I received an interesting question from someone and thought I’d noodle about it here on my blog rather than just in an email message. The question is from a student named Jason Miller and, as he explains, he’s writing an essay on censorship of movies for his English class. After reading my article about AMC vs TCM he asks three questions:
- Start with the basics, Do you believe that censorship is a good or bad thing and why?
- Do you believe that the current rating system is effective in controlling what people see?
- Should older movies be remade, edited for content or should they be left in their original form?
Now, before you read my thoughts on this subject, spend a few minutes thinking about the issue for yourself, then hopefully add your own two cents here too so we can spark a discussion on the topic.
1. Do you believe that censorship is a good or bad thing and why?
I think that censorship is always a bad thing. I don’t want someone else telling me what to see, do or think, within the boundaries of common decency and civilized behavior. That is, if I want to play baseball in my house and break every window, that should be allowed, albeit stupid, behavior. When that extends to my neighbors, however, when the ball flies into their house and breaks their window, well, that’s going too far and that behavior should be “censored” (e.g. illegal).
The gray area here, of course, is who defines ‘common decency’ and similar measures. In a lot of ways, the marketplace itself (think Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in a cultural sense) can help determine this: if you release a movie with a horrid and widely offensive theme, say one that purports to demonstrate how a particular minority is sub-human and worthy of aggressive persecution, then it’ll be widely vilified in the popular media, along with its director, producer, stars, etc. To some extent, we saw that with the reaction to The Passion of the Christ and its antisemitic undertones.
Is popular opinion sufficient for a society to function? Probably not. That’s why laws about obscenity and the responsibility of venues for the material they screen/disseminate are necessary. Another example: while I am generally in favor of pornographic materials being produced, I am strongly against it being trivially accessible to children. Even with “adult” stores: having garish signs is one thing, but when crass, pornographic, obscene material is visible from the sidewalk I do think that they’ve crossed a line and are acting irresponsibly.
2. Do you believe that the current rating system is effective in controlling what people see?
Given what I said about censorship, it should be no surprise that I support the role of the Motion Picture Association of America and its attempts to let us parents know, in advance, what kind of material is included in a movie. Is it graphic? Does it include rape scenes? Are people mutilated? Killed? Is it full of profanity?
The problem with the MPAA’s Film Rating Board, however, is that it doesn’t seem at all representative of my values. For example, unlike the MPAA I find that movies with violence and obscenity are not appropriate for younger children and am far less concerned about nudity in a movie. But the MPAA has demonstrated time and again that full nudity, even if it’s, say, a “skinny dipping” scene with no sexual overtones, is inappropriate for children’s viewing, while violent and frightening situations are slapped with mild “PG” rating. Generally, I find that our culture is more accepting of violence than nudity, something I’ve always found rather curious. Does the MPAA, for example, think that children have never seen a naked male – like their brother getting out of a bath – so that full frontal male nudity automatically requires an “R” rating?
I think that a rating system is important, but I think that there needs to be more content information made available so that parents can thoughtfully determine what is and isn’t appropriate fare for their children.
Note, by the way, that I think that a content rating system is valuable for adult viewers too, if just to help determine which of a set of relatively unknown movies would be more enjoyable / less offensive. My Mum, for example, hates profanity, so if it’s an otherwise pleasant movie, she’d appreciate knowing in advance that every fifth word is the so-called “f-bomb” or similar. If you’ve seen lots of movies, you know what I’m talking about!
Now, is the rating system effective? Well, that’s up to individual theater owners: if they let under 13 kids into a PG-13 movie, for example, they can face legal consequences so yes, at that level I do think it’s effective. Does the V-chip work? No. Does that mean that once a movie makes it to DVD or to a channel like HBO, the ratings are irrelevant? Absolutely. It would be quite literally child’s play for any modern kid to use a TiVo-like device to time-shift an R movie from its ostensibly safe 10:00pm showing and watch it at 4pm while Mom and Dad are still at work.
3. Should older movies be remade, edited for content or should they be left in their original form?
Both. What I mean by that is that I support the integrity of the artists’ original vision for a movie, including content, presentation style, film stock limitations, etc. If the movie was shot in black and white, for example, it should be made available in that same B&W format for people who want to see it.
However, often films suffer from technological limitations, budget constraints, or just the pigheadedness of marketing wonks at major studios. That’s why the so-called “Director’s Cut” has become so popular. But think about this: given the dozens of people who create modern movies, why is the director the only one to have free reign in the edit room? Where’s the “cinematographer’s cut” or the “lead actor’s cut” or similar?
An example of a movie that was improved in the Director’s Cut is Blade Runner. There’s only a few minutes of additional material in the DC, but it helps explain the backstory and offers up some interesting imagery that was lacking in the original [superb] film. In a different way, the “remastered digital release” of the original Star Wars films demonstrates how a director [in this case George Lucas] can redo earlier scenes with better special effects and make a better movie by not pulling material from the cutting room floor (as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner DC) but by actually refilming and rerendering them. Is the remastered Star Wars better than the original? Well, define “better”. It’s fair, at least, to say that it’s more consistent with the director’s original vision, and if you accept that film is at its heart an artistic medium, then surely that’s of critical importance?
Having said all that, I also watch movies and cringe at the poor editing decisions that some directors make. The recent release Casino Royale came close to being a wonderful addition to the Bond franchise, but director Martin Campbell really screwed it up with some very poor inclusions. The scene where Bond’s being tortured, for example, was far too graphic for my taste, and the scene where he’s playing high-stakes Baccarat went on far too long and damaged the pacing of the film. If I could have seen a “PG cut” of the movie that had at least minimized or simply skipped the former scene, it would have been a more enjoyable movie for me and especially my wife.
I support Campbell’s editing of the movie — he’s the director, after all — but I would love to have an alternative version that skipped the scene or scenes that adversely affected the movie. That’s basically impossible in the theater, but when it’s on DVD, why not have a DVD player that can be programmed to skip specific scenes that are rated “graphic violence” or “graphic torture scene” or whatever? What if I could download a ‘skip list’, pick the specific scenes by description that I’d want to skip (like “explicit and disturbing torture scene: 2:17 in length”), select them, and have a more enjoyable viewing experience than the director might have otherwise offered me?
There is, of course, at least one company offering this service but it’s extraordinarily controversial. Check out ClearPlay.com to see their take on this topic, then go and do a Google News search to see how most of the creative folk in Hollywood view this practice. But is it censorship? I don’t think so. It would be if you couldn’t skip the third-party edits, if you couldn’t get the “original” DVD or a non-ClearPlay DVD player, but of course you can. Instead, it’s giving us the freedom as individuals to view what we want to view which most assuredly is not censorship in my books, but quite the opposite.
There have also been a few movies released with two cuts, an “R” and a “PG” version. One that springs to mind is Saturday Night Fever and frankly the R version seems pretty tame by today’s standards but it was a smart way for director John Badham (who later went on to make the far grittier Drop Zone and Point of No Return) to let the audience decide which version was a better fit for them.
Anyway, great questions and I hope this produces a very interesting discussion here on my blog too!