Censoring The Centipede

Originally published in Little White Lies

Tom Six

Choosing not to watch The Human Centipede 2 when it hit cinemas in September was a simple exercise in consumer rights; harder to avoid was the media furore surrounding the initial refusal of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to certify the movie due to a ‘strong focus throughout on the link between sexual arousal and sexual violence’. It wasn’t just people that the film was stitching together, but taboos, creating a horror hybrid that the censors felt couldn’t be allowed into cinemas for fear of harming potential viewers.

After repeat appeals from Dutch director Tom Six the BBFC eventually granted the film an 18 certificate – albeit after two and a half minutes of compulsory cuts. Reviews by the likes of the Daily Mail’s Chris Tookey were predictably enraged, taking pains to emphasise the timing of the release with the murder trial of Vincent Tabak, himself a purveyor of violent pornography (and ‘another Dutchman’). The biggest shock may well have been how bloated and boring the movie managed to be, but few people found out: it took just £942 at the UK box office on its opening weekend.

The episode can’t be claimed as a victory for either Tom Six or the BBFC, but it’s certainly a sign of how far things have come since the founding of the latter, which celebrates its centenary in 2012. Of the Board’s original 43 grounds for deletion from 1916, some (cruelty to young infants) seem perfectly reasonable by modern standards; others (holding the king’s uniform to contempt) appear quaint. One year earlier in America, Catholic pressure groups outraged at the loose morals of the emerging motion picture industry helped pass state censorship into constitutional law. In 1922, William Hays left his job as Postmaster General to head up the then embryonic Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), laying down guidelines to encourage studios to act as their own watchdogs and avoid the cost of recutting films. And while the MPAA made points still valid today (rape is ‘never the proper subject for comedy’), it too set precedents that seem ridiculous by Tom Six’s standards, almost going into meltdown when Howard Hughes defied the censors in 1946 and released an uncertified version of The Outlaw, a top-heavy western in which Jane Russell’s 36D breasts were the real star.

The Outlaw is now available on DVD with a U rating, which goes to show that the moral landscape of the movies is constantly in flux; what shocked and appalled audiences in the 1940s barely raises an eyebrow today, and the shifting social outlook on taboo subjects is something the BBFC makes a concerted effort to account for.

“The public certainly changes its attitudes to certain issues over long periods of time,” says David Cooke, director of the BBFC, “and the Board uses regular reviews of the guidelines to stay in step with current public opinion on key issues where public acceptability can shift. We look carefully at issues such as sex, violence and sexual violence at each review of the guidelines, which take place every four to five years and involve between 8,000 to 10,000 members of the public.”

Beat Girl

Rated X in 1960, a PG today

Cooke notes that changes over five or so years are relatively minor; only over periods of 20 to 30 years is it possible to see the sort of shifts that would cause a cultural U-turn like that surrounding rich-kid-gone-bad drama Beat Girl – savaged by censors and denounced by the BBFC as ‘the product of squalid and illiterate minds’ upon its X-rated release in 1960, but currently available on DVD rated PG. Nor, says Cooke, is change one-directional: behold the slapstick application of racial abuse in Blazing Saddles (1974), or Keith Moon’s comically incestuous Uncle Ernie in Tommy (1975), neither of which would be likely to make it past the censors today.

For the most part, however, there has been a steady easing of attitudes towards taboo subjects on screen. It’s not easy to unpick how much of that has been due to a shift in social norms – increased sexual awareness, a reduction of religious authority – and how much to precedents set by movies determined to defy the censors over the years. There’s no doubt that cinema has always had both the power to shock and its share of people looking to exploit that power: from the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat (1895) – which legend records audiences fleeing for fear of being run down by the approaching engine – to exploitation films like Marihuana (1936), which avoided state censors by playing on travelling roadshows.

Yet it was when more mainstream films openly flouted the MPAA’s Production Code that the moral watchdogs were revealed as toothless in comparison to the public appetite for salacious material. In 1953 Otto Preminger pushed the release of his now innocuous romantic comedy The Moon Is Blue despite its failure to secure approval from the Production Code Administration (PCA); the authorities had blanched at the morality of a film about two ageing playboys vying for the affections of a virginal actress, and the controversy surrounding the film secured its position as a box office smash. As the ’50s gave way to the ’60s the Code became increasingly unenforceable, and in 1968 the MPAA introduced a new ratings system (G, M, R and X), mirrored in the UK two years later and essentially opening the floodgates for a range of previously unthinkable subjects.

Not that their sudden appearance on screen necessarily brought about their normalisation in society; in some cases, amalgamation into mainstream cinema only served to reinforce the stereotypes surrounding certain taboos. The evolution of gay cinema is a notable example. Prior to the Production Code the role of gays on screen had been limited to ‘sissies’ in Westerns like The Soilers (1923), there for the simple purpose of making the male leads look more manly. Following the introduction of the Code, ostensibly gay characteristics were permissible only in villains – such as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) – and filmmakers looking to promote gay heroes had to write between the lines, just as audiences had to read between them; Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each other’s guns in Red River (1948), or Sal Mineo as Plato in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), his affection for James Dean’s Jim anything but platonic.

And despite the progress made in the ’70s with gay-friendly films like Cabaret (1972) and Car Wash (1976), the advent of the ratings system only led to more vicious vilification of gay characters in major movies – including Cruising (1980), which played on the emerging fear of a depraved gay underworld, and The Fan (1981), which cast Michael Biehn as a murderous closet gay obsessed with Lauren Bacall’s ageing Broadway star. Even the culturally and critically revered Philadelphia (1993) – the first mainstream film to sympathetically portray a gay lead afflicted with AIDS – came out one year after Basic Instinct enraged the gay community with its conflation of lesbianism and murderous criminality.

For many, the watershed moment of any taboo being overcome is the point when it can be portrayed on screen as incidental, rather than central to the story – the mixed race relationship between Rhonda Pearlman and Cedric Daniels in The Wire, in which colour is never mentioned, is a case in point. Sam Lavender, Head of Development at Film4, feels that’s one level to which Shame aspires.

Shame is a film about sex addiction, but it’s not just an issue movie. The recent indie film Weekend deals with a different subject in a similar way, following 48 hours in the lives of two gay men who meet one Friday night. The majority of conversation in that film is about the reality of being in gay relationships, but it’s handled in an uncontroversial, matter-of-fact manner, and it eventually broadens out into a movie about love – and one that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any recent film about love I can think of. In the same way, while Shame is the first major film about sex addiction, it also opens out into a film about alienation, about damaged male emotions in the modern world, and that’s where its great strength lies.”


Shame is as much a film about loneliness and modern masculinity as a depiction of sex addiction

Reaching the point where such cultural commentary is possible has taken more than a century, but the fear of many critics – and not just those working for the Daily Mail – is that the advent of the internet has accelerated the normalisation of certain taboos at an unnatural pace. They see the saturation of graphic violence and streaming pornography as having created a previously unthinkable thirst for ever more gruesome scenarios, as well a new genre of supermodified video nasties (the unaffectionately nicknamed ‘torture porn’), which they fear will lead to copycat killings of the type once pinned on Natural Born Killers (1994). Not that there’s any conclusive evidence to support such arguments.

“There’s still no easy answer to the question of how violence on film influences viewers,” says Dr Sian Barber, author of Censoring The Seventies: The BBFC And The Decade That Taste Forgot. “The torture porn franchises may be pushing the boundaries of acceptability, but when I bring up the extreme aspects of those films with my students they squeal with delight about how much they ‘love’ horror movies – which is all they see them as. I think we’re still seeing the same tendency towards using films as scapegoats for things that happen in society – it’s a lot less complicated than looking into factors like parenting, schooling or social services.”

It’s arguably a view adopted by the BBFC itself, which has in recent years classified films as sexually graphic as 9 Songs (2004) and as gratuitously violent as Meat Grinder (2009). Even combined sexual violence can be cut or cleared with a basic titillation test; hence the fact that Irreversible was classified 18 in 2002 despite containing a brutal nine-minute rape scene, but Straw Dogs (1971) remains one of the most controversial films of all time due to the fact that the rape victim not only acquiesces but appears to ultimately derive pleasure from her ordeal.

Traumatic scenes involving children remain subject to the Protection Of Children Act, but that doesn’t stop appropriate dramatisations of incest and paedophilia, as Precious (2009) and The Woodsman (2004) proved respectively. Other taboos, it’s fair to say, arise unexpectedly; witness the moratorium on depictions of child abduction that saw Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone held back for six months in 2007 after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, or the outraged cries of ‘too soon’ that met trailers for Flight 93 when they were first aired in cinemas in 2006.

Yet the fact that the latter was eventually received warmly even by those who had lost family members on 9/11 seems proof that nothing is completely off limits these days; taboos remain, but when it comes to presenting controversial issues on screen there are only appropriate and inappropriate ways of doing so. And that’s as it should be: cinema has the power to heal as well as shock, after all.