Written by Sarah

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Motion Picture Association of America made a shocking decision to hand Blue Valentine, the Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams drama which has been a festival darling all year, an NC-17 rating. Lauded for its raw, honest portrayal of a couple (Gosling and Williams) coming together and falling apart over a period of years, it’s been hailed for its acting and the excellent direction of Derek Cianfrance, who also co-wrote the script. There’s a well of good reviews coming out of Sundance, Cannes and Toronto to support it, and early Oscar buzz for Gosling and Williams--and Cianfrance, a possible dark horse for Best Director--so it should be an art house gem for 2010. And though it has yet to be released theatrically, many critics are already calling it one of the top movies of the year.

I called a friend of mine who’s a regular at Sundance and asked if she could make heads or tails of this decision and she shouted “no”. The scene the MPAA cited as the deal-breaker is one in which the couple, “Dean” and “Cindy”, go away to try and reconnect, a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. “Dean” wants to have sex, “Cindy” doesn’t, but she eventually gives in and it’s uncomfortable and sad and “Cindy” looks miserable. But it’s not like this is a graphic rape scene. It’s just a sad, painfully raw moment when you realize how empty these people are.

Deadline Hollywood broke the story and Mike Fleming makes an excellent point. The Human Centipede got an R rating. I saw The Human Centipede. It’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It’s about a mad scientist who kidnaps three people--two of them women--and makes a “human centipede” by sewing their mouths and asses together, joining their gastric systems, and creating in me a fear and disgust of centipedes which will last for the rest of my life. The Human Centipede’s two actresses spend most of the movie mute because they’re the ones whose mouths get sewn to asses. There’s a disturbing and misogynistic message here.

Yet this is passable with the MPAA. They see no problem with this blatant violence toward women. Nor has Saw, Hostel or any number of torture porn movies drawn an NC-17 rating. In fact, the despicable I Spit On Your Grave, which is all about a woman being gang-raped and tortured, received an R rating for “pervasive, strong, sadistic, brutal violence, rape and torture, nudity and language”. That movie is so graphically violent that it took the MPAA FOUR adjectives to describe it. Yet it’s still only an R rating.

So why is Blue Valentine NC-17? I hate to say it, but I think it’s our fault. This is the product of a weird social conservatism that says violence is okay but don’t swear or be sexy or else we’ll shun you. Seriously, the MPAA rule on swearing is three F-bombs and you’re out. Two will slide through for PG-13 but three f*cks and you’re R. The King’s Speech, another early Oscar buzz machine, landed an R rating for a scene in which King George VI says “f*ck” over forty times in a couple minutes as part of an exercise to overcome his speech impediment. Minus that scene, The King’s Speech is PG-13, maybe even PG. But based on the current rule, which has no allowance for context, it’s an R-rated film.

I wonder what the difference is between two, three and forty “f*cks”. Once it’s said, it’s heard. A kid hears it that first time, and it no longer matters how many more times she hears it. But we all accept the idea that three “f*cks” is exponentially worse than two. We also accept that “fantasy violence”--a common designation among PG-13 movies--is somehow less awful than actual violence. It doesn’t matter how many orcs get beheaded, elves get run through on spikes, vampire heads get ripped off, or wizards exploded via spell--if red blood ain’t gushing, we ain’t counting.

Yes, the MPAA is out of touch and obsolete, but ultimately they’re making their decisions based on what the public is accepting. And we’re accepting this. We’re accepting that it’s okay to throw a girl in a cage and watch her being electrocuted and her toes pulled off for ninety minutes, but you can’t use the F-word. We’re accepting that gang-rape is fine but a guy coercing his partner into having sex is unacceptable. I don’t think it’s because we’re awful or dumb or because the Republicans are about to take back the House or whatever. I just think maybe we’re being morally lazy.

It’s easy to sit back and let the MPAA tell us what’s okay and not okay to see. It’s a lot harder to step back and ask ourselves what our priorities really are. Do we really care about “f*ck” these days? Or would we rather say the systematic torture of female characters has got to stop? The ratings system is broken. It does need fixing. I don’t begrudge the parent that wants to prevent her ten-year-old from hearing the F-word or seeing a sex scene. We do need some key in place so people can make an informed decision about what they and their children see at the cineplex. But the current system is failing us and we’re letting it.

What’s the solution? Go see Blue Valentine. If it’s at all possible for you to see “Blue Valentine”, see it. And then don’t ever set foot in another Saw, Hostel or any movie that pictures a crying, bloody girl on the poster. We’ve got to stop supporting movies that are based on human degradation, and while we’re at it, maybe we should stop thinking it’s okay to graphically disembowel trolls. Fantasy violence is still violence. I wrote once that we’re the culprits in letting sh*tty movies continually get made. Well we’re also the culprits in letting these asinine ratings standards continue. The MPAA is doing what they think we want them to do. It’s time to show them we want something different.

NOTE: we can discuss further during our Weekly LiveBlog tomorrow Tuesday October 12 3pm ET/Noon PT.

Written by Sarah