Staying on Topic

September 05, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

NOTE: This will be the last "ReelThoughts" entry for a little while. After today, I will turn my attention to daily coverage of the Toronto Film Festival. Barring computer or travel snafus, the festival "blog" will have daily entries from September 7 through September 17. While I could just post those combinations of observations and reviews to ReelThoughts, it's easier to keept them separate for archival purposes. Regular ReelThought entries will resume the week of September 17 (probably mid-week).

I have been writing a lot recently about profanity and censorship, in large part because of the release of Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Last Friday, when I posted excerpts from my lunchtime conversation with Dick, I thought I was done with the subject, and could turn my attention elsewhere, like whether it's appropriate to make a pseudo-documentary about the fictional assassination of a sitting president (more about that during the Toronto coverage). Instead, however, two recent incidents have raised my ire.

The first relates to the Emmys. Admittedly, I didn't watch them, but apparently Helen Mirren made a comment about nearly falling "tits over ass" as she made her way to the stage. A common British colloquialism, this got by the censors and avoided being bleeped, possibly because whoever had his/her finger on the button didn't understand what Mirren said because she has a British accent, or didn't think it warranted being expunged. Now, a bunch of self-righteous people - probably the same ones up in arms about Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" - are complaining. Apparently, you not only can't show a tit on television, you can't say the word, either. Give me a break. Taken in context, I hardly think this is going to scandalize a nine-year old. To call this "obscene" is absurd.

Next week (September 10, to be precise), CBS intends to (re)broadcast a 9/11 documentary that includes profanity. Advocacy groups are complaining. Consider for a moment how stupid this is. We're talking about a program about an American horror - an act of murder and terror in which thousands of lives were lost - and some people are worried about cursing. They don't care, apparently, that we're seeing images of death and mayhem, but only that profanity is going to be aired during prime time on network television. And, considering the circumstances and the people who utter the curses, doesn't it seem foolish to censor the "forbidden" words? Doesn't context play a role? The decision to air this documentary unexpurgated makes as much sense as playing Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan without edits. Anyone mature enough to watch a documentary about the horrors of 9/11 is old enough to hear a few swear words.

For some reason, a group of people have decided to protest these two instances, lobbying the FCC to levy fines. I understand there are a lot of uptight people out there who are threatened by words, images of the human body, and "non-standard" sexual orientations. Forgetting about Biblical prohibitions like "judge not, lest ye be judged," they cite other verses that support their positions, intolerant though they may be. (Taken as a whole, the Bible is a remarkably progressive document, but too many people prefer the pick-and-choose approach. Keep in mind that slaveowners used the Bible to justify the institution of slavery.) However, in these cases at least, there seems to be a lack of consideration and balance.

The next question to ask is whether these same people who are upset about Helen Mirren's comment and the 9/11 documentary would protest the showing of The Passion of the Christ in an unedited form during prime time. Granted, there's neither profanity nor nudity in that movie, but the violence is so extreme that many argued the film should have been given an NC-17 during its theatrical release. (Should I be using an MPAA rating to make a point? Circular logic will only make you dizzy...) There's no doubt that the scenes of Jesus being scourged will upset some viewers and cause others to turn away (or turn the channel). If these protesters complain about that, at least their positions are consistent. If not, they're staring directly into the face of hypocrisy. (We'll probably know in a couple of years. There's talk about a Good Friday airing of the film in 2008.) For the record, I would support showing the movie unedited. I think a great deal of its cumulative power comes from the brutality of the scourging.

I suppose the point of all this, beside giving me an opportunity to vent, is to point out how far minority groups of "watchdogs" will go to restrict what mainstream Americans can see. A blanket ban on profanity takes us down a dangerous road. There's a difference between gratuitous bad language in a network TV program and contextually relevant profanity in a documentary or a brief slip of the tongue during an awards show. People who refuse to acknowledge those differences are betraying their ignorance or intolerance, and are not the people I want legislating morality to anyone in this country, let alone impressionable children.