Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Australian cinema-goers don't want to be embarrassed

Director Travis Mathews and actor
James Franco.
American actor James Franco has made a short flic addressing the Classification Board because it banned a movie he acted in called I Want Your Love (2012) directed by Travis Mathews, an American. The movie was to be shown to cinema-goers at the Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival but the screening was cancelled due to the ruling. According to the Age:
Melbourne Queer Film Festival director Lisa Daniel says that in her 15 years at the festival, I Want Your Love is the first film that has been refused an exemption. It has been seen in many festivals around the world, and its distributors have told her this is the first time it has been banned. Mathews is a well-known filmmaker, and the decision is an embarrassment for Australia, she says.
There is an online petition underway for those who would like to contribute and protest at the banning of the film at both the Sydney and Melbourne festivals. In part, it says:
We the undersigned believe that your decision to refuse a "film festival exemption" for Australian queer film festivals to screen Travis Mathews' film, I Want Your Love, is wrong.
The SMH story just says the film "was considered by the Classification Board to be too explicit in its sex scenes". There is no information for the public from the Board about its decision on the official website.

In his address, Franco notes how so many violent films receive classification in Australia. Which is relevant. But what he does not talk about is the long history in Australia of state censorship of artistic works that push the boundaries of public taste. But some people have been talking about it, most recently Nicole Moore in an ABC story from August last year. Moore has also written a book about Australia's woeful attitude toward artistic license, titled The Censor's Library.
"The main reason in Australia for censorship was 'offensive obscenity' as it was classified," she said.
"More than 90 per cent of titles were banned for obscenity and the rest were banned for sedition or blasphemy, although the number of titles banned for blasphemy in Australia has actually been very few.
"We can break that down to all kinds of representations of intimacy and sexuality, that for many contemporary readers now seem like ordinary parts of our lives."
Moore is not alone. Thankfully, universities in Australia have been able to take a more nuanced view of what constitutes obscenity, than the largely unaccountable Classification Board, a secretive body made up of people chosen from the community. They are the inheritors of a grand and unedifying tradition in Australia of stymieing innovation in art that includes the heavy-footed plods who banned Lady Chatterley's Lover, that midly erotic 1929 novel by D.H. Lawrence, until 1965. The book had been on sale in the UK since 1960. Of course, Lawrence's main target in his novel was not sex but intolerance, class, and the social forces that mold individual behaviour in different contexts. Oliver Parkin and Lady Chatterley might frolic playfully in the pouring rain, naked, but their relationship can never be admitted to. The same theme appeared in the 1970 film The Go-Between which was based on a 1953 novel by English novelist L.P. Hartley. These films explore ideas of class, of power relations, of social strata. And sex is one way to illuminate the real nature of these things. Sex can be revealing in ways that other types of interaction between individuals, cannot.

Which gets back to what Franco said in his address to the Board. In art it's not the sex per se that should be important but rather the use to which it is put. If Mathews has made a film that deploys sexual relations in an innovative and meaningful way, then it is hard to see how sex in the film can be confused with pornography. These issues pop up from time to time. In the meanwhile we are treated to the stylistically obtuse versions of sex that regularly appear in movies. There's the hungry, lingering lip-touch. The girl flung on top of a kitchen bench. The legs wrapped passionately around his waist. The coy bosom-shot as the camera follows his head down her chest. And the morning-after scene where she discretely pulls the sheet up to cover her resplendent breasts. On and on, again and again we are given such unrealistic and inarticulate ways to understand sex. This is not us we're seeing. This is a filmic version of sex that has been developed to cope with censorship rules.

It's just embarrassing. The kinds of attitudes regular actors routinely strike in filmic scenes that show sex have little or nothing to do with my experience of sex in real life. If Mathews has tried to go beyond these stylised displays of incomparable but unconvincing passion, then good on him. I wonder how the thinking goes that stopping a group of adults from seeing gay sex in the setting of a film festival can impact on the frail morals of society? At the very least the Board should front up and make a public statement that can then be judged, criticised publicly, and weighed in the balance against other types of entertainment that do receive classification in Australia. It's the unaccountable nature of the Board that is most offensive, and their unwillingness to engage with the people who they ostensibly represent. Just how close to the tastes of gay film-goers does the body of the Classification Board approximate?

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