Wednesday, August 19, 2009 

Japanese torture-porn and working out how the BBFC works.

I think I've finally managed to work out how the modern British Board of Film Classification works. After abandoning the ridiculous prejudices of previous, and most famous former director of the board, James Ferman, they realised that every so often, in return for passing "art" films that nonetheless the right-wing press get up in arms about, such as Crash, Irreversible and most recently Antichrist, they have to ban a decidedly non-art piece of trash which makes up somewhat for them not banning something else.

Hence Manhunt 2 had to be banned because the previous game had been (wrongly) accused of influencing a murder. Murder Set Pieces, the last non-sex work to be banned by the BBFC, was refused a certificate shortly after a ridiculous furore involving the BBFC passing SS Experiment Camp, a former video nasty, far more memorable for its original VHS cover art of a partially-clothed woman being crucified upside down while an SS trooper loomed behind her. And now, the Japanese horror film Grotesque has been banned only a number of weeks after Antichrist was causing Daily Mail hacks to wail despite not having seen it.

Perhaps they're all coincidences. It's probably not a coincidence that all three share the attribute that they're not very good. Grotesque, despite not many people having seen it, appears to be the latest tiresome, low-budget entry in the sub-horror genre of "torture porn", which existed before the likes of Saw, but which definitely kick-started its re-emergence. Doubtless some will link the film further back to its Japanese predecessors, such as the "Guinea Pig" series, notorious for their effects on ultra-low budgets and how often they've been mistaken for "real" snuff films, but this seems far more linkable to its American sisters. Plot, of which there isn't apparently much of one, revolves around a couple who are kidnapped and then degraded, tortured and assaulted until one is offered the chance of saving the life of the other, a distinctly Saw-like device, before, and I'm only guessing, both are in fact killed.

As for the BBFC's reasoning, it's difficult to ascertain as the statement which was previously up on their website purporting their decision has mysteriously vanished, leaving us with the Sun's mangling of the press release, or the BBC's rather slimmed down account. Apparently it presented "little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism", "[T]he chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake," and "Its "minimal narrative or character development," he continued, set it apart from such other "torture-themed" works as the Saw and Hostel movie series. Really? Have they honestly sat down and watched the most recent entries in the Saw series, which have nonsensically convoluted plots and where the deaths and torture devices are clearly came up with first and then the story woven around them? The key might well be the sexual sadism, with the BBFC still being cautious when it comes to sexual violence, but that might just be them covering themselves lest the company that submitted the film decides to appeal to the Video Appeals Committee, who overturned the BBFC's rejection of Manhunt 2.

It's also not as if highly similar films featuring high similar plots and doubtless highly similar graphic violence haven't been passed 18 uncut. One was Frontiers, a French film where two young women fall into the grasp of sadistic Nazi cannibals, as one (or two) does. The BBFC justified passing it 18 uncut with the following description:

FRONTIER(S) is a subtitled French film that has been classified '18' uncut for very strong bloody violence.

The film contains scenes dwelling on the terrorisation of victims and the infliction of pain and injury. The inclusion of several 'strongest gory images' (mutilation) preclude the possibility of a '15' classification. However, all elements in this work are containable, uncut, by current guidelines for the '18' classification.

Current guidelines state: The BBFC respects the right of adults to choose their own entertainment, within the law.

Another was Captivity, starring ex-24 starlet Elisa Cuthbert, which I remember mainly because of Peter Bradshaw's review in the Graun:

But there's a twist. The wacko has imprisoned a pretty boy too, Gary (Daniel Gillies) and, against the odds ... well, boy meets girl in the torture dungeon and the old chemistry starts a-fizzin'.

It could have been the basis for a bizarre black comedy, were it not for the chillingly misjudged porn-seriousness of everything on offer. It asks us to believe that Jennifer would want to have sex under these conditions, and furthermore asks us to believe that she would still look like a total hottie. Even after being tortured. Unconsciously, the storyline participates in the madman's gruesomely naive fantasies.

If that was Bradshaw's verdict, you can imagine what the likes of Christopher Tookey thought. Captivity was also naturally passed 18 uncut by the BBFC, who quite rightly don't get involved in matters of taste. Otherwise they might have also banned H6: Diary of a Serial Killer, a Spanish horror in which a killer takes home prostitutes and locks them in a room, strapped to a table, depriving them of both food and water. One begs, pathetically, for a drink: the killer obliges by urinating into her mouth. That was also passed 18 uncut.

Undoubtedly, the BBFC will have justified its rejection in terms of the possibility of "harm", a subjective definition if there ever was one. That it's unlikely that anyone other than a horror/gore hound, undoubtedly already somewhat jaded with the current material on offer was likely to rent or buy Grotesque doesn't enter into it. It also doesn't matter that in the broadband internet age that it's even more impossible to ban films than it was in the video nasty era, when copies of copies of copies of copies circulated, and when those who watched the grainy, almost undecipherable to watch sleaziness thought they were all the better for it. And of course, now that it's been banned by the helpful BBFC, the DVD cases in countries where the censorship laws are not so archaic, ridiculous and opaque will have the legend emblazoned across them that it's illegal in the good old United Kingdom. Achieved? Absolutely nothing, except for proving to the likes of Mediawatch that the BBFC does still ban some films, albeit ones that no one cares about.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008 

The BBFC murders Murder Set Pieces.

The British Board of Film Classification, after having remarkably reformed itself over the last few years from its bad old days under James Ferman, appears to have hit a wall constructed by the very same forces that initially sparked the moral panic over video nasties. First the video game Manhunt 2 was banned, ostensibly because of its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone" as well as its "casual sadism", but certainly not without a campaign in the press and allegations that the first Manhunt had prompted a murder, something denied by both the judge and the police, also being taken into consideration.

Now in the aftermath of a new furore over the BBFC giving an 18 certificate to the former video nasty SS Experiment Camp, something which the media only took 18 months to notice, as well as a private members bill being introduced by Tory MP Julian Brazier, a bill that would in effect introduce state censorship, the BBFC have banned the first major film ("documentaries" such as Bumfights and Traces of Death, DVD extras and BSDM porn have been banned more recently) since Women in Cellblock 9 was rejected back in 2004.

Murder Set Pieces, directed by Nick Palumbo and submitted to the BBFC by TLA Releasing is a fairly a-typical slasher cum serial-killer flick, made independently for around $2,000,000, and features a number of well-known horror veterans, including Tony Todd and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre). While I haven't seen it, and most of the reviews of the film have been fairly critical, it seems little different from other films that have been passed uncut by the BBFC. Its main tone appears to be that it's unrelenting and highly misogynistic, with the major point of controversy that it features the killer pondering whether to murder a small child, who then releases her, with her going over and hugging her already dead mother.

Even so, it doesn't seem to have been the involvement of children in the film that so challenged the BBFC, but rather the level of the violence and what the depiction of it "portrays or encourages", something that since its 2000 consultation which established comprehensively that adults didn't want to be told what to watch at 18 outside of the concerns about sexual violence has previously not resulted in cuts, let alone a rejection.

The BBFC's long-winded justification is convoluted, difficult to understand and downright unclear:
MURDER SET PIECES is a US made feature focussing on the activities of a psychopathic sexual serial killer, who, throughout the film, is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims. There is a clear focus on sex or sexual behaviour accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury and humiliation. Young children are among those terrorised and killed.

In making a decision as to whether a video work is suitable for classification, the Board applies the criteria set out in its current Classification Guidelines, published in 2005. These are the result of an extensive process of public consultation and research and reflect the balance of media effects research, the requirements of UK law and the attitudes of the UK public. The Board’s Guidelines clearly set out the Board’s serious concerns about the portrayal of violence, most especially when the violence is sexual or sexualised, but also when depictions portray or encourage: callousness towards victims, aggressive attitudes, or taking pleasure in pain or humiliation.

The Guidelines for the ‘18’ category requested for this video work state that such concerns 'will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment' but make clear that exceptions to this general rule may be made in certain areas, including 'where material or treatment appears to the Board to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society – eg any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts… [and that the Board] may intervene with portrayals of sexual violence which might, eg eroticise or endorse sexual assault'. Under the heading of 'Rejects', the Guidelines identify as of particular concern 'graphic rape or torture', 'portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context' and 'sex accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury or humiliation'.

The Board’s position that scenes of violence with the potential to trigger sexual arousal may encourage a harmful association between violence and sexual gratification is reflected in research and consistent with public opinion. It is the Board’s carefully considered view that to issue a certificate to MURDER-SET-PIECES, even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984, would be inconsistent with the Board’s Guidelines, and would be unacceptable to the public.

The Board considered whether the issue could be dealt with through cuts. However, given the unacceptable content features throughout, and that what remains is essentially preparatory and set-up material for the unacceptable scenes, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.

They then therefore seem to be hedging their bets, mentioning everything against the guidelines and not making obvious what it is that so worried them about the film. Is it the sexual violence? Is it the overall tone? Is it worry over the callousness? Or is it violence that the BBFC thinks has the potential to trigger sexual arousal and therefore "harm"? Maybe it's all four; maybe it's none of the above and they're deeply worried about adding fuel to the fire of Brazier's bill, not to mention press reaction to the latest depraved and corrupt atrocity on DVD.
The BBFC's press release is little clearer; it emphasises the "sexual violence" and also says that due to the involvement of children states that if appealed the BBFC would have to consider whether it potentially breaches the Protection of Children Act, although seeing as the child appearing in the film's parents were in the room when it was filmed that seems doubtful.

The reason why this is so worrying is that it's the first film in a long while to be made recently to be banned, especially when you consider that it's a long while since any such "mainstream" film made recently was even cut; the last was
Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, cut for sexual violence back in 2002. Murder Set Pieces, despite its independent origins, has been picked up for distribution in the United States by Lions Gate Films, although it was heavily cut by the MPAA to avoid a NC-17 rating. The majority of films outside of pornography now cut by the BBFC are generally 70s/80s exploitation and due to their sexual violence content.

It's also dubious because of how many other brutal and unrelenting films have been passed uncut recently: the Saw series for example after the original are little more than one long connected collection of gore sequences, with the deaths apparently worked out before the plot is; the recent remake of Halloween, a incredibly poor film, seriously ups the ante in terms of brutality and in its callous tone, while the
previous work by its director almost made heroes out of its murderers; other serial-killer flicks such as Henry and The Last Horror Movie work on similar terms to Murder Set Pieces, are far better films and have been passed uncut; and then there's even the latest addition to the Rambo series, which packs 269 kills into 90 minutes, working out at 2.59 people dying for every minute of screen time, all without the BBFC so much as batting an eyelid. Perhaps it's because they're worried Sly himself might storm into their offices.

I might of course be entirely wrong about the Brazier plan having any influence; the howls of outrage over SS Experiment Camp might have completely and rightly ignored; and the BBFC might not have taken into consideration the recent outcry about the series of horrifically violent murders by Wright, Dixie and Bellfield, as Murder Set Pieces was always likely to have trouble, and probably end up at least being cut. As with Manhunt 2 however, it increasingly appears that the BBFC is taking the cries of a few in the gutter press and in the unreconstructed wing of the Tory party (as well as the new head of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who Brazier's bill would put in control of vetting the appointments of the BBFC's board) more seriously than it actually ever did. Even James Ferman, when attacked viciously in the Mail after he passed
Crash uncut, never gave in or directly pandered to newspaper opinion. He was vigorously independent to the extent that films he personally disliked remained banned for decades, but at least he could be held directly accountable for that, rather than the organisation as a whole or outside influences being responsible.

In an ideal world, the BBFC would lose its few remaining powers of censorship and instead act merely as a classifying body, but due to the history of this country that's about as likely as Jon Gaunt losing weight. The Brazier bill, which even though it doesn't have a chance of becoming law, still needs to be resisted with every breath. We've made great progress from the dark old days when something like 20% of 18 rated films were being cut, and for that to be brought to an end exactly when the internet is close to making organisations like the BBFC obsolete is far more obscene than anything contained in Murder Set Pieces. Adults simply have the right to chose what they watch - end of. The BBFC needs to increasingly recognise that is the mood of the public, not yet more futile acts of cutting and banning in order to "protect" either the vulnerable or children.

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