Archive for Penguin Film Review

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.

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Red Face, Blue Pencil

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , on August 23, 2017 by dcairns

Marvelous Mary brought me back a present from her travels: a 1949 Penguin Film Review. This series, edited by Roger Manvell, was a bit like John Boorman’s late lamented Projections — it looks like a paperback book but behaves like a magazine. It provided a smart look at the film industry from a practitioner rather than a critical viewpoint, and probably helped prepare a lot of future filmmakers for getting into the studios before they started closing down…

This one has, besides writing from the obnoxious Harry Watt and the lovely Eric Ambler, an interesting piece by one A.T.L. Watkins, secretary of the BBFC (then the British Board of Film Censors, now Classification, though they still censor a bit). It’s very readable and cogent, a useful primer, and ably expresses a lot of the horrible assumptions underlying censorship in Britain.

Censorship is only news when it makes a mistake. The fact that the British Board of Film Censors has been viewing films at the rate of 3,000 a year for many years is a matter of indifference to the majority of cinema-goers. And rightly so. The effect of a good censorship should not be noticed. The result of its work lies on the cutting-room floor of the studios, and though the trade may be all too aware of this, the cinema public, which sees only the completed and apparently untouched film, is happily ignorant. Indeed, they might reasonably be pardoned for wondering why censorship is needed. They well might ask, “Who is this censor? Why should he take upon himself the duty of saying what I should and should not see? What does he mean by “should not”? Because I may suffer harm? Well, if I am in that danger, isn’t he in his examining theatre? What is there in his mental equipment that enables him to emerge unscathed from seeing things I’m not allowed to? Surely intelligent adults may be allowed to look after themselves in these matters?”

You see? Already we’ve had beautiful phrases like “examining theatre” (do/did such places really exist? With a sign on the door? I am thrilled to hope so) and “mental equipment.” A.T.L. goes on ~

The answer is that intelligent adults could be. But the world is not made up of intelligent adults, any more than it is made up of morally balanced individuals. The cinema public in particular represents all ages and all stages of mental and moral development. And while an intelligent adult audience might be relied upon to reject bad taste and to remain undisturbed by immoral influences, he would be an optimist who would expect such qualities of resistance in the average patrons of the local Odeon or Granada. Bearing in mind the mixed audience which attends the ordinary cinema, imagine what would be the result if no obstacle were placed in the way of films which misrepresent moral values, condone cruelty, debase marriage and the home or mock at religion. Does anyone believe that such films would have no ill-effect, particularly on the young people who represent such a large percentage of the thirty million weekly cinema-goers?

Now we’re getting somewhere. (Plus, I never thought of “Granada” as an archetypal cinema name, but apparently it was.)

British censorship has always been about class (“Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover a book you would be happy for your wife or servants to read?”), fear of the underprivileged, and fear of the young. The specific traits we fear they may acquire from movies has evolved over the years, but that’s where the anxiety was located. Nice middle-class viewers could watch anything that was out there, and the censors DID, with no apparent ill effects, but you couldn’t trust the hoi polloi. (Or those outside London: in 1950, Ophuls’ LA RONDE was passed for the metropolis but barred from the provinces.) Books were always far less censored than films, because it was assumed readers were a bit more educated than movie audiences.

Note that at this time, all films released in Britain were open to all ages. Certification was merely advisory. I know at one point there was an “H” certificate for horror films, but it didn’t last, and I don’t know if kids could still go. I know they DID…

A.T.L.’s assumptions about what qualities his readership will be united in condemning are hilarious: “misrepresent moral values” assumes an absolute set of immovable laws, “debase marriage and the home” is something I have a hard job visualising any film doing; “mock at religion” is something I’d certainly commend as a valuable service, tracing its honourable history back to Voltaire, and of course by “religion” A.T.L. means Christianity. “Condone cruelty” does seem like a pernicious one, but certain forms of cruelty have always been staples of entertainment, especially in comedy. But maybe that’s merely exploiting rather than condoning. And, interestingly, cinema at it’s most uncensored has rarely gone in for condoning serious cruelty. The vilest Italian concentration camp movie of the ’70s still makes a show of being on the side of the victims. This only seems hypocritical because they exploit their suffering so blatantly.

But, it may be said, no director would make such films. The answer is that, even with a censorship, he occasionally tries to. And if the Censor so much as nods in his direction, a storm breaks. Angry members of the public reach for their pens. Responsible public bodies demand an inquiry into the methods of censorship. The Board has no right or desire to resent criticism when a mistake is made, but from the letters which from time to time reach the office, it might be inferred that some of the critics never visit a cinema and have little or no knowledge of how censorship works. Though the best censorship may be the one that works with due reticence, not seeking advertisement or expecting commendation, it must rely for its success on public support and co-operation. For this reason it may be useful in this short article to clear up one or two of the commoner misconceptions.

And he goes on to attempt to do so… Let me know if you’d like to hear more from this stuffy fellow with the quaint prose style, and I can type up the rest of his essay, with my own notes.