Kurt Hochenauer (you know him from Okie Funk) devotes his op-ed space in the Gazette this week to one of the more risible events in recent Oklahoma City history: the kerfuffle over The Tin Drum, ten years ago this month.
In June 1997, Bob Anderson head of Oklahomans for Children and Families, an ultraconservative “family” organization took the movie to local police authorities, complaining the film was obscene. The police took the movie to [Oklahoma County District Judge Richard] Freeman to get a ruling on the issue.
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff, the 1979 film depicts the life of the child Oskar, who refuses to grow up beyond the age of 3 or give up the tin drum he plays annoyingly throughout his life until he wills himself to grow. The film is based on Günter Grass’ brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same title. In the film, which criticizes Nazis, Oskar has sex with a young woman. The sex scene is a simulated, under-the-covers encounter, extremely tame by contemporary standards. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or award.
Amazingly, Freeman met Anderson’s freakish demands (who in the world would even watch the overly symbolic and subtitled movie in Oklahoma?) and ruled a section of the movie obscene. The tragic farce escalated when police officers seized copies of the film from a library, six video stores and three people, one of whom was Michael Camfield, a staff member with the local American Civil Liberties Union. Camfield later sued over the incident but lost his case.
Freeman’s ruling was overturned, of course, but not before Oklahoma City became the laughingstock of the entire world as news spread. The incident became the basis for an excellent documentary, Banned in Oklahoma, which is included on The Tin Drum DVD. Directed and produced by former University of Oklahoma professor Gary D. Rhodes, it redeemed the state’s reputation to some extent.
Ah, if only we’d had blogs back in 1997!
Relying on something he’d heard on “Christian talk radio” (just in case you thought there couldn’t be anything worse than regular talk radio), he had one of his underlings check out the one copy of the film owned by the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma City, which was then duly turned over to the police. Did Mr Anderson actually watch the film? Of course not. He’s not interested in anything other than his own perverted sexual obsession, his pathological need to control other people’s sex lives, even fictional ones.
And storm troopers, you’ll remember from history, never travel alone. Oklahoma County District Judge Richard Freeman, who has given out conflicting stories on whether he has seen the film himself, decided that the film was legally obscene, and the cops went to video stores to get the names of people who had rented the film, then to those people’s homes to confiscate the tapes. If this sounds bizarre to you, well, the power structure in this part of the world has always had its head in close proximity to its colon. In 1961, steps were taken in Oklahoma City to ban Mad magazine, which resulted in an epic court battle featuring an appearance by legendary Mad publisher William M. Gaines himself. Charges from both sides were eventually dropped after Gaines and his chief adversary agreed that this teapot didn’t justify the tempest.
I bring this up mostly to amplify Dr Hochenauer’s last paragraph:
On the 10th anniversary of the ruling, the question remains whether future censorship fiascoes lie in waiting: Could it happen again?
Jesus, I hope not. And there exist palpable disincentives: in March 1999 City Council and DA Bob Macy wound up forking over more than half a million dollars to settle lawsuits stemming from the police seizures of the video. Some of us have long memories, and for the rest of us, there are search engines.
Useful linkage: Charles Oliver’s report from Reason (October 1997). This was before the settlements, but there’s still a money quote: “The courts will eventually decide if authorities there have been too zealous in their pursuit of smut, and the city’s younger citizens will, like Oskar, have a chance to consider if the adults around them are mad.”
Addendum, 22 June: Michael Camfield, the ACLU staffer quoted in Dr Hochenauer’s piece, sent a letter to the Gazette questioning the “lost his case” bit:
At a trial in August of 1999, a federal jury awarded me $2,500 in damages due to the defendants’ violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act. Unfortunately, the jury determined that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures.
Split decision, maybe.