Censorshi… you know, something clever part whatever.
Censorshit in movies has been around as long as movies have been around and it should come no surprise to anyone that since the dawn of motion pictures, there have been people trying to keep you from seeing something on the screen. Does it come to the wonderment of anybody that as early as there were films there were porno films? Seeing has how porn has always pushed every new form of innovation it did a great service in the motion picture field as well. The early silent porns were not these “just show boobs” things that you oft see in documentaries, no they had hardcores right from the start, obviously not with the elaborate cumshots and whatnot that we are used to today, but they showed cock in cunt quite well. In fact, some of those early porns are quite graphic to the point they were of course going to raise the ire of the censors. In a way those porns were an attempt to defect attention away from “real” movies, a bait and switch if you must. This did not work out as the adult material was relatively underground no matter what and those who would call for the censoring would invariably attack larger, more mainstream targets out of sheer bluster. You don’t make your point to the general public by going after the little guys, you make your point by attacking the biggest motherfucker you can find. The old time (mainstream) movie censorship was ridiculously strict to the point where onscreen kissing was not allowed as it might rile up the blood you see. Sure, you could have white men in blackface killing niggras and demonizing an entire race… but a kiss, that was verboten. I am not going to give a full treatise on the history of movie abridgment and bowdlerization but lets just agree that it has been there since the very start and in fact it has been there since the very start of any new medium not to mention the old mediums.
Moving on to more modern times though, I have to ask; Why does the MPAA even exist? What do they do that is NOT out and out censorship? Just like our friends at the PMRC the MPAA love to claim they are an “informational” body only and all submissions to them are voluntary, that no one HAS to have their film rated by them or even accept the rating given out by them. Now, to be technically fair they are correct, but they are also factually wrong (oxymoron I know). You do in fact have no absolute NEED to have your film rated by them… it’s just that if you don’t, well then you can’t release it to most theaters, you can’t show the trailer in theaters and you can’t advertise in newspapers*, but by no means do you HAVE to submit your film to them. This is how it works people, the system is rigged just like any other system, it is rigged against you from conception. Long ago after the Hayes Code morphed into the MPAA (don’t give me that look, you and I both know that is really what happened), a deal was struck between the major movie studios, advertisers and the MPAA. This deal was more or less that the studios would submit their films to the MPAA (at the studios expense) and accept the rating handed to them to which the advertisers would then accept ads for the now rated movies. Notice a conspicuously absent part of this trifecta? The artists who made the film. They have no say in what the studio nor the MPAA do to their film. Oh that scene you worked hard on and completely ties the themes of the movie together? It has a cock in it, no one will see it but now we get to sell the movie so it’s all good. There is no regard to the artistic integrity of a film when it comes to censoring on any level and even less when it comes to the MPAA. Added to this you will also notice another aspect is missing, independent studios. The indys must also submit to the MPAA but they get charged more (remember, you have to pay the MPAA for the MPAA to rate your film) and they get dealt with on a much harsher level than that of a studio. Why? Why not really. Seeing as the studios are the ones that made the deal with the MPAA it only stands to reason that they wish to push out their more edgy competitors does it not? The MPAA would require cuts made to an indy film which would be heartily accepted of an studio film. It was playing in separate leagues and it was leagues of vastly varying brackets.
So, we have established that you have to (defacto) work with the MPAA unless you simply don’t want to make any money off of the film you just slaved away on, but what happens when you just say “fuck it” and release your film unrated? In the pre-home video days this was a rarity but it happened from time to time. A film would get hit with such absurd demands from the MPAA that the filmmakers would just buck the system and release the movie unrated. Now, this never really happened with a studio film, this was almost always with an indy release. Dawn Of The Dead, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Re-animator, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Evil Dead and a few others went out to theaters unrated. They all paid for their insolence though, all of these did far below their box office hopes since, well you can’t advertise these movies in the mainstream (at the time) and many corporate owned theaters will not carry an unrated movie (another deal cut with the MPAA). I like to say these movies were unleashed rather than released and that is more or less what happened; they escaped.
The advent and rising popularity of home video though gave an entirely new facet to movie censorshit though. Home video did not require a rating and in fact many companies used the newly liberated format as a way to stick it to the MPAA. Movies that were cut to ribbons formally were released uncut for the first time on home video, films that were held from distribution due to MPAA balderdash** finally get their due and new films are made with the express purpose of showing the MPAA as the antiquated organization they are. Companies like Empire/Full Moon jumped on this and created the “Too Gory For The Silver Screen” series which, while being a tad shameless, was a great marketing strategy.
There are other kinds of movie censorshit besides the obvious cutting scenes out of films though. There is the blackballing of films, the public shaming of people that see certain kinds of films and the always popular boycott of films. Blackballing is the one of these that is the most unknown by the public at large as it usually happens behind the scenes and frankly the general public never finds out about it… which is the point really. A film/director/distributor will get into it with someone powerful or some powerful organization and then finds out that this person/organization has the power to put them on a blacklist. All of a sudden newspapers owned by this person/organization will not take your ads, theaters owned by this person/organization will not book the movie etc… and this all occurs in the dimly lit backrooms, not in the public arena. Public shaming is the most common practice though, making you look like a deviant or scumbag simply for seeing a movie or even a genre of movies. The early 80’s Slasher movie boom was a great example of this trend. You publicly make the movies sound as vile and debased as you can which thereafter taints (even tangentially)*** those fans of that genre. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were famous for this and their outright crusade against anyone that enjoyed a slasher movie that was not Halloween. The final method censorshit cowards use is the boycott. Basically they hate your movie (or genre, again with slashers) and they will protest outside the theaters, they will attack the releasing studio and they will go the ends of the earth to stop you from exercising your right to view what you wish… all the while they are using their right of free speech to do so. Films like The Last Temptation Of Christ, Cursing, Silent Night Deadly Night, Dogma, Showgirls, Deep Throat and Basic Instinct all had this method of craven critics thrown at them. In the end though, protests and boycotts tend to give a film added (and free) advertising.
I can’t say this enough… when it comes to anything… if you don’t like it, then don’t like it, you can even speak out about WHY you don’t like it, but you do NOT have the right to stop others from mentally ingesting it nor do you have the right to alter it to fit your invariably narrow view of a subject.
*Don’t laugh, that used to really mean something in the pre-internet days.
**My god, I am really running out of synonyms aren’t I?
***Did you like what I did there McMullen?
Tell me to shut the fuck up at firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure to leave a comment even if it’s a nasty one (especially if it’s a nasty one).
For a british perspective we now go to Glenn Criddle with his Razor Is Sanity Thin”.
The MPAA: Bad For All the World’s Cinema
Why in the world would I give a fuck about the MPAA. After all I’m a Brit and we have the BBFC to deal with and aren’t they the ones who caused that stink in the 80’s about the video nasties?
Well The BBFC are a very different animal these days, for one thing they are extraordinarily open and transparent about their operations now. They regularly meet with and consult experts in psychology, the police, lawyers and most importantly the public and they publish reports based on these meetings. And let’s not forget the yearly review of policy, finance and operations of the BBFC. They also attend functions such as Frightfest where they face the people their decisions most impact on. Suffice to say they are not the same organization they were in the 80’s, they still have faults, they still make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, and sometimes they play it very safe but sometimes they also take risks for the sake of advancing the medium of film. In short the situation could be much, much worse here in the UK. So why do I fret at all about the MPAA? Let me count the ways….
The MPAA have an oversight on one of the worlds largest cinematic creative markets…Hollywood. Now their powers are not mandatory, a provision that exists ONLY because of the 1st Amendment of your constitution, otherwise be assured that the route of ‘Unrated’ would not exist. However the penalties of not going through the censorship board that is the MPAA are, from a business point of view, very serious. George Romero, when making Day of the Dead, was faced with the option of having a large budget with which he could make the large scale film he wanted but with neutered violence and gore or he could have a significantly smaller budget and have creative freedom when it came to gore but not be able to fulfil his original vision. This is not unusual, this is not exceptional in fact this is pretty much the norm in the US. The MPAA have an ‘agreement’ with certain establishments. If a film is not rated then it will struggle to find outlets to carry it and it’s marketing will be restricted or banned on mainstream radio and T.V. and even in cinema’s that are affiliated with the MPAA . In short if you don’t take the route of going through the US censor then your film is destined to struggle and languish in obscurity. So why would any studio want to not go through them when now more than ever the studios are cash driven machines. The answer is they do want to go through them, their product has cost a lot of money and they have to maximize the return. And fair enough, I’m not one to deny the studio a business opportunity.
The problem is the MPAA itself, it’s an organisation that is mysterious in its operation, unaccountable, given more power and gravitas than it warrants and somehow has the retail sector for films in a Mafia like extortion contract.
You may ask again, “why do you care? You’re from another country” well here’s my answer. With Hollywood being one of the major suppliers of film to the world it is important to realize the effect of its home market and the knock on effect from that. When studios submit their work to the MPAA they are now often looking for a certain rating. The same is true in the UK. The problem is that certain ratings in the States are poison. An R rating is about the maximum you’ll want to go because if you get an NC17 you may well just not have bothered going through the system because the market is just as much stacked against you, you will incur difficulty being stocked by some stores, getting advertising out there etc. etc. In the UK this is not an issue, an 18 rating (NC17 equivalent) doesn’t mean porn, it won’t stop it being stocked in any stores, it has NO stigma.
A studio is naturally going to favour it’s home audience so we now see as a general thing the practice of aiming for a lower rating, usually a safe PG-13 which will mean anyone can watch it but not so low as to appear to be specifically a kids product, maximize the audience. All fine and well to some degree but the practice is now dumbing down what should be gutsy and edgy films to fit into the more commercially viable options. How many action films do we see these day that are PG13? Even when they are an R it’s often the case that the studio manipulates the few known rules of the MPAA to upgrade to an R by saying fuck once or twice too many times for the lower rating it would otherwise have been. But a hard R, with the film just happening to be like that is a rare thing these days because it’s a dangerous game, financially speaking. This manipulation is in fact is a more common practice in what would be a safe PG film that the studio wants to bolster up with a more attractive PG 13 rating…. just have the kid in the movie say crap a few times and the more sexy rating will be applied.
This manipulation and coercion of ratings and content has ramifications on the world that receives the Hollywood product. The majority of films that we see are those which have gone through the US censor system and we get the kickback of studios playing it safe. We also get the DVD ‘Special Editions’ that proudly claim to be the ‘Unrated edition’, ‘Uncut Directors edition’, ‘The version you were not allowed to see at the cinema’…… and this is where I call bullshit.
I would like it when I’m paying the premium prices that are at the cinema for the concessions, the ticket and whatever other elevations of price we get when not viewing in the home, to be able to see the fucking directors cut on the big screen. The cinema experience in the UK is pretty expensive with IMAX being about 15 pounds Sterling ($23) and popcorn and a drink about another 8 quid ($12.50) and I would like to be getting my moneys worth out of the film, i.e. the film should not simply be a shadow of what it should have been. The reason I won’t get the full cinema experience of many films is because some twat in the US, an unaccountable power drunk moron with a pastor sat near them is making decisions that affect what everyone gets to see across the world and the studios and cinemas are enabling them to do so. Any producers that don’t follow suit will be squeezed out.To do this the MPAA are holding a financial gun to the head of producers and saying ‘If you don’t play ball you don’t get a fair chance’. I’ll be willing to put good money on the notion that big studios also get away with way more than small production companies too. If there’s one thing the MPAA reek of it’s dodgy money and corruption.
In my country the ‘Unrated Cuts’ are meaningless, they are simply ways of extorting more money out of the audience and every time I see that on the disc it’s like a giant fuck you from the MPAA reminding me that the film that I saw at the cinema was raped by them and/or that the studios will not release a complete product or are willing to release an inferior product into the cinema. Why should I go to the cinema anymore? I’m apparently getting an incomplete or lesser product there thanks to the MPAA.
The thing is that now it’s a mutual arrangement. The studios are cozy with the set up, they have the safety net of a censor board and they know how to play it. The MPAA have enough power and influence to keep their managers very rich and these days they are overtly political and frankly Orwellian in their zealotry for copyright protection, but that’s another story.
My point is that this unaccountable, mysterious, secretive body that is the MPAA has affected the entire industry on a global scale. You won’t get to know how they operate, why they make the calls they do and the full extent of their impact on the world of film because they are a closed door organization who have one of the worlds largest and most influential film industries by the balls.
And that’s why I have a problem with the MPAA. It’s not just an American concern, it affects us all and they want more power, so much more.
While the BBFC have grown up considerably, particularly over the last decade and a half, the MPAA has become increasingly spiteful and power hungry. It’s up to Americans to say enough is enough and put those unelected, undemocratic power crazed censorship maniacs back on the unemployment line. You’ll be doing yourselves and the entire world a favour.