When I was sixteen, we still listened to the radio quite a bit. It was a consequence of living in the world before mp3s. One of the favorite little details I remember was that there were about three or four stations that played music my friends and I liked. The favorite was 92.3, simply because they tended not to censor their music. They would with some frequency accidentally play uncut versions of songs while the guy who was supposed to be bleeping lyrics was in the bathroom. I’m sure that they swallowed some fines for that, but they made up for it in teenaged listenership, to whom the idea of swearing regardless of what the government said was the height of rebellion as far as radio stations were concerned.
A lot of kids ripped into the very idea of censorship, blasting uncut CDs and calling out radio stations for not doing the same. There was an acknowledgement of the potential validity of worrying what little six year old listeners might be hearing, but the boom always came firmly down on the side of free speech. Middle class teenagers are always libertarians because they don’t have the life experience to understand why the state is ever necessary for anything. They’ve never been victims, so they don’t understand the need for security. They’ve never been needy, so they don’t understand the need for help. They don’t believe in the state because they’ve never seen why you need it, for left or for right. Kids always rolled their eyes at the censors beeping out words in “What It’s Like” with the same blindness that beeped the words from Snoop Dogg. It’s in the context, we’d say, the context of one is not the context of the other.
Bleeping out profanity from “get a fucking job you slob” in the context of “What It’s Like” is hilarious when “I got a pocket full of rubbers and my homeboys do too” doesn’t merit anything. The key there, the nuance, is that the radio censors followed their jobs to the letter. “Fuck” gets bleeped regardless of the surrounding social commentary. A cynic might note that while one might acknowledge the relative good of a censor in certain situations, one must always give them strict rules. Never ever let the censor start to play with context, never let the censor think or interpret. That way lies madness.
As we reported a couple of weeks ago, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, by all accounts a brilliant and emotionally scathing film, has received an NC-17 rating. It’s now being reported that the rating is being appealed. Appealed without the slightest intent of cutting a damned thing, I might add. In the wake of this, “The King’s Speech,” has been given a hard R rating because a character says “fuck” more than twice. Other than that, it’s about as PG as movies come without having an animated main character. Fuck fuck the fuckity fuck. Oh fuck, my article just got an R rating. I could torture seven or eight random people to death right here and still coast by on the same R rating that landed on me from saying “fuck” a couple of times.
As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune notes, “If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.”
Blue Valentine has ended up in NC-17 territory because of an emotionally devastating scene in which the two lead characters have sex. Show all the tits you want, and you’re still getting that coveted R. Hell, even Showgirls managed to get an R cut into theaters and someone was topless in that film for 125 of the 128 minute run time. But holy shit if someone cries while those tits are on screen, that’s adult fucking content and this entire thing is going atomically NC-17.
The bottom line MPAA, is that you don’t get to be both censor and rater. NC-17 means that film cannot be run in most theaters in the country and sixteen year olds can’t even see it with their twenty year old “uncle” by their side. That means that if you use situational context to place films in this box, you are taking the role of censor, not just the role of informative rater. I can stomach a ratings body that has a list of items independent of context that drive rating, but the moment you start interpreting content for me, you are the enemy of the good.
I started seeing R movies when I was about ten. That was the beauty of VHS. And I’m sure that I’m not special in this regard. Parents make choices in this regard, and hell, a lot of parents are irresponsible twats who don’t think twice about their four year olds watching the blood drip in Hostel. But by god, it’s their choice, not some arbitrarily formed ratings body that determines what I am allowed to let my kid see in a theater. You don’t want my kid seeing something regardless of what I say? Pass a fucking law. Until you get that past Congress, shut the hell up and stop handing out NC-17s just because a movie is emotionally complicated. So’s life. And the last time I checked, the demographics in support of MPAA strictness aren’t exactly in favor of third parties doing jack shit about life taking emotionally complicated dumps on kids, so drop the double standard.