Wednesday, 5 September 2012

GFT Programme note: Out of Bounds

Last night, the GFT kicked off Out of Bounds, a series of once-banned films rescreened as part of the nationwide Scala Beyond season. I introduced the first (Tod Browning's Freaks) in person, and wrote the following notes, which give a very broad overview of all five flicks...

Scala Beyond: Out of Bounds 

In 1916, MP and journalist T.P. O’Connor was appointed President of the still-fledgling British Board of Film Classification (then the British Board of Film Censors). Tasked with summarising the Board’s activities, O’Connor drew up a list of 43 potential transgressions that could lead to censorship or rejection of a submitted film. Viewed at a remove of almost 100 years, the list appears over-sensitive and absurdly proscriptive. While some of its taboos – cruelty to animals, graphic depictions of violence – remain areas of contention today, others are very much a reflection of their time: some of its more quaint prohibitions include “indecorous dancing” and “unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing”.[1]

As this bygone yardstick of public decency indicates, offensiveness is not only subjective, but integrally intertwined with social and historical context. Where it otherwise, this mini-season would be impossible; films branded unsuitable for public consumption and consequently banned would remain so immutably, the controversies attendant on first release seared onto their celluloid forever. But attitudes liberalise; priorities change; societal expectations shift. Themes and images once deemed inappropriate, unpalatable or even insidiously damaging are rehabilitated and reappraised. Why and how this happens would need a dozen theses to even begin to examine, so this note will settle for something more modest: a brief look at the differing routes taken to official acceptability (and GFT screens) by each of the season’s five films.

Beyond their respective notoriety, the selections share little common ground, spanning Hollywood studio horror, documentary filmmaking and European arthouse dramas. The earliest – and the one that went unseen longest in the UK – is Freaks (Browning, 1932). Refused a certificate by the BBFC on its initial release, and again upon resubmission in 1952, it took thirty years to reach British cinemas – and even then, only with an X certificate and an accompanying warning. By the time it came up for reconsideration in 1994, attitudes had softened further: examiner recommendations went as low as PG, a clear demonstration of the fluctuating and subjective nature of offensiveness. It was eventually classified 15. [2]

A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) encountered no such external barriers, passed without cuts on the grounds that its contentious elements were justified by the story.[3] Its ‘ban’ came later, from Stanley Kubrick himself. Responding to accusations that his film had inspired copycat crimes, the shocked director withdrew it from UK distribution, a “victory for the moralists” (in the words of producer Jan Harlan)[4] only reversed following Kubrick’s death in 1999. A Clockwork Orange holds special significance to Scala Beyond; it was an illegal 1992 screening that led to the London cinema’s original demise, sued into bankruptcy by copyright holders Warner Brothers.

Fifteen years earlier, another London film club encountered similar challenges when hosting the UK’s first screening of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975). It had earlier been refused a certificate on the grounds of ‘gross indecency’ – but rather than propose cuts, the Board’s then-director James Ferman extolled the film’s unpleasant but undeniable virtues, arguing that editing would “destroy the film’s purpose by making the horrors less revolting, and therefore more acceptable.” Ferman recommended that the film be screened uncut and un-certificated to niche film club audiences; when a Soho cinema did just that, police raided the premises and confiscated the print. While an edited version was intermittently shown in the following decades, the film wasn’t granted a certificate until October 2000.[5]

Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) was never ‘banned’ at a national level in the same way. Certainly, it caused controversy, the infamous ‘butter’ scene in particular. But through negotiation between the BBFC and the film’s makers and distributors, a 10 second cut was agreed to, and Last Tango in Paris was granted an X certificate. At council level, some chose to reject the BBFC’s ruling, resulting in localised bans in different parts of the country.[6] Nonetheless, compared with the other films in the season, censorial intrusions were slight; the Last Tango in Paris that played to sold-out audiences during its initial run may have been incomplete, but at least it played.

Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967), an unflinching exposĂ© of conditions inside Massachusetts’ Bridgewater institute for the criminally insane, suffered a more exhaustive suppression. Due to premiere at the 1967 New York Film Festival, the documentary was placed under an injunction, leading to lengthy court battles. Further restrictions followed, officially designed to preserve the dignity of the patients, though interpreted by the director and others as a politicised attempt to deflect criticism from a rotten system.[7] A judge labelled the film a “nightmare of ghoulish obscenities”, and until 1991, the film could only be shown to members and students of a narrow range of medical and legal professions.[8]

The five films differ, then, not only in the source and nature of their controversy, but in the extent to which they were bowdlerised and concealed from the public. While they no longer scandalise (we confidently predict no placard-waving protests in cafĂ© Cosmo over the coming month), they each retain the ability to unsettle and provoke, whether through their explicitness, candidness, or some other less specific quality – a residual aura of danger, perhaps, that serves as a reminder that what we are seeing was once forbidden.

Chris Buckle
Researcher and journalist
September 2012

1 ‘The sbbfc Student Guide 2005/06’, accessed 3rd September 2012 at  

2 ‘Freaks Case Study’, accessed 3rd September 2012 at 

3 Stuart Y. McDougal (2003), ‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’: Questioning Kubrick’s Clockwork’ in McDougal (ed.) Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge) p. 3 

4 Video interview, accessed 3rd September 2012 at 

5 ‘Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom Case Study’, accessed 3rd September 2012 at 

6 Andrew Pulver (2011) ‘On the cutting room floor: a century of film censorship’, The Guardian, accessed 3rd September 2012 at 

7 Robert Koehler (1991) ‘Titicut Follies Arrives, 24 Years After the Fact’, The LA Times, accessed 3rd September 2012 at 

8 Jesse Pearson (2007), ‘The Follies of Documentary Filmmaking’, Vice, accessed 3rd September 2012 at

(full details of the season here)

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