Gilbey on Film: you say you want a revolution

Don't believe the hype about Kick-Ass.

As I wrote in the NS two weeks ago, I was amused and entertained by Kick-Ass, a violent comedy about a wave of DIY superheroes. Parts of the film have been described as shocking, but surely the biggest shock has been the adoration the movie has attracted from some quarters -- especially the Guardian, which described Kick-Ass on its website as "defiantly unconventional" and a "remarkable vision". Then Peter Bradshaw's frothing five-star rave ("thoroughly outrageous . . . fantastically anarchic . . . surrealist . . . monumentally mad and addled . . . a genius for incorrectness and pure provocation . . . . more energy and satire and craziness in its lycra-gloved little finger than other films have everywhere else. . . ") was followed by an approving capsule review in the paper's Saturday supplement, the Guide, which insisted that the movie "doesnt play by the rules".

The truth is that it plays by every rule. It doesn't rip up the rule-book so much as rewrite it in eye-catching neon.

The Financial Times and the Telegraph were scathing about the film, while the Independent and Observer were mercifully level-headed. But feverish approval was not restricted to the Guardian. I had to laugh when I heard the picture being discussed on Radio 4's Saturday Review, where Ekow Eshun delivered possibly my favourite line spoken anywhere, about anything, so far this year. He praised the film for "this desire to go to offensive places and own them as collective spaces". That is definitely what he said: I just went back and checked on the iPlayer. That's not an express ticket to Pseuds' Corner -- it's more like lobbying for a residency there.

But back to Kick-Ass: a good night out, yes, but no revolution. Here are a few reasons why, in addition to the ones I mentioned in my original review. Beware -- here be spoilers.

Fathers and sons. Like virtually every other mainstream movie in the western world, Kick-Ass has no place for women. The hero's mother dies in the first ten minutes or so. The mother of the foul-mouthed, 11-year-old crime-fighter Hit-Girl dies in a comic-strip flashback. (I can't remember if she expired in childbirth but, if not, she may as well have done.) The mother of Red Mist is glimpsed briefly at the breakfast table, then never seen again. Perhaps she died, too. The important thing is: no females, not real ones at any rate. There's something callous about that; you'll notice it everywhere. The makers of the Disney film Chicken Little got to the stage of casting the hero's single mother before deciding that it would be more dramatic to give him a single father instead. If you see that movie, keep an eye out for the character of the (now deceased) mother, consigned to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Brutal.

Women. OK, I exaggerated. There are women in Kick-Ass, but they're not real like the men. Hit-Girl isnt really a girl, but an adolescent lad's idea of a cool kid sister, meaner than any boy and with a mouth to match. The hero's love interest is only there to set up a running joke: she thinks he's gay. When she finds out he's not, and leaps straight into bed with him, you may wonder why the writers bothered with the gag anyway, unless the idea of a straight man being mistaken for a gay man is inherently funny. Which it may well be, unless you happen to be looking for a B&B.

Uxoriousness. I did wonder why the camera gazed so lovingly at that billboard of Claudia Schiffer. I didn't realise until I read other people's reviews that she is married to the director, Matthew Vaughn. Now it just looks sinister in the context of the film's insistence elsewhere on keeping its women in their place. What better way than by putting them on billboards in lingerie? (Vaughn began his career as a producer for Guy Ritchie. Ritchie has similar trouble with female characters -- remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? You could use your thumbs to count that movie's non-decorative female roles. And you'd still have two thumbs left.)

The catchphrase. "With no power comes no responsibility." A neat line, you might think, and one which fans of the film have celebrated as both a jibe at Spider-Man (cheeky, really, since Kick-Ass steals most of its first 40 minutes from Sam Raimi's nicely judged 2002 adventure) and a symbol of the picture's amorality. What doesn't get mentioned is that the line is followed by the words: "Except that's not quite true . . ." The screenwriters giveth, and the screenwriters taketh away. If it wasn't quite true, why leave the line in? Oh, I see, because it gets a laugh. To which the only response can be: Get thee to a script editor.

You'll notice I haven't even included the highly dubious BBC cross-promotion that allows Jonathan Ross (whose wife, Jane Goldman, co-wrote the script) to plug the film on his Friday-night talk show in an interview with the star, Aaron Johnson. (Ross is also chums with the writer of the Kick-Ass comic-book, Mark Millar, who based a character in an earlier comic on the chat-show host.) And to think that the covers of children's story-books on the CBeebies channel are routinely blanked out to avoid accusations of on-screen advertising!

Why not add some of your reasons why Kick-Ass is nowhere near as subversive as its defenders would have us believe? Together we can own this debate. Maybe we can even take it to a collective place, weather permitting.




Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.