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EDITORIAL – 27/6/2013: SQUEAMISH ABOUT SEX, BLASÉ ABOUT VIOLENCE

By Andrew L. Urban

Squeamish about sex, blasé about violence, Australians are a bit like Americans in how we respond to depictions of the two hot button issues of human existence on screen. The Classification Board – as it is now known - has yet to ban a film (refuse classification) under the current guidelines (under the 1995 Act) on the grounds of ‘excessive violence’ – unless sex is involved – but it does refuse classification from time to time and always rates sexy films mores restrictively than violent ones. Sex is for mature audiences ... violence is for immature ones, perhaps.

The extreme violence of many films, notably action blockbusters, is now taken for granted; inter-personal violence is accepted even under the M classification (eg The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, World War Z - released last week- Man of Steel – released this week - for starters).

The Classification Board would say, quite rightly, that they are following the guidelines. But perhaps the problem is that the guidelines are designed to deliver a single rating from multiple elements, each with its own hierarchy of impact. There are six classifiable elements in a film: themes, violence, sex, language, drug use, nudity.

"a different level of impact"

Each element can – and often does – have a different level of impact. 

For an M rating, moderate violence is permitted, if justified by context. For an MA15+ rating, violence should be justified by context. Sexual violence may be implied, if justified by context. For an R18+ rating, violence is permitted. Sexual violence may be implied, if justified by context. Context – that’s when violence is not gratuitous, when there is a reason for the violence … So filmmakers can create the context that not only justifies the violence but creates and drives violence. It’s a ‘help yourself’ system.

Behind the Candelabra (opens July 25, 2013 in Australia) was initially rated MA15+ with the advisory: ‘Drug use, coarse language and sex scenes’ Roadshow appealed and the Review Board unanimously reclassified it as M on June 20, with exactly the same advisory note. 


Behind the Candelabra

The Review Board goes into great detail about the various elements (which I won’t divulge here before the film’s release) but it clears the film on all the key classifiable elements, and on the sex scenes, it says: “...the couple are shown in bed, engaging in implied sexual activity. The couple are shown from a low front angle, with only their heads and naked torsos visible to the camera. The duration of this scene is less than 10 seconds … Liberace and Scott are shown visiting a porn shop and a porn movie is playing in the background, with the sounds of sex coming from behind various cubicle doors.” In short, “The sexual activity was implied and justified by context, and was moderate in impact.”

The same couldn’t be said for the violence in the films I’ve mentioned.

"the chasm between reactions to sex and to violence on screen"

I am not attacking the Classification Board for its MA15+ decision; I make the point that its overly cautious approach to classifying sexual content reflects the chasm between reactions to sex and to violence on screen. 

Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love, a biopic of London’s famous peep show king, Paul Raymond (played by Steve Coogan) contains zero violence. According to the Classification Board it contains moderate impact themes and language. But it places drug use, nudity and sex at the strong impact range. Of course, that is a bit subjective and arguable, given that one of the parameters the Board has to work with is “the persons or class of persons to or amongst whom it is published or is intended or likely to be published.” Paul Raymond’s story is unlikely to attract audiences who would be easily offended by nudity and sex, given his life was devoted to the exploitation of those things. Drug use? If you think the film glamourises it then MA15+ it is. BUT ...


The Look of Love

The guidelines are meant to deliver a rating system which helps audiences make informed choices when selecting their movie menu, with the consumer advice adding detail. In the case of The Look of Love, it is: ‘Strong sexualised nudity, sex scenes and drug use.’ Sex scenes are mentioned twice; this is the emphasis. 

In the M rating for Man of Steel, the advisory simply says: ‘Science fiction violence’. For Skyfall, the M rating advises ‘Violence and infrequent coarse language’. Don’t get me wrong, I think Skyfall is the Best Bond ever; but there is considerable violence, not least the scene where Bond is getting his genitals whacked by Javier Bardem’s Silva.

"I am vehemently opposed to censorship. I am not opposed to accurate labelling, however, whether for movies, medications or marzipan"

As regular readers will know, I am vehemently opposed to censorship. I am not opposed to accurate labelling, however, whether for movies, medications or marzipan. I think we should discuss the explosion of violence on screen in the context of the guidelines, with a view to finding a way to improve the labelling (classification ratings & consumer advice). 

Super heroes are filling our screens and while many once lived in the frozen images of a comic book, their violence contained by the medium, they are now free to be part of a rampage of annihilation that is being escalated for the sake of commercial attention. It is not enough to save Gotham City; superheroes now have to save the entire planet, or even the whole universe. In the process, blockbusters are living up to their name, destroying whole city blocks, squadrons of cars, piles of trucks and airplanes and killing or maiming dozens of people – called characters to avoid linkage to actual bodies - on an ever increasing scale.

We are seeing the extremes of gun violence on screen even as ongoing and growing gun violence in the real world horrifies us, and the gun lobby in America manages to halt reforms. Schoolchildren are massacred and still the gun lobby won’t co-operate with lawmakers to provide common sense restrictions on military style weapons, background checks for licences and the like. 

It would seem that we have grown accustomed to screen slaughter, and by degrees we have become less disturbed by the terrible images of death and torture, the act of killing and the carnage of the battlefield. 

These days, even animated family films have to adopt the go-to storyline of a world under threat of extinction – eg Epic – released this week.

"the hot button issue that is less restricted than sex"

It’s as if the industrial filmmaking machine of Hollywood (especially, but not only) has had a failure of imagination, a failure to generate interest except by excessive violence, the hot button issue that is less restricted than sex.

There are many in the community who share these sentiments, and are writing to the Classification Board asking why sex is so taboo, and violence is not.

Perhaps the Classification Board could introduce an additional (informal) rating for the level of violent content – quite separately from the existing classification ratings – a) to alert audiences to the level of violence more precisely and to separate the violent rating from the other elements, and b) to emphasise the amount and the scale of violence playing on our screens. A V rating, perhaps, on a scale of 1 to 5. This would in no way interfere with the existing ratings system, but would augment it and provide audiences with more calibrated consumer advice.

Discuss ...

An edited version of this article was first published in The Australian, 25/6/2013.

FOOTNOTE:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a rare example of a feature film banned on the basis of excessive violence; the original 1974 movie was banned despite repeated appeals and even some severe cutting. But in January 1984, Filmways submitted a version which was given an R18+ rating. 

In July 2007, Umbrella Entertainment submitted a DVD for classification and was unbelievably awarded an R18+ (High level horror violence) rating. The Umbrella DVD was released in October 2007.

The 2003 remake was passed with an MA15+ (High Level Violence) rating, and in 2005 the ultra violent and sadistic, uncut version of The Devil's Rejects escaped with an MA15+ (Strong violence, Strong coarse language, Sex scene) rating.

In October 2010, Umbrella Entertainment released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Blu-ray.

(Source: refused-classification.com)

For another fascinating story from the history of classification and debates about violent films, read the fascinating 1992 saga of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (d. John McNaughton, 1986) based on the life of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.

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Andrew L. Urban

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