Archive for BBFC

Histories and Legacies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2017 by dcairns

Me and Richard Lester. Photo by Sheldon Hall, complete with psychedelic projections. Thanks, Sheldon!

The image above was taken at the symposium British Cinema in the 1960s: Histories and Legacies at the BFI Southbank on Thursday. This was Part 2 of the conference I presented at last week. It was lovely to see Richard again, and meet Neil Sinyard, who literally wrote the book on him, and to acquire the latest edition of said book at a hefty academic discount, and hear more of his stories of his early career. Many of these appear in Andrew Yule’s book The Man Who “Framed” the Beatles, but Richard tells them better.

Academic conferences are strange things — rather jolly, though. I couldn’t believe the obscurity of some of the stuff under discussion. In York, there had been a paper based on research into the completion bond guarantor’s notes on  Joseph Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. In London, there were entries on the Children’s Film Foundation, the production design of IF…., censorship and colour in Hammer films (centering on that naughty studio’s practice of submitting b&w prints of colour films, to disguise the gore) and trade advertisements for Eastmancolor. I was in hog heaven, glorying in the utter abstruseness of this info. I also learned about a few films I hadn’t seen (or, in the case of TWO GENTLEMEN SHARING, even heard of). And I made some new friends.

Also: a stunning 35mm screening of PETULIA.

My idea of academia before attending the conference.

Sandy Lieberson and David Puttnam were interviewed on Wednesday, and Rita Tushingham on Thursday. So it wasn’t all about the obscure byways of the business. Some of the papers were critical analyses, Charles Drazin using Lindsay Anderson’s relationship with his former headmaster as a lens through which to re-examine IF….’s politics. Others were historical, based on archival digging or interviews. There were a trio of presentations based around the public’s memories of cinema-going at the time, looking at sexual attitudes (and behaviour in the dark of the auditorium), responses to the fantasy of Swinging London, and the difficulties of getting to a screen if you lived in the countryside. There was lots on Ken Loach (KES and POOR COW) but I was even happy to hear about that.

My only criticism would be the lack of analysis of the visual, of the craft of filmmaking. There was some of this, and there were a good number of papers which dealt with areas far removed from the art of framing, cutting, mixing, in which technique wasn’t relevant. But in some of the actual discussion of movies, the “close analysis” was confined to the story and dialogue, with the cinematic approach completely ignored. I suppose it’s inevitable when the people looking at films are word people. Richard Lester got in a gentle crack about academia when he said that he had expected that A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, once it had fulfilled its ephemeral pop-culture purpose in 1964, would only be of interest “in, well, frankly, rooms like this.”

(Of course, my paper was on a screenwriter, so I give myself a free pass on this issue.)

My idea of academia after attending the conference.

I’d go again! My odd situation is that, as a teaching fellow at Edinburgh College of Art, I’m not officially expected to do what they call “research,” although I only just found this out. For years, they’ve been asking me to tell me all about my research activities, and I’ve obliged, but none of my filmmaking or criticism really counts as academic research. Can I even claim expenses for my trip? I don’t know. If I can, I’d go to lots of these things! To me, it was just like a science fiction convention, only without the cosplay, and more fun.

 

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Blue Pencil, Brown Trousers

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2017 by dcairns

The final episode of A.T.L. Watkins’ essay on the role of the British film censor. Parts one and two.

But if the Board has no Code, there are certain broad principles on which it works. In judging a film there are three main questions to be considered:

Is it likely to impair the moral standards of the audience by extenuating vice or crime or by depreciating moral values? The Board does not consider that because a screen gangster successfully brings off a coup, the ordinary husband will be tempted to crack a safe on the way home, or because that wife in the film gets away with a clandestine affair, a respectable housewife is likely to break up her home in Brixton. But the boy or girl in the next seat to them? The young wage-earner with too little in his pay-packet, the weak, impressionable girl for whom all is unquestionably gold that glitters? Remember, the Censor is not dealing with single pictures. Single incidents or lines of dialogue are not likely to corrupt anyone. The Censor is dealing with the cumulative effect of a continuous output of pictures on people who see films regularly, many of them two or three times a week.

I accept that films can cause harm, though it’s very hard to predict how they’ll do it. And they have to find fertile ground in order to do it. Can BIRTH OF A NATION be blamed for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan? Obviously, then men who joined the Klan are responsible for their own actions and deserve our contempt — the film does not take any blame away from them. But the film was not just irresponsible, which I can usually excuse (Nabokov suggests that the artist has no social responsibilies), it’s consciously CALLING FOR white supremacy. So it seems reasonable to hold it to account.

Griffith has earned his place in cinema heaven but once a year he must be lowered into hell with the block and tackle. On his birthday.

Movies which inspire the mentally ill to terrible actions strike me as a different case, since no one can predict what some poor paranoid schizophrenic might be set off by. Incitement to violence and hate speech should be covered by existing laws.

I’ve occasionally felt so excited by a film I left the cinema fired up — SID AND NANCY, on first viewing, made me feel how enjoyable it would be to smash up a Rolls Royce. But the feeling was short-lived, and I couldn’t convincingly blame Alex Cox for my own foolishness if a Roller has fallen into my path during the period of exhilaration.

Secondly, is the story, incident or dialogue likely to give offence to any reasonably minded member of the public? Repeat ‘reasonably minded.’ The Board does not cater for cranks or their susceptibilities: if it did, no film would remain intact. But it tries to keep out of films the things which it believes a normal audience would not welcome as entertainment: harrowing death or torture scenes, gruesome hospital and accident sequences, unnecessary physical brutality, cruelty to animals or children; indecency, vulgarity, flippant references to religion or any sincerely held belief; ridicule of public figures or institutions.

Here we see the most blatant evidence of the political nature of censorship, especially as it was exercised in 1949. Why should public figures and institutions not be ridiculed? Indeed, given the fine tradition of insults bandied about in Parliament, it would seem that the authentic remarks of our highest politicians could not be represented in a film, if Watkins’ strictures were to be applied consistently. It’s hard to imagine what life and attitudes were like before the sixties satire boom made mockery respectable. As I recall from my reading, criticism of the army and its officers was particularly frowned upon, which would make the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS a bolder film that I realised.

Thirdly, what will be the effect of the story, incident or dialogue on children — that is to say, children of all ages under sixteen? This is one of the Board’s most important considerations. Because, whether we like it or not, the children are in the cinema and they have come to stay. The cinema in this country has developed as a family entertainment. In this respect it differs from the stage or radio. The theatre, except at Christmas time, is largely an adult entertainment; and while the radio caters for everyone, it is a selective entertainment and children do not as a rule tune in to the programmes which attract their elders. Added to which, the radio lacks the tremendous visual influence of the cinema, perhaps the most powerful of all influences upon the juvenile mind. The Board must take into account the fact that the films it passes may, and probably will, be seen by children of all ages. Adults may rather resent this. They may regard with disfavour the idea of the children’s presence limiting the scope of their entertainment. Well, the remedy is simple and has been suggested. Exclude the children from the ‘A’ films. Let these films be truly adult, and confine the children to the ‘U’ films.

As I’ve said, I accept the usefulness of certification. Partly because it’s a rite of passage to sneak into films you’re too young to see. (I saw the AA-rated EXCALIBUR and CONAN THE BARBARIAN when I was too young. I think the X had been replaced by the 18 before I had a chance to notch that one up, and bizarrely I can’t remember what my first 18 film was. I must have seen lots on VHS before having the big-screen adult experience. And Edinburgh’s only X cinema, The Classic, closed its doors before I was of an age to don a dirty mackintosh and shuffle inside.

The main objections to certificates are that they’re often applied in a ludicrous way, and that kids still get to see those films anyway. But I guess parents find them somewhat helpful. Tom Hanks’ mom took him to see SCREAM OF FEAR instead of BAMBI or something, because the cinema had unexpectedly changed programme and she couldn’t tell the difference. Anything which protects Tom Hanks from Hammer knock-offs of LES DIABOLIQUES is probably a good thing. (I don’t know how old Tom hanks was when this happened. It would be good if he was, say, 28.)

Look, it’s A.T.L. himself! This whole documentary is well worthwhile, but A.T.L. shows up at around 3.30, delivering a “comic” verse modeled on Kipling’s If–.

Good to know that the A. stands for Arthur and not, say, Attila. Probably a nice chap if you knew him, but he seems rather punchable here.

This has been the solution adopted in some foreign countries, but, as has already been pointed out, the cinema in this country has grown into a family entertainment, and any proposal in the direction of excluding children would destroy the basis on which the industry has developed. For the effect would be that large numbers of parents could not go to the cinema at all. The ‘A’ category has been devised to meet this difficulty and to preserve the cinema as a family entertainment. Under the conditions commonly imposed by licensing authorities, the ‘A’ category allows children to be present if accompanied by their parents or a bona-fide guardian. The ‘A’ category leaves the decision to the parent. It says, in effect, ‘This film is not, in the opinion of the Board, a suitable one for all children under the age of sixteen, though it may be suitable for some, having regard for their mental development.Is it a film which is suitable for your child? You know your children better than we do. We are leaving it to you to decide.’ This is a compromise, a liberal solution which trusts the parent. The alternative would usurp his function of deciding what entertainment is suitable for his children. The compromise has worked over a number of years, and its continued success will depend on the degree to which the parent exercises the responsibility which has been conferred upon him.

This is very interesting. Arthur fails to explain exactly why certification would stop parents from being able to go to the cinema. Maybe because people in those days liked to just rock up at the local Grenada at some random time and see whatever was on, which wouldn’t work if the film turned out to be an X? Could he be right? Audience figures plummeted in the fifties, but I think we all agree that was due to TV, not the introduction of certificates that prevented kids from seeing racier material…

I have outlined above the general principles upon which the Censor works. His task is not an easy one. The balance between passing films which will be such as the general public wish to see, and can approve, and those which, in their subject or treatment, may have some objectionable features or incidents, is often delicate. It is difficult for him to please everyone, nor is it likely that every one of his decisions will be universally acceptable. There are times when he must stand between a disappointed public and what it thinks it should see, between aggrieved producers and what they think they should show, between jaded critics and what they believe they should be spared, between the educationist and the theorist and the commonsense of the average man. Moreover, while it is right that the Censor shall pay regard to the preservation of a high standard of entertainment in the cinema, he must be careful not to provide any needless impediment to the development of an important art. The successful accomplishment of his task depends upon the sympathetic co-operation of all who are interested in the welfare of the cinema: of the producers and the public, and of the Licensing Authorities in whom is vested the final responsibility for the standard of entertainment offered in their area. The degree to which the Censor’s word is in accord with responsible public opinion is the measure of his success.

That’s the end.

And yet there’s no reason why the censor (or “Censor” — Arthur always capitalizes the word, regardless of whether he’s talking about a specific body or examiner or the role in general) should be considered successful just because the public agree with him. And since most members if the public don’t know what they’ve been prevented from seeing, the censor would always attract more criticism for letting stuff through that upsets someone than he would for holding something back. This led the BBFC to believe that they were an inherently reasonable organisation.

I attended a public discussion of the BBFC’s work at Edinburgh Filmhouse in the 90s, and found it very unsatisfactory. A panel had been convened from various places, but they were all pro-censorship of one kind or another. A very odd kind of debate. Clips were shown from TERMINATOR II and CLIFFHANGER, among others, demonstrating some OTT violence (Sarah Palmer beating the chubby guy as she escapes from hospital) and showing how it had been cut to soften it. The BBFC man said that while previous generations may have made decisions that seem ridiculous to us now, he doubted that these cuts would seem absurd. My feeling was that they were already absurd, unless you believed that the “violence” was somehow real. I also felt that the sequences, while not necessarily highly artistic to begin with, were damaged by the cuts. CLIFFHANGER had Craig Fairbrass kicking somebody to death, or near enough, but somehow teleporting across a mountaintop while doing it in the trimmed version. The truncation didn’t really make it less unpleasant, just shorter and more confusing.

Blue nose, blue pencil

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2017 by dcairns

    

Here’s part 2 of BBFC secretary/gentle maniac A.T.L. Watkins’ 1949 article on the British Board of Film Censors. Part 1 is here. Now read on ~

The board is an unofficial organisation which was set up in 1912 by the cinema trade to ensure an acceptable standard in the films it produces. From the fact that the trade set up its own censorship critics have hastily deduced a sinister liaison between the Board and the trade. Nothing could be further from the truth. The trade, through a representative committee, appoints the President of the Board, but there its association with censorship ends. The President, once appointed, is completely independent, and has a free hand to appoint his examiners and staff. There is a clear understanding that no one who has any connection whatever with the trade may serve on the Board. The idea that, in practice, the Board is influenced in its decisions by its obligation to the trade would cause some surprise in Wardour Street, where its impartial decisions have given too many painful headaches.

“Sinister liaison” is good. The Wardour Street reference is nostalgic. The entire British film industry was once clustered around Wardour Street — when I first went to Soho to mix the sound for my first film, this was still somewhat true. It’s more advertising now, I think. PEEPING TOM was really the only film which addressed the proximity of the film and sex trades in London.

The Censor is not an arbiter of taste. It is not his function to improve the quality of films or the public taste in films. The public will in the long run get the films it desires or deserves, and nothing the Censor can do will alter this. How much pleasanter indeed would be his task if his work were conducted on aesthetic principles — if he could reject what he did not like and allow what pleased his artistic taste. But such an approach would be far from his proper function. Dismal trash must be passed, if it does not offend; and conversely, even a film of artistic merit may require the blue pencil where the handling of its theme would be objectionable for a mixed cinema audience. The Censor’s function, then, is strictly limited, to take out of films what is likely to offend or likely to do harm. The quality of what remains the public must judge, and on their ultimate verdict must depend the artistic development of the cinema.

“Nobody has the right not to be offended.” ~ John Cleese. Being offended doesn’t actually do you any harm. It may actually be good for you, I’m not sure. I don’t mind having a system of classification, even though it’ll get things wrong a lot of the time. Some guidance for parents is useful. But seeing a film which presents a point of view you find obnoxious won’t harm you: it may broaden your mind.

The Board has no written Code, no neatly docketed list of things which are allowed and things which are not. It has been suggested that such a Code would help producers. The Board thinks it would have the reverse effect. The absence of a Code enables it to treat each picture, each incident, each line of dialogue on its merits. No two pictures are alike, everything depends on the treatment and the context. If the Board worked to a Code, it would have to stick to the Code. Films would be dealt with on the basis of hard-and-fast rules, no discretion would be exercised — and producers and public alike would be the losers. 

Interesting that this non-existent Code still merits a capital C. I’m going to have to get my hands on Tom Dewey’s Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain to see if A.T.L. is really telling the truth here…

In part three, A.T.L. will describe the three main questions to be considered when censoring a film — tune in next time!