Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Film Critics vs. MPAA

This past Saturday the National Society of Film Critics, accompanied by the hilarious tagline 'The Truth, Once Every 12 Months,' released their awards for the top 10 films of 2010 as voted by their members. It should come as no surprise to anyone whose eyes have been open for the past few months that many of their awards went in favor of The Social Network. Yet, there is something else of note in their release statement: Critical attacks on the misuse of power.

Most associations spawning from the realm of Hollywood feel more than content with passively presenting to the public their agreed upon 'best' films, before resigning back into the dark corridor of social disconnect from which they emerged. However, it was not enough for the National Society of Film Critics, and for that I applaud them. In their press release they took issue with several MPAA rulings that effected the independent films of 2010, and joined the thousands of film critics who have captiously criticized Iran's jailing of filmmaker Jafar Panahi.

The latter is a well known, highly publicized, and more highly debated issue, but I'm very intrigued with their look at the MPAA. Many of us who critically write about movies pay little heed to the MPAA as a governing body because, honestly, we're old enough that their decisions seldom affect us. Occasionally we scratch our head when a film gets an NC-17, but we prepare ourselves because it means it only means we'll have to go to an even more independent theater than we already were. Yet, the MPAA, regardless of what they like to think about themselves, is a governing body whose decisions are upheld by governments, and are therefore accountable to the ratings they present. The ratings they give determine the public accessibility of a film.

It's far too easy a thing to write off critics as being captious, but here there are some viable issues being presented. The MPAA, in essence, is a judge of relative offensiveness. If they were 'purely informational' as they so claim, then there would be no need for ratings. One would approach the theater, travel from poster to poster, and at the bottom there would be a caption that read "This film contains..." Upon seeing the possibly offensive content they would examine their own personal pros and cons, and make the decision on whether or not that is something they want to seek out. Instead of our modern posters which basically just put the big "R" or "PG-13" and say nothing to the content which the MPAA found objectionable.

“The Tillman Story,” the documentary about the military cover-up of the death of Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, was similarly rated R for “language.” In the case of that film the offending content is the agitated language of soldiers in combat fearing for their lives.

“A Film Unfinished,” which contains footage taken by the Nazis inside the Warsaw Ghetto, was given an R for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity.”

In the case of the documentaries “The Tillman Story” and “A Film Unfinished,” this amounts to CARA assigning a rating to reality.

Another good point raised by the Society looks at the MPAA's placing of a rating on 'reality.' Should the MPAA be judges of what reality people may find objectionable? Of course one might argue that these are societal based constrictions that they merely enforce.

We use the term 'graphic' negatively when we refer to sex and violence being presented in a realistic fashion. You hardly ever hear someone online discussing the 'graphic' depiction of feeding birds breadcrumbs or cats milk. Though by definition alone, it qualifies. No, we allow certain impositions to be placed upon various things. Why? Because someone told us to...

8 better thoughts:

Film Intel said...

Like that very much (and yes, that tagline is hilarious) but like everything with the MPAA it seems to me that they're on to a losing argument.

The MPAA would surely argue that 'reality' is censored every day by news organisations across the World. The only difference, they would perhaps say, is that Newscorp doesn't have the good grace to put a sticker on it to say *how* censored it is.

Equally, to argue that a film (even a documentary) hasn't censored reality in some way just isn't a viable argument - each one has been directed, produced and edited in a certain way, to suit a certain agenda - everything has some sort of filter over it surely?

Good effort, and like you I applaud them for trying, but I don't think they'll get anywhere with it unfortunately.

Univarn said...

@FilmIntel Very fair points, but I'd add two more to what you're saying.

1. While the News may be censored, whenever they share something that might be offensive they say "if you're offended by X you may want to look away now." The news doesn't cut off if you're child is watching it and show a 'sorry you're too young for this' sign.

2. What the MPAA does is indirect censorship. The news people self-censor to the public needs, while movies release on the good faith that people will censor out what they don't want to watch. Opposite sides of the same coin, but with the latter it's peoples choice - and the MPAA is restricting that.

Film Intel said...

As an aside: THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED more than convinced me that the MPAA is worth raging against, although I think I agree with Kirby Dick that the main problem is how they rate films, not the fact that they are there to rate them in the first place (some form of certification is needed surely - if only as the informative guide you suggest above?)

Aside number 2: John Pilger's latest film is called THE WAR YOU DON'T SEE and is about censorship by news agencies in co-hoots with governments (particular focus on war journalism). I haven't seen it yet so can't attest to its quality but I found his previous film, THE WAR ON DEMOCRACY, to have a very interesting view on things and will be giving it a go when I get chance.

Just thought those two might be relevant to the discussion!

The Mad Hatter said...

Great post Helms, but you miss the broader issue with the MPAA's ineptitude.

Sure an R rating limits a child's access to a film. But it's my understanding that in The States, y'all can still take a minor to an R film if they're accompanied by an adult.

(In canada, an 18A rating means the kid is shit-outta-luck, adult or no adult)

The greater problem is the use of NC-17, which has somehow taken on the mantra of the old "X" rating. When MPAA rates a film NC-17, major American theatre chains won't show the film, Wal-Mart won't stock it for sale, and certain rentals outlets won't carry it. Not only that but TV stations won't run ads for it before 9pm, and any sort of public ad space (subway stations, billboards) are out.

Essentially, because the film is labeled "indecent for minors" it cannot be publicized.

The hitch is that the line of what is and isn't "indecent" is so subjective. And in one decision, the MPAA can doom a film and wipe out 90% of its potential audience.

I must echo FI - track down THIS FILM IS NOT RATED. Prepare to be amused and surprised by exactly how the MPAA works.

Univarn said...

@Mad For the record, I have seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It was quite insightful, and at times bewildering (and we all know the impact it has had on the MPAA - i.e. them finally allowing for appeal). My issue is I disagree with the notion of a rating entirely. A rating, in my opinion, is a gross simplification based on highly arbitrary measures through the focal point of a handful of people's take on the public zeitgeist. Now that I've written that sentence, which I am kind of proud, I will end this comment before I make a fool of myself.

The Mad Hatter said...

@ Univarn... Actually, they always had an appeals system in place. What TFINR pointed out though is that the appeals board was (and still is) a rigged deck.

The problem is that if you don't give the lowest-common-denomenator parents some measure of advance warning, you open the door for lawsuits, lobbying, and other such wastes of time. (Think about how much venom Hollywood violence had to handle after Columbine).

You gotta give even the dumbest of parents a sticker that says "See - we warned you." It's the reprecussions of those stickers that need to be changed.

Univarn said...

@Mad It was an appeal in the most sickeningly abstract definition of the word. You'll never change it from being rigged because it is maintained by the big studios to which it adheres. What I think can be changed is the amount to which we apply credence to it.

I've seen parents leave a theater in disgust because there was a vague sex reference which their child wouldn't have gotten anyways. Movies are a oddity in merchandising terms because if you don't like what you received, or it wasn't what you believed you were purchasing, you can't return the item after the fact in exchange for money (doesn't stop people from demanding a return anyways). Therefore it requires foreknowledge of what you are investing in. Which is where I draw the line on what the MPAA should seek to serve (if anything). I'm of the opinion that the application of ratings, and the governments enforcement of them, hops over the line and continues marching farther than anyone really needs. So, in that respect I agree with you. First step: Drop the NC-17 entirely. It's a useless rating, designed for those most annoying of puritans (who of course take little issue with violence).

Simon said...

It's quite clear that the MPAA finds reality icky.

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