Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Screen It? I'd Rather Not...

Before Eastern Promises started rolling its beginning credits, I was exposed to the ordinary dose of trailers, which all had the typical green MPAA disclaimer explaining their approval of said trailer along with the film’s rating and a brief description why. But one of the trailers took me, and probably several other audience members, by surprise. The disclaimer described the following about the film advertised: Rated PG-13 “for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence, and brief strong language.”

The trailer was for Marc Forster’s new film, The Kite Runner, coming out November 2nd. Now, I haven’t seen the film, nor have I read the book it was based on, but I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess that the “rape of a child” described is probably a major plot point in the film.


There is nothing in the trailer that alludes to this part of the film, so I’m also going to guess that it’s a plot point that the filmmakers, producers and/or advertisers don’t want audiences to know about until they see The Kite Runner.

I find it extremely problematic, if not downright infuriating, that the MPAA is so concerned with our aversion to mature thematic material that they would reveal such a potentially essential plot point. What exactly were they afraid of? Were they concerned that, if we weren’t aware of the “rape of a child” beforehand, we would find it disturbing or offensive? But isn’t that, most likely, how the filmmakers intend for us to react to it in the context of the film?

The MPAA, and the Americans they represent, are absolutely mortified with the thought of audiences not knowing every detail of a film that could be offensive. But the increasing caution that the MPAA employs (mostly from parents’ often unfounded concerns) have started to take a major toll on the actual experience of watching a movie, especially to those of us who don’t have children.

Studios complain about spoilers of their films all over the internet, script leaks, pirating, and the like (the recent debacle about an extra’s revelation of explicit details from the new Indiana Jones movie is indicative of this), but what about all the spoilers made in the name of protecting child viewers? (I would include adult viewers that act like children in that category as well.)

And not all of it has come from the MPAA. There’s a website, ScreenIt.com, whose homepage says the following:

“In today's world of economic uncertainty, you need Screen It even more than ever before. You certainly don't want to waste your hard-earned dollars on movies or DVDs that might contain material you'd find objectionable for yourself and/or your kids.”

ScreenIt, for a small monthly fee of $24.95, will give you every single potentially objectionable detail to pretty much any film in major release, including (I’m not kidding) the exact number of times each type of curse word is used, and in what context. Did you know that Jarhead has the “f” word 278 times, 38 with the prefix “mother”? Do you care? Can you believe it's somebody's job out there to count curse words in movies? The site also explains, in great detail, any instance or innuendo of sex or violence in a film, ignoring the potential exposure of otherwise irrelevant story details like the death of a major character. Can you imagine going to a movie like The Departed already knowing which characters are going to die?

If parents rely on sources like ScreenIt too much, they eventually get into a trivial mess of what’s appropriate and what’s not. For instance, is 30 “f” words in a film any more harmful to your twelve-year old than 278 “f” words (38 with the prefix “mother”)?

While I definitely have my qualms with the MPAA, they aren’t all to blame for this proliferation of story information in the name of protecting children. Parents' high demand for this type of information has certainly been a factor in the MPAA’s decisions. And I do, to a point, understand. If I were the father of a young child, I would like to have some idea as to whether or not my son or daughter and I would be having a “special conversation” after a PG-13 movie. But I would also prefer not to know every single story detail going in. Movies are supposed to be fun, and how much fun can they be if you know exactly what to expect?

Go see a movie sometime without knowing the rating, or anything at all rather. Whether or not you like it, you certainly won’t leave saying, “That’s exactly what I thought it would be.” And some films, believe it or not, are supposed to have an element of surprise. And some films are supposed to disturb, shock and, yes, even offend. Don’t be afraid of surprise.

The MPAA disclaimers are at their worst when it comes to the “hard R-rated” films. Recent hard R’s include Hostel Part II (“Rated R for sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language and some drug content”), Saw III (“Rated R for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language”), Rob Zombie’s Halloween (“Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity and language”) and Grindhouse (“Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use”).

My favorite description of a film’s rating was for Twister: “Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather.” I never knew the MPAA had an agenda against bad weather.

The irony is that the MPAA has no “official guidelines” with which to rate films, yet they qualify each rating with similar descriptions. These descriptions try to give the audience some idea of what to expect, but the terms become more and more meaningless with repetition. And when it comes to the aforementioned “extreme” films, whose content should be obvious to everyone by this point, the rhetoric is at its most ludicrous. Have you ever heard a person say, “Oh, I’m fine with ‘strong brutal bloody violence and terror throughout,’ but I surely won’t stand for ‘graphic nudity’”? And what real difference is there between “language” and “pervasive language,” or “sexuality” and “aberrant sexuality”?

The MPAA separates all objectionable material into four basic categories: sexuality/nudity, violence, language, and drug use. Their rating disclaimers have become so prominent that they’ve even used as part of a film’s advertising (“gratuitous nudity in American Pie 6!”). What happens then as frequent moviegoers become more attuned to these disclaimers, an unintended mental checklist enters their head (or at least mine) that can severely interfere with the experience of watching a movie. What I mean is this: I regularly find myself unintentionally noting the moments in question which constituted the described rating; like, “Now here’s the drug use,” or, “Here’s the terror/gore I was promised.” Even the film I saw after the trailer I first mentioned at the top of the blog, Eastern Promises, would have been that much more affecting had I not known about the gore, nudity or sexual content going in.

This classification and separation of offensive elements is what has lead to accusations of the MPAA being harsher on sexual content then violent content, as evidenced in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. While I support the MPAA being pressured to own up to their decisions, I think they’re merely reflecting the status quo determined by parents, lobbyists and movie studios. This is, of course, entirely unfair to the rest of the filmgoing community. And it’s not even a smart economic decision, considering that teens and twentysomethings, not children, are the most frequent attendees of movie theaters in America.

So, having said that, I would close this off by politely asking the MPAA to ease off a little bit and not let their priorities interfere with revealing important plot points of films like The Kite Runner, but I think it’s more appropriate to ask parents to ease off, not spoil movies for the rest of us, and not think it’s the end of the world if your son or daughter hears a bad word without you knowing exactly when it was going to happen beforehand.

After all, everyday life isn’t rated. There’s no way for us to predict if we might see or hear something that we disagree with, but that’s no reason for us to live life with our eyes closed and our ears covered.


loveOliver said...

It is interesting that "the rape of a child" exists in a PG-13 movie, don't you think?

PS - I'm gonna be in NYC Oct 16-23.

Ada said...

I read the book when it first published. I had to put the book down to gather myself while I was reading...There are some graphic descriptions in the book and I just could not handle it.

The film should be interesting, especially it's rated PG-13?

banapaulo said...

I take the point here, but as someone mentioned, "rape of a child" in a PG-13 movie is probably something a parent would want to be wary of.

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