The two sentences used to describe the most controversial scene in Hannibal in the
Editorial "Censors wrong on Hannibal rating" in The Australian (9/2/2001), defy
the golden rule that ‘truth is context’. The description lifts the scene out of
its full cinematic context. Perversely enough, the brutalised, simplified description
commits the sin against which it argues, namely exposing gruesome details to
"unsupervised 15 to 17 year olds". The Australian is not sold subject to age
restrictions. Nor is the novel by Thomas Harris, which is, of course, detailed and graphic. Any 13 year old can read it.
The Editorial is a sign of confusion, perhaps; well meaning conservatism and sincere
attempts at child protection falling foul of common sense. But The Australian is not alone
in being muddled about this complex issue. Instead of calling for a more restrictive
classification, it should be arguing for better consumer advisory tags on films with
adult-theme content. The confusion is highlighted by its use of the word censor
when Australia is served by an Office of Film and Literature Classification. This
is not being pedantic any more than ‘murder’ and ‘manslaughter’ carry
distinctions with crucial differences. A modern and mature country, a world leader in
tolerance and understanding, has no place for primitive, paternalistic censorship.
RATING v WARNING
The age-based rating systems of the world’s classification bodies are often
accompanied by a ‘consumer advisory’ tag. In the US, Hannibal is released with
"Rated R for strong gruesome violence, some nudity and language." In Australia,
the rating is MA, requiring under 15 year olds to be accompanied by a parent or guardian,
and the advisory tag issued by the Office of Film & Literature Classification is
"High level violence". If it is meant to advise, this is lamentably inaccurate
and vague. It is a tag that could be applied to so many films as to be meaningless. The
Americans have got the tag right (even if the age limitation is debatable); it is a
warning system, after all, not censorship. Big difference. We do want consumer advice, we
don’t want censorship. We do want the choice, we don’t want it made for us.
REAL v FICTIONAL VIOLENCE
I laughed in a ‘you gotta be joking’ kind of way at the scene in Hannibal where
the world’s most notorious gourmand and cannibal prepares and serves the world’s
most unusual meal, at the smartly laid table complete with flower arrangement. Others
squirmed and there were audible gasps. You don’t need much of a brain to realise that
this is a scene edging elegantly into the hyper-real; it is a work of imaginative fiction,
The carnage of the opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan was a far more realistic
portrayal, for example, of violence so gruesome and frightening as to be shocking. But in
Hannibal, the violence is contextualised in a story about a complex, multi-faceted and
imaginary character who likes to eat human flesh. And other bits. He was created by a
writer in Red Dragon and later in the even more popular Silence of the Lambs.
It could be argued that children (but at what age) should be shielded from all screen
violence and other ugly aspects of the human condition; the argument would have to rest on
some sort of conviction that not to do so would harm children in some way. But using the
word violence in this context is out of real life context. A child witnessing his father
bash his mother is real violence. Even little children can differentiate between this
happening in their lounge room and a similar scene happening on a tv drama they are
watching with – or without - their parents. Also in their lounge room.
Even so, parents can best judge what sort of experiences their children can safely
enjoy, although most will err on the side of conservatism. The violent computer games they
play and the violent stories they read are always cause for concern. Why it is that boys
(mostly) like to play violent games; I used to enjoy shooting my friends in the park and
dying like a hero when shot myself, experimenting with balletic death scenes that would
work well in many of today’s action movies. This sort of role playing, some shrinks
say, enables us to confront the reality of death without real danger. It is healthy. This
also applies to evil. Even when it is stylised.
And as Ridley Scott said at the press conference, "I believe that this kind of
film (Hannibal) should be seen at parents' discretion."
Talking about the content of the film and the fact that in Italy it is on general release
without any age restriction, Ridley Scott made some pertinent points: "You actually
need to go back to the type of ethic that parents propagate to their children before.
Grimms' fairy tales are really violent. Little Red Riding Hood can make you laugh, to
think of that in terms of violence, but if I film that, it would scare the shit out of
you. Well, children were allowed to sit and read that. You can go back into any piece of
literature in history and find complete violence -particularly in the theatre, but
it’s not considered too scary because it’s perceived as unreal.
"Hannibal is a clever screenplay with a humorous and romantic tone. That in
itself, I think, helps to disguise the basis of two scenes in the film that can be
considered violent. The scene with Mr.Pazzi is really about retribution and if you miss
the point and the humour of the character torn apart between money and the love of his
wife, then we must re-do our job. The scene of the banquet is an amusing retribution done
elegantly and that's why it went through with the MPAA as not being gratuitous. I think
the word gratuitous is very important because when violence becomes gratuitous than it's
important to rate it.
"I am a little surprised that in Italy it has no rating and I would leave it to
parents’ discretion. And if in the USA a child [under 17] goes to a multiplex, pays
to see one film and then sneaks into another, different theatre, well, that's his parents
fault because they have not instilled the proper ethic in this child. . ."
That’s a bit harsh, Ridley, on well intentioned parents; but the point is that we
can’t always control human beings. Can we?
Anthony Hopkins also put things in perspective (context) when, in reply to a question
about Hannibal being a favourite character of his, he coupled Hannibal Lecter with that
sadly repressed and misguided old butler, Stevens: "Yes, my favourite is Hannibal
Lecter. And form those of the past, I loved the character in The Remains of The Day
(1993). It was a very well written script and it made it, just as in the case of Hannibal
and some other films, very satisfying to play the role. People get too serious about
movies, forgetting it’s all a fiction anyway. Acting: that's all."
Maybe kids understand that better than some adults.
Published February 15, 2001