Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sex and violence as filtered by the MPAA

"Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is ok, just don't say any naughty words."
- South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)

When I saw the headline in Variety reporting that the MPAA will be making alterations to the film rating system, I was momentarily high with excitement. It turned out that my naive sense of hope once again has gotten the better of me, because after reading about these proposed changes to the system, I quickly settled back to the same frustrated state when thinking about our film ratings system. The changes are minimal, and although they may impact certain areas of the appeal process in particular, these changes will likely not amount to much more than a political and bureaucratic move.

Not surprisingly, the state of movie ratings has become a very strong political issue. Many well known liberal commentators call for the system to be totally renovated, while conservatives tend to favor it and encourage that it clamp down even more than it already does, in the spirit of the FCC with radio and television. Where one falls on this issue inevitably depends on a great deal on individual values and what is considered appropriate when it comes to regulating arts and entertainment.

I am not much of a political person in a right/left sense, but I don't pretend to have an unbiased take on this issue. As a cinema lover, I do not approve of the system in the smallest way. I would eradicate it and start from scratch if I had the chance. However, I am not foolish enough to think that such a momentous course of action could ever be feasible.

Esentially, the MPAA ratings system is a sectioned off version of the Hays code, the one and only standard of film censorship in the United States from the 30's into the 60's, before the MPAA. All films released in the United States were subject to the same restrictions. There were certain things one could suggest, and certain things one couldn't. For example, a kiss could only be held on screen for a certain amount of seconds. It was a cut and dry system that ensured that all films had similar standards. Filmmakers were always trying to get around the rules and slip through the cracks in the system (see the romance scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman early in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious). Hitchcock and others were always trying to push the envelope while also point out the utter hypocrisy of the system and its fundamental inability to encapsulate film content. Filmmakers like Hitchcock knew that the content of moving images often went beyond what was visible at a given moment. So much more can be suggested in cinema that attempting to quantify the appropriateness of sexual content, violence or anything else is practically irrelevant, and a facile understanding of what images are capable of.

Today, the ratings system essentially categorizes films with the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings. And, being that films are hugely marketing pieces of merchandise, studios and filmmakers have learned what quantifies each system and make their films accordingly. In a perfect world, from my point of view, we wouldn't have anything like this. It greatly undermines the artistic endeavor that filmmaking can and should be and it promotes films being forced into a specific territory when it comes to content. Instead of one big code, there are now segregated options. The MPAA claims to be a voluntary system, but, economically, the reality is that films that do not submit for an MPAA ratings have no chance of being distributed.

The meaning of ratings has changed, and such change is often ushered by adding or deleting ratings. For example: the PG-13. The rating was first suggested by Steven Spielberg after angry viewers complained about the level of violence in the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Feeling that the level of violence didn't deserve an R rating, (at the time, R was much less acceptable and less mainstream than it is today) Spielberg suggested an "in between" rating. But all it has done was alter the content of other ratings. The G - meant to suggest family entertainment - is all but gone and has been replaced by the PG - a rating that allows some innuendo and minor curse words, but is a far cry from films like Jaws, which was rated PG in 1975. The PG-13 has replaced the old PG rating, and the R is now much more acceptable and regular than in the 70's and 80's. The NC-17, previously X, is the phantom rating because there are so few films that have been rated it. It's a commercialdeathwish to get an NC-17 since it's viewed as pornography. Therefore, the standards of the R, which are much more constraining than many think, have not adapted. Therefore, the level of violence, sex, and "thematic content" (a great MPAA phrase) are standardized and are allowed within very careful bounds. It doesn't matter if ratings are added or subtracted, because in the end, any change in system will adjust and level out accordingly, and films will continue to be made and seen according to what's "allowed" under each rating. What skewers the whole thing, however is the phantom NC-17 rating; since no film ever achieves it, and it is supposed to represent something, the more tame R of today is essentially the maximum level of "mature" content allowed. I'm no fan of having to make films that adhere to this system, but I suppose it must exist on some level.

Determining the level of content allowed in each rating category is where all of the controvery has risen. Observing trends in filmmaking and culture reveal that the MPAA is notoriously soft on violence, yet strangely limiting when it comes to sexuality, which to some degree reflects the values of our culture.

Many filmmakers have spoken out against the hypocrisy of the MPAA, notably Kirby Dick, who made a expose-like documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, which I have yet to see. Since it was deemed an NC-17 rating, no studio or theater chain wanted to distribute it, which in a way is another way for Dick to make a statement. The film will be released next week, and I have every intention of seeing it. Some speculate that the changes to the system were partly due to the film, which apparently exploits the biased natures of the ratings board.

In the minds of the ratings board members, depictions of violence is quite alright, but when it comes to sex and curse words, filmmakers better be careful. Now, let's be clear about something. Cinema allows such acts as sex and violence to be depicted in a variety of ways, and they have both featured prominently in cinema throughout its history. Over time, viewers form a familiarity with particular conventions of how they are depicted. Many techniques exist that suggest certain emotions or events and are used quite frequently. Shot-by-shot analyses of films would reveal many of these devices and stylistic techniques, but right now I would just like to vent my beliefs about how these particular devices have defined the overall cinematic understanding of such things.

Sex and violence are fascinating ideas to study in a cinematic context. Many question why films feature so much sex and violence, and the answer to such a question is complicated. Firstly, there is something about the senses of sight and sound that, when you put moving images on a screen, we respond in a very immediate way. The cinema can make you feel in ways different than other narrative and/or art forms. Sexuality and violence can be very visceral and emotive, which is what cinema can do evoke best. Where some viewers claim that depictions of these acts corrupts minds (which, in many cases really depends on the depiction and context), I contest that through the cinema, viewers can particpate in an emotional and immediate experience capable of provoking different manners of feeling and thinking. However, as much they are built-in or socialized into our individual selves and cultures, sex and violence are large elements of who and what we are. Therefore, I think these ideas manifested through the narrative art form of moving images may allow us to feel and think about them in ways more productive than merely claiming they corrupt people. We can learn much about ourselves and our culture and society (especially considering the increasingly visual culture of which we are now a part) based on how violence and sex are made visible through narrative art. Images are so powerful, and based on the feelings they provoke, we can question and expand upon our own views about such matters by exposing ourselves to different ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking. A discussion framed from this standpoint can therefore be very useful and worthy of study.

Several writers and critics rarely waste an opportunity to blast the MPAA for its inconsistent, extremely biased approach to rating films. Roger Ebert has written extensively about the MPAA's influence of filmmakers and viewers, and how they make sexuality visible in the cinema. This from his review of Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien:

"The movie is realistic about sex, which is to say, franker and healthier than the smutty evasions forced on American movies by the R rating. We feel a shock of recognition: This is what real people do and how they do it, sexually, and theMPAA has perverted a generation of American movies into puerile masturbatory snickering...

It is clear Cuaron is a gifted director, and here he does his best work to date. Why did he return to Mexico to make it? Because he has something to say about Mexico, obviously, and also because Jack Valenti and the MPAA have made it impossible for a movie like this to be produced in America. It is a perfect illustration of the need for a workable adult rating: too mature, thoughtful and frank for the R, but not in any sense pornographic. Why do serious film people not rise up in rage and tear down the rating system thatinfantilizes their work?"

I couldn't agree more with Roger's sentiments. As a culture, we are much more at ease with images of violence than we are with sexuality, which is something that I don't understand. We seem to fetishize violence in different forms; sometimes in the form of pleasurable entertainments, sometimes in the form of serious narrative trying to depict violence honestly and responsibly, while some films represent more of a cross between these two ideologies of depicting violence. The point is that there are so many ways in which violence is depicted, viewed, felt, and understood in the cinema, but when it comes to sexuality, there is much less available, at least in terms of the mainstream. Many films made outside America are much more comfortable with it, as well as lesser known productions within American. But for the most part, in this country, people appear to be afraid of sex. Some might disagree and claim that there is so much suggestion and innuedo featured in entertainment, to which I say, of course! Because we have become so timid in regards to depicting and viewing human sexuality in any kind of mature way, it has manifested itself in other ways, usually in the form of comedy, innuendo, and representations suggesting just enough sex that is acceptable. Such standards are defined by the FCC and MPAA . which wield great power in what we see and consume. Films that are daring, honest, and up-front with approach sexuality maturely are slapped with an NC-17 rating and are never seen, let alone produced and distributed by a major studio. As for television and radio, advertisers wouldn't touch such material with a 50-foot pole. Instead, we are given the same assembly-line, mass-produced schlock that is "acceptable." Perhaps if we are more honest and unafraid of sexuality, it won't be such a hush-hush topic and we can actually see it as something more than forbidden and immoral, which is how it's currently viewed and depicted.

The point I make with all of this is that the MPAA (as well as the FCC) sustains and upholds supposedly tasteful standards for sex as part of our culture that are sickening and hypocritical. Images are everywhere. All of us are affected by mainstream entertainment, consumerism, and advertising in one form or another. In fact, I would argue (and this is the subject of a later post) that images have become more influential in shaping our views and interaction with our society and its institutions than words. We are all influenced by these infantile visions of sex perpetrated on us, and until the MPAA and FCC and the American people (it's a cyclical effect and it starts with those in power) are willing to embrace a more open and healthy perspective of sexuality, we will be uncomfortable with it not just as participants in media and culture, but as individuals. The cinema is an essential and relevant visual medium that can reflect and inform, and it is the responsibility of filmmakers to construct and present images that provoke thought and feeling, especially in regard to the increasingly visual culture of which we all are members.

What we have now isn't working, and making little tweaks to the current approach will not address the issue. I suppose the current changes can be viewed in a positive light, because, hey, at least it's something. But I urge that we must go further. I know it's not easy, but as cinema lovers and as social beings, we must refuse to be manipulated any further and press for change.

But perhaps I'm just being naive and overly hopeful again...

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hey Ted,

Thanks for the blog. Looks like it was written over a year ago but I'm doing research for a paper on this very subject and ran across it. We share the same feelings on the topic and hopefully we'll be able to inform enough people to make a change. Here's hoping!

I'm an on-again-off-again flicmaker, so check out my blog if you want: