No Urns Or Plinths: Tom Six, The BBFC and The Human Centipede 2 Censorship Debacle

I recently went along to Big Screen and had the pleasure of meeting Tom Six, the writer and director of The Human Centipede: First Sequence and now The Human Centipede: Full Sequence.

He’s been labelled a sicko, a weirdo, a freak and a pervert, but having met him I can only vouch for him being very pleasant to talk to, very passionate about filmmaking and with a wicked sense of humour. It’s possible, of course, that he’s a sick, weird, freakish pervert but if that’s the case then he hides it very well.

The main topic that was covered, both in the talk with Kim Newman and in the subsequent interviews, was the fact that The Human Centipede: Full Sequence, has been refused a certificate by the BBFC, meaning that it cannot be shown in cinemas or legally sold on DVD in this country.

To give this article some context, I should probably make some mention of my own reaction to The Human Centipede. When I first watched the trailer I was shocked at first, then fascinated, and after the third or fourth watch found the whole thing extremely funny. I thought the film was engaging, had some great acting in it (particularly from Akihiro Kitamura, who plays the front section of the centipede), good character development and some convincing special effects.

It doesn’t take too long to get past the central concept and once you do then you find yourself watching a pretty good horror film, no Citizen Kane but certainly a cut above the average schlock that comes out of Hollywood.

Similarly, when the BBFC posted their spoilerific and vitriolic lambast of the second film, my main concern was not with the torture sequences that they described, but simply whether the second film would be as good as the first. I suppose as a young British lady I should be swooning in my petticoats at the mere thought of people being sewn ass-to-mouth but obviously some crucial part of my biology has gone wrong because I actually find the idea quite interesting.

It should be noted that Britain is the only country in the world to have refused the film a certificate; even the Australian Classification Board, who are notoriously strict about the content that they allow and only last year lifted the ban on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, have agreed to release the film uncut in Australia.

Six mentioned that they’re meeting some resistance with the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft in Germany, but not that the film has been refused a German release. So what is in the film that the Americans, Australians, Germans and everyone else in the world can stomach but would apparently cause “real harm” to a British audience?

Well actually, the BBFC decided to reveal exactly what was in the film, somewhat ruining the shroud of mystery that Six had been building up around it. Their full statement can be read here, but if you haven’t yet been spoiled then I’d advise you to avoid it.

The BBFC statement is worrying on a few different levels. Firstly, the board have implied that their assessment of the films’ content is considered within a context, and that context seems to include how much they personally like the film. They describe the first human centipede film as “tasteless” and “disgusting” – highly emotive words that are better suited to a Roger Ebert review than an objective assessment (somewhat ironically, Roger Ebert also refused to give The Human Centipede a rating, saying, “The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine”).

The BBFC then go on to say that they passed the first film because it was “a relatively traditional and conventional horror film”. Is a film only then acceptable if it doesn’t attempt to do something new with the genre, or break new ground?

What is also interesting is that what the BBFC seem to have taken away most from the film is the sexual nature of the violence. They claim that the protagonist is:

sexually obsessed with a DVD recording of the first film … Whereas in the first film the ‘centipede’ idea is presented as a revolting medical experiment, with the focus on whether the victims will be able to escape, this sequel presents the ‘centipede’ idea as the object of the protagonist’s depraved sexual fantasy.

Tom Six refuted this claim, saying Martin’s initial obsession with the centipede is not sexual at all, and sex is a factor that only comes into play much later in the film. A very interesting article by David Cox in The Guardian also suggested that it’s the BBFC, and not Tom Six, who are obsessed with sexualising the human centipede.

Finally, it speaks volumes that the BBFC cites the Obscene Publications Act 1959 as the legislation by which they’re banning the film. I’d like to think that our definition of obscenity has changed to a certain degree since the Cold War, which means that perhaps the BBFC shouldn’t be citing as gospel a set of moral guidelines that were originally laid out in the Victorian era and haven’t been changed since the 60s. Strangely enough even the BBFC seemed to concede this as recently as last year. After conducting a survey of people’s views on censorship in the media, they found these results (bold mine):

Whilst respondents had very mixed ideas about film classification they agreed with two key principles; that films should continue to be classified and that there should be no censorship of film in a free and democratic society. In short, there was a great deal of support for the premise that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, providing it is legal.

(BBFC Guidelines, last updated June 2010, p. 38)

The BBFC’s worryingly subjective reasons for rejecting the film, not to mention the fact that they seem to have cherry-picked very small parts of the story in order to misrepresent the film as a whole, casts their integrity in quite a dubious light regarding this decision. We asked the BBFC to elaborate upon their reasons for rejecting the film, to respond to concerns that the rejection will merely publicise the film further and encourage people to download it illegally, and whether in the light of the strong public reaction and the filmmakers’ appeal there is a chance that they will reverse the decision.

The BBFC refused to comment.

A question that has cropped up frequently, not so much in the Bleeding Cool forums or on other film news sites, but certainly in the broader media coverage that this story has received, is this: “Why would anyone want to go and see a film like this anyway?” It’s a question that’s not unique to The Human Centipede, and in fact it’s one that the horror community is frequently confronted with. I know I’ve had to defend my love for horror movies on numerous occasions, much in the way that videogame fans have to defend their desire to shoot pensioners in the face with sawn-off shotguns or kill zombies with a chainsaw mounted on a paddle.

Ever since the early days of cinema, the horror genre has frequently been seen as somehow on a lower plane than the rest of film. More than once it’s been described as having no more artistic merit than pornography. It’s been pushed to the top shelves of video stores, dismissed as the reserve of stupid teenagers and adult weirdos. Depiction of sexual violence, as shown by the emphasis within the BBFC’s ruling, seems to be the greatest crime that a horror film may commit in the eyes of the prudish general public.

There’s no better example of this than Michael Powell’s 1960 horror film Peeping Tom, now considered by many to be a cinematic masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films of all time, but upon its release it ruined Powell’s then-prestigious reputation and destroyed his career. Not so much because it was about a man who films women as he murders them, but because he watches the films back later and gets off on it.

Incidentally, Pasolini’s Salò, which has a number of themes in common with The Human Centipede, was granted an uncut release by the BBFC in 2000, 23 years after its original submission. We understand that, given the almost arbitrary nature of the BBFC’s approach to classification, some readers may find themselves uncertain of what is acceptable and what is not in modern cinema. Therefore Bleeding Cool has come up with a comprehensive list of  ‘Cool’ and ‘Not Cool’ content based on the BBFC’s decisions in recent years.

Chopping up aborted foetuses, baking them into delicacies and feeding them to rich clients? That’s cool!

Cutting off someone’s feet with cheese wire? That’s cool!

Raping a woman and decapitating her with a machete halfway through the rape? That’s cool!

Real footage of animals being tortured to death for their fur? That’s cool!

Genocide? That’s cool!

Female genital mutilation? That’s cool!

Crushing a man’s testicles then wanking him off until he ejaculates blood? That’s cool!

Masturbating with sandpaper? Not cool.

Eating poo? Sometimes cool.

Apparently what it comes down to is a matter of whether or not the film has “artistic merit”, which is a bit of a wobbly concept in itself, and one is almost tempted to think that the BBFC are following the Fred Colon definition of artistic merit.

‘D’you know much about art, Nobby?’

‘If necessary, sarge.’

‘Oh come on, Nobby!’

‘What? Tawneee says what she does is Art, sarge. And she wears more clothes than a lot of the women on the walls in here, so why be sniffy about it?’

‘Yeah, but…’ Fred Colon hesitated here. He knew in his heart that spinning upside down around a pole wearing a costume you could floss with was definitely not Art, and being painted lying on a bed wearing nothing but a smile and a small bunch of grapes was good solid Art, but putting your finger on why this was the case was a bit tricky.

‘No urns,’ he said at last.

‘What urns?’ said Nobby.

‘Nude women are only Art if there’s an urn in it,’ said Fred Colon. This sounded a bit weak even to him, so he added, ‘or a plinth. Both is best, o’course. It’s a secret sign, see, that they put in to say it’s Art and okay to look at.’

‘What about a potted plant?’

‘That’s okay if it’s in an urn.’

- Thud, Terry Pratchett

For me, it comes down to this: I don’t find the content of The Human Centipede or the description of The Human Centipede: Full Sequence to be traumatic or harmful to my mental health simply because it’s not real. The human centipede is a construct in more ways than one. It’s fiction, a story, it’s medically inaccurate. Oh it’s probably extremely silly and grotesque and perhaps it will turn out to be absolute tripe, worse even than that Bratz movie (now there’s a film to turn your stomach), but I’ll never know unless I get the chance to see it.

As for the people who read the description published by the BBFC and cried out, “That’s disgusting and sick, there’s no way I would ever even want to see a movie like that” – those people have made an independent decision not to go and see a film that they think they’ll find offensive.

If anything, their ability to do that is a greater argument for a UK release than all the Human Centipede fans in the world clamouring to see the film.