April 25, 2003

Nude Scenes At BYU

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Originally titled, "One reason I decided to become a filmmaker: Nude scenes at BYU"

Cinema Paradiso, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1989, image:splicedonline.com Alfredo taking out the bad parts in Cinema Paradiso, which had more than 50 minutes cut for its original release. Image:splicedonline.com
You know how, in Cinema Paradiso, the priest would sit, bell in hand, and pre-screen that week's film? And when an indecent scene came along (in post-war Sicily, all it took was a kiss), he'd ring the bell with great seriousness, and a sighing Alfredo'd insert a scrap of paper into the reel to mark the print for "temporary" censorship? And how Alfredo never really got around to putting those racy scenes back into the movies before returning them? And how Toto watched the whole thing, and how those censored and powerful film clips helped make cinema Toto's lifelong passion/profession?

That was my job in college (the scene-cutting, not the bell-ringing). During my last two years at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, I was a manager of the International Cinema, an on-campus foreign film program that screened recent and classic films under the auspices of the College of Humanities. [The program's still running. Apr 7-12, the last days of their winter schedule, they screened Chris Marker's excellent 2000 Tarkovsky documentary, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich; when I was there, we showed The Sacrifice.]
Prof. Don Marshall was the advisor/programmer. He had the best job in Provo, although no one else realized it; he'd spend his breaks roaming film festivals and arthouses, spotting new films he could conceivably bring to a conservative religious campus. His own tastes probably ran to Wajda, since Man of Iron and some other one were among the very few prints he'd actually bought (or finagled from his friends at New Yorker Films and other exotic distributors) for the program. Since he'd seen the pictures, and knew roughly what'd fly, nudity- and language-wise, he could sometimes quote reel and scene what needed to go. If he had unclear notes or the vaguest recollection, we'd screen the movie, Cinema Paradiso-style on Monday, and he'd tell me and/or the projectionist what had to go. We'd then be expected to cut the scenes and be sure to mark them with tape on the edge so we could replace the threatening genitalia, too-graphic sex, or too-foul dialogue before shipping the print back.

manon_of_the_spring.jpg

As for what had to be cut, it was pretty much what I just listed. Nudity per se was not automatically censored, though. The IC is part of the curriculum, not just entertainment, and so it was assumed by the institution (the School, not the Church; there IS a difference) that the seriousness of the students and the artistic merit of the films were best-served by a lighter touch. Damn, hell, even shit might stay in. Long shots of Manon bathing at her spring were fine, but closeups must go. Nipples and breasts, were examined [sic, heh] case by case. A flash of genitalia? preferably not. A lingering, prolonged, or too-recognizable view of genitalia? Cut it [sic]. Sex, only if it's subdued, but usually not, thanks. Butts, for the most part, could stay.

[It's worth noting that the Varsity Theater in the student union, which showed mainstream first-run (or close to it) movies had a zero-tolerance policy on all of the above. I remember seeing Top Gun there, and in a shower scene, the projectionist laid down thin black tape to cover the merest hint of buttcheek. This wasn't done frame by frame, though, but vertically. Three guys'd be standing in the shower, when all of a sudden a huge black band would obliterate one of them (except for his arm or something). They'd also bring all language to a G-rating by taping over the optical soundtrack, resulting in bursts of complete silence where cursing and adult comments once existed. Occasionally, these practices would clear the "Risque Miss Piggy greeting cards banned from BYU bookstore" bar and make it into USAToday. After a run-in with Steven Spielberg (who demanded Schindler's List be screened unchanged), and more importantly, the proliferation of multiplexes in Utah Valley, Varsity Theater went dark. Now it's the home of the IC.]

My deep, dark secret, though: I only rarely took out everything Dr. Marshall directed. Only if, during the run of the show, someone complained about being exposed to a breast or a coupling of some kind, would I go back and take out a few more frames. For language, I'd almost always leave it in, unless it was something that would clearly give offense. For the most part, then, the films ran unaltered, and if Dr. Marshall or someone in the department heard a pained plea now and then, they knew that they'd been sensitive to peoples' highly sensitive sensitivities.

International Cinema was a haven; by quietly refusing to pre-emptively sanitize these films, I defined myself against Standards bearers who'd just as soon have you learn a hymn in Spanish, if all you wanted is some language practice, right? This steady stream of incredible movies was like a pool in the desert, culture-wise. From learning at 17, when a roommate dragged me to Ermanno Olmi's quietly momentous Tree of the Wooden Clogs, that films don't have to be flashy and have a happy ending, to scouting out Imamura Shohei's 1989 Black Rain, at the barely opened Angelika on a road trip. International Cinema set me up for a lifelong love of cinema. Then, during my last year, Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies & Videotape broke at Sundance next door (so near but yet so far). I brazenly saw it (the title alone was enough to guarantee it'd never screen on campus), and I became one of the million or so people who followed in his wake. Films were no longer made by middle-aged Italians or grizzled Russians, but by the guys driving the Festival vans.

[In the mid-to-late 90's, I heard through the grapevine that a handful of zealots began a campaign against IC and the smut it poisoned the Lord's Campus with; people "from the community" (i.e., not related to BYU, except by common religion) would attend the films, write up detailed lists of incidents of offensiveness, and demand to the Dean or someone in the Church hierarchy that the program be stopped. Apparently, it nearly drove Dr. Marshall to close it down and retire. It's still going, but he did eventually retire.]

All this came back to me when I wandered across Brian Flemming's extremely compelling post on the escalating legal battle between the major studios and the DGA on one side and some Utah-based movie editing companies on the other. Clean Flicks, ClearPlay and others use various arguably legal means to enable consumers to mute, skip, or edit out nudity and/or language from DVD's they watch at home. Brian picks apart the tortured arguments of the DGA and several directors named in the legal action, including Soderbergh and Spielberg.

The assumption that everyone in BYU's Utah Valley is Mormon was so solid, my not-Mormon San Diegan roommate devised a fool-proof way of shutting people up in movies: he'd turn to me and say, "Greg, I'd really like to join your church, but I can't the people are just too rude." As someone who wielded a splicer in the service of that audience, and as an impressionable four-year resident of that community, let me argue the worth of slightly fitted movies; a little Emmanuelle BČart goes a long way. If I hadn't seen a partially denuded version of Manon des Sources, I may never have known to see La Belle Noiseuse (which more than made up for the scenes I cut in Provo).

To my fellow [sic] directors and their zealous DGA/MPAA spokespeople who are heckbent on dictating how everyone watches their films, I say: shizz, guys you need to flippin' lighten up a bit. You sound much too much like the self-righteous, oh-so-sure-of-themselves zealots who tried to shut down International Cinema.

1 Comment

Hey Greg!! I was searching for a picture of Dr. Marshall for my blog and found you instead! How's it going?!

You remember things a bit differently than I do--but I appreciate the blast from the past. ;)

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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