Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dark Knight highlights falling standards

I went to see The Dark Knight last night. It was very good, go and see it. But this isn’t a review – this is a blog about the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), sparked by seeing the film last night.
The Dark Knight was classified as a 12A (more on the existence of the 12A rating itself in a moment). According to the BBFC’s website, the 12A rating includes the following (italics mine):

“Violence must not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood. Sexual violence may only be implied or briefly and discreetly indicated.”

Anyone who has seen The Dark Knight will know that it clearly contravenes this rule – there is blatant emphasis on the facial burns sustained by Harvey Dent, one of the main characters.

The website also says, on violence:

“In making decisions our concerns, especially at the lower categories, include
• portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems
• heroes who inflict pain and injury
• callousness towards victims
• encouraging aggressive attitudes
• taking pleasure in pain or humiliation”

I’m pretty shocked at this, because The Dark Knight arguably contains every single one of these. As Gotham City descends into anarchy, violence is the only solution considered, both by the police and by Batman. Batman and Dent, the heroes, both inflict pain and injury. The Joker and Two-Face are both very callous towards victims. Batman’s and the Joker’s actions encourage aggressive attitudes. And the Joker takes much pleasure in the anarchy and intimidation he is causing.

There’s more; check this out:

“Dangerous techniques (eg combat techniques, hanging, suicide and self-harming) should not dwell on imitable detail or appear pain or harm free.” (from BBFC’s description of a 12A)

“in one of the stronger scenes, Batman repeatedly beats the Joker during an interrogation. The blows however are all masked from the camera and despite both their weight and force; the Joker shows no sign of injury” (from BBFC’s justification of classifying the film as a 12A”)

Contradiction anyone?

Also: “sadistic violence or terrorisation” is one of the BBFC’s taboo themes, which is of “particular concern” to them. Usual action is “intervention such as making cuts” or “refusing classification altogether”.

However The Dark Knight’s villain The Joker indulges in both sadistic violence and terrorisation. Now I’m not saying this should cause it to be refused classification, but it should really be a higher rating than 12A, because one of the BBFC’s 3 golden considerations is “is the material, at the age group concerned, likely to be harmful?”, and I really think it could be for children.

There is no conceivable way that The Dark Knight should be a 12A. It’s easily a 15. Based on the BBFC’s own rules, it is a lot worse that The Matrix (rated 15). The inconsistency is highlighted by the fact that the original cartoony Batman films from the early 90s were rated as 12s, a higher rating than the darker recent films.

Now, about that 12A classification. It was introduced in 2002 as a replacement for the 12 certificate at cinemas. The meaning of 12A is that it allows under-12s to see the film at the cinema if they are accompanied by an adult. The information isn’t explicit but as far as I can tell, ‘adult’ can be any ‘responsible adult’ over 12, including a sibling, and “cinema staff are required to use their discretion” to decide on admittance. In terms of who is allowed to see a film, this is almost the same as a Uc, U or PG – except that all an under-12 needs to see a 12A is a 13 year old sibling. Not difficult. The old 12 classification worked well – it prevented under-12s from seeing inappropriate material, just like the 15 and 18 rating do. The cynic in me is very interested that the 12A rating was given the go-ahead just before the first Harry Potter film came out – a franchise which would include films which would really have to be classified at 12s but would be immensely popular with under-12s.
Maybe I’m just conservative, but I think it’s clear for anyone to see that film classification standards are falling. Films that would have been a 15 a decade ago are now 12s, and 18s are becoming 15s (did anyone see The Last King of Scotland? Never should have been a 15). I’m just worried that if this trend continues, in 20 years time films that would have been 18s when I was growing up will be PGs.

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