Jonas Mekas and the Manitoba Board of Film Censors

“Jonas Mekas and the Manitoba Board of Film Censors.” Unpublished (2011).

Village Voice (November 12,1964)

Add to the record books: A showing of Andy Warhol’s movie Kiss was banned at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg) by the Manitoba Board of Film Censors. The print was seized before the screening and returned to New York.
– Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971

A Letter from Robert Brown to the Manitoba Board of Censors 

Dear Sir, 

Your refusal to allow the University of Manitoba to show Kiss by Andy Warhol represents an attitude prevalent 200 years before the birth of the motion picture. I hope your mores do not extend to other art forms. Do you allow reproductions of Rodin’s Kiss statue to circulate

If today’s filmmakers, painters, writers, etc. had to meet you standards we would be at a point of development which would be rotting with age.

I hope your provience and your country get abreast of the times, or even at a point at least where the rest of the continent was 100 years ago. Meanwhile you have supressed a harmless, but important film which by its simplicity is an intense visual experience, from the eyes of hundreds of college students who are curious enough to spend an evening seeing NewAmerican Cinema.


Robert K. Brown

Winnipeg Free Press (October 8, 1964)
Kiss Banned At U

A 36 minute film called Kiss, which was to have been shown to a University of Manitoba audience Thursday night, has been banned by the province’s board of film censors.

The film consists of 12 three-minute sequences, each showing a continuous shot of a couple kissing. One of them shows two boys in this behaviour.

It was to have shown as part of a program called The North American Expedition of New American Cinema being presented by American Robert Brown at the residence auditorium, Fort Garry.

Dan Finkleman, chairman of the students’ committee who organized the event, said he believed the three-member censor board (two women and one man) object to the film as a whole. “They felt even the heterosexual scenes were too pornographic,” he stated.

A censor board spokesman confirmed the film had been rejected but declined to give reasons.

University president Dr. H. H. Saunderson said Thursday he was aware the film was to be shown. The Students Council were given a “reasonably free hand” in arranging the events and were not responsible to the university authorities.

“I cannot say whether I would have objected to the film as I have not seen it,” Dr. Saunderson added.

Mr. Brown described it as a “fun film.” Boston audiences liked it and it was shown at the recent New York International Film Festival

He added, “the censors’ decision surprises the hell out of me.”

Mr. Finkleman, however, said he had seen the film and did not enjoy it. “I can understand the decision of the censors, ” he added. “It is a matter of social malaise changing and along with it we might have a change in attitude towards censorship, but I feel under the board’s present limitations they did what was proper.”

The films creator is Andy Warhol, whose other films include Sleep, a six-hour continuous sequence of a man in sleep. He specializes in photographing everyday occurrences without moving the camera and other subjects have been entitled Eat and Haircut.

The aim of Thursday night’s program was to show off “avant-garde” American films. Mr. Brown is active in distributing experimental films and at present is also concerned with a film theatre project in New York which will be able to show the films to members without approval of the censors.

Himself a filmmaker, Mr. Brown wants the same standards of censorship applied to films as he says are being applied to other art forms. He regards himself and his colleagues as artists in the same way that a painter is. 

“I think it will not be long before people in the United States will be able to see any film. In Canada it will probably take a little longer,” he says.

Purpose of the students committee putting on the program, has been defined as the organization of events which are intellectually stimulating.

Among the films tonight’s audience will see are two political satires and a retelling of a Greek legend.

Kiss is in the custody of the censors waiting to be shipped back to its owner.

Review from The Manitoban (October 1964)
New American Cinema: Experimental Film Is Expression – No Story 

I have just recovered from the North American Exposition of New American Cinema, an experience that filled me both with pure joy and sheer disappointment.

The experimental film by definition abolishes the story; rather it expresses patterns and rhythms suggested by the inner-impulses of the film-maker, most oftentimes divorced from physical reality. It is a pity, for although the avant-garde film can be fresh, exciting and imaginative, it is doomed to remain the entertainment of the minority groups.

This is contrary to the very nature of cinema, for the film was never intended to cater to individuals; it was intended to appeal to the masses. Movies were not conceived to stimulate the intelligence; they were made merely to entertain. It is interesting to note that of the creative arts, only the film originated from the lowly, un-arty impetus – to make money.

The artists followed – Eisenstein, Clair and Griffith – men who molded the new novelty into an art, giving it direction, purpose and meaning. Above all, they established the motion picture as a pictorial interpretation of our society and of life. Thus the film-maker not only records life but also includes personal interpretation in the form of a theme or message. The producer has a responsibility to his audience however; he must refer to physical reality so his audience can understand what he is trying to say. Consequently his self-expression must be tempered with restraint for what fun is it when no-one can watch your movies except yourself because only you can understand the ideas in them? More important, of what value is the film? 

The second film at the Exposition was a brilliant piece of work for it was quite ‘arty’ without violating the ‘rules’ inherent to the motion picture. This was more than just the mere objective recording of reality, for the producer manipulated his material with great sensitivity and sophistication. The film (I missed the title) examined a railway car as it ambled through the city. As it moved, nuances of light played off the ceiling, the passing city was caught distorted in the window. There was no soundtrack to this film but one of the views later said she had created a ‘soundtrack’ for herself, suggested visually by the rhythms and patterns of light created by the moving car. The producer must be commended for giving us his impression of an everyday occurrence from everyday life. 

The following films were a bit disappointing for they gave me the impression the film-maker was confused … or maybe I was confused. I would prefer, quite naturally, to think the producer at fault. 

Someone once told me that Van Gogh’s vivid, turbulent brushwork gave him the impression that the artist was unstable and unhappy and that this feeling was transmitted to him, the viewer. Consequently my friend doesn’t like Van Gogh. He feels he should be enlightened by a work of art, not confused by it. I think perhaps the same applies for those being introduced to experimental films. 

Clever and Witty

Mr. Vanderbeek’s Breathdeath is a case in point. The film was quite clever and witty in spots, the wit was biting sharp, and I even managed to find the hint of a message. However, I am puzzled by the perplexing problem, was the film produced just for fun, or was there a message, or perhaps both. In any case, I found Mr. Vanderbeek’s treatment rather confusing and inconsistent. What disturbs me more, however, is the fact that his Achoo Mr. Khrushchev was similar in technique and presentation. We were later told that he had received a $10,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to continue his film-making. I can appreciate Mr. Vanderbeek’s two films but I am certainly not enthusiastic about receiving 10,000 more just like them.

The Boltenhouse film, Dionysius, was full of even more symbolisms. The hand-held camera work was good, for although it broke nearly every rule in the book, it added strength to the film. Therefore, it is justifiable. However, as with the Vanderbeek films, I feel the producer forgot his responsibility to his audience and allowed himself to become wrapped up in self-expression. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps they were taking the experimental film too seriously.

I disagree with the theory that the experimental film is an end in itself; rather it is the means to an end. The avant-garde film is very important and very necessary because it allows the film-maker to experiment with new treatments and new ideas and opens his eyes to new relationships in Life. The experimental film can be a rewarding experience for both the producer and his audience. 

Once the filmmaker has reaped the fruits of his experience however, he should leave the experimental film and incorporate his new treatments and techniques in a manner that is more plausible to the audience. I think it would be a good idea for many avant-garde film-makers to “sell themselves” to commercialism for I feel the motion picture is the most exciting and most powerful of the creative arts and to deny the masses the potential of this medium is to abuse the very nature of the medium these people are working in. 

Filmmakers who denounce Hollywood, vow never to “sell themselves” to commercialism and commence to produce “way-out, arty” movies are adopting an attitude that is both unrealistic and idiotic. They have abused the experimental film. Rather than benefit from their experiment, they have locked themselves up in their own little world producing films on life, about which they know very little. Avant-garde film-makers who refuse to accept commercialism are walking around with paper bags over their heads. They are burying their heads in the sand for how can they make films on life if they refuse to meet it on its own terms? Such an attitude is also cowardly, for whereas the individual film-maker is relatively free, the commercial producer finds he is responsible to a great many people besides himself. Working with a crew of technicians is harder than if you are cameraman, sound man and editor all wrapped up in one for as director you face a host of personality and administrative problems, apart from those faced in producing the film. If a film-maker is blessed with a competent crew of course the sky’s the limit.

The film-maker who can balance experimentation with commercialism has my undying admiration. Apparently he has everyone else’s for the films that everybody is flocking downtown to see are a blend of ‘new wave’ and ‘Hollywood’ techniques. ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’ are prime examples, where European avant-garde influences have been incorporated into a commercial picture. This is no longer the age of the ‘big studies;’ it is the age of the ‘independents’ whereby the ‘big studios’ have become financiers and distributers. Actual production is done by ‘independent’ companies and released under the ‘big studio’ banner. The movies today have taken on a new flavor – partly due to economics and partly due to the influence of the ‘new wave.’

More than a mere exploitation film, A Hard Day’s Night was the most visually exciting film to hit Winnipeg in a long time, where the hand-held ‘cinema-verite’ technique was most successful in accentuating the pace and future of the stars’ lives. One scene showed the Beatles in a baggage car playing cards. The next minute they all had their instruments by their side, belting out a song. From where did the instruments come, from thin air? Another scene showed the group sitting peacefully in their train compartment; the next minute they were running alongside the train making faces at the camera. How did they get off if the train never stopped? Who cares? The answer is left to your imagination. A Hard Day’s Night was fresh, daring and novel in its treatment. If was a film on youth and it reflected its subject matter with a sense of vitality and humor. Yet it never lost touch with physical reality.

More Realistic Manner

I can’t help wondering if this extremely successful film was not the product of an experimental film-maker who had put the fruits of his experience to work for him in a more realistic manner, yet not losing its fresh and novel flavour.

The Exposition of the New American Cinema delighted me in its revelation of new techniques and treatments. It disappointed me in its implication that the new wave is an end in itself. The experimental film, I feel, should be used to unlock a few doors and open new frontiers. But it should always be remembered that the experimental film should be exactly what the name implies – an experiment. It should be used to learn from, to teach the producer and his audiences new ways to look at Life. However to bog down the film with needless excessive symbolism and “gimmicks” such as speeding up an LP record to 78 rpm is abusing the experimental film and destroying the film-maker’s purpose – to express himself as articulately as possible to his audience.

Mr. Brown was successful in his presentation however, for although he was not the first to introduce me to experimental films, he did manage to stimulate my appreciation. He certainly did that.

– Jon Thompson