Violence is Golden: Why sticks and stones may break your bones and make the censor cry
I’ve been thinking about how to write up this violence essay, and I’m essentially going to split it into two parts. There’s a serious distinction to be made to the BBFC’s attitude and evolution of said attitude towards horror films, and general violence in other genres. To be honest, for the most part the horse has bolted on this topic, with the BBFC admitting in 2007 that violence in 18 rated films is no longer something that they look for. They, actually, seem to be taking a common sense view on the matter, and therefore almost all violence in action movies will at least get a certificate. Horror, on the other hand, is an entirely different kettle of fish, and a far more problematic subject.
Therefore, this week’s examination of Censorship will contain no references to horror movies, instead this contains my thoughts on the censorship of violence in other genres.
It’s a horrible world…
We live in a 24 hour world. News feeds run incessantly broadcasting terrifying and violence-filled images in a perpetual loop of “reporting” the details of the worst that mankind can do. Some of the more famous examples out there include the 9/11 coverage where you could actually see the poor souls trapped in the towers jumping to their death from the upper floors, or any time there’s a riot over capitalism, or whatever. Our journalists consider it their duty to capture the face of anger, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve seen the twisted visage of a thug throwing rocks/ flaming bottles etc at the police.
Basically, people are horrible and prone to violence, and this is not actually news. What it is, in reality, is an attempt to show scenes of violence utterly uncensored at pre-watershed times. It’s strange, because the banner of journalism protects these images, and so the everyday news is rife with film that were it in the cinema would earn a restricted rating of some description.
The news media is cashing in on the more ghoulish tendencies of the great unwashed; the voyeuristic compulsion to see acts of barbarism, to revel by proxy in the antics of the mob. Is this depressing? Yes. Should it be censored? No- and the coy “look away now” from the newsreader is little more than an enticement to watch. However, there’s a level of hypocrisy inherent here, because when it comes to entertainment, even if the violence in something, such as hooliganism in ID, is entirely unglamourised and not dissimilar to what is available as news, the Censor will come down on it like a ton of bricks.
There is, believe it or not, a glimmer of sense to the historical BBFC stance on violence in film. Cinema was a “new” medium, and the ability to project enormous people hurting each other accompanied by music was something they weren’t prepared to deal with. They had no idea what would happen when people watched it, would it deprave and corrupt them? Would it inspire copycat actions? Point being, they just didn’t know. As time has moved on, and we have become accustomed to violence on the screen the goal posts have shifted and so the stance has relaxed.
This film has warped my fragile little mind and now I must KILL YOU ALL!!!
The issue is again desensitisation, and what was permissible for a 1920’s audience would be laughably strict for today. Having said that, though, Shakespeare is riddled with many famous scenes of violence (blinding in King Lear, Othello murdering Desdemona, the assassination of Caesar and the slaughter of MacDuff’s family being but a few very famous examples) that have been performed on stage since Jacobean times, so I’m not sure it’s a valid critique.
The moral majority, being the contemptible keyboard happy lot they are, and looking to blame someone other than their own terrible parenting skills for little Johnny tying his sister’s Barbie to a chair and then setting fire to it after watching Reservoir Dogs, tend to not really understand the impact of violence on the screen. The various censors conduct focus groups whereby people can express what concerns them regarding censorship, and as such try to reflect the concerns of the general public. I’ve talked about this before, but what it comes down to is a question of personal taste and the context of the scene: for both the focus group and the censor.
Would I, for example, be happy letting a 10 year old watch Commando? Yes, in all honesty, I would. There’s nothing in it that’s more difficult to endure than a Roadrunner cartoon. However, would I let my 10 year old watch, say, the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs? Hell no, in fact, I’d have some qualms about The Dark Knight, frankly.
As mentioned, it’s down to tone and context. Whereas Commando is obviously silly trash (although awesome), there’s no sense of realism to scenes such as Arnie causing Bennett to let off steam. In contrast, however, the Joker inserting the razor blade into the thug’s mouth for the “Why so serious” moment in The Dark Knight is shot totally differently, it’s close up, frightening, and feels (despite the presence of a man wearing ridiculous makeup and a purple suit) somehow authentic. So, therefore, despite Batman being a comic book character, I would argue that The Dark Knight is less appropriate for kids than Commando.
Imitation simply is not the most sincere form of flattery
The traditional argument is that seeing violence on screen will lead to swathes of the general public copying the actions in some cretinous monkey see monkey do fashion. This is obvious nonsense. Having seen, say, Rambo 3, I am not exactly struggling to fight an urge to single-handedly invade Afghanistan to help the Taliban repel the Red Army, and I wasn’t when I saw it as a child. Admittedly, kids do play (and play is the key word) cops and robbers etc, but they are clearly pretending, they don’t actually shoot each other. However, it’s parental discretion as to what a child can and can’t gain access to, and furthermore how upset you should be by what they’re getting up to, so don’t get the government to cover up for your pathetic parenting skills.
As far as adults are concerned, I’m not convinced that people actually do copy violent scenes. There are rumours that the likes of Natural Born Killers prompted copycats in France, but they’re generally unfounded press hysteria, and to be honest, are akin to “God told me to”. Which reminds me, seeing as Organised religion has been cited as the inspiration for more acts of barbarism than anything else, I suggest we ban that instead. Or people grow a brain, which is my preferred option.
It’s nonsense and I’ve little time for psychobabble such as the magic bullet theory. People that commit extreme acts such as the recent Aurora shootings didn’t do it because of Batman. If anything, the pixies in their head could have told them to do it. They are insane and disturbed individuals, ticking time bombs walking the streets and the film did not make them this way. We have free will, and as a species we exercise it for both good and ill.
Let’s pretend for a moment that cinema didn’t exist, that we lived in some kind of repressed society that didn’t allow the projection of motion pictures on to the screen. Would that mean that there would be no violence? No, 73% of murders of women in the UK occur in the home. I will bet that not one of these has the remotest correlation to the cinema, and certainly no causal link. It strikes me as silly to claim, therefore, that violence in cinema has made society more violent, as it obviously has not.
Take a deep breath and step away from the movie or I will totally fucking shoot you in the head.
The BBFC are quite open about how important Tone and Context are to their classification of violence in cinema, and in 2007 came clean altogether that violence by itself will not cause a film to be banned. This simply reflects that people are accustomed to scenes of violence on screen and therefore other factors are more important than the man in the white hat stabbing the man in the black hat.
As time has passed the standards have lapsed, and so silly anachronisms such as the depiction of martial arts weaponry on the screen has simply ceased to be a concern. Instead, and this is far more sensible, the purpose of the violence in context of the film is instead looked at. So, a fantasy war epic such as Lord of the Rings will not be cut despite being absolutely riddled with violence, whereas a kitchen sink drama featuring heavy wife beating will earn a more restricted rating.
This is entirely sensible. The context of the more “realistic” work will no doubt make a headbutt both more disturbing and it will have more impact, whereas Aragorn laying waste to a field of Orcs with a broadsword will not disturb or influence anyone. As an adult, if I feel that I want to see the more gritty film, then that should be entirely my prerogative to do so, and there’s no reason to prevent me from watching it. A child, on the other hand, may well upset by the content of something like Nil by Mouth, ignoring that such a film holds no interest for a kid anyway.
This does not mean, however, that all violence is acceptable to the new touchy-feely censor. Sexual violence, and violence for the purpose of gratification of the main character will get their dander up and inspire them to wield the scalpel. However, throughout history the BBFC has had serious problems when films have combined violence and sex regardless of genre.
When a slip of the knife gives the cruellest cut of all
There are several films that have fallen foul of this historically, and almost all of them are now available on general release. Arguably the most famous of all time is Peckinpah’s Yokel western Straw Dogs, and I’m going to use it as an example of shifting attitudes towards an incredibly complicated issue, and the dangers inherent in censorship, particularly regarding context.
Straw Dogs is not, let’s face it, that good a film. Dealing with masculinity and laced through with misogyny it is, primarily, famous for basically one scene: the rape of Susan George. In this scene she’s raped on the sofa by an old boyfriend that she’s arguably been flirting with, and begins to transform into psuedo-enjoyment of the experience. Then the second man appears and sodomises her.
Initially the Director of the BBFC, Stephen Murphy, actually saw Straw Dogs during post production. His reaction to it was a number of minor suggestions regarding the violence, but crucially not the rape, which were incorporated and the film was passed uncut in the UK. Predictably, though, Mary Whitehouse’s killjoy crusade got hold of it, and it was banned by a number of local councils.
In the wake of the Hungerford Massacre in 1988, the BBFC went back and looked at the classification on a number of high profile borderline films (Death Wish also fell foul of this). Ferman, Director at the time, looked at Straw Dogs and in the wake of the rise of the VHS recorder decided that attitudes “at the time” were heavily against this type of violence, and more importantly VHS meant that the first rape could be shown out of context and thereby reinforce the Rape Myth.
Wielding powers under the 1984 Video Recording Act, Ferman therefore banned the film, and it remained banned until 1997 when the distributor at the time decided to resubmit it, given that attitudes had significantly changed since 1988. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to themselves, they submitted a butchered American version that was cut in such a way as to make the rape sequence more ambiguous not less by diminishing the second attack, and reinforcing the impression that Amy enjoyed the experience. Incidentally, these cuts were made because the American censor thought it went on for too long, totally missing the nuance of the scene.
The BBFC rejected the new version.
In 1999, however, a new distributor had the original uncut version, and so resubmitted it. On the quite inexplicable basis that they couldn’t very well pass a film that contained more of this sort of thing than the version they’d rejected, thereby missing the nuance of the scene and the context of the cuts, the BBFC blanket rejected the film. It was only on it’s umpteenth attempt to get passed in 2002 that it finally made it to the UK audience uncut.
The point here is that context is everything. The slip of the knife had removed the reaction to the second rape, which is the crucial one as it undermines the idea of the rape myth in its entirety, and therefore completely undermined the scene. The BBFC were thus left with little alternative but to apply the ban, other than to ask for the original, which they were strangely reticent to do.
‘Tis but a Flesh Wound
Straw Dogs is one very high profile example of shifting attitudes and the importance of context. Assessed, in the end 5 times and passed uncut twice, it is, admittedly, an incredibly difficult example of the fluidity of opinion on violence.
All “new” films actually benefit from the post 2002 relaxation of the stance on violence. With context and tone being of paramount importance, the actual physical impact is not the deciding factor in certification. Personally, I think this is a far more sensible approach than the old-fashioned “2 punches= 12” thinking that ignored nuance in favour of an almost mathematical formula.
When it comes right down to the crunch, what they should be looking at is the juxtaposition of violence with sexual arousal. If the purpose of the scene is not the sexual gratification of the audience, then there’s no reason to cut it. It can be offensive, or tasteless, but these are subjective reactions, and as such you cannot ban something because you don’t like it. If that were the case, then surely Coldplay would have been banned.
Violence in the movies is an inordinately complicated subject, and one where the context is more important than the action. The current state of play is a good compromise, but given the reaction of the masses when a damaged individual commits a gross atrocity it isn’t one that I suspect will be around forever.
The censor’s current attitude towards violence seems to me to be as changeable as the tide, the urge to chase headlines means that they are always reacting and being forced to comment retrospectively on films that they have already evaluated. Yet, at the end of the day, given the third man on earth murdered the fourth, and without the inspiration provided by cinema, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
Next time is the review, and I’m going to look at Tarantino’s best film: Reservoir Dogs, a film that had inordinate problems with the Censor, and in part made its name and that of its director because of this.