Friday, 19 November 2010

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

Jake West, 2010. BBFC rating: 18.

The BBFC, which certifies TV and film into age appropriate categories, doesn't have much of an impact on the watching habits of most adults in this country these days. Although it refused Grotesque an 18 certificate last year, anyone with an interest was able to acquire a digital copy with little effort. It also refused certificates to two other films: NF713 and My Daughter's a Cocksucker were rejected for, respectively, eroticising sexual torture and 'being likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity'. Regardless of your views on censorship in general, these reasons are at least thoughtful and serious.

This seems to be the case for most, if not all, the BBFC's recent decisions. Often they exhibit a wry sense of humour, as in this excerpt from their most recent annual report:
Despite the widespread media coverage of our decision to classify Lars von Trier’s Antichrist ‘18’ with no cuts, we only received 10 complaints. The film was described by correspondents as an “abomination”, “pornographic” and “common trash”. All the comments were made in response to the media coverage; none of the complainants had actually seen the film. Indeed, there was some confusion about the actual nature of the film, with some people believing it to be a film about religion or Jesus Christ.
Anyone who speaks fluent bureaucratese will see the grin and sneer suppressed beneath this polite choice of words. I highly recommend reading the report in full (pdf) - it's full of this sort of thing, particularly delightful when describing the complaints received from teenagers about decisions to certify games and films at 18, and is in any case a fascinating insight into film classification and censorship.

The fact that the complaints about Antichrist were made by people who had not even bothered to research the film's content, much less see it, should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the moral panic about video nasties in the early 1980s. As Video Nasties explains, the moral panic may have been spurious, ill-informed and hysterical, but the distributors of the films in question didn't help themselves. By rebranding Day of the Woman as I Spit on Your Grave (admittedly evocative, though not of the film's contents), they were appealing to paternalistic politicians along with excitable teens. Mary Whitehouse and The Daily Mail went through the roof and survey statistics were deliberately misinterpreted and put to good use in lies fed to the public and Parliament.

Moralisers and politicians working together behind closed doors soon led to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, which required the BBFC to certify any video recording before it could be legally distributed, and the director of public prosecutions compiled a list of films thought to breach obscenity laws - the soon-to-be-infamous list of video nasties.

Video Nasties is rare as a documentary that allows those with opposing views to defend themselves. Alongside the talking heads of academics and producers of modern horror movies sit interviews with and clips of contemporaneous footage of those who opposed the video nasties. The director of public prosecutions and the MP who introduced the Act remenisce about and are clearly proud of the roles they played. The forces of good don't need to lie to make the other side look bad; they're perfectly capable of doing that for themselves, and the story speaks for itself.

It's not often I complain about a film being too short, but this documentary is only 70-odd minutes long and it seems a shame they didn't say more about ongoing controversies, a brief mention of the controversy surrounding A Serbian Film aside. (Of which more should be expected soon, as the movie is slated for a theatrical release in December. Expect Christopher Tookey to hit the roof.) Regardless, anyone interested in video nasties should buy this DVD boxset quickly, before the limited run of 5000 sells out. They should also check out the Video Nasty Project.

The documentary ends with the grim prediction that the current lack of online censorship - of youtube and the like - will likely one day seem distant and utopic, and a reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. All it takes is The Daily Mail to write a couple of stories spuriously linking a horrible crime or manufactured teenage trend to a subset of films for our politicians to blindly grasp for the parchment. Recent reactions to drug policy critics demonstrate that they cannot be trusted to seek evidence or balance before speaking or legislating. Is it too optimistic to predict they'd have a tougher time stamping on creative and expressive freedom in the age of web 2.0? I hope not.

Packaged with another two DVDs featuring trailers for each of the 72 video nasties, along with introductions by academics and filmmakers as well as a series of postcards featuring lurid promotional artwork, Video Nasties is a great coffee table item as well as an essential reference for these era-defining films.

Cross-posted to D-Notice.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Social Network

David Fincher, 2010. BBFC rating: 12A.

I'm sure there are few people who don't know that this film is about the origins and subsequent legal disputes over the ownership of facebook. Mark Zuckerberg created the website at Harvard in 2004, with the financial help of a friend and some creative help (or so this film assumes) unwittingly provided by a trio of upper class jocks. Zuckerberg is played by Jesse Eisenberg, the likeable lead from Zombieland. As such, although he's frequently gauche and occasionally a bit of a tit, 'Zuckerberg' seems largely likeable. It's unclear how similar 'Zuckerberg' is to Zuckerberg. And that's the only downside to a fast-paced, dialogue-heavy movie: I would much have preferred to know that what I was watching was a close approximation to the truth - though, for reasons the postscript explains, that truth is valuable and closely guarded. Facebook is so much a part of most of our lives that its origins are bound to be a subject of curiosity. But, even taken largely as a work of fiction, The Social Network is well worth seeing. It's not a cinematic movie, though, so one to add to the rental list rather than struggling to see it before it leaves the big screen.


Philip Ridley, 2010. BBFC rating: 18.

I hadn't realised when watching it on bluray recently that Heartless only came out this year - a British horror film that, like Salvage, had a home video release date only days after its theatrical release. It's set, from what I could tell, around London's Commercial Street and the backroads of Bethnal Green (quiet streets meandering around and under railway arches) and lit in a tungsten orange that works so much better than the same colour scheme does in Let Me In

Jamie is a 25 year old photographer who seems to work in a family firm. He lives with his mother and reveres his late father, also a photographer, who's played by Timothy Spall. In looks and in some respects in character, he's like an older, less confident Donnie Darko. That lack of confidence he attributes to the large heart-shaped birthmark on his face. His home streets of east London are plagued with violent gangs of hooded and masked young men - a not dissimilar world from that portrayed in last year's utterly depressing Harry Brown - according to the media. But Jamie knows better - these are not humans, but demons. And extremely effective, chilling demon faces they have too - these are not the friendly or stupid monsters of Buffy and the like.

I'd suggest watching it without knowing too much of what comes next, but suffice it to say Jamie is led into extreme darkness, seduced by its opportunities and attempting to dodge complicity. He also sees a chance to obtain love and happiness with Tia, an aspiring model played by Clémence Poésy (who was Fleur Delacour in the fourth Harry Potter film). But this is a horror movie, not a romance. It explores good and evil, free will and its absence, the visual nature of beauty, and the despair of being powerless. And if that makes it sound like a load of pretentious old tosh, don't worry - it isn't.

Heartless has not, however, been universally revered. The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes demonstrate the fairly extreme divide between those who loved it and those who didn't. Even Ben Austwick, with whom I normally agree entirely, slates it. I can't say I understand the negative coverage it received, but I can tell you that it reminded me of films and books I love, and maybe that'll go some way to suggesting its appeal. As well as Harry Brown  and Donnie Darko, Heartless strongly put me in mind of Irvine Welsh's experimental novel Marabou Stork Nightmares and this year's British indie movie Skeletons. It evokes some of the visceral dread conjured by the likes of Antichrist and A Serbian Film. And it has the sad beauty of the tender moments in a Gaspar Noé movie - the siblings playing together in Enter the Void, or Monica Belluci reading in the sunshine at the end of Irréversible.

And the thing that really sold me on Heartless: it's a film that has devils and demons alongside guns and gangsters, and pulls it off without selling either aspect short. Daniel Stamm and Eli Roth, take note - here's how to make a realist film with supernatural elements that doesn't alienate its audience. I really can't say enough good things about Heartless. It must be one of the five or six best films of the year. If you live in the UK, rent it. If you live in the States, you're in luck - it premieres there tomorrow.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Let Me In

Matt Reeves, 2010. BBFC rating: 15.

I've been both excited about and dreading Let Me In, the English-language remake of Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, that modern classic which I loved and which real critics - as well as I - thought was the best film of 2009.

The story is the same. A bullied and lonely 12-year-old boy - called Owen rather than Oskar in this version - befriends an odd local child, apparently a girl of the same age, though as a vampire neither her sex nor her age are quite what they seem. They slowly grow fond of each other, though Abby's time in Owen's neighbourhood is limited: her necessity for blood means she and her cohabitee, an older man with whom she has a complex relationship, leave a trail.

The first thing that really struck me about Let Me In was the colour. Where Let the Right One In is shot in brilliant white light, Let Me In glows faintly orange. It's the same as the difference between the tungsten and flourescent settings on a camera's white balance. And one of the things that made Let the Right One In so special for me was its visuals, the contrast between the pure white snow and the occasional flashes of colour when ruby red blood drips onto it, or a rubix cube is foregrounded against it. This contrast is lost in the remake.

There are other problems, for me, with this new version. Abby - though well played by Chloë Moretz, who was Hit Girl in Kick-Assseems slightly too old, when compared to Eli, and she also lacks Eli's other-wordly qualities. Many of the key scenes are very similar to, but never better than, the original. The audience is spoon-fed the story and the nature of the vampire's life is revealed in ways that were only hinted at in the stark, fill-in-the-blanks narrative of the original. Similarly, the soundtrack gives the audience a bit too much, and is a little irritating at times - though it works well in the tense and dramatic scenes, it feels intrusive in the slower, quiter scenes.

Although I'm comparing it entirely negatively with the original, Let Me in isn't a bad film - considered on its own it's a very good film indeed, though it's hard to know how the experience would differ for someone who had not seen the original - but it's simply superfluous. There'd be no point owning this inferior remake because when it came to rewatching, you'd pick Let the Right One In every time.