Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The Second Disc: Content Then & Now, or Censorship Can Be A Bitch
My freshman year of college I was cast in a production of Oedipus the King. No big part, just a palace guard. But the play is pretty intense in themes and very violent at the end. To those who don't know, the play ends with Oedipus gouging his eyes own eyes out. Different productions handle this differently. In the old Greek performances this would be represented with a mask. In more modern productions it is done with actually seeing the blood drip from his face. That's the method my college went for. It was pretty graphic cause they used peanut butter on his eyes to represent the torn up flesh and had it covered in red with it dripping down the costume. Also, since there was a dedicated costume for it cause the material would stain and there was a new application of blood every performance it got bloodier with every show. On top of all this I went to a conservative Lutheran college. So content like that generally speaking was surprising and not exactly common place there. But why is it not common place? The general idea is that it's easier to get away with because it's a classic. If there was a production of a lesser known play but with similar themes and is modern it would not be as easy to get away with. I can guarantee that. When a classic play or classic movie is playing there is apparently an unwritten rule that certain content can get through that would otherwise be censored in a new IP.
This is something that has always left a strange feeling behind for me. I never fully understood why that would be the case and it only seems to make the MPAA ratings even more confusing (which is what we will be discussing for today). The straw that broke the camel's back that made me want to talk about this was how I finally got around to watching Speilberg's TinTin movie. Outside of the creepy uncanny valley animation I found it to be a pretty fun movie and wouldn't be opposed to watching any sequels that may come out. However this is a movie that is aimed with "fun for the whole family" in mind. It's based on a classic comic strip that's been around for an eternity so it seemed like a sure fire win. Well it's a sure fire win if you keep it in the spirit of the original material or else people won't necessarily enjoy it. The one specific example I want to pull for this confusing exception is that one of the main characters is a drunk. Flat out severe drunk, no sublety whatsoever. And the movie doesn't present it in a way as bad. It presents it in a way as cute and fun cause the character is funny. Like the lovable drunk who always winds up in Andy Griffith's jail. Even in one scene when he and TinTin are in a plane that is out of gas and there's the threat of a crash the drunk jumps out of the plane and belches into the gas tank, suggesting his breath alone is full of enough alchohol to restart an engine. Obviously not a realistic thing that could happen but it's basically showing that alchohol saved the day for them. And this is only one example from this movie that feels out of place in a modern PG rated movie.
Before I continue I want to point out a disclaimer that I'm far from a stiff when it comes to censoring. Quite the opposite. Do whatever personal censoring you want for yourself but when it comes to releasing movies, music, games, etc, present it uncut. And if it's not uncut make the audience aware. Obviously there will be levels of censorship when showing something on TV or to a child. But if the content needs to be censored to show it to them then why the flying fart are you showing it to them in the first place (example from my childhood, Dragonball Z and Tenchi Muyo. The former for violence, the later for sexual content). So I'm not opposed to censorship, just unjustified censorship. Moving on.
I think we can all agree that the times are changing with every year. Fads come and go, things get more tense/loosened up, politics change, people change, everything changes. An easy example to see how things have changed is with entertainment. Since the early 1900s when film started to really make an impression on the world and become popular, content immediately became an issue. What can you show and not show in a show? Unlike a stage play there was more room for content that couldn't be done as easily live.
Censorship was certainly a lot more strict back in those days. Watch most any movie from the 30s to the 50s and you'll see a lot of them are pretty similar. Mostly free of harsh content and whenever something harsh happens it's usually implied and more subtle. It's not as in your face as modern cinema can be. Around the 60s things changed and more content started showing up in film and it just progressively became more open ended as the years went on. Now that's not to say there was no explicit content in these older movies. Typically in the more popular titles there weren't. One example of surprisingly explicit content in early cinema would be the short film Un Chien Andalou where you see a topless woman getting groped and another women's eye slashed, up close.
This eventually led to the development of a rating system so people knew what they were in for, and it even got reworked in the mid 80s when the initial design didn't work well enough. And now it brings us to today. For many years the MPAA has been pretty screwed up and I still don't feel they do their job right and easily do favors for some movies whereas others they really hit hard. For more info on that watch the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. It's pretty excellent.
What I want to talk about isn't why the MPAA generally speaking sucks at their job, I want to talk about perspective when it comes to revisiting old material from the past and showing it in the present. As I was stating earlier the level of content allowed these days is more loosey goosey than it used to be. But the type of content is a different story. Going back to TinTin. The reason why I was raising such a stir on that is because it's getting away with the same sort of thing the production of Oedipus the King I was in was getting away with. It is including somewhat harsher content but it's okay cause it's considered a classic. TinTin has been around for what seems like a hundred years (probably not that far off) which means it's origins is from a completely different era. It was an era when a drunk character was funnier than it is today. These days drunkeness is more of a sensitive issue that people tend to not joke around with. But because of the era TinTin came from it is technically in context which I guess makes it appropriate. An approach I can agree with. But it was just thrown out there as is. TinTin may be very popular, but it was more popular overseas than it was here in the states. And since it began TinTin has been a more family friendly story, just with some now outdated acceptance of certain content. So I can understand WHY it's in there. But that movie was released in an era where PG means something totally different than it used to.
The perfect example I have for this is the comedy classic Airplane. Many people can agree that it is one of the funniest movies ever made and it will retain that status until it's so outdated that no one gets the jokes anymore. However it was released in the early 80s before the PG-13 rating was created. Now even by today's standards I still wouldn't consider it R rated material. If anything a slightly harder PG-13. But since this came out back in the day it was given a PG rating. Understandable for the time. But think about this. Airplane has numerous sex jokes. A fair amount of cuss words (no fucks but definitely a shit or two). And there's even a very brief moment of nudity. Yep, to those who weren't around or weren't aware you could get away with a pinch of nudity in a PG rated movie back then (also see Barry Lyndon).
Now when the movie gets a new edition on DVD or whatever the new format is, it retains the original rating. When you see a new movie coming out these days and you see it's rated PG your initial reaction is that it's probably fairly tame. The only people you may not be able to bring to the movie are the youngest members of the family. So let's say you're an ignorant parent and you're looking for a movie for your family. Your family may be a bit more conservative or you may have some pretty young children so what you watch as a family needs to be a bit more friendly for a wide range of ages. You're breezing through a video store or online and you come across a few movies. Some of which are rated PG. However some of these are older movies that have a PG from a different era and perspective. Let's say it's not necessarily Airplane but another movie that has similar content in the PG rating. You're gonna go home and get a face full of something you weren't expecting.
Trust me when I say this has happened and will continue to happen. I've experienced it myself with my parents not realizing what they were bringing home based on the box. It's because there's a lack of context for what means what and it can potentially provide a different experience than expected. Now we can't do anything about what's already released and circulating on home video. But one thing that I believe can and really should be done is a re-rating of some older movies. It's the only thing that makes sense to keep people informed of what they're getting into who don't necessarily have the proper context. A movie like Airplane still being labeled as PG on even the newest editions of DVDs gives off the wrong idea. If A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy can be re-rated from X to R without any changes then why can't other movies be re-rated for the proper context? And the only reason why I feel so strong about this is because the world is far from idiot proof. The average movie-goer doesn't understand what NC-17 may mean because those movies are few and far between, and they're usually edited down to an R anyway. Also the average movie-goer may not realize that NC-17 was changed from X because X became solely associated with porn instead of it just being the only rating beyond R. Basically the world needs to have everything spelled out for them cause they're not gonna bother looking into anything despite the internet giving them access to everything. This is the reason why there's now a description of what content is in the movie on the trailers, posters, DVDs, and of course online.
It's like the MPAA thought that the audience didn't know what the ratings meant anymore so they need to spell it out completely for them. So with an audience like that, that doesn't always have the right context regarding a title it would be good for many movies to be re-rated and given that descriptor so the audience can be aware. Because while content may be looser these days, parents and people in general are still pretty stiff about what they want in their entertainment.
So with that as a jumping off point it brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. It all goes back to my Oedipus and TinTin reference. But I want to bring a new example into the equation. A few years ago there was a lot of serious talk about the use and placement of cigarettes in movies. I think I even heard a rumor where if there are characters smoking in the movie it would immediately be slapped with an R. I think that was more a rumor than anything else but I have noticed in the rating descriptor as of the last few years that smoking is now a reason for a movie to be rated what it's rated. So what does that mean for all these older movies that had smoking in them? What about the ones that were intended for kids? Yeah it was a part of the norm back then but that was then and this is now. Stronger anti-smoking activism has been in place for some time now which is why smoking in movies is now a reason to up the rating. It's more appropriate for older people who understand the risks that come with smoking. If you put it in a movie aimed at kids or teens then they could get the wrong idea regarding smoking. But again what does it do for some of these older movies that have been adored for generations?
One example is 101 Dalmatians. A Disney classic that is adored by many and has been for many generations. But what's this? Cruella De Vill always seems to have a cigarette in hand. That can't be good. And this movie is rated G! Well I suppose if you have it in hand of the bad guy then kids may associate it with bad things. But wait a second, here's the dog's owner walking around smoking a pipe. And it looks like he's pretty relaxed with it. Does that mean smoking is okay? Maybe even fun? But that's not the message you want to send to little kids. So maybe you shouldn't show it to them. But the movie as a whole is pretty harmless so why would you do that? Besides, it's a classic! Remember? Okay, well maybe it should be censored so kids don't get the wrong idea. But you can't do that because that's not presenting it the way it was created. That's breaks rights in terms of expression through art and since it was made of a different era it shouldn't be a big deal cause their perspectives were different. See how this can turn into a catch 22? You can't go down one route without upsetting the path of a different route.
It's just so stupid that entertainment from a different era or based on a different era can (for the most part) get through without a hitch these days in terms of certain content but as soon as you create something new it's under attack. I think it's stupid because when you show it to a younger audience they will not have a full understanding of that different era. You may tell them this or that but I can still see influence come through somehow that some people may not want. I guess what I'm trying to get across is the fact that there are so many mixed messages being thrown out there with different ratings. On one hand here's a title that tells you of all the horrors and terrible things associated with drinking. But then there's this kids movie that has a character who is lovable and he is an even bigger drunk.
I'm not advocating extreme censorship or anything, just pick a side and stick with it. If we can bring stories with conflicting content from previous generations who clearly had a different perspective then why not bring back as much as we can? Where's my special edition DVD of Song of the South? What about those cartoons where Donald Duck was a Nazi? Where are those? You don't want to give off the wrong impression do you? I'm guessing that's where they're coming from. And movies that have characters in black face is shooting back to some pretty intense racism in this country so I can see why that would be a bigger issue immediately than smoking or drinking in a children's movie. But weren't there some classic movies in history such as Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer that had similar themes yet those are in general release? What's up with that? Why do those get a pass? I realize there's other Nazi propaganda films out there for purchase but those are more so for historical purposes. Not like the modern DVD releases are done by actual Nazi supporters. But if those can be released for historical purposes then why not some of the movies I stated before like Song of the South? It's not like it's a hidden secret that Disney made a movie that was as racist as that was and it's not like America has forgotten about the racism that ran through this country over the years. So why can't it be readily available for people interested in the history of film? I would love a DVD copy of that movie for those exact reasons. I don't think it would advocate racism, but rather it could teach a lesson on how things were and how we can better ourselves. Plus, Disney has re-released plenty of movies with intense racial stereotypes. What about Dumbo with the black stereotype Crows?
It's obviously a very complicated issue that many sides would argue many reasons for doing what they do. I just wish that there wasn't so many times where things are so selective. I just don't understand why certain themes from certain eras with certain content is condemned on one hand but the other it's not necessarily embraced but it is allowed. The way I figure it is keeping things within context really is the best way to handle it. But if movies like TinTin can have a flat out drunk as a main character then why can't other kids movies have themes like that in modern times? Yeah they're learning but I feel it's more confusing and sending mixed messages.
We as adults understand the context and content but not all kids will. So why would you be so loosey goosey with your content that you're showing them when censors are hitting so hard to avoid those exact same themes in modern stories. I'm in the process of writing one of my own stories (side project) in one scene a character is flat out drunk. However my characters are all animals (it's a cartoony story), I never make direct reference to any names of any actual alcoholic drinks, and it's so over the top exaggerated that it's ridiculous. I only described the actions the character was doing which were obviously similar to the actions of a drunk person. When I presented it to my wife she expressed concern over having a drunk character in a story that would be essentially aimed towards kids (but I feel it's an all around story cause it's pretty much an Adult Swim cartoon minus the explicit content). But when I heard that I didn't think it would be a problem for multiple reasons. Most of which are reasons I already stated.
In the end I just find it so stupid how selective audiences and studios are when it comes to what can and cannot be shown these days. Why were those old Looney Tunes cartoons banned? Because they have Nazi symbolism and racial stereotypes. But Nazis are all over the place these days, not to mention in some other popular movies like Indiana Jones. Also there are a bunch of racial stereotypes in other popular titles both old and new. It's not as in your face as some of the older stories but it is still there. Why do those titles get a pass when some of the older titles don't? Why? Cause movies/stories like Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians, Indiana Jones, and TinTin are classics. It all comes back to that word. Classics. It drives me nuts that these classics can get away with these things when less popular titles can't.
There's one last thing I want to talk about with the "law" of the rating system. As you probably know, if a movie is R rated and a kid who isn't 17 tries to buy a ticket on their own they will not be let in. However if a parent/guardian buys it for them then it's all good. No surprise there and I can accept that. Some kids are ready before others when it comes to explicit content. Now sometimes, rarely, but sometimes movies are released without a rating. Most of the time it's because of the content, or just one scene in particular that pushes it over the edge. Technically speaking, according to the "law" anyone can go into an unrated movie without question because there is no age restriction (well, there are exceptions). Example time.
Back in the year that The Passion of the Christ came out there was an uproar because of the violence. No surprise there. Heaven forbid Mel Gibson gives a (somewhat) accurate account on how brutal of a torture Christ went through (research shows some parts were too over the top whereas other parts weren't, if not even close to as violent as it really was). Because of the violence the movie got an R rating. Again understandably entirely from a subjective standpoint with content alone. But since it's such an important story (THE most important story for Christians) Mel Gibson wanted everyone to be able to access it. So later that year a recut version with the violence toned down was released. But there was a problem. Even with the violence toned down it was still given an R rating. So what did Mel do? Release it unrated. Ironically exploiting the rating system to get his way. I don't think that version ever came out on DVD but what I'm getting at here is the only thing more confusing than the MPAA is when something is R rated.
The thing with unrated is that you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes it may be an extended cut of a PG-13 movie and is using unrated as a marketing gimmick (see Ghost Rider). But it will go as extreme as actually having explicit sexual content like actual penetration (see Caligula). From a basic, standard, logic standpoint unless you are familiar with the system and the movie you're picking up there's no telling if the unrated movie will be a PG-13 with a couple extra 'Fuck's (Anchorman), it could be an older movie from a different region that never got a rating in the first place but is anywhere from G to PG-13 (The Russian, non-George Clooney Solaris), or it could be the most horrifically violent, horrifically sexual thing ever put through the cinema (Antichrist, okay that's probably not the most horrific example but you catch my drift).
In short unrated is even more wacky and off the charts than the actual MPAA, but when it comes down to it no movie is required to have a rating. There is nothing that tells each movie to come through that they have to get a rating. They choose to for obvious marketing purposes. Also good luck distributing your movie if it's unrated. Most theatres won't carry them and the few that do are art houses. They get a similar treatment as NC-17 movies get. I guess the only other thing I have to say about unrated is that at least it isn't totally off the handle like the MPAA. You usually know what you're getting into with some brief research if it's an alternate cut of an older movie. But also some cinemas that carry unrated titles do enforce their own sort of rating system. I remember years back a movie called Shortbus came out in a very limited release. It was playing at a theatre here in Madison. As I was walking into the theatre to see another movie I noticed a sign regarding Shortbus. It said that while Shortbus is unrated they were not allowing anyone in under 18 due to explicit sexual content. After doing some quick research on this title I found that there is a TON of unsimulated sex in the movie with shots of full on penetration. I was surprised a theatre in my area played something like that. But I guess if that theatre played Shortbus I shouldn't be surprised when I saw another theatre downtown was playing Antichrist many years later.
While I've technically never seen an properly rated NC-17 movie in the theatres (seen them and own a couple on DVD. Lust Caution being one of the best I own along with The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover up there, too) there is one movie I have seen in theatres that was released without a rating. The Aristocrats, a documentary about the legendary joke among famous comedians. If it was rated it would be NC-17. No violence, no nudity or sex, but enough harsh language to give it that, and it was absolutely hilarious!