Censorship and Sensibility Movies you may see (or may not be allowed to see)

"Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams…"

~ Shakespeare, Richard III

Not so long ago — perhaps 2 or 3 years — the cable TV operator where I live broadcast a movie on one of its home cinema channels in which American political and military men were debating around a table and waving sticks at maps in a dramatic discussion of how and when to drop a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. I only caught a part of this frightening but unmemorable movie and so, regrettably, I do not know its name, although its plot sounds similar to that of Deterrence (1999). With its copious references to the earlier u2018Desert Storm' operation in Iraq, and clearly positing a continuity of policy with it, this film unambiguously conveyed a message that sooner or later somebody somewhere would set about completing the unfinished business (or perhaps I should say the u2018unfinished Bushiness') left over from 1991.

Mission: Impossible – II, released in 2000, contains fascinating twists and turns on the theme of stolen identity, which tie right in to the never very certain, and now rapidly disappearing identities of the September 11 hijackers: in the movie, several characters are not who they appear to be (either to us or to each other) because they are wearing carefully designed masks which make them look identical to their enemies. Result: you confide in someone you believe to be your friend, only to discover he is your assassin. In a neat parallel near the end of the movie, employing the time-honoured device of the bad guy u2018hoist with his own petard,' the chief villain thinks he is shooting dead his enemy when in fact he is shooting his own man.

These two recent and superficially unremarkable films illustrate an uncanny and often disturbing feature of artistic life — that accurate premonition and foretelling of events are much more common than is generally supposed. More often than not, people are reluctant to admit such premonitions, and prefer to dismiss them as coincidence.

The September 2002 issue of the Fortean Times, which describes itself on its masthead as "a journal of strange phenomena," was devoted to the events of September 11, 2001. The actor Bruce Harwood is quoted on the Internet as having subsequently written to that publication as follows:

"Having just finished your article on 9/11 conspiracy theories, I thought I’d share with you my own peculiar relationship between the conspiracies and the events. I was one of the lead actors on a short-lived television series that aired on the Fox network in the US. It was called The Lone Gunmen and intended as a spin-off from the popular Fox series The X-Files. The so-called Lone Gunmen are three conspiracy geeks who publish an underground newspaper named The Lone Gunmen (hence our show title).

Although our series aired in the spring of 2001, we had shot the pilot episode in March 2000. The plot was fairly simple: the Lone Gunmen uncover and defeat a government conspiracy to fly a commercial jet plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center via ground-based computer control of the jet’s auto-pilot. The intention was to blame a foreign, ‘terrorist’ nation for the bombing, and thus encourage the US to enter into a war against it – all to guarantee weapons sales for the US military-industrial complex. In the TV episode, of course, our characters save the day in the nick of time, regaining control of the plane just as it soars over the towers."

~ from Bruce Harwood, letter to the Fortean Times, October 2002

Web wisdom holds that the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen TV series, of which 12 more episodes were aired in the US in the spring of 2001, is probably still "the spookiest precursor of September 11." Some might say it is significant that Fox did not renew the series for a second season, and that it has in fact been deliberately "buried." This, together with its uncanny premonitions, means that it has spawned its own Lone Gunmen website, together with widespread derivatives. Like the X-Files from which it was spun off, the series has generated its own mythologies, its own cults and of course, that old favorite, "conspiracy theories."

However, there are many other contemporary novels, films, and TV shows which, while often not memorable, and at time of publication even ridiculed for being far-fetched, have turned out to be premonitory in some degree. Examples of this are the ending of Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, in which a plane is flown into the Capitol in Washington, his Rainbow Six, which deals with anti-terrorism, and films such as The Siege, in which a terrorist campaign in New York culminates in an explosion which brings the Army onto the streets. And, although I have not seen this myself, I have read that the recent (post 9/11/01) DVD edition of the mediocre picture Escape From New York somehow cuts out the key scene where Air Force One crashes into an office tower in New York.

There is no need to partake of conspiratorial notions – that these films and novels are somehow designed to sow the seeds of plausibility in the minds of the general public, or that authors and screenwriters have been carefully planted by the globalist conspirators who rule our lives and instructed to come up with plots, ideas and dummy runs of "unthinkable" events – to realize that the reason for these premonitions lies somewhere in what might be called the collective consciousness. Artefacts quintessentially distil and reflect the prevalent notions, culture and anxieties of the times in which they are made, and not of the past or future times which they may be about, even if on the surface the apparent subject-matter of the film is either historical or futuristic. This much is demonstrated, for the decade of the 1990s, by the supreme example of Chris Carter's X-Files series.

At least until someone makes a reality of the fantasy of time travel, I like to think of the standard time-frame of a Hollywood movie, or of a TV show episode, as representing the true vehicle for time travel in our age, because into a real period of audio-visual experience lasting say, 90 to 130 minutes, or the 50 minutes of a typical TV episode, the makers of the film have control over powerful options to compress into that real time-frame centuries, a lifetime, a period of years, or just a few days or even minutes. At the same time the search for a good plot, preferably the stuff of "drunken prophesies, libels and dreams" is, for Hollywood, akin to the search for the Holy Grail. Small wonder that the plotters in Washington, and their spin-doctors, in power for a limited time only, should want to come together with the purveyors of imaginary plots in Hollywood and the weavers of cinematic dreams who turn those plots into celluloid reality.

This is especially true of the biblical and Roman-empire type blockbusters. These are typically made and shown at times when the warfare state's propaganda machine requires the celebration of stirring victories in wars of conquest or ideology, or individual heroics of revenge, and are rationalized and cheered on by subliminal appeals to fundamentalism and easy audience identification with clearly demarcated goodies and baddies. For this very reason, and because of their great special effects, they also endure, despite some ham acting and well-documented but unobtrusive technical hitches (four-wheel drive vehicles visible on the horizon in El Cid, and the like).

Now once again we have a time when the drums of war are sounding. Thus the movie industry grapevine has it that, over the next few months, the cinematic public is promised a new wave of epic antiquity movies, following on from the ostensible success in 2000 of Gladiator, a film which, for me personally, not even the wonderful Hans Zimmer soundtrack, the spectacular effects, and the regulation denouement in which the bad boys and girls get what’s coming to them (give or take a little), could save from being rather brutish and lacking in soul.

Apart from the minor difficulties that Hollywood has had of late in deciding which nation or group to cast as the bad guys — two recent New York Times articles (link1, link2) describe the offence taken by the Koreans at the way they have been caricatured in the latest Bond movie – these developments no doubt represent the slowly ripening fruit of Hollywood's moves to fall into line with the "war effort" following September 11 — moves which, when viewed in historical terms, need little encouragement.

A report dated October 19, 2001 stated, "In an unusual two-hour meeting held in Beverly Hills Thursday, White House officials and top television executives met to discuss how Hollywood could help support the war on terrorism. Roughly 25 people from the entertainment industry were in attendance, including Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences chairman Bryce Zabel and CBS president Leslie Moonves." In a CNN piece entitled "Uncle Sam wants Hollywood," on November 9 2001, the Minister of Propaganda himself was reported to be about to visit Hollywood to meet with industry figures and strengthen their resolve, and would later receive a return visit from the movie moguls, as reported in August 2002 by the journalist Robert Fisk, one of the two men whom the well-known actor John Malkovich publicly stated he would like to shoot dead, who writes, "After the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington last September, I suppose it was inevitable that the Pentagon and the CIA would call on Hollywood for ideas — yes, the movie boys actually did go to Washington to do a little synergy with the local princes of darkness."

In late 2001 the most widely publicized cancelled or postponed movie was Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage, which has since been released, and seems to be yet another instantly forgettable bone-breaker. Although we cannot know the exact number of movies shelved or postponed in the aftermath of September 11 (CNN quotes a number of "at least 45"), this fact alone begs the question, if a movie was not fit to be viewed after September 11 because it might offend sensibilities, then should it not have been permanently shelved in any event on the much better grounds that it was, and is, a lousy movie?

Of course, that is not what it's all about, as the recent fuss over the Philip Noyce film of Graham Greene's The Quiet American demonstrates. This is, by all accounts, not a bad movie at all. Nor is another recent movie, which has been well-received but is contentious, and thus so far unreleased: Buffalo Soldiers – the 2001 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris, not to be confused with an earlier film of the same name. A Mr. Harvey Weinstein, of the Miramax film studios, in his wisdom recently pronounced that most Americans would not be allowed to see The Quiet American because the studio had deemed it "unpatriotic." John Wiener, writing in the December 16, 2002 issue of The Nation, stated:

“The Quiet American”, which recently opened for a two-week run in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles, illustrates just how far Hollywood self-censorship has gone in the year since 9/11.

Harvey Weinstein, Miramax co-chairman, told the New York Times the studio concluded that “you can’t release this film now; it’s unpatriotic. America has to be cohesive and band together. We were worried that nobody had the stomach for a movie about bad Americans anymore.”

Setting aside for a moment a rightful libertarian gut reaction against censorship in any form, and against the presumption of anyone, let alone a mere film studio chairman, that he is entitled to prescribe what u2018America' should be at this time, I feel a little qualification is perhaps in order. The argument, if there is one, is primarily about money. The Hollywood studios' main criterion for the "success" of a movie is its relative position in the league table of box-office takings, preferably on the first weekend it comes out. That the film was released at all, at a time deemed politically unfavourable, was due to the arguments apparently brought to bear by Michael Caine, whose performance in the film has been highly praised by critics and could win him an Oscar. Those arguments were based on the potentially favourable knock-on effect that an Oscar award would have in improving the film's eventual takings.

Censorship of course, like any form of prohibition, also makes the forbidden item more interesting and desirable. A little bit of trouble or controversy never did any movie release any harm, and arguably could be just what is needed to spice things up a bit in this time of fear, apathy, and recession, not to mention cold winter weather which keeps people at home. Or to prepare the ground for a later release at a more propitious time of what appears to be an intelligent film in the midst of the usual chart-topping idiotic pap.

Nevertheless I find it galling when "mere" studio directors, and actors and actresses, celebrated at best, and rightly so, for their fine skills and performing talent, more routinely for their sex-appeal, and at worst for their misdemeanours — but certainly not for their political or philosophical opinions – are found pontificating as to what the public should or should not see. In a recent article on CounterPunch, Saul Landau gives full vent to this irritation, but concludes optimistically: "Hopefully, Miramax will soon re-release the film and make a contribution toward the cause of understanding through cinematic beauty – and thus virtue."

This, to my mind, is undoubtedly the right approach. The sycophantic media, true to their subservient attitude to the state and the regime du jour, place a meaningless politically correct spin on the studios' decisions whether to give certain films a wider release or not, but such decisions in fact have little to do with the quality of the movie and its ultimate artistic and critical destiny. How many movies, released with a fanfare of publicity, have subsequently faded into the oblivion of hasty u2018secondary exploitation:' released ahead of time on video and sentenced to premature artistic death? And how many other movies, not big box-office successes when first released, or perhaps even subsequently rejected by their makers, or banned on grounds of political incorrectness (think of Disney's "Song of the South" just as an example), have surprised all involved by making it to the sanctum of cult status or enduring critical and public acclaim?

Even so, given the quantity of troops and ordnance now sitting on the edges of Iraq, there is no certainty that "The Quiet American" will be shown in the US any time soon. In bringing out politically correct arguments for putting this particular movie on hold, Harvey Weinstein was reverting to the true and time-honoured Hollywood form, which has generally been to fall rapidly into line in with the desiderata of the imperial state, by both assisting in the fabrication of its propaganda, and washing it clean when inconvenient historical facts make their presence felt.

Here's how John Pilger, writing in the New Statesman in April 2002, describes the history of this u2018cleansing' process:

Foreigners fell neatly into categories of worthy or unworthy: for America or against America. In Hollywood, history was reduced to screen “epics” such as Exodus, in which worthy (Jewish) refugees settled in the Holy Land and unworthy Palestinians, made refugees in their own land, were invisible. These dispossessed people are now portrayed in American action movies, along with other Muslims, as terrorists. Following the Vietnam war, in which around five million Vietnamese were killed during the American invasion, and their land was destroyed and poisoned by American weapons of mass destruction, Hollywood came to the rescue with a string of Rambo-and-angst films that invited the audience to pity the invader. These films provided a cultural purgative that helped clear the way for America to mount other Vietnams – in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Somalia and elsewhere. The current “war on terrorism” is underpinned by the same Hollywood caricatures. Films like Black Hawk Down, which promotes a mendacious version of America’s killing spree in Somalia, act as cultural “softeners” before the bombing starts again for real.

Robert Fisk makes much the same point in the article I have referred to above, which is entitled "Be very afraid – Bush Productions is preparing to go into action: we are being prepared for an epic supported by Hollywood and a plot of lies."

And, as Butler Shaffer has written,

all of this leads me to ask whether the entertainment industry is an extension of the war system, or whether war is simply an extension of our need for entertainment? What should be clear to us is that entertainment is one of the principal means by which our thinking can be taken over and directed by others once we have chosen to make our minds passive, which we do when we are asked — whether by actors or politicians — to suspend our judgment about the reality of events we are witnessing. When we are content to be amused (i.e. to have our attention diverted from reality to fantasy), and to have our emotions exploited by those skilled in triggering unconscious forces, we set ourselves up to be manipulated by those producing the show.

~ Butler Shaffer, "Politics and War As Entertainment," May 29, 2002

In sum, even as we are being entertained, the fact of being entertained, and indeed of enjoying the film, is no excuse for divesting ourselves of our critical and discriminatory faculties.

Those eager to apply censorship and prohibition repeatedly fail to learn the lessons to be learned in this domain, and to appreciate and understand the inherent paradoxes of communication. The simplest of those paradoxes is that censorship and prohibition always have the opposite effect to that which is intended: it makes the fruit that much more attractive by making it forbidden (and by so increasing demand it may also, where saleable commodities are involved, push the price upwards).

More subtle paradoxes of communication were cleverly encapsulated by the late Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s in his book Understanding Media, and the now famous statement that "the medium is the message." In terms of what the viewer is left with, of what is actually communicated, the quality of the way the medium is handled and crafted — in this case film – will in the final analysis always win out over any bluntly presented "message." Leni Riefenstahl's classic film, The Triumph of the Will, which is a record of the 1934 National Socialist party rally at Nuremberg, still banned in Germany to this day and vilified by all sorts of worthy people because of its content, is recognized as a masterpiece of cinematography. It does indeed convey the terrifying nature of state-backed propaganda and its powerful effect on mass consciousness, but unless you wish to believe that human beings are incapable of any critical thought whatsoever, it is naïve in the extreme to think that the viewer of this film will react to it by engaging in spontaneous violence or other extreme forms of behaviour, rather than reflecting soberly on the nature of that violence as a result of his or her experience of the film as film — as something not real, but an artefact.

Once again Robert Fisk hits the nail on the head when he writes: "the important thing, as my dad used to tell me, is to remember that the cinema [does] not really imitate reality." Substance is not everything, indeed it is possibly not even the half of it. A message is often more effective for being presented in a more subtle way. If it is shouted to the rooftops over and over again or if, like the planes hitting the towers on September 11, it is a visual message, shown over and over again, it eventually loses its effect from repetition, and people simply turn off.

Children, themselves so often portrayed by the movies as the true repositories of premonitory wisdom and instinctive knowledge, as lately in the film Signs by M. Night Shyamalan, learn these lessons from an early age, and develop powers of critical discrimination which enable them to distinguish what "is" from what "is not." Cartoons are among the most violent shows on earth, yet the kids know the violence is not real. The clear and present danger today is rather that grown men, who should know better, have taken possession of the plot, or are trying to write it themselves.

I leave the last word to Robert Fisk: "When Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld turned up together for the premiere of Black Hawk Down, I began to get worried. After all, if the Bush administration is so keen on war, it better work out the difference between Hollywood and the real thing. Yet what we’ve been getting is a movie version of reality, a work of fiction to justify the prospect of “war without end."

January 11, 2003

Richard Wall (send him mail) is a freelance translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril, Portugal.