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.


Anonymous said...

I read your blog about the whole torture and movie thing, and I always seem to find myself agreeing with some things and entirely dismissing others.

My theory has something to do with what you mentioned about the beer thing,... Read More and the targeting of audiences.

You see, the torture films may very well be a tool of the Matrix to instill a type of cold, unfeeling reaction to violence, and to desensitize us to it completely.

that is one way of looking at it, and it is appropriate, and it is true.

But there is also another wya of looking at it, as a reflection of how people are feelign about the overall state of the world. A lot of people are depressed, and not for no justifiable reasons, but because as more knowledge becomes widespread to the entire world, ( and I emphasize this, because while not everyone can read, they can see, and you tube and other image providers give people glimpses into other parts of the world) you can see the starvation, stupidity, hopelessness, and violence all around the Earth.
If you study and know enough though, the scary part is that, relative to most of human history, things are not quite as bad, they are transformed.

I think that as the world changes symptoms of change will occur, and the these films you discussed are symptoms.

But the problems have always been there, and while I do not spend as much time watching movies period anymore, the ones that helped me sleep were usually pretty horrifying.

You say you do not advocate censorship, but you feel that these films are social endorsements for desensitization to violence. So I am unclear about your postion.

It seems tantamount to saying that society does not endorse the hero, because any close examination of a hero tale shows that it is inevitably the fall of the hero that is heroic. The ability of the hero to sustain intolerabl... Read Moree suffering and to do so in the name of the greater good. To lose loved ones, to suffer betrayal at the hands of ones closest friends, to never be able to have a normal love life or family, to be villified and martyred, this is what is displayed for us to internalize as the fate of a hero. But is it a lie. Is this not the fate of the vast majority of heroes.
All art or images, film or otherwise, are an exageration of some truth, and however exaggerated, should not be suppressed.

You can always find something in the world to reflect torture films, and ultimately controlling what people watch is never an answer. Oftentimes it is the people who have read no books or only a holy book or two that want to burn books, ban films, and attack artists.

An individual's perception to what they see also has a huge effect.
Their is an internal experience that a person has, and while it may not match up to yours, it can be just as valid.

we each inhabit our own reality tunnel, and it is this that makes reality exciting.

Torture films and any other type of art that is sad or dour is not just a manifestation of corporate manipulation and greed, it also reflects the internal climate of an audience, and even that is to a degree. Sometimes people watch movies just to veg out. The daily grind is just kicking their a$$e$ and they want stupidity.

I found what you said interesting and wanted to reply, but I have issues with the implications of what a potential solution you would have would be.

Because, at the end of the day, it is the world and what we do in it that makes the art and ideas and images flow, and creates the foundation by which these things emerge.

Glad you are safe by the way, and hope the storm pass... Read Morees you by. Cheers, Thaxton

Anonymous said...

References to DH Lawrence?

It seemsthat we are moving into an "extreme as the norm" phase. We have SUPERsized meals, SUPERmodels (what the hell is that, anyway?). All we had was SUPER Mario Brothers.

I watch my nine year old son and his friends grow into this huge/ small world and they seem to hit te ground running.

My instinct tells me that they are the opposite of us, the Slacker Generation. They are the Red Bull runts.

Our psychological torture films were Blue Velvet and River's Edge. Relatively passive and tasteful in comparison. Mere suggestion of torture is not enough for the Red Bull Runts. Enter SUPERtorture.

But, in all fairness, for all that we argue the bombardment of our youth with such images, never in history has a geeration had so much control over the images they encounter. Not the event of encountering, mind you (my kids see WAY more than I am comfortable with), but their access to what they encounter is someting that we never had.

Example: There are films I would never allow my son to watch in the theatre, in the dark, with an image larger than life. However, that same film could be okay on the couch with the lights on and the remote control in his hand. We can stop for comentary or just decide to stop it altogether. At that age, my only access to a movie was... well... at the movies. I had no control of what I was about to see short of closing my eyes and /or leaving the theater.

What am I saying? I don't know. I don't quite understand it, and I can only attempt to guide my children through it with honesty about my confusion. It's not a very comfortable place for a parent to be in, but I believe we are the closest two generations have come to building a world together. We shop together, dress in relatively the same fashions and share some taste in music, just to name a few. In this fast-changing world we've created, can we expect anything less than a Super-generation?

SUPERTORTURE seems to fall right into place.

Toro said...

In response to some of the points proposed above, I'd like to qualify the discussion by bringing something up.

One of the conflicts that arises in addressing issues of media and censorship is that most people seem to think that there is a very free and democratic approach to media and its consmption. That is, people believe that the art is a response to what the people want and feel.

This is simply not true, especially in the case of movies.

It is not as if just anyone has access to not only movie making equipment but also means of distribution. These resources are in the hands of the very powerful and rich. And one of the reasons that they are rich and powerful is because they use the media outlets that they own and control to control us.

The psychologists, engineers, anthropologists, marketers, and sociologists they have on payroll have shown them a long time ago that they can CREATE the kind of collective mindset they want from citizens/consumers by using the media. This is old hat.

Despite it being old hat, we still think that the records, for example, on the top 40 list, are actually the ones that the human populace has democratically decided to be the best. They haven't factored in that multinational conglomerates create records and films that preach their own agenda to the masses and then pay to have 100 million copies on shelves everywhere. These things are popularized before they even hit the stores and theaters.

These torture movies are not a response to the times, rather the people are a response to ideas embedded in the mass media propaganda tools that we are bombarded with since birth.

It's why psychologists have uncovered the scary statistic that 85 percent of American lose the ability to think for themselves by the age of 5.

We must stop believing that we are choosing the things that we watch and listen to. They are being spoon fed to us. The qunatity makes us think we are making a choice. But just cause there are 40 different kinds of soda, we're still drink corporate soda.

And Grisel does not believe in censorship, which is why I think she wrote the article. The REAL CENSORSHIP is in denying distribution of art and ideas to those with a certain political and spiritual position while flooding our space with entertainment and cheap commodities that keep us as passive consumers.

For more insight on this idea, check out Howard Zinn's audio lectures "Stories Hollywood Never Tells."


Grisel said...

Interesting responses. People get so heated about writing about movies, while Houston is in need of aid because of the hurricane. Hmmm.

No, Toro, I don't believe in censorship but what Thaxton has explained to me in several emails is that the bulk of my writing taken out of context could be used to support Republican-toned censorship. Let's not forget that Democrat Tipper Gore was the head of the PMRC censorship brigade in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Yes, my writing could be taken out of context and used to support the idea of censorship, but instead of lowering ourselves to the mediocre standards of modern media, why not address the complexities of the writing and ask ourselves, "If she doesn't want "censored drivel," what is the author proposing?

First of all, I was proposing a tool that records the corporate agenda. Thaxton mentioned to me that ratings aren't useful for anything at all, but the experience hasn't been the same for me regarding this list. This list records the change of the content of films after 9/11 and during the Bush administration's tenure. No one is officially going to tell the public that promoting a torture agenda as part of the mass psyche was part of the Bush administration's policy. But if we:

1) look at the ratings system and how its descriptions changed during this time,

2) add that to the fact that our government is run by corporate leaders and that corporate leaders disseminate what they want the public to be thinking about through books, films, music, and other media,

3) and add to that various news articles that show our policy in Iraq,

we have recorded proof that Hollywood was complicit in promoting the agenda of the Torture Years.

I know this is old hat to some of us and we may think, so what? But I do not think of myself alone. I think of how to give tools to young people and others that may help them see how our system works. Believe it or not, some people still do not understand the relationship between Hollywood and Washington, D.C. This tool could continue to be used. In the future, perhaps someone else may decide to record how ratings are written should Obama become president. How will his time in office effect the language that describes our ratings? Will more "ethnic" descriptions be used? Will there be more films about slavery or will some other description that I can't even think of come about.

Second, I am not proposing changing anything tantamount to undoing the movie machine. That's beyond my control. And besides, I like movies. However, if we must have the movie machine, I think it is necessary to examine it as part of the checks and balances that (hopefully) influence what we do with government in the future. Right now, it's a given that corporations are running our country and what we call "art" (in the form of books, music, film, museums, etc.). We have to examine that and figure out useful ways of making do with the world they are forcing us to live in. Which brings me to my third point.

Third, I am proposing a thought process that involves reinventing the master's tools into something totally different. Bobby Seale did something great when on trial for inciting a riot in 1968. Instead of using our justice system in the traditional way, he kept shouting, "I have the right to defend myself, you can't deny me my Constitutional rights," over and over in the courtroom so that his thoughtful words were all over the court record and so that the "just" people running the court ended up tying him up and gagging him. This discourse made him sympathetic and the court look ridiculous. Eventually, all charges were dropped against him. Our justice system is bunk, but he found a way to make it work for him.

This way of reading ratings descriptions works for me because it records history, it records what the agenda is, when most media tries to obscure the agenda. It may not work for you, but maybe there is something else that you can look at in a new way. Let me know about it when you do.

Toro said...

System of a Down sings the chorus
"Eloquence belongs to the conqueror." They forgot to add...
And Grisel.

Thanks for your words, insight, and inspiration (I am spoiled, I get to have it everyday).

Anonymous said...

Whoa, folks; I'm gonna keep it simple this time. Intriguing study you've been up to these glorious Bush Years. Some of these gems truly amaze me(then again, not really) as to there actual existence & need to be created at all. So at this moment I would like to begin:

The Urban Lumberjack's Top Ten Stupid Ass Movie Rating Descriptions of All Time

10. Some Material

I would certainly hope so, paying for only part of a movie is no way to bring back return business, or are we talking about chiffon, corduroy, and a little wool cotton blend

9. Some Substance Material

Ya, don't say, hmmmm... What have we got here? Baking powder, used rubber nipples, oil filters? There's a great deal of substances in the world, apparently they've got to warn us about seeing a few in their film.

8. Mild Thematic Elements

Oh. Great. Thanks for the heads up. I'm not interested in this picture anymore, I might have to pay attention. There seems to be a bit of a theme coursing through this entire movie. Dammit!

7. Thematic Elements Including Suggestive Material

That's just super, now I've got to not only remain attentive, they're gonna hit me with suggestive material to boot.

6. References To D.H. Lawrence

I guess all of the other authors are up shit's creek because they don't get any shout outs.

5. Aberrant Behavior Involving Nudity

Just what kind of not normal behavior involving nudity are we getting here? They'll come up with these silly warnings but they won't stop the images from getting mass produced and pumped into the culture though.

4. Intense sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence

Hahahahahahahahahahaha! Shit gets crazy on those space movie sets. "Open the pod bay doors, HAL... ...Open the pod bay doors, HAL."

3. Bloody Horror Violence & Gore

Oooohhhh, we get the gore as an added bonus. Sweet! You see bloody, horror, and violence aren't enough to fully warn the viewer of this film. Gore really let's the spectator know for a fact they will want to cringe away at select scenes. That's very considerate of the censors; they must really care after all. Tippy just wanted to get her last name in their somewhere.

2. Intense Creature Violence

This one is priceless, those savage beasts are at it again. Where's Gerrard? Legend of the Over Fiend says it all.

And because Bloody Horror Violence AND Gore wasn't enough; the number ONE Stupid Ass Movie Rating Description of All Time is:

1. Grisly Violence Including Torture & Disturbing Gory Images

You know when the word grisly appears you've got a problem in a bad way. Grisly is just straight up carnage; bones snapping and busting through skin, creatures ripping arms out of sockets, eyes being plucked out with rusty screwdrivers, sinew & cartilage, and definitely some skulls being mutilated like casaba melons and a half a stick of dynamite. YEAH! Grisly is the one you don't want to mess with folks. That's all, the Urban Lumberjack says, take it ease".

Toro said...

Wow! Urban Lumberjack's top ten list has caused me to... to use one of those banal and unnecessary text message acronyms...LMFAO!

THat was hilarious!
Oh, and I am a big fan of the D.H. Lawrence rating as well.

And "Some Material" is one of those that just really shows how dumb these people are. They can't even articulate why they gave it a damn rating.

Do any of you know someone that would pay $10 to see a move with NO material in it?

Grisel said...

I personally like all the qualifiers they add to words, as if they actually mean something. There is:
brief language
mild language
brief mild language
some language
pervasive language
strong language
momentary strong language

WTF is the difference between all of these??? And do I honestly need to be warned of "brief mild language"? That doesn't sound harmful at all! "Brief mild language" sounds like a warm bath, or a dove flying overhead, or children holding hands while skipping in the f***ing park!

Truthfully, the descriptions sound like bad acting direction. "Here, Brad, you must throw in some pervasive language, okay? REALLY give it to us! We'll have none of that lukewarm, pussyfooting, mild language in this scene, alright?"

Isn't ALL language MOMENTARY?? None of it lasts FOREVER, does it? Is the WORD infinite?? I guess it can feel that way, especially when you get our crazy crew together. Leave it to us to take movie rating descriptions into an existential analysis of our pathetic utterances. :) I luv you guys.

Anonymous said...

That's one of the things I love about you my friend. You always keep me thinking and learning. Curious how fear has always been used to divide us and make us desperate in our ways of consumption but during this particular administration it's grown umpteenthfold... We gotta chase those crazy bald heads out of town! Can you believe this Palin clown??? lol NYC and I miss you guys very much!!!

The kid from The Heights,

Sue Acosta said...

The scariest reaction I have to all that I have just read is that, as a parent of young children, I actually looked up this ratings crap in order to determine whether or not to take my kids to a movie. As ridiculous as it is, they have managed to make it useful. And now I've validated it by using it. (BTW, the movie was the Dark Knight, and I have to say I'm glad I decided NOT to take the kids. 3 and 5 is not old enough for that scary Joker.) Did you know you can go onto imdb and find out every single instance of anything even remotely questionable about practically any film by looking in the Parents Guide. For example, under the category Sex & Nudity, it says, "Bruce Wayne walks into a room with a couple in it, and it is suggested that the couple were making out." And under Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking, it says, "A character indicates he deals with stress by drinking as he gets out a bottle of whiskey and a glass." For me, the scariest part of such corporate/institutional influence in my life is when I find myself using something that I object to on a moral level. Another example being that I have definite qualms about standardized testing and yet use the scores that individual schools have garnered to determine where I want my kids to attend.

And, yes, I agree that The Urban Lumberjack's Top Ten Stupid Ass Movie Rating Descriptions of All Time is LMFAO Funny. I did.

Thanks, G&V, for once again inciting thought and humor in a oft-dark world.

Anonymous said...

Timely and close to your blog:

October 19-20, 7:30-9:30 PM, FACE IT- Torture in the 21st Century, Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th Street ( Santa Monica , CA )

This unique evening of theatre, art and discussion will examine the Bush administration’s redefining of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The program begins with a performance of Harold Pinter’s 1984 award-winning One for the Road, directed by Robert Adanto ’94 (MA, Acting). Set in a police state, Mr. Pinter's play is a chilling study of power and powerlessness. Nicolas (Adanto), a government inquisitor, engages members of a family, husband Victor (Bill Dawes) ’96 (MA Acting), wife Gila and young son Nicky, not so much to elicit facts as to administer brutality.

Following the performance, Michael Rapkin, an ACLU attorney who has sued both the President of the United States and the Secretary of State while representing his client, a suspected enemy combatant held in Guantanamo Bay , will lead a Q&A session concerning torture in the 21st century.

Additionally, noted documentary filmmaker, Nonny de la Peña and digital media artist, Peggy Weil, will share Gone Gitmo, an installation of Guantánamo Prison in the virtual reality environment, Second Life. Gone Gitmo is a political piece emphasizing human rights and habeas corpus, within a virtual environment.

Diana Diaz

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