Jarv has sympathy for the devil and takes a look at Censorship
In the light of recent terrible events the debate about violence in film and censorship has arisen again. The British press has been full of stories about the BBFC, and commentary on the subject of censorship in general. So with that as background, here are my thoughts on the problems that any, hopefully, developed society should have with censorship. Before we start, for the most part, I am not pro-censor, and to some extent that does colour my viewpoint, although I do feel some sympathy for what is an often untenable position.
This is the first time I’ve attempted an essay, and it is very long. Apologies in advance.
Who watches the Watchmen? And more importantly, who are the Watchmen and how dare they decide what I can and can’t watch?
In the UK, the BBFC has rediscovered the power of the Ban Hammer with loathsome trash such as The Bunny Game or Human Centipede: Full Sequence receiving bans. HC2 was reprieved with cuts being recommended instead, but it’s still in theory impossible to legally gain access to notorious titles such as A Serbian Film. That this is the internet age, and therefore a world of filth is available at the click of a mouse is not the point, I can’t access a DVD of the above uncut titles for my own personal viewing masochism.
For the record, anyone reading this is also likely to be at the more internet savvy end of the movie-watching spectrum and, therefore, far more capable of finding the above titles than the average punter.
In America, as shown in the excellent This Film Has Not Been Rated, Kirby Dick looked at this in far more depth regarding the MPAA. While I think he focused too much on the identity of the individual censors and did dilute his point a touch, he did shine a light on the fatuous and hypocritical process.
The problem as I see it is twofold. Firstly, when any discussion of censorship in any form is raised, what we’re effectively talking about is some unknown individual making a decision on my ability to cope with a film. Furthermore, regardless of that, there’s the “Well you don’t have to watch it” argument, which, while true, doesn’t actually address the issues raised.
So, who are these individuals? In the UK, as we don’t have a film industry worth the name, the BBFC is (allegedly) an impartial board. In America, where censorship is much less sensible and far more problematic than the UK, the MPAA (as shown by Kirby) consists of highly partial studio-connected people, many of whom actually should not be in their position. Furthermore, the appeals board is comprised of several high-ranking studio executives, and it is with this board that the eventual rating will ultimately reside with.
How does anyone not see the conflict of interests inherent here? What the MPAA actually is is a cartel- you have individuals in place making decisions about the effective release potential of a film that may be in competition with their own product. At the marginal edge, which is where these films lurk, it is not in the board’s interests to allow these films a certificate, as it could cost them money. This is not censorship, or even classification, rather it is corporate manipulation of the media.
Censorship: a question of taste or a question of standards?
This brings me on to the second problem. Any discussion of the merits of a film, and whether it should be banned/ cut is basically an argument about personal taste. What I may find offensive and beyond my ability to tolerate on screen is not necessarily applicable for anyone else. I suspect, actually, that my tolerance is higher than most, frankly. Therefore, is it acceptable for me to see, say, Martyrs and give it a clean bill of health on the basis that there’s nothing in it that I couldn’t stomach?
No, of course it isn’t. I’m not a parent, for example, and therefore I hold different standards to those who have children.
When making a decision on the suitability of a film for a particular rating, this represents a huge problem as what everyone who assesses a film on these grounds is dealing with is their own personal demon. Hence marked inconsistencies in the treatment of homosexual material as opposed to heterosexual: Boys Don’t Cry was the example Kirby used, and compared its NC17 rating with other films containing the same material. Effectively it turned out that Boys Don’t Cry warranted a harder rating simply because it involved lesbians.
Personally, I think this is farcical. If you’re incapable of stopping your personal bigotry from allowing you to make a fair assessment then you should, frankly, not be in a position of judgement.
Take, for example, the evolution (some may say decline) of standards regarding sex. In the UK, the mere sight of pubic hair used to have the censor up in arms. As society has become more tolerant it is now not unheard of for films such as Intimacy, or 9 Songs to receive an 18 certificate, and therefore a release, despite the presence of erect penises and in the case of 9 Songs, full penetrative sex. Admittedly, the BBFC may well have been banking on that nobody in their right mind would want to watch this crap anyway, but that’s not the point.
The BBFC rightly argues that people’s tolerance has evolved, and therefore there’s no reason for the sight of a boner to give them a boner, but such application of common sense is a relatively new phenomenon with them, and I suspect this opinion would not be shared by, say, Joann Yatabe, the 61 year old MPAA member stalked by Kirby in 2005.
So who is correct? The BBFC, or Mrs Yatabe?
What I’m arguing here is that there is no universal “standard” of offensiveness that can be applied- and as those making the decision are human, there is inevitably always going to be some overlap between personal subjective taste and what should be an empirical objective judgement.
It’s this intrinsic flaw that creates the problems in the system, as not only are the censors themselves coloured by their own subjective beliefs, but those that they are allegedly guarding are also coloured by their own tastes and preferences.
People are strange and stupid.
It appears from the above that I’m arguing for a total absence of Censorship. I’m not, I’m just trying to highlight the problems that the censors face.
In America, which has, allegedly, a voluntary system (but the reality is that an unrated film is unlikely to receive a release) there is an emphasis placed on parental vigilance- as one of the most common pro-censorship arguments is to protect children from images that may not be suitable.
However, this doesn’t work. The average cinema patron isn’t an internet savvy film geek, instead being just a member of Joe Public looking to kill a few hours in a harmless way. In an ideal world, each film will publish the details of why it received its rating (they do, incidentally), and every person buying it will do the bare minimum of research and know that, for example, Memoirs of Geisha was rated PG13 for “mature subject matter and some sexual content” and maybe consider that it isn’t appropriate material for 6 year old little Jonny. However, this isn’t what happens.
I’m not wailing “won’t someone please think of the fucking children” or anything, as I believe that for the most part it is a parents responsibility to assess what is or isn’t suitable for their child, as who knows the child better than their family. However, the situation has arisen where everyone has stories of some inconsiderate advertisement for forced sterility inflicting their offspring on a late-night showing of an R-rated film.
In the real world, most people don’t do the research. There’s a combination of hazy nostalgic memories along the lines of “Well, I saw Aliens when I was 6 and I turned out just fine”, assumption, and sheer laziness that means that a percentage (and it’s a far from uncommon occurrence) of parents don’t do the necessary research and prevent their child from seeing material that it may not be emotionally ready for.
This in turn has led, in the UK, to the censors swatting a fly with a cannonball and applying a blanket 15 rating to certain films, as in the UK you aren’t allowed in to the movie without being the correct age. Admittedly, we all know ways to circumvent this, and we all have fond childhood stories of such deception. I hold my hands up to hypocrisy here as I saw Lethal Weapon 2 in the cinema very underage indeed.
It isn’t a perfect world, but by the same score it isn’t the duty of outside agencies to do people’s parenting for them. There has to be some effort put in by Joe Public, a film classification board should not be force feeding him information that it isn’t exactly difficult to obtain.
Sadly, people are, in fact, lazy and stupid which is what has led to the current state of play.
The Power of “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, or why middle-aged curtain twitching busybodies inflict their dismally conservative standards on everyone else.
Britain has had a long and colourful history of struggling to classify violence in cinema.
In the early 1980’s there was a mass outcry sparked by the likes of Mary Whitehouse and her self-fulfilling moral crusade. This in turn sparked our craven politicians to pass the Video Recordings Act of, ironically, 1984 and launched the term Video Nasty into public consciousness.
The theory was to protect the fragile little minds of the great British public from the evil of cinema violence- which tries to pretend that mankind has been brutalising each other for millennia but because VHS recorders pitch up in the arse end of the 20th Century a few shitty Italian Horror films drove people to commit acts of heinous violence.
This is, clearly, nonsense, as almost all of the films on the list, including the likes of the Evil Dead and The Exorcist at the better end and the deplorable Anthrophagus at the other, have a release and society has inexplicably failed to collapse.
How did such a patently ridiculous situation come to arise? Well, we have a rabid tabloid media, and they, unfortunately, know the views of their readership. The Daily Mail, the voice of the far right, ships millions of copies and is the first place the inevitable “Ban this filth” nonsense appears. The Daily Mail and its ilk have, thus, significant political power.
The irony, of course, is that the average Daily Mail reader is less likely to have heard of, say, Cannibal Ferox than the average Martian, but I digress.
The point is outrage. The Mail can highlight that these little films exist, and that there’s terrible violence in them, and the gleefully self-righteous can whip themselves into an orgy of finger-pointing and condemnation. It can’t be either America’s gun laws or an act of insanity that caused the Virginia Tech shootings; instead it simply must be down to some obscure Korean film(actually it was the fairly well-known Oldboy that the papers cited as the root) they’ve never even heard of. And if it’s down to an outside agency, then they can, of course, call for the cause of the crime to be banned.
And call they do. The letters, emails and outraged calls flood in, and our politicians need to be seen to be “getting something done”. So, in the aftermath of the James Bulger killing in the early 1990’s the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells body got their knickers in a twist over Child’s Play 3, a film that the killers hadn’t seen, and more importantly bears no resemblance at all to the horrible crime committed.
By making a scapegoat of Child’s Play 3, not letting the facts get in the way, of course, and demanding powers they, er, already had under the 1984 Act, the politicians were able to distract from the larger questions raised. More importantly, however, they were visibly Getting Something Done and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells went back to muttering about “Them single mothers being to blame for all the sins of society” or whatever feeling all very satisfied that the Will Of The People has indeed been acted upon.
This gives me huge sympathy for the censor, who must therefore react to the fickle whims of the cretins in power, who in return are reacting to the fickle whims of cretins in Middle England.
It is, when all is said and done, an impossible position that has led to anachronisms such as films like Heathers receiving an 18 Certificate in the UK.
Dedicated followers of fads and fashions.
Moral outrage isn’t the only problem for the average censor, and some of their problems are self inflicted.
A few years ago the BBFC went through a phase with imitable behaviour, and headbutting in particular, automatically boosting the rating of the film.
This is absurd. A Headbutt is no more dangerous, or open to mimicry than a punch. Still, this fad passed soon enough, but what I do not understand is the arbitrary selection of the big no-no of the month.
When it comes to video games, Rockstar’s Bully (cracking game- think Grand Theft Auto in a school, but mischievous rather than violent) was rated as 18 in the UK despite it being the mildest “Just William” style violence imaginable and nobody actually getting hurt. However, it was set in a school so the BBFC shat one about “Imitable behaviour” and slapped an 18 on it.
How is this any more open to mimicry than a myriad of other games out there? I’d argue that the unrealistic nature of the game, and that nobody in this country would know how to make a bottle rocket in 1000 years, make it actually less worthy of the top rating. Unless they were terrified that rafts of swirlies were going to be performed in schools up and down the country. Nevertheless, the press had spoken, and bullying was that month’s hot topic.
This is my point- there’s no consistency and no comprehensibility about the trends followed. They seem to adhere to some utterly arbitrary and frequently nonsensical code and as such makes the concept of a universal standard completely laughable- when the censor bends to fashion in such a way then how can the concept be remotely justifiable?
Why does this matter?
We live in a commercial world. Hollywood and producers aim to maximise the amount of people that they can get into a film, this is simply logical.
The current trend is towards PG13 movies- the theory being that the film will intentionally try to aim to slide under a lower rating than it would naturally. Examples include Alien V Predator being rated as PG13. The decision was made to neuter one of cinema’s greatest monsters (two of them, actually), and reduce them to a level whereby even the strictest censor would concede that it is acceptable for kids to see them.
Given the reactive and arbitrary nature of censorship, as outlined above, the only way that the film-makers can meet the censor’s demand is to aim at the lowest bar possible. So, for example, we’re lucky enough to have a Die Hard film where McClane doesn’t swear. This is absurd- I’ve spent a significant chunk of my career working in Schools, and if the kids stuck to “Yippee Kay Aye Motherfucker” then that, frankly, would be a relief. Yet to receive a PG13 rating, there’s only one F-Bomb allowed.
Are we really happy with corporate censorship such as this? I, for one, am not.
What is to be done?
And here’s the rub: I don’t know.
On one hand, there’s little artistic merit to tripe like Human Centipede 2, and reprehensible faux-art garbage like A Serbian Film has arguably less merit than that, so perhaps bans are in order.
However, I’d like to think that we lived in a more evolved society where a fully functioning adult individual, such as myself, can make an informed decision on whether or not I want to see a film where a man rapes a new-born baby to death (I don’t).
Violence has been around since man came down from the trees and hit other man on the head with a stick, so it’s absurd to argue that it was “the film wot made them do it”, yet every time some disturbed individual commits an atrocity the debate will arise again. Does this mean that we ban all films that aren’t Merchant Ivory? No, of course not.
People need something to blame in these situations, and cinema very often makes itself the easiest target. This isn’t likely to change any time soon.
By the same score- do we let everything through? I lean towards “no”, because, frankly, there’s no reason for the Guinea Pig Films and their ilk to receive validation.
Context is everything with censorship, and I think, perhaps, my struggle to find a solution in part reflects this.
Given that it is effectively meaningless anyway with the rise of the digital age, maybe we can but hope that people will grow up a touch, and not blame real world atrocities on an imaginary man who dresses like a flying rodent to fight crime.
Or is that asking too much?
Until next time,