This week the Office of Film and Literature Classification made one of their most perplexing decisions to date: to ban a film for general release featuring Frodo (Elijah Wood). The film can now only be seen at the Festival and screened in tertiary institutions. In the long-standing tradition of tensions between the International Film Festival organizers and the censorship bodies, which has generated controversy around films such as The Bridge and Baise Moi, the censors have yet again proved that they don’t seem to have a handle on what constitutes art.
After sitting through Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart (2004) in the International Film Festival a few years back, when they said Maniac was banned in New Zealand, I was anticipating bad things. If A Hole in My Heart featured a couple of deadbeats making a porn film at home interspersed with labial reconstructive surgery and images of pistols fucking pocket pussies, as well as scenes of sexual intimidation that left me feeling enraged (and unable to sleep), I thought the censors’ decision to single out Maniac would mean that it crossed boundaries. Instead, Maniac was an interesting yet relatively tame film in comparison. The only reason I can come to think of that New Zealand is the only country in the world to ban Maniac is that it features an evil Frodo.
Maniac is the story of a dysfunctional mannequin restorer who has a torn relationship with his mother. The scalp collecting killer is played brilliantly by Elijah Wood in a way that demonstrates the strength of his repertoire, the film is shot largely in first-person, and we experience the film through Frank’s perspective. The violence is brutal but certainly not anything beyond many of the films that are uncensored in New Zealand. It is also relatively brief. Like other films in the genre, Maniac uses horror to explore the plight of women in consumer culture, mental illness, and dysfunctional families. The film is a remake of William Lustig’s film of the same name, but it shifts the locale from Times Square to downtown Los Angeles, allowing for lots of shots of the tents of the homeless on Skid Row to permeate the film, drawing for a subtle mediation on the seedy underbelly of consumer culture – Hollywood’s dream has become America’s nightmare.
As someone who has seen a lot of horror, for the life of me I cannot figure out why this film is banned. The first-person perspective is disturbing, but then again there are multiple video games that demonstrate far higher interactivity and are first-person shooters which are routinely allowed onto the market. The film has experienced a surge in piracy in New Zealand, demonstrating that traditional notions of censorship no longer apply. While Maniac is violent, I’ve seen far more damaging perspectives on women in Burger King commercials. At least this film asks for a kind of interrogation of our thoughts on gender and power, which is more than I can say for a lot of the casually misogynist material that we are exposed to on a daily basis.