- East Coast Foil
Raymond Haberski’s Freedom to Offend is a valuable work of cultural history that analyzes and catalogues New York City’s role in shaping modern sensibilities about film and censorship. In outlining this evolution, Haberski offers two theses about how New York City served as the center of new, radical ideas about the power of film as an artistic medium and how the bohemian culture dramatically redefined what could properly be shown in films. In so doing, the role and status of motion pictures as an artistic medium were significantly altered.
The opening of the book addresses the first of these theses, showing how New York City was at the forefront of the movement to break the harsh censorship restrictions typically imposed on films in the 1950s. Haberski details how both religious and government institutions rigidly defined what could be depicted on the screen. He also points out that the big Hollywood studios, concerned mainly with profits, usually abided by these restrictions, and as a result screenplays typically presented stories and images that were stale, unimaginative, and unchallenging to audiences. New York City’s intellectual community served as an East Coast foil to the mainstream Hollywood studios, however, continually challenging censorship restrictions and initiating lengthy dialogues about the potential of film as an artistic medium and the need to broaden what could be termed permissible content. The first part of the book (up to chapter four) ends with New York’s “victory,” as the city played a key role in breaking the power of censors and broadening the range of themes and images that could be shown in films.
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By the 1960s, times had changed considerably, and the power of religious and government authorities to define the content of films was largely broken. It was considerably easier to present images that a decade before would have been branded as damaging to the public. The second part of the book outlines the consequences of this reality and puts forth the author’s second thesis concerning New York City’s role in creating a dialogue about what constituted art, decency, and the appropriate content of films. Haberski argues here that NYC’s intellectual community lost sight of [End Page 88] the difference between art and baseless prurient imagery. New York’s leading critics, radicals, and intellectuals defended titles such as Deep Throat as a legitimate form of artistic expression in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Free of the censor’s restrictions, photodramas continually grew more violent and pornographic, but only to show that they could, not to advance film as an artistic medium. New York’s cognoscenti praised such films with tortured and nonsensical logic. The author uses New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther as the tragic example of this story. In the 1950s, Crowther was at the forefront of the anti-censorship crusade and used his eminent position to protect the artistic freedom of filmmakers. In the 1960s, however, Crowther’s position gradually changed, and he began to attack films for their low artistic quality and their graphic sexual and violent content. As a result, he in turn was vilified by a younger generation of critics as outdated and out of touch and was eventually forced to leave his position at the Times, replaced by the younger and hipper Renata Adler, who followed the new generation’s defense of a filmmaker’s right to depict any image, no matter how offensive or puerile.
New York’s role in shaping movie culture comes across as a paradoxical dichotomy of brave fights against censorship and pretentious pundits defending base pornography as legitimate art. Haberski’s book makes clear this important influence on film and American culture. Most people are conscious of the fact that America changed considerably between the 1950s and 1960s, but Freedom to Offend offers valuable insight into how and why this evolution occurred. Haberski’s depiction of New York as the center of radical thought and culture in the United States adds to...