There has been much conjecture following news that Lust, Caution was slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As many pundits and critics have explained, the NC-17 is the kiss of death in Hollywood. Although Lust, Caution will not be distributed by a major studio on thousands of screens across the country, the expected move on the part of the studio (Focus Features) and director would be to appeal the rating and make the appropriate edits for an R rating, as that would ensure higher distribution and box office, especially for an awards season "prestige" film. But the appeal never came. Lee instead accepted the NC-17, and Focus Features is moving ahead as planned with the release of the film next month.
As a recent Los Angeles Times article observes, many claim that the MPAA's system for movie ratings is more than questionable, and that the dreaded NC-17 is typically assigned for strong sexual content rather than strong violence. Pornographically violent movies like The Passion of the Christ (2004) are never questioned, but any movie showing pubic hair or female pleasure is an immediate danger of receiving an NC-17 rating. Although I haven't seen Lust, Caution as of yet, early reports indicate that the sexuality, while erotic, is by no means pornographic. Like many, I'm not surprised that the movie was hit with the rating, since the MPAA has always imposed infantile values on the American public, in doing so reducing expression and representations of sexuality to sitcom-style innuendo that reflects our insecurity and fear about sexuality than our embrace of it. Therefore, that this film was hit with the kiss of death rating is not at all a surprise.
The real surprise here (and a welcome one at that) is that Lee has accepted the rating and that the film continues to pick up steam as it moves toward release. Though it was never going to be a wide release, news of the NC-17 could have severely damaged the film's chances of turning a respectable gross and gaining enough media exposure to be a contender come time for awards season. Focus Features and Ang Lee have instead turned this into a positive for the film, which may be the first sign of progress toward upending a criminal ratings system. As critics, movie goers, filmmakers, etc., we have to accept that the ratings system is here to stay. The MPAA and its "clients" have structured a system that makes it nearly impossible for filmmakers to take the cinematic medium seriously as an art form. The MPAA is a tentpole institution for the commodification of images, and it functions as such by informing the American public how it should feel about sexuality, religion, drugs, etc. While film goers can voice their dissatisfaction in their consumer choices, one of the few ways that filmmakers can work for change is to work within the confines of the very systems of power to work against them. Of course, this isn't easy, but Ang Lee has done just that.
By not caving in to the MPAA's intimidation and accepting their rating, Lee and co. are trusting in the intelligence and will of their audience. I may be overly optimistic, but if more filmmakers stood up for the art of cinema and braved the distribution and box office risk of the NC-17, then the rating's image as the kiss of death would evaporate. Of course this isn't as easy as it sounds, but I remain confident that the weakness of the system is the expectation that filmmakers and studios will always comply. The moment one does not, it may influence others to test the NC-17 waters, and (at best) maybe create a snowball effect that would relieve the rating of its death wish status. It won't change the pomposity of the rating, and it won't alter our collective approach towards sexuality in art, cinema, and culture like the flip of a switch, but it may be a starting point; the foundation of change.
I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that the filmmaker behind this potentially revolutionary step is Ang Lee, the filmmaker who two years ago made a quiet drama about the love of two men that captured the nation. Hollywood and Indiewood have dealt with homosexuality in cinema before, but never have I seen a movie work both as broadly appealing storytelling and as an intimately personal narrative grappling with some of the most relevant themes in American culture today. I was not among the camp touting Brokeback Mountain (2005) as more of a love story that happened to involve gay men, as if that's some kind of compliment. Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story, plain and simple. Lee wants you to know that, as he should. Through sublime images and brilliant performances, Lee digs deep into the minds of two men who learn to hate themselves because they love each other, in so doing digging even deeper into the collective unconscious of viewers. It is a profound film, one in which Lee manages to find just the right balance in approaching matters of repression, sexuality, and cultural Otherness through a straightforward narrative account of a gay relationship beautifully committed to images. It didn't preach messages or politicize, and its impact on America was vast. But the collective response and constant jokemaking resulting from the film's popularity essentially demonstrated why it was so necessary.
Although Lust, Caution does not deal with any hot-button issues and will not likely have the impact on American pop-culture that Lee's last film did, it nonetheless marks an important step in American cinema consistent in spirit with everything that Brokeback Mountain represented. Along with David Cronenberg, Ang Lee is emerging as one of the most important voices in contemporary cinema. Yes, I am aware that both of these filmmakers have made great films for many years. But each of them right now are uniquely addressing utterly essential issues in how we behave, communicate, and situate ourselves within a culture in their recent films. Lee is now doing so both inside his films and out.
Although I haven't seen the film yet, its title, Lust, Caution strikes me as simple, urgent. Two words that, in light of Lee's refusal to bow to the MPAA, rather concisely sums up a major cultural problem. Its impending release may well represent a monumental step in cinematic activism.