10 March 2011

WTF, MPAA?

Even before I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated last year (thank you, Netflix Watch Instantly!) I was very conscious about film ratings and the often confusing, if not outright hypocritical, nature of the MPAA.  Lately, though, I'm so baffled I'm angry.  Or am I so angry I'm baffled?  I just can't tell anymore.

Last month, I streamed the astounding documentary Restrepo.  It follows a platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed in the most volatile region in Afghanistan as they try to turn the tide of war there.  We see them in action several times, including two ambushes--during each of which at least one soldier lost his life.  The actual killings are not shown (I presume out of respect, but possibly because it's really hard to know where to point a camera when you're literally under fire), but we are clearly informed what has taken place.  Want to know what the MPAA rated Restrepo?
Rated R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.
These men have put their lives on the line for real, but the MPAA
is afraid that teens will hear them talk about violence.
Think about that for a moment.  It's not the actual combat captured on screen that was the problem.  Seeing civilian casualties of a bombing offensive--including a horribly burned little girl--didn't faze the MPAA.  The notion that teens might see this fine documentary and hear some soldiers describe what happened, though, set the self-righteous MPAA all in a tizzy.  I don't know what bothers me more: the fact that the MPAA didn't even feel that the on-screen imagery was even bothersome enough to note in its rating, or the fact that language alone was given as a reason to keep this out of the hands of teens who may have gone to see it during its admittedly limited theatrical release.  That's right, Johnny: you may have a loved one serving our country, and have a personal interest in seeing what things are really like for them, but because they talk about violence you're not considered mature enough to handle this.  Had they just shown the violence, however...well, who knows?

"S-s-so ho-ho-ho-how ma-ny times ca-ca-can...I...s-s-s-say, 'f-f-f-fuck'?"
Then there's the matter of The King's Speech, which included Colin Firth swearing rapidly in the context of speech therapy.  He may as well have been yelling, "frak!frak!frak!frak!" for all the meaning that the words have in the scene.  By that, I mean to distinguish it's not as though audiences are hearing it in the heat of sexual passion, nor is it hurled as an invective.  The film opened on Christmas Eve, became the darling of the awards season and took in $100 million along the way in two months.  Then it was announced literally the day before the Academy Awards were held that the Weinstein Company had agreed to mute some of Firth's language to secure a new PG-13 rating.

The votes had already been turned in and counted; it was too late for this move to be seen for what it is: throwing the artistic intent of the film under the bus in the name of commercialism.  The Weinstein Company had the opportunity to insist on the edits before the film was released, but were content with its R-rating.  It wasn't until they'd gotten every last bit of mileage out of the film for awards and that it had grossed $100 million that the bean counters appear to have said, "You've proved your artistic point; now let's make a lot more money before this thing hits DVD!"  It's disingenuous both to the filmmakers who felt their film complete, and to audiences who see the retroactively edited version.

Ironic, isn't it, that a film about finding one's voice would be subject to this kind of censorship?  I'm sure someone reading this is thinking, "But Travis, they could have chosen another word for Firth to yell in rapid succession and achieved the same point; it's not as though they were following an actual transcript of the therapy sessions."  I would counter that by saying that the word of choice does have a more significant value than another choice, and that it suits the scene perfectly.  The point is to get "Albie" to not only speak clearly, but to have a sort of catharsis; to break through the timidity heaped upon him by his family and really let out his own thoughts and feelings.  It's difficult to imagine another word in the English language being sufficient to the task.  Moreover, I would argue that this was an instance for the MPAA to properly consider context and artistic merit.  Instead, it appears that their rater simply kept a tally of f bombs and once it hit a second tic mark, an R rating was stamped on the film.  And while we're at it, isn't it funny that the MPAA was willing to give a lower rating for the film once it had made a ton of money and been lavished with high profile awards?

What we've learned here is that the MPAA is not concerned about the effect that visual imagery of real soldiers in live combat might have on our youth, and that the mere discussion of those acts is tantamount to a handful of "fuck"s.  Imagine, if you will, that Elmer Fudd says, "I'm hunting wabbits."  He then shoots at Bugs Bunny, who reacts by yelling, "Fuck!"  The MPAA would consider that sequence too mature for teenagers because 1) Elmer talks about the violence and 2) Bugs drops an f bomb.
Seeing Elmer actually try to shoot and kill Bugs is not considered a problem.
Close your ears, Daffy!
Traditionally, the MPAA has insisted that its ratings are based solely on the context of the film at hand.  That is to say, that they realize the difference between a the fantasy of Batman fighting a group of thugs and the historical value of reenacting D-Day.  It appears to me, however, that the MPAA is no longer cognizant of any artistic merits in their blind pursuit of reasons to penalize a film.  Seriously, I can't think of two films from 2010 I would rather a teenager see than Restrepo and The King's Speech (its whitewashing re: the royals and Nazis aside).  Who are we kidding?  The average teen would have passed over both of those in favor of Iron Man 2 anyway; why exclude the minority of teens who may actually have a mature enough taste in film to want to have seen either of these on the big screen?  They have far greater value as works of art than nearly any other film released last year, but the MPAA's self-righteous fretting over language became a barrier between youth and art.

I imagine a fifteen year old movie-goer standing in line to buy a ticket to Restrepo and saying, "I want to see the truth" and the MPAA denying his ticket request, shouting,
"You can't handle the truth!"
Sorry, MPAA, but it seems you're the infantile one if some words bother you so much, or that you honestly fear for the corruptive influence those words might have on today's youth.  I've got news for you: despite the banal caricature you may have of today's teens as iPod carrying, Facebook-obsessed narcissists, this generation is far more frank about mature subjects than you'd like to admit.  Hell, they grew up in a world where terrorists could hijack a pair of planes and bring down the World Trade Center on live TV.  I think they can handle some "fuck"s in their movies.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Travis,

    I hear a lot of complaints about the rating system in the US of A. I really do not understand the philosophy behind all this. You can show violence, but you are not allowed to swear?
    I watched the Oscars, and I heard Melissa Leo swear during her speech, realising fully that it would be censored in the United States (I live in Belgium, where the rules aren't that strict).

    I think you are correct, the MPAA should get in touch with today's youth. And maybe take an example of the rating systems used in other countries? ;-)

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  2. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to reply!

    There are problems with the ratings systems of other nations, too. In the U.S., we're really strict about sexuality but very lax about violence; it's generally the opposite in most other societies. For instance, I'm told that in the United Kingdom, any movie that does not get approval from their ratings board cannot legally be distributed at all. Here, movies can circumvent the MPAA entirely and be released on DVD.

    Also, I wouldn't necessarily say that the MPAA needs to get in touch with today's youth so much as it needs to get in touch with the rest of society. The misguided notion of "protecting" the "children" is instead a barrier excluding them from films that don't peddle banal social messages or juvenile humor. In the era of the DVD, I just have to ask what they're even accomplishing aside from placing undue barriers between movies, theaters and audiences.

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  3. I haven't seen Restrepo but I would imagine that young people thinking about enlisting in the military because of financial concerns due to the job market or a misguided sense of adventure would be less likely to sign up if they knew what real combat is like.

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