DOGS ON THE LEFT
Sex and Violence in the Realm of the Censors
by David Flint
following article was first published in 2002. I haven't changed
the text,but updated information is attached at the end. The arguments
made here remain as relevant as it was at the time.
the British Board of Film Classification recently passed Straw
Dogs uncut for video, several eyebrows were raised amongst
more clued-in observers. Because although the long-overdue release
of this seminal movie was something to celebrate, it once again
seemed to reveal the inconsistencies, cultural bias and rather
dubious practices of the board.
Dogs was originally passed for theatrical release back
in 1971, without cuts (although director Sam Peckinpah had made
pre-cuts before submission on advice from then BBFC head Stephen
Murphy). But the film was considered unsuitable for home viewing
after the Video Recordings Act introduced state censorship in
1985, joining a handful of other films (most notably The
Exorcist) which had played cinemas for years without
problem but which were now forbidden on video. In any other country,
this outrageous state of affairs wouldn't be tolerated, but the
British have always been deferential to authority, and only too
willing to be told that restrictions on freedom of expression
are for their own good.
The film was re-released in cinemas during the mid-Nineties, this
time in a slightly cut American print - once again, the BBFC passed
the film intact. But when submitted for video certification in
1999, the Board was not happy. A new regime had taken over at
the top, and for them, Straw Dogs represented
everything that was dangerous about video. The problem lay with
the pivotal scene where Amy (played by Susan George) is raped.
Midway through the rape, she appears to respond positively, therefore
breaking one of the BBFC's most sacred rules: thou shalt not glamorise
rape. It's worth quoting the Board's own press release from the
"There are a number of difficulties here. The first is
the fact that the rapes are clearly effected by violence and the
threat of violence. The second is the extent of the erotic content,
notably Amy's forcible stripping and nudity. The third element
of concern is the clear indication that Amy comes to enjoy being
raped. It is Board policy not to condone material which endorses
the well-known male rape myth that 'women like it really'."
The Board also decided that, despite the age of the film, "the
rape scene in Straw Dogs retains most if not
all of its power today" and concluded "the
video was potentially harmful because of the influence it may
have on the attitudes and behaviour of a significant proportion
of its likely viewers." This is worth remembering because
although the Board's guidelines regarding sexual violence have
not changed in the last three years, and despite a lack of evidence
suggesting that British society has suddenly matured beyond the
'monkey see, monkey do' mentality which ensures that watching
anti-social videos results in anti-social behaviour, the Board
have now passed the film uncut.
Let’s pause to consider this: in 1999, Straw Dogs'
visceral impact and potential dangers had not diminished one jot
in 28 years. But just three years later, it is considered safe
for home viewing. And the situation becomes even more bizarre
when you discover that the approved version is actually longer
than the print banned in 1999. It contains a second rape scene,
previously cut for American release back in 1971!
The BBFC could, of course, simply admit to having been wrong back
in 1999. We'd all applaud if they were to hold their hands up
and say, 'Sorry, our information was wrong.' But that's not Board
policy. Mistakes do not happen. So in order to justify this about-turn,
the Board has come up with several convoluted and unconvincing
they claim that the second rape scene somehow cancels out the
impact of the first, because Amy clearly does not enjoy
this one. It's a clumsy argument. After all, the oft quoted reason
that video is treated more harshly than theatrical is because
viewers can rewind, pause and generally savour favourite moments
over and over again, out of context. So there is nothing to stop
potential rapists being aroused by the first scene and then simply
turning the TV off while they go and have a quick spank in the
bathroom. And even if seen all the way through, surely the message
viewers will receive - if we are to assume the BBFC's arguments
are sound - would be that women only enjoy some rape
- hardly a major step forward, given that the easily-influenced
are hardly likely to believe themselves to be in the group who's
attentions won't be appreciated.
The Board also falls back on its two favourite arguments: expert
and public opinion. The former involves the Board showing videos
to pet 'experts' who remarkably enough almost always tell the
Board what they want to hear. When it comes to the effects of
media, the jury is still definitely out, but the Board does not
take into account opposing views. Much of the research they still
rely heavily on dates from the 1980's and was carried out by pro-censorship
bodies and researchers - it included the politically skewed findings
of the Meese Commission on Pornography that the Reagan administration
set up in the early Eighties for instance. The board also consults
the work of Andrea Dworkin-acolyte Catherine Itzin, an arch feminist
anti-porn campaigner (1). Much of this research has been widely
discredited, but the Board still uses it daily to justify banning
and cutting films.
To the surprise of no one, the 'leading clinical psychologists'
who watched Straw Dogs found it "not harmful and not likely
to encourage an interest in rape or abusive behaviour towards
women." Similarly, a focus group of 26 people also found
the film acceptable, only one favouring rejection.
To counter this rather embarrassing revelation, the Board's press
release constantly refers to the fact that it is 'this version'
of the film that was found acceptable. However, there is nothing
to show that the earlier version had been shown to anyone, and
it seems highly unlikely that any sensible person would have reached
a different conclusion if it had. Amy's reaction to the first
rape may be ambiguous (and I'd suggest that her 'enjoyment' is
in fact a numbed acceptance that fighting was useless, and faking
some pleasure was the easiest way to get the ordeal over with.
but I'm no expert...) but within the context of the film it is
clearly an unwelcome violent assault.
Still, feeble excuses aside, the Board should be congratulated
on finally doing the right thing and passing the film. It's the
latest in a series of previously forbidden movies that have been
released in the last few years. Britain has a shameful record
in film censorship, but recently, the situation has improved markedly.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, for instance, had
been banned outright in 1975, and when a cinema club screened
it shortly afterwards, the police raided. The film was also favourite
target of HM customs, who gleefully impounded all copies whenever
collectors attempted to import videos. This continued right up
to the BBFC rather surprisingly passing it uncut in 2000. I say
'surprisingly', because Salo is little more than
a catalogue of cruelty, degradation and sexual violence, Art it
may well be - for the record, I think Salo is
a masterpiece - but the film also seemed to transgress most of
the Board's policies. Based on De Sade, and updated to WW2 fascist
Italy, the film tells the story of a group of Nazi libertines
who kidnap a group of teenage boys and girls, and spend 120 days
abusing and torturing them. Most of the dehumanised teenagers
spend the film naked; they are raped, beaten, forced to eat shit,
piss on people, and finally tortured to death, with graphic nipple-branding,
scalping and genital burning. You can buy this film quite legally
on DVD from HMV or Virgin.
Also passed in recent years; Herschel Gordon Lewis' infamous gore
movies, including The Wizard of Gore and The
Gore Gore Girls. The latter film include footage of a
woman's buttocks being beaten to pulp with a meat tenderiser,
and nipples sliced off... but as milk squirts out, it's clearly
played for laughs and therefore okay (the Board have always had
the rather strange belief that realistic violence is dangerous,
but trivialised, humorous violence is harmless... go figure).
Walerian Borowczyk's wonderful La Bete is now
available, complete with the outrageous ending, where a bear-like
animal (not real!) is shagged to death by a frisky young woman.
Previously, shots of the beast's prosthetic erection and excessive
ejaculation were considered beyond the pale.
Hardcore has crept out of the sex shop and into the World Cinema
section of video stores, with vintage classics like In
the Realm of the Senses rubbing shoulders with modern
art-core like Romance and The Idiots,
giving the chattering classes a chance to watch real life fornication
without compromising their social status. Again the excuse is
Context and Artistic Validity - it seems that subtitled art porn
is suitable for general sale, whilst no-nonsense hardcore is still
banished to the licensed premises.(2)
In fact, looking around video stores these days, with a plethora
of previously banned or cut films available intact, you might
think we're living in some new Golden Age of liberal freedom.
Sorry, you'd be wrong.
Censorship may have loosened in certain areas, but it's still
alive and well. You might be able to buy Zombie Holocaust
uncut, but the copies of Cannibal Holocaust sitting
near it are still butchered as brutally as the victims in the
film were before the BBFC arrived on the scene (3). Notorious
Nasties like The New York Ripper and House
on the Edge of the Park might be out there, but not in
any recognisable form. The latter film has been shorn of a disgraceful
11 minutes. I Spit on Your Grave has lost seven
minutes, rendering the film incomprehensible.(4)
These cuts are made because distributors simply accept them without
a murmur, knowing that the reputation of the films will ensure
healthy sales to people who don't know any better. Film distributors
in Britain are notoriously feeble at fighting against censorship
- look at how the people releasing Spider-Man
meekly accepted a restrictive 12 rating for what should have been
a PG film. And who can blame them? Fighting seems pointless, if
the experiences of Blue Underground are anything to go by when
they recently appealed against cuts to another notorious film
from the early Seventies, Last House on the Left.
story of Last House and its journey through the
BBFC is a depressing one. Shot in 1972 by Wes Craven (later to
direct Scream and A Nightmare on Elm
Street ), the film is a grim faced rape/revenge drama.
Two teenage girls heading for a rock convert are kidnapped, abused
and murdered by a gang of escaped convicts, who in turn are then
butchered by the parents of one of their victims. It's brutal
stuff, made all the more effective by the gritty look that low
budget films of the time had, and was always going to be problematic
for the Board. When first submitted to the Board in 1975, they
banned it outright, and a video release in the early Eighties
saw the film joining the select band of titles successfully prosecuted
as Video Nasties.
Last House was resubmitted for a theatrical certificate
in 1999. Like Straw Dogs, it had lost none of
its impact over the years as far as the BBFC were concerned. Major
cuts were demanded, totaling 90 seconds. Potential distributors
Feature Film were - to their credit - unwilling to make the cuts,
and so the film was again officially banned in February 2000.
The film rights were then picked up by Blue Underground (5), a
small video label specialising in cult horror. The company had
already suffered unduly at the hands of the BBFC, having had both
Maniac and Deadbeat at Dawn
refused certificates. But they felt confident that the Board could
be convinced that Last House was acceptable -
and planned to go to the Video Appeals Committee if they couldn't.
The VAC is an independent body made up of the 'great and good'
who adjudicate in disputes between the BBFC and distributors.
It was such an appeal that led to the relaxing of R18 guidelines
in 2000, effectively legalising hardcore porn in Britain. But
before any appeal could take place, the film had to be submitted
to the Board for certification, and Blue Underground decided -
following in the footsteps of the Board - to gauge public opinion
prior to any submission. A print of the film was toured around
the country, and far from causing offence or public disorder,
went down well. Leicester City Council granted the film a local
18 certificate, as did Southampton and other councils. Blue Underground
kingpin Carl Daft debated the film with BBFC head Robin Duval
at the Bradford Film Festival, where he made it clear that he
would appeal against cuts. Soon afterwards, a new list of cuts
was sent to Daft. And this is where it gets weird.
Although they'd previously asked for 90 seconds removed for theatrical
release, the Board now demanded 16 seconds for video - where censorship
is supposedly more stringent. More bizarrely, only five seconds
were the same as cuts previously requested. The Board had waived
previous cuts to 'forced stripping' but now demanded a scene where
a woman is forced to "piss your pants" be removed. The
reason given for the cuts was unambiguous: Obscenity.
Blue Underground, true to their word, immediately gave notice
of appeal. The Board then wrote back to the company, stating that
the actual reason for the cuts was "harm",
as defined in the Video Recordings Act. Daft was understandably
perturbed by this, as he possessed a letter sent to all distributors
from the BBFC some time before stating that all reasons
for cuts would be listed at the time they were requested. Now
the Board seemed to be coming up with new reasons. Nothing to
do with the forthcoming appeal, surely?
Blue Underground seemed to have an ironclad case. Securing the
services of David Pannick QC - who had successfully represented
Sheptonhurst during the R18 appeals - their argument that Last
House was not obscene and not harmful was well researched,
and in the opinion of most observers, demolished the BBFC's rather
desperate arguments completely. The BBFC reliance on studies and
surveys was revealed as misguided and flawed, and the attempts
to move the goalposts from the issue of obscenity to one of harm
was attacked as an act of bad faith (not to mention desperation).
Blue Underground also wanted the VAC to watch a tape of clips
from other BBFC approved films such as Salo and
A Clockwork Orange, which showed that they had
passed far stronger images of sexual violence in other films.
The VAC declined to do so, however, saying that not only would
it be unfair to view clips 'out of context' but also that watching
the films would in effect see the Committee making a judgment
on them - something they couldn't do. Still, everyone was confident
Last House lost. The BBFC won. In a unanimous
decision, the VAC - which included former Blue Peter
editor Biddy Baxter - not only agreed with everything the BBFC
claimed, but even suggested that the Board had been unduly generous
in only cutting the film by 16 seconds. They also dismissed testimony
by journalist Mark Kermode regarding the film's importance, saying
that intellectuals like him could easily see the film anyway -
it's the great unwashed out there (that'll be you lot) who needed
protecting. Most people were, upon hearing the decision, reminded
of the Lady Chatterley trial, where the jury were asked if they
wanted their servants to read such filth... or former BBFC head
James Ferman telling a National Film Theatre audience that it
was okay for middle class intellectuals like themselves to watch
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but what effect
would it have on the car worker in Birmingham?
A week or so after Last House lost, the BBFC
made further cuts to the film - three years, three sets of cuts,
three different reasons: and these people are supposed to be experts?
(6) At the same time, the uncut release of Straw Dogs
- which had been sitting awaiting a decision for a year - was
announced. Coincidence? Or had the Board been aware that to pass
another sexually violent film before the appeal would damage their
case? I really couldn't comment....
Catherine Itzen was most recently the co-author of a government
commissioned 'rapid response document' that offered 'evidence'
- in reaity, a fact-free, one-sided opinion piece - to support
the law banning the possession of 'extreme pornography'. Rather
like hiring the head of a moralising Christian organisation to
report on an issue they were already campaigning against. Oh....
In the ensuing decade, such 'artcore' - and even less respectable
movies - have been frequently passed with hardcore scenes intact.
However, the BBFC still make a distinction between 'sex works'
and 'non sex works', with scenes cut from the former - which are
restricted to sale in sex shops (and with mail order banned) -
that would be allowed in the latter.
Cannibal Holocaust has now been passed with most
cuts waived, the BBFC virtually admitting that previous cuts because
of animal cruelty were not legally required.
Resubmitted in 2010, I Spit on Your Grave is
still cut by almost 3 minutes. The New York Ripper
is still missing around 30 seconds and House on the Edge
of the Park is currently awaiting re-submission.
Carl Daft and David Gregory of Blue Underground now run Severin
Six years after the BBFC were willing to take the cuts made to
Last House as far as a quasi-legal hearing because
they believed the film was either obscene or harmful, it was quietly
passed uncut.No word from the BBFC about what changes had taken
place in society in that brief time period to make this dangerous
film now harmless.