Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is Censorship, and is it good or bad?

This is a topic that has been a hot button for most of my life, and seems to come to the fore every 20 years or so, especially in the realm of film. My personal position on censorship is as follows: everyone should have the right to speak freely, but that doesn't mean I have to like what you say; however, because I consider it a fundamental right, I will defend your right to say it.

How does this fit into the world of film? Well, censorship has gone on in the film industry for decades now; close to 100 years, in fact. In the early days of filmmaking, there was no censorship, but by the early 1930s, certain religious groups (read: The Catholic League of Decency) began pressuring Hollywood, not only about content, but about storylines and how morality was portrayed in film. Enter the Hays Office and the Motion Picture Code in 1930, which began to dictate to Hollywood what was and was not acceptable in films. While the Code was created in 1930, it wasn't seriously enforced until 1933. Examples from the Hays Code era included the following:
  • A criminal could never be seen to be successful by the end of a film. The law would always have to prevail;
  • Certain words (and not just profanity) were not allowed to be spoken in a film or appear onscreen;
  • If a scene called for the characters to be on the bed in a bedroom, each actor had to keep one foot on the floor, regardless of the relationship between the characters (this one is not specifically worded this way in the Code, but was the way that the Hays Office enforced decency in the bedroom).
It sounds a little crazy, and definitely prudish, when you consider what is permitted in movies now. The flip side, though, was that it encouraged filmmakers to be creative when working within the confines of the Hays Code. The full code can be found here. While the Code sanitised the more prurient aspects of filmed drama, several filmmakers chafed against its confines, and a gradual loosening of the code was noted in the early to mid 1960s, The Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, which was responsible for administering the Code, felt that reform was in order to reflect the changing values of society, so they began in 1967 to issue warnings that year, followed by a full blown ratings system in 1968. The history of that ratings system can be found here. This is still the ratings system used in the US, but has come under considerable fire because of its lack of a usable "adults only" rating. We are all familiar with the G, PG, PG-13, R, X, and NC-17 ratings, and analogues exist to some extent in other countries.

The first major assault on the MPAA ratings system was in 1984, when the PG-13 rating was created. Up until that time, only G, PG, R, and X existed, and there was a perceived gap between PG and R, since there were no restrictions on who could attend a PG movie. Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg had tried to draw attention to this perceived gap by attaching a warning to the 1975 film Jaws: "Some scenes may be too intense for younger viewers." There had intially been an M rating when the ratings system was created, but this was changed to GP (and later PG) when it was discovered that some people thought the M rating was actually more restrictive than the R rating. The catalyst in 1984 for the creation of the PG-13 rating came in the form of two films in which Steven Spielberg was involved: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which he directed and to which he attached the "Some scenes may be too intense for younger viewers." warning; and Gremlins, on which he served as executive producer. Spielberg worked closely with the MPAA in the creation of the PG-13 rating, and later re-submitted Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the Ratings Board, at which time it was given a PG-13.

The next major standoff came in 1990 with the release of several controversial films: Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, and John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, all of which addressed unsavoury subject matter with explicit and graphic detail. The problem these films ran into was a product of both the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO... no, not that one). The original MPAA ratings had included the X rating, which for reasons known only to Jack Valenti, longtime head of the MPAA, was never trademarked and was never applied by the Ratings Board itself; it was to be applied by the producers if they could not secure an R rating from the Board. When the ratings first came out, the X was a badge of honour to some filmmakers, signifying that what they had created was for adult audiences only, but not pornographic per se: these films addressed adult subject matter in a manner perceived as frank and honest. As an example, Midnight Cowboy was the first and only film with an X rating to win the Best Picture Oscar (it was later re-rated R on appeal). However, the MPAA had stepped in a hornet's nest by not trademarking the X rating. Since they did not hold trademark rights, anyone could use the rating, and it wasn't long before pornographers started applying the rating to their product, even going so far as to invent the XXX rating.

By 1974, the X rating was a pariah, as NATO theatres refused to book films with an X rating. In 1978, George A. Romero was able to persuade NATO to book Dawn of the Dead without a rating, a rare decision premised on the basis that no one under 18 would be permitted into a theatre showing the film. Otherwise, both unrated and X rated films were painted with the same brush by NATO. Further, newspapers would refuse to run advertising for X rated and unrated films. The producers of the three films mentioned above decided to release their films unrated, which is why most people haven't heard of them, but by 1990, the pressure was building on Valenti and company at the MPAA to create a new "adults only" rating, one that could not be appropriated by the porn industry. The filmmakers behind this movement pushed for an "A" rating, signifying adult content. What Valenti gave them was NC-17, initially meaning no children under 17 admitted, but later changed to no children 17 and under admitted. Initially, the rating was a modest success, as people were curious what an NC-17 film would contain, but eventually, the NC-17 rating was painted with the same brush as the X, because the Ratings Board seldom rated excessively violent material with an NC-17 and appeared to limit it to explicit sexual content. Again, the newspapers started refusing to run advertising, and many filmmakers, feeling slighted by the MPAA, began releasing their films unrated again.

Why is all of this fascinating to a Canuck like me? It's because I see the MPAA ratings system as irreparably broken. I look at ratings systems all around the world and I see one thing that all of them, with the exception of the MPAA, have: specific content guidelines combined with restrictions that go below the age of 17 well into the teen category. In my home province, the ratings are as follows: G, PG, 14A, 18A, R and A. G and PG are unrestricted ratings; anyone can get in. 14A means no one under 14 admitted without an adult, 18A means no one under 18 admitted without an adult, R means no one under 18 admitted, and A means no one under 18 admitted with the additional proviso that A-rated films contain explicit sex. Compare 14A with PG-13, which is simply "Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13" and you see what I'm getting at. There is nothing preventing a 7-year old kid from buying a ticket to a PG-13 movie and walking in to watch it. Absolutely nothing. If the same kid tried to get into the same movie in Canada (which more often than not would carry a 14A rating), he'd be denied. The MPAA says time and time again that it is not a censorship board, but when it simply offers guidance on lower ratings and stigmatises films with higher ratings by limiting their commercial prospects with a rating that the industry has seen as synonymous with pornography, what conclusion is to be drawn by filmmakers and the moviegoing public? It is a conflicted and internally inconsistent system. If it had clearer objectives and less arbitrary guidelines than "more than one use of a four letter word starting with f and rhyming with duck will get you an R" or "more than 3 pelvic thrusts in a sex scene will get you an NC-17", it might make more sense. As it stands, the Ratings Board comes across as more than a little silly.

Let's be clear: I do not have a hate-on for the MPAA. Some of their recent reforms have been quite useful, like the information box below the rating that provides the reasons for the rating, and indications that smoking is present in a film, but even these fall into mealy-mouthed arbitrariness. Consider The Virgin Suicides, a critically acclaimed adaptation of a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. The film is rated R and contains brief graphic violence and a few scenes where sex is implied. The language is very tame, and the overall effect of the film is one that would probably get a PG-13 but for the taboo of discussing suicide (yet another arbitrary call by the MPAA). What does the info box say on this film? Rated R for "strong thematic elements involving teens." What does that even mean? I understand that the film is centred around teenagers, but what are "strong thematic elements"? Incest? Suicide? Bestiality? Torturing animals? Pulling wings off flies? It's so ambiguous as to encompass everything and nothing all at once. What was the rating in Canada? 14A, a far more sensible outcome. The irony is that it used to be that films from around the world, including the US, were routinely censored by the Ontario Board of Censors for the entire country; now, the US, through the MPAA, censors the films for the rest of the world before they even get rated.

What is current MPAA chair Dan Glickman's solution to the whole NC-17 debacle? Yet another new rating, which he calls "Hard R". Same R rating with a stern warning about content. Sounds like PG-13 all over again. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the latest controversy to rock the MPAA was giving the drama Blue Valentine an NC-17 for, you guessed it, graphic sexuality. It was eventually overturned and re-rated R, but if the MPAA ever expects to be taken seriously as advising the public about content and helping people make decisions about what they want their kids to watch, they should look at the world around them, scrap the upper 3 ratings in the system and start from scratch.

Let's be clear: I am not a censorship advocate. I am a sensibility advocate. Preventing someone from seeing a movie because he lacks the maturity to handle its content is not censorship, it's common sense. Ratings systems around the world realise this. Do the research and compare country to country. You will find remarkable similarities in the ratings systems with the glaring exception of the USA.

Next time: Music criticism and the three album theory.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Getting Started, or Why the Canadian Music Industry Annoys Me at Times

So, several members of my family have started blogging, so I figured I'd give it a shot. However, rather than be self-absorbed and just talk about me, I thought I'd discuss certain current events, particularly those that involve the changing media landscape. I will reveal certain details about myself in this blog, but just enough to keep things interesting.

First off, I am a lawyer, but because of the type of law I practice, I'm not going to regale you with witty stories about the law unless they serve a purpose. That's your tidbit for this entry.

What has captured my interest this week is a story I heard on the radio driving to work this week. It seems that a group of Canadian recording artists has banded together and presented a petition to the government to have them institute a levy on digital music players. You can read the whole story here: This is not exactly a ground-breaking idea, and the fact that such a levy was shot down by the courts back in 2004 tells you something about the kind of traction this idea is going to gain. The ideas, as I understand it, is to replace the previous revenue stream generated from levies on the sale of blank cassettes and CDs. What makes me laugh about this particular petition are the signatories: Anne Murray, Nickelback (who would annoy me anyway, but now just annoy me even more), The Tragically Hip (see Nickelback), and some independent artists.

To understand where I'm coming from, a brief primer on Canadian copyright law: it's currently a mess, and while the government is trying to fix it, they are doing so from a 20 year-old model. Copyright as it was originally intended is an antiquated notion, designed to assist an author, artist, musician, etc., in collecting monies for the use of his work and help him not to get cheated by the distributors of that work. It didn't always work that way (look up John Fogerty or Creedence Clearwater Revival as examples of how not to negotiate with a record label), but things have changed dramatically in the last 15 or so years. Most people buy their music online, eschewing conventional record stores and CDs, simply because it's less of a hassle to get what they want, and they are not constrained as much by what a given store has to offer. Look around at the various digital e-tailers: if you can't find an item on iTunes, there's a good chance Napster, Rhapsody, eMusic or any number of websites will have it. Some artists sell their music direct from their own websites with varying degrees of success. The world has changed, and copyright law is struggling to catch up.

Back to Canada. The music royalty organization for our beloved Great White North is called SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). This group distributes royalties to Canadian recording artists based on CD sales, airplay on radio stations, online sales of digital music and (you guessed it) levies collected from blank cassette and CD sales. Everything but the blanks is pretty straightforward: every time your song gets played or sold, you get a percentage. With the blank media, the percentage of that levy an artists gets is based on their percentage of music sales. Simply put, who gains the most out of these levies? The Nickelbacks and Tragically Hips of the Canadian music scene. Bryan Adams, who hasn't put out a hit record in years, will collect a substantial amount of blank media levy simply because his back catalogue sells well. As for the independent artists, some of whom signed the petition, their percentage of the levy will amount to a drop in the bucket, while someone like Celine Dion may collect as much as $5 out of every $50 digital player levy. It's wrongheaded, much like CanCon rules are wrongheaded, but that's a topic for another entry.

Look around the world. What have artists outside of Canada done to supplement their revenue in the face of dwindling record sales? They went on tour. Why? Because an artist can make more on a well-planned tour than he can from a multi-million selling CD. Headlining acts make obscene amounts of money from tour dates before you even factor in merchandise sales, and it's because there is a lot more room to negotiate with a promoter than there is with a record label. This is why acts like OK Go, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have gone independent and tour like crazy. They have changed their view of recorded music to that of a loss leader: a promotional item to get people to come and see them on tour. Because they are in complete control of that product, they also control how it is marketed, and can provide added incentives to get their music into people's hands.

As an example, take the band Stamps, an indie band based in California (which features Bob Morris of The Hush Sound, one of my favourite indie bands of all time). They are using all of the current methods to promote their music (Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, etc.) and selling their album from their own website. Here's where it gets interesting: they sell the album for $10, which includes a digital download, a CD, stickers and a guitar pick. If you click on the link above, you can see that their are other "added value" packages, which go all the way up to a gag $10,000 offer, but the $1,000 offer is the most intriguing. They send you everything in the other offers, plus the next time they play a show near you (which with a $1,000 price tag pretty much guarantees the show will be near you), you and 20 of your closest friends get to attend. They're selling the idea of investing in something you believe in. It's venture capitalism at the ground level. When you contrast that with a bunch of sniveling, groveling cash cows who want to tax your iPod, I know where my money would be better spent, even if I can't afford the $1,000 package. The other acts I referred to above offer similar incentives for buying directly from them, if not quite as adventurous, but give Stamps points for creativity, which isn't restricted to their marketing; the songs I've heard so far make Nickelback and The Tragically Hip sound like the tired retreads they are.

I would encourage anyone reading this (especially those from Canada) to make their opinions heard on this latest development however you see fit. Blog, contact your MP, write a letter to the editor. At this point, the government isn't taking this proposal seriously, but we need to make sure they don't.

Next time: Is censorship really a bad thing?