Rate irate

Pub date December 28, 2010
SectionFilm Features


YEAR IN FILM “Bloody bugger to you, you … beastly bastard. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. F-fornication. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck and fuck. Fuck, fuck, and bugger. Bugger, bugger, buggety buggety buggety fuck. Fuck ass. Balls! Balls! Fuckety shit. Shit, fuck and willy. Willy, shit and fuck, and … tits.”

The above is, in toto, the reason why The King’s Speech — a movie that might very well turn out Oscar’s idea of this year’s Best Picture next February — is rated R. This childish explosion of potty-mouth is coaxed from England’s future king (Colin Firth) by his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to demonstrate that the former’s crippling stammer flies away whenever he’s unself-consciousness enough to cuss a bit. It’s a comic moment (one of few, and perhaps the film’s highlight in general) that, by reducing the words to sniggering playground naughtiness — this king is, after all, in a state of arrested development — robs them of any genuine scatology or shock value. They’re just words.

But those words (give or take a few fucks and shits — only the MPAA can or would bother to count every rapid-fire cuss) were still enough to get this otherwise very chaste, polite Masterpiece Theatre exercise classified with Saw 3D and The Human Centipede as viewable by minors only with parental accompaniment. Not that many teens are likely to be lining up for The King’s Speech — certainly far fewer than saw Saw 3D with or without adult chaperoning. But really, this is what they need protecting from?

This was a year in which the usual grousing undercurrent about arbitrary ratings-board standards started to seep overground. There were small hubbubs about two excellent documentaries, The Tillman Story and A Film Unfinished, getting R’s due to cursing on one hand and nudity (among Nazi concentration camp inmates) on the other. In both cases prudishness means these searing indictments of historical wrongs probably can’t be used for classroom educational purposes.

A larger controversy surrounded Blue Valentine, the acclaimed indie feature slapped with an NC-17 for a sex scene so subversive that no one who saw the film at Sundance could recall it; the MPAA rating mystified many. Turns out the scene in question is a happy flashback in this slow-agonizing-death-of-a marriage portrait, with Michelle Williams’ thrusty body language expressing clear enjoyment of Ryan Gosling’s mouthy activities downtown. Nonetheless, there’s nothing more explicit displayed than the outside of her thighs — as one colleague put it, “I’ve seen more of Britney Spears on the Internet.” The drama’s sobriety and its awards momentum finally won a rare MPAA reversal on appeal, reducing its rating to R.

But the case still underlines the injustice of our current system. As Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated pointed out in 2006, as a tool of the Hollywood mainstream the MPAA routinely judges independent films more harshly than major studio releases. It also exercises double standards when it comes to gender nudity and gender-preference sexuality, and most crucially continues to heighten the American morality gap between depictions of sex and violence.

These complaints have prompted some vague hints of change afoot, albeit more toward hitting torture-porn horror harder than lightening up on the birds ‘n’ bees. In any case, it’s difficult to be very hopeful: for every progressive cultural step forward these days, there seem to be two Tea Party dance-steps back. It was announced earlier this month that Christian pastor and cable honcho Robert H. Schuller had contracted to broadcast G-rated versions of movies like the original Alien (1979) and Predator (1987). OK, so they’ll have bad language and explicit violence removed; but even these eviscerated edits will still offer entertainment predicated on the horrific (if now nongraphically suggested) murders of humans by icky monsters. Giving kids nightmares is more godly (and provides a more “positive message,” per the Rev. Schuller) than showing them (God forbid) a nipple.

Such hypocrisies run rampant in U.S. entertainment and society in general. Media outlets generally refuse to advertise NC-17 films, giving them and their modicum of sexual explicitness the commercial kiss of death while most kids freely access porn online. Screen violence grows ever more desensitizing; explosions of cars, buildings, entire cities, or planets are viewed as harmless while anything truly unpleasant enough to act as a deterrent sparks outrage. (By now the escapist Saw and Hostel movies get shrugged at, whereas the recent Killer Inside Me remake offended many because its protracted scenes of domestic violence were realistically painful to watch.)

Penises are now OK in small doses, albeit only in the clownish contexts of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Observe and Report (2009), etc. Ironically, any time sex is taken seriously, sans juvenile humor or lurid “erotic-thriller” type judgment, it becomes unfit for allegedly innocent eyes. Blue Valentine‘s good sex, and subsequent bad breakup sex, disturbs the MPAA because it is all too real-world relatable in both its pleasure and fallibility, something you won’t often find in porn, either.

The logic gap grows ever more ridiculous even as our culture wars’ battle lines harden. Imagine a Palin White House two years hence, presiding over a land in which sex education is nonexistent, abstinence clubs are the new Honor Society, and teenage pregnancy rates skyrocket. When in doubt as to the nation’s course, say grace, then settle down to dinner with the kids as you watch a “clean” tube edit of something like 1995’s Braveheart, its medieval spears through the chest trimmed but that humorous throwing of a prince’s homosexual BFF from the castle tower left intact. Then drift off to slumberland, family values affirmed.