Tuesday, August 21, 2007
it's all relative...
Warning: The following is a commentary. It is not a film review, but an opinion. It may contain humor or satire, it may contain logic and rational arguments. Those easily offended by such things should proceed with caution.
Very recently I watched an interesting documentary about the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) entitled This Film Is Not Yet Rated. I was very interested to see it as it was about the ratings of film, the ratings board and Jack Valenti, who died earlier this year. I am no fan of Valenti, but I couldn't help but watch this film and be amazed at what a hit piece it was on Valenti, Middle America, Religion, and the studios. And rather than walk away from the film with thoughts on censorship and why things are rated the way they are, I came away with more questions than ever and a reaffirmation of things I had often considered about human nature and power.
Let me start off by saying this is not a review, but commentary that arose from watching the film. Secondly let warn anyone who might wish to see the film: it does contain some nudity and language, which, if you've seen "edgy" documentaries in the last 10 years you should come to expect. I was a little peeved in the sense that I didn't necessarily care to see some of that stuff and didn't go see a movie because of it's content, why are you shoving it in my face in the guise of an "intelligent discussion" or "documentary? (The problem I had was that it seemed overkill- "Hey this is NC-17, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this! You couldn't see it in the theater, but here it is for you to see now!) All I can say is: Thank goodness they haven't come for my remote control or removed my fast forward button.
Next, let me add that I myself am somewhat mystified by the MPAA. As a historian I know how they came about, I understand Valenti's political connections, etc. But I have often had the experience of sitting through a PG-13 film and wondered why it wasn't rated "R" or, in a different film, why it wasn't a "PG". I think part of the main argument of director/writer Kirby Dick's film addresses the arbitrariness, secrecy, and bias of the MPAA and raises the question: Should it be more open, or public? Valid point, one that I think I agree with on the surface of the argument. Should the system be more transparent? Perhaps. But there is where the nonsense begins.
The approach taken by Dick and many of those he interviewed, is that the ratings system is
"fascist" (it was called that by one "interviewee"), and is secret and controlled by corporations, etc. In fact there were so many tired lines out of the cultural elite playbook, that I stop counting them. But here is a few, paraphrased, except where in quotations:
1. Rather see sex on screen, than violence.
2. We should be more European, the European are so much more sophisticated/advanced.
3. We should have "experts, rather than parents" rate movies.
4. Money, corporations, studios are evil.
5. Films with a military "gung-ho" approach are a "form of brainwashing and it has led our society to be militaristic."
6. "Two or three corporations control the information in this country."
7. The government is better suited to handle ratings.
8. Americans have a problem with sex and/or pleasure.
9. Did we say we should be more like Europeans?
I've heard it all before, and the arguments made in the film (not necessarily by Kirby Dick-I want to be fair) by some of the people interviewed where so conspiratorial in tone, so irrational, so lop-sided, so circular in their reasoning they would make Oliver Stone confused. Ok- maybe not Stone, but you get the picture. Here are a few thoughts that I have based on some of these arguments:
1. If the ratings system was devised as a way to guide parents (which somehow works with video games to a degree if reports are to be believed, and these same elites have no problem with that!), why should there not be parents on the board. Should the board be "refreshed" every so often? Yes? Should parents be excused in favor of lawyers and bureaucrats? NO. The argument was made in the film that the MPAA ratings board is "Unconstitutional". This is laughable in and of itself, because it's not a government entity, and the ratings are not binding. They can be accepted or not. But to suggest that the government would be more suited to the task and that somehow passes "Constitutional muster" is a joke.
2. Money and corporations and republicans were the big bad guys in the film. In fact, one individual was specifically identified as a republican. Knowing that they are a minority in Hollywood, why was that person so identified on screen and no one else's party or political affiliation given. Jack Valenti was a LBJ man, but except for one brief mention, you'd think he had lived at some secret central republican compound and controlled things from his "undisclosed location." He was a democrat! And I guarantee that many of the people they were after in the film were democrat as well, which may be why their political affiliation was never brought up. Jack Valenti was, in my opinion, a political opportunist and enjoyed being in power and feted by those in power. This is also expressed in the film. Irregardless, someone, either Valenti or a MPAA spokesperson, should be able to comment. I would think they would be someone to question. But, Valenti, nor any other individual involved with the MPAA has any time in the film, other than previous footage or when they are being "identified". Valenti retired in 2004 and died in 2007. The film was released in fall of 2006. Are you telling me they couldn't talk to him during production, or anyone associated with him? Yes, they used footage of interviews, but as anyone knows, those can be (and were) edited for maximum effect.
Money is as at the root of this thing as it is power. If it is only the artist's vision or if it is about telling their story, how do they feel about piracy and the MPAA's efforts towards addressing that issue? Some that I've seen have fervently been in favor in clamping down on piracy, downloading, or otherwise sharing the film. It was given cursory mention towards the end. But you can not escape the fact that one of the main gripes that if their film gets a less than favorable rating that may prevent them from receiving advertising funds. Not to mention hamper box office or DVD sales. But I'm not convinced. Unrated or uncensored DVDs outsell their rated counterparts by a small margin. Is that because it's unrated, or because typically there are more special features on such discs? And for that matter, pay per view, HBO, etc routinely show films and original programing that gets into such rated territory. I don't find fault with film makers worried about money. After all they should see a return on their efforts. But just like everyone else, earn it. Don't get up on a soapbox and grandstand to force people to accept or see your film if they normally wouldn't want to see it. Too much carping on money, evil corporations and the old saw about 2 or 3 corporations controlling everything is hypocritical and tired.
3. The beginning of the film was tied to sex. "Sex should be natural, should be seen, should be on the screen. We Americans are backwards and puritanical. We should be more like Europeans." I heard several times: "What do we think teenagers are doing anyway? We aren't showing them anything they have seen before!" Just because, it was argued, they see the acts on the screen, doesn't mean they are going to immediately go out and engage in all this activity anyway. But, herein, lies the problem. They also said, sometimes in the same breath, it's wrong that we can show violence and not sex. We worry more about the violence. Then later on in a section devoted to violence, they tried to make the argument that the more violence onscreen can lead to those acts being imitated in real life, and that poses a threat. Uh, what? So which is it? If you see it, you do- or you see it, but you don't do it? You can't claim one way for sex (a physical act) on the screen and not for violence (another physical act.)
I personally would rather have BOTH rated and am uncomfortable with my children watching excessive (non-cartoonish) violence or sex in a movie. That's why I watch and oversee what they watch and what movies they see. The ratings should help me have an idea of what's in a film, rather than me relying on a teenager to tell me: "It's OK dad. There's nothing bad in it. Can I go?" Anyone who has a teenager, or has been a teenager should honestly know better than to trust that statement. The ratings should help the theater employees (if they are doing their job) to make sure a teenager isn't trying to sneak into a movie they swore on their life they weren't going to, even if I am doing everything, including driving them to the theater and back and reading a book in the car. In other words, the ratings system, ideally should be a way to help give parents information and theaters to support choices parents have made. Telling me, I should chill and that "everybody does it" is an argument that hasn't washed since baby boomers first tried to borrow dad's Thunderbird to go to the sock hop, and it ain't flying now.
The thing that isn't being addressed is the ways in which sex is tied into politics, whether artificially or not. That was something that came out several times in the film when some film makers commented that the ratings system was a way to "stifle" the voices of gay or straight film makers who felt like they weren't "represented" and that censoring their film, because of sex scenes was because raters or the people behind them, would lose political control, or wanted to suppress them. I recall the Oscars of early 2006, when producers and elitists insisted that Brokeback Mountain be given the Best Picture award. When Crash won, there was a general sense of outrage among commentators and insiders. Some of these films are made by companies, whose express purpose is to produce films to spark "change" in society. That's all well and good. I just resent in when someone shoves a pile of crap down my throat and tells me it's change and I will damn well like it. Besides, who's "change" is it? I don't have a problem with people doing their thing. I just have a problem when I am forced to like it, incorporate it or forced to never say anything negative about it. That, my friends, is fascism.
4. We should be more like the Europeans? Please. That is not the way to win me over. What is wrong with being who we are? Increasingly in our country, we are told, not only how bad our country is, but how good the Europeans are. I don't have a problem with Europe. I would love to visit there someday. But, in the words of the great Dennis Miller, being the head of the European Union is like being Valedictorian of your summer school. I lived is South America for a while, and saw first hand the love/hate feelings some people have for Americans. We are loved and hated precisely because we have freedom, we have more plenty and less poor in our nation. We are and have been doing some things right, and some want that as well. Others would rather destroy it. The idea of being "European" is a fantasy that not even Europeans that I personally know would recognize. It's a fantasy that began with post modernism in the 50s and has carried on today.
5. The government? Seriously? The government should take over? The argument was: The secrecy of the board is guarded so they can't be influenced. This is wrong. If the government was in charge, then it would be experts and a transparent process. PUH-LEEZE. Government can't be influenced? Isn't that what cultural elites piss and moan about 24/7 - about how the evil corporations influence the government? And by the way- this liberal fantasy about how corporations and businesses are inherently evil is a little too "hippie" for me. Grow up and grow some. People can be bad. People can make wrong choices and evil choices, whether they are in business or government. But you cannot extrapolate the specific to the general whole. The film makers interviewed in the film weren't mad so much because someone judged their work (some did mention that), but they seemed more upset because studios don't like to back NC-17 movies (although I've seen several commercials of some of those films on television) and will reduce their advertising budget (and I've read some film makers who accepted the R or NC-17 rating almost as a badge of honor). Also we've seen the effects of regulation in at the expense of freedom, common sense and money. Cultural elites are all about regulation when it suits them. Wanna see?
Here's just some examples:
Cigarettes: Regulate or outlaw
Marijuana & other drugs: Decriminalize
Movies: Uncensor. especially in regards to sex
Video Games, Talk Radio and "unregulated" newsmedia: censor
Oil, nuclear power, vehicles: bad
Biofuel (that's starting to prove costly) or no cars: good
Tofu: Unfettered access
So which is it, Hollywood? What's your deal? The bottom line is that cultural elites are relativistic and their views are relative. Everything is relative to their lives or pretensions.
I agree, in principle, that the ratings should be less arbitrary and more open. I also agree that perhaps paid lifetime positions on the board isn't smart. But you can't seriously expect the government to solve those problems. Besides, the ratings do help. Some fairly understandable guidelines are publicly known. They help me know what I should take a careful look at before I, or my family go see a movie, if I personally don't believe that it is appropriate or good for my family. While some think I shouldn't be allowed to make judgements or moral decisions, I stress it is vital to me to be able to do so, without anyone telling me what to think. In a capitalistic society, I am able to make my choices and opinion known with my dollar. And in the end, I think that ticks off cultural elites more than anything else.
I'll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school.