The Times, 27 June 2009


It's impossible to guess what will scar children for the future. My boyfriend watched Halloween, Death Ship, and Jaws as a child, and remains unafraid of Halloween, Nazi ghost ships, and sharks. Actually, he loves sharks, and would cheerfully keep one as a pet, if our bathroom were slightly bigger. I, meanwhile, saw an episode of Hart to Hart in which chefs were killed in the manner of their speciality. The beef expert was found hanging in a meat locker, on a hook. I am now vegetarian, and so afraid of an enclosed cold space that I won't go anywhere that doesn't have a window, and never travel without a coat.

So when the BBFC announced this week that they were reclassifying some films and DVDs, most notably an episode of Friends, containing the phrase 'laundry spaz', I was unconcerned. Children don't learn to do things because Jennifer Aniston does them. Otherwise they would all have perfect teeth, wistful expressions and the baleful eye fixed on Angelina. Children call each other spaz, mong or, when I was a child, flid, because they sometimes wish to be hurtful. Mostly, they grow out of it, along with pushing, shoving and hair-pulling, round about the time when they realise that name-calling will get them punched in the face and/or fired.

The really good news about the BBFC's announcement this week is that they have passed Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, uncut. And in so doing, they have struck a blow in favour of grown-up culture. They have acknowledged, firmly and publicly, that some things are just for adults, and this is a crucial distinction. I'm very happy that there are films with universal appeal: everything Pixar produces, for example, is for families - smart enough for adults, fun enough for kids. But I also want to see films which have been made by adults for adults (and aren't porn, obviously. It looks so unhygienic).

The Oscar-winning The Dark Knight, last year, was a case in point; and the BBFC received more complaints about its 12A rating than any other film released all year. At 152 minutes, it was far too long for most twelve year olds to sit through. And, as was amply proven at cinemas across the land, it was far too scary. I know hardly anyone who went to see it at the cinema without the accompanying wail of a traumatised eight-year-old, whose man-child father, viewing the cinema as a de facto babysitter, then had to leave when his kid flipped out as Heath Ledger murdered a mobster with a pencil. It was an excellent film, it just wasn't for kids.

And this is something we seem nervous of admitting. But why? We don't expect our other arts to be entirely child-accessible. We're happy to watch Wallace and Gromit at Christmas, but we also want to be able to settle down in front of CSI. We'll read Harry Potter, but we also might give The Blind Side of the Heart a go. So why should cinema be different? Largely, of course, it's dictated by America. The MPAA ratings system is theoretically voluntary, but without a certificate, a movie won't be shown at most cinemas. And if it gets an NC-17 certificate (meaning not for children under 17), it won't be shown either: it's viewed as, essentially, porn. In other words, there's no option of producing a movie for widespread release unless it's the kind of thing you would happily show to someone who isn't old enough to drive, drink or have sex in many states.

And this may seem fair enough to some - the American R-rating, for under 17s with an accompanying parent or guardian, allows 'adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements'. Speaking for myself, I can't imagine taking my mother to see anything else. So why worry about the NC-17s, if the R-rating covers so much?

Well, take Ang Lee's beautiful, tragic, haunting Lust, Caution, which was given an NC-17 rating. It isn't porn at all, it's the story of a female student who must seduce a collaborator in WW2 Shanghai, to get close enough to assassinate him. The sex scenes are explicit, but so utterly part of the story of two characters that unless you're determined to be smutty, it never occurs to you that anything risqué is going on. It was, however, commercial suicide, and Ang Lee has followed it up with the almost unwatchably whimsical Taking Woodstock, which will offend virtually no-one, and entertain even fewer.

And that is why we should be delighted that the BBFC has allowed Antichrist an 18 certificate without demanding cuts, that our cinemas will show it, our newspapers will carry adverts for it, and no-one will stand outside anywhere with a placard, demanding that it be taken off. I say this in spite of the silliness of Antichrist - a misogynistic melodrama starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and a talking fox. It provoked gasps and walk-outs in Cannes, mostly during a scene of genital self-mutilation by Gainsbourg's character. And it will doubtless provoke a flurry of complaints to the BBFC, but they have sensibly judged us adult enough to see it, even if we might be traumatised by Basil Brush's evil cousin. And because of that, in spite of the ubiquity of the sub-juvenile Year One, some of our films will remain un-infantilised for a little while longer.