Drying Censorship: An Interview with Charlie Lyne

This is the third installment of my interview series, where I speak with a noted member of the online film community. Today’s guest:

Credit: charlielyne.com

Charlie Lyne is a London-based film critic and filmmaker whose professional career started with the launch of his successful blog Ultra Culture in 2008. Following that, he directed the documentary Beyond Clueless, a video essay which traces the psychology and world of the teen film. Most recently, Lyne made waves when he protested a law which requires all films exhibited in the United Kingdom to carry a rating (or certificate) from the BBFC. Finding this ordinance (and its accompanying entry fee to simply submit a movie) unfair, Lyne spoke out by sending the BBFC a project called Paint Drying, in which he filmed a wall with white paint for ten hours without interruption. They had to classify it. 

KEN BAKELY: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. One thing I noticed when reading about you was that you started out [by] creating a film blog and writing about films, and then you sort of made a transition into working with projects and making films like Beyond Clueless. For you, do you think it was a natural extension to go from writing about movies to working with them directly or was it more of a separate transition?

CHARLIE LYNE: Yeah, you would probably suspect from the kinds of films I’ve made so far that there’s a link between the two, and I think for me, the decision to start making films was never a concerted effort to move into a different art form, but rather the stories I wanted to tell felt like they suited that medium better. So Beyond Clueless, the first film I made, which is about teen movies, started out as an idea for something I would write, whether that was a series of articles, or a blog, or whatever else, but as I started thinking about it, it felt like it suited a visual medium more, because one of the things that really fascinated me about teen movies was how you could look at them critically but that still wouldn’t dampen the emotional resonance that they have, and I think that was harder for me to convey without stepping into an audiovisual space.

So that’s why I started to try and make stuff in a visual medium, which is increasingly common among critics, whether that’s feature length or shorter video essays. That’s still what it feels like to me now – just another option if I have an idea, as now I can write it or make it into a film or whatever else feels best.

KEN BAKELY: Something I noticed about Beyond Clueless is that it is effectively an hour-and-a-half long video essay, and that it’s not a documentary in the traditional sense. Was that idea to make it what it is done out of necessity over resources or was it what you thought was the best way to convey your point?

CHARLIE LYNE: From the beginning, it was never intended to be anything other than a quite personal idiosyncratic take on that genre. I wasn’t particularly interested in making a talking head interview documentary where I study the history of the teen genre (although that stuff interests me). What interested me much more was the kind of internal world of those films, and to make it in a more traditional manner would have completely dampened the effect of that world because you pull yourself out and forget the internal reality of it.

I felt that the video essay form was a perfect one where you want to capture a feeling or a world within film culture. In fact, I think it’s kind of strange mainstream video essays, although there’s so many you can’t really make generalizations about them, but I feel it’s quite rare that you see attempts to see stuff that evokes emotion in its own right, rather than discussing from a distance.  That seems like a missed opportunity to me. I always like exploiting the ability of the video essay to be a film in its own right as well as discussing other films.

KEN BAKELY: So both major projects that you’ve made – Beyond Clueless and Paint Drying, which we will get to in a minute – sort of “nontraditional” ways of using film and video as a form. Have you found that you’re using film in a way to convey ideas, and would you consider into a more “traditional” narrative or more “traditional” documentary filmmaking?

CHARLIE LYNE: I try to be driven by whatever ideas come to me, so with all these things, the idea was never to do something explicitly untraditional, it just felt like it suited the project best. I would happily make a more traditional documentary or a narrative project, but only if I had an idea and that felt like the best way to execute it. One of the things you quickly realize as well is that showing these films to different people and sharing them in communities is how little stuff is actually in that mainstream. While Beyond Clueless might be untraditional or weird to one group, to another it’s really old hat and predictable. It’s all kind of relative and it’s interesting the different reactions that Beyond Clueless got when it played at genre festivals or when it played at documentary festivals. I think that’s all good – it benefits it in both of those worlds from being in slight contrast to the other films but also having unmistakable contrast to elements of them.

KEN BAKELY: So, now that I did mention Paint Drying earlier, I feel like we should talk about it because I don’t think before this many people, especially people outside of the United Kingdom were aware of this requirement that essentially filmmakers who wanted to exhibit a film theatrically in the United Kingdom had to a) get a classification and b) had to pay for what is a mandatory service. How did you go from having that problem to this odd form of protest where you literally filmed a wall with paint on it?

CHARLIE LYNE: I’d been fascinated by film censorship in general and the BBFC more specifically for a long time, and had written about it and discussed it at length with many different people who agree and disagree, but it’s never really been something that’s been a mainstream topic of conversation. I think to a lot of people the BBFC and most censorship agencies are just this kind of invisible presence that exists, affecting the way that art is made and released, but not really showing itself.

That’s true in the States as well, and while the MPAA is different from the BBFC, they’re still built on a tradition and an idea that they cannot be questioned, and that they cannot be held up to scrutiny. The idea with Paint Drying was to do something that because of its novelty value, interesting to a much wider audience, in the fact that it’s obviously the common idiom “as boring as watching paint drying”, it meant something to people even if they had no clue what the BBFC was (why should they, obviously).

To be honest, even then, I never could have expected that it would cross over to quite the extent it did. I hoped it would maybe spark a conversation, within the UK film industry, but it’s gone so much beyond that, and like you say, especially internationally. That’s been a really interesting aspect, since most people outside of the UK don’t know or really care what the BBFC is, but most people still have their homegrown equivalents.

A scene from Charlie Lyne's Paint Drying.
A scene from Charlie Lyne’s Paint Drying.

KEN BAKELY: When you’re referring to the BBFC you keep using the term “censorship”. Do you think there is a point where classification especially mandatory classification becomes roundabout censoring?

CHARLIE LYNE: Not even roundabout – in the UK, if the BBFC refuses to grant you a certificate for your film because of the content of it, it is effectively banned. You cannot release it cinemas, or on DVD or Blu-ray. That’s pretty straightforward censorship. It’s slightly different in the U.S., at least, because you can release a film unrated, and although the MPAA still has its problems, that’s what makes it just an infinitely better system than the one we have here. [The MPAA is] still, when it comes down to it, an optional service, even if they’ve made it very hard to find a way to get around it for the studios to release their film successfully.

KEN BAKELY: I almost feel like the MPAA in that respect is almost a bit more insidious than the BBFC because they’re not saying one has to have a classification but it’s sort of common knowledge among people that major theater chains won’t show an unrated film or an NC-17 rated film.

CHARLIE LYNE: Yeah, but there’s still just a world of difference – you say that, but to have the ability… If you’ve got three people in the U.S. – one who’s made a film, one who owns a cinema, and one who wants to release that film into that cinema, they can all agree amongst themselves to get that film to the public. Although there’s lots of broken things within that system, the government has no say within that equation, whereas here, there’s a massive amount [of government] between those theoretical three people. You can have a distributor who wants to release a film, a cinema that wants to show it, and an audience that wants to come and see it, but it’s meaningless if the BBFC says no.

KEN BAKELY: So with that in mind, and with your added exposure from this (because I’d heard from people who had heard about the project on American drive-time radio), since it has gotten around, do you think you could use the exposure it has gotten you as a jumping off point for activism in fields like that? Is this the start of a thing you’d want to be more involved in?

CHARLIE LYNE: I have no plans to stop writing about the BBFC and talking about the BBFC and so on. As I said in the beginning, I obviously didn’t expect this project to have some seismic impact on the way that the BBFC works (it’s not gonna change that quickly, they have a century of tradition on their side). It takes a long time to change anything like this, and I wholly don’t expect to be the person that does it, but if it gets a lot of people talking about it, then at least it’s a topic for conversation. which it really didn’t feel like it was before.

So yeah, I have no idea. I feel like even the practical side of censorship, being what it is now, and how impossible the Internet makes it for people to say effectively what can and cannot be watched, I can’t see the BBFC and other organizations like it not having to recognize that shift sometime soon. It feels like a fairly bright future.

Once again, today’s interview subject was Charlie Lyne, filmmaker and film critic. You can follow him on twitter @charlielyne, and this site @filmreviews12. Lyne’s personal website can be found at charlielyne.com. He also regularly writes for The Guardian. His first feature film, Beyond Clueless, is available on iTunes.