To Screen or Not To Screen? Controversial Cinema and the Debate on Historic Relevance


I originally planned on writing about something cheerful and spooky this week. Local news headlines made other plans. I’m not sure if they’ve registered internationally, but it’s everywhere here. A certain well-known and beloved movie theatre screened a controversial film called Deep Throat (1972). The issue here has nothing to do with the film’s pornographic nature, and everything to do with its star: Linda Lovelace. For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s a famous porno from the 70s about a woman whose clitoris is in the back of her throat, and you can guess the rest of the plot. There were two groups protesting the screening, both online and in-person. The first was a group of anti-porn advocates, whose stance comes mainly from the film’s subject matter. The second stance, which in my opinion is more valid, is less focused on the film’s subject and more on the Lovelace’s claim from 1986 that she was coerced into making the film, abused throughout, and raped on camera. To her, and I quote, “When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped. It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time”. So why is this film still being screened, you might ask?

I should preface, the theatre has apparently received death threats about this screening, mainly from anti-porn groups from Vancouver and the US. I want to make it clear before I get into this discussion, that whatever threats they received are unwarranted and alarming. It’s one thing to protest and criticize, another to send threatening messages. That noted, certain defenders have used this fact to distract from other criticism, the more valid kind. By grouping all criticism under this alarming label, they are dismissing both the reasonable and insane, which puts the theatre in this praiseworthy light. They aren’t just showing a movie, they are bravely airing a film, in spite of the danger. I should also preface that I love this theatre and will probably attend screenings in the future. This article centers on their disappointing stance here and how it’s indicative of a broader dismissal against inconvenient women in Hollywood.

Framing Techniques

The theatre advertised Deep Throat using two framing techniques that are becoming increasingly prominent in the Me-Too era. First, it tried to shift focus onto the film’s subject rather than its production. The valid criticism is that the film’s reception and production were heinous, especially to Lovelace. By shifting focus towards the film itself, rather than Lovelace, the theatre essentially dismisses this criticism. It suggests that the film is more important than these claims, and that people should focus on elements within the film, rather than Lovelace. This also condenses the criticism, as since the theatre only focuses on the sex-positive elements found inside the film and its legacy, any criticism against screening the film is automatically criticizing those elements, making them reductive and harmful. That led to a second framing technique: historical significance. Defenders of the film turn to this rational a lot, it’s a prevalent one for critics of the Me-Too cinema era. Moderate defenders turn to this technique, arguing that while a film is inappropriate and possibly sexist, its historical significance outweighs those elements, and it’s important to recognize the film for what it did in cinema history. There is a point here, one I’ll get to shortly. Before I do, however, it’s crucial to note that extreme defenders use ‘historical significance’ too.

The more intense defenders in this case note that Lovelace signed paraphernalia from the film in the years after making her claims, and she suggested that the feminist groups who supported her during the time of her statement were also using her. To them, that is proof enough that she somehow retracted her earlier statement, making this quote unreliable and their enjoyment or appreciation of the film ok. The current marketing, led by director Gerard Damiano’s children, is that the film is empowering and about female liberation, even though its star argued that it stood for the exact opposite of that in every possible sense. I am not interested in discussing whether Deep Throat is a liberating film or not, as that has truly little to do with this conversation. Even if the creators turn to this explanation, it’s not enough, and it certainly doesn’t offset Lovelace’s comments.

Censorship Vs Conscious Avoidance

The theatre’s decision to move forward with the film has been fiercely criticized, and for good reason. But more so, it has ignited a larger conversation about exploitation films, especially those where either the filmmaking or reception was similarly exploitative to actors. We’ve been having this conversation for a while about films by abusive creators, films which have these strong fanbases that don’t want to stop enjoying the project. To justify that enjoyment or ‘historic relevance’, they defend the subject or even criticize abuse claims. I’ve seen plenty of this take in some local news articles reporting on the recent screening. Sure enough, the comments were filled with people laughing about woke culture and Lovelace, and many suggesting that if you don’t like a film, don’t watch it, but also don’t ruin it for other people. I use the term ruin very purposefully here, because to this audience, Lovelace’s plea for people to stop watching is ruining the experience and film. That word has strong connotations to sexual abuse and fallen or ruined women, an unfair cinematic, literary, and political trope. To these defendants, a ‘so-called’ ruined woman is ruining things for them.

It’s easy to argue that while a production was horrible, the reception is not, and therefore, the abuse is in the past and it’s ok to view now. What defenders of this view fail to mention is that a film is not contained to itself, it stretches into other projects, other creators. The gaze found in productions like Deep Throat hasn’t gone anywhere, so to suggest that the film is outdated, but that we’ve at least moved beyond and can now look at it for its historic relevance, is false. That leads me to a question, something that apparently needs to be explained. What is the difference between censorship and conscious avoidance? There’s a popular argument that we are censoring our past by kicking out and refusing significant people and media, simply because they brutally abused people and faced zero repercussions other than some people avoiding said projects. So, what is actually happening?

One of the first conversations I had about censorship vs conscious avoidance was in the early Me-Too days, between myself and a man. He was worried that his favourite shows and movies were going to disappear, just because one creator had done something wrong. He likewise felt that this was censorship, akin to burning books because one doesn’t agree with them. My response, then and now, is that there are countless films out there, countless creators, countless stories that actively challenge our perception and do so without harming people. So, with that infinite choice, why focus on the work of abusive creators? Their work isn’t going anywhere, it’s not hidden. This whole objection to the Me-Too movement for erasing things is ridiculous and false. Consider how many actors and filmmakers got ‘canceled’ for horrible things they absolutely did, claimed that their lives were ruined (again that word), that it was a witch hunt (which as I’ve noted before, is not what that term means), only to rise again with new fans and no long-term repercussions, all while claiming that they are victim of cancel culture. What started as a need for accountability and restructuring in Hollywood and our culture was quickly rebranded and simplified, even joked about. In light of that, I refuse to name certain people on this blog, because I don’t want their names attached to my writing. When I refer to them, it’s pretty clear who I am talking about, or I may attach a news article to explain. My decision for this isn’t censoring things because I am not in charge of their work being released, I am not stopping people from watching their works, and you can guess who I am talking about without their name. I do this because I think they get too much attention, and I don’t want to continue that directly, which brings me to how these ‘ruined’ films can be learned from.

It’s important to contextualize cinema, crucial even to understand the very way we frame a shot, hold a camera, everything. Many of these techniques come from racist, sexist, and homophobic films, so what do we do as contemporary filmmakers knowing that? I learned about Deep Throat in a cult cinema class, but we didn’t watch the film. We learned about it, heard about certain scenes, and that was enough. The class wasn’t about continuing the abuse that Lovelace found, it was more interested in the history, specifically why that history happened, and how to move forward. We didn’t need to watch the film to learn about that. If you wanted to, you could easily find it online, as like many of these ruined shows and movies, it hasn’t gone anywhere. Filmmakers I don’t want to mention here are still making films and garnering tremendous success. My choice to avoid these films isn’t censoring or stopping them from being shown in households across the world. I’m not storming into people’s homes and screaming at them for watching these projects. Go ahead, it’s important to know that they exist and often why they were/are popular. Some are really good films that are equally awful, and at the very least, we should contextualize that.

Consent in Film

So, why am I so harsh on this theatre and screening? I think a screening of Deep Throat could be possible under the right circumstances, and those were not present here. There was a talk led by a film professor and two sex advocates, but beyond that, the theatre and director’s children made money off the event. The theatre tried to donate a portion of the funds, although the first group refused, and so they ended up having to donate elsewhere. But still, this screening was for profit, like any other. It was also part of the director’s children ongoing attempt to re-brand their father as some brave pioneer in sexual liberation for Hollywood, an attempt which feels very self-motivated. That’s where the difference lies, as it’s not you as an individual choosing to watch this film because you feel it’s important. This is a celebrated movie theatre, who has been praised for decades for their advocacy and respect, choosing to advertise this film in a specific light, one which disregards the ongoing criticism around the film and this current rebranding. The theatre and director’s children were not only rejecting Lovelace, even claiming that if the film were actually sexist and included rape that they would never show it, they made money off it, just continuing the exploitation Lovelace faced. She asked people to not watch the film and to stop making money off it. The theatre ignored that, and that is the crux of this situation.

Perhaps this stance seems a bit strange considering my love for cult cinema and exploitation films, and my belief in the importance of controversial media. John Waters is one of my favourite directors, and he is the Pope of Trash and Godfather of Filth. However, Waters’ films are 100% consensual, except for perhaps the chicken in Pink Flamingos, which incidentally came out the same year as Deep Throat, 1972. Waters truly loves the subjects in his films, which are often unadulterated celebrations of filth and perversion, something the audience is meant to judge but is likewise implicated in simply by watching. The crucial difference between his work and a modern screening of Deep Throat is that none of Waters actors were ever threatened into these films. They enjoyed making them, and the reception and fan group is known for being quite welcoming. They might deal with similar subjects at times, but Waters’ works were carefully staged so the actors were comfortable and understood in advance what they are going to be doing. Without that understanding, support, and consent, the legacy of Deep Throat is an extension of abuse. Waters’ projects understand that reception and production never leave a film, so even if you love a film, you are involved in whatever happened during the production and in audiences past. That’s why Waters encourages his viewers to embrace filth, because they are watching something filthy, and that makes them equally filthy for just sitting there and watching. Yet, because Waters’ films embrace their subjects, and vice versa, it’s a consensual filth. Therefore, it’s left to the audience how they embrace or reject the film, as the production has already done so. Lovelace posited something similar. Because Deep Throat features rape, on camera and off, the act of watching it means you are participating in that abuse, as the production impacts the viewing.

A Modern Conversation

This conversation is not reserved to 70s exploitation films, especially as Blonde (2022) opens this week. I’ve written a lot about Marilyn Monroe. I never intended to, it’s just that every time I saw a Monroe reference in media, I connected it with a different one, until I started getting mad. Monroe’s story is rarely told from Monroe’s perspective, which I usually like in a biopic. However, these Monroe biopics have no idea what to do with their protagonist. They just end up continuing to mystify, sexualize, and abuse her all while shaming her decisions and portraying her as a victim. I haven’t seen Blonde, and not sure if I will, given that it’s rated R due to multiple abuse scenes. Why were these necessary? From what I understand, these graphic scenes are an attempt to explain what Monroe went through, but in doing, they just continue what happened to Monroe rather than complicating it in any way. The camera itself becomes part of that abuse because it chooses to center on those moments rather than any other. I sort of suggested this relationship with Lovelace’s quote above, where the camera is another abusive figure. That’s certainly true for cinema history, as film is defined by what is shown, and likewise, what is cut. By choosing to show one thing instead of another, a film arrives with specific politics. The very term ‘cut’ implies that there is an inherent violence to that choice. How we frame a shot, a film, a story, should be conscious given this background, especially when discussing abuse.

A film about Monroe could talk about anything in her life and legacy, and yet more often than not, they talk about the worst days in her life, and they just replicate them. Perhaps a better biopic would be less about these details and more about what she wanted in her life, how she fought for that, her triumphs, what she came up against, and why that sexism is still found in her legacy today, as seen by the man who bought the grave next to hers and still hasn’t been moved.

Lovelace and Monroe are often depicted as these tormented women who were destroyed by their own fame, and the abuse within that fame. I am not sure either of these women would want to be defined that way. Lovelace, and I can only imagine Monroe with her own biopics, clearly didn’t. She asked for this film to not be shown because of what it did to her, both in production and moving forward. To screen it without serious consideration of that is unacceptable, and I am so disappointed at the theatre. It would be one thing if they had rescheduled the event with more speakers, especially local speakers, reversed their social media criticism of Lovelace, and donated all funds from the event. I wouldn’t attend, given Lovelace’s comments, but I would appreciate the vague respect of that approach and could understand why others would.

Moving Forward

Some are calling for a boycott of the movie theatre, which is just not going to happen. People have very short attention spans, especially when things get inconvenient, and as I’ve said before, this theatre usually does amazing work for the community. It screens films that should be seen in theatres. I am not telling you to avoid this theatre, I certainly won’t. I am just very disappointed at the way this was handled and how it reflects a broader dismissal. A film cannot be liberating when the lead actress claims otherwise. Do I think it’s a liberating film? No, I am completely biased here. But I am also not tying my conversation to the porn industry, or even my belief that sex work is real work and deserves better protection and pay. The film’s subject and historic relevance doesn’t justify screening the film when faced with these allegations. Watch it at home if you must, but don’t make money off it and claim you’re being liberating while also telling Lovelace supporters to be quiet. My only regret with this article is that I focused on two white women who are often supported, instead of any of the actors and creators of colour who are involved in similar discussions of ‘to screen or not to screen’ and have asked people to avoid certain projects. I need to work on that, and perhaps stop talking about Monroe constantly, and turn to other films and figures that need more discussion.

To know dark history doesn’t mean to participate or encourage it. Rather, it means to learn from it, especially its reception, and try to move beyond, knowing what it is. You don’t have to watch a film like this to understand that conversation or to learn from it. It’s frustrating to know that some people genuinely don’t care about situations like this, and you’re never going to change their mind. The people laughing about these news reports, claiming that people like me are making a fuss out of nothing, ruining things. Arguing that we should have better things to do, that it’s just porn, that Lovelace was just trying to get attention. Or that we are ruining their fun, movie history, and more. They are determined to make these claims, and I am determined to object to them.