Thursday, October 15, 2009



I still have to watch Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism : A Love Story. To prepare myself for his latest offering, I went back to the catalogue and watched Bowling for Columbine (2002). It made me laugh and cry all at the same time. But this time I noticed something interesting about the movie that I never considered important before: It was rated "R." The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) said it deserved an "R" rating because it contained "Language and Some Disturbing Images." That piqued my interest. Then I noticed that Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Capitalism : A Love Story also were rated "R."

I recognized at once that the MPAA does not like Michael Moore. Bowling for Columbine did not even remotely deserve an "R" rating. Its "disturbing images" were no more than stock news footage showing gun violence in America and abroad. There was no bloodshed. By the MPAA's reasoning, virtually every nightly newscast in the United States should be rated "R" for "some disturbing images." So should almost every National Geographic Channel documentary and World War II show. And the "language" that earned the movie an "R" was this: A single use of the word "fuck" by Marilyn Manson during an interview about violence in American society. I could make only one conclusion from this: The MPAA did not like Moore's "provocative message" about American society, so they "pulled power on him" by slapping an "R" on his movie.

It is no small thing for the MPAA to dish out "R" ratings. "R" ratings reduce a movie's potential audience by up to 83%. They dramatically weaken its chances to speak to millions. As a documentary, the movie intended to reach a broad audience base. By all objective measures, the movie's content should not have warranted an "R." But the MPAA obviously felt uncomfortable with Moore's message, so they took action to automatically minimize its potential impact. The MPAA projects "authority" by vindicating "American values," like obedience, patriotism and respect for social hierarchies in an unequal commercial system. Michael Moore wages war against those values in every movie he makes. It is no surprise that the MPAA--as a corporate entity--jumped at the chance to take petty revenge against Moore. Michael Moore is a corporation's worst nightmare. He is the archetypal populist gadfly. He speaks all the words corporations try to suppress. What better way to stymie the gadfly than by restricting the number of people who can hear his words?

Michael Moore is a controversial figure. People either love him or hate him. Anyone with a trace of conservative blood generally detests him with homicidal passion. Moore haters say he "distorts the truth," "gets his facts wrong," and "sensationalizes issues," all while "being rude" and "intruding on people's privacy." Many say he "just lies."

But Michael Moore never intrudes on anyone who doesn't deserve to be pilloried. He "fights the power" in the purest sense. He only castigates those who use power over those who do not. He does not ridicule the weak. He is not afraid to call powerful people on their hypocrisies, nor is he afraid to uncover the injustices that poison American life. Naturally his targets resent his efforts; the truth always hurts. Typically, his targets respond that he only tells "half the story" and "says things inaccurately." Still, Moore's impact flows from his conceptual strength. His messages are effective because they broadly contrast principle with practice. That effectiveness does not depend on rigorous accuracy. As long as the basic ideas work, so does the film.

Power does not like exposure. The MPAA is an institution of power. It is only natural that the MPAA would use its institutional authority to strike at Michael Moore. After all, Michael Moore exposes and embarrasses power in every movie he makes. But why is the MPAA so powerful? Why is it so arbitrary? It is not a governmental institution. If it were, it could never pass judgment on artistic works consistent with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Only State actors must abide by the Constitution. Private actors--like the MPAA--can ignore it all they want. In essence, then, the MPAA is nothing more than a collection of powerful private individuals who get to pass judgment on artistic works for any reason they want. And they don't even need to explain why they judge as they do. Unlike judicial officers, they don't even need to reference laws and precedents to support their conclusion. They can just say: "I gave it an 'R' because I didn't like it and I think I heard the word 'shit' in it."

So why do filmmakers submit to the MPAA's ratings? Simple: Movies must have ratings to enter mainstream distribution. Without a rating, no commercial movie theater will show a film; it will be doomed to arthouses and college campuses. This might satisfy fringe directors and hardcore artists. But most artists want as many people as possible to hear their messages. The only way to really "spread the word" is to obtain mainstream distribution. And the only way to do that is to submit to the MPAA's asinine review board. That is why every director struggles to appease the MPAA's private censors. Even then, if the MPAA board does not like the director or his message, it will find reasons to restrict his audience with a harsher rating. That is what happened to Michael Moore.

I think this is really shameful. In essence, the MPAA channels artistic expression in this country to conform with the authority-serving values of a private committee. Artists willingly pay tribute to those values because they want to reach the broadest possible audience. And in some cases, the committee will do its best to restrict a filmmaker's audience no matter what the filmmaker concedes. Again, this is what happened to Michael Moore. The committee simply does not like his messages, so it branded his movies with "R" ratings to prevent more people from seeing them. Only bias and prejudice can explain why Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 received "R" ratings. A documentary that shows mildly violent stock news footage and broadcasts one expletive should not be deemed "unsuitable" for people under age 17.

I really don't think Michael Moore cares whether the MPAA rates his movies. He is going to say what he wants to say no matter what. He knows many people will categorically oppose him simply because he is Michael Moore. Yet I find it despicable that the MPAA can dare to call a movie "restricted" when it merely collages images that we see on television news broadcasts every night. American life, I suppose, is rated "R," too. Or maybe "NC-17" would be more like it.

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

Simple. The truth hurts.