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Prose & Conversations: 'Bully' Rating Debating With Tim Grierson and Andrew O'Hehir

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by Matt Singer
March 29, 2012 1:14 PM
2 Comments
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Much ink (and at least one outdated expression) have been spilled in recent weeks over the Motion Picture Association of America's decision to give "Bully," a new documentary on the subject of teen bullying, an R rating for "some language."  The MPAA repeatedly insisted on "Bully"'s R, even over the objections of distributorsmembers of Congress, half a million petitioners, and Katy Perry.  You're letting America's pop darling down, MPAA!  I don't know how you guys sleep at night.

Kidding aside, the debate over "Bully" -- which opens as an unrated film in select theaters tomorrow -- has produced some superb writing on the subject of movie ratings.  Two of the best pieces, Andrew O'Hehir's "Why the MPAA Doesn’t Want Your Kid to See 'Bully'" and Tim Grierson's "Why The Phony Ratings Controversy Over 'Bully' Is Giving The Movie A Wedgie," were also two of the most contradictory.  Since both writers made such superb arguments for such dissimilar viewpoints, I thought it would be interesting to hear how each would respond to the other.  O'Hehir and Grierson were kind enough to indulge me, and here we are: below Grierson answers O'Hehir's column, and O'Hehir reacts to Grierson's.  For the full snake tail eating experience, leave your own comments below theirs.  

Before you move on to Grierson and O'Hehir's remarks, please read both of their original articles, which, again, can found here and here.  Then come back to hear what I've been describing as the film critic equivalent of the post-fight breakdown after a boxing match, only a whole lot more articulate.

Tim Grierson on Andrew O'Hehir's Column

Tim, I thought your argument about "Bully" being more for parents than for kids was really interesting.  Do you have kids of your own?  Andrew does, and he seemed to think kids would get something out of the film.  Does his status as a parent give his opinion more weight in this case?

Unlike Andrew, I don’t have kids of my own, but I have several nieces and nephews -- a few of them around the age of the youngest kids being tormented in “Bully.” Thankfully, none of them have had to deal with anything as severe as what’s shown in the film, but “Bully” did make me wonder what even their parents might not know about what goes on at school.

As I mentioned in my piece, I can understand that some picked-on young people could see the movie and realize that they’re not alone, which would be a valuable comfort to them. But I think Andrew’s point about “Bully” showing us “adults who feel bureaucratically paralyzed, who look the other way, who are unwilling to make judgments between perpetrators and victims, or who actively condone vicious and sadistic behavior as the Darwinian natural order of childhood” is precisely why the documentary is more ideally suited to parents. Teens watching the film may realize that they need to speak out more about the bullying they experience — whether it’s being done to others or themselves — but I think director Lee Hirsch’s larger goal is to educate grown-ups on the seriousness of this problem, particularly by showing them that the adults they think are protecting and educating their children may oftentimes be failing them. Teens might watch “Bully” and see a world they know; parents may watch “Bully” and see a world they didn’t know existed.

Andrew argues that the language in "Bully," while coarse, isn't enough to warrant an R-rating in a "sober, serious, troubling documentary."  You felt it was worthy of an R.  Is this just a matter of taste?  Should the MPAA bend its rules for "serious" documentaries like "Bully?"  And is this sort of disagreement evidence of the need for something like the MPAA to help parents sort through these issues?

I think it’s incredibly tricky to ask the MPAA to change their rules on a case-by-case basis, even if the movie, as Andrew says, is a “sober, serious, troubling documentary.” 

I absolutely agree with Andrew about the general hypocrisy of the ratings board -- especially when it comes to their tolerance for violence over sexual content and their needlessly secret deliberations. But that’s even more reason why I don’t want them making distinctions about “quality films” when they hand out their ratings. Part of my article’s point is that this is the exact problem with Harvey Weinstein’s stance: He expects his artistic movies to be given leniency with ratings because, gosh darn it, he’s working really hard to release artistic movies. But while I dislike much about the ratings board, I’d rather them continue to hand out their ratings in their predictably prudish ways than to ask them to start deciding what movies are “serious” or “important” or “meaningful” enough to be given a lower rating so that more people can see them. We don’t trust their opinion on ratings, but we’d be comfortable with them doing that sort of heavy lifting?

Andrew acknowledges that, in following their own guidelines, the MPAA was correct to give “Bully” an R. Well, that’s what the ratings board is supposed to do: look at movies impartially and hand out ratings no matter how brilliant or wretched the film is. Interestingly, ratings questions are an area where I think film critics can be hugely helpful to their readership. (I know I’ve been asked by parents if such-and-such movie will be too dark or too raunchy for their kids.) As terribly flawed as the ratings board is, I’d prefer we keep letting them doing their job so that critics can then elaborate on a film’s content to help parents make those decisions on their own.

Andrew also argues "the smatterings of profane language make a convenient stand-in for all the stuff in 'Bully' that’s genuinely obscene" and that by making it impossible for teens to see the film, the MPAA's sending a message to bullied kids that they are "too upsetting for normal kids to see." Do you think that's part of the MPAA's motives?  Are they trying to sweep this uncomfortable issue under the rug?

I disagree that the MPAA’s decision to give “Bully” an R “essentially [tells] the bullied teens in the movie and outside it — gay and lesbian kids, autistic kids, disabled kids, fat kids and nerds and Goths and plain old weird kids who don’t fit in — that their very existence is too upsetting for normal kids to see, and they should crawl back under their rocks.” Whatever you think of the film, its R rating isn’t because the people it depicts are too shocking or disturbing to receive a PG-13. It’s because of the language, pure and simple. I have a hard time buying that the ratings board has some sort of secret agenda or that they’re punishing this movie because it dares to show the sorts of so-called outcasts you normally don’t see in films. (After all, the best joke in “21 Jump Street” is that not only are these kinds of kids very visible, they’re actually the coolest, most interesting people at school.)

I don’t want to sound like an MPAA apologist at all -- their initial NC-17 rating for “Blue Valentine” still infuriates me -- but if the content of “Bully” was completely different but there were still that many curse words in it, the movie would get an R. Assigning meaning to the board’s decision after the fact doesn’t make much sense to me because, honestly, “Bully” isn’t a particularly daring or provocative movie that would potentially irk the board. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a rather conventionally made mainstream documentary. To my mind, the ratings board simply did their little swear-word count-off, determined the film had enough of ‘em to get an R, and that was that. No agenda, no conspiracy -- no thought, either, but, again, I really don’t want these people doing much of that.

Would you recommend parents take their kids to see BULLY?  If so, what's the appropriate age for a child to see BULLY?

In a perfect world, I think parents and their children should see “Bully” together. I agree with Andrew that a few F-words aren’t really going to scandalize kids -- the parents I know are constantly amazed at the words their children pick up -- so I don’t think the language will necessarily be a problem. I would guess that kids around 13 would be fine to see the film. But if you’re a parent and your child of any age expresses interest in seeing the movie, that might be a sign that you should definitely go with them to the theater -- maybe your son or daughter is trying to tell you something.

Andrew O'Hehir on Tim Grierson's Column

Andrew, Tim says "Bully" is a movie more suited to parents than kids, "and if parents are old enough for an R-rated movie—or at least able to bring their kids to the movie—what's Weinstein's problem?" He also says he can't imagine why a teenager would want to see it.  You're a parent; do you think he's right?  Are your own kids curious about the film?

It's entirely plausible that the principal audience for "Bully" will be adults. Certainly documentaries in general, and issue-docs in particular, are largely aimed at an adult metropolitan audience. But that strikes me as largely irrelevant to the question of whether kids *should* be able to see it. I will note that Tim goes on to say exactly why some teenagers might want to see it -- because if they've been bullied, the movie will help them realize that they're not alone, and that other kids like them (or not that much like them, as the case may be) are suffering in similar ways in schools all over the country. But Tim seems to underplay that, arguing that it's no big deal, and that kids at risk have already been served by the "It Gets Better" campaign or whatever. I don't think that's necessarily true, and at the risk of sounding like a cliched character in an inspiring drama, if the movie helps one kid get out of a dark, depressed, potentially suicidal place, it's more than done its job. My argument is that the teenagers who need this movie the most -- gay or disabled or autistic kids in some dysfunctional school/family situation -- are also the ones least likely to get to see it under the strictures of an R rating.

My own kids are too young for this movie by a couple of years, but they definitely have passionate feelings about the subject of bullying. We've talked about it quite a bit, which I think is a big advance on what I remember from my own childhood, when it was generally a secret kept from adults.

Tim also argues that the amount of profanity in the movie would get any other movie ("a romantic drama or a buddy comedy") an R-rating for language.  Do you agree?  And do you think there should be special dispensation for movies on "important" topics that allow them to bend the rules?

Again, there's something a little red herring-flavored about this argument. My response is pretty much: Yes, but the entire system is fatally flawed and stupid. I'm not sure Tim really wants to put himself in the position of arguing that the standards for an R rating make any sense. What he's saying, I guess, is that Harvey Weinstein and everybody else understands that a certain amount of profanity gets you an R rating (whereas nearly limitless violence does not), so why complain about it? Which is an extremely narrow and legalistic place to end up. In fact, I think my answer to the second question is yes. I do indeed see a clear difference between movies where somebody curses for comic effect, and a documentary that represents more or less authentic teenage speech. 

Tim also believes that the MPAA ratings controversy, while drawing attention to the film's release, is also distracting people from actively engaging in the film ("Ginning up a ratings controversy merely ensures that the message gets lost," he writes).  Do you think the movie is in danger of being lost, not because of the NC-17 rating, but because of the controversy around it?

This is Tim's strongest argument, by far. In fact I share some of his structural and thematic concerns about "Bully," which is confusing and clunky in spots, and gets pretty leaden in the last 20 minutes. I set all that aside to write about what I saw as the bigger issue here: The oh-so-appropriate irony of the MPAA becoming a bully-enabler, like so many of the adults we see in the film. And because this movie is a documentary, I think it's a rare case where the ratings battle and the issues shown in the film are in fact complementary. Still, he's correct that there's a danger here: The issue in this film is of concern to all kids and all parents, or should be. The film is after all just a film, and should not be the cause célèbre by itself.

Would you recommend parents take their kids to see "Bully?"  If so, what's the appropriate age for a kid to see "Bully?"

Yes, absolutely. While the ideal younger viewer would be 12 to 16, any kid older than 10 or 11 knows all the words in the movie and can probably handle its more disturbing material. For what it's worth I support a ratings system in general -- most kids younger than that aren't ready for this movie, and you'd want those under 14 or so to see it with a grownup, in most cases. The larger issue here isn't about "Bully" or bullying. It's about the lack of any sense of shared standards in this country, which has prompted the movie industry to support a ratings system whose principal purpose is to fend off the attacks of backwoods religious troglodytes who wish it was still 1955 -- and for that matter 1955 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Find more of Tim Grierson's writing at Screen International, Gawker, IFC Fix, and Backstage.  Find more of Andrew O'Hehir's work at Salon.

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2 Comments

  • Irony | March 29, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    Personally, I think the MPAA's rating criteria are RIDICULOUS! However, was this the best strategy for TWC to employ? Is it not ironic that the film is being released by the biggest BULLY in the industry...Harvey Weinstein?

  • On the Fence | March 29, 2012 2:30 PMReply

    Could Weinstein not just bleep out the appropriate number of f-words?

    This was a very interesting read. I am not sure which view I side with yet. It is an intractable issue. However, I can't help thinking the wider problem is the lack of flexibility of the MPAA, and in that sense I may lean away from Grierson. O'Hehir makes a compelling point when he says there is a "clear difference between movies where somebody curses for comic effect, and a documentary that represents more or less authentic teenage speech." Bad language is bad language; it is true. However, shouldn't the MPAA be more concerned with judging the motivation for using that language? Yet, is possible to objectively assess such motivation? And, as Grierson notes, should the MPAA be making these judgements--judgements which could be viewed as implicitly being value judgements ? Again, it is an intractable case.

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