Sunday, September 14, 2008

Movie Ratings Signify Torture Years

In September of 2001, I moved in to what my father jokingly called an artists' commune. My husband and I, along with four other musician, artist and filmmaking friends, piled all our belongings into a cool two-flat in Jersey City, hoping that the (ad)venture would lessen the blow of rising rents. The apartment was spacious but not exactly spacious enough to hold the larger-than-life personalities that were housed in it. Still, things seemed to be going well at first. We had regular band rehearsals in the basement, one of the roommates was attempting to make his first film, and I was starting a new job at Hudson County Community College, a school in the heart of the very diverse Journal Square.

We were all surprised one September morning when a cloud of mischief began to blow over the Hudson toward us. One roommate was preparing to take the PATH train to the World Trade Center in order to get to his job as a server in a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Vincent was going to take the same train to start his work with DreamYard, an artists-in-the-schools organization. I was already teaching my morning ESL class. My supervisor came in to tell me that a plane had flown into one of the WTC towers. We continued class, confused. Five minutes later she came in to say a second tower had been hit, the first was collapsing and that we should dismiss class. As I was hearing those words, Vincent and several other roommates had just witnessed the first tower collapse. Our filmmaker roommate got footage of the first tower going down. I walked outside and I saw the second tower collapse and the smoke billowed toward Jersey City. We would breathe the toxic fumes for months afterwards. Everyone was out in the streets attempting to use cell phones in vain. I ran home, hoping to find Vincent there. We hugged when we saw each other and watched conflicting newscasts for most of the rest of the day. One roommate looked shocked when I said, "We did this."

No one could get along after that day. When Vincent returned from a residency with Saul Williams in Florida (which he had to drive to because of flights being blocked), all communication had broken down in the apartment. We separated the flats and a year later, when the lease ran out, we moved a few blocks closer to the PATH to an apartment which came to be known as the Chateau Boogie. It was a great apartment and a lot of creativity happened there. For our housewarming, which was also a celebration of my birthday, we had friends create a mural on our kitchen wall and we regularly played and recorded music in a room we called the Loop Hole (because we usually used loops of recorded music). One of the creative endeavors I embarked on was making a list of movie rating descriptions.

I was once a film major at Columbia College Chicago, and now Vincent shared in my joy of viewing and dissecting all aspects of film. We watched a lot of movies and I decided I wanted to list all the different things the movie ratings people thought we should be warned of (this desire to understand ratings was echoed years later in "This Film is Not Yet Rated"). I listed these descriptions as they came to be known. So, for example, if "sensuality" was seen as a description, it was written down and never written down again. I only listed descriptions that were new to me. I did this from the year 2002 to the present; roughly, the years of the Bush administration. Vincent kept asking me why I was doing this and I said I didn't know yet, but it was very entertaining. The phrases are so ridiculous and some of them have no meaning at all, I wonder what exactly I'm being warned of. However, a meaning did become clear to me about a month ago. I was reviewing the list and I noticed a change.

When I began making the list, just about a year after the 9/11 farce, the descriptions were pretty predictable. There were things like "brief language" (God forbid we should have language in a talkie film!) and "drug use." However, as we got further into the the Bush Years and the Iraq War, really disturbing descriptions began to crop up. Remember, I only recorded descriptions as they became known to me. That means, I didn't repeat descriptions I'd already seen; I only recorded new ones as I saw them. Now, one could argue that I went through a horror film phase or that films during this time were bringing up topics that were relevant to public discourse. I've always chosen a nice variety of films: foreign ones, documentaries, funny ones and stand up, action/fantasy, animation, and even really horrible "chick flicks" (because they make me laugh). I actually don't rent a lot of horror films unless they are bad ones from the 1970s, so my discovery is not necessarily skewed in that way. I should also mention that a lot of these descriptions are for films I didn't even see; the descriptions were gathered from preview ratings. In terms of Hollywood bringing in public discourse into its films, that may be the case, but I'd like you to notice exactly how they decided to bring in public discourse.

Hollywood, during the Bush Years, has pummelled us with torture in every kind of film imaginable. Is this because we've been trying to discuss the issue of torture in Iraq? Perhaps, but the way the torture has been presented in films has absolutely nothing to do with having an informed discussion about whether Bush has allowed waterboarding. Torture has been introduced just for its own sake. A family goes camping and gets tortured. Travelers go to Europe and get tortured. A man gets tortured by a woman with a feminist agenda. Films involving such themes have always existed, but during the Bush Years, torture became an everyday occurrence and my list shows how movie rating descriptions signify the inclusion of torture in everyday films. The list follows. It is in chronological order.

We must warn you of:

thematic material
some material
some scary images
brief mild language
drug material
some sexuality
graphic sexuality
strong brutal violence
some drug use
sexual content
brief language
mild thematic elements
strong sexual content
some language
brief violence
depiction of strong thematic material
pervasive language
strong violence
drug use
some violent images
brief strong language
some sexual content
adult situations involving sexuality
some substance material
some violence including domestic abuse
some mild crude humor
strong sexuality
some violence
strong language
thematic elements including suggestive material
mild language
intense creature violence
rude humor
disturbing images
racial issues including violence and epithets
mature thematic material
intense sequences of violent action
intense horror
suggestive humor
crude and sexual humor
sequences of violent action throughout
partial nudity
intense sequences of violence
bloody horror violence and gore
aberrant behavior involving nudity
some strong killings
drug material
brief sexual images
sequences of terror and violence
some sensuality
graphic battle sequences throughout
sexual references
some suggestive references
intense sequences of sci-fi action violence
brief sexual humor
some rude humor
references to D.H. Lawrence
horror violence and gore
strong, brutal and bloody violence
some graphic sexuality
violent and sexual images
grisly violence including torture and disturbing gory images
sci-fi violence
violent and disturbing content
an accident scene
momentary strong language
sexual material
strong sadistic violence and gore
some drinking and smoking all involving teens
reckless behavior
nude images
strong thematic material including the sexual assault of a child

Starting from about "intense creature violence," the list takes on an incredibly disturbing turn. Even though I was renting the same kinds of films I always rented, the new descriptions I was exposed to signified a strange turn in the types of films that were being made. The words "violence" and "intense" are used more than any other words. And I remember feeling it at the time. Whenever Vincent and I read the description of a film in the past three years or so, we would scan to see if it was a "torture" film. We learned to steer away from them because they just weren't fun for us. However, this was difficult for us to do because the torture wasn't just in films like the "Saw" series. It seemed to permeate everything.

Our unfortunate conclusion as to why this has happened reminds me of a question that Vincent asked me when we were riding on the A train in Manhattan years ago. After looking at the Bud Light ads that were plastered all over the interior of the train car, Vincent asked, "Doesn't everybody know about Bud already? Why in the world do we even need Bud ads anymore? Don't we all know about it?" I answered, "Yes, but five year olds don't know about it yet." He wondered for a minute why a five year old needs to know about beer but quickly figured out that she'll remember the name when she reaches an older age. It becomes something within us, inseparable from our psyche. Even those of us who don't like Bud know exactly what it is. So why are we being bombarded with torture films? The same reason history is presented as a series of wars: so that it seems like something absolutely normal, something that has always existed and will always exist.

Even though films can be entertaining, they are not just entertainment. If there is a somewhat large budget behind them (not necessarily meaning big stars; if the shots and editing are done nicely, that means money), films are promoting a point of view that the often unidentified producers hope the viewers will unwittingly take on. Will the generation brought up on these torture films think that torture is okay? I have no idea, but people outside of the United States have been commenting on the amount of violence in our films for decades. Now that this violence has taken on a torturous turn, I'm not sure what the outcome will be. I don't like to see anyone suffering, not even in a film. I recently read an article in The New York Times Magazine about young people who purposefully go on blogs and MySpace accounts in order to harrass people, just to see if they get a rise out of them. One such incident ended up in the suicide of a young girl. Is our empathy at stake? I've heard statements from young people to the effect of, "Well, if they're too stupid to figure things out, they deserve to be messed with. I'll screw with someone just because I can."

I'm not blaming the end of the world on young people. That's silly. But I think it is ridiculous for Oprah to have a show on bullies and to question the kids and parents, for example, when we as a country promote bullying. I think it's silly to expect the majority of young people to have worthwhile relationships when our leaders are caught in bathroom stalls and our television soap operas show men and women sleeping with everything but the family dog. Therefore, we cannot expect young people (or anyone else, for that matter) to have empathy if we bombard them with films that continually expect them to be un-empathetic in order to watch them.

I hope the torture years are over. And I hope this doesn't mean that I can expect a ton of censored, sappy drivel. If the audacity to hope means more of the same in just a different, smiling package, keep the torture. At least that allows me to see exactly where our minds are at.