Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Censorship by satellite

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A few years ago Myanmar ostensibly entered the post-censorship era. As a result, newspapers are no longer required to send their copy to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and galleries can now display paintings without the indignity of preview by art-illiterate “authorities”.

Unfortunately, local satellite TV providers are still taking it upon themselves to police the content of the pirated DVDs they screen on their “world movie” channels. Cigarettes, for example, must be blurred out because SMOKING KILLS! (Depictions of people being gunned down are okay, though – perhaps because such activities are compatible with traditional Myanmar junta culture.)

Kissing is also expunged, presumably on the assumption that lip-to-lip congress is a gateway behavior that, if glimpsed even briefly, will inspire the innocent to fornicate in the streets like frenzied simians. Unobstructed cleavage is likewise a harbinger of civilization’s demise.

These examples are merely annoying and can be laughed off as the work of starchy geezers who imagine they are providing a useful service by safeguarding society against perilous imagery.

But censors are rarely astute enough to foresee the more insidious effects of their intrusive moralizing. This is particularly noticeable in ham-fisted attempts to cut scenes from movies that are far smarter than the “editors” – one example being Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), which I watched recently on local satellite.

The movie’s anti-hero is Lester Burnham, a man who enjoys little respect at home or at work. Describing himself as “an ordinary guy with nothing to lose”, he embarks on a quixotic quest to recapture his lost youth. At the root of this reckless venture are lustful daydreams about his teenage daughter’s friend Angela, a flirtatious cheerleader who is fond of boasting about her sexual promiscuity.

There is a pivotal moment toward the end of the film when Lester and Angela find themselves alone. They start undressing on the sofa, and … in the Myanmar satellite version, we suddenly jump to Lester sitting back in a chair and Angela buttoning up her shirt. This poorly conceived bit of cinematic obfuscation gives the impression that we have been “safeguarded” against seeing a disturbing sex scene between a teenage girl and an adult male.

But this is not what actually occurred. In the suppressed scene, Angela admits at the last moment that she is a virgin. No longer seeing the girl as an object of lust, Lester backs off. The man who has been rebelling – both comically and tragically – against his fear of middle age manages, just barely, to liberate himself from his downward spiral.

In cutting the scene, the censors have succeeded in stripping out the message of redemption – however frail – and have turned American Beauty into a far more disquieting tale of unapologetic amorality. Lester, rather than being shocked into a moment of self-realization, is merely a detestable pedophile who unsympathetically deserves the looming death to which he alludes at the beginning of the movie.

Even more disappointing is the censorious violence committed by the same satellite provider to The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), directed by Milos Foreman. The film, which I had originally seen during its theater release, explores the subject of free speech, particularly the question of whether free expression encompasses the right to offend others.

The story builds toward a scene depicting the real-life court case Hustler Magazine vs Falwell, in which the US Supreme Court unanimously decided that offensive speech should indeed be protected. The ruling stated, in part, “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.”

But I never made it that far into the “Myanmarized” version of The People vs Larry Flynt – it was apparent within the first few minutes that the satellite provider’s inept digital abortionists had struck again, chopping the movie as thoroughly and as gleefully as horned devils slicing and dicing reprobates in hell.

The censors had essentially taken a film about free expression and, in their naïve effort to “protect” viewers, cut the meaning right out of it. In doing so, they managed to debase the very concept of free speech, demonstrating precisely why their jobs are so profoundly anachronistic in a country supposedly moving toward democracy and greater openness.

Written by latefornowhere

December 4, 2015 at 3:42 am

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