Why the MPAA Should Be Ashamed of Itself

A few weeks ago, we learned that Derek Cianfrance’s great film, Blue Valentine, would be receiving an NC-17 rating, a fact which upset me deeply. What put the film over the edge? A lengthy, painfully uncomfortable sequence in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) tries to have sex with Cindy (Michelle Williams) in a hotel room. With their marriage falling apart, Dean is looking for anything that will keep the two of them together. Cindy, however, is not as eager to work things out. It’s a beautiful sequence and one that’s shocking for its seeming verisimilitude. The film’s use of nudity is not salacious or even tantalizing; on the contrary, it depicts sex as a desperate act of last resort.

Understandably, the Weinstein Company swore they’d appeal the ridiculous decision. “We’re going to have to overturn this. This is serious stuff. This could really hurt the movie,” Weinstein said. We hope they succeed, but the Blue Valentine situation is not the only news item that has demonstrated the MPAA’s recent idiocy.

Patrick Goldstein has a devastating write-up of the MPAA’s arcane and preposterous ratings system, brought upon by the recent R-rating for The King’s Speech. For those who don’t know, the film won the top prize at Toronto this year and has already been garnering major awards buzz. But the film has a few “fucks” in it, and therefore, it must receive an R-rating, right? Even though films such as, for example, every single James Bond ever made or every single comic book/superhero movie have graphic acts of violence and still manage to get by with PG-13 ratings.

According to the Speech’s director, Tom Hooper, “What I take away from that decision is that violence and torture is OK, but bad language isn’t. I can’t think of a single film I’ve ever seen where the swear words had haunted me forever, the way a scene of violence or torture has, yet the ratings board only worries about the bad language.”

Perhaps it’s Michael Phillips that puts it best in his response to the situation:

I don’t care if MPAA head [Joan] Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us. If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

In fact, the “one fuck rule” is something that has plagued other high-profile films recently. Not too long ago, Amir Bar-Lev’s provocative film, The Tillman Story, received an R-rating due to the pervasive use of the f-bomb throughout the film. It’s a riveting film about the death of a highly-regarded American soldier and the ensuing cover-up that originated from the highest levels of government (check out my review of the film and interview with Bar-Lev). “The language in this film is not gratuitous,” said Bar-Lev. “I think this is how many people would react when faced with the unthinkable. Giving this film an ‘R’ rating prevents young people from seeing this film; the very people who should be exposed to a great American like Pat Tillman.”

Ironically, the film’s original title was supposed to be I’m Pat Fucking Tillman (a line that Tillman utters in his last moments), which Bar-Lev changed in the hopes of improving the film’s marketability. Too bad he didn’t anticipate how short-sighted the MPAA would be in evaluating his film.

On a recent episode of KCRW’s The Business, MPAA chair Joan Graves responded to allegations that The Tillman Story was treated unfairly in comparison with another war-related documentary, Gunner Palace. Gunner Palace was given a PG-13 despite having numerous instances of “fuck.” At the time, Palace’s director Michael Tucker made an impassioned plea about how important it was for kids to be able to see see the film. Were we willing to send teens into battle, but not willing to allow them a chance to see what that battle would actually be like on the big screen? Tucker’s extremely reasonable appeal won over his audience, but when confronted with this contradiction, here’s Graves’ response:

It was a very strong emotional argument, and I think it carried the day for that film…The appeals board did not do their job for Gunner Palace. It was an emotional appeal and it was emotionally received, and I know that Jack Valenti and [the head of NATO], they felt that it misrepresented the ratings system, so they put out a special press release at the time saying “This rating has been overturned, but the PG-13 does not indicate the level of content in the film.”

So let me get this straight, Graves: You’re repudiating one of the only sensible decisions that your despicable organization made in the past decade? You are no longer a respectable industry professional. You have become a caricature. But check out the interview below and tell me if I’m being unreasonable (Graves’ segment begins about halfway through).

Recently, Michelle Williams told The Hollywood Reporter that she wouldn’t be bothered if Blue Valentine retained its NC-17 rating and stayed unedited. “I’m happy for it to stay just like it is. Genuinely, I am…Movies get to have long lives and it’ll be judged and rejudged in 10 or 20 or 30 years, and I’ll be curious to see how it stands,” Williams told Entertainment Weekly. “It seems like such a condemnation…It feels like such a slap on the hand, like you’ve been a bad kid or something.” I salute Williams for her ability to stay upbeat and for her artistic integrity.

In the meantime, it’s time for more people to condemn the MPAA and their outrageous antics. We’re heading towards an age when we don’t need a mommy-like organization to dictate what our delicate sensibilities can and can’t be exposed to. I deeply hope that the MPAA’s irrelevance is imminent.

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