The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is the bad boy that came in from the cold. Under recent president Andreas Whittam Smith, it had the sense to change with the times and reconfigure its mission statement into something socially useful rather than paternal. It was a small liberal revolution. The Board was now there to make sure films were appropriate for their intended age group but not to decide what a grown adult could see.
Torture porn, however, has forced it to go back to its bad old ways. Yesterday, it effectively banned a horror movie which would otherwise have probably gone unheard of: Human Centipede II.
It was doing so well. Gone were the days when Rebel Without a Cause was cut for encouraging teenage rebellion or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, a wonderful, lovingly-made piece of nonsense which can now be found in the comedy section of Love Film, was seized from a number of shops, forcing their owners to plead guilty to supply of an obscene article.
Instead, the BBFC's website has turned into one of the most useful tools any parent can have. Its comments on films give parents exact information about what's in them, allowing them to make informed choices rather than just relying on the certificate. If a parent doesn't mind the odd bit of swearing or fleeting nudity but does object to violence, that information can be found in the BBFC website. It is a tool which empowers rather than infantilises.
Then torture porn came along. Full disclosure: I hate torture porn. I've watched and loved horror all my life, but I found Hostel, the film largely responsible for the current craze, absolutely without merit. I became alienated and uncomfortable the moment I realised that the infliction of pain and humiliation was somehow supposed to be enjoyable in its own right. It felt as if I had totally misunderstood what people are like, what they want from entertainment.
This isn't about being overly sensitive. It's about a genre of film which has nothing to say, no interest in character or plot, no technical or artistic accomplishment and no empathy for other human beings.
It's clear the genre has caused a change of heart at the BBFC. Two years ago it banned Japanese film Grotesque. "The chief pleasure on offer seems to be wallowing in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake," director David Cooke commented. Today, it has banned the new Human Centipede film, saying: "There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience."
That sounds entirely believable, given the tropes of the genre. It is nevertheless a mistake.
The use of the word obscene should always get the spider-sense tingling. 'Obscenity' is the same thing as 'offence' but with added moral superiority. It is the word censors cling to, both here and in the US, to tell people what they may and may not watch. I found Sex and the City obscene. I do not mean that in a jokey way. I genuinely found it obscene that young girls could be allowed to watch something that treated their gender like some consumerist, brain-dead clone breed and then call it empowerment. Why does my obscenity not trump an eye being gorged out gleefully in Evil Dead? Obscenity, it hardly needs saying, is in the eye of the beholder.
Where the citing of obscenity by censors has no rational justification, the use of public safety concerns has at least some logical content, even if it is invalid. The Human Centipede II "poses a real risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers", the BBFC concluded. This argument assumes a causal relationship between art and real life which cannot be demonstrated.
We know that media has some effect on the viewer - it would be absurd to pretend otherwise.
There is some data which suggests that brief exposure to violent pornography, for instance, can lead to anti-social attitudes and behaviour. Research by Edward Donnerstein, Dolf Zimmerman and Jennings Bryant suggests it makes male viewers more aggressive towards women, less responsive to pain and suffering of rape victims, and more willing to accept various myths about rape. Continued exposure seemed to have serious adverse effects on beliefs about sexuality in general and on attitudes toward women in particular.
Or does it? A well-known study by Berl Kutchinsky, using Denmark, Sweden, West Germany, and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s as data sets, found that the rate of rapes in these countries decreased or remained level as the amount of pornography increasingly became available. Of course, there could have been another variable affecting the results, such as harsher laws or anti-rape advertising campaigns, but later research showed parallel findings in every single other country examined, including Japan, Croatia, China, Poland, Finland and the Czech Republic.
Now here's the controversial, difficult bit: that also holds true for child pornography. In those countries where the possession of child pornography is decriminalised, child sex abuse tends to go into decline.
None of which proves anything that can't probably be disproved somewhere else, except that it is impossible to accurately document the causal relationship between media experience and behaviour. Where we do get solid data it is often in the opposite direction to what censors would have us believe.
There is simply no basis for banning films on the grounds of public safety. Likewise, there is no basis on the grounds of obscenity.
I can understand why this is happening. We are seeing the increased popularity of a genre which has no artistic merit and which degrades its viewers. It feels pernicious and harmful. But people have a right to be degraded if that's how they enjoy themselves. They have a right to see a film about humans being stitched together mouth to anus, if that's what they fancy.
The BBFC has no rights. It has a duty: to communicate the information required for adults to control the material their children watch. They have drastically overstepped the mark. The 80s are over