Last month, a relatively unknown foreign film entitled Shame was released in the U.S. Directed by British Director Steve McQueen, the film starred Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, X-Men: First Class) as Brandon and Carey Mulligan as Sissy (An Education), siblings whose interaction with one another and it's resulting impact on Brandon's sex addiction drive the film's narrative.
The film boasts a tremendously courageous performance by its lead Fassbender, one that landed him a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for Best Actor, and the film itself is a tremendous work that has garnered overwhelmingly positive response from critics and film festivals. What has become the film's claim to fame however, is not the film's lead or success, but it's rating handed down by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association or America), the organization in charge of rating films. The MPAA awarded Shame the dreaded NC-17, one above an R rating. According to the MPAA, the difference between an R and NC-17 rating is as follows.
R Rating -
"An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously."
"No one 17 and under is permitted. An NC-17 rated motion picture is one that, in the view of the Rating Board, most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under. An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children."The MPAA's rating system was vigorously explored by the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, but based on their definitions there seems to be only one real difference between what categorizes a film as R or NC-17, aberrational behavior. What exactly constitutes aberrational behavior, or more importantly why should an outside company determine what is suitable for parents to share with their children? Aside from the opinionated views the organization uses to judge film on, shouldn't the parents be the judge of what is acceptable for their child to see? Last year around the same time director Derek Cianfrance and The Weinstein Company released Blue Valentine, starring the now pop culture icon Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams who would earn an Academy Award nomination for her role as Gosling's wife Cindy. Originally slapped with an NC-17 rating, the film's controversy spawned from a short scene in which Gosling's character performs oral sex on Williams. Gosling, furious, lashed out at the MPAA, accusing them of misogyny and sexism. "There's plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it's a man receiving it from a woman -- and they're R-rated. Ours is reversed and somehow it's perceived as pornographic." Gosling said in an interview with WENN, "How is it possible that these movies that torture women in a sexual context can have an R rating but a husband and wife making love is inappropriate?" Rather than make any cuts, those behind the film would seek reconsideration regarding the NC-17 rating. Led by producer Harvey Weinstein, they appealed believing the rating might prevent the film from receiving the attention it deserved. Obviously the biggest issue for studios concerned with an NC-17 rating is their film's now limited audience potential. Not only are they relying on only adults to go out and buy tickets, but there is also the question of whether or not theaters are willing to play an NC-17 film, based on the same limited audience potential. "A lot of people think, 'What's the big deal if it's NC-17, the kids under 17 can't see it,' but that's not true, what it really means is it can't play in a major theatre chain and you can't have ads for the film on television," Gosling added, "It stigmatizes the movie in a big way. What we're really saying is not that our kids can't see this movie but nobody can see this movie unless you live in a big city and there's an arthouse theatre." In the end, the initial NC-17 rating sparked a public backlash led by an appeal from Weinstein, prompting the MPAA to change their initial decision and give Blue Valentine an R rating. In addition, the backlash generated massive amounts of buzz surrounding the project months before its release. "It's started a big discussion in America about why is sex taboo and why is violence okay," Cianfrance said in an interview with BBC, "I think the MPAA has to re-evaluate its stance on things." Ultimately, when the film was finally released, audiences flocked to theaters, making it a financial success after earning over $12,000,000 on only a $1,000,000 budget, which in terms of independent film is extremely successful. This is the debate for the studios, whether or not they should edit and further censor an already censored film. For them an R rating can mean a drastic change in the realm of millions, such was the case for films like Basic Instinct, Pulp Fiction, and even American Pie. So what exactly is the best course of action for the studios? Do you sacrifice artistic integrity for money and exposure, or do you hold your ground and see what becomes of it? While Blue Valentine was quick to shed the dubious NC-17, Fox Searchlight's Shame chose to embrace the rating, even marketing it to the press. Fox Searchlight President Steve Gilula recently told The Hollywood Reporter, "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner." In the film, Fassbender's character Brandon is constantly driven by his sexual desires, they control every action or decision he makes until the film's climax (no pun intended), when it reaches the level of torment. Except this time, the torment is occurring outside of the bedroom or bathroom stall. For Brandon the sex was nothing, it meant nothing, it wasn't even enjoyable, just a tease like a cigarette for smokers or a bottle for alcoholics. Adding fuel to the fire is the arrival of his younger sister Sissy (Mulligan). Complicating an already fragile situation her character is the only one in the entire film who can challenge Brandon, sometimes involuntarily. This obviously doesn't sit well with Brandon, but maybe that's what needed to happen. At the film's conclusion the audience isn't given a concrete answer as to how Brandon is going to come out of this, if anything it's a lot more ambiguous than at any other point in the film. What Fassbender gives us though is a character we are forced to pity. The title Shame is an appropriate one because he does some shameful things, but what becomes obvious is that he is hopeless in the matter, there is nothing he can do to prevent it. Ending where the film started, we can only hope that Brandon will burn it all down to start all over. A large part of Fassbender's effectiveness is also due in part to the stark reality in which director Steve McQueen sets up Brandon's environment. Brandon works for a faceless company, it doesn't really matter what he does because it doesn't matter to the character. His apartment is cold and sterile, but just nice enough for someone to be envious. It's a reality that McQueen hoped would enable audiences to look past the graphic and see the individual. "I didn't do this to be provocative," McQueen told The LA Times. "They say Michael is naked. Half the people in the audience have what he has, and 99% percent of the audience has seen what he has. It's the most un-shocking thing you can think of." It's what Michael has, and shows, that drew ire from the MPAA. In the opening scene, Fassbender is lying in bed listening as his alarm goes off. He gets up, revealing full frontal nudity as he walks to the bathroom. The panning shot of Brandon walking back and forth between the bedroom and bathroom is repeated numerous times. It is believed that this specifically, along with other scenes involving oral and group sex were the reason behind the NC-17 rating, although the MPAA explains its decision as "explicit sexual content." Now by comparison, P.T. Anderson's film Boogie Nights was given an R rating for "strong sex scenes with explicit dialogue, nudity, drug use, language, and violence." Despite the frontal male nudity in the film, along with the continuous sexual content, the film still managed to avoid an NC-17 rating despite having extremely similar content to that of Shame, leading many to believe that it's a result of the nudity's tone and context rather than its content. In an interview with HitFix, Carey Mulligan says, "You know, so many of the teen movies will have so much sex and so many people walking around in bikinis and bare-breasted and that all seems to be okay. And then the minute you show it and its not funny, and it's not sexy, and it's actually unattractive, then it becomes a problem, which seems so odd." It's a double standard that in a way can force filmmakers to abandon creativity or change original ideas because there is a hierarchy lurking over their shoulder. ""What we currently have is a system that's slightly flawed in the reluctance of filmmakers and distributors to use the NC-17," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. "What they'll do is cut and trim and try to cram a movie into the R rating category so that it escapes the NC-17." In a situation that's surrounded by so much negative there may be a little glimmer of hope yet. Shame did considerably well in it's first weekend at the box office, making $361,000 in only ten theaters across the country, suggesting the film's audience grew considerably after opening day from positive word of mouth. What this also suggests is that possibly America is ready to grow up, and renounce certain sexual taboo. To act authoritarian over something as creative as film seems so unnatural, so constricting. The masses have spoken, and they will continue to display gratification for films that the MPAA deems "controversial." Making an independent film is a hard enough process, one that shouldn't have to endure unnecessary obstacles as well.
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