Okies and The Tin Drum
After writing about Fahrenheit 911, it dawned on me that I had seen another important film recently. The film, Banned in Oklahoma, covers the Oklahoma censorship debacle beginning in 1997 over the Academy Award winning movie The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), which was based on Gunter Grass's 1959 novel. Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.
Here's an abbreviated version of the censorship case:
In 1997, Bob Anderson, the head of a local right-wing extremist organization, Oklahoma For Children and Families (OCAF), was able to manipulate Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman to rule the movie contained child pornography. Anderson took the film to police, complaining it was obscene. The police then took it to Freeman. (Remember, this is an Academy Award-winning film. It was produced in 1979, and no reasoning person would consider it obscene, especially nearly twenty years after the movie's release! Boring, yes; obscene, absolutely not.)
Consequently, then Oklahoma City District Attorney Bob Macy ordered the film confiscated, and police took the film from local libraries, six local video stores, and three individuals, one of whom happened to be a staff member of the local American Civil Liberties Union.
Later the film was ruled not obscene, but not before Oklahoma City had been depicted nationally, once again, as a backwards, ignorant city without culture and without any respect for art.
The Tin Drum, directed by Volker Schlondorff, depicts the life of the child Oskar, who refuses to grow up beyond the age of three or give up the tin drum he plays relentlessly throughout his life until he wills himself to grow. In the film, which is an anti-Nazi polemic, the stunted Oskar has sex with a young woman. The sex scene is a typical, simulated under-the-covers encounter, extremely tame by contemporary standards. The brief sex scene is secondary to the film's political and aesthetic messages.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the prized Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or award.
But the fact the film had won these prestigious awards didn't make our city's right-wing extremists hesitate for even a second.
I remember going to a screening of The Tin Drum during this time at a Norman coffeehouse because it was still legal in Cleveland County and every other county in the state (how absurd!), buying my t-shirt to help the cause, and listening to the ACLU staff member, Michael Camfield, play his guitar and sing a song criticizing the judge's ludicrous decision.
It was the second time I had seen the film. I had watched the film and read the novel in the early 1980s because it was a class requirement in an English course I was taking at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I love the novel, but the film to me is overly symbolic, pretentiously artistic, and boring. The second viewing of the film did not change my mind.
But the film Banned in Oklahoma, which I saw recently with a lively audience at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is anything but boring. It shows Camfield and Anderson pitted against one another in a type of illogical, absurd culture war only our state (and maybe states such as, say, Mississippi and Alabama) could produce. The film's director and producer, University of Oklahoma Professor Gary D. Rhodes, is careful to give Anderson his viewpoint in the film, and thus the close-minded, moralistic curmudgeon Anderson indicts himself.
Our country would simply cease to exist as a democracy if people such as Anderson were allowed to dictate our cultural realities.
Camfield, meanwhile, comes off as somewhat loony at points in the film, but he is full of life, energy and humor unlike the sanctimonious, sour Anderson. Given a choice between Anderson's bleak, ugly, moralistic world and Camfield's off-the-wall improvisation, there is really no choice. The film shows Camfield having fun with his ensuing lawsuit, one he unfortunately does not win in the end. The film is eventually ruled not obscene, of course, and the libraries and video stores win, but Camfield's suit was based not on the obscenity issue but on wrongful search and seizure.
Rhodes intersperses the film with a subtle regional wit and irony, and that ultimately is what makes the film compelling and interesting. The photography is pure Okie funk (yes, I know it's the name of my blog) and/or American Gothic, which means the irony folds back unto itself by turning what might be considered ugly into retrospective art. At the same time, the film never bashes Oklahoma. This is a real achievement. Rhodes has to be lauded for the film's controlled tone and voice, which resonates without reverting to condescending sarcasm.
Ultimately, though, the film depicts something dark and foreboding. It shows the Oklahoma City power structure capable of supreme ignorance and borderline fascist behavior. To ban an Academy Award winning film in the city twenty years after its release and then to seize copies of the film is simply without parallel in the annals of idiotic decisions. Or, perhaps more worrisome, it is a preview of our future in this country if we remain under the control of right-wing extremists. This, of course, is a far more horrific conclusion.
Banned in Oklahoma is a tremendous contribution to Oklahoma art and culture, and I encourage everyone to attend a local screening or order the film from its excellent director and writer.