Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment
by Jeremy Geltzer
Foreword by Alex Kozinski
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: University of Texas Press (January 4, 2016)
From the earliest days of cinema, scandalous films such as The Kiss (1896) attracted audiences eager to see provocative images on screen. With controversial content, motion pictures challenged social norms and prevailing laws at the intersection of art and entertainment. Today, the First Amendment protects a wide range of free speech, but this wasn’t always the case. For the first fifty years, movies could be censored and banned by city and state officials charged with protecting the moral fabric of their communities. Once film was embraced under the First Amendment by the Supreme Court’s Miracle decision in 1952, new problems pushed notions of acceptable content even further.
Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures explores movies that changed the law and resulted in greater creative freedom for all. Relying on primary sources that include court decisions, contemporary periodicals, state censorship ordinances, and studio production codes, Jeremy Geltzer offers a comprehensive and fascinating history of cinema and free speech, from the earliest films of Thomas Edison to the impact of pornography and the Internet. With incisive case studies of risqué pictures, subversive foreign films, and banned B-movies, he reveals how the legal battles over film content changed long-held interpretations of the Constitution, expanded personal freedoms, and opened a new era of free speech. An important contribution to film studies and media law, Geltzer’s work presents the history of film and the First Amendment with an unprecedented level of detail.
A scholarly, legal history of the parallel attempts of movie producers to stretch the limits of content and language and of censors to limit them.
Geltzer brings a variety of skills and experience to this book: a lawyer, he also has worked in the movie business for some major studios (Paramount, Disney, and others), taught film theory and history at Georgia State University, and wrote and produced for Turner Classic Movies. His text, however, illustrates the difference between still and motion pictures. Although he is surpassingly qualified and although his knowledge and research are formidable and impressive, his text—save for some of the interesting photographs of sexy movie posters and scenes—targets a more academic readership and features numerous long block quotations from court arguments and decisions. Geltzer tries to lighten things a bit with what appears to be a genuine love affair with alliteration and assonance. The nudity in film he calls an “epidermis epidemic”; filmmaker Russ Meyer liked “nudie cuties”; comedian Lenny Bruce employed the “excremental expletive.” The author shows how the initial defenses of filmmakers did not employ First Amendment arguments—but eventually they did. He shows how local, state, and national authorities of various sorts clashed over the control of films. As the decades advanced, a pattern emerged: local authorities would ban, and higher courts would overturn. Later on, opponents of pornography used zoning regulations to control screenings. However, as the author notes near the end, public tastes and tolerances are in perpetual flux, and the arc of attitude has bent, for most people, toward increasing tolerance, especially in the age of the Internet. Child pornography and animal cruelty, however, remain verboten for the majority. The author describes many films (often resorting to euphemism), especially those involved in key court cases—e.g., Deep Throat. An important reference book for scholars of the law and cinema.