The Chill Factor

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in IFC Rant
2000



Censorship and Hypocrisy, American Style: Sean Gullette and his filmmaking friends rant about the MPAA, Hollywood, Congress and their policies of prude.


Parental Warning: This scene contains satirical material. (Fade in: Senate Committee Room. Late afternoon.)

"It is despicable, horrible, shameful. This is awful." The politician's wife, who had begun to vibrate rhythmically in her seat, lowered the DVD case she was waving and took a drink of water. There was stiff applause from the gallery. The Committee watched from their raised wooden platform, reptilian calculation shifting to moral outrage in their eyes.

Senator Bulko leaned back, his heavy chair creaking plaintively. "Thank you so much, Madam." The Senator's baleful gaze shifted to the so-called artist sitting at a folding table beneath the dais. "Perhaps you, as an artist," he uttered the word distastefully, "can explain how this cultural pollution has redeeming social value."

"What if I don't satisfy that standard?" the artist replies.

"None of us wants to resort to regulation," said Committee Chairman Joe Bieberman soothingly. "We want you folks in the industry to help us draw the lines of decency."

"Whose standard of decency, exactly -- some religious fanatic's?"

"Be careful, sir."

"What about these bigshot Hollywood studio heads? What are they doing at my table? They should be up there with you, shouldn't they?" The So-Called-Artist looked down at the Hollywood studio heads, pictured a career floating in a toilet bowl, and flushed: "These guys are the most powerful arbiters of taste in the world. They kill movies right and left if they smell controversy. That's real censorship."

The studio chief shot his cuffs and exposed a dozen white teeth. "We're businessmen, my friend. It's our right to release or not release whatever films we want. And it's our obligation to the shareholders not to outrage or offend decent Americans. We're certainly not censors. That's why we all started the MPAA. Because we abhor censorship."

"Mr. Bolenti? Would you like to add anything?" asked the Senator.

Jack Bolenti, the President of the lobby representing the eight major studios, greeted the Senators with a polite smile. "Ratings are meant for parents, no one else. Before we came along, there were 44 different censorship boards. I count myself to be--the gentleman may not agree--the best friend that a free screen ever had."

"Oh, great. So you're not a censor either! We have no censors in America. So, why is there fucking censorship everywhere I look?"

"Officer, remove this man." The Senator pointed with his gavel.

"You know, Senator, the most virulent censors are usually the most depraved sexually. Is there some film footage you'd like to share with us..."

"Get him out! Out!"

The MPAA Ratings Board

"The values of the 1950s held that guns and war were good and human sexuality was bad," says filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. "And then, in the 60s and 70s, we deconstructed that, and it dawned on us that in fact guns were bad and human sexuality was good. Somehow, the MPAA never caught up with the rest of us."

Aronofsky is walking down 13th Street in Manhattan, talking about how the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) made clear that a certain double-ended-dildo would have to go for his film, Requiem for a Dream, to enjoy the Ratings Board "R" designation -- the socially acceptable rating that goes to everything from the latest Schwartzenegger action flick to recent British drama Billy Elliot. Aronofsky rebelled and persuaded Artisan Entertainment to release the film unrated and uncut, rather than receive the deadly NC-17 tag. Filmmakers are not required by any law to carry MPAA ratings, but the large theater chains balk at unrated content. And with the NC-17 rating, the situation is no better. Defined on the MPAA web site as, "violence or sex or aberrational behavior or drug abuse or any other elements which, when present, most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children," NC-17 films face an uphill battle, with theaters refusing to show them and newspapers often declining to advertise them.

"It's a de facto censorship rating. The Board is completely out of step with the taste and sensibility of the American audience, particularly where sex is concerned, where they seem to have a phobia," says director James Toback, who had to alter a mixed-race sex sequence in his film Black and White to earn an R rating.

"In the past, the X rating was valid: A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy came out X," continues Toback, as he boards a plane at Laguardia airport for a trip to Harvard University, where he will screen the film at the invitation of the African-American Studies department. In response to the Board's decision, Black and White's producer posted both versions -- before and after the cuts -- on a web site (sputnik7.com/blackandwhite) to let the public see for themselves. "The responses were universally favorable to us," says Toback. "The Board told [us] to take it down. [We] said no."

Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho, approached the Board with some trepidation. After all, the Bret Easton Ellis book -- about which MPAA President Jack Valenti has said, "troubling . . . I didn't like it"-- features a human skull impaled on an erect penis. American Psycho was a made-to-order instance of important literary work with red-flag potential for the censors. Then Harron made a film with no full-frontal nudity, in which, as Harron says, you never see "the knife on the skin." The steady rhythm of psychotic violence was apparently fine, but the twelve Los Angeles parents on the Board winced and hit the NC-17 button over a scene that includes a three-way sexual act between Christian Bale's hollow-eyed yuppie and two prostitutes, sending Harron and Lion's Gate back to the cutting room to earn their "R."

Year in and year out, the MPAA's ratings exert a constant, invisible influence on the content of what Americans see on the screen, from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut to Lars von Trier's The Idiots, both of which had to digitally insert black area to block material the Board found objectionable.

But does the Board's good work improve our cultural environment? Since movie characters now almost never actually have sex, one result of the MPAA's constant chilling pressure is an American film culture dominated by films that replace sex with innuendo and pre-adolescent wanking humor. Alex Beam complains in the Boston Globe, "Thanks to the MPAA's ludicrous rating codes, sleaze has replaced good clean sex. There's Something About Mary was a purely sleazy movie, replete with wink-wink jokes about masturbation, gays, etc ... What is sex? Something I would enjoy doing; lovemaking in the largest sense of the word...What is sleaze? I think building a movie like American Pie around the premise of ejaculating into a baked desert would certainly qualify." Has anyone ever actually explained what awful thing will happen to teenagers who see movies in which people make love?

The Studios

"The MPAA has done a pretty good job snowing people into thinking that they work for the public good" says Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, in the show's Los Angeles offices. "And they don't work for the public good. They work for the studios' good." Stone is among the Ratings Board's most devoted critics. The lampooning he gave it in the Paramount-funded South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, in which a 10-year old intones, "Just remember what the MPAA says: horrific deplorable violence is O.K. as long as people don't say any naughty words," is the tip of a civil liberties iceberg for Stone. "I'm in a position now where I'm a slave to this Star Chamber thing, and I don't know what the hell's going on. People can come over to my house and get a few beers in me, and I will not shut up about the MPAA for hours. It just makes my blood boil. I hate them. It's my mission in life to bring them down."

Indeed, the major studios seem to have an implicit arrangement with the Ratings Board, who seldom propose inconvenient ratings for blockbusters packed with gun violence. However, as the studios acquire controlling interests in previously "independent" companies, Hollywood executives are themselves donning the black robes of the censor and judging films that are already completed. After reviewing Todd Solondz' critically-acclaimed Happiness, Universal Pictures CEO Ron Meyer ordered his subsidiary October films to drop the movie, reportedly stating that he didn't want to understand the mind of a pedophile and wasn't interested in having his company involved in the release of a film that attempts to present that perspective.

When his corporate in-laws dropped the hammer, Solondz told indieWIRE, "[October Films] were great champions of the movie. But such is the way of the world. They have learned that they are not quite as autonomous as they once were ... And as long as we live in this repressive culture, there will always be filmmakers like myself responding to it in this way."

Another filmmaker to be affected by corporate cautiousness was Kevin Smith, whose film Dogma was dropped by Miramax when Michael Eisner, CEO of parent company Disney, caved in to Catholic groups who claimed the film was defamatory. At a press conference for Dogma's U.S. premiere last year, Smith insisted that his film was, "a really devout, pro-faith, flick. It's not what you've been told -- these people just don't understand that this movie is devout."

In both of these cases, unaffiliated indies -- Good Machine and Lions Gate, respectively -- wound up handling distribution of the films. But the message to independent directors was clear: the next morally risky project to cross the desks of these Fortune-500 financed indies may well take the quick route to the trash bin.

The finger-wagging morality of Hollywood studios is nothing new. Back in 1990, director Philip Kaufman earned the distinction of directing the first film to receive the NC-17 rating. Kaufman says that at the time, he and the other producers of Henry & June embraced the new adult designation. "We thought we had a great rating that was something new for filmmakers, where you could deal with adult [subject matter]." In actuality, Kaufman learned that NC-17 was essentially a new name for the X rating, inheriting much of its stigma in the minds of exhibitors. "In the end we were tricked. It was a triumph for the forces of conservatism," Kaufman says, "because now every film director's contract stipulates that you cannot make an NC-17 movie."

The Congress

On September 13th of last year, a congressional panel including Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain held a hearing based on a newly released Federal Trade Commission report, which investigated the targeting of children by entertainment marketers. Lieberman at one point threatened, "If the entertainment industry continues to move in this direction, then the government will act."

Calling Lieberman's warning a "dangerous assault on civil liberties and the constitution," the New York Times argued that the Congressman was, "advocating what would amount to government censorship."

To screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), writing in Salon, the hearings constituted "blackmail, plain and simple: Do what we want or we'll force you to do it." He turned the tables on Lieberman, telling his "Hollywood friends," in a series of ads and essays, "don't fund the Gore-Lieberman ticket until we get some answers."

But Eszterhas' show of resistance was solitary. Many studio heads no-showed the hearing and those who attended took a mollifying stance, in Eszterhas' phrase, "rolling over and hurling their legs into the air." For example, Peter Chernin, President of News Corp., which owns Twentieth Century Fox, said in public transcripts of the hearing, "All of us in the media industry have a fundamental responsibility to help parents cope with the many entertainment choices facing their children." Accordingly, Mel Harris, the president of Sony, pled guilty to test-marketing the PG-13 The Fifth Element to younger kids, calling his offense "a judgment lapse." Disney had already pledged to prohibit theater owners from showing trailers for R-rated films before their movies, and now added that its ABC network would not accept advertisements for R-rated films before 9PM. The MPAA proposed a slate of new ratings measures and were one-upped by Warner Brothers, who unilaterally introduced new content rating codes: "L" for language, "V" for violence and "S" for sex.

The Bottom Line

Meanwhile, has anyone proven that art has the power to deprave anyway? Many have tried, but the empirical data is contradictory. Of course, movies are among the factors shaping individual psychology. But investigators often conclude that real-world societal and psychological factors bear a far heavier share of blame than fiction does. According to Marcia Pally, author of Sex and Sensibility: Reflections on Forbidden Mirrors and the Will to Censor, long term studies in Denmark and Japan -- home of the sickest porn on the planet -- showed an inverse correlation between the availability of legal porn and real life sex crimes. The hypothesis that art corrupts may have the ring of truth to many. But quantitative sociological research yields a divided verdict.

"Your oppressor is also your muse," offers Doug Wright, author of Quills, the latest film from director Philip Kaufman, about the censorship of the Marquis de Sade. Wright considers a more complicated relationship between artists and their detractors, saying, "Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe are curious bedfellows. I think they're locked in a kind of symbiotic dance, and each feeds on the other," he adds, suggesting that the harassment of filmmakers by moralistic prudes does not have the famous "chilling effect" on creative work in our already stagnant film industry, but possibly proves an inspiration. Wright continues, "What if they're both right? That's what makes the debate so viable and so lively. That's what makes the debate centuries old, because a partisan view of the problem is inadequate. The truth is larger than both points of view."

We're asking more questions than we can answer here: Does the MPAA have a legitimate role to play in American film? Can we reasonably ask the chiefs of multibillion dollar studios to put artistic courage before corporate image concerns? Are Congressmen simply expressing a decent concern about a culture in love with violence? Do movies catalyze sensitive young people into action, in sometimes terrible ways? If there is a causal link between the screen and the street, should we regulate content that seems likely to incite bad actions?

If it's a would-be censor you're talking to, you can always just "take the First" and then tell them to fuck off. But if a filmmaker is any good, he knows that his work does affect people in powerful, unpredictable ways. Movies matter because they engage the imagination, deep in the core of real peoples' consciousness. And real filmmakers understand that it is their job-- not the government's or the studios' -- to create exciting, daring, risk-taking, honest cinema. When hacks flack crap it sucks. And when real artists show us the evidence of a fucked-up world, it's sometimes hard to watch. But damning them both together, or hiding our eyes, won't make that world go away. If we deny ourselves an honest diagnosis, we'll never find a cure.