It was Saturday Censorship at the Movies last night in Cable Land.
First, I got to watch that manly channel, Spike, blanch at showing a possessed 12-year-old girl use the work “fuck”, which, as you horror devotees know, is a word rather central to showing how she has been taken over, like Helen Thomas, by the demon Pazuzu. There was Linda Blair, as the suddenly possessed Regan O’Neill, bouncing rhythmically on her bed as her horrified mother and physician looked on, shouting “—Me!—Me!—Me!”, apparently horrifying them with a noisy outbreak of egocentricity. The later scene in which the Demon Child is found masturbating with a crucifix was also clumsily chopped up so it was impossible to figure out what was going on.
This is, admittedly, old news for this film, which has been routinely censored since it started showing on TV. The censorship is always more offensive than the content removed. “The Exorcist” (directed by William Friedkin) is a classic film and an important one, and cutting out large chunks of the most intense scenes (together with breaking it up with mouthwash and car insurance commercials) renders it no more and no less than a waste of time. It is always a destructive and disrespectful act to deface a work of art (yes, “The Exorcist” is), but this episode was more bewildering than usual. Spike, which includes such sexually explicit and frequently crude shows as “MANswers” and “1,000 Ways to Die” obviously curries favor with an audience that uses the work “fuck” about 1,000 times a day. If you are offended by “fuck,” you don’t watch Spike. Furthermore, if you are so sensitive that the scenes and language in “The Exorcist” bother you, then you aren’t going to watch “The Exorcist” anyway, and you certainly aren’t going to watch it on Spike. There are literally no audience members at all whose interests are served by Spike’s showing of a G-Rated version of a movie about a little girl’s possession by an unspeakable demon. Such censorship irritates everyone, and is disrespectful to the artists who made the movie. As with Huckleberry Finn, the only ethical course is to either present the entire work, or not to present it at all.
But “The Exorcist” was far from the worst censorship horror on cable this night. Over on American Movie Classics, they were showing “El Dorado,” Howard Hawks’ first (of two) remakes of his classic Western, “Rio Bravo.” The John Wayne-Robert Mitchum film doesn’t rise to inspired level of its predecessor, but it is fun, and hardly a threat to young (or old) sensibilities; I first saw it when I was 16, and my son viewed it when he was eight. “El Dorado” is frequently shown on television, but this time something was missing: a silly sequence in which a young James Caan (playing “Mississippi”; the equivalent character in Rio Bravo was named “Colorado”) approaches and overcomes an armed lookout by crudely disguising himself as a stereotypical Chinaman of the period. This was deemed so objectionable by someone at AMC that a meat-axe was used to excise it: we see “Mississippi” starting to drape himself in something, he says, “I have an idea!”, and then the print cuts to him mid-punch, knocking out the look-out. What happened? What was his idea? How did he get there? What the heck is going on? Unless you know the movie already, is would be no answer to these questions. AMC obviously doesn’t care, because although the channel is supposedly dedicated to showing classic movies, it obviously think that it is more important that the movies it shows meet some fanatic’s concept of what is “sensitive” programming.
Whose interest does this idiotic, politically-correct censorship really serve? The 19th Century Coolie Image Defense League? A goofy cowboy, in a comedy adventure, uses a ridiculous disguise that looks even less like a real Asian than John Wayne did when he played Genghis Kahn. So what? Who can this possibly offend? What damage can it do? Whatever damage it is, it pales beside the damage done to the film itself and the enjoyment of watching it, because the story is rendered undecipherable at the point of the cut.
In the third Indiana Jones film, Indy (Harrison Ford) tricks his way into a Nazi-controlled castle by pretending to be a stereotypical Scotsman, using a hasty disguise that is every bit as absurd as what Caan uses in “El Dorado.” Why is that sequence not excised by AMC, which played it frequently over the holidays? Because AMC thinks Asians are more sensitive than the Scottish? Because Spielberg deserves more respect as a director than Howard Hawks (“Red River,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Thing” and many other great films)? It is futile to try to find reason or consistency in such censorship, because there is neither. There is only fear, ignorance, and cowardice.
Whoever the insufferable, misguided, literal-minded, historically ignorant, intellectually deficient and artistically tasteless fools are who want to clean up Mark Twain’s language, the Constitution’s errors, and Howard Hawks’s gags, it is up to anyone who believes in the free expression of ideas and the importance of cultural perspective to confront them, condemn them, and stop them.