Thursday, December 07, 2006

Post #499, wherein I ponder where the differences lie between exploitation cinema and some arthouse films

Specifically, I'll consider the likes of Irréversible, Baise-Moi, and Man Bites Dog in the arthouse camp, and I Spit On Your Grave, Ms. 45 and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Before getting under way, though, I should mention that I've seen only three of the aforementioned films. This post is more an open question than an analysis of particular films.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the rape-revenge flick was a staple of exploitation cinema. Films such as Last House on the Left, I Spit On Your Grave, and Ms. 45 revelled in inflicting as horrific a spectacle as possible upon the public. Some of these films may have some merit; others may not. Like any genre, the more it filters through into the mainstream, the more diluted it becomes. In some cases, the only point of interest is that the director went on to bigger and better things.

The nature of many of these films meant that they fell foul of the Video Recordings Act 1984 here in the UK, a massive blow to the video industry, which was burgeoning at that time, with exploitation movies making up a good deal of the trade. In one fell swoop, dozens of films were made illegal, deemed to contain obscene material. At one time or another, a total of 74 "video nasties" appeared on the list, and 39 were successfully prosecuted.

The Exorcist was only awarded a nationwide UK release in 1999, since the all-pervading feeling of horror would have been impossible to remove, regardless of cuts made. (Can you believe this shit?!) What seems to be a comprehensive list of all these video nasties can be found here.

Fortunately, things changed for the better when former head James Ferman left the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). Since his departure we have seen the un-banning of many of those nasties, as well as a more liberal approach to censorship in general. To a point... What is apparent, though, is that arthouse cinema (and particularly foreign-language cinema) has more freedom than English-language fodder with mass appeal.

This was most apparent in the early 1990s when Henry and Man Bites Dog suffered entirely different fates. Of course, it can be argued that the latter film was heavy on black humour, while the former was a miserable affair from beginning to end. Another factor came into play, though, soon after Man Bites Dog was granted a video certificate. (Note to US readers: we do not have an Unrated certificate here. All films must be rated; first for the cinema, and then for video. And it is not uncommon for a different rating to be given to the home-video version than was given to the exhibition print.)

Sun video nasty campaignI have previously posted (albeit briefly) on the Jamie Bulger case. What this led to was a sort of revitalization of the "video nasty" scare. Films started disappearing from video-store shelves. But worse was the BBFC's decision to amend its own guidelines. And it was all about timing. Man Bites Dog had had its home-video certificate granted before the death of Jamie Bulger; it was passed uncut. Reservoir Dogs -- considerably less violent and, in the words of BBFC head, Ferman, "what [violence] there is is contextually justified" -- came to the Board just after Bulger's killing, and it received an outright ban for home viewing.

All of this blew over again, of course, but I do find myself wondering. And this is where I come back to the question posed at the beginning of this post. Would the liberties granted for recent French fare Irréversible and Baise-Moi be held up for English-language pictures? Sure, Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs was unscathed, but the BBFC has always had a problem with sexual violence, and yet the central and horrific nine-minute rape scene in Irréversible was spared the knife. In the same film, within the first few minutes, a man's head is pummelled repeatedly for probably at least two minutes with a fire extinguisher. Smashed and smashed and smashed until it resembles a pile of roadkill or watermelon that has been driven over. These two scenes are among the few I've ever seen that make me unsure that I want to keep watching. And I absolutely do not believe they would ever find an uncensored place in an English-language film here in the UK, even an English-language arthouse film.

Is that right, though? Should there be one rule for one and another for someone else? This privilege also extends to individual film-makers, believe it or not. Natural Born Killers was passed uncut over here only after James Ferman met with Oliver Stone, a director who he believed had artistic integrity. This integrity was what swayed the chief censor not to wield his axe.

And we're still not in Utopia yet. This page of details the latest BBFC cuts, including Casino Royale news. And this page goes into great depth on the status of many of the video nasties.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an excellent and important post.

I don't believe in censorship...but of those initial movies you posted about, I would very cautiously recommend them.

Irreversable is an incredible film. I'll never watch it again though. I was a wreck for days.

I think most people would not deferentiate between arthouse, camp, poor taste and censorship. Many people would ban all the films mentioned , period.

I'll return later when there are more comments, I ahve to go babysit two adorbale six month old babies...I better not get into a weird mood beforehand, true?

Censorship makes me angry.

Peace out,

07 December, 2006 20:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say no two rules censorship.

Censorship is one of the very few pleasures of being a parent...don't take that away from us!!!

07 December, 2006 20:44  
Blogger Gentleman-hobbs said...

one away from a monkey (500) fare play!

07 December, 2006 21:06  
Blogger martinobhoy said...

Another excellent post. You're building up well to number 500.

In my mind there is something wrong with another person or group of people deciding what I can and cannot watch.

As I was brought up as an Irish Catholic in central Scotland you can probably imagine that parental censorship played a big part in my early TV viewing. However rather than the violence of films being censored it is the censorship of a religious content that always fascinates me. Again this is probably something to do with my upbringing.

About a year ago I finally got to see Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ which, if you remember, caused moral outrage as it depicted a scene with Christ having sex with Mary Magdalene.

What the scene actually depicts is Christ being tempted on the cross with an "ordinary" life which he rejects to die on the cross. Now my take on this as I watched it was that if a Christian had any doubts of their faith this scene would actually confirm their faith rather than question it. So in my opinion the religious campaigners who were calling for the film to be banned should actually have been encouraging people to watch it.

Sorry for going off on a religious slant.

By the way Monty Python's Life of Brian is still banned for public viewing in certain parts of Scotland. Unbelievable eh?

07 December, 2006 21:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think butter / lard up the arse in a "Last Tango in Paris" sort of way is probably the line.

07 December, 2006 22:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think rating is important and age-appropriateness (as in here you can't see an R rated film till you're 18) - but I'm unsure about censorship. I mean, you're right, if you censor one thing, but let the other through - where's the consistancy?

07 December, 2006 22:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i watch wot i want nobody cares

07 December, 2006 23:13  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Candy: Thanks. It's cool to post something "important"! The films I've seen of those initially mentioned are: Irréversible, Man Bites Dog, Henry, and Last House on the Left. So I've not seen Baise-Moi, I Spit on Your Grave, or Ms. 45 (although I think I have the latter on tape here somewhere). I thought Irréversible was an amazing film, too. I may watch it again sometime, but it's certainly not likely to be anytime soon, if only to confirm a theory I had about it immediately afterwards; a theory that I haven't seen anywhere else. On researching this post (can you believe I actually researched a post for once?!), I read some of the IMDb forum comments for this film and was astonished how many people were saying the rapes "was not so bad". I'm not sure what they were expecting: full, close-up penetration? Well, of course that would truly be veering into the realms of hardcore extreme exploitation! Others were asking where online they could see just that scene. But out of context it again would be even more exploitative. It wasn't just those nine minutes that made that scene so powerful, though: the physical beating that accompanied it was almost as hard to watch. As ugly as almost all of the film was, though, it has an incredible beauty, too.

Your use of the term "most people" is very precise. I remember reading a post on the IMDb forums shortly after watching Irréversible. Someone had rented it by mistake -- intending, believe it or not, to view Legally Blonde 2! They were appalled, saying that such movies should be banned, they were disgusting etc etc. These are the very people that went round painting clothing on Old Masters' nudes a couple of centuries later. Scary people.

Anyway, I hope you had fun with the babies!

08 December, 2006 14:40  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

G-Hobbs: Thank you, sir!

Martino: Thanks, i've had some of these posts in mind for a while, and as I mentioned in my reply to Candy, I've even researched some of them -- shock, horror! I almost included talk of Last Temptation, actually, because that and Bad Lieutenant really perfectly encapsulate the "Catholic problem" in censorship. (As does, ridiculously, Life of Brian, as you mentioned.) To be honest, I didn't think Last Temptation was a great movie; and it was a pefect example of how over-the-top censorship publicity helps a film to achieve a huge audience. Of course, it's a worthwhile film, as much of Scorsese's ouevre is, and I totally agree with the point you made about his decision being a kind of affirmation of Christian values. Thanks for the cool comment.

08 December, 2006 14:46  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Anon: "Sort of the line" meaning it should have been banned and/or censored? I don't fully understand your point, I fear. Feel free to elaborate.

LDBug: I am absolutely anti-censorship. BUT of course there are limits. i think even the staunchest supporter of artistic liberty knows there are exceptions. I don't want to see cats skinned alive in the name of art, for example. Or the inclusion of real-life specially filmed deaths in a work of fiction. Even "age-appropriateness", though, is someone dictating what we should think. A responsible parent should be able to view material objectively in order to decide whether it is suitable for their own child, don't you think?

DP: You're a cool guy who seems to have his head on straight. Even if it seems no one cares what you watch, you probably know that you can handle it.

08 December, 2006 14:51  
Blogger martinobhoy said...


And thank you for the cool reply. I'd like to think that there are rare instances when I can appear intelligent and coherent.

You're right about Last Temptation. I certainly wasn't rushing out to add it to my DVD collection.

08 December, 2006 18:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love film. I cant understand why some film makers turn out such shite however. Why would any film maker want to remake the Whicker man for example?

Anyway, I am digressing from your original post. Censorship is a minefield. I dont agree with it in cinema. But dont us bloggers use 'editing' a great deal? I won't share every detail of my life on my blog.
Maybe thats another post in itself.

11 December, 2006 09:19  
Blogger * (asterisk) said...

Martino: Pleasure. We all like to think we can appear that way at times! No, I've not added it to mine either...

RD: What is a constant surprise to me is where some film-makers get the backing they need for what are clearly stupid ideas! You're right that we all self-censor, of course. I was saying this just yesterday. I don't really write about work or my family, for example. Although each has plenty of potential, I don't want to jeopardize my relationships with potential employers or my family, y'know? That's just self-preservation!

11 December, 2006 10:04  

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