Saturday, October 29, 2011

Let's Talk About Film Censorship Ratings...

The big news this week was that Steve McQueen's sophomore effort Shame got given the dreaded NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Now, this isn't something that came as a huge surprise, as most of the people who saw the film at various film festival's said that it's explicit content would get it the NC-17. It's all because this movie deals with sex addiction, which of course leads to a whole lot of sexually explicit material which then results in the NC-17 rating because, you know, kids can't watch that kind of stuff. Unlike many of the films before it, Shame will not be put up for appeal for an R rating. Instead, it's going to wear it's NC-17 rating loud and proud, and hopefully it will change a few people's attitude towards the NC-17 rating. Because, if the critical acclaim, trailer and cast are anything to go by, this film will be amazing.

Why is being an NC-17 such a bad thing?

Okay, so coming from New Zealand, which probably has the most complicated rating system like, ever, I can't help but feel that the MPAA rating system is a pile of crap. Well, to be honest, my life would be a whole lot easier if we had the 'R' rating here, because then I could drag my mother out to see films like Drive which is an R18 here. But this NC-17 business? It is seriously the largest pile of crap I have ever heard in my life. So, what I gather from this whole Shame situation and everyone trying to cut their films down to get an R rating, is that being an NC-17 is totally bad territory.

Here's what I don't understand: why is being an NC-17 such a bad thing? Here in New Zealand, we have R18's. Technically, this is a far worse rating than an NC-17. Yet, we just go about our day. Sure, there are very few R18's that make it to the cinema, but in the past couple of years, there have been some pretty successful ones in cinemas like: Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kick-Ass, Machete, Piranha...the R18 is just a sticker here, to be honest. Also, some of the movies that are widely regarded as classics are R18's, like: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Reservoir Dogs, American Psycho, Trainspotting, Taxi Driver, Requiem for a Dream and The Usual Suspects.

The R18 effect.

If you took a walk down the average DVD store's new release wall, you'd find that the large majority of the R18's are films that missed the cinema and went straight-to-DVD. Usually that's because they're sucky B-grade horrors that only have their target audience with fourteen year-old girls and boys who think they're as tough as nails and enjoy watching people suffer. But while the R18 doesn't necessarily do that much here outside of the cinemas, it does have this strange power which makes the younger crowd more interested in it.
Psychosis, one of those straight-to-DVD horrors
And here is where we have our problem. I see this happen all of the time. Let's say, a group of fourteen year -olds come into Blockbuster because they are having a movie night, and their mother or father has to stand by the counter awkwardly, where their children hand over a pile of DVDs so they can pay for them. More often than not, the pile is filled up with R18 horrors or action films, because these days teenagers are instantly drawn to incessant gore and violence to fill up their movies. The fact that their choices are R18's only makes them better because a) they feel so high and mighty when they're watching an R18 because it is against the law which of course makes them bad-ass, and b) if it's an R18, that means it probably has a lot more gore and violence in it than an R16 which will obviously make it better. That's just the way things are. It's never going to change. You slap an R18 sticker on a movie at the cinemas and the kids are just going to illegally download it. Just look at Kick-Ass, which was one of the most downloaded movies of 2010.

The Shame in having a whole lot of sex scenes.

Fact of the matter is: teenagers will only watch R18's if they are horrors or actions. Teenagers are all about the violence. And now I'm going to be perfectly blunt: if an R18 had sex scenes in it, there is only about a 10% chance that a teenager would get it out because firstly, they wouldn't want to watch it with a whole group of people and secondly, they'd have to get their parents to get it for them and that could cause a particularly awkward moment. Teenagers only want to watch sex scenes by themselves. And you know where they can do that? On the internet. Where it's free. So to be perfectly honest, what teenager is going to want to watch Shame? Apart from me, of course, the one who has it on her most-anticipated list simply because Michael Fassbender looks amazing in it. To be perfectly honest, no teenager is going to want to watch - or own up to watching - Shame just because it is an R18. No teenager is going to want to see Shame just because it has Magneto from X-Men: First Class in it. I bet you, by the time it comes out, everyone will know it as the 'sex addict' movie, and other teenagers will think you're weird if you have seen it and liked it. The exact same thing happened with Black Swan, which teens were quick to label as the 'weird lesbian movie', and the very few of us who actually liked it were attacked by the Facebook statuses of those who didn't. So yeah, there won't be a big teenage fan base for Shame, so I don't know why the MPAA is getting their knickers in a twist about.

What really gets me, though, is that sex is deemed worse than violence in film. It was the same back in the strict 'Hays Code' days, when the code was more lenient towards violence then it was to sex and offensive language. Nowadays, in your average M-rated film (probably PG-13 in the US), you could see a few people getting killed. On television shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, which are on at times when little kids could still be up, you can see people meeting their grisly demise. Hell, The Dark Knight escaped with an M rating and I know quite a few people around my age who were terrified by the violence in that movie. There are very few M rated films which has sex scenes in them, in fact, the only ones I can remember are Never Let Me Go, The Constant Gardner and Brokeback Mountain. But once we get up into the R/NC-17 territory, sex really is bad. I mean, come can something as sick and vile as The Human Centipede: The First Sequence pass with an R rating (it's obviously an R18 here, and all the teenagers watch it like there's no tomorrow), but Shame gets an NC-17. Let's look at it this way: whether we like it or not, people have sex. That's how you, the person who is reading this, came to be on this Earth. People do not make centipedes out of humans for fun. Yet, there's still heavy censorship on something that humans do actually do but something about stuff that humans shouldn't do escapes with a lighter rating. This is the moment when I yell: "WTF?!"

But if people were inspired by The Human Centipede, then Tom Six thought ahead and incorporated that idea into his sequel. Along with having a guy do a whole lot of obscene sexual things towards his centipede. And that got banned in the UK along with going 'Unrated' in the US. At least there is some justice left in the world.

Is the NC-17 rating going to hurt Shame?

My uneducated answer to this is no. Of course, I have not seen this film, and probably won't get to see it until at least half way through next year when it comes out on DVD. Even without seeing the film, I could tell you that Michael Fassbender's performance is probably one of the best that this year has to offer. If the Academy decide to turn his performance down because of the fact that this film is an NC-17 then a lot of people aren't going to be happy. And really, what's an NC-17 to them? They're all over 17, so they can get the fuck over themselves. The biggest thing that Shame has going for it is the fact that it was so well-received at the various film festivals it played at and it already has a wide enough fan-base, which is no doubt due to the fact that everyone likes Steve McQueen, Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. People are excited by how upfront this movie is. If any of the awards circles reject Shame because of it's rating then that is the biggest douchebaggery that I will ever witness.

In conclusion...

I think that Shame will change the face of the NC-17 forever. If it gets some nominations come awards time, then we'll be able to say that an NC-17 finally got some proper awards attention. There's just something so different about the Shame case which is different to, I don't know, something like Showgirls or what ever other NC-17's you can think of.

There's something that we all really have to face: films are more violent, more sexual, more profane than the censorship system ever wants them to be. Films like The Human Centipede or the entire Saw franchise abuse this fact, but films like Shame use it to actually tell a proper story. That may sound like a sentence straight out of the 'How to be a Pretentious Douchebag who Also Loves Films' manual, but it is true.

So my message to everyone is embrace the NC-17. If cinemas refuse to show the films, then stuff 'em. We in New Zealand will still show R18's and we seem to be getting along fine. An R18 is worse than an NC-17 and yet we don't run around like the world has ended.

And there is my $0.01. Where's yours?


  1. Great post, it looks you put a lot of effort into it! I loved it!
    I must agree with you, I don't think it will influence the movie in a bad way , even more so when everyone is talking about the amazing performance of M.Fassbender. I think Shame is one the right track and will get some nominations this year!
    Interesting with the teenagers and the violence and sex rental movies, I didn't think about it that way, but you're right! Hell, I wouldn't watch Shame in the same room with my parents or even my friends, and I'm 22.
    Great job!I will be coming back soon!

  2. I get what you are trying to say, but it's very hard for me to relate to, coming from India and UAE, where everything is censored. Shame won't even release here.

    But this line- "there's still heavy censorship on something that humans do actually do but something about stuff that humans shouldn't do escapes with a lighter rating." GOD YES!

    Good post.

  3. Brilliant, well-written post. You summed it up perfectly, my feelings and everyone's, about the godawful rating system that dominates the world of film. Censorship is causing more harm than good, and the MPAA's attempts to stop films they see as unfit for children are completely fruitless; the rating system is not stopping anyone, and these days one or two graphic movies is not hurting anyone, in my opinion. People who can't tell the difference between violence in film and in real life shouldn't be watching them, but I believe that is only a minority of the population. If only teenagers had better tastes to rent R18 movies that are actually worth seeing. God knows if SHAME will even get a cinema release here in New Zealand, and if it does, it'll go to the few and far between indie cinemas. These days it seems you have to wait for the DVD of almost every truly great movie!

  4. It always bugs me that movies with a lot of sex scenes/nudity get smacked with a NC-17 rating. The highest rating horror movies that are bound to have a negative effect on those who see them (ie, copycat crimes) get is always R.

    And people always blame the filmmakers for showing the gory stuff. Blame the people at MPAA, why don't you? People have sex all the time. You don't normally see people disembowel other people, do you?

  5. Wonderful post! I too think that the fact violence seems to be sold more easily than sex in movies is very disturbing - Shame is a serious movie about sexual addiction - from what I gathered from reading the script there is nothing glamourous or appealing about the sex scenes there, it's such a depressing portrait of a man who can find freedom only through physical satisfaction much like with "Choke". The fact that kids nowadays has way easier acces to violent and seriously messed up things like "Human Centipede" now that's worrying. Some sex scenes just because they are explicit are not bad - it's just sex. Some movies like Irreversible should have NC-17 rating because it's sexual violence, proably the worst kind there is. I think NC-17 won't hurt the movie at all, because I believe the audiance who wants to see it are mostly adults. The only teens who would watch it are fangirls of Fassy, had I been 15 I'll be waiting as eagerly for this film as I am now, at 22, but probably for whole different reasons :)

  6. Yeah, in America sex gets rated far more strictly than violence, not sure why. I've actually been thinking about making a post about this(I think i will now after reading this).

    Although i am going to have to disagree with your joy about Human Centipede 2 being banned. I don't believe in banning a film, ever.

  7. I love your blog but never commented before, but i totally agree with everything you've said! The general teenage opinion to 18-rated films (in Britain) is baffling! A lot of my friends think I'm weird for wanting to see Shame because I loved Hunger - but they've all seen Human Centipede.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. For me, a film that is rated NC-17 and actually has something more to offer is a guaranteed for me to put my ass in the seat.

    Yet, I think the way Americans rate films are more ridiculous these days.

  9. As mentioned in my tweet earlier this is a great article. I agree with pretty much everything you say. I was once that that teenager who rented 18 certificate (UK equivalent to NC17) movies. But I also watched a lot of old movies particularly classic horror and film noir. This has led me to realise something that I would nave have thought when I was younger; censorship can be good! Limitations make filmmakers think and it forces them to be innovative to work around the restrictions.

    Going back to your original point I think good movies will always find an audience one way or another (even if they don‘t make money) and a certain amount of notoriety can be good.

  10. I think censorship laws world wide baffling! I mean are 17-18 year olds any different in the US, UK to ones in NZ? Not really!
    The thing with a controversial censorship is that it has the opposite affect of what the censors are trying to achieve. I vividly recall this in 1992 with Aussie film ( and Russell Crowe's breakout role ) Romper Stomper.
    Seriously the fuss this film caused was unvbelievable and it came close to being banned here in NZ. And yet what happened?? People flocked to cinema's to see what all the fuss was about!! I remember films with R-20 ratings from the late 1970's such as Aussie film Stone!!! I watched and reviewed RS again for the first time since 1992. In its day it was extremey violent and yet now 19 years later looks lame. But it was considered to be racist towards Asians which was crap because its message was one of anti-racisim.
    And this is what gets me garbage like Saw and Hostel and other torture porn gorno stuff gets slapped with an R-18 and yet no one now tries to get it banned! God I know so many pre 18's who have seen them it makes a mockery of censorship! With the internet and every possible type of content freely avaliable video or film censorship is all but a dinosaur theory.

  11. "why is being an NC-17 such a bad thing?"

    Basically because the NC-17 was designed to stop the X rating being applied to non-pornographic films. By the time it was introduced in 1990, the X rating had long been the domain mainly of porn; the X was still occasionally slapped on "respectable" non-porn films through the 70s and 80s for sexual *and* violent content (Taxi Driver, Scarface, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the second and third Texas Chainsaw Massacre films were all menaced with an X by the MPAA for violence), but popular perception was that "X = porn". Since few exhibitors would show X films and few newspapers would advertise them, being rated X was a bad thing.

    So the NC-17 rating was cooked up by the MPAA, so that "respectable" films whose content went beyond the bounds of the R rating didn't need to be stigmatised by the association with pornography. This was a great idea and the only problem with it was that it failed totally; exhibitors and advertisers decided that "NC-17 = X, more or less" and so nothing actually changed.

    I kind of doubt Shame will really change much either. I know some NC-17 films actually do make good box office in spite of everything, but I can't see this appealing to enough people to do that sort of business. And since the film can be released unrated on DVD anyway, retaining the NC-17 for theatrical release seems a bit of an empty gesture.

    I could be completely wrong, of course.

  12. Aziza - Thanks! I did put a bit of effort into took a little longer than I expected.
    I don't think I'd watch Shame with any of my friends, either. I think the most explicit movie I ever saw with my friends was Requiem for a Dream. That was enough, haha.

    Nikhat - That sucks. I reckon our country is quite relaxed on the films, even though out rating system is bloody complicated.
    Yeah, that's probably one of my favourite lines that I have ever come up with!

    Tyler - Thanks! I wonder if Shame will get a release. I think it is scheduled to come out here in February, like all of the Oscar contenders, so if it gets some Oscar attention then it should get a cinema release. Plus, as I said, the people involved will help it. But yeah, I can only see it going to indie cinemas, or probably Rialto. In fact, it will definitely go to Rialto.

    Anna - Exactly what I think. It really is stupid that sex is deemed worse than pointless gore.

    Sati - Exactly, the sex scenes in Shame won't be that glamourous so I really don't know what the MPAA is getting so worried about. Sexual violence, however, is something which really bugs me but usually it escapes with an R rating which is stupid.
    Yeah, I'm 16 and I love Fassy, but he's not the only reason why I want to see Shame. I want to see Shame because it deals with addiction, it looks dark and brooding, Steve McQueen is a talented fella and Carey Mulligan is great.

    Julian - Write a post like this - it is a matter which is surprisingly good to write about.
    I don't think I agree with banning a film, but really, something as vile as The Human Centipede 2 shouldn't have been made. That is sick.

    Becca - Don't be afraid to comment, and thank you for enjoying my blog!
    A lot of my friends think I'm weird because I want to see Shame, because they ask what it's about and when I reply "sex addiction" they all just frown. And yes, these are the people who have seen The Human Centipede.

    Steven - If I was of age, it would probably have my ass on the seat too. As long as it wasn't anything too gory.

    Andy - That's definitely true! I adore older films because they had to work hard to have their content adhere to the Production Code.
    Yes, films always find an audience, so I don't know why everyone is getting so pissed off about this whole NC-17 business.

    Brent - Yes, they are baffling. I think they should all just be the same, because after all, we are all humans.
    Have you noticed how Australians tend to make the most R18's of all? Like Snowtown, Sleeping Beauty, Romper Stomper...they're really good with their explicit material.
    And yes I agree, film censorship is a dinosaur theory!

    James - I guess it was good that the MPAA decided to name the rating NC-17 instead of X.
    I doubt that Shame will be a box office success. It's the kind of film that doesn't need to be a box office success...I guess it'll do comfortably well in indie cinemas like, I don't know, Blue Valentine. But I just hope it'll still get awards attention.
    Who knows?

  13. Very interesting post.

    I'll admit that the whole rating issue is one I have never given much thought to, as i've always just watched films no matter what they were rated. In France where I grew up the rating system is particularly lax, no one pays any attention to it. So I think this problem may lie manly in Anglo-Saxon countries.
    I have no idea why though.
    But as a film buff I do not let ratings get in the way of my film viewing, so I'm greatly looking forward to Shame. I'm sure it will be brilliant, as I really enjoyed Fassbinder and McQueen's previous collaboration.

  14. I think the producers of Shame are comfortable with the rating because it was never intended to be a wide release type of film that rakes in 100 million anyways.

    It will be a big deal when the first large budget feature accepts the NC17 without cuts. I doubt that will ever happen though.

  15. The Aussies are prety opened minded and more forward especially against Kiwis who are genrally more conservative. For instance when I saw Paul the audience sort of politely laughed at the religous jokes whereas I killed myself. I told this to an English Bloger and he found it most amusing!

  16. Jack - Long time no see, mate!
    I don't let ratings get in the way of seeing what I want to see. But of course, when these films are in cinemas I obviously can't watch them. So it'll be a while before I see Shame, unfortunately!

    Bonjour Tristesse - No, I doubt that many will go and see it. It'll mainly be true film fans.
    If that happened I'd be happy. People need to learn to stop being so touchy around NC-17 films.

    Brent - Definitely true. I didn't really laugh at the religious jokes...mind you, anything to do with religion or culture I don't often find myself laughing at!


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