Each week HeyUGuys will take a primary focus on the site. This could be a genre of movie, an aspect of the industry, a specific person or part of the movie making process we want to explore further.
We will begin by taking a look at the heart of the matter, with two writers arguing their case on the subject. This week we’re looking at the divisive issue of film censorship, with articles on the censorial milestones, the scenes which caused the censors a headache and finally we’ll be looking forward to the future of film censorship.
First up Chris Haydon and Ollie England answer the question Do we need film censorship?
YES: In defence of film censorship.
The concept of film censorship is normally framed as a question of what society deems as acceptable for children to view onscreen (let’s put aside the wishes of ‘grown ups’ for now). What some parents allow their children to see is, arguably, up to them, but it seems a safe assumption that most audiences don’t think it is appropriate for young children to watch prolonged scenes of realistic, sadistic torture or brutal sexual abuse at a cinema.
For reasons as to why it is inappropriate, you would have to turn to the various psychological and medical researches into the long-term effects that prolonged disturbing imagery may or may not have. But most people seem to think that it is simply ethically inappropriate to allow unadulterated access to extremely ‘realistic’ violence and sex. Therefore the UK (like most countries) has a staggered age classification system that gradually allows access to more mature content dependent on age. This maturity level is decided by the British Board of Film Classifications who get constant feedback from a range of viewers and claim to update their practice accordingly.
It’s hard to conceive of what film spectatorship used to be like before VHS. Films were shown in cinemas with age classification, and then they were gone… if you missed a film, you missed it. That seems unthinkable now in our hypermodern VoD world. But this also made the situation very easy to police – if you weren’t old enough, you didn’t see the film.
It is important to note that the ‘C’ in the BBFC used to stand for censorship. It was originally comfortably justified as a moral gatekeeper protecting audiences from sex, violence, disturbing imagery, bad language and anachronistic “offenses” such as promoting homosexuality or being blasphemous. Modern spectators might laugh in hindsight at the seemingly tame imagery and risqué situations that were deemed unacceptable to adult eyes, but would you want future generations of teenagers to laugh at us for not allowing, or indeed encouraging, extreme torture and brutal pornography to be viewed by anyone…?
So moving from children to adults – what are the justifications for stopping fully developed adults from producing and consuming whatever film imagery they like? The current Video Recordings Act law of 1984 can exclude footage from within a film that glorifies “criminal behaviour; illegal drugs; violent behaviour and incidents; horrific behaviour or incidents; or human sexual activity.” This is from the BBFC’s own website and is almost laughably vague (what exactly is the difference between a horrific and a violent incident?), yet their mission statement has consciously evolved from moral arbiter trying to mollycoddle audiences, to a more nuanced process that protects audience from “potential harm”.
Let me propose a thought experiment: try to visualise the most purposefully disturbing and cruel images you can think of. Now consider justifying the filming of it, in explicit and prolonged detail, and then showing it to a group of vulnerable people (you can decide who qualifies as vulnerable). If you can’t think of an image that is grotesque enough then consider the real life (mostly illegal) Internet horrors of snuff videos, revenge/rape porn, ‘faces of death’ and paedophelia.
If you are comfortable in watching and justifying these images in front of your parents, lover, boss and friends then perhaps censorship isn’t for you and you should campaign for its removal. But if the repugnant images that I just planted in your head caused you some discomfort then I think you’d agree that some things simply shouldn’t be committed to video.
NO: Why I’m against film censorship.
Whilst the foundations of the BBFC, MPAA et al make complete sense on paper, they lack the same punctuality in practice. Upon installation and up until the infamous cases surrounding Mary Whitehouse, the censorship board in the United Kingdom was a fully functional operation; intrinsic to guiding audiences towards age-appropriate content, but certainly since the late 1990s/early 2000s, the need for film ratings is undoubtedly in decline, and that isn’t because content has become more neutrally accessible either; on the contrary.
A fine example of the redundancy of film censorship is the recent action sequel The Expendables 3. A title clearly penned, constructed and designed to receive a 15/R certificate just like its predecessors, yet Lionsgate negotiated with the ratings boards in order for the film to gain a 12A/PG-13 classification. The BBFC would have happily released the film fully uncut at 15, yet driven by finance and box-office appeal, the studio sacrificed their content at their own expense in order to earn more money. Ironically the film hasn’t lit the multiplexes alight at all but that’s beside the point.
If film censorship can be controlled and manipulated by the studio heavyweights then why is it even in installation? Fundamentally the next rape-revenge torture-porn picture to hit screens can be rated PG if the filmmakers willingly opt to deconstruct their art. This isn’t a one-off either – major franchises like The Hunger Games, Divergent and Harry Potter have all collaborated with the censors in order to make their features appeal to the widest possible spectator with business-driven ethics in mind, not the fans who’ve eagerly awaited the chance to see their literary heroes on the silver screen.
Plus the idea of the 12A rating in general is bizarre; home entertainment still holds the original 12 rating with the thought that audiences can replay scenes on Blu-ray/DVD thus be subjected to more damaging content than a quick passing scene in the theatre. Yet if the content can even be deemed ‘damaging’ to a particular aged audience member, they shouldn’t be allowed access to that picture in the first place – regardless of how brief the splash of violence may be, or how quickly a character rolls off an expletive.
The BBFC and MPAA are now more in touch with films than ever – rarely is any title banned, and to land an 18 in this country is something of a milestone – but at what cost exactly? Surely audiences are more bothered by seeing quality content – the way it was originally intended, rather than what rating it is. If we are only watching screwed-and-chopped films for the sake of a few figures, that doesn’t paint a particularly kind portrait of ‘entertainment’. Why should our viewing experience be tainted unnecessarily, and why should we place our hard-earned money into a system which subjects how we are supposed to view?
One would personally rather see a 15 rated cut of The Expendables 3 and enjoy the ridiculous gore and bloodshed than view the 12A release and be wondering why nobody seems to get particularly injured when they are filled with 16 bullets from an AK-47. Even if the critical response after viewing is the same, at least I know my money has gone towards the ‘proper’ film.