JUSTICE

Caught in the censorship quagmire

Brian Bergman January 11 1982
JUSTICE

Caught in the censorship quagmire

Brian Bergman January 11 1982

Caught in the censorship quagmire

JUSTICE

Brian Bergman

The scene takes place in Tiberius’ home, a grottolike cavern enclosing a large swimming pool. At the pool’s edge, Tiberius plays host to his grandson, Caligula, fourth emperor of Rome, and to a flock of naked men, women and girls. As Tiberius enters the pool, Caligula cracks a whip, and the girls (Tiberius’

“little fishes”) dive in after him. The ensuing mutual grope leads the rest of the party into unbridled depravity.

So goes just one of several orgiastic scenes from Penthouse magazine’s $17.5-million production of Caligula, scripted by Gore Vidal and starring such notables as Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell and John Gielgud. But the film gained even greater notoriety when Edmonton city police confiscated the Towne Cinema print on opening night last October, charging the exhibitor with obscenity. For Alberta audiences, willing to queue in chill fall winds for a glimpse of Guccione-styled pornography, the seizure came as a rude shock. Indeed, the Alberta Motion Picture Censor Board had approved the film unconditionally. While Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Clarence G. Yanosik, in his ruling last December, granted that the production was often “grotesque” and “repulsive”—“as would fatigue an overactive imagination,” he concluded that the film did have some artistic merit and was not legally obscene. That decision (now under appeal) meant the Towne Cinema could resume showing the film to predictably sold-out houses. But it did little to reassure those exhibitors and distributors fearful of being caught in a similar judicial squeeze between courts and the censors.

The Caligula episode explodes the popular myth that provincial censor boards are all-powerful. “The most important thing to remember about provincial censors,” says Malcolm Dean, author of the recently published Censored! Only in Canada, “is that they have no authority whatsoever to determine what is or is not obscene.” Exhibitors who view censor board approval as protection against prosecution for ob-

scenity do so, says Dean, “at their peril.”

It is a peculiarly Canadian dilemma. In the United States, for example, state censor boards have all but disappeared over the past two decades, replaced largely by selfregulation within the movie industry itself. Moreover, some obscenity charges can be defended successfully under the first amendment provision for freedom of the press. Canadian exhibitors have no such constitutional guarantees. And the Canadian courts have been inconsistent when ruling on “squeeze” cases similar to Caligula’s. In the early ’70s, several western courts declared that approval by the provincial censor board was not in itself a defence against prosecution for obscenity. However, in 1979 a Quebec lower court acquitted the exhibitor of a B-grade film, Dutch Treats, on the grounds that “if the accused is guilty of the offence of which he is charged, one might say ... that the censorship board might likewise be guilty.” In determining what is obscene, most Canadian judges have relied on three criteria: the serious intent of the producer, artistic merit and community standards. At the same time, though, provincial boards are empowered to determine local standards of acceptability, demand deletions, and ban outright objectionable films. (The exception is Manitoba, which in 1972 opted instead for a film classification board.)

There is also, adds Dean, much confusion over what constitutes “community standards.” When pressed on the issue, the Supreme Court of Canada has spoken hopefully of a Canadian standard consistent across the country. But censor boards clearly work on the conflicting premise that what was acceptable in Quebec City may not be in Red Deer, Alta. Thus such recent highly acclaimed movies as Pretty Baby and The Tin Drum have been banned by the Ontario Board of Censors (considered the strictest in the country) while approved uncut in every other province.

In fact, the influence of the Ontario censor board spills across its provincial border to other parts of the country. In

order to reach the widest audience possible, distributors often ship films premiering in Ontario in their butchered state to other provinces. “As a result,” Peterborough film festival director Susan Ditta notes wryly, “moviegoers in Edmonton are being affected by the decisions of the Ontario censor board more than they realize.”

Caligula, of course, has fought its own battles to get to the screen. First released in the United States early in 1980, the film has been seized by police departments in Boston, Atlanta and New York city (to name a few). Penthouse lawyers have successfully defeated each legal challenge. In Canada, there are two versions of the film in circulation. The original unedited print has been playing in Vancouver for more than six months. (A similar print with only minor cuts is showing in Montreal and six other Quebec centres.) It was a much tamer copy that was approved by the Alberta censor board and is also showing in Toronto. Ironically, the Albertan complainant who prompted the Alberta attorney general’s department to close the Caligula run saw the most virulent version, the Vancouver print, while visiting B.C.

The most crucial problem remains unresolved after the Caligula trial. As defence lawyer Bradley Willis said in his final argument, “It is indeed ignoble to resolve internecine squabbles between government agencies by subjecting an innocent third party to the expense and embarrassment of a criminal trial.” Brian Macintosh, general manager of Towne Cinemas in Edmonton, is attempting to rectify that inconvenience in a current suit claiming damages for wrongful seizure. (He estimates the theatre lost $70,000 before receiving a replacement film.) Commercial distributors are not the only ones bogged down in the censorship quagmire. Experimental art film houses, such as The Funnel theatre in Toronto, are in the forefront of organizations inconvenienced by censor cuts, especially during international film festivals. Many of them are calling for exemption from the system entirely.

This protest notwithstanding, surveys carried out by the Ontario government in 1971 and 1979 show that at least two-thirds of Ontarians favor some sort of censorship. Viewers’ strongest objections, in Ontario at least, are directed at scenes of incest, masturbation and oral sex. It was largely on the basis of such acts that movies such as Luna were banned. Demonstrating the typical ambivalence of many Canadian filmgoers, Calgarian Jack Hanna, who sat through Caligula, believes the film tests the boundaries of good taste. But, says he, “people don’t have to go to see the thing if they don’t want to.” £>