The Artists’ Freedom of Speech and the Audience’s Right for Respect
article by Scott Nehring
Since the first jerky, black-and-white images were cast onto a screen, film content has been the catalyst for myriad contentious arguments. Early concerns over social corruption led to restrictions on displays of sex and violence in movies. The desire to curb cinema’s darker influences led to the Hays Code (also known as the Production Code), a set of restrictions placed on film content.1 Filmmakers who sought product distribution were compelled to abide by the Code.
Some might say enforcement of these restraints limited artists’ options, but you could also argue that the Code forced artists to develop skills as creative storytellers, or at least become clever problem solvers in the presentation of questionable content.
The Code was in place for nearly four decades, but by the 1960s filmmakers had compelled the pendulum of acceptable content away from wholesomeness. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) delivered controversial content to broad audiences and radically changed public discourse. Social upheavals allowed the entertainment industry to jettison what they considered to be the restrictions of the past.
Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), oversaw development of what we, today, call the Ratings System, launched in November of 1968. Recorded industry discussion of movement away from the Hays Code and to the Ratings System states the move to be a positive development in modern culture. In truth, establishment of the Ratings System enabled an important power shift between those who make films and those who watch them.
The Hays Code protected audiences from harsh displays of violence, drug use, and sexuality and held the filmmakers responsible for the material they included in a film. The new Ratings System allowed filmmakers more freedom of speech (a good thing), but it also transferred responsibility for content awareness from the artists to the audience. The industry transformed into a “buyer beware” relationship and, after years of limitations on creative desires, filmmakers became unimpeded in their self-expression.
With all stops removed, filmmakers immediately flexed their new muscles and reflected society’s new sexual and social mores. Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) offered mainstream audiences the sexuality and violence impossible to show ten years prior.
Filmmakers’ new set of tools were immediately employed. New freedoms forged in the ’60s led to an American renaissance in the ’70s fronted by a new generation of directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Conversely, lack of restrictions also led to rougher content from the likes of Wes Craven, George Romero, and Tobe Hooper, who pushed hard against the new envelope to see how far they would be allowed to go.
And things have been taken far—for many people, much too far.
The 1980s brought the VCR and an explosion of video nasties (I Spit on Your Grave, Faces of Death), rental store gore fests, and teenage sex comedies (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin).
Today there seems to be little, if any, filtering at creative levels. Yes, films are often edited to achieve a lower theatrical release rating, but these same productions are then released for individual viewing in unrated versions or directors’ cuts with much of the controversial content reinserted. Material once exclusive to adult entertainment venues on grimy side streets now finds new markets among wide-eyed teens—and too often their younger siblings as well.
During the last half-century, film directors were king (or queen), and we permitted them to push every envelope, to explore every nook and cranny of our imaginations. They’re like the cloistered kid who moved out of his parents’ house, found himself without rules, and began to binge.
Films wallow in our basest urges and greedily offer everything there is to see. Many young filmmakers thrill to be the next to gross-out or enrage their patrons (or patrons’ “parental units”). We have arrived at a place where our culture allows distribution of The Human Centipede (an evil doctor surgically attaches three victims, mouth-to-rectum, and forces them to swallow each other’s feces—available in Blu-Ray or widescreen DVD at WalMart)—an appropriate analogy for many of today’s artists who encourage their audiences to feast on others’ waste.
In a free society, the artist must have freedom of speech; but for a functional society, the artist must be held responsible for the speech they produce.
Too often a filmmaker’s criterion is what they can show not what they should show. Many directors, particularly independents, disregard accountability and discount responsibility to their audience (and cast and crew, for that matter).
When a viewer sits through a film, they lend their time to the filmmaker. It is not overstatement to say that audience members entrust the filmmaker with their conscious and subconscious minds. The images seen can remain with them for life. This is a powerful position the filmmaker holds over people he may never meet.
When directors whimsically insert brutal violence, depraved sexuality, or other content distressing to an audience, it is common for them to respond to criticism with hackneyed retorts such as “because I want to show how violent our society is,” “because I want to challenge the audience’s perceptions,” or “I wanna shock people because I’m immature and am subconsciously striking back at Mommy and Daddy.” Such attitudes display disrespect and disregard for society as a whole, and we should shun these works and those who create them.
Filmmakers, take note: Self-management is the best way to undermine arguments for censorship or oversight. It can be a voluntary code of conduct, an awakening of common morality in the industry, or teaching of artistic ethics in film schools.
Hopefully, as society continues to be served the bile of an arts community more interested in degenerating than inspiring their patrons, we—the audience—will swing the pendulum back toward the creative storytelling which builds a solid society.