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Human Centipede II: why banning violent films creates a new kind of monster

This year conservative lobbying group Collective Shout, co-founded by fundamentalist pro-life anti-porn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist, has claimed victory for two 11th-hour classification decisions, helping to overturn the government-sanctioned release of controversial feature films A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence).

In April a (twice cut) version of A Serbian Film, a psychosexual thriller from director Srdjan Spasojevic, was green-lit for release in Australia in every state and territory other than South Australia, the only state with its own classification board. It was widely available on DVD for around three weeks despite at least one retail giant — JB Hi-Fi — refusing to stock it.

Backed by Collective Shout and a South Australian DVD shop owner, SA Attorney-General John Rau urged the government to review the film’s classification. “Some of the scenes in the DVD are so depraved that I am not prepared to even describe them in any detail,” Rau wrote, presumably in reference to the drug-addled protagonist’s gnarly sexual exploits.

The Classification Review Board ruled in favour of Rau and co’s stance and threw the film into the banned bucket, slapping it with an RC (Refused Classification) rating and ordering its recall from vendors. Collective Shout proudly declares the decision a “Win!” on their website.

The same fate befell Norwegian director Tom Six’s black and white horror film The Human Centipede II, which depicts the exploits of an obese social misfit who stitches 12 victims together, anus to mouth, for his perverse amusement. The film was granted an R rating in May, premiered at the Brisbane International Film Festival and opened in select cinemas in November.

Melbourne’s Cinema Nova advertised it with the prophetic slogan “see it before it’s banned”. A review of the film’s classification was requested by NSW Attorney General Greg Smith, again backed by Reist and Collective Shout, and Christian ministry Family Voice Australia.

The Human Centipede II was subsequently handed an RC classification on Tuesday, making 2011 the first year in Australian history in which two feature films have been approved for release then banned.

Reist was quick to claim this as another win for her organisation, founded on the principles of being “against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture.” (For the record, The Human Centipede II doesn’t discriminate between the people — and things — it objectifies. Men, women, humanity, centipedes. Everything). Collective Shout appear to be widening their purview with this discussion paper on classification submitted to the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Amongst other things, they argue that films shown at festivals “should not be exempt from classification” (they are currently only classified upon request) and, in proposal 6-3, deceivingly suggest A Serbian Film played at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It played at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, a very different beast.

It would appear from the outset that Reist and her like-minded brethren ought to be chuffed by their lobbying achievements this year, nursed by the belief that they’ve made the world a better place.

But in a debate widely framed in terms of accessibility, where media convergence and online distribution have irrevocably altered the landscape, the fact remains that banning films isn’t what it used to be. The film industry has forever changed and will continue to move further and further away from the grasp of censors, whether conservative viewers — or anybody, for that matter — like it or not.

In 1975 director Bert Deling’s racy Melbourne-set junkie drama Pure Shit, which features a scene in which a character injects real heroin, was banned. The film’s first screening was busted by federal police, who seized reels of the film and took down posters from the wall. It was later, in the spirit of clumsy classification about-faces, un-banned and released with a softer title (Pure S…). But the initial ban had taken its toll. Two dirty 16mm prints remained and the film was never released on VHS or aired on television.

“There were a whole bunch of people right across the process who were prepared to destroy Pure Shit rather than let anybody see it,” Deling told me during an interview in 2010. The film is now regarded as an Australian classic; a socially explorative and unglamorous drama almost — but not quite — expunged from existence by The Powers That Be despite its powerful anti-drugs message.

In the early ’00s, French arthouse film Baise-moi (the title translates to Fuck Me) was approved for release in Australia then banned following a campaign by Reverend Fred Nile. A law-breaking film aficionado’s best chance to watch it would have been to visit a niche video shop and coyly enquire whether a copy might be lurking under the counter. The same logic applied for about the next decade and a half, while the internet rose and dial-up connections still made online film distribution virtually impossible.

But my, how the times have changed. A common response to the banning of The Human Centipede II was “I’ll just download it.” Reist and other pro-ban advocates may argue that fewer people will see the film in the public domain, in cinemas next to cafes, bars, schools and book shops, which is true. But no sane person would argue that fewer people will now obtain it illegally. Finding a copy online of either of the two banned films is as simple as searching for “download Human Centipede 2” or “A Serbian Film torrent”. With a decent connection curious viewers will have it on their computers in an hour or two.

The horror and thriller genres are stuffed full of comparability disgusting features rarely remembered or celebrated. There are more zombie and cannibal films than one could ever count or watch in a year. They come, they go. Eventually retail and rental shops don’t bother re-stocking them and even once well-known films disappear into the ether.

But infamy, as they say, lasts longer than fame.

For gross-outs like A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II, their core selling point is shock-value. Now, recorded in the annals of Australian classification history as forbidden fruits, films the straight-n-narrows don’t want you to see, their bans have guaranteed them longevity when they otherwise would likely have sunk into obscurity.

They are now emblazoned in the annals of film history alongside titles like Ken Park (2002), Salo (1975) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). These films are common talking points in university campuses, on the must-see list for many viewers who wouldn’t have heard of them if they hadn’t created classification controversy.

A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede II are now destined to be long remembered in an industry stuffed full of forgettables, and the internet makes it simple for anybody to pry open the cult vault and sample the sacred warez. In the online environment, banning films has become the mother of all free advertising, a shoo-in method for ensuring torrent numbers skyrocket. The days of films being lost forever, like Pure Shit nearly was, are long gone.

For Melinda Tankard Reist, Collective Voice, Family Voice Australia and liked-minded politicians, the truly frightening part of this year’s censorship debate lies off screen, away from the fiction of perverted misfits and sex-crazed loonies. For them, the real horror lies in the possibility that their actions may have inadvertently supported the very films they are rallying against.

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  • 1
    Plonkoclock
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    The movie producers and the objectors both need and deserve each other, in so many ways.

  • 2
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I’d be very wary arguing that “we can just download it” is an answer here.

    It will only cause these people to strengthen the case for internet censorship.

    The real solution is to stop funding of theist organisations and lobby groups by governments using taxpayers money.

    If they have a real case where people are honestly offended by such material, they should rely on the marketplace of free ideas to further their cause, and not have these organisations funded directly or indirectly by public funds.

  • 3
    Captain Planet
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    @ Luke Buckmaster,

    You may be interested to learn that Ms. Tankard – Reist has quoted you on her website, in the very section you have linked above regarding the “win” in getting the RC for “A Serbian Film”.

    Tankard Reist says,

    Crikey website editor Luke Buckmaster described the film as “morally irredeemable”.

    Apparently you are now the editor of Crikey as well, Luke. Who knew? Somebody better tell Sophie Black.

    Ironically, in my opinion Collective Shout are actually doing a lot of very valuable and worthwhile work. A quick perusal of their website reveals that I am enthusiastically in agreement with many of their aims and campaigns.

    Attempting to prevent the sexualisation of pre – pubescent girls by stopping retailers from targetting this demographic with lingerie and suggestive underwear emblazoned with “Call Me” and “I love Rich Boys”, for example, seems like an admirable sentiment.

    I honestly can’t claim that I think the Australian Public will be any the poorer for not being able to see either “A Serbian Film” or “The Human Centipede part II”. Nonetheless, I oppose banning these films, because as my History teacher way back in High School said, “When you start burning books, you end up burning bodies.”.

  • 4
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Plonckoclock summed it up nicely. I’ve got to confess that as far as these movies in question are concerned I honestly don’t care if they are banned, released or burnt in an auto da fe. It’s getting harder to sympathise either with those who just want to make films for the sake of making people sick and with their stiff-necked, tunnel-envisioned opponents. A plague on both their houses.

  • 5
    Steve Gardner
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Captain Planet, your history teacher was paraphrasing Herman Hesse.

  • 6
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Captain Planet. I’ve supported a number of Collective Shout’s campaigns against sexploitation of pre-pubescent girls (indeed, girls as young as two). I don’t think trying to protect kids necessarily makes you a “fundamentalist” or “theist”.

    However, I also agree that banning movies, games etc. just gives them free advertising (and in the case of video games, the lack of a R18+ rating has resulted in very violent games being rated M15+). Give it an R rating so parents know it’s not suitable for kids. Let adults choose to watch/play the item or not. Most won’t, if it’s lousy. Most of us wouldn’t have even heard of Human Centipede 2 if it hadn’t been banned (and the banning prominently reported by the media).

    I asked my 20-yr-old daughter if she’d heard of the movie. She immediately said, “Yes, and it’s stupid.”

  • 7
    Steve Gardner
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Dammit, I meant Heinrich Heine, not Herman Hesse.

  • 8
    skeletory
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m prety shure that last time I read about Baise-moi on wiki it said that no one in America really kicked up a stink about it and as a result no one went to see it either. The comments on baise moi in Australia was pretty good advertising at the time.

    I cant check now because i’m in China and its blocked. Yay.. lets all be like China they know how to do censorship properly.

    As for Centipede 2 banning it…. really… I’m sure there is plenty worse graphic wise but it just didn’t seem that good, least the bits I saw. I skipped through whatching a few bits at a time. Go watch the first one, or South Park.. they did it better.

    In 20 years no one will care, just like I Spit On Your Grave or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. ‘Video Nasties’ anyone, just make sure to add a commentry track for those people who don’t realise that it’s just a movie.

  • 9
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    For a minute there, I was thinking of Howard Hesseman

  • 10
    Captain Planet
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.

  • 11
    Jackol
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    The thing about what is sanctioned vs what is not is not so much about whether the boundary gets publicized, but that the boundary exists at all. By having a definition of what is transgressive, those people who get excited by watching transgressive material buzz around those boundaries. If you never make a boundary, then what is transgressive just gets pushed out farther and farther.

    ie sure, banning gives dross like the films mentioned extra publicity, but it also may well keep what is transgressive from spiralling out to truly nasty places.

  • 12
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Religious nutters serve only to enhance a shonky film-makers opus. The tragedy being that many a fine work has been unjustly crucified-as Luke points out. To cite the protection of two year old children is both risible and obscene.

    The only thing that powers these moralistic morons is power itself-look at American fundamentalists like Billy Graham and that frightful woman from QLD who sees filth in art works, and/or little old men masturbating in front of El Greco. These are the people who should be prevented from existing; whereas a stinker of a movie dies a natural death-if left alone and unloved.

  • 13
    Policeman MacCruiskeen
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    News from Muttonbird Island: Salo is not just available down here, its compulsory. We show it to immigrants as part o’ the naturalisation process. Tha Sisters o’ Slime are keen to download a copy of this Norwegian thing. It’s obviously very meaningful. Mostly down here we ae in thrall to de Sade but we’re as broad minded as we are broad abeam. Tha’ mutton bird fat does that. His Beatitude reckons it would be improved if had the metaphor o’ the human daisy chain, ass to mouth as it were, been used for political satire. Why he didn’t name the obscenity of the being he sutured together after Tony Blair we don’t understand. As to A Serbian Film, we’ll be showing that at the Rover Scouts Fundraiser tomorra noight.

  • 14
    Brian62
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Judging by the accompanying caricature a beach monster with whom you’d have no truck at all.

  • 15
    Himself Spoon
    Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    I have seen the unedit version of full sequence. Yes, it is disturbing and brutal. Banning something because you don’t like it, is something similar to keying someone’s BMW because you don’t like other people owning luxury cars. No one is forcing anyone to watch this movie, no one has tried to hide the fact this movie is brutal and not for everyone. This movie is art… sick, unrealistic, brutal art, but art none-the-less. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. If you don’t like this type of movie, don’t watch it. If you don’t like pictures of women with weird expressions, dont look that the Mona Lisa. If you don’t like statues of naked men, don’t look at Michelangelo’s David. Appreciating a statue of a naked man, doesn’t make you gay, and people should have the choice to see it. Appreciating a movie about a sociopath that becomes obsessed with unrealistic events in a movie, won’t make you insane and staple people together, and people should have the choice to be able to watch it. Despite what the government thinks, it is not our Mother, nor does it know what is best for us. They need to make a new classification that is for movies like this, to ensure people don’t accidentaly purchase/rent/view the movie without knowing what it is. Perhaps there are some people that shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies like this, so maybe we should have some sort of ID (like a blue card) that allows people to watch whatever the hell they like until there is proof or suspicion that the individual isn’t capable of doing so without becomine some sort of danger.
    Basically, what I am saying is, most people won’t want to see this, maybe a few people should be prevented from seeing this, but why should the open minded few be forced to miss out on some fantastic art (if you don’t appreciate this movie for the multi-layered piece of art that it is, you probably shouldn’t even bother knowing it exists… or maybe you should wait for jesus to tell you about it….)

  • 16
    Edward James
    Posted Saturday, 3 December 2011 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    @Captain Planet Posted Friday, 2 December 2011 at 4:56 pm
    Where one burns books, one burns also at the end humans….. Babel translations wonderful !

  • 17
    Archer
    Posted Saturday, 3 December 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Art? Doubt it, sounds more like a joke penned by a group of guys bingeing on a night of Aquavit.

    I wouldn’t ban it, it just brings the nutters out. Anybody who has a need to watch this sort of thing really should just volunteer to spend a night with a cop friend of mine. He attends high speed motor car accidents, picks up the body parts and comforts those trapped. More realistic must mean more “artistic”.

  • 18
    Himself Spoon
    Posted Saturday, 3 December 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    @Archer: Have you seen the movie? If so you would know it brutal, but the special effects aren’t anything great… rubber will never look like human flesh…. This movie is far from realistic.

  • 19
    Archer
    Posted Saturday, 3 December 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    @Himself Spoon

    Regardless of special effects, this art sounds on par with the experimental sewing together of twins by Josef Mengele. Film that to a story line and there you go.

  • 20
    SBH
    Posted Sunday, 4 December 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Human centipede banned, question time on telly - Didn’t mark latham note the similarity? It’s a crazy world

  • 21
    rupert moloch
    Posted Monday, 5 December 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I think you all have missed the point here. The true horrors of our age are not risible genre films - we can exercise our own judgement on whether to watch or ignore them.

    The ALP’s new policies on uranium export to a non-NNPT signatory, & the local stationing of US marines, reminds me that Christian churches in Australia were for many years at the moral centre of the disarmanent and anti-nuclear movements (whither the Palm Sunday peace march?).

    But the principal concern of Tankard-Reist & her theocratic goons isn’t war, or our poor stewardship of creation. Its a couple of (apparently) rubbish films.

    These clowns should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

  • 22
    Mord
    Posted Tuesday, 6 December 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    See now, this is what I feel is going to happen to Video Games once we (finally) get an R18+ rating classification. The content won’t ever change, anything that is currently MA15+ will just get bumped up to R, but anything with any objectional media will get picked up on by some cardigan wearing ninny who hasn’t even seen the content and just read about it on the Internet (someone like @Archer up there) will object to it being released, and it’ll just get it bumped up to an RC which is effectively banning it anyway.

  • 23
    Brian Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 6 December 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Where one burns books, one burns also at the end humans….. “

    Slightly off topic, but the really interesting thing about this quote from Heinrich Heine is that he wrote it almost 100 years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany…spooky!

  • 24
    Archer
    Posted Wednesday, 7 December 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    @Mord

    (someone like @Archer up there) will object to it being released”

    I never said ban it. I never objected to it being released. I questioned its merits as art and its originality. You want to see a good Swedish cult horror film with intelligence? See “Let the right one in” The Americans tried to remake it and destroyed it.

    Pull your head in.

  • 25
    Destroy All Porn
    Posted Friday, 23 December 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    No one hates garbage-type movies like Human Centipede more than I but forgot six, when people decide if they want to see or not rather than having the government ban it altogether.

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