The Ongoing Argument on Censorship

How far is too far?

As a fan of horror and extreme cinema, the subject of censorship is something that is close to my heart. Having studied it at both college and university, the debate on potentially problematic material is one that still rages today, thanks to bigoted conservative types that write for tabloid junk yards, and whilst it’s clear that media censorship (in particular film censorship), has relaxed considerably in Britain since the mid-1990’s, there are still instances today where the press gets into a fury of hyperbole and scaremongering.

This, of course, is nothing new. Art, in all its forms, has been no stranger to controversy since history began; yet I feel it is a very British institution not only to complain but to insight a moral panic in order to justify the complaining in the first place.

Now censorship in the UK is something that has always fascinated me. Being a Brit, I have no qualms in saying that one of our nation’s favourite past-times is to create a moral shit storm. Apparently games like Modern Warfare 2 are turning our children into terrorists and the advent of video in the 80’s meant that uncensored videos were going to turn our children into depraved murderers. If you type ‘video nasty’ into Google you get a whole plethora of pages dedicated to both educated and ill-informed / uneducated rhetoric on the subject. I, for one, despite having seen some films that have really pushed the boundaries of taste (I look at you Ichi: The Killer), have always been of the opinion that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. For some it’s sitting down with the girls and watching the latest chick flick and for some it’s getting down with your sick side and enjoying movies such as Hostel or the original Human Centipede. Different strokes for different folks right? If nastiness in movies or violent video games is not to your taste, the simple answer is stay away. I take great offence to most chick flicks (if The Ugly Truth is to be believed, all hard working career women really want is a misogynistic womaniser in the guise of Gerard Butler), yet this doesn’t mean I have an obligation to tell others that their personal movie preference is misguided and evil.

Since 1999 and the standing down of long running BBFC chairman, James Ferman, the Board have become far more liberal in their interpretation of what constitutes as harmful, seeing such masterpieces such as The Exorcist for what they are. They’ve even released Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left completely uncut, yet for all their liberalisation (I’m still quite surprised Kick-Ass was warranted a 15 certificate), the one subject that still agitates them is sexual violence.

You see, in Britain, there is the Obscene Publications Act (OPA), which, by definition ‘prohibits the publication of works that have a tendency to deprave or corrupt a significant proportion of those likely to see them’. This was a mighty banner for those moral conservative fuckwits that took offence to anything remotely lurid back in the 1980’s but the OPA is something of a double-edged sword. Think, for a moment, of a life without the OPA. British film critic Mark Kermode mentioned an article written shortly after the release of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in which the writer concluded that the film ticked all the right boxes of what could be considered obscene. Without the benefit of as objective a view as is possible on potentially harmful material, there is a good chance that those like the moral guardians of the 1980’s and like the journalist who wrote the anti Antichrist article would be in charge of deeming what is deemed obscene to the British public.

But it is also this objectivity that is ultimately the problem with the OPA. How does one conclude that a work has a tendency to deprave or corrupt a significant proportion of those likely to see it? When I saw Last House on the Left, I saw a particularly nasty film that was cheap and not particularly well made, but it was just a film none the less. A vile spectacle of pure, albeit violent, fantasy. Yet there were many that saw the film as despicable and having a legitimate chance to corrupt those that watched it. Can I say I was corrupted in anyway? Not at all, but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.

For the most part, the Board are adult enough to understand that entertainment is not likely to turn a perfectly normal citizen into a raving loony. I, for one, love horror films, I love seeing the boundaries pushed further and further and whilst there are times where I’ve been truly repulsed by what I’ve seen, at no point do I feel the need to murder the next person I see as I like to think I’m educated enough to ascertain the difference between the real world from escapist fiction, no matter how horrid the material.

In this day and age, it is extremely difficult to be so horrific as to warrant an outright rejection from the Board, but this has happened on a few works over the last couple of years. Whilst there have been those that were heavily cut (A Serbian Film was cut by over 4 minutes), to receive an outright ban, the work must be totally without any redeeming qualities. Most recently under fire was The Human Centipede 2; a film the BBFC initially felt was irredeemable due to its excessive sadism and sexual undertones. Before this, the most prolific case was the release of the video game Manhunt 2 as, with the Wii version, the player was encouraged to use the Wii controller to instigate the violence on screen. Whilst I do see the problematic side in this, how is one able to determine whether this will affect those playing the game? Those wanting to play Manhunt 2 will already be aware of the game’s content and I legitimately don’t see the difference in the level of violence between Manhunt 1 and Manhunt 2 apart from the aforementioned addition of the Wii remote. I also find both games desperately immature. Regardless of the moral outcry, Manhunt 2 was eventually awarded an 18 certificate, albeit with the killings all censored.

The issue the Board had with The Human Centipede 2, however, is the levels of sexual violence throughout the film. The basic premise sees a fan of the original film making his own human centipede for his own sexual gratification. I have now seen the film (in its uncut form) and will testify that the content is harsh, bleak and unrelenting, yet I also feel that, much like Hostel, which clearly revels in its nastiness, there is a certain level of immaturity there. Whilst I had issues with the likes of A Serbian Film in its portrayal of sexual violence against children (the newborn porn scene really is quite revolting), there was also an obvious want from the film makers to be as shocking as possible. They succeeded, yet this obvious immaturity totally undermines any integrity the film may have (despite its nastiness, A Serbian Film is actually well made and acted) and therefore causes more cries of ‘grow up’ than ‘BAN THIS SICK FILM’.

You just have to look at any of the promotional material for The Human Centipede 2 to realise this is exactly what the film makers are doing here, nothing more, nothing less. The teaser shows zero footage from the film, only director Tom Six talking about his want to make the sickest film ever made. Whether this is the case (and it makes a petty strong case) is almost irrelevant. How can it be taken seriously? The BBFC’s reasoning’s for their initial rejection detail two key moments, one where our protagonist masturbates using sandpaper (which is more implied than explicit) and another where he viciously rapes a woman with barbed wire around his penis (which I’m assuming is cut no matter where it’s released as we see the rape but no barbed wire). Questionable content indeed, but is it really a danger to society?

As it stands, I am yet to see a film that I deemed too repugnant to warrant a total ban. That includes the uncut copies of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2. By all means, restrict it to the adult rating but please don’t tell the film-going public, especially horror fans, what is suitable for consumption.

It also begs the question: does banning a film not make you want to see it more? It’s the best form of marketing a film can possibly have.

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