Human Behaviour – Comment

Tuesday, June 14 2011
Human Behaviour – Comment

The announcement last week by the BBFC that it was refusing  to grant a certificate to The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) – to give it its full title – brought the issue of film classification sharply back into focus again.

More so than some of its other recent decisions – say, Grotesque or, even more recently, A Serbian Film – the decision also showed just how sensitive the subject still is.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the battle over censorship and classification of films was all but over. The battleground seemed to have moved to the games arena, that’s where the media and parents’ concerns seemed to lie.

After the 1980s video nasty backlash, which seemed to last the best part of a decade and still reared its head in the early 1990s, most notably after the James Bulger killing, we thought the ghost of horror films twisting kids’ minds had at last been buried.

I was discussing that last backlash recently with a few Twitter types, talking about various almost surreal elements. For younger industry types and horror fans it must be strange to hear some of the tales involved around this time – assorted tabloid hacks visiting video rental stores near to killers’ homes to find out what films they’d watched, the waiting for a Daily Mail scandal to break at any given time, horror fans being ousted from jobs that involved contact with minors… It was a fearful time.

After the announcement in 1998 that The Exorcist had finally been granted an 18 certificate, all leave at the BBFC was, as legend has it, cancelled, as the organisation waited for the deluge of irate hacks’ phone calls. And, er, nothing happened. That was, in some way, a portent that perhaps the media’s attitude had changed towards films and maybe we’d all grown up a little. As the games industry grew, it was soon apparent that newspapers and others had merely shifted their attention, on to games. As a mere observer, it’s been fascinating to see how history has repeated itself in this area, with games companies courting the publicity, only to often see it backfire.

But while the Mail and co’s sights have been trained on what Rockstar and other publishers are up to, our industry has, broadly, been left alone.

Even I’ve been surprised at what’s got through the BBFC recently, but maybe this was more a reflection of changing public sensibilities rather than any softening at the BBFC.

The row over A Serbian Film may have impeded its chances and led to some debate, but that all seemed relatively grown-up – it was more about the commentary pages of the quality press, rather than frothing editorials in the tabloids.

The Human Centipede 2 debate is more akin to days of yore. There was the breadth of the coverage given over to the film and the lascivious descriptions of the film. There was the predictable “sick filth” remarks you’d expect from the more right-wing, populist papers and the hand-wringing articles from the more liberal broadsheets. No, the argument from these runs, we don’t like censorship, but this is beyond the pale.

All had something in common: no-one, or hardly anyone, has seen the film.

Of course, there was the hugely descriptive statement published by the BBFC, and while this raised the ire of director Tom Six, and rights holder Bounty Films and its UK distribution partner Eureka, not least because of the dread spoilers that gave away many of the finer points of the plot.

The BBFC might have a point in going into such detail – mainly so it can show the media, none of whom have seen the sequel, let alone the first film, just what it is that it believed to be worthy of turning don the certificate.

We’re not going to discuss the rights or wrongs of the matter, not least because we haven’t seen it either. And there’s also the small issue of the impending appeal from Bounty and Eureka, so it’s far from over.  

But the crux of the matter, from where we’re standing, is not necessarily what’s already happened and the rights or wrongs of the case, but the ramifications of censorship and classification in a digital era.

For while the unholy alliance of, say, feminist liberals and right-wing press on one side, and liberal horror fans and libertarian right-wingers on the other, debate the rights and wrongs of the decision, but what happens to The Human Centipede 2 in the post-digital era.

Look no further than A Serbian Film if you want to see what happens to a film that has been cut, or refused a certificate in a world of downloading, Torrents and boundary-free online access.

That film had four minutes’ worth of cuts, and again, without discussing the finer moral points of that decision, it put the UK at odds with other territories and, more crucially, the online world, where it is easily available. Twitter and forums were abuzz with the same comments: Why bother buying a cut version when you can et the real thing in its unexpurgated form online?

Now there’s a trade off with films where cuts are enforced: the subsequent publicity may bring the film to a wider audience, but will they buy the film? Or will they too just go and download it?

The horror cognoscenti, the prime audience for films such as A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede 2 are virulently anti-censorship. Unless they pick up a copy of the former in its truncated version to see what cuts have been made, they’re possibly going to plump for either an illegal download, or their own imported version. That choice is even starker for anyone wishing to see The Human Centipede 2: if you don’t download or get a copy sent from, say, Australia, where it’s been passed uncut, you won’t see it. In the case of the latter, you could argue that at least the talent is getting paid; with illegal downloads, there’s no hope at all.

As someone in the know said to us recently: “With regards to Human Centipede 2 – I anticipate there will be 1000s of people bit-torrenting it as soon as it appears online. There is no real censorship now with the freedom of the Internet in this country – all censorship and ‘banning’ films does is make it easier for consumers to justify to themselves that it’s OK to download it for free – a dangerous precedent for the industry as a whole.”

So what future is there for the BBFC in a digital world? Its work in this realm is worthy of support – not least in that it has cut its fees to enable distributors and aggregators to make the most of its services. And, as a parent, I can see the worth of both guidance when it comes to certification, and help online too.

But in the murky online world of Torrents and illegal streaming, what does classification mean any more?

For all the left and right viewpoints, there’s the looming threat of the illegal download and online piracy hanging over any film that’s censored.

Nowadays, a decision against a film just further pushes the public towards piracy.

A decision such as this takes the film out of a distributors’ hands and puts it in pirates’ laps. As one argument goes, we’re told that piracy is taking profits out of our business, and yet on the other hand, a company such as Bounty and Eureka’s hard work goes out of the window. One must pity Revolver, a brave independent that operates on tight margins, continuously picking up bold films which has seen revenues from A Serbian Film diminish.

Add to that the fact that a decision such as last week’s, widely publicised and in some details, has surely made a lot more people aware of another title they should download.

As our commentator noted: “You’ve also managed to highlight to the 11-14 year olds which films they ‘shouldn’t be seeing’ so you get kids running off to download the likes of A Serbian Film or Grotesque or The Human Centipede 2 for bragging rights in the playground.”

We’re not arguing for some free for all, but just asking the question: are we perhaps discussing the wrong element of this?

The refusal of the certificate is all well and good, but if the appeal fails, what happens next?

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