Philistine censorship

There is nothing more nauseous than the spectacle of members of the bourgeoisie self-righteously denouncing “obscenity” or “immorality”. The Tory-controlled Westminster council - which, as we all know, is famous for its moral rectitude: just ask Lady Porter - has decided by six votes to three to renew its ban on the David Cronenberg film, Crash.

After a two-hour meeting of the council’s licensing sub-committee, the good burghers decreed that the film could “deprave and corrupt vulnerable viewers”. Thus we will be unable to see it in the West End, one of the movie capitals of the world. However, if you are so inclined, there is nothing to prevent you from frequenting one of the numerous sex shops which litter Soho (and picking up a hard-core porno video on the way home, so you can round off the day nicely). Unlike watching Crash though, we have to presume that these are perfectly ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ activities to engage in.

Interestingly, the council has deployed the 1909 Cinematograph Act, which arrogates to local authorities the right to censor films. Supposedly introduced at the time on health and safety grounds - film cellulose then was highly inflammable, and frequently burst into flames during the middle of a showing - this act was used from day one to withhold licences from cinemas showing films of which the local authorities disapproved. Given the nature of local government, which in many areas has been under the control of the most backward and reactionary sections of society, this had the most irrational and downright absurd consequences. Thus The life of Brian is still banned in Torquay, on the grounds that it is “blasphemous”.

Of course such banning orders are most frequently used against art which critiques, or attacks, the moral order existing in society. Art, if you can call it that, which underpins or reaffirms the established order is perfectly acceptable. Rambo, Friday the 13th part 50, Terminator, The green berets and James Bond films are all OK (‘Just a bit of harmless fun,’ we are normally told), but ‘perverted’ films like Crash or The life of Brian (if you are a god-fearing Christian living in Torquay) are beyond the pale. The appropriately named John Bull, sub-committee chairman of Westminster, summed up this attitude: “The West End is the entertainment heart of London and it is likely that many young people who drift into London will visit the cinema without particularly planning which film to see. A film with such a perverse mixed message could well improperly influence them.” A truly terrifying scenario: hordes of ‘vulnerable’ young people “drift” into a viewing of Crash and then charge out of the cinema, climb excitedly into their cars and then deliberately crash in order to get a quick sexual thrill.

It hardly has to be pointed out that only a philistine cretin would believe that the film or the original book by JG Ballard actually advocates the joys of car crashes, or even suggests that people in reality derive sexual pleasure from being involved in car accidents. Crash operates primarily on the level of symbolism and dream-like imagery. Only the literal-minded idiots who sit on Westminster council or write film reviews for tabloid newspapers fail to understand that.

Crash is in fact a powerful aesthetic critique of society and the unhealthy obsessions that drive it - in this particular case, cars and sex. JG Ballard explicitly draws the link between the two. When Crash was written in 1973, car advertising used to delight in overtly pornographic (or ‘carnographic’) imagery, with semi-naked women draped over the front of car bonnets. The message was quite clear - ‘drive a fast car and you will get laid’. Not that much has changed now, except that advertisers deploy irony to push out the same essential message. Far from Crash being a perverted exercise in pornography, it is in fact a deeply moral rejection of the pornographic and ahuman values which dominate society. Not that this prevented one of the publishers who rejected Ballard’s manuscript from famously saying, “The author of this work is beyond psychiatric help.”

In Crash, and throughout his work in general, Ballard is pointing out how fundamentally unhealthy a society is which puts so  much emphasis on activities which are transitory and momentary - ie, the orgasm and charging down the motorway at 100 miles an hour.

Communists, as a matter of principle, oppose all censorship. We denounce all laws which allow the state - local or national - the right to decide what we watch, read or hear.

Eddie Ford