Sunday, October 21, 2007

Is violence entertainment?

This past week, my colleagues and I have been engaged in a running debate over the nature of North American filmmaking and whether or not violence is truly "entertainment".

OK - that sounds incredibly pretentious, when in reality, we're really just an office full of film geeks trying to figure out why the American film rating system is so screwed up that torture porn films like Hostel and Saw barely merit an "R", while the latest offering from Academy Award winner Ang Lee apparently merits an "NC-17" because of some graphic sex scenes.

As a film school grad, I am conflicted about all of this, but as a regular viewer of all sorts of movies, let me just say I would far rather watch a thoughtful, serious, and yes, adult film about governments in peril and subversive spies trying to overthrow them that happens to have a few scenes of seduction, than a gratuitously violent film with virtually no plot or other redeeming qualities where an abundance of characters (almost always female, or a visible minority, or both) are graphically tortured, flayed, or dismembered for our entertainment. Is this truly entertaining? Really? To whom? And why?

Each summer, the magazine Entertainment Weekly does a week-to-week running count of the number of people killed in popular summer movies. Between mid-May and Labour Day this year, a shade under 20,000 characters were killed in U.S. theatrically released movies. 20 thousand characters. In probably 150 or so movies. What in the hell is going on here?

"Torture porn" earned its nickname because of the structural similarities between those movies and regular porn films - there's little to no plot or story to be told, and what there is exists only to connect the "action" sequences, which are in turn frequent, excessive, and often filmed in extreme closeups to maximize their graphic content. Unlike sex porn films, there is usually an element of raw hatred in torture porn - of the character being tortured, of society as a whole, and of the particular audience who have plonked down $12 to be entertained by this twisted crap.

Don't get me wrong - I don't object to violence that is situational. I take no issue with war movies like Glory or Saving Private Ryan, despite their often explicit violence. I usually don't even take issue with movies by folks like Martin Scorsese ( although The Departed really tested my patience on this front - once you kill a guy, do you really have to throw him off a roof, and then have him run over by a car? Really? Isn't killing him once horrifying enough? But - I digress). Violence in context can make a powerful statement that is central to the theme of any particular movie. My problem is with the gratuitous, sadistic violence inherent to torture porn films.

What does it say about us as a society that those people who rate films for a living are more willing to accept graphic depictions of sadistic, explicit torture in movies than they are graphic depictions of sexuality, making the former more accessible to children than the latter by virtue of the more lenient ratings they assign to each project? This is how the Motion Picture Association of America, creator of the ratings system, defines each of these two ratings:

"An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.

An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. No children will be admitted. NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children."

In practice, getting an NC-17 rating is a commercial kiss of death for a movie. Studios would rather re-edit a film to try and get a softer rating, than release an NC-17 film. Wikipedia has a list of about 100 films, including such diverse fare as Eyes Wide Shut, Clerks, Boys Don't Cry, and Brokeback Mountain, as films originally rated NC-17 that were then re-edited and re-rated R. While the MPAA says an NC-17 rating is not a negative judgment, in the marketplace it certainly is. Large media conglomerates refuse to accept advertising for NC-17 movies; you will not see ads for them in magazines or newspapers on either side of the border. You won't see TV advertisements either. Some theatre chains won't book an NC-17 film. And websites like Apple and iTunes won't carry the film's trailers. So it's a little hard to build a blockbuster when no one knows your film exists, and anyone who does know it is out there can't expect to just amble down to the local megaplex to see it Friday night.

As an adult of a certain age, I'd like to think sex and all its complications is a lot more in keeping with the human experience than violence is, especially sadistic violence. Maybe I'm wrong and I lead a sheltered life. But I'd certainly rather see a film that has an honest depiction of sex in it than one where the primary goal is to kill, maim and humiliate others. If the goal of entertainment is to reflect us to ourselves, then which image should we prefer to see in our cultural mirror?