Insect flak

You’ll have heard that the sequel to gross-out horror movie The Human CentipedeHuman Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) – has been refused certification by the British Board of Film Classification. Where does this leave a prudish liberal like me, eh? I am, in the marrow of my bones, against artistic censorship. I believe in free expression, and for free expression to be placed in the public arena where it may be judged, or ignored, by the public, in context, as long as no animal or human being was harmed in its making. At the same time, I find the subject matter of The Human Centipede and its sequel – and the gleeful exploitation of that subject matter – revolting and obscene, and I believe that its squalid place in the “torture porn” pantheon represents an irreversible coarsening of our culture, and I’m glad the BBFC isn’t letting them get away with it. Confused? I certainly am.

I had an angry letter published in the Radio Times in 1988 when BBC2 aired one of cinema’s greatest works Apocalypse Now and presented a butchered version, in which the word “fuck” was painstakingly removed or dubbed over – such that anyone who, like me, had pretty much memorised the whole film (we all did that, right?) would feel each snip like a knife to the ribs. This, I pointed out in my letter, was a film about the horror of war, and one of the “fucks” they excised was the one in Colonel Kurtz’s speech where he bemoans the fact that the US military won’t allow its pilots to write “fuck” on the side of their aeroplanes and yet they train them to drop fire on people. This irony was, I suggested, lost on the BBC’s moral guardians. (Needless to say, another reader wrote in to complain about my letter and accused me of getting off on hearing curse words. Cunt.)

I watched the first part of BBC3’s surprisingly good reality show about the war in Afghanistan, Our War (no, Your War), based on actual helmet-camera footage from on the ground with the 1 Royal Anglian regiment, and it effectively showed the death, in April 2007, of 19-year-old Private Chris Gray. Now, clearly his family had given consent, and appeared on camera, and it was sensitively framed and contextualised, and indeed acted as a moving memorial to another young life snatched by war, but some would argue that the BBC should not broadcast a soldier’s death (it occurred in the dusty confusion of an ambush but you saw his dead body being carried away), and that the Ministry of Defence should not have released the footage. I disagree in this case. This is not presented as snuff; it’s a human story with a human message. A similar argument – political, ideological and moral – can be had about whether we have a “right” to see footage, or photographs, of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. At present, those images are censored. But they are not artistic.

In 1988, a young man in the first real heat of ideological indignance, I likened cutting the “fucks” from Apocalypse Now, which was shown long after the watershed, to cutting pieces out of the canvas of the Mona Lisa. I still believe that. And the nasty makers of The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) – in which a pervert masturbates with sandpaper over a DVD of the first Human Centipede film in a metatextual masterstroke – plan to appeal the BBFC’s verdict. They may yet cut a few seconds here and there in order to win a certificate. This happens all the time. It happened to the apparently rather unpleasant A Serbian Movie last year, which won its release.

The BBFC were very clear about why they have effectively banned The Human Centipede 2: their report heavily criticised the film as making “little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience” and that the film was potentially in breach of the Obscene Publications Act, meaning its distribution in the UK would be illegal. The BBFC actually said that “no amount of cuts would allow them to give it a certificate”. So, we may never legally see this film. (I managed to get my hands on a pirate video copy of A Clockwork Orange and saw that while it was still banned. And this was before the Internet.)

However – and I’m as guilty as anybody for adding to the chatter – The Human Centipede 2 is now the most famous film in the world. Even people who hadn’t noticed the first one have heard of it now. The BBFC have, with the best intentions, made it a cause celebre. Imagine how alluring it will be, especially among teenage boys, now that it’s forbidden fruit!

I suspect I will never see it, either way. I don’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see The Human Centipede, and easily avoided doing do. I watched the trailer and it made me feel ill. So should they actually ban the sequel? The idealist within me says no. If it causes a sick person to do something sick, why should art be censored for everybody else on account of that one sick person? This is a murky area, I know, as I hated the bit in episode two of BBC2’s incredible drama The Shadow Line where Rafe Spall appears to drown a cat. He didn’t really. I don’t imagine a cat was harmed – although a real one walked away looking pretty wet, and they hate being wet – but I really worry that some idiot somewhere will copy what they saw on TV. People can be incredibly stupid, and I genuinely believe that people have never been as stupid as they are now. But can we censor everything because of stupid people? (I’m hoping that The Shadow Line is so intelligent, very few stupid people will have still been watching by episode two.)

If you think I’m going to provide an answer to this dilemma, I’m not. But I’d like to talk about it.


18 thoughts on “Insect flak

  1. It’s a tricky moral dilemma and I feel as conflicted as you seem to be. I am generally against censorship, I believe in artistic freedom of expression. But the thought of The Human Centipede (let alone an even nastier sounding sequel) makes me sick to my stomach.

    I have no answers either, other than to agree with you that there is a definite conflict of ideals here. That said, regardless of what happens, I will not be watching that film.

  2. I don’t know if it’s been done already but it would be interesting to get statements from the writer, director, actors and financiers explaining WHY they made it.

    I agree that censorship is an ugly word in art but I always can’t help but ask the WHY question first. Some controversial films, paintings, photography exhibitions, novels are challenging but they raise questions and challenge people to think differently. But with all this torture porn where is the justification for pushing the boundaries apart from shock and controversy-drenched publicity?

    • Director of both films Tom Six told Empire Online, “Apparently I made an horrific horror-film, but shouldn’t a good horror film be horrific? … It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-belief. It is art. Give people their own choice to watch it or not. If people can’t handle or like my movies they just don’t watch them.” Make of that what you will.

  3. . I giggled at your line about “metatextual masterstroke” but it seems to me worrying that a film that tries – however hamfistedly – to make parodic points from the discourse around censorship is considered qualitatively inferior to “normal” torture porn. And if the BBFC *are* drawing a line in the sand does that not suggest that HC2, rather than being judged ‘objectively’ on its own ‘merits’, is being punished for the decade worth glut of torture porn? The BBFC’s : ““little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience” has all sorts of ideologically fraught assumptions. Serial killers and the like necessarily have a pretty dehumanised view of people; why shouldn’t filmmakers be allowed to explore such povs? I never saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer either, but it did sound a hell of a lot more serious and interesting than Nightmare on Elm Street slasher garbage. And wouldn’t many a feminist critic say that the characters in the original Human Centipede, a number of slasher movies generally (not to mention ‘normal’ pornography?) are still essentially portrayed as “objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated”? Presumably HC2 could have avoided banning if it had some tokenistic attempts at characterisation; hardly reflective of the BBFC operating from a fine moral position. And wouldn’t the hypothetical sickos *prefer* torture porn that seemingly featured real women who then proceeded to suffer horribly? The predominance of (staged) “real girl” porn on the internet is hardly less objectifying or worrying than the flagged-up artificiality of traditional porn stars.

    Good points about Apocalypse Now. It’s tempting to think that today’s representative advocates of censorship would of course say that past attempts to ban, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover are ridiculous but Something Must Be Done about the obscenities of torture porn. That would be a mistake. In my experience, conservative critics are more prone to take a “told you so!”position i.e. if we *had* banned D.H. Lawrence (and Joyce?) we wouldn’t now have to tolerate extreme pornography. I’d be wary about making common cause with that view – not least as it could be argued that something could be art *and* lead to a coarsening of our culture. Who decides what’s art anyway? The contemporary heirs of Mary Whitehouse who are most happy about this ban are the same people who tried to ban Kubrick and Scorcese ( and don’t we get, at some points at least, into the head and pov of the disturbed head of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver?)

    Alternatively: I’d feel better about culture if people had to choice to watch Human Centipede 2, and chose not to, rather than trusting the BBFC, Magisterium style, to make meaningful moral and aeshtetic distinctions amongst varieties of torture porn.

  4. I feel no ambivalence about this issue at all. The film has a right to be released and shown to adults who choose to view it. It’s hard to get as indignant as it once was at the BBFC, as since the rise of the internet (and the coincidental retirement of former arch dictator James Fuhrman) they have sensibly confined the cuts they make to the concrete facts of whether the film contains the transgression of actual laws such as animal cruelty (which I fully endorse) and are at long last passing the films uncut they previously erroneously sanitized.

    There is no suggestion that any offence has been committed in the production of this film. However distasteful the subject matter may be, all the actors and production crew involved were consenting adults who were paid for their work and performances and have given their permission for it to be shown. The BBFC are banning this on the basis of how a film *could* be interpreted by the film’s completely amorphous and unquantifiable audience – something for which it is utterly impossible to legislate.

    Ultimately, I think it should have been passed if only to stem the interest in ‘banned’ or infamous titles but I’m not going to lose much sleep over it either way. People will easily be able to import a DVD from, not to mention torrents, and cut out the middle man altogether if they’re so inclined.

  5. As always a good read Andrew.
    I am way out of my depth regarding any discussion on artistic freedom and censorship however I did watch Our War and for those who didn’t see there were plenty of audible “fucks” and “cunts”. On a tiny, tiny issue I disagree with your renaming it Your War. I think I understand the point you are making but as it is filmed by the soldiers involved on helmet-camera and I would not deny them a level of ownership of the events. As you say it was a human story with a human message and did not look at the political issues except to give context.


    • If the soldiers say Our War, then it is Their War. If I say Our War, it is no different to me using the phrase Our Boys, which I refrain from doing. I do not own the Boys, and I do not own the War. (It’s a sort of pedantic, tiresome point, but having marched against the war in question and having been ignored by my government, I object to be lumped in with those that support it.)

  6. Banning a film in this day and age truly is pointless. As you said, in the past it was still possible to get your hands on supposedly unavailable material, usually in the form of a grainy 10th generation VHS copy passed furtively amongst friends, but, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, all it now takes is 5 seconds of typing and a mouse-click, and an hour later you’re watching a DVD quality copy. All banning does is reinforce the idea, however untrue, that the BBFC is still full of fuddy-duddy old men tutting at how much ankle girls are allowed to show nowadays.

    How the BBFC are able to differentiate between HC2 and, say, the Hostel films is beyond me. Both of those films feature, in graphic detail, sociopaths paying money to torture other people for their sadistic pleasure, be it via a blowtorch to the face, or slitting a woman’s throat and writhing orgasmically in the crimson downpour that follows in an Elizabeth Báthory stylee, and both of those films were passed completely uncut.

    What’s the world coming to when a person isn’t allowed to legally masturbate with sandpaper to a video of somebody masturbating with sandpaper while watching a video of members of a human centipede being forced to defecate into one another’s mouths, ending with a man wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the rear of the centipede? It’s political correctness gone mad!

  7. Re copycat issue. I would imagine that whilst a person might copy a heinous act from an artwork, the motive to do so lies without that artwork. So censoring the artwork just means a different heinous act is carried out, rather than being prevented entirely.

  8. I’ve never felt comfortable with the concept of a ‘greater power’ being out there telling us what we can and can’t watch. Of course there needs to be a body to classify films, but to ban them outright?

    No. Of course not.

    Clockwork Orange is a good example, banned for so many years in this country (although readily available via imported or hooky VHS tapes), and yet, it’s actually a great film. Why then had the BBFC hid it from us for so long?

    I’m sure HC2 isn’t a Kuberick-esque masterpiece, but we should have the choice as to whether we see it or not. People will know what to expect, just as they know what to expect from a Saw sequel, or a Hostel sequel, something darker, meaner and more disgusting than the last..

    With regards to fear of ‘copycats’ I think it’s fair to say that bad people will always do horrific things, they don’t need a film to give them the ideas. I’m sure there wasn’t a film about flying planes into the World Trade Centre, or keeping your daughter locked in a basement for most of her life, and systematically raping and torturing her. Evil people will generally be evil without seeing it in a film.

    Release the film and let the viewing public and critics decide it’s fate.

    • A Clockwork Orange was never banned in the UK. It was passed uncut by the BBFC with an X rating, but quickly withdrawn from circulation by Warner Brothers following a request by Kubrick himself after it apparently inspired some real-life ultra-violence, not to mention the multiple death threats received against himself and his family. So, it was never actually banned, just unavailable. That’s why it suddenly reappeared here shortly after the director’s death.

      Also, although not a film, check out the pilot episode of The X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen. The finale? Terrorists steal a plane and try to fly it into the World Trade Centre. It was broadcast over 6 months before the actual event, so probably would have been written a year or so before that. Coincidence? Well, yes, obviously, (as I very much doubt Al Qaeda were working in the script department at Fox), albeit a creepily prescient one.

      My point is that, no, psychopaths and deviants don’t require any external stimulus to give them their ideas. And that some writers are clearly psychopaths and deviants. That isn’t a bad thing though. Better out than in, as the old adage states.

  9. Leave aside the assumption that this film is pornography with no artistic merit. Leave aside the question of the exploitation of actors, and of the target audience.

    If you can think of any reason why the finished film should not be seen by any adult who wants to see it, then you are acknowledging that there is a justification for censorship.

    Personally I don’t care that the film has been “banned” because I believe it is pornography, and I don’t believe the makers have any intent other than to exploit. As causes to fight for go, the right to wank over scenes of torture is some way down my list. Especially when actual torture is on that list. If they want to change that impression, they’re welcome to start trying. Maybe they could make a documentary about it. Not much of a market for that, but that’s not the point is it?

    I’m only going on what you’ve said in this blog entry, which is that the film is effectively currently “banned” because the BBFC say that legally they can’t give it a certificate. That’s because they believe it’s legally obscene. That’s a legal judgement. The law is set by Parliament. We populate Parliament. Yes, it’s a simplistic view – perhaps an utterly naive one – but the BBFC aren’t telling us that we can’t see this film; they’re telling us that according to the rules that we have given them, this film cannot be shown.

    • Thank god, someone with some bloody common sense.

      One thread said:

      ..something for which it is utterly impossible to legislate.

      and that is where you are completely wrong. It is very easy to legislate. Go and read the Obscene Publication’s Act. Enforcement is another issue – I am sure there will be many pirated copies out there. Also law is intepreted by its very nature which is why it is possible to ‘legislate’ for anything.

      As to a ‘right to be released’, all i can say to that is poppycock. With rights comes responsibility, it matters not whether the adults ‘consented’ or were ‘paid’ that is completely beside the point. On the one hand you are complaining that the BBFC (a group of people) are making a decision on what they want us to see and yet you see no conflict with the fact that another group of people (the film crew and actors) are also making a decision on what we should see in this film.

      As to whoever said that is pointless to ban a film in this day and age is also wrong. The implication being that just because it is this day and age that we no longer have any morals or mores or understand the difference (or care, which is more worrying if that is his beef) than we did 10, 20 50 or 1000 years ago.

      I don’t think Dave your view is naive, I think actually it is the least ‘lazy’ view on this thread (Andrew’s accepted) and at least has some constructiveness about it.

      While I know that Richard Herring was being provocative I think he has it spot on on the Podcast – Nazis Masturbating over beheaded Jews shouting Hitler was right etc. Should something like that be allowed? No of course not.

      Also to quote another line from Richard Herring ‘grow up’.

  10. I don’t think that The Human Centipede has any artistic merit but I accept the right of people to make their own minds up and “censor the film” by not going to see it. I read that The Lovely Bones received most complaints for its certificate last year, and remembered the number of critics who moaned that they didn’t get to see Saoirse Ronan’s character beaten up, raped and murdered in the film. It beggars belief that liberal critics can find such a complex way of requesting to see something repulsive. The film wasn’t about rape and murder it was about loss and being in between heaven and Earth (as I recall – it was a long time ago).

    • From where I was sitting, Tim, it wasn’t critics of The Lovely Bones demanding to see the central character beaten up and raped, but complaining about the fact that Peter Jackson had prettified the novel and glossed over some of its nastier aspects. I hadn’t read the book, so had no idea. I certainly thought the film was pretty insipid and airy-fairy. Don’t fall into the trap of labelling critics who complained about the film’s lack of grit as voyeuristic sadistic perverts.

  11. Fair enough, and I wasn’t making that label at all. As with you, I expect, there are critics I like and critics I don’t. But when you have critics who question why a film is even made in the first place, and when you have a review of TLB that doesn’t even mention the quality of Stanley Tucci’s performance ( you have a critic who’s not reviewing the film, he’s complaining about its existence and the Director’s interpretation of the source material. I know it’s all caught up in the auteur theory of film-making but as an ensemble piece about death from the point of view of a teenage girl I thought the film was really very good.

    And I always liked when you presented Back Row!

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