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Jan 31 2007

Film talk-3: The film ratings mystery

In watching Oh! Calcutta!, I started thinking about the effect on film quality of the abundance of sex, nudity, profanity, and violence in films that are released these days. I personally find violence the most distasteful of all of these things and will avoid films that are advertised to have excessive amounts of it. When judging a film, the question for me is always whether these elements are essential to the film or, if not and are just added to attract audiences, the film would still be worth watching without those elements, or at least a substantial part of them. A good judge of whether this is the case is what I remember about a film long after I have seen it. If I find it hard to remember if there was any sex or nudity or violence or profanity, it means that the film stands on its own.

This is one reason that I will not see another Quentin Tarantino film. Although Pulp Fiction was hailed by many as a masterpiece (which is why I watched it), all I can remember about it is the over-the-top gratuitous violence and profanity, and copious use of the n-word. That is reputed to be his trademark and it is enough for me to swear off watching any more of his output.

The ratings system also baffles me somewhat. I remember seeing a little gem of a film called The Castle, which had an R rating. This film is an absolutely delightful little low-budget comedy with an almost completely unknown cast from Australia. It features a slow-witted but earnest family that finds surprise and enjoyment in what the rest of us would consider mundane. They own a house right by the Melbourne airport, with the runway ending just across their garden fence. Unlike most people, this family sees this as a very desirable feature because they enjoy seeing planes taking off and landing and can walk to the airport when they need to take a flight or meet someone. When the airport wants to expand, they try to resist having their home taken by the state and that struggle forms the basis of the film.

So why did this film rate an R? There is absolutely no sex, nudity, or violence. As far as I can see, the only reason is because three times in the film, characters use the f-word. But even then they do not use it gratuitously or offensively out of anger, but out of frustration like when the photocopier gets jammed at a critical moment. This is exactly the kind of situation when most people swear, so it was perfectly understandable use. One character even apologizes for using it when he realizes that an elderly female neighbor is present. And yet this wonderful film gets the same rating as Pulp Fiction, which seems to glory in violence and profanity just for its own sake. It hardly seems fair. The Castle is a great film for family viewing but many people won’t watch it because of the rating.

I am looking forward to seeing on DVD the documentary This film is not yet rated, which is an expose of the secretive group that rates films in the US and the mysterious criteria used by them to classify films.

One of my other peeves about films deals with the way they begin. I notice when watching very old films how briskly they run through the opening credits, which is something I appreciate. In the old films from the1940s like Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, the film begins with the opening credits which are quickly got out of the way in about a minute with just the main people (actors, producer, director, screenwriter, music director, cinematographer) listed, leaving the more detailed credits to the end. And even then, the number of people are far fewer than nowadays. This is one of my favorite things about old films, the fact that they get down to the business of telling the story so quickly and without fuss and pretentiousness.

In the 1960s with films like Fail Safe, they sometimes had a brief opening sequence before going to the quick credits and then getting back to the film proper. This is fine too.

What I can’t stand nowadays are those films that drag out the opening credits interminably, interspersing each and every name (and there are many more names now) with a brief segment of the film, so that it seems as if by the time the director’s name mercifully comes on, we might be ten minutes into the film. I find this annoying and distracting and wish film makers would stop this practice.

On the other hand, there are some modern films that have no opening credits at all or just the title of the film, leaving all the credits to the end. I think that both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series were like this. You might think I would prefer this, but I don’t. The reason is that I tend to remember actors’ faces and find it distracting when I see a character appear onscreen whom I know I have seen before somewhere and cannot remember the name. When I read the opening credits for actors and see a familiar name, that prepares me for when the actor appears and thus don’t get distracted trying to remember what his or her name is or previous films were.

Sometimes the opening credits are like a short film in its own right and this can work, especially for comedies. For example, the Pink Panther or the Ice Age series opening animations are like cartoon shorts, and that’s fine. My complaint is with what appears to be opening credits run amok, serving no purpose than to draw attention to the person creating the credits. The opening credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are a wonderful spoof of this mentality, where the credits creator inserts text about his sister being bitten by a moose, and gets fired.

I realize that not everyone will share my pet peeves but here is my appeal to film makers: Stop with the long and elaborate opening credit sequences that do not really add value to the film and get the main names out of the way as soon as possible. Thank you.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on the dialogue about terrorism

What promises to be an intriguing documentary titled What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism is going to be shown in two parts on successive days at two different locations in Cleveland. Director Bassam Haddad will be available to answer questions after both screenings, which are free and open to the public.

Part I: Tuesday February 6th at 6:00pm in the Dively Community Seminar Room, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, UR 112,Cleveland State University, 1717 Euclid Avenue.

Part II: Wednesday February 7th at 5:00pm
in Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University, 2125 Adelbert Road.

Sponsoring organizations:

Case Western Reserve University: Center for Policy Studies, Share the Vision Committee, Case Democrats, Middle East Cultural Association, Muslim Student Association, Undergraduate Student Government,

Cleveland State University: Cultural Crossing, Dean of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, Middle Eastern Studies Minor Program.

For more information, see the website for the film or contact Dr. Neda A. Zawahri 216-687-4544 or Dr. Pete Moore 216-368-5265.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Joe

    I recently watched “This film is not yet rated” and it is a very good documentary. The discussions of the relationship of sex vs violence on the rating of the movie as well as the secretive nature of the MPAA were particularly fascinating.

  2. 2
    Bruce

    Mano,

    Your test for whether you can remember the sex or violence in a movie is an interesting one. My initial memories of Pulp Fiction were different – I remembered the ingenuity of juxtaposing a discussion about fast food in Europe with a violent scene, or throwing in a discussion about good coffee while overusing the “n” word. My point being, is that Pulp Fiction is genius for its parodying of cartoon violence and overly earnest gangster movies.

    I cannot disagree with your gut response however, because I had the same one to this year’s supposed groundbreaking Borat. There were a few clever points in the movie (the singing of the national anthem scene), but generally it, for me, was no more that a modified version of Jackass. Did I laugh? Yes. Was it funny? Yes. So is Three’s Company, Caddyshack, and Meet the Parents. Unfortunately, all these films lack the cleverness which I would attribute to a Tarantino film or Monty Python.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Bruce,

    You are a much more sophisticated film viewer than I am and can get pleasure from the subtext as well as the surface. I tend to be a more superficial viewer. If the surface story doesn’t appeal to me or makes me recoil, the subtext doesn’t do anything for me.

    This is also true for my reading. For example, I am completely baffled by the appeal of Faulkner or Melville. People whom I respect keep telling me that these writers are brilliant and I believe them, but I just don’t get it.

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