Screening the Censors
- Mark Cohen (Author)
Censorship in Canadian Literature. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Leonard J. Leff (Author) and Jerold L. Simmons (Author)
The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code. Rev.Ed.. University Press of Kentucky (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Stuewe
Censorship issues are often debated at ethereally high levels of abstraction, and so studies that take a more nuts-and-bolts approach to the censorship process are always welcome. The Dame in the Kimono focuses on the implementation of the Production Code, Hollywood’s 1930 response to protests against the racy sexuality of films such as Black Paradise (whose star revealed "all of her legs and 82 percent of everything else") and Paris (wherein semi-nude chorus girls fled a theatre fire). Seeking to regulate themselves before public pressure forced government intervention, Hollywood’s studio moguls created a Production Code Administration that attempted to balance the offended sensibilities of conservative religious and political groups with the sex-sells-seats mentality of avaricious film producers.
The Dame in the Kimono tells this story from the point of view of the Production Code Administration’s day-to-day operations, and this constitutes both its strength and its weakness. The negotiations between the PCA and filmmakers could be as dramatic as the movies that the process eventually sanctioned; Clark Gable’s memorable "Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn" in Gone with the Wind, for example, was at one point bowdlerized into "Frankly, I don’t care" before the producers made other concessions that permitted its restoration. For all the light that is cast on the PCA’s activities, however, Dame’s only perfunctory attention to social context tends to reduce its narrative to a clash of egos between censors and censored. One also expects a certain amount of analysis and interpretation of evidence in an academic-press title, and this too is largely lacking in a volume that will certainly interest cinema buffs, but is likely to disappoint anyone looking for a more scholarly treatment of film censorship.
Censorship in Canadian Literature is an ambitious attempt to combine close textual reading with a re-examination of conventional thinking about censorship, and the results are decidedly mixed. Cohen defines censorship as "the exclusion of some discourse as the result of a judgement by an authoritative agent based on some ideological predisposition." Reconceptualizing censorship as a form of judgement will, according to Cohen, downplay censorship’s pejorative connotations, help us to recognize that such judgements are an inescapable part of our lives, and encourage us to concentrate on how we can make "more appropriate and constructive judgements."
This Enlightenment vision of competing ideas settling their differences on the playing fields of rationality is certainly appealing, but unfortunately seems largely irrelevant to much of the discourse on censorship issues. "Ideological predisposition," for example, seems a rather tame description of the passions expressed by pro- and anti-abortionists, or by conflicts over classroom material that offends some students and parents. In suggesting that such strongly held beliefs can readily be transmuted into philosophical debating points, Cohen appears to be simplifying rather than enriching our thinking about censorship, as he articulates a position that would reduce complex contextual backgrounds into schematic outlines of adversarial argument.
Censorship in Canadian Literature’s emphasis on making more satisfactory judgements also turns out to be involved with the problematic notion of essentialist truth claims, as demonstrated in references to "the errors of judgement in given cases of censorship," and the assertion that "some truths can be deemed stable enough to be judged." Although Cohen’s desire to make better censorship decisions is laudable, it is by no means clear that the way forward lies in the direction of seeking truth as the outcome of superior judgement. The thrust of much contemporary literary theory, in which abstract concepts such as truth are interrogated and destabilized from the point of view of their status as social and linguistic constructs, suggests that there are other possibilities for a more nuanced treatment of censorship; regrettably, such considerations do not inform Cohen’s quest for the "’best’ decisions to be made in censorship conflicts."
Censorship in Canadian Literature also presents well-researched close readings of texts by Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Laurence that either have been subject to censorial attack or respond to such attacks. These three chapters explore the interfaces between published text, authorial intention, and public reception from unusual, and largely productive, points of view that will make them essential reading for scholars specializing in these authors. The Findley and Laurence chapters are rich with insights into the background of The Wars and The Diviners, often based on archival material that will be unfamiliar to most readers. The chapter on Margaret Atwood is largely devoted to abstracting her 1980-85 views on censorship from work published during that period, and is thus of somewhat lesser interest; in addition, it is burdened by the assumption that Atwood’s personal opinions can readily be inferred from the statements of her fictional characters.
The following chapter, "The Inevitability of Censorship: Beatrice Culleton and Marlene NourbeSe Philip," has useful things to say about the ways in which gatekeepers tend to impose dominant cultural standards on what are stigmatized as marginal discourses, but it is marred by a major factual oversight. As evidence of the "socio-cultural censorship" imposed on non-white writers Cohen cites Dionne Brand’s indictment of "white supremacy" after failing to win the 1992 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, but he neglects to mention that Brand went on to win the GG in 1997. A more nuanced treatment of gatekeeping would note that the number of GGs won by non-white writers, which from 1985 to 1998 (a reasonable end-date for a work published in 2001) would include Fred Wah, Heather Spears, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, and Djanet Sears, suggests that there has been significant (but not necessarily sufficient) change in Canadian society’s response to multicultural realities. The concluding chapter reiterates the philosophical speculations that precede Cohen’s studies of particular authors, but does very little to tie argument and analysis together. The disparity between the book’s rarefied intellectual context and its frequently incisive discussions of specific cases of literary censorship compels this gatekeeper to pronounce the following judgement: Censorship in Canadian Literature has very little to contribute to general societal discourse on censorship in Canada, but does provide much stimulating and often groundbreaking commentary as to how individual Canadian authors have dealt with efforts to censor their work.
- Reading Lives by Jeanne Perreault
Books reviewed: How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves by Paul John Eakin and Literary Value/Cultural Power: Verbal Arts in the Twenty-First Century by Lynette Hunter
- Radical Poetics by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: Writing in Our Time: Canada's Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003) by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy
- Art's Artifice by Christoph Irmscher
Books reviewed: Drawn from Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World by Victoria Dickenson and The Truth of Uncertainty: Beyond Ideology in Science and Literature by Edward Galligan
- National Cinema by Peter Urquhart
Books reviewed: Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film and Phenomena by Katherine Monk, Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation by Lance Pettitt, and At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World by Esther C. M. Yau
- Connect the Strands by Monique Tschofen
Books reviewed: Atom Egoyan by Emma Wilson
MLA: Stuewe, Paul. Screening the Censors. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 150 - 151)
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