The MPAA has rejected THINKFilm's initial poster for Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, one of the year's most acclaimed films, over a Corbis photograph of a two US soldiers leading away a hooded prisoner.
In accordance with the high moral standards the MPAA represents, however, gory films like Hostel 2 about women being slashed to bloody bits for no reason whatsoever are still totally okay. (Greencine Daily for the link roundup.)
In 1933 an accessible synopsis of the Payne Fund Studies by journalist Henry James Forman was published under the bracing title Our Movie Made Children. The project marshaled the full weight of lab-coated social science to confirm the gut-level suspicion that the movies burrowed like termites into impressionable juvenile minds: girls took to rouge and tobacco, boys to back talk and violence, and all to disrespect and deviance.
This is a fantastic article, and raises questions of the code's existing Hollywood legacy. The motion picture industry still does operate under a ratings systems that influences both film production and distribution, and that system still likes to tell us that our youth is lost if they see an actor on screen smoking, or playing a gay character. I hope someday these "threats" will seem as quaint as the ones posed by girls using rouge seem to us now.
Over the last two articles (here, and here), I've been hating on the Motion Picture Association of America. It's been fun. But I'm not done yet.
Recently, the MPAA announced that they officially will be adding in the smoking factor to their movie ratings. Films that, in their opinion, glorify or even feature smoking will be subject to an R rating, to keep such depictions away from the wide eyes of youth.
This is basically what the MPAA does. The new smoke-out is just a minor example. Beyond the hypocrisy, the greed, and the technological ignorance, the fundamental result of the MPAA's work is influencing the content and distribution of American movies. And it goes to the heart of why the MPAA has no moral right to exist and operate as it does. Providing objective ratings to describe a film's content is one thing. Actively influencing a film's content according to a certain group's personal inclinations is entirely another.
Let's break this down, using the same smoking example. You don't like smoking. Fine. I don't either. But neither do I think that gives me the right to condescend to everyone who does and self-righteously tell them that they have no place in movies permitted to be seen by American audiences. There's a lot of people out there who also don't like homosexuality. Do we slap all films that dare to have gay character with a R rating, in order to protect all the innocent children who could possible see a gay person on screen and then decide that she too is gay? There's people who don't like witchcraft, or any of the trappings thereof - do we bump the new Harry Potter movie up to a R rating, so that none of our nation's youth starts running around with wands and worshiping Satan?
Censorship, in itself, is not a bad thing. Censorship of the self-imposed kind is what keeps you from watching Jerry Springer all day. Self-censorship is an expression of your own opinions and values, and it's not only valid, we should encourage it. Not to the point of narrow-mindedness, but to raise the quality level of the media we absorb. If anyone else, however, makes these decisions for you, and by doing so precludes you having access to certain media, then we have a problem. And the system the MPAA currently runs, in connection with the American big movie machines, does just that.
Now let's break it down from the perspective of the filmmaker. Say I make a film about the rural, working-class steel belt area in which I grew up. It could be a touching tale of family drama and coming-of-age heartbreak. It could be a faithful portrait of people and places I knew. It could have a character or two smoking. And for that last one alone, it could be slapped with an "R" rating and a huge amount of people will not see it. Could I just leave the smoking out? Sure. And then I will be making a film not only according to another's viewpoint, but under threat of financial and industrial consequences if I choose to disagree with that viewpoint. If that's the case, however slight, there is no point in me making that film. It defeats the purpose of an individual going to the bother of expressing herself, in film or any other medium at all.
There's something else to realize about the entire ratings system as created and enacted by the MPAA - it has absolutely nothing to do with the government. (Well, beyond the lobbyists used to sway politicians, of course.) It seems a common misconception that their rulings are somehow supported by law. They are not. They are an arbitrary set of guidelines that movie theaters follow for the sole reason that if they didn't, the movie studios would not give them movies to screen. It's an internal, self-promoting, corporate system that exists for profit and for profit alone. That's it.
So, what's the solution here? Is there any way to effectively rate film for content? I think so. I think an entirely independent non-profit agency, with a visible staff and detailed criteria would be a good start. I think a reasonable approach to digital media would be better. But, essentially, we would need only one key element - objectivity. We would need an agency that understood the sensitive issues displayed on film, and reported them fairly, without commentary and without preaching.
Will it happen, though? I think it could, if enough people realize what's going on and speak up about it. Think about it, talk about it. Let's see what we can do.
Previously, I scratched the surface of the huge amount of issues I have with the Motion Picture Association of America, including their undocumented and insupportable ratings system and their censoring influence on filmmakers. But they are also working to excel in another area of ridiculousness - the fight against digital piracy.
The MPAA not only controls with an iron hand what you can see in a movie theater, they dictate what and how you can see movies. You're supposed to see cinema on their terms only. This is why you are forced to sit through anti-piracy propaganda at the beginning of DVDs you've bought, and are barred from keeping a copy of this same legally-owned movie on your hard drive. This is why you can only watch certain DVDs in certain regions of the world. This is why theaters are authorized to search you and hold your cell phones before movie screenings, and scrutinize you during the film with night-vision goggles. This, essentially, is why they're allowed to treat you as criminal even before they've proved that you haven't followed rules that are unjust to you in the first place.
And whom does all of the previously described policies benefit? The large movie studios, and the large studios only. Those policies have nothing to do with protecting intellectual property and everything to do with making more money for the studios.
Beyond the consumer's side, there's also the side of the filmmaker. As is true in music industry, technology and new methods of distribution can be the unknown artist's best friends. Digital video, the internet, and DVD burning are amazingly powerful tools for the independent filmmaker. The more the MPAA cracks down on methods of production and distribution, and stacks the deck in favor of their studios, the harder it is for independent voices to be heard. Culturally speaking, this also means any filmmaker who's perspective doesn't align with the mainstream source of movie revenue, will be effectively silenced.
The issues of the MPAA and piracy cross media boundaries. Technology is changing the landscape of all art and its attendant copyrights, and new ways of handling it all effectively have still to be determined. But I don't think the rules should be set by an organization whose only impetus is greed.
Next up: attacking the new MPAA smoking ban. And suggesting a better course of action for the entire association.
Note: The image up there is a cartoon version of late MPAA head Jack Valenti from the also late show Freakazoid!. If you don't know what that is, well, there's a few bemused Wikipedia minutes in store for you.
The Motion Picture Association of America is a talented organization. They have managed to become the forefront offenders of two issues I most like to drone on about the importance of - intellectual property freedom and quality of cinema. And they've recently done yet something else profoundly stupid.
Strap in. This one's going to take a few articles to hash out to my satisfaction.
I hate the MPAA. I can't say it any more clearly or accurately. Everything they stand for I find reprehensible. The methods they use to enact what they stand for I find reprehensible. They are essentially a secret censorship agency that is accountable to no one, especially the public they claim to serve. "They" is the only way to refer to them, since while they represent several entertainment production studios and companies, their actual employees, including these people's qualifications and demographics, are much less certain. They have nothing to do with the government, as many people seem to assume, and thus are without even the dubious credibility that would bestow. The ratings they place on movies are without a transcribed set of criteria or standards - even, as far as we can tell, a private one, much less a publicly-published one. And these mystical, secretly-concocted ratings directly influence how movies are produced, released, and ultimately, who gets to watch them.
We, the movie-going public, have no say in the decisions. We aren't even allowed to know exactly on what these decisions are based, or whom exactly is making them for us. We just accept them. And the so MPAA keeps doing it.
Their defense against critics has always been the ever-popular "family values" stance. As a parent myself, I can understand the need for aid when deciding to what your children should not be exposed. But I want to be reassured that the aid I'm getting accurately reflects what I believe in, for myself and my child. I have many more objections about their rulings that children should watch the innuendo-laden, comically violent fests of stupidity that are movies like the Scary Move franchise rather than an amusingly satirical film such as But I'm a Cheerleader because it happens to deal with issues of homosexuality than the other way around. I don't even know who these people really are. How do I know I agree with the mandates and presuppositions they are placing upon the education and intelligence of my own child?
And then there's the filmmaker's side of it. If you make a film that the MPAA doesn't approve of, and you refuse to accept their rating or to make the changes to suggest for a better rating, your film will suffer. It will not be in wide release or have marketing support. If it's rated NC-17, or unrated, huge retail chains like Blockbuster and Wal-Mart will not rent or sell it.
If you do what the MPAA tells you, however, they're happy, the studios are happy, and your film is allowed to see the light of day. What a nice system for fostering artistic creativity and an interested, involved movie audience.
And I haven't heard a damn thing about their intentions to change that anytime soon.
Next: I'll go into more detail about their assault on potential pirates (which is all of us, by the way - guilty until proven otherwise) and cover how their recent smoking ban only reaffirms their commitment to degrading movie-goers.
Note: The image of John Waters (by David Shankbone) I included may have only a tenuous connection to the actual article. But I'll take any opportunity I can to throw in him. Have you seen his CourtTV show, "'Til Death Do Us Part?" It is awesome.