Censorship is revealed to be an unworkable concept
when censors change their minds about what is permissible. If
material is deemed dangerous, corrupting, imitable, etc., then surely
it must remain so, regardless of whether it's 1901 or 2001? But if,
as seems to be the case, material can be reassessed and judged
harmless, then it stands to reason that it was harmless in the first
place, and the argument for censorship collapses. Let's look at the
farrago caused by the Texas Chainsaw films, which has managed to
prolong itself for nearly thirty years.
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre created quite a stir before
it arrived in the UK in 1975. This was not because it was the
goriest film ever made. It wasn't by a long chalk; someone cuts his
hand during the first twenty minutes and the rest of the
blood-letting happens off screen. No, the talk was that the film was
reputed to be one of the most frightening ever made; many viewers
and most critics found it so, although some people thought it
James Ferman, newly appointed secretary of the BBFC, was very
influenced by this advance publicity. He convinced himself that
there was no way that the sustained terrorisation of a young woman
could have a beneficial effect on the British public. Well,
correction here. He was worried about the effect on the British
working class. After the film had been shown, uncensored, to members
of the British Film Institute at the London Film Festival, Ferman
got up on stage and, thinking he was among friends, said,
"It's all right for you middle-class cineastes to see this
film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester
happened to see it?"
When they heard this gaffe, the audience became hostile, and
Ferman was visibly shocked. He never again referred to the true
nature of his job as a censor - to stop working class people being
stimulated by controversial films. Instead, for the rest of his
interminable office, he fortified his unassailable position as
guardian against the abuse of women. This attitude did not always
extend to his treatment of female employees, many of whom found his
attentions objectionable. But away from Soho Square, during his many
public engagements, Ferman became scrupulously politically correct.
He was still wittering on about feminism when he retired in 1999.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film that had so shocked the
inexperienced censor, became Ferman's bete noire. He, and only he,
banned it and saw to it that it stayed banned. A legend grew up
around his supposed condemnation of chainsaws. Reputedly the
instrument could not be featured or even referred to in any film.
But was this a myth? Ferman certainly forbade other weapons -
most famously chain-sticks - but never issued a written instruction
about chainsaws. Nevertheless, folklore had it that Ferman was
trying to obliterate the lumberjack's tool from British cinema
history. In 1983 a chainsaw murder was cut from Scarface. In 1986
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was banned. In 1988 the organisers of
a horror film festival seemed to believe that some kind of
retribution would befall them if they publicised the screening of a
film which featured the forbidden word in its title. Hollywood
Chainsaw Hookers was shown as Hollywood ******** Hookers. Madness
appeared to be prevailing. It goes without saying that in 1990 even
the heavily cut version of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
was also banned.
This unaccountable hysteria now seems to belong to the distant
past. Chainsaws are part of the era that brought us Driller Killers
and Cannibal Holocausts, stupid films we weren't supposed to see,
but which everybody saw because pirated videos were on sale at every
other car boot sale. These films turned out to be very disappointing
indeed. They were supposed to be dangerous and harmful but quite
patently most of them were just bad.
The censor has an unpopular job. One of the ways in which he can
sustain himself in power is to pretend to be sympathetic to public
opinion. Robin Duval would have done himself no favours had he
appeared to be as batty as his predecessor and maintained his now
ludicrous conviction that the mere sight of a chainsaw inspires us
to carve up our neighbours. Consequently, as soon as he got his feet
under Ferman's desk, Duval made sure he distanced himself from such
fanaticism by passing uncut not only The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,
which opened in cinemas October 5 to generally dismissive reviews,
but also the fourth episode of the series, Return of the Texas
Chainsaw Massacre, now on video.
Yes, it's official. These films aren't harmful at all. It was
just that a crazy old censor, now completely discredited, was
squeamish about them. But surely, therefore, isn't there a chance
that the present censor is equally bonkers and that all his
senseless decisions will one day be overruled...?
"Censorship is belief that one's obscenities must be the
obscenity of all"
- Jay E. Daily, The Anatomy of Censorship, 1973.