The first short film I ever made, for the 2009 48-hour film festival, was a loosely scripted affair. My collaborator and I knew what we wanted from each scene, but with a 48-hour countdown making us feel like Keifer Sutherland thwarting a nuclear holocaust, we afforded each actor (ourselves included) quite a bit of artistic freedom in the words spoken. “Authentic,” I might have declared as our intent.
What resulted from this improv approach was essentially an eight-minute examination of the mother of all swear words, and the abuse of its versatility (adjective, noun, verb, adverb, and so on).
My debut into the world of filmmaking was nothing short of a D-Day-esque F-bomb attack, peppered with strings of story within.
My collaborator and I were made aware of the excessive swearing as we edited our film, but nothing compared to the visual and audio amplification of a movie theater. Yet, at the film’s showing, aside from some collar-tugging nervousness as I watched myself build f-bombs upon f-bombs (that f-ing f-er is f-ed!), I didn’t think too much about the excessive expletives. A tighter script was the lesson learned.
Of course our little film wasn’t ever going much farther than our local theater. But for films with loftier goals, the words spoken by faces on the screen can have a serious impact.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has strict rules on what constitutes a specific rating. And contrary to my views (as a child I longed to sneak into “R” rated film, and as an adult I assume any film not rated “R” is less than, hmm, authentic), studios strive to avoid the dreaded “R” rating. PG-13 (and PG) are accessible to a much wider audience. More viewers means more money. Simple enough. But making sure a film qualifies for a particular MPAA rating is a tricky business producers keep on top of constantly (often times at the expense of the director).
As far as feature films are concerned, I struggle to feel badly for a movie that earns an “R” rating because it somehow surpassed some MPAA guideline. My view is, if it’s worth watching, it’ll get watched, with or without the help of teenagers.
But the rating system has recently caught my attention because of the documentary “Bully” made by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen.
Six f-bombs are dropped in “Bully,” originally earning it an “R” rating which was “a decision that has effectively destroyed the possibility that the picture will do any good,” wrote Anthony Lane in the April 2, 2012 issue of “The New Yorker.” “Most public schools are not going to sponsor screenings of an R-rated film.”
Since the original rating, a battle ensued, and, eventually, a compromise evolved. Careful editing removed three f-bombs, but Hirsch was able to keep an f-bomb-riddle-scene he felt was pivotal for the film. “Bully” is now rated PG-13.
Did the MPAA commit an injustice by initially handing down the “R” rating without considering the potentially influential context of the film? Not according to Chris Dodd, the head of the MPAA, who believes setting a precedent based on any potential “importance” is a slippery slope.
I fully agree.
To be clear, I don’t much agree with the rating system at all, especially when it comes to the use of expletives. Books and magazines are littered with swears (not to mention sex and violence, drugs and more) without warning, but the moment a film flirts with these vices red flags (and the film’s rating) go up.
But, accepting the MPAA does exist … for now … I agree with Dodd that the organization should stick to its rules, and not factor in subjective matters like importance. My importance is likely another man’s buzzing mosquito. Thus is our right.
And I don’t think Hirsch and Lowen should have factored in the film’s potential rating when editing “Bully.” Documentaries are (say it with me) authentic. They are not meant to be airbrushed like a cover girl celebrity.
The big-picture issue here is our overall view on what constitutes vulgarity.
The fact is, the f-bombs dropped in “Bully” are mostly used because of the word’s chameleon-esque presence in our language. It’s more versatile than the indecisive (am I a vowel, a consonant?) letter “Y.”
What is vulgar in “Bully” is how the film captures the ugliness that takes place in schools, buses, and on-line every day. What these bullies do to their victims is far more offensive than the stringing together of particular sounds. What we see makes us sad, angry and uncomfortable. But that’s what documentaries do, force us to watch things we’ve averted our eyes from. There are a lot of trees falling down in the woods; documentaries make sure we hear each one.
I can’t blame schools for hesitating to show an “R”-rated film. I’ve been on the other side, behind the teacher’s desk. For every family willing to expose to their children the words and actions they likely encounter daily, there’s another family believing that to curse is to mortally sin. Thus is our right.
And so schools are frozen, unable to please everyone, hoping to anger no one.
But no one has to walk a tight rope with “Bully,” thanks to the compromise hashed out. Students won’t lose out on seeing a film made specifically for their eyes.
But something else will still be lost – common sense. There’s not a teen in America who hasn’t encountered swears in his life. It’s not the words, but the intent. A teenager dropping f-bombs to a friend while describing the latest video game is hardly as vulgar as that teen hearing his father degrade his mother.
And a film, with a few swears, that reveals a problem we know exists but do little to change, can hardly be called offensive. In that case the good surely outweighs the bad, and if we can’t see that, well, that’s most offensive of all.