[This is another piece for the writing on film class I'm doing which I thought I'd share here; comments and suggestions on improvements / errors welcome]
According to right-thinking types British society is under threat from media violence as never before. “Torture porn,” the Internet, gangsta rap and computer games are breeding a generation of desensitised young men. Unable to distinguish between image and reality they rape, assault and kill without compunction. Just as we need to be saved from them, they need to be saved from these media by more vigilant censorship.
Things recently came to a head with the private members bill by Conservative Member of Parliament Julian Brazier, in which he argued for giving MPs the ability to overrule British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) decisions. Though the bill stood little chance of becoming law and was defeated, the debates within Parliament and the mass media were very interesting for a number of reasons. First, because of the crossing of party lines in the debate, with Brazier gaining his most prominent support from Labour MP Keith Vaz and the bill being criticised by both Conservative and Labour MPs. Second, because the arguments of Brazier, Vaz and their supporters in the media were really nothing other than the same old story that we had seen a quarter-century ago with the original “video nasties” affair. Third, because the response, as expressed in Internet discussions, including comments made on the websites of the same media, showed the extent to which Brazier and Vaz were out of touch with large sections of the public they claimed to represent. This last aspect was somewhat new and shows what the politicians and pundits perhaps most fear: the emergence of an informed population able to use new technology to route around censorship and misinformation.
Brazier singled out a number of different films in the parliamentary debate around his bill, including Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (a glamorisation of rape, according to the MP) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (too violent, apparently). I want, however, to concentrate on something rather less critically respectable than these art house auteurs: Sergio Garrone's Nazi exploitation shocker SS Experiment Camp.
As it so happens Garrone's thirty year old film was one of those which had kick-started the original “video nasties” affair of the early 1980s. A history lesson: to the major studios the emergence of home video in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented a threat rather than an opportunity. Wary of losing theatrical sales, they declined to release big name films onto video or at best released them after a long wait. This created a vacuum for product which was filled by a large number of small scale entrepreneurs who bought up the rights to just about any film they could. Seeking to drum up interest in a marketplace that was thus growing more and more crowded by the day, SS Experiment Camp's distributors Go Video actually sent self-appointed moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) promotional artwork for the video, which depicted a near-naked woman suspended upside down on a crucifix alongside a leering SS man, posing as a concerned member of the public. Whitehouse took the bait, the media ran with the story and rentals/sales of the video duly increased. It was classic exploitation film ballyhoo, and exploitation of that exploitation by the NVLA. It would be repeated, with minor variations, by other companies such as VIPCO, with their lurid “the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone” promotional artwork and copy for Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer, and World of Video 2000, with their guess-the-weight-of-the-damaged-brain competition for Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, with equal effect upon sales. Everyone won, at least for a while. The problem for Go and their competitors was that the lurid advertising campaigns soon proved to have worked that bit too well. Whitehouse and company had sunk their fangs in on the issue and were not going to let go.
Seeing a convenient scapegoat that distracted attention from the effects of her own government's economic and social policies, Margaret Thatcher quickly jumped on the bandwagon and, to cut a long story short, the Video Recordings Act was born and quickly passed by Parliament. Through the provisions of the VRA a relatively small number of films were banned outright. It became illegal to sell or offer them for sale. All other films had to be certificated by the BBFC before they could be legally released on video. As a result, a far larger number of films simply disappeared, because it was prohibitively expensive to pay for the privilege of having them checked by the BBFC examiner, who might also require cuts and resubmission. The (un)anticipated consequence of the former provision was to give the banned films a lasting cachet and create a black market for them. The (un)anticipated consequence of the latter was to take the video industry out of the hands of the small players and return it to the major studios who could afford to take a high-profile film like Rambo back to the BBFC again and again until a satisfactory compromise was reached over its home format content and certificate.
Fast forward 20 or so years or, rather, chapter skip to the late noughties.
The government has changed, though dissatisfaction with Nü-Labour's opportunistic abandonment of its old principles and policies is growing. The NVLA has likewise mutated, becoming Mediawatch after Whitehouse's death but otherwise repeating the same old mantras. New technologies have emerged, most crucially DVD and the Internet, along with new issues of control phrased in the same old terms of new and unprecedented threats to the young and impressionable.
Reacting against the major players' attempts to artificially control the DVD market through the use of Region Coding, which divides the world up into a number of different zones and makes most content region specific, keen film enthusiasts quickly spotted the potential of having region-free players and importing otherwise unavailable releases on-line retailers. After all, it was not against the law to purchase banned films, only to sell them. But, if a retailer is not located within the UK, then UK laws like the VRA do not apply to them. True, the horror fan who sought to import an uncut SS Experiment Camp from abroad was still taking a chance: customs might open their package, declare the contents legally obscene, have them destroyed and issue a fine or court summons. But it was a calculated risk that paid off more often than not. Horror fans were finally getting the chance to see uncut films again and British society could hardly be said to have collapsed as a result.
In truth, the video nasties appealed only to a relatively small and self-selecting audience, perfectly capable of maintaining a critical distance from the films for the most part. Read an online debate about the cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi, for instance, and it's clear how the fans are capable of saying why the former director's Cannibal Holocaust is a technically, aesthetically and intellectually superior film to the latter's Cannibal Ferox – which to be sure the cynic might say is not exactly difficult – without endorsing the films' putative racism or the killing of animals on screen.
If anyone was losing out here it was the UK based DVD distributor or retailer whose hands were effectively tied by the VRA. Yet over the course of the last few years the majority of nasties have in fact been re-released, sometimes with significant cuts by the BBFC – the animal cruelty of the aforementioned cannibal films contravenes earlier animal welfare legislation, which few would presumably wish to oppose – but more and more with only minor cuts or on a number of occasions none whatsoever.
In this the BBFC was responding to public opinion, canvassed through a number of high-profile consultation and research exercises, and a growing body of effects research based on more sophisticated models of the audience-text relationship. Adult audiences increasingly wanted to be treated like adults and be allowed to watch a film such as SS Experiment Camp if they so desired.
Indeed anyone over 18 had actually already been free to buy or rent the film, which had been passed by the BBFC uncut and released on DVD at the end of 2006 for over a year by the time it came to Brazier's attention. It could hardly be said that society had changed significantly for the worse in this time as a result of the film's availability nor that there had been any clear upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents that could be traced to the film.
So why bother with it? The answer should be obvious: it was an easy and obvious target: what sort of sick individual would watch a film called SS Experiment Camp, never mind attempt to defend it. Now, as it so happens the film is ineptly made and often outright laughter inducing, hard to take serious at any level – never more than when one recently castrated male victim utters the immortal line “you bastard, what have you done with my balls?” The “horrifying experiments of the SS” are more camp than anything else. They may be stupid and distasteful, but when has either ever provided an adequate reason for censorship? Just ask Eli Roth, the Jewish director of another Brazier target, the so-called “torture porn” films Hostel and Hostel II, who recently contributed a spoof “Nazisploitation” trailer to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's homage to trash cinema, Grindhouse.
Indeed, if there's the hint of exploitation attaching to anyone here, I would suggest that it is to Brazier and politicians like him, with their characteristic singling out of deviant minorities such as trash film fans, practitioners of BDSM or players of 'violent' video games like in the expectation that few will prove willing to stand up for them.
Yet this is another place where things are changing as a result of new technology. And, more importantly, changing for the better. While there were certainly dissenting voices at the time of the original video nasties campaign, it was difficult for them to be heard. Newspapers could only publish so many letters to the editor and would exercise a greater degree of control over which were selected. Today, by contrast, comments such as that by Dr B Flaks in response to a Times online opinion piece, “Stop this debasing film,” can find a place:
“In a free and civilized country there should be no need for any argument to stop the kind of censorship that we endured twenty years ago. I lived through the despicable 'Mary Whitehouse' period and have no wish to see that repeated. In order to watch such films people have to make the effort to go out and buy them – they will not see them by accident. If anyone does watch it and is disturbed by it, that says more about the viewer than the film.
The protection we do need is from venal and stupid politicians and from activists who would like to dictate to their compatriots what they can see or read.”
The politician's response to arguments like this is often predictable: it is fine for educated, middle class types to watch a SS Experiment Camp, but it needs to be kept out of the hands of the plebian masses who can't be relied upon to take care of their children. The problem with such arguments, besides what amounts to a patronising class-based racism, is that absolutely anything can and does inspire the psychotic individual. Take the case of Pierre Williams, sentenced to 38 years in prison for the murder of his former partner and her children. The text which Williams drew inspiration from was however not SS Experiment Camp or any other ex- or neo-nasty but the Bible. As the Times online reported:
“A container of cocoa butter at the crime scene became significant when a Bible was found in Williams’s possession: three pages were underlined in ballpoint pen and the words “special oil” high-lighted in three places. Detectives also found several other significant passages underlined, including: “Moses took some of the special oil and some of the blood which was on the altar and he sprinkled them on Aaron and Aaron’s clothes.””
So can we expect to a call for banning the Bible next?