Risque film prompts censorship talks
ASPEN ” Full frontal nudity, sexual dysfunction, orgies and homosexual encounters.
Who should dictate whether that kind of content should be projected on Aspen’s only single-screen?
Not the city of Aspen, which owns the Wheeler Opera House, which showed “Shortbus” last year. The risque film explores the sexual challenges two couples face; Jon Busch and Don Swales, who operate the Wheeler Film Society and are in charge of programming at the city-owned opera house, chose the film.
The Aspen City Council shot down an attempt to control the content of future programming Monday night after Wheeler director Gram Slaton presented a new contract for Busch including a stipulation that suggested censorship.
That didn’t sit well with Councilman Jack Johnson, who suggested that one of the major reasons Wheeler management initiated a search for other programmers was because of the screening of “Shortbus.”
“It deserved to be seen here, and I will not support the city telling the Wheeler [Film Society] what to do or what to say,” Johnson said. “The city shouldn’t be stepping in.”
The City Council approved the contract, with the condition that Busch remain in control and have the authority to use freedom of expression through film.
Mayor Mick Ireland agreed with Johnson and said he’s been pleased with Busch’s programming over the past decade. Busch has been exhibiting art-house and foreign films at the Wheeler through a formal agreement since 1990.
“His judgment has been good over the years; why would we put the handcuffs on him now?” Ireland asked.
Slaton responded in the defensive.
“I will tell you, Mayor Mick, I get the calls,” he said. “I got one today saying ‘Please don’t let this happen again.'”
The censorship issue became controversial only after Aspen resident Sy Coleman pressed the issue, asking what prompted the new contract in the first place.
“If there was a movie that started this, let’s talk about it,” he said. “There’s far more at stake here … what is the position the city is willing to take with regard to freedom of expression?”
Slaton presented the new contract to the council by explaining that the Wheeler film program had not gone out for bid in several years. As a result, a request for proposals was sent out to the public this past spring. Aspen Film, the Wheeler and Busch’s operation submitted proposals. The Wheeler board eventually opted to go with Busch as long as “programming will be subject to review and approval by Wheeler management.”
But the City Council viewed that as censorship and voted unanimously to approve the agreement with the condition that the aforementioned clause be struck from the contract, which Busch had agreed to earlier.
“I think there is more than ‘Shortbus’ that’s not being said here,” Johnson said. “It’s an attempt for Jon not to succeed here and he had to sign [the contract] because it’s his livelihood.”