Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The "Human Centipede II" Ban

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has banned "The Human Centipede II" from all forms of release in the United Kingdom. Apparently its depictions of heavily sexualized sadism were so objectionable that the new horror film has been denied a rating. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I've kept away from extreme horror films like the original "Human Centipede," "A Serbian Film," and "Martyrs," knowing my own limits regarding this kind of material. Reading the descriptions of what goes on in "Centipede II" was enough to ensure that I'm never going to see this movie if I can help it. On the other hand, banning media of any kind is an extreme action that never seems to work out in the long run.

Moral standards and cultural mores always change over time. There are some older films that have retained the power to shock, like "The Exorcist," "Psycho," and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," but they're the exceptions. Horror films tend to age badly, their impact lessening greatly over time. Most of the early slashers of the 70s and 80s, which once kicked up such a storm of controversy when they first appeared, are almost funny when you see them now, so overwrought and unrealistic that it's impossible to take them seriously. In the meantime, the horror genre has found new ways of shocking an increasingly desensitized audience, with more explicit violence and gore. We went through another storm of outrage over the "torture porn" genre in the past decade, which only died down when audiences grew bored with the films and the most explicit ones began to cater to a smaller niche. We still see a horror film or two pushing the boundaries a little further every year. Lucky McKee's "The Woman," may be the next title to keep an eye on, after it created a ruckus at the last Sundance film festival.

Is the continuing progression toward more and more graphic material inherently a bad thing? I don't know, but it's probably inevitable. It's hard to imagine now, but in the days of the Hays Code, you couldn't depict a crime that went unpunished or portray extramarital relationships in a positive light. Mixed-race couples and homosexuality were unthinkable. It wasn't until Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" in 1960 that we ever saw a toilet flushed onscreen. There very well may be a time when the depiction of the kind of acts in "The Human Centipede II" become commonplace and lose their ability to shock. It's important to remember that it's not the content itself that is usually found to be objectionable, but the way in which it is used. The BBFC's objection to "Centipede II" had less to do with the violence depicted than it did with the sexualization of it. This year the Greek film "Dogtooth" got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, despite multiple scenes of graphic sex and violence in what appears to be a bizarre sociological experiment. Possibly, this was because the content was never titillating and used for far more interesting proposes.

When you talk about the censorship of sexual violence in the UK, inevitably you have to go back to Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," which was never technically banned, but encountered so much cultural and legal resistance that it was withdrawn from distribution in the UK for nearly thirty years. The 1971 film has artistic value in abundance, but is still so notorious for its content that some major video chains still won't carry the original version. Tom Six, the director of the "Centipede" films is not Kubrick, of course, and his horror films reputedly have no real artistic ambition beyond making the audience squirm, which makes the banning somewhat easier to swallow. The treatment of "Centipede II" is unusual as the BBFC asked for no cuts or other edits to make the film suitable for release, as they did with "A Serbian Film." This suggests that the Board viewed the entire film as beyond saving, existing solely for the sake of showcasing the extreme content. However, if Six argued that he had been trying to make an artistic statement instead of schlock, what then? Would his intentions count for anything?

Shock cinema has been around for ages, and gruesome sideshows long before that. This is just the newest variation. I'm not opposed to other viewers enjoying the wrongness of "Human Centipede II," but when a film's only purpose is to be creatively vile, I can't say I'm too upset to see the censors put their foot down. But when this kind of content moves beyond the realm of horror, and other filmmakers do more interesting things with it, which they inevitably will, then the BBFC's actions don't seem so justifiable. What happens when the next Kubrick comes along with the next "Clockwork Orange"?


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