One of the most important articles I’ve written on this site is my original commentary on the modern PG-13 rating, and it’s a post that I’m glad has been getting a fair amount of traffic. I prefaced that article with a fantastic video on the American film ratings board, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and the history of the PG-13 rating.
This article will be a (not so) short follow-up to that article, but it will focus entirely on the aspect of filmmaking censorship that is most dear to my heart: Cinematic violence or, violence in film.
Part I: The Censorship Double-Standard is Totally Justified
In many ways, both American and global film censorship of violence is the least persecuted and puritanical in relation to sex, nudity, and especially language. Peruse any site or internet article discussing the numerous double standards on American (or foreign) ratings of film content, and you’ll almost always see either the author or commentators ripping the fact that violence is always given a bigger pass in film than that other yucky stuff. Often you’ll see comments like:
- We let children see films filled with violence and people being shot in horrific ways, but God forbid they hear some foul language or see a bare chest!
- People are allowed to see all kinds of horrific violence, but not any sex. That’s what I want to see!
- Why all the scrutiny with regards to sex? Everyone on the planet does it, but you don’t get to shoot people or beat them to death!
Now, to be clear, I agree with the above complaints to a certain degree. Even before the intense infantilization of cinematic content and neutering of the PG-13 rating following the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, nudity and language were (and still are) held to the strictest standards by the MPAA. Even before the PG-13 rating was invented in 1984, gruesome films like Jaws (1975) were given PG ratings (I’m not kidding), while equally violent but more “foul-mouthed” films like Alien (1979, which had the dreaded “fuck”-word in them) were arbitrarily given an R (age 17+) rating.
Today, basic cable television shows like The Walking Dead (2010-present) sport horrific and incredibly bloody violence, but nobody says the f-word ever and the show is stuck within the confines of prime-time cable nudity. Even “hard-PG-13” action films like The Winter Soldier (2014) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) show somewhat edgy and intense violence, but again, no f-bombs or boobs.
I completely agree that sexuality, nudity, and particularly language have a harder time with film censorship than violence. I freely admit that. However, I’m mostly OK with that and am still more pissed about the censorship of film violence than sexuality, and here’s why:
- People experience sexually charged situations all the time, whereas violence, not so much: Which is precisely why violence should get a freer pass! Here, I use that last complaint listed above, sexuality’s ubiquity over extreme violence, as an argument for, rather than against, the double-standard of cinematic violence and sexuality. Everyone has sex, most everybody never gets to see military shootouts or kung-fu fistfights or gangster hit-jobs, which is precisely why we should be able to see them! Sex is everywhere and relatively easy to access, even if you’re a big loser like me. Who cares about seeing sex in film? Romance and sensuality are fine, but quite honestly, I don’t need to see Blue is the Warmest Color (BWC, 2013) for the sex precisely because that is not escapist or rare or fascinating to me in a cinematic format. What’s so great about seeing sex on-screen? What, am I supposed to jack off to this? Which leads me to my next point…
- Am I just supposed to jack off to these sex scenes in movies? How in any artistic way are the sex scenes in something like Blue is the Warmest Color different than a pornographic film? I’m not dissing BWC or pornography —- I enjoy both of them in their own way, but that is exactly my point! Sure, the actors in BWC are not literally having sex during photography, nor are the actors in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), but how do those scenes not qualify as softcore porn?
- Seriously, what is the point to most sex scenes in film? Unlike many action scenes or scenes of extreme violence, few scenes of explicit sexuality serve to drive their films forward from a narrative or character development standpoint. You may not enjoy action scenes or bloody shootouts in The Raid (2011) or other good action films (action movies aren’t everybody’s thing), but at least they serve a purpose in their story — they drive the plot forward, they serve as obstacles or conflicts for our protagonists to overcome, they pace the narrative, etc. Most sex scenes don’t do any of those things at all. They just feel and look awkward, which leads me to my next point…
- There’s a reason why things like Ultimate Fighting and boxing matches are a public spectator sports but things like making love and orgies generally aren’t. You may call humanity’s penchant for violence and rough-housing barbaric, but that’s the way people are built and how our instincts operate. Whenever I watch a sex scene with other people, even with mature friends I know very well, it’s painfully awkward and more than a little uncomfortable. It’s not something you can cringe at together like watching a brutal fight sequence —- it’s something from which you cringe and scoot farther apart. Sexuality is by it’s very nature a private affair, where as punching someone in the face most certainly is not. Moreover…
- With a few exceptions, most sex scenes are shot in lazy, half-ass fashion just to establish that two characters are getting off. Something like the love scene in Her (2013) is not the rule. Conversely, even bad fight sequences or scenes with extreme violence such as in Only God Forgives (2013) are built around complex choreography, camerawork, and take into account the pacing of the larger story. Most action scenes and cinematic violence require hard work and creativity. Most cinematic sexuality just looks and feels awkward — again, that is if we’re not touching ourselves in private.
Things like f-word limits and nudity I’m a little more sympathetic toward because they seem so trivial that censoring them in this day and age feels petty. I’ve been cussing freely since age 12, so the idea of a one-“fuck” limit for a PG-13 rating is absurd.
Still, given my feelings for cinematic movement, visceral intensity, and the creativity in staging cinematic violence, I’ll always be more defensive against censorship of film violence than anything else. I argue that film violence, even if it makes one feel uncomfortable, is inherently more cinematic than nudity, foul language, or sex, and thus the censorship double-standard that favors it is justified. They’re called motion-pictures, not talking pictures, and you’d be hard-pressed to find something in film that’s more inherently built around movement, fluid bodies, and visual complexity than violence.
Which is why the puritanism that has grown against violence — and it most certainly does exist — pisses me off so much. Again, look back to that PG-13 article above and the video that accompanies it; there is absolutely no way films like Jaws (rated PG in 1975), Gremlins (PG in 1984), Poltergeist (PG in 1984), Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (PG in 1984), and The Beastmaster (PG in 1982) would manage anything else other than R-ratings today, even if you take language into account.
Part II: Action Movies Should be Made for Adults, OR, We Should Stop Infantilizing Our Kids…
Either we should accept that films depicting violence, films where people get shot, blown up, beat to death, or kicked into numerous hard surfaces are indeed explicit and should be depicted as such, or we should just admit that our kids (under 17… ) are mature and psychologically strong enough to handle things like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). Violence should be depicted as such — as violence!
That’s the thing I have against so many PG-13 action films nowadays and the whining babies who complain that cinematic violence supposedly gets such a great pass while sex and frontal nudity don’t. Many people claim that films can show whatever violence they want as long as there’s not much blood or gore; that’s kind of true in that it isn’t at all.
Yes, modern PG-13 action movies feature lots of action, per se, but they feature little actual violence. You see, in the old days of the 1970s-1990s, action films boasted action sequences that were violent and had blood and gore, and thus their action was far more intense and felt like it had some weight and actual consequences to it. There’s a big difference between seeing someone get shot with no blood and them falling down like they’re tranquilized, all the while having the frantic camerawork cover up any sense of death or visceral impact, and seeing someone actually get shot and have blood fly from those wounds and die. That’s the thing with most action movies today —- you see lots of people getting shot or punched or exploded, but very few people actually dying.
As GoodBadFlicks stated in their WTF Happened to PG-13(?), “Although there are more guns being used in PG-13 films nowadays, there is a distinct difference between using guns, and gun violence.” The sheer number of moving bodies, particles, digital FX, explosions, and yes, gunfire may have increased compared to previous decades, but the amount of blood squibs, digital or otherwise, gore FX, and explicit violence has plummeted. General audience and major studio tolerance for casual violence in mainstream filmmaking is a fraction of what it used to be.
Simply compare the original R-rated Robocop (1987) with it’s PG-13 remake (2014), or the R-rated Total Recall (1990) with its PG-13 remake (2012), or the PG-13 Red Dawn (1984) with its PG-13 remake (2012). They’re not the same! The originals are truly violent, while the remakes aren’t at all.
Action films, or any films that feature explicit violence for that matter, are suffering just as much as films that depend on sexuality or language, but I would argue that the censorship of cinematic violence actually matters from an artistic standpoint. If you wanna watch people fuck on film, go watch a porno; if you wanna watch a crime drama or action film, stop taking away the actions on which they’re built.
Besides, what is more offensive, more deceitful, and teaches a worse lesson to our oh so helpless, fragile-minded, foul-mouthed children: Showing violence as it is, with actual pain and consequences, or depicting arenas where children hack and slash each other to the death, but no death is shown and the violence seems pretty painless and somewhat OK? You tell me.
At the end of the day, explicit violence simply makes for better movies. I guarantee you films like The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Wolverine (2013), The Dark Knight (2008), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014) would have been that much better had they been able to operate with full, creative freedom and not worry about age-specific ratings or audience demographics. Generally speaking, trying to make a movie that appeals to absolutely everyone possible won’t work unless you keep all the elements subdued, and that requires watering down your material. Trying to get that magical “for-all-ages” rating most always means sacrificing some sort of artistic integrity and cinematic weight. To tell an adult tale, “… sometimes, PG-13 just isn’t enough; you need to go R!”
In Conclusion: Let’s All Grow Up, Shall We?
“People love seeing violence and horrible things. The human being is bad and he can’t stand more than five minutes of happiness. Put him in a dark theater and ask him to look at two hours of happiness and he’d walk out or fall asleep.” —- Paul Verhoeven
“Sure, Kill Bill‘s (2003-2004) a violent movie, but it’s a Tarantino movie. You don’t go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down.” — Quentin Tarantino
“I think people are perverts. I’ve maintained that… that’s the foundation of my career.” — David Fincher
In all fairness, I think the entire American rating system is broken. There have been entire documentaries made on the subject, and industries like Bollywood have only begun regularly showing people kissing on-screen in the last few years. There’s got to be some sort of sociobiological reason why public displays of affection, language, and even violence are so classified in so many cultures, differing only in their degree of scrutiny. I think all our puritanical censorship of sexuality, nudity, language, and yes, violence, is baloney.
In my opinion, societies are more healthy when people are allowed to watch what they wanna watch and listen to what they wanna listen to. Because extreme acts of violence are both inherently more cinematic (the artistic argument) and because they are much less available to us in real-life than, say, sex or nudity or foul language (the escapist argument), their censorship is more offensive and thus the ratings double-standard is justified.
I’m not saying that letting children watch violent movies will solve all of society’s problems, but this idea that people, especially children, are harmed by things like violent movies or videogames is getting more ludicrous by the year. When I watch something like The Raid, I don’t feel like kicking ass, I feel like I got my ass kicked. In other words, let us watch our ultra-violent movies, and let the kids watch them too. That’s not too much to ask.