Spitting Into the Wind

November 12, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Note: Over the next week (or so), there will be fewer than usual ReelThoughts entries. I'm in the middle of a stretch during which I'm making five speaking engagements in seven days, so my time for writing has been curtailed, and I want to concentrate on new reviews. Personal appearances (two of which represent 2+ hour presentations/discussions) are a good way to fill in some of the revenue gaps that are resulting from the downturn of website ad revenue (something that will have to be addressed in one way or another soon - although I don't mean for that to sound ominous). The average speaking engagement pays well, but it also requires a fair amount of preparation. Things should quiet down by the middle of next week and the number of ReelThoughts should be back to normal (which is ideally three per week).

Today, there are two subjects about which I want to vent. By using this column for therapy, I avoid paying outrageous amounts of money to a psychologist. (My wife is one, but she's not allowed to treat me because of ethical issues, although she's always offering helpful tips on how I can reform my character.) So here goes…

A wonderful new movie by the name of Slumdog Millionaire has just opened in limited distribution and it will undoubtedly find its way into multiplexes in the upcoming days and weeks. It is being spoken of as likely Oscar candidate. It's the kind of heartwarming movie that should find favor with audiences of all kinds, and the subtitles (which represent less than 50% of the dialogue) are handled in such a manner that even subtitle-phobes should not be put off. In short, it's wonderful movie. No profanity, no sex, no nudity, and limited violence. Just the kind of film that deserves to be seen by viewers of all ages. Except it's rated R.

MINOR SPOILERS: Three scenes, apparently, have led to this MPAA certification. The first involves the torture of a character. Electrodes are attached to his feet and he is given a jolt. It's neither graphic nor explicit, but it's clear what's happening. The second involves the intentional, involuntary blinding of a character. Again, the scene is neither graphic nor gruesome, but it is disturbing because there's never any doubt what's happening and the imagination fills in all the blanks. Finally, there's an instance when a character's face is slashed by a knife. But this happens so quickly that it doesn't register what's happening until it's over. END SPOILERS

I won't deny that there's an intensity to these scenes. However, try to convince me they're any worse than the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in which a man's heart is ripped from his chest (rating: PG) or the whole of the bloody mess that is Max Payne (rating: PG-13). Was The Dark Knight (rating: PG-13) less violent? There's something fundamentally when an organization doles out teen-friendly ratings for films based on expected box office appeal. It would be easier to justify an R for The Dark Knight than it is the one for Slumdog Millionaire, but imagine the hue and cry from the young Batman fan base if that had happened. Slumdog Millionaire isn't on the radar of most teenagers, so there will be no backlash. I love The Dark Knight and think it was given the appropriate MPAA classification. Too bad the same cannot be said in this case, which is as gross an injustice as I have seen resulting from an MPAA rating in many years. (Fox Searchlight elected not to appeal the MPAA rating because they believed the cuts needed to obtain a PG-13 would damage Danny Boyle's vision. It may also be that Boyle refused to make any cuts, although that is speculative.)

My advice to teenagers: By hook or by crook, find a way to see this movie. I will not recommend ways that the R can be circumvented, because you know they're there and what they are. Seemingly everyone plays that game. How else to explain the preponderance of young teenagers attending films like Role Models and Tropic Thunder? Support the film. Tell your friends about it. Don't let Slumdog Millionaire fall into the category of an obscure art-house feature because its MPAA classification indicates it's not appropriate for anyone under the age of 17. That's bullshit.

Moving on to the issue of piracy. One of the MPAA's big innovations to limit piracy has been to stop global platform releasing. Therefore, most major releases now show up on screens on the same day all across the world. Someone at Sony didn't get the memo. Quantum of Solace opened in the U.K. and other parts of Europe two weeks ahead of its U.S. distribution. The predictable result: copies of the film have flooded the Internet and it is being downloaded by the tens of thousands. Some of those copies are reputedly of decent quality. (I haven't downloaded any, but I know someone who essentially "reviews" the quality of various pirated movies available on-line, and he assures me that not all of the copies are theater cam captures.)

Did Sony know this would happen? One would have to be naïve to believe they didn't. So what does one logically conclude from this? They don't care. There's no conviction that the existence of all these copies will damage the U.S. box office. People will want to see this on the big screen not in a degraded form at home. Even those thousands upon thousands who download copies will still shell out $10 for a ticket. Sony would seem to understand that so-called on-line piracy is not a threat to the bottom line; it's a publicity tool. Yet the MPAA, of which Sony is a member, continues to rail against the evils of file sharing. A mixed message? You betcha. Someone needs to get the story straight. Then again, when it comes to the illegal downloading of copyrighted material (movies in particular), I don't think anyone is listening. The MPAA has become so entrenched in its outdated position that technology and cultural beliefs have steamrolled past them. The time to be proactive has passed. And, by action and not word, it appears that at least one of their members has recognized this. Now it's time for the rest to follow suit.