Stanley Kubrick once said “a filmmaker has almost the same freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper”. A very optimistic opinion, especially considering the large number of films banned and given an X rating during the ’70s by the BBFC (thus making them unmarketable for widespread release). Even Kubrick’s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange was voluntarily removed from UK theatrical release for fear of copycat criminals. Other titles that received limited or nonexistent UK release are Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Nowadays, another type of censorship is becoming prominently clearer. Perhaps less perceptible but more damaging are studio imposed restrictions to filmmakers. Many well-known Hollywood directors have a contractual obligation to release films that will receive a particular rating under the MPAA. For example, Paul Verhoven (Basic Instinct) and Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), were obligated to perform re-shoots and cuts in order to secure an R rating instead of an NC-17 one, which would have made both films virtually unmarketable. The economic pressures in Hollywood, along with the MPAA’s influence over potential audiences, cause this form of self-censoring. More recently we can look at the case of PG13 movies becoming ever more prominent, replacing frequent use of the R-rating. The Expendables 3 was the first in the franchise to have a PG13 rating. The result is an ambiguous movie with action elements clearly intended for an R audience, but toned-down to receive the PG rating. As journalist Chris Klimek puts it: “The ratings ascendency has only hardened America’s peculiar, specific strain of psychosis: Puritanism”.
With all this in mind we have to question the validity of Kubrick’s statement. Do filmmakers truly have all this freedom? And if they do manage to create the work they want, do they have the assurance it will be viewed by as many people? Clearly they don’t.
This is even more worrying if we consider the inconsistency of rating systems in general. PG13 is often awarded to violent films such as Die Hard V, Taken and a myriad of others, whereas sexual content is often treated with more scepticism.
In the age of the internet and bootlegging movies, censoring in any form has become unnecessary. The principle that viewers are being ‘protected’ by having their movie-going experience controlled is absurd when even young children can download a multitude of movies without limitation. Under this system, filmmakers rarely produce what they intend, and viewers are severely limited in the range of blockbusters they receive. The industry has been perverted by a system that encourages the control of film, and it has to stop.
“A filmmaker has almost the same freedom as a novelist has when he buys himself some paper”
It isn’t realistic to ask for the complete elimination of censorship in the current movie market, but this wouldn’t be the best course of action anyway. After all, to endorse a system that would allow even the smallest child to see a movie such as the recently banned Hate Crime or the NC17 rated Nymphomaniac would be foolish. But there is a market for both these movies; the gritty realism of Hate Crime – where a Jewish family is victimised by a group of neo-Nazis – can surely be the start of a conversation about racial violence that still exists in our world today. Nymphomaniac has garnered generally positive reviews (scoring 75% on Rotten Tomatoes) and features a surprisingly all-star cast, including Christian Slater, William Dafoe and even Shia Labeouf. However, the box-office takings were relatively small, predominantly due to its age-rating, which caused it to be rejected by numerous movie theaters.
In his series “Dear Hollywood…”, author and entertainer Jeremy Scott suggests a new ratings system with only two categories: kids and adults (considered 16 and above), with a committee made up of not only parents, but also movie critics and executives. This is clearly a step in the right direction, giving filmmakers more liberty to produce what they want, whilst also pleasing studios which are now able to offer more mature content to larger audiences. The decision of whether to take a young teen to see a formally adult movie would fall solely on the shoulders of parents.
As for the banning of movies, this should ideally fall solely on the shoulders of individual movie-theatres, who can decide whether to show a movie based on the likeliness of making a profit. The market therefore regulates itself: if there is interest for a movie it will be shown, if there is not, it won’t.
Of course, this is all utopic, but it serves the purpose of starting a conversation. Clearly, the type of censorship in cinemas today – whether government imposed or private – is more about pushing an agenda, and keeping homogeneity in film, than it is about ethics. Steps need to be taken if we, as viewers, are to receive a more diverse, creative, and unfiltered movie-going experience.
Images sourced from ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Warner Bros. (United States) and Colombia-Warner Distributors (United Kingdom), ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Warner Bros., ‘Nymphomaniac’, Les Films Du Losange (France) and Concorde Filmverleih (Germany).
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