the secret censors of the mpaa.

I’ve recently been obsessing over the 1997 film Event Horizon, a sci-fi/horror flick described by its director as “The Shining in space.” For those who haven’t seen it, the basic premise is that the Event Horizon, a spaceship capable of “jumping” through space simply vanished and then reappeared seven years later; thus, a salvage crew, led by Laurence Fishburne and aided by engineer Sam Neill, are sent to rescue any surviving crew members as well as the Event Horizon. The ship, however, has come back unspeakably alive. The film unfolds slowly and then blossoms into a veritable Hellraiser homage, replete with a chaotic entity, extremely fleeting sadomasochistic imagery, and notions of pain, nothingness, and hell.

I often work best to the soothing sounds of tortured screaming, so I looped this film in the background while revising final papers and conference presentations last month. After the semester ended, I idly checked YouTube for extra footage and discovered that whole sequences had been deleted. Paul Andersen removed segments that actually helped the narrative make sense and restricted the gore to frames lasting 1-2 seconds each, in addition to radically trimming the orgiastic distress call video that motivates the salvage mission.

So then I looked at the original script. The changes made from script to screen were fairly radical. Images such as a son cannibalizing his still-breathing mother and violent, cannibalistic sex were omitted or heavily, heavily modified. A sex scene between the hallucinating Dr. Weir (Neill) and his dead wife Claire, during which he overcomes his loneliness and she tears out his eyes at climax, is also omitted. These scenes did not seem overly long or gratuitous, instead contributing to the development of a character on the brink of madness. Similar scenes made the cut in 1970s and 1980s horror films. So why this film, and why these scenes?

In addition to attempting to stamp out piracy via torrent and file-sharing, the MPAA is guilty of censorship through its ratings board. The ratings system alone can make or break a film with its mostly arbitrary NC-17 rating, which problematizes marketing since TV spots won’t air advertising concerning an NC-17 film and few if any studios or distributors want to pick up an NC-17 film. The rating, however, seems to be arbitrary. A film showing fully clothed female masturbation gets the NC-17 kiss of death, while the insertion of (male) fingers into a woman’s vagina receives a PG-13.

The MPAA ratings board itself is a mysterious group of the mythical average American parent, billed as the last bastion of morality, the last barrier between our youth and total corruption. The board is supposedly comprised of parents with children between 5 and 17, but this is apparently untrue, as their kids range from elementary school age to 32 and seem to mostly be in their early twenties. Sometimes the board asks for as little as 3 seconds to be cut from a film to obtain the R rating; sometimes it requests that entire scenes be cut, such as scenes pertaining to or depicting female masturbation, “deviant” sexual innuendo or positions (that is, besides missionary or cowgirl), female orgasms that run too long, female orgasms in general, a glimpse of female pubic hair.

Rarely if ever does violence compel an NC-17. Horror films where a breast implant is stabbed out of a woman are fine, as are sexual innuendo jokes where a woman takes the brunt of offensive humor. A man masturbating into an apple pie is apparently okay, but a transgendered individual going down on the woman he loves and wiping his mouth afterwards? Think again.

One of the primary sources of the MPAA’s displeasure is female pleasure, such as when the camera lingers on the face of a woman experiencing orgasm. It’s the age-old story, after all: if women realize the pleasure they could derive from intercourse, they’ll instantly transform into bitches and whores. Additionally, in an industry dominated by men, narratives and sex are often from the standpoint of male experience. So it should come as no real shock that the rating system denies female pleasure much more than it denies male pleasure. The context of this pleasure doesn’t seem to matter either: plot-driven love, for instance, isn’t considered any more lightly than gratuitous, hardcore sex. Jack Valenti, longtime president of the MPAA, insisted that violence receives the majority of the NC-17 rating, but in actuality it is sexual content, implicit and explicit, softcore and hardcore, that are given the NC-17 ax.

This is, naturally, excepting women in peril, as rape or sexual assault makes for a good plot device and threatens nothing within the male-dominated heteronormative order. But loving sex, or loving orgasms that are life-changing to the people experiencing them, cannot serve a similar plot-device function?

The board does not have to provide notes or explanations regarding its decisions and can be as vague as “cut down on sexual content” and as specific as “words X, Y, and Z should be removed.” Sometimes the board will blame the overall content or tone of a film, leaving the director to choose between an impossible editing task and self-censorship or accepting the NC-17, going through an appeals process that will likely support the board’s decision, and being left with a product with limited marketability. Directors may refuse to accept a rating, but how many ads have you seen for a film that has not yet been rated?

Perhaps it should be noted that the lobbyists chairing the MPAA and ratings board come from Washington, pal around with media moguls, and include church representatives at their meetings.

Perhaps it should also be noted that violence, in contrast to Valenti’s claims, is acceptable in most forms. Without visible consequences, violence is easily PG. Think a shootout where no one is hit, or a bloodless, caricatured death. The inclusion of blood calls for a PG-13, while viscera may bump the film to an R. Since the primary concern of the ratings board is, ostensibly, what children are taking from these films, then why not show the consequences of violence? Why illustrate the act as detached from its victims, as easy as pressing a trigger or throwing a knife? Why suggest that violence is practically incorporeal, that it leaves no mess and causes no gut reaction?

Ultimately, the MPAA is a cultural disseminator that, like all groups in power, does not want to be disempowered. The raters operate in secret and are anonymous, thereby escaping accountability for the ratings they disperse and the censorship they demand. According to Joan Graves, the Valenti-appointed head of the Rating Administration, raters’ identities are kept secret to safeguard their judgment from undue influence. However, they freely discuss their ratings with each other and other staff personnel.

There are no such discussions or disclosures that transpire between the board and directors, however, and directors may be simply “cut off” if they don’t follow “the rules” of the process. No introductions. No disclosures. It sounds a lot like a standard gag-order. And as if that weren’t enough, the appeals process includes church representatives, indicating that the MPAA is actively basing their decisions on a very specific—and arbitrary—definition of morality.

MPAA Chairman and CEO Dan Glickman, who spearheaded the 2006 raids on The Pirate Bay, called Valenti’s ratings system “a phenomenal success.” Incidentally, Valenti compared piracy with terrorism and believed he was waging a war on terror by pushing the copyright extension act, the digital millennium act, and other, similar laws. The penalty for breaking these laws is up to 5 years in prison and fines of up to half a million dollars.

It pains me to think that that artistry can be lost through arbitrary censorship based on arbitrary morality disseminated by a handful of powerful individuals in control. If I may come full circle, a few of the lost scenes, such as an extended “Hell” sequence and a creepy, Exorcist-slash-The Shining scene involving Sam Neill, have been retained on a director’s cut DVD. But the original cut of Event Horizon has been lost.

Leave a Reply