American author, Jeremy Geltzer’s new book, Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures: Film And The First Amendment, explores the movies that helped shape the law in the US. From cinema’s humble beginnings as a nickelodeon amusement, motion pictures emerged as a force that resulted in greater creative freedom to all. By looking at risqué foreign films, banned B-movies, and edgy studio releases, Dirty Words reveals how legal battles over film content helped to broaden long-held interpretations of The US Constitution, expand personal freedoms, and open a new era of free speech. Here, Jeremy Geltzer picks five groundbreaking moments in US cinema and censorship.
THE MAY IRWIN KISS (1896)
Motion pictures were a new technology when Thomas Edison’s film unit produced an eighteen-second featurette that electrified peephole projectors across America. That film, The Kiss, was intended to promote a Broadway play called The Widow Jones. It captured the play’s climatic moment when John C. Rice planted his puckered lips on Ms. Irwin. At the time, Victorian sensibilities of decency ruled, but audiences were mesmerised by the close up view of an intimate moment. The Kiss was a big hit, and moved censors to monitor the new medium.
A FREE RIDE (C. 1915)
In the same year that The Birth Of A Nation stampeded across screens, another revolutionary picture was unspooling behind closed doors. A Free Ride, the oldest existing hardcore porn film made in the USA, became a stag party staple. A Free Ride was not the first sex loop ever; Europe had been shooting fuck films for over a decade, but A Free Ride’s anonymous director contributed a distinctively American touch by adding a narrative. In the film, a man is seen driving through the country in his Model T. He picks up two girls and they head out for a pastoral pleasuring.
THE MIRACLE DECISION (1952)
The Production Code ruled Hollywood from the thirties through to the fifties. In 1915, the US Supreme Court ruled that movies were not protected by The First Amendment. State censors had the upper hand, and racy content was cut from studio pictures. It wasn’t until Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle was banned for blasphemy that The High Court reversed its position in 1952. Indecent and obscene movies could still be banned, but censoring sacrilege would not be allowed. The Miracle was the first thread that began to unravel regulators’ strict control in America.
THE PORNO CHIC
As regulations eased and dirty pictures became tolerated, porn saw a brief mainstream acceptance. In 1973, The New York Times gave the era a name: “Porno Chic.” Linda Lovelace emerged as a star after demonstrating her sword swallowing skills in Deep Throat (1972); Marilyn Chambers was the girl next door who went all the way in Behind The Green Door (1973); and The Devil In Miss Jones (1973) featured Georgina Spelvin in a more artistic blue film. For a time, these sex films played in neighbourhood theatres, celebrated by trendsetters and pop culture influencers. By the end of the decade, video appeared and laws tightened. The Porno Chic became a pop culture footnote.
YOU TUBE & VIRAL VIDEOS
In the past decade, countries have struggled with regulation and control over subversive media. The UK banned violent videos. The EU monitors hate speech. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have the most restrictive policies. Even Australia trims certain subjects. In the US, The First Amendment remains a powerful protection, but there are limits. In 2008, when a video of a marine in Iraq throwing a puppy off a cliff went viral, it ignited a virtual lynch mob. In 2015, “Innocence Of Muslims”, the video that may have triggered violence in Benghazi, was ordered down but was overturned. Free speech rights are championed for even the most unpopular viewpoints. Current issues related to extremists’ use of social media will once again test the limits of The First Amendment and state regulation.
To purchase Jeremy Geltzer’s Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures, head here.