Monday 8 January 2024

Shaken and Stirred: Bond, John Barry and the BFI

Some of you may have noticed that the BFI are programming a series of James Bond films in February. Correction; it's a season of movies scored by John Barry, which includes some of his Bond movies. Of which more later.

The organisation have caused some feather ruffling by providing a disclaimer for the whole season (comprising ten very varied movies, all from the 1960s) which states that "...many of these films contain language, images or other content that reflect views prevalent in its time, but will cause offence today (as they did then). The titles are included here for historical, cultural or aesthetic reasons and these views are in no way endorsed by the BFI or its partners" (my italics).

I'll leave that there and turn instead to another season, taking place in January, around the new documentary Scala!!! Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World's Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits; a film about the legendary and much missed independent Scala cinema in King's Cross (and you can read my review of the doc here). The BFI was one of the funders of the film and also secured distribution rights; this has been celebrated by a number of screenings of the doc in the first month of the new year, together with some Scala 'friendly' related programming, with screenings of movies including Basket Case (1982), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), The Evil Dead (1981) and Thundercrack! (1975)

So the BFI, who have backed the documentary and embraced the screening principles of the Scala in its choice of accompanying programming, find themselves in a bit of a dilemma. Because many of the films to be screened were somewhat shocking - and in the case of Thundercrack! notorious - in their day, the BFI is required to issue audience warnings in terms of content. I'm not going to debate the principles of warning audiences (I understand why it is done and its usefulness for audiences is underlined by research), but the irony that the BFI should do this while at the same time celebrating a cinema that prided itself on 'out there' programming is not lost on me. 

But what they haven't done is distanced themselves from the season itself.

Which takes us back to the John Barry movies. Like those programmed in the January Scala season the February programme carries trigger warnings for some of the season's films; for example Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) informs audiences that the film contains '...scenes of domestic violence', and You Only Live Twice (1967) '...outdated racial stereotypes'. 

So far so good. But just read that disclaimer reproduced above in the second paragraph again; we're in rather different territory here. The BFI has felt it necessary to offer up an additional disclaimer to the trigger warnings, which goes beyond the comments appended to some of the films in the season. My first italicised word, 'will', is an emphatic update to the more commonly deployed 'may' in a sentence like this. The (paying) audiences viewing these films will be offended, it more than suggests. And further adds 'as they did then'. Based on what precisely? Stentorian contemporaneous reviews in the 'Monthly Film Bulletin'? 

To remove doubt further, the BFI then goes on to explain that these titles are only included in the programme - ie shown at all - for 'historic, cultural or aesthetic reasons'. They cannot in any way be considered as worthwhile, enjoyable or of any artistic merit because they are riddled with outdated attitudes and references which have soured them not only for new audiences but any audiences. So what does that mean for people who list Midnight Cowboy (1969), Goldfinger (1964) or Bryan Forbes's The Whisperers (1967) among their favourite films (also included in the Barry season)? Does that mean they are no longer welcome at the BFI?

Turning to the Scala season, this contains films from roughly the same period that include scenes of, for example, a woman being sexually assaulted by a tree, a character eating dog shit off the pavement, bestiality, forced home entry and rape, and explicit sex. Will audiences be offended by these films? Arguably yes; in most cases this was the intention of the filmmakers. So if a film sets out to - and thus may - offend it receives a different BFI reception to one which - according to the programmers - will cause offence because the times in which it was filmed have rubbed off on the movies' themes and content.

To return to my first comment; this is not a James Bond season; it's a John Barry one. The BFI's relationship with Bond films - particularly the 'less rounded' (their words) early filmic incarnations of the agent - has always been rather tricky. So one could argue that hiding a few Bond movies under the cover of a season about their composer, John Barry, is rather handy. But just to apply a 'belt and braces' distancing approach to screening them, not only does the BFI apply individual trigger warnings, but there's an overall disclaimer that they're unreconstructed rubbish which no-one in their right minds would ever watch as 'entertainment'.

In a recent statement provided to The Guardian, who covered the same subject, the BFI stated: "Whilst we have a responsibility to preserve films as close to their contemporaneous accuracy as possible, even where they contain language or depiction which we categorically reject, we also have a responsibility in how we present them to our audiences. The trigger warnings/content warnings that we provide in all of our exhibition spaces and online platforms act as guidance that a film or work reflects views of the time in which they were made and which may cause offence". Where then does that leave the subscription based BFI in their wholesale rejection of a group of films?

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