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"Shame," "Torture Porn" & The MPAA's System Of Rating Movies

by Tambay A. Obenson
October 26, 2011 5:32 AM
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Some further thoughts on the heels of yesterday's expected announcement that Steve McQueen's sex addiction drama Shame would be released with an NC-17 rating; a move by the MPAA that, as I argued in my review of the film, reeks of hypocrisy for a number of reasons...

Riddle me this folks... consider films like Hostel I and Hostel II (image above), their MPAA ratings (both were rated R), and the pleasure to be derived from watching these so-called "torture porn" flicks, as they've collectively come to be labeled.

Yes, I've seen both - though more because I wanted to be able to say that I'd at least watched what I would eventually critique. I found both unappealing, and was sufficiently turned off; the second installment being the more vile and disgusting of the 2.

I believe there was a part 3 that went straight to DVD.

I don't understand how the near equivalent of what I'd consider *snuff films* actually navigated their way through the ranks of the studio system, ending up on thousands of theatre screens nationwide, for audiences, young and old to, um, "enjoy."

These are 2 rather depraved, cruel and barbaric excuses for films; unconscionably misogynistic and downright sadistic, and I'm genuinely concerned for what impact each has/will have on the impressionable minds of those who have/will see them, and who lack the psychological faculties necessary to process this garbage.

Yet both were rated R? And Shame is being "punished" for its so-called "graphic" depictions of sexuality with an NC-17? Depictions that I dismissed in my review of the film as unfounded.

Having seen both Shame and the Hostel movies, it's all very perplexing to me. I'd argue that the latter films are far more disturbing (and gratuitously so) and deserving of an NC-17 than the former.

With all the talk about Shame's release limitations as an NC-17-rated drama, Hostel 2 was actually banned in come countries - in parts of Europe for example, even though they are supposedly much more liberal about these things than we are here in the USA; some calling it "extreme pornography," others saying it's "obscene," "an hour and a half of brutality," and other countries making it illegal for anyone to peddle the original cut of the film (it was released in a few territories with its most vile scenes gutted).

But it and its predecessor received R ratings here in the US.

Of course, my argument here certainly isn't breaking any new ground; the MPAA's system of rating movies has elicited similar questions since the voluntary MPAA film rating system took effect in 1968.

I'm certainly no prude, and I've been entertained by many "violent" flicks in the past, so it's not a question of me being averse to violence on screen; far from it! But some of these "torture porn" movies seem to go out of their way to be beyond perverse... for entertainment. Yet the MPAA obviously thinks a film like Shame should instead be handled with gloves.

I can only wonder what a Hostel movie is going to look like in another 15 years, compared to what a similarly branded movie looked like 15 years ago...

Now, I'm not saying that "torture porn" movies shouldn't exist. That's not the argument here. Clearly there's an audience for them. Rather, I'm questioning the MPAA's *quadruple* standards and motivations when it comes to assigning ratings to films.

Your thoughts?

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  • T | October 27, 2011 3:14 AMReply

    9 Songs = not good.

    Lie With Me = good to better.

  • Miles Ellison | October 27, 2011 2:10 AMReply

    The NC-17 rating is a weapon. If there is a film with objectionable material that the powers that be don't want people to see, they rate it NC-17, which will virtually guarantee that it won't be shown in most multiplexes and will doom it to obscurity and minimal box office.

    In some cases, there are agendas against certain directors that the NC-17 rating is used to advance, causing directors to alter their original vision by editing the film, or if they don't, ensuring that the NC-17 rating will keep all but the most fanatical film lovers from seeing it. On the other hand, it's a boon for studios that peddle "directors cuts" and the like.

  • VichusSmith | October 26, 2011 12:17 PMReply

    9 Songs starts out at a concert; it involved a couple basically having sex and hanging out together.

    I believe Intimacy was the one with pornstar Rocco Sifredi.

  • VichusSmith | October 26, 2011 12:11 PMReply

    I'm happy somewhat for the MPAA, because some people who are turned off by strong content have to sit in a room and watch it, so that I can learn exactly what to expect. R and NC17 are bad for the bottom line of the filmmakers, good for me.

    I have seen nearly every NC-17 rated film in existence. Thanks, MPAA!

  • Jug | October 26, 2011 9:05 AMReply

    @ Urban Cineaste-No, the film is INTIMACY, it came out in 2001. Which film is NINE SONGS? That movie seems to be more of a conventional love story. Ups & downs, beauties & atrocities. INTIMACY was more LAST TANGO IN PARIS, two strangers meeting for decadent sex, filled with no love at all, fighting for...wait for it...intimacy LOL

    Strangely enuff, it sounds like what is a big part of SHAME, the inability to feel true human connection through the most intimate of behaviors.

  • Urban Cineaste | October 26, 2011 8:48 AMReply

    This is something thats rather peculiar to the USA and the MPAA in particular. This august body has always had a problem with acts of consensual sexual content. However, it seems more that happy to pass deplorable acts of violence especially if done to women.

    If I'm not mistaken filmmakers as varied as Ang Lee as well as Spike Lee have fallen foul of MPAA due to sex scenes in films aimed at Adult audiences. I don't think Shame, is targeting the same audience as say an American Pie.

    In the UK its definitely the other way round films of violence regular end up either being cut. The two titles mentioned in the piece both had substantial cuts made to the theatrical releases. Something which is common, next week sees release of Human Centiped II in the country and thats been cut some 32 times in order to gain an 18s only ceritifcate.

    Maybe its time that the MPAA had an actual Filmmaker as its head or at least someone with an artist frame of mind.

    The film your talking about is director Michael Winterbottom's called Nine Songs

  • Neziah | October 26, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    Exactly, the hypocrisy of the MPAA is disgusting.

  • Darkan | October 26, 2011 7:16 AMReply

    It's all part of the scam to get people into the theaters. It's part of their way of promotion. They will find a way to get an R rating in a week or two. That way people spend money to get the "original director's cut" on dvd. *Rolling my eyes*

  • Jug | October 26, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    I was in England when they had a movie open that was supposed to be "The first mainstream English language film with unsimulated sex scenes to be passed uncut in Great Britain"-straight full monty. The actor, Mark Rylance (who is a BEASET btw), was the guy & I can't remember who the woman was, but it was basically a rip of LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

    While on my way to see it, I saw some friends from the states & decided not to go, but my classmate went. When he came back, I asked him " was it?" To which he replied "It was straight bullshit. She went down once, came back up & that was it. This whole fuss was about nothing" And there it was, the whole crux of why folks went to see it, the "Porn" factor of it all...but it's not about "nothing", it was about the "Dick" suck, and why that causes such a stir but you can see many a woman (oh, Halle Halle Halle :-/ ) get bent over & handled like old luggage.

    It's always about the Penis... (interview with her husband) (review but contrary to legend, there was no actual insertion, just fellatio...damn ain't that enuff)

  • VichusSmith | October 26, 2011 6:39 AMReply

    Sex, bad. GRR! - The MPAA

  • DAX | October 26, 2011 6:34 AMReply

    I wish you would have just said's because he's black! I don't know I hate any hypocrisy I abhor it but why would they do it? Why? I just go hmmm several times!!!

  • Sell Out | October 26, 2011 6:29 AMReply

    Great post!

    I really hope that Fox Searchlight will use it's leverage as a power distributor to pressure more mainstream theater chains into playing this.

    Can't wait to see it, but I can see anything, I live in New York! It's just a shame that the majority of American audiences will be denied a chance to catch this truly remarkable film on the big screen.

  • Curtis John | October 26, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    Having seen it as well it's totally unwarranted. As Zeus recommended, to those who haven't seen it, This Film Is Not Yet Rated does and excellent job at showing you this antiquated rating system process. There's probably some octogenarian virgin on the board acting like they've never seen a sex scene before, or masturbation. I wouldn't be surprised if it's because of one specific scene (I'd rather not spoil it and say which one) that shatters their 'midwestern' sensibilities.

    The rating will hurt Shame, though it should do fairly well nonetheless.

  • Nia | October 26, 2011 5:56 AMReply

    The distributors can try to flip this anyway they want, but the NC-17 rating is probably going to hurt this film. I think if people dont have enough backstory or haven't read the reviews they are just going to see it as another skin flick because of the rating alone. Which is unfortunate because it sounds like a thoughtful film which I'm HIGHLY interested in.
    I just keep thinking about how Spike got an X rating with She's Gotta Have It and how it went on to cult status and was a relative hit in its time. I hope that's what happens here. If it works black filmakers may be willing to up the ante and take on more daring projects. I really do wish it the best.

  • Dangerously Lurking | October 26, 2011 5:56 AMReply

    "extreme pornography"??? That exists? I thought porn WAS the extreme... lol

    “torture porn” movies seem to go out of their way to be beyond perverse… for entertainment. And the MPAA obviously thinks a film like Shame should instead be handled with gloves.

    and maybe therein lies the rub. "Hostel" and the like are..."entertainment". Depravity but FUN depravity! You know the blood isn't blood but corn syrup and food coloring. You know the guts aren't guts but pork butt and kelp-dyed tofu. You know it's 'not real'.

    but take on something that could very well be 'real'. it moves 'beyond' entertaining into 'the serious zone'; the zone that says you are to pay attention and watch and listen and quell your racing heart because you aren't about to get pulse-pounding horrific action but slow moves and groves and the undeniably 'real' face of someone's 'ree-ality'. No superstitious legend here. No ghosts of horror's past, but something real.

    Like you say, maybe the kid's don't have the "psychological faculties" to process the subtleties in movies like "Shame".

  • Vanessa | October 26, 2011 5:55 AMReply

    Damn, I'm scared by that picture alone.

    Co-sign. I'm disgusted by the Hostel and even the "Saw" "R" rated disturbing piece of garbage that studios put out without much hesitation, while films with substantial, realistic themes like 'Shame' and 'Blue Valentine' get the NC-17 treatment.

    It's a bunch of hypocritical bull$hit.

    Good post.

  • Jason Moore | October 26, 2011 5:54 AMReply

    "beyond perverse"? sounds like my kind of entertainment!

  • Jug | October 26, 2011 5:53 AMReply

    Tambay, I'm with you wholeheartedly on this. Hate torture porn like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT & HOSTEL. But I think you went too deep with it. You can't have anything dealing with or depicting erect male members on American screens-which is for the ladies & gay men-while you can denigrate the female form at any level (because it's an extension of a sexual urge) for the fellas. Period.

    Now the weird one to me was the NC-17 for BLUE VALENTINE for the cunnilingus scene (for the ladies), but a lesbian version in BLACK SWAN (for the fellas) gets R?! That confused me right there!

  • Sergio | October 26, 2011 5:45 AMReply

    Further proof that the ratings system should be overhauled or gotten rid of altogether for something that actually makes sense

  • Zeus | October 26, 2011 5:44 AMReply

    Hypocrisy abound for the MPAA.

    Check out this documentary that came out in 2006 that speaks about this. Very informative on the history of the MPAA and how it blocks creativity and risk taking in film.

    Its called "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

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