In a previous installment of the Free Film School here on CraveOnline, I discussed the history and some of the controversy surrounding the dubious rating system applied to movies by the Motion Picture Association of America. I discussed how the MPAA rating system, according to its many detractors, is a form of institutionalized censorship, forcing filmmakers to cut “controversial” material from their films in order to make them “safer” and, more importantly, more marketable to a larger (read: teenage) audience. The system is so insidious, many argue, that filmmakers are intentionally self-censoring before they even have a chance to submit their films to the ratings board. Filmmakers are growing up in a culture that demands they make PG-13-rated films for large audiences of teenage boys, rather than allowing themselves to make sophisticated R- and NC-17-rated films for intelligent adults. Sinister four-quadrant marketing practices and a general culture of PG-13 adoration certainly contribute as well.
But the notion of a filmmaker or studio censoring their own work is not new. So it should, perhaps, not come as too much of a shock that a crucial scene from Ruben Fleischer’s upcoming film Gangster Squad has been altered following the recent shooting in Aurora, CO. The film, in case you haven’t heard the story yet, featured a prominent gunfight inside a movie theater. Following the real-life shootings, the studio has elected to delete that scene from the film, and re-film the sequence in a different location. “Too soon,” they feel. Gangster Squad was slated to be released during awards season, but the last-minute reshoot of the violent scene in question pushed the film’s release back to next year. Many have complained that this push-back will harm the film’s chances at high-profile awards, as films released in January almost never receive Academy Award nominations.
I understand why this is being done.
As critics and observers of film, we often like to grant each individual film their own sort of Olympian bubble, where they exist as pure and untouched pieces of art, only to be judged by their own merits, their own story, their own impact. This can be a healthy practice when writing about movie; one should try to – on at least one level – try to approach every film with a tabula rasa, laying aside all expectations, allowing the film itself and only the film itself to do the speaking. You can’t judge a film based on how excited you were about it beforehand, nor how much you were dreading it. Every film should be approached with an attitude of cautious optimism. It may be healthy to accept that the one film you’re really looking forward to might be bad, and, likewise, that the horrible film you don’t want to see might be good. I know many prefer to work themselves into a frenzy of excitement, or, conversely, join a wolf pack to gang up on a bad film. But “many” are not film critics or writers.
Films, however, do not exist in a vacuum. As much as we want them to have their own voice, and no matter how much we like to set them apart as individual pieces of art that are only the result of a single auteur’s voice, we have to acknowledge the climate into which they are released. Ask Zack Snyder about his 2006 hit film 300, and he’ll tell you about how much he wanted to remain faithful to Frank Miller’s original comic books, and how he was trying to create a raucous and violent entertainment. The film is, by the way, a stylized reimagining of the Battle of Thermopylae which took place in 480 BC, and has such a unique aesthetic that it changed the way other filmmakers photographed their sword-and-sandal epics (a subgenre that will doubtless warrant its own Free Film School someday). And while many audiences responded to the film’s violence and style, it’s worth considering the political context in which it hit the world. 2006 was during the Bush Jr. administration, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing. And while 300 featured Spartan soldiers enthusiastically killing off the Persian empire, some critics couldn’t look past the fact that white guys who celebrated fascism were gleefully murdering off brown-skinned “Arabs” who they deemed to be savage and wimpy. Even the Persian ruler was depicted as a makeup-wearing gay stereotype. And while Zack Snyder was likely not making any sort of political statement about Iraq, Arabs, homosexuals, or fascism, the day’s political climate dictated that some people see these things.
So, yes, filmmakers have a right to make whatever films they like, and release them however they like, but they should perhaps be savvy to what’s going on in the world around them. In a case such as Gangster Squad, the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted how real-life events could have skewed the public’s view of their movie. True, they are self-censoring, but it seems the sensitive thing to do. Why not wait until the sting has worn off, and release it in its original form? Well, studios put a lot of money into their product, and want payback as soon as they can have it. I get it. It’s a pity that we won’t get to see the original scene until later, but I get it. Thanks to the impermanence of theatrical film cuts (which I discussed in a previous Free Film School), I can say with confidence that the home video versions of Gangster Squad will eventually feature the missing footage reinstated. Audiences will, however, not be able to see it the first time around.
This is not the first time a studio has done something like this. As William Bibbiani pointed out in his coverage of the Gangster Squad story, the release of the 2003 film Phone Booth was delayed following some real-life shootings in Washington DC. The one I remember with much clarity was the 2001 film Big Trouble, a funny and underrated ensemble comedy which featured, as one of its many plot points, a pair of bumbling criminals unwittingly carrying a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb onto a plane. This sort of thing was played for laughs up until 2001. Following the World Trade Center incident, however, many people didn’t find bombs on airplanes to be all that funny anymore. Big Trouble was delayed for nearly a year because of the bad timing. When it was released, it was quickly brushed aside as naïve, and belonging to a former era when casual terrorism was funny. (Remember in The Living Daylights, when the heroic Afghanis appeared at an opera house carrying bazookas and grenades, griping good-naturedly about how they “had some trouble at the airport?” Yeah, not so funny these days.) Big Trouble suffered through no fault of its own. It had the bad luck to appear in a larger context.
The important question here is one of political correctness, a phrase which, I think, makes most people bristle a little bit. Films and other forms of media and art, if given enough time, become historical in themselves. As such, any film over a certain age can be looked at with a small amount of objectivity. We look at many American WWII films, made in the 1940s, and we can forgive their jingoism as being the result of a past era. Sometimes we can dismiss 1980s Cold War paranoia as quaint. We can look at Big Trouble today, 13 years later, and see it as a mere goofy comedy, and perhaps forgive its now-reckless and insensitive plot device (indeed, I recommend the film). But in the current day, in the wake of a recent tragedy, how are we to judge? What’s the statute of limitations on something that just happened? How long are we to wait before a film can free itself of its contextual bonds? Never? A year? Doesn’t it depend on how the public feels? The current political climate?
Some would argue that the film should not be altered at all, ever, as it stands as a form of censorship, all to the name of an undue cultural sensitivity. Others may feel that the film should be scrapped altogether, as the tragedy will always be too close to home. Me? I would think the best solution would be for the studio to wait a good year or even two years before releasing the film, so the audience has a chance to see it in its original form, without the sting of the real life event hovering over the film. Allow the film to be released in as pure an environment as possible. I know, however, that most studios are so eager to regain their capital, that they won’t allow such a long delay.
While I do critique films as autonomous entities, and try as I might to have the tabula rasa going into every film I see, the lesson one needs to take from this week’s Free Film School lesson is this, and I repeat: Films do not exist in a political, cultural, or historical vacuum. Every film that is released says something (perhaps vital) about the culture that created it, whether the filmmakers intended it or not. It’s fair and objective to judge a film by its own merits, but it’s also a very important critical practice to judge where that film falls in the current cultural zeitgeist. A filmmaker may not intend to be making a racial statement when he makes 300, but he did. Filmmaker David Lynch has, on multiple occasions, argued that his movies should not be considered “surrealist,” but that doesn’t change the argument that they could be.
Auteur theory dictates that the director has the final artistic say in every film, and that they are the deciding artistic voice behind everything. This week’s lesson stands in stark contrast to that. A director may have a strong voice and an amazing talent, but it will often be the critics’ and audience’s reaction that will dictate how the film is seen. And the critics and the audiences will often respond to a film based on the world around them. Is self-censorship too sensitive? Perhaps. But often it’s okay to be sensitive.
Besides, once enough time has passed, a film can always be re-visited, re-evaluated, and even re-discovered by a new audience. Bad timing can be outlived. Eventually a film will pass into a larger canon. Sometimes the historical event that caused the controversy will be forgotten. Patience is, as they say, a virtue.
Homework for the Week:
Watch Big Trouble. Did it make you think of 9/11? Watch some of the James Bond movies made before 1990. How do they make you think of Cold War politics? What is, in your opinion, the statute of limitations on the release of films with culturally sensitive events in them? Should films ever be self-censored? Why or why not? What sort of content is not okay to show today, but would be later? What kind of films can we make today that we couldn’t make ten years ago (in terms of content, and not filmmaking technology)?