Here is my letter to Christopher Hart
Dear Mr Hart
As a long-standing film fan, and someone with an interest in all sorts of cinema – the extreme included, I read your article concerning Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with interest. I’ve been anticipating this film for some time, and will be seeing it (and reviewing it for my website) on Friday. To say that I disagree with your article would be to put it extremely mildly.
In fact I feel that the only way to really address all of my problems with your argument is to examine it point by point. Throughout this article I have quoted your original article in bold type in block quotes and presented my own arguments in normal type.
If you have any thoughts to offer on what I have said in this email then I would be most pleased to hear from you by email and I will, of course, post any such exchange on my website.
CH: They [The BBFC] have given the film an 18 certificate. As we all know, this is meaningless nowadays in the age of the DVD because sooner or later, thanks to the gross irresponsibility of some parents, any film that is given general release will be seen by children.
SAM: Of course there are irresponsible parents, always have been, always will be. Is this really reason enough to restrict the freedoms of ALL adults? Certificates aren’t meaningless; most parents use them wisely and make sure that their kids don’t see things they shouldn’t, and even if kids do, for example, steal Dad’s Basic Instinct DVD when he’s out, there are easy ways to implement a parental lock system on almost any DVD player. Furthermore, if certificates are, as you suggest, meaningless, why use them at all? This sounds almost like an argument for opening the floodgates - “Certificates are meaningless, so let’s just forget it”. I assume you don’t favour that and, anti censorship though I am, nor do I. I believe in giving people an informed choice, and this what BBFC are doing.
If we do use the fact that some parents are irresponsible to allow encroachments on the freedoms of even responsible adults the question has to become ‘where does it end’? Should FHM be pulled from shelves so tall 14 year olds can’t see it? Should we embrace wide-ranging censorship of the internet? Should every gallery and museum exhibition be vetted before being opened to the public? Once we dip a toe in the waters of censorship we are quite liable to fall in, and end up with a very staid, dull society for our trouble.
CH: You do not need to see Lars von Trier's Antichrist (which is released later this week) to know how revolting it is.
SAM: Yes I do, and so do you.
CH: I haven't seen it myself, nor shall I - and I speak as a broad-minded arts critic, strongly libertarian in tendency. But merely reading about Antichrist is stomach-turning, and enough to form a judgment.
SAM: By saying you haven’t seen the film for whose censorship or banning you are calling, you immediately lose all credibility in the argument. Reading about it may be enough for you to form a judgment that you don’t want to see it, but given that film is an experience that is audiovisual in nature you can’t possibly gain that experience from reading about it. The two experiences are not even remotely similar.
First of all most of what has been written about Antichrist emphasises only its most sensational moments; this is similar to the way that Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE was written about prior to its release – the focus put on one admittedly disturbing sequence which took up less than a tenth of the film’s running time. If you are getting all your information about Antichrist merely by reading about it there is a very good chance that you are being forced to focus more on the film’s sensational aspects than you would be when actually watching the film.
Secondly, the dry nature of words, in black and white on a printed page, can give little idea of the context in which a film uses its imagery. Nor can they easily communicate the atmosphere a film creates, how the cinematography, the soundtrack, the performances and the editing work together to create a world for us to enter. This process may increase or lessen the impact of the sexual and the gore scenes in Antichrist, but you can’t comment on them and certainly you can’t call for them to be banned or censored without understanding their purpose and how they are presented.
A good example of this is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one of the most violent films I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen the uncut Cannibal Holocaust). If I were to say “There’s a film that the BBFC have passed at 18 that is just two hours of torture. This guy gets whipped, beaten, flayed, stabbed and then nailed to a cross, where he dies a slow and painful death”, that sounds like a film that you might want banned. It sounds like a film a great deal of moral crusaders would want banned, only in this case most made an exception, because of the context of the violence. Now, if that has to be taken into consideration in one case it has to be taken into consideration in all cases, doesn’t it?
CH: As Ernest Hemingway said of obscenity in a justifiably disgusting image, you don't need to eat a whole bowl of scabs to know they're scabs.
SAM: Bad analogy. You can tell exactly what the next scab will be like because they are all scabs; they are all the same. Films are not all the same, thus they all need to be assessed on their own qualities. This is why we have the BBFC; they assess films on their individual qualities, and further the individual qualities of each shot.
CH: A couple are having sex. Graphically close-up. While they are doing so, their toddler falls to his death from a balcony. The husband and wife go to stay in a log cabin to recover from their grief. There, horrors the likes of which I have never witnessed unfold in graphic detail. Eventually, the husband strangles her and escapes through the woods, where he is surrounded by hundreds of children with blurred faces. The end.
SAM: Interesting that you note ‘horrors the likes of which I’ve never witnessed’. Indeed, you haven’t witnessed them, again rendering your points essentially pointless. I’ve read plot summaries of Antichrist too, and I can copy them out too. This synopsis is from respected and scholarly film magazine Sight and Sound.
Sight and Sound: Seattle, the present. A couple, He and She, are making love in their apartment when their infant son Nic falls to his death through the open window. One month later, She is in hospital, suffering from atypical grief. The husband, a therapist, decides to treat her himself, taking her home and stopping her medication. She attempts to distract herself with sex, but he refuses, preferring talking therapies. When she admits to him that the place she most fears is their mountain cabin, Eden, where she spent the previous summer, he insists that she face her fears by going there. At Eden he subjects her to a process of painful psychological treatment. In the cabin’s attic he discovers research she had collected for her abandoned thesis on gynocide. She admits that she dropped the project after coming to believe that women may deserve the evil committed against them. He confronts her with evidence that she had been deliberately putting Nic’s shoes on the wrong feet. She attacks him, knocking him out and bolting a millstone through his leg. He escapes, but she finds him and attempts to bury him alive. The next morning she unearths him, still alive, and they return to the cabin where she performs a cliteroidectomy on herself. He manages to remove the millstone. After a final battle he strangles her, then burns her corpse on a bonfire. He hikes down the mountain, away from Eden.
That reads like a different film to the one you describe, because it isn’t selective, because it has context, and, frankly, because it’s written by someone who has seen the film. It doesn’t shy from the details (as you do, perhaps because you only half know them) but it gives you the shape of the entire story and allows you to see that there is more to the film than its sexual and violent scenes. The experience of watching it may be like your synopsis, it may be like Sight and Sound’s, it is likely to be unlike either, but you are still speaking of something of which you have too little knowledge, and are determined to sensationalise.
CH: Now the anonymous moral guardians of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), in their infinite wisdom, have passed this foul film for general consumption.
SAM: They have not passed it for general consumption. That would mean that anyone could see Antichrist and that’s just not the case. It has been passed at 18, for adult consumption. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, at 12A, has been passed for general consumption.
As for the ‘anonymous’ point, specifically as it relates to Antichrist at least, I thought journalists were supposed to do research. I am not a professional journalist, but with one Google search and three clicks of the mouse I found a BBFC press release announcing the passing of Antichrist which tells us: “The film was seen by the Director, David Cooke, the President, Sir Quentin Thomas and Vice President, Gerard Lemos”. So, here are the names of the three top men at BBFC, and we find out that the board took this film seriously enough to have them make up the panel that examined it, not something that happens as a matter of routine.
Furthermore, there are contact numbers listed for press officer Sue Clark, with whom I have had a great deal of polite disagreement in the past via email, and other press officers, including an out of hours mobile number. You may not know the names of the individual examiners (so that they are not hounded by either pro or anti censorship campaigners, which seems reasonable to me) but this is hardly the setup of some faceless, unaccountable organization. Nor is the fact, curiously unmentioned in your article, that all BBFC decisions are based on guidelines revised every four years after extensive public consultation. I took part, along with 8700 others, in the consultation to produce this years revised guidelines, which are actually more restrictive than they have been in the past. Curious, really, that you pass over this fact.
CH: Another bizarre but typical judgment from this panel of experts whose names we don't even know (and so we don't even know if they are parents). We do know that its president, Sir Quentin Thomas, gets £28,000 for 25 days' work a year. Nice job if you can get it.
SAM: Except in this case we do know their names. It appears you do too, look, you named one of them. As for Quentin Thomas’ salary, yes, that’s a lot of money. It’s funded by the film companies who submit to BBFC, which is a non-profit self-sustaining body, and has been since 1912. How much are you paid, and where does that money come from?
CH: In a jaded and degraded culture, Antichrist is presumably intended to shock. In fact, it doesn't shock, it merely nauseates.
SAM: Look, I hate to harp on a point, but how on earth do you know that Antichrist "doesn’t shock, it merely nauseates" without seeing the film for yourself? You’re a film critic; see it and then comment, that’s how this job works.
CH: It doesn't shock or surprise me in the slightest that Europe now produces such pieces of sick, pretentious trash, fully confirming our jihadist enemies' view of us as a society in the last stages of corruption and decay.
SAM: Passing over the ‘see it before commenting’ argument, what the holy hell does any of this have to do with jihadists? Even if you seriously believe that Antichrist is evil and profane enough to inspire such vitriol against us, that means you think that art has the power to make these jihadists act against us. If you believe that doesn’t it also follow that the beautiful, meaningful art that is produced by our culture should have the power to stop them acting against us, to make them say ‘we can’t destroy a society that produces this’. This is clearly not the case. What you are just as clearly doing here is trying to shoehorn in some gratuitous Islamic panic where it has no place or purpose. Grow up.
CH: It doesn't surprise me that Antichrist was heavily subsidised by the Danish Film Institute to the tune of 1.5 million euros.
I tried to find out more from the Institute, but to my small surprise they disdained to reply. But you can be sure that they in turn are funded by the EU and so by my taxes - and yours.
How do you feel about that? If not shocked, then weary, furious, disgusted? Well you can complain all you like, but no one is listening. Our arts mandarins, along with the rest of our lofty liberal elite, don't work like that.
Their job is to take our money and spend it on such fashionable torture porn - sorry, art - not ask us our opinion.
SAM: You didn’t try very hard to find out about the Danish Film Institute; okay they didn’t write back to you, but they’ve got an extensive English language website. This site includes a powerpoint presentation about their funding activities, as well as a long list of the projects they’ve funded. Even if Antichrist isn’t to your taste it’s hardly typical. There’s Love and Rage, about a jealous relationship between two young lovers. Hush Little Baby, a teen road movie about four girls looking to kick their drug habits. There’s Zoomers, a kids movie about two ten year olds who spy on their school so they can do better in their classes. It’s not as if these bodies aren’t funding movies for you, it’s just that they also fund some that might not be for you. Why should every film, even every publicly funded film, be something everyone will approve of?
Extend the conversation to our own Film Council and a similar pattern emerges. They have recently funded the likes of Brideshead Revisited, The Secret of Moonacre, St. Trinian's, The Cottage, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, In the Loop, Man on Wire, Red Road, Touching the Void and A Complete History of my Sexual Failures. That’s an extensive and diverse slate. Not all to my taste, but overall, surely a contribution to our collective culture. I’m happy to help fund that, and so should any film fan be, imagine how dull cinema would be without it.
CH: Since sex and violence are both intrinsic parts of human experience, art and literature will necessarily contain both. There are few more horrific moments on the English stage than in King Lear, when the Duke of Cornwall gouges out the aged Gloucester's eyes… Shakespeare is dramatising the tragic universe we inhabit, human evil at its worst, and the hidden moral process by which Cornwall will eventually be punished for his cruelty.
The world of Antichrist, by contrast, is blatantly amoral, without any sense of justice or retribution whatever. Its mingling of sex and violence, the cheapest and nastiest trick in the book, is usually one which the BBFC pounces on in a straight horror film. But here they are blinded by their own cultural snobbery, swallowing the lie that Antichrist is Art.
SAM: So, let me get this absolutely right, you’re saying that you can decide that some depictions of violence are artistic [Lear]. However if others decide that other depictions of violence are artistic [Antichrist] they are swallowing a lie?
Again I’m returning to a point, but you keep forcing me to do so. How can you be so certain that Antichrist, and specifically its violence, is amoral when you haven’t seen it? I haven’t yet seen Antichrist, but Lars Von Trier is not an amoral filmmaker; he may depict, at times, amoral characters, but that’s rather different. Even if the actions of the characters in Antichrist are amoral that does not necessarily mean that the film is.
I don’t like BBFC treating what you call straight horror films differently to those they perceive as more artistic any more than you do. They have, thankfully, calmed down on their cutting of what most would regard as trash cinema (though 12 minutes of cuts still exist to The House on the Edge of the Park), but there was previously, and still is, though to a greatly diminished degree, some snobbery about mainstream horror because the BBFC seem to feel that a more ‘uneducated’ audience will attend those film than will ‘art’ films such as Antichrist. I, and most horror fans I know, go to both and they should be treated the same.
CH: Von Trier, the film's writer and director, naturally scorns as a philistine rabble those who don't appreciate his rare genius.
'I don't think about the audience when I make a film. I don't care. I make films for myself.'
SAM: Look at the filmmakers who say they do make films with the audience in mind. Michael Bay has said made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (a leering, sexist, militaristic and borderline racist film) with an imaginary 13-year-old boy in mind. You want more of that? Lars Von Trier has no obligation to make films for anyone but himself, he’s an auteur, but one whose personal vision has previously connected with a lot of filmgoers, whether that was his aim or not. If that weren’t the case he would not be making films anymore, because if your film doesn’t get watched you generally aren’t given any more money.
CH: A pity he doesn't fund those films for himself too, then. But he cannot be blamed for his atrocities, he explains. 'It's the hand of God, I'm afraid. And I am the best film director in the world. I'm not sure God is the best god in the world.'
SAM: You’re quoting Von Trier very selectively here, and giving no context for his remarks. Let’s remember that the press conference at which he said this was held after a screening that was booed and jeered, and that, according to reports, the same happened as Von Trier entered the press conference. He said a great deal more, which you don’t quote. Here’s an example: “This knowledge I have that I am the best director, I see it as true, I am sure other directors may feel the same, [but] maybe they dont say it, I am not sure I am. I just think I am.” You also fail to mention that this set of quotes followed an outright confrontational first question from one of your colleagues. “The tone of the session was set with the first question from the press. Journalist Baz Bamigboye from the Daily Mail asked Von Trier to explain his controversial new movie” (Quotes from Indiewire.com).
There is also the fact that Lars Von Trier is widely considered to be something of a prankster; just listen to some of the stories told about him in Mark Kermode’s recent interview with Willem Dafoe on BBC 5Live. This being the case it is entirely possible that he was joking when he suggested he was the best director in the world.
CH: Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, who plays the father, is evidently proud of his work in Antichrist too. He believes that all that child death and sexual violence is 'poetry', that the film is 'true and fresh and living', and dismisses any objections as 'very conservative.'
SAM: Honestly, do you believe that your objections to Antichrist, particularly given the context in which they exist, are not ‘very conservative’?
Also, why shouldn’t Dafoe be proud of his work? His performance, and that of the Cannes Best Actress award winning Charlotte Gainsbourg, has been widely praised, even by reviewers who don’t like the film as a whole. I object to this article you’ve written, does that mean you ought not to be proud of it?
CH: Now bearing the stamp of BBFC approval, Antichrist is to be released uncut into our cultural bloodstream. In artistic terms, it is the equivalent of food poisoning.
How odd that while government-appointed health czars are so obsessed with anything that might harm the nation's physical wellbeing - hanging flower baskets, conkers, too much sunshine, not enough sunshine - any concern with the nation's moral or spiritual well-being has completely vanished.
SAM: The BBFC was founded so that censorship would remain independent of government, so this has nothing to do with what is or isn’t their job. To suggest that ‘the nation’s moral or spiritual well-being’ may be affected by Antichrist is almost certainly to give the film too much credit. IF the film is as powerful as you fear, the effect will still be limited to an incredibly small proportion of the population. First by the 18 certificate, second by the limited release that the film is receiving and third by the fact that most people don’t want to see extreme horror films, ‘artistic’ or otherwise. If the film does break out of its ghettoised audience it will be largely because the press has covered it so relentlessly, making many more moviegoers aware of it than would otherwise have been the case. Well done there.
CH: Meanwhile, there's Bruno, another film out at the moment. Sacha Baron-Cohen's latest film about a gay Austrian fashion TV presenter is outrageously smutty - including close-ups of genitals and pictures of babies in the bath with a group of gay men - and well deserves its 18 certificate.
So when the film-makers wanted to release a milder 15 version of the film, presumably the BBFC required them to produce a whole new edit? No. Instead, BBFC merely suggested that they remove one minute 50 seconds. What a joke!
SAM: This IS producing a ‘whole new edit’. It’s a different cut of the film, re-submitted to BBFC. You may feel that not enough has been required to be cut for the film to secure a 15 (and, having seen the 18 version, I’m broadly in agreement there) but they have produced a different cut of the film, whether you like it or not.
CH: Now, Bruno contains some hysterically funny scenes, especially those where real danger is involved. It offends nearly everybody - gays, straight, Hasidic Jews, Arabs, African Americans, Christians - and you still come out of the cinema with a smile on your face, albeit slightly worried about the way Baron-Cohen's mind works sometimes.
SAM: I HATED Bruno. Laughed once, despised 81 minutes and 59 seconds of the 82-minute film. The thing is, however stupid, retrograde and offensive Bruno is, I’m not calling for it to be banned for an adult audience, because I don't have a right not to be offended. What I find odd is the fact that you say that Bruno is both offensive and worrying, but that this offensive film is fine for adults to watch, whereas Antichrist isn’t. Why should they be treated differently? You can say it’s about context, but of course, being that you haven’t seen it, you have no context for Antichrist. What it comes down to is the fact that the idea of Antichrist offends you, and you imagine that you have some right not to be offended that should trump my right, and the right of other adults, to see Antichrist. Please explain why.
CH: He isn't a satirist, not even close: he's just an updated version of a bawdy, music-hall drag act, rude, crude, and utterly harmless.
SAM: Oh, so it is about context, in this case.
CH: But as for Antichrist, its approval by the BBFC raises the question: what on earth does it take for a film to be banned nowadays? If the visceral sadism of Von Trier's film passes muster, surely anything will?
Censorship today seems to have been reduced to the feeble principle that if it doesn't harm children, then it should be allowed. As soon as it's released on DVD, Antichrist will harm children anyway, deeply and irrevocably. But when did this principle of protecting only children arise anyway? What about harming adults?
SAM: Would it hurt to do a tiny bit of research, like looking at the BBFC guidelines (newly produced, and newly more restrictive, remember). At 18 the guidelines state: "In line with the consistent findings of BBFC’s public consultations and the Human Rights Act 1998, at 18 the BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment”.
It goes on to list exceptions to the rule, including “images of sexual or sexualized violence that might eroticise or endorse sexual assault”. The BBFC’s General Principles also include what is called the ‘Harm test’. "This includes not just any harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but also any ‘moral harm’ caused by”. It goes on to list 11 categories of ‘moral harm’ to be considered.
This is not feeble, this is stringent, more so than almost any other country’s censorship and classification system. It’s also much more responsive than any other system, taking public concern into consideration. The adult public wants to be free to choose their own cinematic experiences; why should the moralizing few be allowed to impinge on that right?
CH: If I were to see Antichrist, I don't believe for a moment that it would incite me into copycat violent behaviour or make me a danger to others. But it would poison my mind and imagination, with explicit, ferocious scenes of sexual violence that would stay with me for ever.
Isn't that good enough reason to ban it, or at least demand extensive cuts? But have we - that is to say, the hesitant, fumbling, comfortably cushioned, value-free Leftish elite who now govern us - got the guts? I doubt it.
SAM: Just because people on the left don’t share your values, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any. I believe in freedom of expression and freedom of choice. I believe that art of all kinds enriches us, it makes us think, it makes us argue, it makes us more rounded people. These are my values; so don’t tell me I have none.
And, once more for luck, how do you know anything about these ’ferocious scenes of sexual violence’? YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.
Well, that’s about all I have to say on this. If you wish to rebut any of my arguments I would welcome the debate.