Can 9 Songs still be considered art?

In 2005 I reviewed Michael Winterbottom’s film 9 Songs for the Morning Star. One of the things that was most apparent to me at the time was just how graphic the sex scenes in the film were, being that it had been classified as a non-pornographic film by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). I had completely forgotten that I had reviewed 9 Songs, and only remembered it when I was going through my old work for the website. I suppose it is quite a coincident that I should stumble across it now, being that I have spent the last few months researching pornography for an extended essay published by Znet and a features piece taken from it for the Morning Star.

In preparing this post I thought it would be helpful to just make sure the BBFC hadn’t changed their opinion of 9 Songs. A couple of things jumped out at me. According to their website anyway, the BBFC have a rather strange understanding of what qualifies as pornography. The category they use for material only available in licensed sex shops and cinemas is called the R18 category. They describe this as “a special and legally-restricted classification primarily for explicit works of consenting sex or strong fetish material involving adults”.

So I decided to dig a little deeper and download the full guidelines. That is when things became a little clearer. The BBFC explain what is unlikely to get an R18 certificate and therefore not be legally available in licensed sex shops and cinemas as “material (including dialogue) likely to encourage an interest in sexually abusive activity which may include adults role-playing as non-adults”, “the portrayal of sexual activity which involves real or apparent lack of consent”, “the infliction of pain or acts which may cause lasting physical harm, whether real or (in a sexual context) simulated” and “sexual threats, humiliation or abuse which do not form part of a clearly consenting role-playing game. Strong physical or verbal abuse, even if consensual, is unlikely to be acceptable”.

So based on their own guidelines, the BBFC is unlikely to approve of pornography being sold in the UK if it contains women using signifiers of childhood, a character being forced against their will, an act that could cause lasting physical harm, and non-consensual humiliation or abuse. Well, based on that alone I would suggest that there are countless porn websites ticking all of those boxes being happily beamed into our homes as part of the special relationship. And without getting into that now, I have discussed at some length in the Znet essay, and the shorter article in the Morning Star. Although I do wonder how the BBFC would respond to that sort of allegation now.

In terms of 9 Songs, the intervening 15 years has somewhat desensitised me. With porn being broadcast on free to air channels, big-budget entertainments regularly depicting rape, the pornification of our day-to-day culture, and the avalanche of pornography online, footage of people having sex doesn’t quite have it’s shock factor any more. Perhaps it would be easier to now judge 9 Songs on it’s story, acting and directing. But for me, once you filter out the shock factor, the film doesn’t really have that much to elevate it above other films about fleeting relationships. If I was to review it now, I guess my response would be something more like … merh.

If for nothing else other than full disclosure, I’ve put the original review up anyway. It was published by the Morning Star at the time, but I believe it has now been consigned to their archives. To read it in full or to download a text version please click through to the page.