Blue Valentine, a darling of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, has been saddled with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t even seen the film, a romantic drama starring Oscar nominees Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, yet. But why this piece of news should be on your radar has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the issue of censorship in the arts.
Let me first introduce you to the MPAA (The Motion Picture Association of America). Among their many responsibilities and efforts, they are responsible for assigning ratings to films. This is a noble charge and one that carries with it a hefty impact on theater chains, filmmakers, and the general public. So clearly the people to whom this duty is tasked have a direct connection or keen insight into the intricacies of filmmaking, right? Wrong. The ratings board is comprised of ordinary parents; the understanding of film as a craft is not a prerequisite for membership.
I only mention this because of the specific reason for Blue Valentine’s being hampered by such a stern rating. I spoke with editors at major film websites who viewed the film during Sundance and not one could point to anything in the film so shocking, vulgar, or explicit as to warrant an NC-17 rating. According to the story broken by Deadline New York's Mike Fleming, the scene in question is a love scene with very little nudity that is only uncomfortable to watch because of the intensity of the performances and the film's emotionally affecting story arc.
Mere weeks ago, the MPAA found itself engulfed in a separate controversy regarding the slasher sequel Hatchet 2. The film was pulled from AMC Theatres, which had initially agreed to release it unrated, with no reasonable cause given. As much as the Darwinian capitalist would like to believe that the film’s abysmal box office returns were the impetus for its being pulled, the facts paint a different picture. Outside of one highly publicized L.A. screening featuring a cast and director Q&A, AMC did absolutely nothing to promote Hatchet 2’s release, and in fact discouraged any member of the cast or crew of the film from talking about it to the press. So if AMC did everything in its power to keep people from knowing about Hatchet 2’s release, why would they pull the film mid-weekend under the guise of "poor business" which they in fact created?
Now I will not cast a stone of specific blame here because it is still unclear whether it was the MPAA or AMC who were behind the film being pulled, but as with the Blue Valentine situation, it was definitely a decision based on the content of the film. And therein lies the relevancy for us all. Film, like any art form, is subjective and no filmmaker is capable of creating something that will please the sensibilities of every person on this planet. To that end, I support the idea of a rating system not only because it allows for a more informed decision on the part of the moviegoers, but also for freedom of artistic expression.
The Hatchet 2 situation is based upon violence in the film, and though I do not agree with the MPAA’s archaic perspective on cinematic violence and its impact on society, I at least understand their position. But when a film like Blue Valentine gets slapped with an NC-17 rating, jeopardizing its theatrical future (it's typically the kiss of death for potential exhibitors), because the MPAA feels it’s too emotionally affecting, it places us on the precipice of a slippery slope. If we allow the MPAA or any other force outside of ourselves to dictate not only what content we should view but also to what degree we are permitted to be affected by a film, we find ourselves in the tyrannical grip of censorship.
I encourage each and every one of you, should you find yourselves interested by the Blue Valentine trailer, to ignore its rating and attend a theatrical presentation of the film. But even if you have no interest in it, we cannot let the most arbitrary and oppressive decision in the history of the MPAA to set a precedent that allows them to dictate our emotional response to art.