Bigotry is a horrific octopus swimming in the deep waters of the English Channel, and now its arms have reached the shore. Likewise octopuses, bigoted people are extraordinarily adept at camouflage. The sea currents of 2016 have allowed them to show their mantle, their salivary glands, their gonads, their kidneys, their anal opening, and their ink sac. But unlike octopuses bigots don’t have three hearts. They have only one, and it is full of hate.
The last effect of bigotry comes in the shape of a brand new law. The Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 threatens “unconventional sex”. It all started as an excuse to implement age checks on pornographic web sites. The Bill has now cleared the House of Commons and will be soon under consideration in the House of Lords. This law could have a massive impact on artistic freedom. After all, how do you define unconventional sex? There is a lot of room for interpretation and misinterpretation.
The Digital Economy Bill empowers censors. Sites won’t just be fined, but they will be blocked right away. Internet has become an extension of what TV was some decades ago: it brings about mindset and cultural changes. If it’s not on TV, it doesn’t exist. Nowadays if something is not online, it’s almost as if it didn’t exist. So if unconventional sex is not online, then it doesn’t exist!
The British vice squad aka British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will block the filthy and unconventional websites. Traditionally, film and video releases in Britain are amongst the most tightly-regulated in the Western world. With only a few exceptions, every commercially-released film both in cinemas and on video is vetted by the BBFC, which was founded in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors. I wonder why they dropped the “censor” in favour of the more friendly “classification” – octopus camouflage?
The BBFC applies age-restrictive classifications and, in some cases, recommends cutting or altering the film in order to conform to their guidelines. On their website it is possible to access some case studies with plenty of background information. They are also available to clarify their decisions on the telephone. Some films and BBFC decisions were discussed in the news media, what works were complained about, and which ratings were praised. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1972) and Freaks (Top Browning, 1932) are remarkable examples of films under the knife. The latter is one of the 10 top dirtiest films of all times – read more about it here.
Below is a remarkable career-defining case study on censorship. The actions of the BBFC had a huge impact on Crash (David Cronenberg, 1997) and the director’s subsequent films.
Crash (1996) is the most audacious film made by Cronenberg. It was based on a J. G. Ballard’s eponymous book from the 1970s, a kind of punk text where the author stated his intention to invent a new form of pornography. Crash is a radical film that helped to established Cronenberg as a voice of the contra-sexuality. But in Britain he encountered fierce resistance from censors.
Crash deals with a fundamental issue: the relation between flesh and machine. Some of their characters have suffered car accidents and had their bodies modified. They have prosthetic limbs, or other technological elements give their bodies a new status. Scars here become erogenous zones. Rosanna Arquette’s character is a heroine: she is disabled and still fully sexual. Most importantly, she enjoys sex.
Cronenberg believes the BBFC was harsh on the film because he used mostly famous Hollywood actors. Westminster Council took the unprecedented step of threatening to ban it unless specific cuts were made, notably a sex scene involving a disabled woman. Tabloids like Daily Mail used words like “sex with cripples” on their review. After a long delay, the BBFC passed it uncut in March 1997, but it received a 18A classification. After which Westminster duly banned the film, with other local authorities following suit. The distributors were enabled to open the film in the West End. It was subsequently passed uncut for video and DVD release and screened on British TV in 2002.
It is also possible that censors were strict because the film depicted women enjoying themselves. British censors have bizarre notions of what is obscene. Facial ejaculation and male ejaculation are fine, but female ejaculation and fisting are banned. Although BBFC organised a special screening for disabled people and they loved it, censors suggested Cronenberg would have to add a voice-over because “some people got nervous”.
David Cronenberg declared during an interview to Serge Grünberg: “And what is pathetic about that are the attempts to find the reasons for censoring. I remember seeing this guy named John Bull like the symbolic character for Britain. This guy was on the council for Westminster, obviously not a very educated man, but he was talking about ‘road rage’. He was sure people would see this movie and then they would commit more road rage: they would jump out of their cars and beat each other. And then he went on to admit that he kind of liked the movie”.
In terms of budget, Crash was almost an independent film because Cronenberg’s previous movie, M. Butterfly (1993) flopped. So the implications of censorship on Cronenberg’s career were immediate. The filmmaker stated he never forgot being censored in Britain. “Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion”, he explains. People didn’t go to see his movies in the UK. The box office taking for his following movie, eXistenZ, with the English actor Jude Law, was just £90,564 (data on the weekend gross May 23rd 1999). This is compared to £3.384,948 earnings for the Matrix (Lana Wachwski, Lilly Wachowski) in just one weekend in Britain, and in the same year.
Both eXistenZ and Matrix portray virtual reality, but in Cronenberg when a character goes from reality to virtual reality there is no difference, whilst in Matrix this process is heavily emphasised. Miramax, that distributed the film, wanted Cronenberg to change these scenes, and again he refused. Cronenberg again challenged censorship in this movie in a scene in which he creates another body orifice. There is a moment when somebody puts a tongue into this new orifice and somebody else puts a finger.
In Crash, sex is a political act. A revolutionary and libertarian flag for freedom and pleasure. Cronenberg subverts the sexual episteme. The clash – or crash – is the liberation of energy and the libido.
If the Digital Economy Bill passes it will become even more difficult to show more audacious films online. An amendment to the 2003 Communications Act two years ago has already ensured strict censorship for DVD and VoD. And if the prudish crusade goes on, soon it could become impossible to make and to show films like Crash. Creative artists will have to practise increased self-censorship, and they could become less engaged with their original script ideas. It becomes an act of self-sabotage, as they could abandon their projects. An artist can never be castrated. Such censorship is an illegitimate appropriation of carnal expression.
The picture at the top of the article is Kathleen Turner on a promotional poster of John Water’s 1994 classic ‘Serial Mum’