Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Censorship and classification: a selective rant

Question: do the people who work for the British Board of Film Classification actually retire, or are they replaced and quickly spirited away and locked up in an asylum somewhere after turning into depraved maniacs?

Film classification and censorship is an issue that really interests me. I don't really have much of an agenda on it, it's plain curiosity.

Politically, I think we need some censorship. The press is literally ready to pounce on anything whatsoever - they're moral vultures, hanging around to pick people and things to bits. The BBFC try to create a fair system - but cinematically, media uproar always interferes. Natural Born Killers and Reservoir Dogs both had trouble when being released on video because the cases came up during media feeding frenzies in the aftermath of tragic real life events. Throughout classification history, certificates often appear to be responses to a wave of public opinion.

Personally, I like the system. I'd describe myself as fairly sensitive, and I like the security of watching 15s and knowing there won't be anything truly objectionable. I don't mind on behalf of other people, but I do know there are things I'd rather not see. All the 18s I see are gently vetted by my parents first, so no danger there either. I'm happy sheltered...even if it means I can't see Grindhouse at the cinema. Would I happily watch it if handed a copy now without my parents having OKed it first? Sad as it seems, probably not.

In general, I think the BBFC have got the balance right about what’s OK for who – with one memorable exception. Casino Royale should not have been a 12A.

A comment made on the Reservoir Dogs video release (1995, after a 3 year wait) was that even if the material was a bit strong, the general public would by then be well aware of what to expect in a Tarantino movie. Similarly, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom was passed on the assumption any viewers would know what they were letting themselves in for. A kind of inverse brand recognition. This is why I objected so strongly to Casino Royale being given a 12A (this means that they recommend it for 12 year olds, but parents are allowed to judge the maturity of younger children. Theoretically, you could get 3-yr-olds in.) Casino Royale was a radical departure from ye-oldie-Bond films. I'd imagine lots of parents equate Bond with some Roger Moore silliness they watched when they were young, and thus happily let their children see it. I'd be ok for my hypothetical 8-yr-old to see Tomorrow Never Dies, or Moonraker. I'd say definite no to Casino Royale. Even if the material alone didn't quite justify a 15 rating (which I think it did - it was pretty brutal and intense in places), then the expectation this would be a child-friendly bit of fun should have popped it up a certificate.

Each individual cinema can, under authority from the local whatever, change the rating of movies if they disagree, or ban certain films - usually as a result of a media uproar. I recently discovered Natural Born Killers had been prevented from being shown, because the council for the parish our single cinema resides in decided it was probably unsuitable (I say probably as they hadn't actually seen it) Life of Brian was still officially banned in a nearby island until very recently.

It does make you wonder though. The Victorians used to cover piano legs with material, because they thought the idea of legs being shown in public was rude. Early films would be rejected for “indecorous dancing” or “holding the King’s uniform up to ridicule”. I had a fantastic list in film studies of all the amusing things banned 100 years ago – I then managed to find a more modern film for every rule…except the King’s uniform. I’ve never seen it mocked…a less extreme example - Lady in a Cage was banned in 1964 because of "sadistic brutality", but was passed uncut at 18 in 2002, and then 15 in 2005. Standards slip. One day, we'll be gathering the children together on Christmas eve to watch that cosy, tame and oh-so-suitable Driller Killer movie.

To a certain extent, it's all about context. My parents always comment that in some films, all that language is justified (Goodfellas, is one example they mention), but in others it's unnecessary and monotonous. Though personally, I think the odd f-word would have really spruced Snow White up XD.

Context is something the BBFC too take into account - Saving Private Ryan is a tad unpleasant (or so I've heard), yet only a 15. I saw a BBFC talk, and a reviewer explained that because it was historical, and thus an important work with educational properties, it was important younger people could see it to gain an insight into the horrors of war. Similarly, the violence in Munich is stark and brutal - but acceptable at 15 because it was based on real events, and wasn't portrayed in a "exploitative" way. At the other end of the spectrum, they're not so concerned about violence in comedies or fantasy movies. Swearing is treated in a similar way - high ratings for nasty words being used in a nasty way, lower ratings if it's more casual or for comedy value.

I was initially quite keen to see Passion of the Christ, on account of the language thing - all the characters speak in Aramaic, Latin or whatever-else-they-spoke-back-then. I love ancient languages, especially Latin. But when information hit about the content, I went right off it. Two hour torture flick? Perhaps that's a harsh generalisation, but it just wasn't something I wanted to see. Ditto Saw, ditto Hostel. Not ditto Res Dogs, not Man on Fire, not Syriana, because that was all justified by the rest of the film.

One argument in favour of cuts is that movies influence people's behaviour, and thus we shouldn't see things likely to cause bad behaviour. I agree with the principle - advertising works, doesn't it? Hard hitting, pleady documentaries hope to change us for the better. I'd be lying if I claimed movies never affected me. I occasionally need to watch my tongue after seeing things with lots of swearing - yet I don't believe rating movies 18 merely on account of the language is right (Deadwood the TV series was passed at 18 instead of 15 for aggressive uses of the c-word. A little harsh...I personally don't swear because I never sound convincing, but I don't have any great objections to other people. Sticks and stones, eh?) And I've always thought drug use was treated far too harshly. I've never heard of a film that glamorises drugs totally at the expense of the consequences. Often, a bit of hard drugs use slides the film straight into an 18.

Of course, the problem always arises that what's disturbing or suitable for one person is not for another. A guy in a clown suit will freak a lot of people, even in a non-creepy context. I'm still comparatively young, but I'd find it hard to judge what might scare impressionable 12 year olds. The thoughts in the paragraph above are a 17 year old perspective. Not to dwell, but reactions to “that bit” from Res Dogs have spanned from leaving the room (Wes Craven famously walked out of a showing) to vomiting, and writing to the papers. I was fine with it. But that same crowd could be equally ok with things I couldn’t handle and cringed out of. And I wasn’t fine with a much shorter, less intense scene in Firefly, with far less blood and build up, involving a much loved character and a similar injury – I just couldn’t watch. It’s all about your experiences, and what affects you personally.

Terror in particular is a hard one to judge. Obviously, they don't cut films for being scary (else the horror movie market would be a tad lame...), and theoretically they're not there to classify things by this either. But if I see a PG, I don't want to suffer any sleepless nights. This causes problems - it's generally acknowledged that "not seeing the monster" is worse - the scariest films are sometimes the most subtle. My mum maintains The Others is terrifying, but with no swearing, sex or gore it can only be a 12. I had to leave the room during Picnic at Hanging Rock - the PG I had in mind. There is absolutely nothing objectionable in it, except a very creepy atmosphere.

Which finally brings me back to the original point. The BBFC reviewers watch all the movies that come into the country. They pass most of them, but ask sometimes ask for cuts. Generally because it's unsuitable for the general public, and likely to cause trouble in the intended audience. They chop bits out demonstrating nifty suicide techniques, explaining how to grow-yer-own drugs or going into too much detail about criminal procedures. They remove anything that "promote or glamorises" unpleasant stuff or might "deprave and corrupt" the viewer.

For example, an amazing thing about big modern films is the lack of smoking. Unless you're dealing with a serious historicals (i.e. Good Night, and Good Luck. There's very little in clean period dramas - if I recall correctly, and I may not, you never see anyone smoke in Importance of Being Earnest, even though the plot hinges on a cigarette case), crime movies or hard hitting real lifey stuff, cigarettes are out. Not even bad guys are allowed to smoke - I was amazed when no one lit up in Casino Royale. You'll be hard pressed to find any recent non-indie 12 with any in at all. I confess that people like Tyler Durden and Marla Singer in Fight Club makes smoking look extremely cool and attractive indeed; and the board are concerned that impressionable teens might pick up on this. Not that I ever would. Of course.

Thought for the day: surely if they rule that a sequence is likely to have a negative effect on the watchers, then the reviewers themselves are eventually going to turn into the foulest of most foul after having watched the combined weight of all these snippets?

Trivia gleaned from own massive memory and the interesting site.
There’s a whole whack of interesting information on there, particularly the case studies and this
intriguing article.


Rob said...

The problem with censorship is, something which you mentioned in your post, is that what is inappropriate for one person is fine for another and vice versa. This being said, cuts being demanded for a film to be passed seems to be going against free speech. I don't want to get pretentious and start talking about "artist vision" and such, but it's true.

For example, "Salo" has been banned, unbanned and is currently banned here in Australia. It is illegal to own and has been confiscated numerous times from customs. What gives the Official Film and Literate Classification Board the right to say that no-one in Australia can see it? Experience in the industry is almost a detriment, most would have fallen out of knowledge from the current standards of the public which, again as you mentioned, do change.

I'm only 16, however I often partake in 18+ films, many of which certainly do not deserve such high ratings (the Coen Brother's "Blood Simple" comes to mind). In two years, I'll be legally an adult. Able to elect a leader of the country, drive vehicles that weigh several tonnes and buy a gun. However, in my state, I will not be able to buy the novel, "American Psycho". Or watch "Salo". Or "Ken Park". It's not even a matter of if I even wanted to in the first place, it's being able to make decisions about what I can handle, for myself.

I have no objections to restricting material for certain ages. Eight year olds shouldn't be watching someone's head put in a vice in "Casino" or Divine eating that dog turd in "Pink Flamingoes". However, saying a full grown adult can not judge for themself whether they want to see people eating faeces in "Salo" is ridiculous. I'm sure 98% of people would not want to watch it and the same amount would think it's utter garbage. But what about that last 2%. Should they risk copping the $50 000 fine for downloading it illegally as they cannot buy it?

"Casino Royale" was M here in Australia. This means that it's reccommended for 15+ but there are no restrictions in place. So, should a group of mature 14-year olds be denied seeing it without a guardian as it was bumped up to the restrictive MA15+. You're quite right though, it was fairly brutal, particularly by Bond standards. But it's up to parents to check what their children are seeing. A 12 rating does seem a touch low but if you look at something like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" which is the same rating and 25 years older, I'd prefer to be hit with a large weight then have all my skin melted off.

My other point is to do with stylisation. I've seen "Natural Born Killers" which is an 18+ here too. That seemed less violent than "Gangster No. 1", which is only MA15+, due to the fact it's so over-the-top.

Finally, on the drug topic "Requiem for a Dream" was denied an R rating in the states not due to its hard druge use, but due to its particularly nasty sex scene towards the end of the film. Darren Arfonovsky was quite right when he said removing those shots would dilute the movie hugely but was still denied and the film was released without a rating. The cuts were added for the DVD release. So it seems that even when you show the downfall of addiction, it can still land you in hot water. As for glamourising drugs, check out "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas".

I hope I didn't sound too angry, I agree with you for most of it

Ninquelosse said...

Garn, I really enjoyd re reading that...I can't belive I didn't leave a reply at the time. I also can't quite believe the fine for watching Salo is $50,000. That's a bit extreme if you ask me...

...I wonder if they'd made, say, Tideland, or the Godfather, or something I couldn't live without seeing illegal, whether I'd have risked it...

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