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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting commentary! I like the accompanying box which defines the need for the movie rating and agree the system needs some changes. I recall a movie with a PG-13 rating that definitely should have had an R rating for graphic scenes of violence and language! Time for improvements is in order.