Thursday, March 14, 2013

Primitive London - British Film Institute vs Video Revelations

Originally released in 1965, Arnold Louis Miller's Primitive London is oft referred to as merely being the sequel to Miller's earlier London in the Raw (1964). However, the film can in fact be said to be the third entry into a sort of Mondo London Trilogy, with the first movie in the resultant mondo triptych being Miller's earlier foray into London's striptease clubs--West End Jungle (1961). While mayhap missing out on some of the mondo film's characteristic, uh, multiculturalism, West End Jungle nonetheless serves as a sort of transitional film from the popular proto-mondo 'sexy nocturnes' or 'mondo sexy' subgenre--which generally highlighted (often studio-staged) striptease cabaret, and nightclub acts--into the more comprehensive faux-documentary narrative of the main mondo cycle.


All of which of course isn't to say that there were a mere three mondo films about London (the hippiesploitation teen mondo Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967), the exploratory localized travelogue The London Nobody Knows (1969), and the bawdy striptease chronicle Get 'em Off (1971), all come to mind), or about England for that matter (see also Inghilterra nuda aka Naked England (1969)). Which is to yet say nothing of the fact that the aforementioned titles of course all fall within the fertile city- (e.g., Paris interdit aka Forbidden Paris (1970), Mondo New York (1988), Shocking San Francisco (1988), Montréal interdit aka Mondo Montreal (1991), Amazing Amsterdam (2006)) and country- (L'Amérique insolite aka America as Seen by a Frenchman (1960), Svezia, inferno e paradiso aka Sweden: Heaven and Hell (1968), Sexual Freedom in Denmark (1970), Sweden is Love (1970), Australia After Dark (1975), This is America aka Jabberwalk (1977), La France interdite aka Forbidden France (1984), Weird Thailand (1991), Hao qing ye sheng huo aka Hong Kong Night Guide (1997), to name but a smattering...) specific mondo subgenre.

But before we tumble too far into the resultant mondo whirlpool, let us return to the spectacle at hand. Released by the British Film Institute (BFI) on DVD and Blu-ray in 2009 as part of their cult Flipside series, Primitive London has also had an earlier VHS release from Video Revelations (VR). Said VR release presumably came out in the early 80's, as the tape is listed on the Pre-Certification Video site, thus meaning that it came out before the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984--lest the entry is in error of course, as the VHS sleeve does have a BBFC 'PG' rating label on it, which may of course itself have been placed there by the label without authorization--though there is no release date on either the VHS sleeve or in the actual video.

With the enticing BFI promotional material describing their release as being "[r]emastered to HD from the original negative", "derive[d] from an early-generation interpositive and is significantly longer than the prints that were released to British cinemas" (Vic Pratt, "Welcome to Primitive London!", 2009, BFI Primitive London liner notes) let's then take a close look at how the BFI release compares to the older VR tape so as to see if the release lives up to its marketing claims.

BFI's release looks superb--certainly much better than the VR release (or at least the bootleg thereof which we viewed)--and while digital noise reduction (DNR) techniques were used, "removing dirt, scratches, warps, torn or missing frames" ("About the Transfer", 2009, BFI Primitive London liner notes), the print does not suffer from the horrid 'wax figure' effect that overuse of DNR all too often leads to. It's also quite a pleasant viewing experience indeed to be able to view BFI's restored print in fullscreen (both releases are presented in a fullscreen (~1.33) aspect ratio), as opposed to a 'fake' cropped widescreen presentation, as has unfortunately at times become the vogue for DVD releases (for examples of both the aforementioned egregious abuse of DNR and artificial widescreen, see Synapse's horrid release of Let Me Die A Woman).

With regard to runtime, the BFI print clocks in at 1 hour, 23 minutes, and 35 seconds (at a standard PAL speed of 25 frames per second), indeed making it quite longer than the VR release which is a mere 1 hour, 13 minutes, and 10 seconds (a minute longer than the runtime of 72 minutes stated on the back of the VHS sleeve). Though a shorter runtime on its own of course does not necessarily mean that a particular print of the film is merely cut, as it may also/alternatively be chockfull of alternate footage, in this case the VR release is indeed almost entirely a cut version of the BFI release, albeit with one highly notable exception.

To reiterate, VR does have the gorier and more salacious bits almost universally abridged or excised altogether, for instance having the childbirth scene be largely redacted or missing some of the striptease acts altogether (see Appendix 1 for a comprehensive list of cuts). And yet, one of these 'cuts of the salacious' also affords the VR print a chance to substitute an alternate scene for the censored one that is then nowhere to be found in the BFI release (neither in the main feature, obviously, but neither is it offered as an extra on the discs either). This pivotal scene occurs at about 18 minutes into the film, with the topless models parading down the stairs in the BFI print now being replaced with fully clothed models in VR. What makes this particular scenic replacement remarkable, however, is the on-going background dialogue which suddenly interrupts the running narration. As the scene begins, we hear an interjected argument between the director and editor of the film:

I can do anything, I'm the director.

And I'm the editor, and I say you can't do it.

You do it the way I tell you, okay? Now, cut to close shot.


Where's those shots of the girls in that topless swimsuit?

They'll never show it.

Not enough grace or artistry, you mean?

Too much girl.

At first glance, what we have here is a simple parodic exchange in which the crass exploitation director complains that the editor with artistic pretensions isn't devoting sufficient time to the requisite nudity, with the editor retorting back that the censors will never allow the topless shots and the director in turn further insisting that he can do anything he wants and later going so far as to fire the editor after ridiculing him for his insufferable prudishness. This little exchange may seem like it's all fun and games, just a bit of jovial jostling, if it were not for the fact that the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) did opt to cut this very scene. The darkly comical cynicism oh-so-typical of the mondo film thus here prefigures a most depressive realism indeed. But going further, Primitive London preemptively reacts against the looming cuts of the censor by not only including meta commentary on the matter, but going so far as to provide an alternate scene so that said commentary is sure to still be heard by audiences in spite of the cuts. This remarkable feat is precisely what makes the otherwise heavily cut VR print notable, as a historical testament to mondo's stringent critique of and resistance to censorship.

What's further curious is that while many of the striptease sequences in the film are only abridged in VR, merely having their most risqué moments cut out as opposed to the entire sequence, one of the few exceptions is the 'Taming the Wild One' act with Anne Delyse and Willy Martin, which is excised in its entirety. This is a particularly arrant act of cinematic mutilation, and yet also one which renders the fact that the film was obviously censored quite transparent, given a still shot of Anne Delyse as the Wild One was used extensively in promotional material for the film, including posters, adverts, and lobby cards. In fact, it was even used as the centerpiece for the front cover of VR, despite being censored from that actual cut of the film. Considering that said cover also includes stills from other scenes censored from VR, one wonders if video covers, unlike the films, were immune to BBFC censorship. The 'Wild One' cut thus leaves the attentive viewer in either a state of confusion--'where is this oft-referenced scene in the film?'--or blunt awareness of the fact that the print they are viewing is incomplete, perhaps malignantly so (that is to say, censored).

Also intriguing is a bit of narrative disjunction between the two prints. Every time the narration returns to the swinger party, the explicit mention of it being a 'key party' is omitted in VR. It's unclear to us precisely why this intricate, repeat omission persists in VR. The BBFC certainly didn't appear to deem it offensive as the term is not mentioned in the BBFC list of cuts at all (see Appendix 2 for the list of BBFC cuts to the film), thus leading to the possibilities that either the narration was rewritten from an earlier draft used in the VR print when the writers learned of the explicit term for the swinger party, or that for some reason it was edited out with some sort of seemingly nebulous intent.

Speaking of (in)congruencies between the cuts found in VR and those stipulated by the BBFC, VR is in fact mostly cut in accord with said BBFC cuts (see Appendix 3 for a full comparison of VR/BBFC cuts), though there are a few slight discrepancies. For instance, while the BBFC mandates that the line 'screw one of the girls' is to be removed from the film, VR only beeps out 'screw', leaving the rest of the phrase intact. A small difference to be sure, albeit one that certainly makes one wonder how stringent the BBFC was in regards to the actual enforcement of its specified cuts, or the precision with which the cuts had to be enacted. VR also at times includes cuts that were not at all specified by the BBFC, for example removing a fairly innocuous bodybuilder flexing sequence. Curiously, said flexing sequence is also mentioned in Monthly Film Bulletin's May 1965 review of the film, "a rippling tour of a musclebound man's torso" (2009, BFI Primitive London liner notes), which thus must have reviewed a different print than the one used for the VR release, perhaps a film print which was rated X by the BBFC and passed uncut in March 1965.

Overall then, the BFI release of the film, having a superior image quality as well as being a longer cut of the film, is a clear upgrade to the VR release, only lacking the aforementioned alternate clothed modeling scene. VR then is still an essential version to have for mondo completists, censorship historians, and also mayhap for keyphobes who'll naturally want to steer away from BFI's 'key party' edition.

Appendix 1: Scene Comparison between the BFI DVD (BFI) and Video Revelations VHS (VR) Versions of Primitive London.

Format: (Time in BFI) [Time in VR] - Description

Nota bene 1: As always, timings may not be precise (assume a +/- two-second deviation at best), and are in the format: Start Time (Hours:Minutes:Seconds)-End Time (Hours:Minutes:Seconds).

Nota Bene 2: The scene comparisons below omit various frame drop-outs (wherein a few frames would be missing from a scene due to a bad print/shoddy transfer), as well as various few second start/end scene drop-outs likely due to reel changes (wherein some seconds at the very start/end of a scene would be missing). Also unnoted are several instances of so-called 'narrative drift', during which the running narration, while remaining the same in terms of spoken content, starts slightly earlier in one version of the print (this happens, for example, during the boxing gym scene). The reason for all these omissions from the following list is due to fact the that these are (presumably) minor technical imperfections, as opposed to conscious acts of egregious censorship. Also note that all of these aforementioned minute blemishes are prevalent in VR (or at least in our bootleg copy thereof), not in the superior-quality BFI print.

  1. (00:03:38-03:40) [00:04:31]; (00:03:42-00:04:32) [00:04:33] - The birthing sequence is heavily abridged in VR.

  2. (00:18:10-00:19:10) [00:18:05-00:19:04] - VR and BFI have alternate modeling sequences. Whereas the models are topless in BFI, they are wearing different, less revealing clothing in VR.

  3. (00:27:53-00:28:48) [00:27:44]; (00:29:42-00:29:46) [00:28:38] - The more risqué endings of the two Casino de Paris striptease sequences are clipped out in VR.

  4. (00:29:51-00:30:53) [00:28:46] - The flexing bodybuilder scene is not found at all in VR.

  5. (00:43:25) [00:41:12] - The word 'screw' is beeped out during an interview in VR ("If you screw one of their girls or something..." in BFI; cf. "If you *BEEP* one of their girls or something..." in VR).

  6. (00:46:57-00:48:22) [00:44:43] - The sequence during the Jack the Ripper scene showing reenactments of some of the victims' covered bodies is cut in VR. This cut is particularly curious in that the sequence shows the victims almost entirely covered in white sheets, with only their arms and legs protruding; there is no nudity or gore. A bloody Jack the Ripper stabbing reenactment which precedes said victim sequence, on the other hand, remains uncut in VR.

  7. (00:50:56-00:52:02) [00:47:17-00:48:23] - All narrative mentions of the swingin' shindig being a "key party" are curiously excised from VR (e.g., the narration in VR jumps from "Car keys dropped into a balloon glass" to "It's the latest party gimmick...", while in BFI we hear the extended narrative: "Car keys dropped into a balloon glass. This is a key party. Key parties are the latest game of chance. More exciting than bingo. It's the latest party gimmick..."; in VR the narrator simply says "The evening begins with some harmless, even naive, party games", while in BFI the narration is once again extended to explicitly mention the saliency of the keys: "The evening begins with some harmless, even naive, party games. But this husband is not so sure. Those keys do have a significance. Even, for some, a disturbing significance. The wife is eager. Why? Well, at the end of the evening we'll return and see.") (See also 10. & 13.).

  8. (00:55:15-00:56:27) [00:51:34] - The erotic nightclub sequence--'Taming the Wild One'--with Anne Delyse and Willy Martin is entirely cut from VR.

  9. (00:56:27-00:57:41) [00:51:34] - The subsequent 'Bathtime with Lesley Glory' striptease sequence is also missing entirely from VR.

  10. (00:58:07-00:58:19) [00:52:13] - Yet more shindig narrative which codifies the event as being a key party (see also 07. & 10.) is cut out from VR but present in BFI (e.g., "The only rule is that you don't go home with the partner you came with. The keys will decide.").

  11. (01:12:32-01:13:16) [01:06:22] - Another striptease sequence is excised from VR.

  12. (01:15:17-01:15:41) [01:08:21] - The lascivious ending of Audrey Crane's 'Star Quality' striptease sequence is cut out from VR.

  13. (01:15:41-01:17:34) [01:08:23-01:10:14] - Still more key party narrative is modified to remove all mention of it being a key party (BFI: "Our key party continues." vs. VR: "Our party continues.") (see also 07. & 10.). VR also has further narration excised in this scene as well (for instance, it is missing some of the typically damning, mondo-cynical invective along the lines of "A final degradation of love, the sex lottery" and "This is the death of love. When you take a chance on a car key, then the respect essential to love is thrown away" (the latter of which is of course yet another explicit key party reference).

  14. (01:17:34-01:19:04) [01:10:14] - The ending sequence of the key party scene, showing a couple of swingers going to bed (and including a poignant shot of one of their children sound asleep in their room in the meantime), is cut from VR, although there is neither nudity nor revealing night-clothes present in said sequence, thus seemingly bearing witness to the fact that the BBFC censor(s) were uncomfortable with the shot of the sleeping child--the censor's very own encrustment in all manner of cinematic filth here juxtaposed with their desire to protect the slumbering babe is here laid bare as utterly nonsensical (perhaps driven by the censor's own foggy recollections of mommy bringing home a stranger one fine eve?), being after all naught more than a maniacal desire to flip the two-sided coin of repression/suppression into the air as an excuse for gross excision. Of course, this is all to yet say nothing of the censor's most curious seeming equivocation of a child with pornography…

Appendix 2: British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) Cuts to Primitive London.

[List of BBFC cuts reproduced from Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Film Career of Tony Tenser / John Hamilton / FAB Press / 2005]

Reel 1
Reduce to a minimum the episode of the birth of a baby, and remove all close shots of the baby covered in blood.

Reel 3
Remove the whole episode in which girls show off topless dresses and swimsuits.

Reel 4
Remove the end of the Casino de Paris strip-tease, stopping before the man removes the girl's bra and G-string. Remove the later shot of this stripped girl (see after the fan dance).

Reel 5
Remove 'Screw one of their girls.'

Reel 6
Remove all but the beginning and the end of Jack the Ripper episode and all shots of the strangler of the six 'nudes,' including re-constructions and commentary.

Reel 7
Remove the whole dance of a girl in leopard-skin trousers and all shots of girls in cages.
Remove the whole strip of Lesley Glory.

Reel 8
Remove all shots of stripper when she is seen on a chair or rises from it.

Reel 9
Stop the Audrey Crane strip before she removes bra and G-string.
Remove the episode of a man and a woman going upstairs, of her entering the bedroom and starting to undress, and of the man's looking into a child's room.

Appendix 3: Comparison of BBFC-stipulated Cuts and Actual VR Cuts of Primitive London.

  • VR cuts 01. in accord with BBFC Reel 1 cuts.

  • VR cut 02. in accord with BBFC Reel 3 cut (but ingeniously inserts an alternate non-nude take of the scene in its place, complete with telling meta-commentary).

  • VR cuts 03. in accord with BBFC Reel 4 cuts.

  • VR cut 04. is not a BBFC-stipulated cut.

  • VR cut 05. not entirely in accord with BBFC Reel 5 cut, only obfuscating the word 'screw', not the entire phrase as is stipulated by the BBFC.

  • VR cut 06. may not be entirely in accord with BBFC Reel 6 cut--it does remove some of the Jack the Ripper episode, but leaves in a gory sequence, though it is unclear if the BBFC censors wanted this cut or not.

  • VR cut 07. is not a BBFC-stipulated cut.

  • VR cuts 08./09. correspond to BBFC Reel 7 cuts. Curiously, the BBFC censors don't refer to the "girl in leopard-skin trousers" by name, despite the fact that her name is shown on-screen as being Anne Delyse, which is notable because other strippers like Lesley Glory and Audrey Crane, whose names are likewise displayed on-screen, are indeed referred to by name by the BBFC.

  • VR cut 10. is not a BBFC-stipulated cut.

  • VR cut 11. in accord with BBFC Reel 8 cut.

  • VR cuts 12./14. in accord with BBFC Reel 9 cuts, while VR cut 13. is not a BBFC-stipulated cut.

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