ARTS; CINEMA; Uncensored: the diary of the censor

Sex, blasphemy, dodgy moments with horses - it's all in a day's work for Richard Falcon, guardian of the nation's morals. Here, the BBFC examiner offers a revealing glimpse into life at the cutting edge

Richard Falcon
Sunday 17 November 1996 01:02
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4 April: A work diary is, for me, largely a list of films and videos viewed and written about. The basic pattern of my working week is that I view three and a half days, have a half-day weekly meeting with the other examiners and the three members of management, and the fifth day is spent on other tasks: writing replies to members of the public, co-ordinating the review function committee, writing minutes, holding student days, following longer-term projects, etc.

Today's viewing: two films on the big screen and a soft-porn video. To get the porn out of the way, here's an extract from my report:

"A model named Heidi Lynne introduces a series of models posing and stripping in outdoor scenarios involving water. A `Native American' model dances for rain, a woman poses in a swimming pool, a model takes a bath in a large champagne glass, two models wash down an MG, and Heidi dances amid a mock jungle waterfall. All nudity here is perfectly acceptable at an 18 certificate, with no individual shot or sequence causing any problems for this category."

The films, of course, are more interesting: Tank Girl and Bombay. The former is an example of how examiners tend to enjoy run-of-the-mill films far more than many critics seem to. My report says:

"Wacky and hyperactive, but very enjoyable adaptation of Dark Horse Comic's popular `Tank Girl' comic-book series. More Dick Tracy than Tim Burton's Batman, Tank Girl incorporates splash panels and animated sequences from the comic books at key action sequences, and lands the whole thing with a Sixties Pop Art feel - eg, at one point Tank Girl is hit over the head and we are given a black screen with a speech bubble reading: `This is me unconscious.' The film doesn't take itself seriously (in the best sense of those words), even throwing in a Rocky Horror-style musical number featuring `Let's Do It' (the only connection with the nar-rative being the lyric `even educa- ted kangaroos do it'). The self- consciousness of all this doesn't detract from the excitement, especially given the eclectic soundtrack featuring Bjork among others, as well as punk originals like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, but it does strongly affect the classification of the following `issue' moments.

Reel Two, 14 minutes. After Tank Girl has awoken out of her black panel, she finds herself on a plane and cracks tough with the troops who have captured her (`I like pain'). She flirts with one of the baddies and offers to `change his oil'. `Don't be stupid,' says one of the others, `she'll bite it off.' `The moment I feel teeth, you feel lead,' says the trooper, standing up and undoing his fly below screen. This would be a strong moment of sexual threat in another context. But this is Tank Girl, the post-punk female superhero who climbs into a tank to Isaac Hayes's `Shaft' theme and sits astride the long barrel as she points it at the villains saying, `Does this make you feel inadequate?' Tank Girl is no representation of female vulnerability in need of the paternalistic protection of a censor. Instead, she mocks the size of his penis (the villain's, that is) and breaks his neck with her thighs. Tank Girl's wise-cracking invulnerability, the pow, zowee, Pop Art nature of the action and the humour here make this unproblematic at 15, as well as making the final fights seem restrained by anyone's standards. The villain here too is comic- book stuff. Malcolm McDowell stuffs the heroine inside a large chute and later tries to drown the little girl in it, but again this is more Flash Gordon than anything else.Similarly, the implication that the tough 10- year-old (`Don't say buttsmear, Sam, say asshole,' chides Tank Girl at one point) has been dressed up as a schoolgirl to sell to the brothel punters is, in context, a part of a wider joke about rejecting the appeal to male fetishism in female dress and which typifies Tank Girl as a feisty post-feminist heroine. In any case, if this seems too high-flown a piece of contextualisation, then consid- er that the sequence goes straight into a full-blown Cole Porter pro- duction number. The 15 classification should cover all of this (including one `motherfucker' and one `fuck' in dialogue)."

5 APRIL: Weekly meeting. The standard pattern of these meetings involves picking out items from a complete computer run-out of all material viewed in the previous week, separate discussion of individual "problem" films and videos, and frequently a presentation. This one was on sex videos and distinguishing between tapes classified as 18 and R18 [Restricted; ie, to be supplied only in licensed sex shops]. Of interest, too, today was a discussion of two very good Hindi movies: Bombay and Andolan. The latter has been heavily cut for PG [Parental Guidance] by the video distributor, ruining what was a very good film. Bombay is going to further viewings as very strong arguments have been put up by examiners in favour of allowing the Hindi family audience to see it. It has already passed 15 in a Tamil dub. Controversial in its homeland, the film deals with communal strife in India and contains rioting sequences which are unprecedented at PG, including children being doused with petrol and threatened with immolation.

6 APRIL: TV movie, Fifties schlock, soft porn (Gang Bang, Lily in Winter, The Navy vs Night Monsters - not hard to work out which is which). Fairly typical paddle in the post- modern flood of images. An arm being ripped off on screen by a monster plant in Night Monsters is too strong for PG still. Mamie Van Doren telling an alien victim, "I've seen men in deep shock before, it doesn't bother me," is beyond any kind of classification.

7 APRIL: Another manga, two soft-porn tapes, a stultifying TV movie and a problem Seventies movie about nuns. A day to point up the weird nature of the job. The Nun and the Devil exists in a morass of contexts: the 16th-century sources and the Stendahl novel it's based on; the history of representations of religious eroticism; the earlier success of Ken Russell's The Devils (released in a cut form in the early Seventies); and its mix of the Italian art movie and the sado-erotic exploitation movie. There's a problem with one scene with a naked, manacled nun astride a horse being tortured. Shot with a sense of the perverse beauty of the image, it could nevertheless be seen to contravene the OPA (Obscene Publications Act). I do not want to cut this and write a long report at home. (It later passed 18 uncut.)

10 APRIL: Can't escape nuns. Early Almodovar film, Dark Habits, submitted on video about heroin-addict nuns. Clearly 15 as this is camp stuff, unlikely to be accused of glamorising drugs. Grotesque low-budget martial-arts movie (nothing against martial-arts movies, this is just a particularly poor example) and a TV movie - the latter viewed with Stephen Whittle, Chief Advisor (Editorial Policy) at the BBC, who wanted to see how examiners classify material. Examiners become used to predicting the twists in formulaic narratives; Stephen seemed also able to predict when they would occur - to the minute!

12 APRIL: Children's TV material yesterday, and catching up with replying to letters from members of the public. Bombay discussed again at the weekly meeting today: whether it is possible to pass this film PG when there is a sequence of near-immolation of children and when some sequences are as upsetting as The Killing Fields. Hindi-speaking examiner Imtiaz Karin explained what happened to the film in India, where it was withdrawn by the police the day after it opened because it was felt to be too inflammatory. The Hindi version has now been passed PG.

19 APRIL: A re-run of a classic moment in BBFC history - 3 November 1971 to be precise, as Straw Dogs, submitted by the BFI, is screened on film in the theatre. Watched by the entire examining team in lieu of a meeting. Most of us are extremely familiar with the film and it has often been revived in the cinemas in its original X version (the one where, according to the myth, the BBFC's cut made the rape scene look even more like buggery). No real need for everybody to see it, apart from lodging it as a precedent in all our minds, and a key piece of history. Like the original examiners, we were enthusiastic about the film. Why did the BFI submit the much shorter US print (in which the rape scene was much shortened to get an MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] R rating in the Seventies? Straw Dogs passed 18, no cuts, and is still a hugely powerful cinematic experience.

21 APRIL: Two martial-arts movies - Secret Force and Shaolin Martial Arts. The latter is a Shaw Bros epic from the Seventies with typically fantastic (in both senses) fight choreography; given 18 for its gore. Madonna - Innocence Lost, a US TV-biopic with a lookalike actress playing Madonna and Dean Stockwell as her Dad sitting in the suburbs worrying about her as she goes to New York to be a superstar. I pass it as a 12 because of some mild sex scenes in which Madonna uses her sexuality to make it ("Wow, Madonna, you make love just like a man"). Then Transgression, a low-budget independent US thriller about a newsreader inviting a sexually sadistic serial killer to phone in and make contact with her. The heroine becomes a murderer herself in the process as the killer reveals her own dark desires to her. A bleak and depressing experience, rather like Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, but nowhere near as morally complex and frequently exploitative. Some examiners want a reject, although with a lot of cutting the sequences in which the sexual violence becomes titillatory could be removed, leaving the video less likely to be considered obscene. Some doubts about whether this can be achieved.

! Extracted from `Inside Stories: Diaries of British Film-Makers at Work', published this week by BFI Publishing at pounds 9.99. `IoS' readers can order the book for pounds 8, including p&p, by calling 0171 957 8906.

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