Sunday, December 23, 2012

John Waters Film Banned After Shooting

Remember when movies used to get banned? When little old church ladies wrote cranky letters over Deep Throat or when Britain refused to release The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? If you think these antiquated images are a thing of the past then check out the sign that greeted me in the lobby of BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn last Wednesday night:

BAM Rose Theatre Lobby Sign

This was not a double feature. Both Female Trouble and Silent Night Bloody Night were individual screenings curated by BAMcinĂ©matek Program Director Florence Almozini and cancelled “out of respect for the victims of last week’s shooting,” presumably the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting of December 14th.

So if the tragedy struck home, why not blackout the whole theatre out of respect for the victims? Why target these two particular films for cancellation?

Let’s look at the films themselves.

Firstly, Female Trouble (1974) is John Waters’ entry into the Juvenile Delinquent sub-genre of exploitation cinema. The lead is played by Waters regular Divine, whose character devotes herself to a life of crime. The film climaxes with a shooting in a theatre and finally her death by electric chair. In BAM’s own words, Female Trouble “crafts a moving piece of melodrama about American society’s sordid underbelly.” This is true. It’s also a pitch-black satire of criminal celebrity in the US, possibly the reason why it was cancelled by BAM.

The second film cancelled was Silent Night Bloody Night, which is basically just a slasher movie about some lady wandering around a mansion in the dark for an hour and a half. Not exactly an allegory for current events but I suspect it was banned by BAM simply for being violent. And banned it was.

According to Tim Dirks, column writer for AMC, the definition of the word “Banned” is “the blocking of a film’s release… for political, religious or social reasons.”

By its actions BAM broadcasts a giant message to both filmmakers and theatregoers that films, which may be considered offensive to the public, have a chance of being cancelled from their schedule. All this for two 40-year-old films which are vaguely topical at best and in one case simply a horror film.

I remember when Dimension Films (who made a bundle on the Scream series) announced that the company would stop all production of horror films in response to 9-11. This policy soon changed however as viewers’ demand for horror films skyrocketed. According to Slant Magazine, the tragedy ushered in “another golden age of horror” and independent genre releases doubled from 2003 to 2004.

Simply put, horror films act as a catharsis, a harrowing memorial to the absence of life that reminds us to take stock of the life we have. It is a smorgasbord of nightmares, which we as audience members can, when the lights come on, pull on our coats and walk from the theatre unharmed- and thankful.

Confronting terror in the abstract has widely documented therapeutic effects in the real world. Successful treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, includes cognitive behavioral therapy, a controlled process of confronting the source of your trauma.

Continuing to treat genre films as though they were disposable devalues them to the lower rungs of cinema. More worrisome is the fact that by canceling a screening that is deemed too topical, BAM appears to be joining a modern wave of conservatism which silences subversive thought.

Female Trouble is too unsettlingly relevant, Silent Night, Bloody Night disposable. In either case BAM is reacting to a very public tragedy by censoring one of the underground’s most celebrated auteurs and reducing subversive ideas to collateral damage in the battle for the future of cinema.

Are these two films offensive? By cancelling their screenings BAM negates our ability to judge for ourselves.

Incidentally, the film they chose to replace Silent Night Bloody Night?

The 1983 comedy, Trading Places.