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A cut above: the end (and ends) of film censorship

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posted on 22.05.2021, 08:57 authored by Daniel Vincent Sacco
By the beginning of the twenty-first century in the West, the notion of government-appointed bodies mandated for censoring cinematic content had fallen considerably out of fashion as institutional censorship was largely curtailed. Barring widely shared concerns regarding the exposure of underage children to material deemed inappropriate, newly rebranded “classification” boards have acted to limit the extent to which they themselves can prohibit images from entering the public market, shifting their emphasis away from censorship and toward consumer edification and greater consideration of artistic merit and authorial intent. Such reform brought the policies of censorship boards in Britain, Canada, and Australia into closer alignment with the goals and processes of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system. Can we then assume that cinematic censorship is effectively a thing of the past? Does the impetus to regulate and police film content continue silently to exist? Analysis of controversies surrounding particular films throughout and in the wake of this shift suggests that, while no longer practiced explicitly by governmental institutions, film censorship continues to operate through less immediately recognizable forms of cultural marginalization and restraint. Classification status drastically affects the number of platforms through which a film can be accessed and thus works, as censorship does, to restrict films from audiences. When market demands place external restraints upon film content, familiar processes of cinematic censorship can be reframed as operating within (as opposed to upon) the institutional structures and practices of cultural production. This two-part study will examine, first, the process by which certain postmillennial cinematic artworks, such as Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001) and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), spurred reform in the policies of classification boards by highlighting the rigidity of classification criteria and, secondly, cases in which, following the shift from moral to covert censorship, artistically serious films such as Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (2014) have been suppressed or constrained for their challenging subject matter, most notably for their aggressive presentation of sexuality. The main objective will be determining: 1) how the shift from censorship to classification corresponded to the aesthetic strategies of a handful of boundary-pushing films; and 2) how cinematic censorship, in the absence of traditional institutional enforcement, continues to operate in the interactions between alternative networks of disciplinary power and discursive practice.





Doctor of Philosophy


Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type