Forbidden Films: Restrictions & First Censors / by Samuel B. Prime

Back in a pre-Internet Bay City, Michigan, there were only a handful of options for someone seeking to access marginal cinema, whether art house, horror, or exploitation - very few available to see in a theatrical capacity. The alternatives, and a welcome one, were video stores. Bay City never had, and still doesn't have, anything on the exhaustive level of LA's CineFile Video, Austin's Vulcan Video, or - the king - Seattle's Scarecrow Video. Even so, there were multiple Family Video stores with respectable selections for a small town, at least one shitty Blockbuster near the Bay City Mall, but on the border between Bay City and neighboring town Essexville, there was a lone Hollywood Video which boasted the best, most eclectic, and just generally the most unpredictable selection: this was where I had the daylights scared out of me by SUSPIRIA, my mind expanded and collapsed by 200 MOTELS, and fell in love with Bergman's films via SAWDUST & TINSEL - all on VHS - for the first time.

I was lucky in that my father more or less allowed me to rent anything I wished, even R-rated movies, from a very young age. Going to the video store was a phenomenal treat, a reason to aim for high marks in school (report card As translated into free rentals), and some of my best memories of youth are of endlessly perusing shelves, delightfully overwhelmed by all the many hours of possibility and enjoyment that awaited - it seemed near infinite at that time, like I could and would never see everything in the store. Although the Hollywood Video boasted the best overall selection, the Family Video at Euclid/Salzburg was closest to home and so was where I spent most of my time. Because of Family Video, I saw THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE before I was ten, rented and re-rented MAN'S BEST FRIEND at least twenty-five times to cheer on Max when he urinated acid, and rented Abel Ferrara's deeply troubling, emotionally complex, and frighteningly metafilmic DANGEROUS GAME simply because Madonna (who is also from Bay City) was in it. I didn't even pretend to understand or fully appreciate this movie until I re-watched it earlier this year after rescuing it from the obscurity of a West LA 7-11.

In thinking about my extraordinary luck in having a parent willing to indulge my interests in cinema, a first censor less concerned with the violent, mature, or explicit content in movies than allowing a child to validate their own interests by - even tacitly - demonstrating their validity, I began thinking about whether there was any one film that I was not allowed to see. Other than a bad babysitter denying me my cinephilic right to see JASON GOES TO HELL in theaters (and instead forcing me to see fucking FREE WILLY), the only film that I remember being strictly forbidden or restricted at an early age was Terry Zwigoff's CRUMB. At the time, I was probably 7 or 8 years old, didn't know Robert Crumb's art, but (not knowing much about the film) felt very sincerely that I should be allowed to watch a movie about someone who made comic books and cartoons. I have a very keen memory of holding the box in my hands, trying desperately to picture the movie in my mind while all the time knowing that I wouldn't be able to see it. It is a painful, if trivial, memory. In retrospect, I probably would not have understood much of the narrative, the vulgarity would have gone over my head, and any of the sexually explicit content would have turned my face a rosy sort of color. CRUMB is an unfiltered portrait of a man, his life, his loves, his family - the cumulative effect is both profoundly rich and terribly sad - precisely because it is true. There's more tangible, real death in CRUMB than in any of the schlocky slasher movies I was clamoring to see. I suppose what I am trying to say is that the one movie that I was denied by my father is one that makes sense.

I talked to my father on this exact subject a little over a week ago and he has no memory of seeing CRUMB or of telling me that I was not allowed to watch it. I told him all about it, who even recommended it to him, and then I think the memory came back - if only a faint notion. I couldn't help but laugh, however, at that what for me was a defining youthful memory was for him a kind of ghost. I say this without judgment - again, I consider myself lucky in that (with the single aforementioned exception) I was consciously without any restrictions in terms of cinema, idea being that self-defining selections and tastes would be their own incidental form of self-policing. In all the polysemic applicable ways, these early experiences at local video stores have made me who I am today. 

In addition, I asked various friends and colleagues about their own experiences with 'forbidden films,' so here is a quick list of anonymized titles and responses, including those who similarly were allowed to watch anything:

  • NO RESTRICTIONS
  • HALLOWEEN
  • PULP FICTION
  • THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
  • SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY 
  • THE PRINCE OF TIDES
  • CONAN THE BARBARIAN
  • THE EXORCIST
  • EXCALIBUR
  • AS GOOD AS IT GETS
  • DIRTY DANCING
  • PRETTY WOMAN
  • GONE WITH THE WIND
  • SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • POWER RANGERS
  • ALIENS
  • CALIGULA
  • CHILD'S PLAY
  • THE SHINING
  • SOME LIKE IT HOT
  • COYOTE UGLY
  • LABYRINTH
  • WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon