A few weeks ago, the British Board of Film Classification refused to give The Human Centipede 2 an 18 rating, which essentially bans the film in the UK, for being “too obscene.” The original film involves a crazed doctor who surgically connects three people together to create one creature. The British ratings board cited specific scenes in the film, which I will not go into here; if you’re really interested, you can find the board’s statement here: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=31162. Empire Magazine, which published that article, contacted Tom Six, director of both films, and he replied with pretty much the same reply all filmmakers against the ropes reply with: it’s just a movie (you can also view his full reply at the bottom of the linked article).
Over the years, we’ve heard this a lot. It happens in all forms of art, whether music or film, books or photography. The artists’ response is usually to tell us that this is just artistic expression, and not to be taken seriously. There is a fundamental flaw in this logic, however. It takes the onus off of the artist and puts it onto the public consuming the art. This is especially true in movies. Filmmakers fill their films with violence and sex, fight for it to get the most lenient rating possible to get the greatest audience possible, and then hide behind the same old arguments.
But movies aren’t just movies. They have impact far beyond the few hours we spend in a theater or at home watching them. You can go all the way back to 1903, when film was in its infancy. Patrons who watched the The Great Train Robbery found themselves literally staring down the barrel of a gun at the end of the film, as a cowboy pointed his pistol at the camera. The art form was so new that when the gunfighter shot his pistol, some audience members actually believed that had been shot. The fear struck into the hearts of audiences in 1975 by the shark in Jaws are still felt today, as many people still have misconceptions of those creatures based just on that film, and those misconception are said to have led to the decrease in great white shark populations around the world.
Think about how movies have changed the language we speak. “We’re not in Kansas anymore”, “Use the force”, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “You talkin’ to me?” are just a few phrases I’m you’ve heard all too often, and have probably used yourself. A movie like Swingers wasn’t a huge box office hits, yet you’ve probably told your friend he was “so money” or yelled “Vegas, baby!” for no good reason at least once, and Scarface, which was released in 1983, continues to be the rapper’s playbook for rhymes about money, guns and drugs. Movies have become such a touchstone that certain words and phrases that were created specifically for films have become so a part of our vocabulary that we don’t realize that they were created for fictional characters.
Movies also have a more serious impact on society, as when they influence people to do dangerous and sometimes deadly things. YouTube is filled with amateur Jackasses filming their own stupid stunts, done without the supervision of professionals and most likely leading to injuries, both superficial and serious. But the consequences of imitating films can go further than just injuring yourself. John Hinkley, Jr. became obsessed with Taxi Driver, and developed an obsession with one of its stars, Jodie Foster. His desire to impress her led to his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. In extreme cases, a film’s influence can actually lead to some one’s death. The film The Program included a scene where a students shows his manliness by lying in the middle of a busy highway. Several young men were killed trying to recreate this stunt.
I am not advocating censorship. In fact, I think that censorship is a horrible thing, and artists should be allowed to create whatever they have in their hearts and minds. But with that comes responsibility. You are creating words and images that can have a powerful impact on not just individuals, but society as a whole. You can make a difference, both good and bad. It’s important to take possession of that, to take on that responsibility, even if you are making a horror film about a human centipede. Saying “It’s just a movie” is a cop out so that you don’t have to feel responsible if the ideas you express are taken the wrong way by someone you can’t control. If you aren’t man or woman enough to take that responsibility, making you shouldn’t be creating art in the first place.