The same Obscene Publications Squad, which permitted orthodox Soho pornbrokers to proceed with Business As Usual in exchange for regular cash payments and a few free blue movies for their stag nights, relentlessly pursued OZ, IT and the publishers of The Little Red School Book. This was a cultural war disguised as an obscenity trial: ordinary porn, which knows its place and reinforces rather than challenges the social order, rarely receives this kind of attention from the Powers That Be. On the other hand, overtly radical work concerned with ideas becomes instantly vulnerable, whenever it touches on matters of sexuality, to mass outbreaks of orchestrated indignation and — in this case — the full weight of the law. The fact that, between verdict and sentencing, the OZ Three were subjected to forcible haircuts was a valuable clue towards figuring out exactly what their real crimes were. Jonathon Green wrote in All Dressed Up, “The Establishment did not like OZ or the counter-culture that it represented … when Neville naively, injudiciously combined ‘children’ with the usual irritants of drugs and sex and rock, they saw their chance.”
In his summing up, Judge Michael Argyle had misrepresented the defendants and their case so thoroughly that the conviction was overruled on appeal. Richard and Jim nevertheless left the country soon afterwards. Yet what the OZ Three had done was not, as the prosecution insisted, exploited and corrupt us in order to aim a torrent of filth at helpless infants, but simply allowed a bunch of bright, discontented kids the opportunity to express themselves and, in doing so, prove that — as Bob Dylan had put it a few years earlier — ‘your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.’ The results were often incoherent, inconsistent or just plain silly, but neverthless, OZ 28 was us, and it exploded the idea of children as passive. The whole convoluted exercise was an attack on the right to say that things are not as they seem; many descriptions of certain phenomena as ‘sick’ or ‘obscene’ are simply reactions to the pain of having to consider an uncomfortable or unfamiliar idea.
The Powers That Be can deal, quite happily, with sex and violence when they know their place: in the darker corners of the video department of any Oxford Street megastore. Censorship, or demands for the application of obscenity laws, tends to occur when dominant values or ideas are under threat. The crime of OZ was to suggest that adolescents found sex both attractive and humorous, and that they were discontented with society and the education system: this was far more disturbing than anything Old Soho could offer its customers. Similarly, Chris Morris’s attack on orchestrated hysteria and self-aggrandising celebrities too dozy to listen to what they’re reading from an autocue is more upsetting to many than the spectacle of the howling lynch-mobs wound up by the News Of The World — and Channel 4 have taken far more flak over Morris than they ever did for the ghastly, and thankfully defunct, Something For The Weekend. Serious movies like American Psycho, Crash and Lolita, adapted from the works of serious writers like Ellis, Ballard and Nabakov, have far more power to disturb than any straightforward slasher flick, shoot-em-up or shagfest, simply because they engage the brain.
A few years ago, when the furore over Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was at its height, BBC1 screened — at peak viewing time on a Saturday night — Eddie Murphy’s lacklustre Harlem Nights, in which a character also has his ear sliced off. One difference was that in Murphy’s movie, unlike Tarantino’s, this happens on camera. No noticeable furore resulted. However, in Tarantino’s film — as in Pulp Fiction — acts of violence, which are either not shown or are over in a flash, turn out to have consequences. This is in direct contrast to the conventional shoot-em-up action movie, where we can linger on the bloody delights of an act of violence without us, or the heroes, having to worry about the aftermath. Tarantino’s movies told us that actions have consequences. How dare they!
During the 1980s, Tipper Gore — wife of Al — stoked up US legislators to combat the dangers posed to youth by rock and rap lyrics by affixing ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers to album covers. A current TV promotion hard-sells a compilation album with a sleeve consisting of a single huge ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker. The sick, obscene advertiser attempting to shift corrupting material with this forbidden-fruit campaign? Woolworths.
Depictions of sexuality and violence do not, in themselves, offer any threat. Ideas do, especially when sexuality is involved. From Chatterley to OZ, from Crash to Brass Eye, we have seen those who are threatened by ideas demand censorship in order to win cultural wars when they know, in their heart of hearts, that they have already lost the argument.
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