Some Unseen Censor

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I went to see the modern remake of RoboCop on Monday as I had some cash to spare for a change and treated myself to a day out. My favourite nerdy film site Den of Geek gave it a thumbs up so was willing to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by a rather nuanced and intelligent film with a very interesting argument at its core with some of the trademark satire that made the original so great. Sadly the original hangs over it like a big black cloud. Verhoven’s masterpiece cannot be bettered purely because of its context and impact at the time. It is a razor sharp parody of 80s culture, a comic book action story par exellence, a cops and robbers thriller, a pitch black comedy and quiet meditation on humanity all in one bombastic package. The new incarnation is actually much slower paced and is much more interested in the human argument, something it argues very well. The satire is funny and occasionally bold (Samuel L Jackson’s expletive deleted and the so-near-the-knuckle-its-practically-touching-skin opening act are good examples) but in general its slightly toothless. The reason for Verhoven’s original having such punch is its excess – like the 80s itself. Excessive sex, excessive money, excessive drugs and, most importantly for this post, excessive violence.

The modern remake has a lot of “action” but no real violence. The most it offers is some robot shooting and wrestling but few humans are killed and the one scene where there are is enacted in the pitch dark. Verhoven’s on the other hand (pun for fans there) is out and out gore start to finish with a wonderfully satirical take on the “cut throat” business world and board rooms in the first scene, to the sadistic torture of Murphy himself. And yet. I watched the original LONG before I was eighteen and by-and-large was unaffected by it, it was and is a brash hell-for-leather action movie with a lot of gore similar to the comics I read. For me it swam by in a haze of tongue in cheek silliness and exciting explosions and gunfights, the latest incarnation cannot be said to do the same. Its strength is also peculiarly what makes it feel it should have been rated higher than its 12a rating. The human element of Murphy’s story, well portrayed by Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish as his wife, is affecting and is the focus of the film. The psychology of Murphy being put into an armoured and walking iron lung is investigated well and for me was horribly sad and quite affecting, something a younger audience (12 or under) would either not understand or not care about. Additional to this is the numerous scenes in which Murphy’s remaining organic parts are revealed without the suit. In these scenes he is shown as a pair of lungs, a throat and spine and a head with the skull removed exposing his brain. I am not shy to say this made me wince and suck my teeth at the reveal, making me more and more uncomfortable as the scenes lengthened and the disembodied biological matter talked, argued and wept. To my mind this is not material aimed at 12 or under. Not because it is too grisly or frightening but it is confronting a child with stuff it perhaps would find difficult to understand or at the very least not want to know. So why is it a 12a?

I have ruminated a lot over the last few years over the classification system. I am not a prude by any stretch and believe overt censorship is (like that being practiced by our own government on our very existence these days) reprehensible and, frankly, evil. However, censorship is necessary. The word derives from the latin ‘Censere’ meaning ‘to assess’, critical thought is the foundation for human evolution. Without assessing and revising our stance on everything we would still be monkeys in the trees, so censorship and self-censorship is – I believe – necessary when it comes to such mass consumed entertainment as cinema. Yet who dares be the one to censor these films and what gives them the right? In this country we have the British Board of Film Classification who explain themselves jolly well on their website. In fact there is a page that gives a breakdown of the original RoboCop’s film classification on there which is worth the read.

The BBFC separate films into the following age restricted classifications depending on their content: U for Universal, PG for Parental Guidance, 12a for cinema release and 12 for home/DVD release, 15, 18 and R18. U and PG are accessible by anyone of any age and are merely guides for parents or guardians so they might ascertain the content of the film before allowing their charge to go and see said film, 12, 15 and 18 are legally enforced classifications that prohibit anyone below that age seeing the film. I recall most of these being on VHS cases and cinema posters my whole life apart from 12. I was very young when Tim Burton’s Batman came out but I do remember being pissed I couldn’t see it because it was a 15 rated film. I loved Batman (as I still do) and wanted to see the film. A year later when the film was available to rent (yes kids that’s how long it took in those days) it had been changed to the bizarre new rating of ’12’. I wasn’t 12 so still couldn’t see it but it was a new certificate which was interesting. How did this happen? Well like PG and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before it, 12 was invented to appease both the censor and the studio/director. You see a film will be made based on the story (as it should) and then it will be put up for classification, the BBFC in this case will view it and give it their rating and their explanation for it. Then the problems start. You see Indiana Jones and Batman are undeniably characters for younger people to watch; a man with a bullwhip and fedora and one who dresses as a bat are hardly Hamlet and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately artistic integrity on the filmmakers part meant in those cases making Temple of Doom a lot darker than its predecessor and similarly the same with Batman. In doing so the censor wanted to rate them higher as they were deemed unsuitable for children but if they did that the film loses half its audience and largely its key ‘demographic’ i.e. Young Children. That means losing a lot of money. So the filmmakers and studios fought the MPAA in Temple of Doom’s case and the BBFC in Batman’s case for a new rating that would not ostracise their key ‘market’ but allay fears to parents and warn of the stronger content. More recently this happened with Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman for which the 12a rating was invented so that children younger than 12 could see the film if accompanied by an adult.

Lately though I have noticed this swing in a reverse direction. With film studio’s desire for larger audiences and therefore more money they are essentially trying to manipulate the system so a film can be made adhering to the strict Classification rules and therefore be able to be sold to children of 12 or younger but also be broad enough to speak to adults. This designed by committee mentality has ruined a lot of films to my mind and feels like a return to the old days of the studio system. But what I find most strange is the BBFC’s classification for films that are, to my mind, not for children at all. Most of the time this is not because of horror, strong language or violence but purely because the film itself is not made to cater to children. The most recent film to garner complaints for too low a rating was The Woman in Black which the BBFC upheld their classification of, admirably. Films such as The Dark Knight, Skyfall, Iron Man 3 and yes, Robocop all have got 12a ratings at the cinema but perplexingly are barely tailored for younger viewers. The properties they represent may have an appeal to children but the tone of the above listed films at no point approaches ‘light hearted’ or ‘fun action’. The Joker is a homicidal psychopath, Bond goes through Oedipal torture, Stark suffers PTSD and kills a lot of people and cracks wise about more adult stuff throughout and Robocop pensively ruminates on the meaning of free will and human nature and its desire to play god. Yes there are bangs and whistles throughout each but the overall piece is solely aimed at a mature audience. For me this raises the question of why mitigate your work purely for a larger audience share? If the new Robocop had the balls to put a decapitated head and independent lungs on display why not just go all out and have Samuel L Jackson say “Mother Fucker” and have Murphy cruelly shot to pieces for the same inherent shock value and thus deepen the argument for maintaining our humanity?

The BBFC are (as a friend put it) “sophisticated readers”, contrary to popular belief they do not have a tick list of how many F words, sexual thrusts or pints of blood are used and certify accordingly, they approach each film autonomously and judge it in isolation. Their guidelines state they classify a film based on: Context, Theme, Tone and Impact, Discrimination, Drug Use, Imitable behaviour, Language, Sex, Threat and Violence. To this end a thorough reading of the film is not just what you see or hear in the film but what is implied by it and what its intent is. This requires a serious engagement with the source. A prime example of this is in 1979 the BBFC returned Ridley Scott’s fantastic space horror ‘Alien’ with an “X” certificate (equivalent to an 18cert now). This upset Scott and the studio apparently so they asked for an explanation, the letter was available online at some point but I can no longer find it (if you can please do put the link in the comments or tweet it to me). It was a rather fascinating read as it explains its reasons thoroughly. The chest burster itself was not their cause for concern, nor the jumps, the decapitated robot or scary pitch black corridors all of which they said would have put it in the “AA” category (equivalent of 15 cert today), no their distinction was its overriding sexuality and sexual violence subtext. Giger’s drawings are and have always been phallic or related to genitalia, the alien is no exception and amounts to little more than a giant Penis stalking the ship and murdering people. Not to mention the Vagina like face-hugger that impregnates poor John Hurt which as Mark Kermode accurately pointed out is building on the mass hardwired fear among men of male rape (something commentators/psychologists have said is one of the reasons the reverse is so hauntingly prevalent in society). This sexual imagery combined with the violent context is genuinely unsettling and psychologically disturbing making for a much more affecting and thrilling film but one which can be perceived as being rather damaging to someone too young to perhaps discriminate these processes brought about by the film. For me this shows how well the BBFC viewers do their job. A sophisticated appraisal of the content and most importantly its message – be it overt or covert – is necessary but this returns me to the rather bizarre recent trend for hovering around the 12a mark for almost ALL modern blockbusters.

The film Hanna was the decider for me. It is an excellent, almost arthouse, hitman chase thriller starring a young Saorise Ronan in a fearless performance as an ass-kicking young assassin. This film included a strange sadistic pimp, a climactic, murderous battle in an abandoned fun fair, a worrying parent/child relationship, sexual awakenings from two central teenage characters, a 12 year old breaking men’s necks and a man murdered, hung upside down, pierced by arrows and bled like a pig. It was rated 12a. I mention nothing of the slow pace, pitch black tone, sophisticated terminology and complicated espionage plot. To this day I honestly don’t understand that certification. As stated I do not wish to censor another’s voice but I feel this film was not only too strong in its content but just simply not for children. Its a complicated and subtle film for adults. Its only appeal to children would be the fact the lead is young herself but equally the Shining has a young lead and no one would ever class that as being for children.

This raises a point that really sticks in my crotch over the certification “Game” film studios play: Horror. A lot of horror films are now purely toothless monsters that rely on startling jumps, murky instagram filters and clown make up to make them scary. Or purely gore and nudity. Sex and violence seem to be what people get most up in arms about censorship wise (especially when combined) but something as a subtle as ‘Alien’ in its combination of the two as opposed to the trashy, obvious and pointless ‘Hostel’ films it is far more affecting and horrific. A lot of horror films are being passed as 12a or a very light 15 which is indicitive of the fact the studio demands as big an audience as possible so robs it of any weight or depth. Films like The Exorcist, The Ring, The Descent, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Psycho are inherently terrifying not because they are gory or make you jump but because they deal with child possession, distrust of technology and fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and claustrophobia, fear of one another, fear of our nightmares, deep-seated parental abuse and in the case of the Shining – our own minds. They are justifiably all 15 or above and don’t pull their punches as horror should not. Horror in context should allow us to question ourselves and the world around us as it preys on basic fears like I said waaaay back in my werewolf post. If they were to self-expurgate you would have nothing of any great worth or interest so by lessening the certificate you are lessening its impact and to my mind, its purpose.

Blockbusters are going through something of a renaissance of late. Some of my favourite films have been the biggest grossing in the last 5 or 6 years: Christopher Nolan’s output, The Marvel Films, Skyfall, The Hunger Games yet all of these have “played the game” of cutting the bare minimum that allows it to pass with a 12a rating. A good point to be made here is I don’t remember the last time I saw a PG certificate on ANYTHING. Its either U or 12a at the cinema. What I find interesting is the certifications themselves. U, PG and 12 use the traffic like psychographics of Green, Amber and Red as progressive signals for warning. 12 and 15 share exactly the same colour scheme in their ident whereas 18 is a much deeper hue of red to relate a more aggressive warning. Between the ages of 12 and 15 there is only 3 years, so why the distinction of two separate certificates that don’t actually look any different? Why indeed? The desire for a wider audience against artistic expression and a questioning mind has boiled down to a 3 year age gap. Yet the same is true for 15 to 18 but 18 is the national age of adulthood. You are officially an adult at 18 and as the BBFC’s guidelines themselves state: Adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. Anyone below that age and it becomes a very careful game of “Simon Says” with the industry and nannying to the audience and a 15 year old requires less “Nannying” than a 12 year old but this does not mean a 12 year old is the same as, say, a six year old which is what the 12a certificate implies.

Ultimately for me I feel this means we have lost the meaning of the an age restriction and considered censorship. Filmmakers and studios simply see them as irritating restrictions to be loopholed out of or worked around and this is very much to cinema’s detriment. Risks aren’t being taken and as such films aren’t allowed to experiment and less is actually being said in cinema. For the reasons of certification films that are rated higher tend not to get seen or buried beneath the mass consumer friendly entities. As I say some of my favourites have been rated 12a but they tend to be based on existing properties and therefore require a certain element of experimentation so as not to repeat themselves with existing depictions/adaptations. Case in point: RoboCop whose meditative tone and graphic depiction of biology, medicine and psychology would have been far more impactful and would have made a more noteworthy film had they pushed the content over the 15 certificate mark. It would then be more likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original as opposed to in its shadow. Ultimately it bears little resemblance to Verhoven’s classic and to be frank would have probably just been a better film if it had dropped the moniker altogether. But that’s another massive audience share you’ve just lost…

My favourite current director is Ben Wheatley whose still relatively slim output has been of a staggeringly high quality and extremely experimental within cinematic confines. And they have almost ALL been massively violent, obscene, unsettling, unhinged and affecting. His forthcoming adaptation of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ looks set to be no different and I’m hoping will gain nothing less than a heavy 15 but more likely an 18 as it will mean he has taken the source material seriously and is making progress which if you recall is what I said censorship was all about. Critically analysing ourselves and the world and voicing the wrongs so they may be changed. This is what art does to us and that is what a censor will do and should do to art.

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Post Script: The BBFC website will be launching its new revised guidelines on February 24th and you can look at the specifics here (pdf alert!). I have emailed them directly with a link to this article and a query regarding my concerns. Whether they will reply or not remains to be seen but if they do I will add that to this post. They do a tough but necessary job that we all pay attention to but rarely acknowledge, cinema and all art would be a very unpleasant minefield to negotiate without some form of censorship. This article does not seek to criticise their work or necessity, simply to wearily reflect on the fact that yet again “MARKETING” is ruining great art. Or even its mere possibility. Please check out their website and continue to view with discretion.

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3 thoughts on “Some Unseen Censor

  1. Hello, it’s really nice to see a critique of certification and censorship, that doesn’t go to the extremes of crying against censorship entirely or demand material be banned without proper review. Similar to yourself, I watched many action movies before the recommended age, but due to the way the system worked I usually felt very well prepared. Nowadays when I go to the cinema I honestly am not as confident in knowing what to expect. Added to this that in a cinema everything is so much bigger in appearance and surround sound compared to catching things on the TV, and the 12A rating specifically baffles me. As you point out, there is a large gap between a 6 year old and a 12 year old, and yet both could have been admitted to the recent Robocop. I had not considered that the industry was moving back toward a studio style system before, but with the rather lame partial censorship of Samuel L Jackson in Robocop this did feel very uncomfortable and commercially cynical for me. Why not just let it flow more naturally and raise the certificate?

    1. Precisely. Censorship can be a real problem and can be thinly veiled policing in a lot of cases but there do need to be certain “guides” in life. BBFC is a force for good but I get the impression they are being pressured into being more lax by people who want to make m oney, which makes me uncomfortable. Thanks for commenting. x

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