-order age. That freedom to pursue what you want – within some reasonable civic limits, of course – is one of the benchmarks of a democratic, civilised society. Yet what I see as the eternal drama of censorship – and that includes the vociferous opposition to censorship – springs into life whenever that tacit system of ‘turning a blind eye to the other person’s kink’ breaks down. And this depends, in turn, on the ambiguity and fragility of our working definition of a shared social space or public sphere.


Here’s what I mean. What if you or I, tomorrow, happen to walk into some arty cinema that is showing a film we personally find shocking or offensive – hypothetically, say, the aforementioned Baise-moi. If that cinema is in my town, in my street, if that film is suddenly in my face and I don’t like it being there, don’t I have the right to complain about it to the appropriate elected officials? Can’t I argue that the shared space of the public at large is being infringed upon, violated? Most arguments about censorship, it seems to me, are arguments about the general exhibition or broadcasting of material. Once a work slips out of its designated space, beyond the walls of its own subculture, it may indeed offend an “outsider”. But once the outsider starts a public outcry, then even the connoisseur’s access to his or her beloved material is threatened, legislated against, curtailed. I think we should strive to see and appreciate the valid rights, and the eternal frustrations, on both sides of this eternal battle.


A related point: we start discussions of arts censorship off on a wrong footing when we hammer words like, precisely, censor or ban. I personally believe it gets us just about nowhere to imagine “the censors” (en bloc) as sinister, ultra-right, morally crusading ideologues holed up in a secret corporate bunker, deciding what you or I can and cannot see. The fact is the censors are generally more mundane creatures – they are governmental administrators, bureaucrats, trying to apply the ever-shifting terms of a tricky set of regulations. They are more properly considered as classifiers, not censors. And theirs is a job that I do not envy (even though they do get to see an awful lot of films for free!).


I took the time, for example, to study the Australian classification documents around the 1999 French film Romance (written and directed by Catherine Breillat). This film, which I rate very highly, can now be safely picked up from the arthouse, cult movie or “foreign erotica” section of your local video store without you having to fear imminent arrest. Maybe some of you, in 2002, will even consider it tame. But in Australia in 2000, Romance was briefly banned, and then thankfully unbanned – it became a case, and a rather intriguing case at that. While the film was in trouble, fantastic intellectual speculations bordering on conspiracy theory did the rounds: it was claimed that the film was banned because it was strong piece of women’s erotica; because it exposed and critiqued patriarchal, masculine sexuality; or because it pushed beyond the genteel taboo that forbids showing “real”, unsimulated sex on screen.


Although only a professional classifier’s professional psychoanalyst knows what goes on in their unconscious during the official consideration of troublesome films like Romance, I would have to say, having read the documentation, that none of those conspiracy theories surrounding the film’s banning turned out to be true. The classifiers, as a body, did not doubt that Breillat’s Romance was good, strong, provocative, arthouse stuff, by a major European director. But they were caught between two sets of guidelines: since Romance does indeed have a rather nightmarish moment of “real penetration” (on its fantasy/dream sequence), it fell into the X rating (sometimes its very title is transcribed as Romance X!) reserved for hardcore pornography – which has restricted access and distribution. But, classified as a porn film, Romance had a scene of sexual violence (this time, simulated) that made it problematic under the X rating – since there are elaborate, and I think quite fair and valid guidelines that try to curb the saleability (and hence the existence) of extremely violent pornography.


Ultimately, after a lot of vigorous public prodding, the “discretionary power” of the classifiers enabled this whole tangle around Romance to be untied, and the film was made publicly available. So in this instance, we could say that the hyperrational classification process did indeed, ultimately, work – which is more than can be said for the case of Baise-moi, a great and important film, in my opinion, that still remains banned. (1)


To get away from specific cases at this point, I essentially have two propositions to put up for discussion today. The first is about the naïveté of a certain romantic, anti-censorship position when it is wielded at all times and in all cases. I believe in freedom of speech, but I also think that many cultural crimes and misdemeanours are committed today in the name of unfettered free speech, especially on the Internet. To simply say everything, to flaunt every taboo, to offend every delicate sensitivity/sensibility in the community, is meaningless in itself … and often completely counter-productive. It amounts to an eternally adolescent posturing.


I tried to think the other day of a film I’d seen that I myself would want banned. Only one instantly came to mind: it was an elaborate Canadian “found footage” experimental film of the 1980s (probably no more than ten people saw it in a small Melbourne art gallery) by Jean-Claude Bustros called La queue tigrée d’un chat comme un pendentif de pare-brise (1983-1989). It uses (among many other things) documentary footage of Holocaust victims, and put an incongruous soundtrack over these images for the sake of a protracted, tasteless, sick, punk-adolescent joke. (2) The filmmaker would undoubtedly stand by his right to make any joke, defy any limit of taste. Perhaps he even had a serious point hidden somewhere in his thick head. But not all taboos are actually worth breaking, and not every possible naughty or scandalous thought is worth thinking aloud in public – unless there is a critical force to that gesture.


One of the best books about art I have ever read is The Invisible Dragon (first edition 1993, revised and expanded 2012) by Dave Hickey [1938-2021], which is in part a celebration of the most extreme work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But Hickey beautifully mocks in this book the modern day art establishment which always makes a big song and dance about the value of “transgression”, of “disturbing the spectator” and plumbing the “dark side” of everything – and then, wouldn’t you know it, this art world cries foul if someone out there in the real world is actually transgressed, makes a fuss, and brings the sometimes unforgiving eye of society down upon the tiny, cloistered world of art.


I guess I’m suggesting here that taboos are dramas, and that therefore they’re sites of tension, fault lines where a society struggles to civilise itself. It’s not simply a matter of either miserably suffering under taboos or being splendidly free without them. And if you transgress a taboo, as an artist or storyteller, you have to be ready to fight inside the drama that you may unleash.


My second proposition brings me back to my intensely mixed feelings about arts censorship. Although I think a culture that runs on neatly segregated subcultures, each in their own connoisseur’s box, each with their own semi-restricted avenue of access, can make for a workable society, it doesn’t always make for vibrant or progressive art! Things really happen in culture when works jump the tracks, when they scramble the codes, when they mix the messages – and when they confront us with that confusion. Whereas, for instance, it was pretty easy for a film critic like me to argue that Romance was really an art film, Baise-moi is a much more confounding limit-case – and litmus-test. For it not only definitively blurs the line between mainstream fiction and pornography, it also scandalises any distinction between good and bad filmmaking, between trash and quality cinema – which may be an even greater cultural scandal. It is a film of absolute anger, and absolute energy. I’ve rarely seen a movie like this, one that puzzles audiences as completely as it invigorates them. In short, it’s a film that opens up a way to a cultural future. It’s just a pity that some of us are no longer able to see or access it.


Shock, transgression, breaking taboos – these things are a dime a dozen in the arts today. But there is a special, thrilling experience I cherish at the movies, and that’s when, during or after a film, I find myself and my companions turning to each other, inflamed by the same thought, which always expresses itself in these exact words: “This film is … wild!” A wild movie, in this sense, is a precise beast. It’s a movie that goes further than its predecessors in exploring some tantalisingly unthought proposition, which finds an intoxicating way of exploding the neat segregation of genres and cultures and lifestyles which rules our world. Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), for instance, is a wild film, not because it shows a sado-masochistic relationship, but because it demonstrates relentlessly that so-called High Culture, the culture of fine classical music and art and opera, is absolutely seething with the deepest, constitutive perversity.


And, I have to add, Jennifer Lopez in the revenge thriller Enough (2002) is pretty wild, too, in a true pop-culture way – because this is a movie that goes so far out on its own mad dance that it ends up defending the possibility of marital murder as – quote unquote – the J-Lo character’s “divine, animal right”. I do look forward to a world where we can be healthily transgressed, shook up, as much by a Jennifer Lopez movie as by the trailblazing Baise-moi.



NOTES (2022)

1. That was the state of play in late October 2002, when I delivered this paper. In September 2016 (on the occasion of a broadcast of the film), the website of Australia’s SBS World Movies channel offered the following account of the film’s censorship history: Baise-moi “stirred up a nest of controversy when it arrived in Australian cinemas in early 2002, largely thanks to its brutal depiction of rape and hardcore, unsimulated on-screen sex. Having been initially passed by censors with an R18+ rating, Baise-moi came under fire from Australian family groups, who lobbied to have the film banned from cinemas – and succeeded. The film was refused classification in May 2002 and ordered to be pulled from screens, though several cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne continued to play it. Baise-moi was banned again on DVD in 2013, and screened in an edited, R18+ version on World Movies that year.” I presume it is this edited version that has officially circulated in Australia since 2013. back


2. But maybe I need to revisit this film! (Whose strange title, by the way, translates very roughly as “The tigered tale of a cat as a windshield trinket”.) In the catalogue of the French experimental-film distribution agency Light Cone, Prof. Bustros (of Concordia University) explains himself thus: “It’s difficult to say what this film is about. I know it was the fruit of a great deal of rage. Rage against TV, the media, cinema, politics, society, economy, history … ultimately, a lot of things. Above all, I had the desire to halt the fabrication of illusion”. All 26 minutes of it can be viewed here. back



© Adrian Martin 21 October 2002 (updated April 2022)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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