Thoughts on “Shame” And That NC-17…

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Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, quickly becoming one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the fall, received its expected NC-17 rating from the Ratings Board this week.  This was expected, championed even by Fox Searchlight, and the marketing team has its marching orders – get this film seen and make this the second NC-17 film ever to be nominated by the Academy.  To do this, would be noteworthy, as the Academy has only nominated one NC-17 film one time; “Henry & June”, which landed a Costume Design nomination in 1991.  And it will certainly be a mountainous challenge.  “Shame”, which features a widely praised lead acting performance by Michael Fassbender and a reportedly impressive supporting turn by Carey Mulligan, has now been given the industry’s Scarlet Letter(s).  Theatrical chains nationwide, including AMC and Regal, widely refuse to show NC-17 films in their theaters and even some independent chains duck away from exhibiting NC-17 films.  The NC-17 rating, with no thanks from the Ratings Board, has been tailored and packaged to make attendees feel as if they are performing some illicit deed in seeking out and attending these films.  Clearly, there is a stigma associated with any and all films branded with this NC-17 tag and ironically, it shames people from attending.

For years Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used their pulpit as nationally respected voices in film criticism to implore the MPAA to eliminate the X rating and develop an Adults Only rating.  Their argument, at the time, was sound.  The adult film industry had been the exclusive purveyors of the X rating for pornographic films and videos, even using an arbitrary X, XX, or XXX system to drive sales.  Eventually, when an explicit sexual drawing was shown on screen for several seconds in the aforementioned “Henry & June”, the Ratings Board adopted a new NC-17 rating for films which should be seen only by those 18 and older and which were not inherently pornographic.  The filmmakers did appeal the rating but also championed “Henry & June” as the first of its kind, gaining some publicity, a modest box office return, and as indicated, the distinction of being the only NC-17 film to ever land an Oscar nomination.

Over time, the NC-17 is most famously associated with the 1995 gonzo cult classic “Showgirls”, which was the last NC-17 to receive wide distribution in theaters.  Grossing $20 million during its run, the historically panned film became the standard-bearer for the NC-17 brand and most films tailored their content to secure that rating, in a backwards attempt at generating publicity for films that were low budget or headed straight-to-video.

In more recent years, films by Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers) and Ang Lee (Lust, Caution) saw the NC-17 become utilized for more art-house fare, also the apparent case for Steve McQueen’s “Shame”.  However, as acclaimed and well-received as those films are, the largest reach any of those films have had is a mere 143 theaters, which occurred in “Lust, Caution”‘s fifth weekend in 2007.  Despite a fairly respectable number that weekend, Focus pulled the film in subsequent weekends and ended with a gross of $4.6 million.

Combing through the NC-17 decisions made by the Ratings Board is an interesting read.  Phrases pop up such as “aberrant”, “explicit”, “strong”, “graphic”, even “pervasive”, and most times they are accompanied by the words sexuality and/or nudity.  To be fair, a 2007 horror film called “100 Hours” received an NC-17 for “extreme horror violence” and in full disclosure, “Saw”, “Saw II”, “Saw III”, and “Saw 3D” were initially saddled with an NC-17, until cuts, made with the advisement of the Ratings Board, saw those films finally secure an R rating.

This is hypocrisy of the highest regard.  From all accounts, Michael Fassbender is never shown in a state of arousal nor are the sexual scenes in “Shame” unsimulated.  Reportedly, we can discern that “Shame” is not aberrant…or strong…or pervasive…or graphic…but exhibits some explicit sexual content.  I would love to know how that is defined.  To some viewers, a male and female kissing and undressing one another would stand as explicit sexual content; content incidentally common in some PG-13 films.  To others, a standard love scene with movement and sounds would be explicit sexual content, more timid however than what is reportedly depicted in the “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn- Part I” conception scene between Edward and Bella.  What is explicit?  Does it serve any good defining that for us?

In America, there is a justifiable paranoia of seeing male anatomy on screen.  Flaccid or aroused, the front lower portions of male human beings apparently represents the gravest taboo one can represent on screen.  Any moviegoer familiar with the MPAA/CARA system should now be able to easily discern that the adult emotions associated with sexuality and/or nudity are much more damaging and affecting to viewers than the torturous killings, beheadings, disembowelments, and other merciless deaths found in films such as “Saw”, “Hostel”, or the “Final Destination” series.

"Blue Valentine"

Revisit just one year ago when the independent film “Blue Valentine” received an NC-17 for a sex scene between the characters portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Oscar nominee Michelle Williams, wherein Gosling is seen simulating a sexual act on Williams and there is some question as to whether Williams’ character is a willing participant or not.  This was too intense and controversial for any viewer 17 or younger to observe, but look at the content found in “Shark Night 3D”, per the content review folks at Common Sense Media:

  • “The gore actually isn’t as overwhelming as it could be. Still, there’s plenty of violence, and even though much of it is half-suggested and half-shown, there are lots of images of blood swirling around in the water as characters are eaten. One character emerges with an arm missing. A girl is devoured slowly by many tiny sharks. A boat explodes. Fights with knives and guns. Characters are shot.”

For the record, “Blue Valentine” was initially granted an NC-17 for “a scene of explicit sexual content”.  On successful appeal, “Blue Valentine”, in receiving its R rating, suddenly contained other elements never before identified, including “strong, graphic sexual content, language, and a beating.”  Apparently those moments do not matter in an NC-17 film, only the explicit sexual content does – which, by the way, was not “explicit” (i.e. implying real or unsimulated) and because of the raw and uncomfortable emotions present in the scene and the film, does not come across as softcore erotica or carefully edited pornography for late night Cinemax or Showtime viewing.

“Shark Night 3D” was rated PG-13 for “violence and terror, disturbing images, sexual references, partial nudity, language and thematic material.”  No cuts required by CARA, no appeal process.  PG-13 granted in its theatrical form.

"Shame" opens December 2, 2011

Ultimately the problem lies with the criteria for ratings themselves.  As famously documented in Kirby Dick’s 2007 documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”, the Board work in private and in secret, are not allowed to discuss the films they see or rate, and are not allowed to talk about their responsibilities in working with CARA.  Naturally, when it was revealed that the Ratings Board is supported and subsidized by the major theatrical studios, people were outraged!  As recently as a couple of weeks ago, it was noted in a recent MPAA Ratings Bulletin that an independent film seeking distribution was granted an R rating for “some violence”, while Columbia Pictures’ “Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance” was given a PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence.”  In these moments, which come all too frequently anymore, it is hard not to cry out nepotism.

This is not me condemning the Board for certifying “Shame” an Adults-Only NC-17 rating as much as it is an alarming reminder that in the eyes of this Board, the 2010 Best Picture winner, “The King’s Speech”, and its 30+ non-sexual utterances of the “F” word is as problematic a movie for children under 17 to see as the 1999 horror film, “8MM”, which contains the (in)famous scene where a woman is brutally murdered while engaging in a fully nude and carefully shot sexual act.  This is the same Board who have acquiesced to violent films receiving PG-13 ratings if no blood is shown on screen, but will tag you with an R-rating if you use the “F” word more than twice or once in a sexualized manner.

Supporters of the MPAA and CARA point to the fact that having any film rated is a voluntary process, one that no film is forced to endure.  And while that is true, between 70-80% of the screens found in the United States will not screen Unrated or NC-17 films.  This is why films are shot, then edited down for theatrical acceptance, and then reissued in Director’s Cuts on DVD.  Essentially, if your preteen or teenager missed the film in theaters, or forgot to download a torrent of the movie, the R-rated version is playing on your/their televisions, laptops, and portable devices when you are not around.  Anymore, this is nothing more than a shell game which families and the general public become unwilling participants in.  What is acceptable for our children is no longer an individual parental choice.  The choice is made for you.  How convenient.

How does any of this get remedied?  As long as the cloaked members of the Board are allowed to work in private and are not subjected to transparency in their process, nothing will change.  “Shame” is clearly not a film for children, or likely even teenagers, and if the decision to not grant the film with an R-rating comes from the perceived reality that sometimes teenagers sneak into R-rated movies when their Moms and Dads and Grandmas and Grandpas think they are watching “Transformers” for the fourth time or settling in for “Puss In Boots”, then fine.  However, just like the teenagers who found a way to drink underage, view a dirty magazine, try a cigarette, sneak around with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or listen to explicit music, they are going to find a way.

For the sake of this scenario, imagine two films you have never heard of.  Say you open the Friday newspaper or visit Fandango, IMDB, or peruse one of our Ratings Bulletins, but only saw the title of the film and its content without a letter rating sitting next to it.  One film was marked as having a scene of explicit sexual content and nothing else.  The other contains disturbing images, violence, sexuality/partial nudity and some thematic elements.  Odds are you might not send your child to either one, right?  Remember this in a few weeks when nervous adults are quietly cowering to check out a surefire Oscar contender and one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and Moms and Daughters and families will sell out theaters nationwide for “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I”.  Which one did you choose?

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.