Monday, April 9, 2012

The MPAA’s Bullying of BULLY

After a much publicized tug-of-war with the MPAA, the movie Bully finally got its PG-13 rating. This is important because it had previously been branded with an R, which would’ve prevented people under 18 from seeing it in most theaters without a parent or guardian accompanying them. The filmmakers were unwilling to accept that rating, so they were trying to release it Unrated, which stigmatized it worse than an R since most theaters have a policy to not even play movies that have no rating.

So this revised rating is welcome news and I was ready to rejoice at this victory over what amounts to de facto censorship. But then I found out the MPAA didn’t reevaluate the original cut of the movie, that the filmmakers had in fact gone in and taken out most of the language that was making it an R, something they said they wouldn’t do. This was a dismaying course of action; it seemed like a capitulation to the MPAA. It’d felt so much better to be supporting an artist who was uncompromising about his vision to the point where negotiation with the MPAA was out of the question. The acknowledgement of cuts to the movie implied a failure by the filmmaker to hold steadfastly to his artistic principles, I thought. But the distributor (Harvey Weinstein) and director (Lee Hirsch) are talking about the new rating in such triumphant terms that I guess the consensus is that the movie isn’t being compromised that much, if at all.

So now I’m ambivalent. I think it’s great that it got the PG-13, but something must have been changed about it. I hate that they had to go through the whole rigmarole to get the rating, but I suppose the important thing is that it gets to be seen now. I know some people who want to take their kids to it, and I had to explain to them that they probably weren’t even going to be given the chance to (I don’t live particularly close to a major metropolitan area, which would’ve been the only place you could go see an Unrated movie). So now it should open pretty wide, and that’s good.

Also, some solace must be taken that the MPAA is whining pretty hard in the aftermath, which must mean they at least feel that they got their arms pretty twisted on this one. Which is cool with me. I don’t particularly like how the MPAA operates. I watched a documentary called This Film Is Not Yet Rated which casts as much light on how movies get rated as anything probably ever will (the MPAA is a super secretive bunch) and reveals how deeply flawed the whole process is.

I don’t like how the president of the National Association of Theater Owners (an organization with close ties to the MPAA), John Fithian, is trying to scare us into thinking that if they don’t police movies with their ratings, the government will step in and do it and it’ll be way worse. He basically reasons that moviemakers should censor themselves (with the help of the MPAA) before someone else does. That’s messed up. Imagine if that happened in literature. Books like Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch would be thrown out before they even hit the press. Now, it just so happens that when those books were published, Mr. Fithian’s nightmare scenario happened and various state governments did try to prosecute the publishers and get those books banned. It even went to court. And guess what? The governments lost. I don’t know if Mr. Fithian realizes it, but we don’t live in China—the government doesn’t have total control over everything, let alone those things that have to do with art, free speech, and the like.

The other thing that bugs me about the MPAA is that it tries to make like they’re this totally dispassionate entity that exists to “provide guidance to parents,” an assertion that, as far as I can see, allows them to get away with a whole lot of BS. A lot of their skullduggery is tackled in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, but just know that A) the MPAA doesn’t treat all films equally, with bigger budgeted movies funded by giant corporations getting more leeway, and B) they make totally weird judgment calls. As soon as you excuse like 40 instances of uttered obscenities in Gunner Palace and give it a PG-13 because the language was “not gratuitous,” you enter into the subjective realm of being an adjudicator and are no longer just providing information or guidance. If all they wanted to do was alert parents to potentially offensive content, why not do away with their abstruse rating system and for every movie just list concrete data like the number of swears spoken, the number of people killed, and which of the bare body parts that constitute on-screen nudity pop up and the duration of time they remain uncovered. That would allow parents to actually determine the appropriateness of a movie, a judgment the MPAA is currently making for them.


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