18 Rated Porn And BBFC Hypocrisy

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Starting this month, the BBFC will be in charge of deciding what is and isn’t pornography on the internet in the UK. Aside from all the other issues involved in the forthcoming porn blockade – the issues of internet censorship, the dangers in handing over personal details of porn viewers to private companies and governments, the crushing of small indie producers who will not be able to afford to impose the onerous new rules – we should be very concerned at the idea of a censorship board like the BBFC being allowed to decide what is porn and what isn’t. Not only because there is no guarantee that they will be stopping at R18 (hardcore porn) levels in their interpretation of porn (the suggestion is very much that anything they define as a ‘sex work’ – that is, something shot primarily for the purposes of sexual arousal – will be caught in the net. Hardcore, softcore, T&A, glamour  shots, the lot. If they decide that a website exists primarily to turn people on, they will restrict it. It doesn’t even have to contain images, as the BBFC have made it clear that they have interpreted the law to include the written word and audio recordings (even though the law says nothing of the sort). But the BBFC have a track record of making rather arbitrary decisions about what is or isn’t a sex work, based on their own personal bias and tastes. In the last couple of decades – and beyond – films featuring explicit real sex have been passed for mainstream consumption on the basis that the sexual content does not make the film a sex work. Films that have achieved this have ranged from dour continental dramas to the like of Nine Songs and Baise Moi, both of which stretch the idea of artistic validity for the exploit sex to the limit. But these films were not, at least, presented as erotica, so the pretence that this is somehow different from a porn movie is easier to maintain. So instead, let’s look at The Erotic Films of Peter De Rome, a DVD passed uncut with an 18 certificate a few years back.

In their justification for passing this film (or, technically, collection of films) with an 18 certificate, the BBFC stated that the production is,”in tone and treatment, is distinguishable from a sex work”. It’s a frankly ridiculous claim, and perhaps shows up the nonsensical situation that the British censors have dug themselves into with their facile distinction between ‘sex works’ (erotic films they disapprove of) and ‘non-sex works’ (erotic films they do approve of). Because, as Peter de Rome himself cheerfully admitted in the excellent documentary included on the BFI DVD, his films are porn, made with the express intention of being masturbatory material – the very definition the BBFC use to declare a film to be a ‘sex work’ and so banished to the sex-shop-only R18 category, with all the restrictions that that imposes (no mail order, sales restricted to a handful of shops across the UK) if it contains real, explicit sex – which this does, extensively. The Board also claim that the film has “artistic, cultural and historical merit”, which is absolutely true – but more so than, say The Opening of Misty Beethoven, passed R18 just a few years earlier? I don’t think so. It would be nice to think that there had been a change of attitude to 1970s porn in general from the British censor. Perhaps the BFI or some other ‘respectable’ distributor might pick up the rights to Through The Looking Glass, or The Devil in Miss Jones, or Memories Within Miss Aggie, or Café Flesh… or even a bunch of 8mm loops from the 1970s… and submit them for an uncut 18. But don’t hold your breath – when Arrow submitted Radley Metzger’s Score – a fine work of art and a serious (if comedic) piece of filmmaking, they were forced to remove a few minutes of explicit gay sex because the BBFC decoded that this 1974 film from an acclaimed filmmaker was a sex work – this despite the fact that there was relatively little sex of even a softcore variety in the film, which had a stronger narrative and as arguably more ‘artistic redeeming features’ than in De Rome’s pornographic interludes. 

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Radley Metzger’s Score – not art
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The Devil in Miss Jones – also not art

Of course, the whole idea that hardcore sex is just fine in an 18-rated movie as long as the BBFC have deemed it artistically valid is ludicrous. If this material is so damaging for under age viewers that it has to be severely restricted in sales outlets, then surely that applies to all hardcore. Do they honestly believe that a child seeing The Erotic Films of Peter De Rome (or any other 18 rated film that features graphic, porn-level sex scenes) won’t, by some miracle, be corrupted because they understand the historical and artistic context of the work, while a child seeing The Devil in Miss Jones will be, because the BBFC have decided that that film is not a serious work (and damn the generations of critics who have argued otherwise)? I’ll admit, it takes some balls to make this argument – and to suggest that, in the case of this film,  the filmmaker himself is wrong about his own work – with a straight face.

Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m glad the BBFC have passed this for general adult release. I just wish they weren’t such blatant hypocrites. Because while The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome certainly does have historical value, the arthouse credentials of what are effectively a collection of 8mm silent hardcore loops seem a little dubious. Let’s be honest – you could show most audiences this and, say, a Joe Gage gay porn movie from the Seventies and I suspect few viewers would see a discernable difference in content or intent. Hell, even the title lays it on the table what this is.  

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That’s not to say that these films are disposable. Far from it. These films are impressively honest, daring, personal porn that have a real punch even for straight viewers. A collection of eight short films, this was one of the first gay hardcore films to play publicly in the early 1970s, and the movies are a fascinating time capsule. Being shot on 8mm, they have a visual connection to the underground films of the Sixties, and a similar feel – these are stories told through sometimes disjointed visual narratives, where there is a set-up leading to a sex scene that feels like an extract of someone’s fantasy. By most standards, there’s no plot to these films – instead, they take a snapshot of a time and place, a home movie feel that then segues into the explicit sex scenes. Some feel almost innocent, not unlike the sex-free gay film loops that would masquerade as ‘physique’ films, while others have a heavy, sleazy, very 1970s feel – a casual encounter on a New York subway train, a BDSM-styled gang bang, a crucifixion that would’ve certainly pushed at BBFC liberalism had the blasphemy laws still been in force. And of course they represent a world before AIDS and ‘safe sex’.

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The Erotic Films of Peter De Rome – not erotica, apparently

While these films often follow the same basic structure as modern porn, what’s notable is just how different they are from modern product. Not just being shot on film, but the look of the performers – as with straight porn, 1970s gay porn is notable for the hairiness of the cast and a natural look that is perhaps lost in its current descendents. This is material that was made, in the first instance, for the sexual gratification of one man, the director, and that personal approach – freed of the need to satisfy producers, wider audiences or distributors – makes it impressive potent filmmaking. It that sense, the BBFC are correct – this film is hardly going to appeal to the modern porn viewer, who demands not only HD quality production values but also twenty-odd minute sex scenes involving well built fantasy figures. Most people who buy this now won’t be doing so in order to jerk off over it – though some undoubtedly will, fulfilling De Rome’s intent when shooting the films. Exactly the same could be said about Deep Throat, and the fact that one film is available, uncut, in respectable bookshops and on Amazon, while the other is now only available in the UK in a heavily censored form – the uncut R18 long since deleted and rarely stocked by sex shops even when first released in 2000 (because sex shop punters definitely weren’t looking for a grainy old 1972 production) – is rather disgraceful.

DAVID FLINT

BUY THE EROTIC FILMS OF PETER DE ROME
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BUY PETER DE ROME GRANDFATHER OF GAY PORN
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