Ratings and the Context of Violence

It was with no little horror that I heard the pastor of my parish declare within his recommendation of Unplanned that, while it had an R rating, the movie would be appropriate to take a ten year old child to.

Well.  I saw Unplanned last week and it was not exactly a fun movie to watch.  I would not take a ten year old to see it.

As R rated movies go, Unplanned is not that bad.  It could have been far more explicit and gruesome given the subject matter.  Perhaps as people claim the R rating is unwarranted, merely a way to sabotage the movie because of its message.  But there is gruesome and then there is gruesome.  The level of gore is not necessarily directly correlated to how disturbing or inappropriate for children a movie is.

I can watch a man jump head first into a wood chipper and laugh because, though it ought to be stomach turning, the context in which the act happens is so absolutely absurd (i.e. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil).  An abortion viewed on an ultrasound with the only blood being shown fulling up tubes of medical equipment is sickening.  The former is clearly not for children but neither is the latter simply because it has less blood.

What isn’t shown can be ten times worse than something that is.  The Korean movie The Man from Nowhere has some extremely violent knife fights where the main character is deliberately slashing his opponents’ wrists, but the movie is about children being kidnapped and used for black market organ harvesting.  The Man from Nowhere shows very little of what is done to the children.  It could have been far more explicit; instead it leaves it to our imaginations.  Even had the blood letting been removed, this would have been an extremely disturbing movie.

Even a movie which is incredibly mild in terms of content, like Love with a Proper Stranger (1963) wouldn’t be appropriate for a ten year old to watch necessarily.  You’d have to explain what the main characters were doing for the first half of the film, that is trying to procure an abortion, something which would be absolutely clear to any adult watching.  Without that context, the movie deflates.  There would be no tension as the characters get closer and closer to killing their child.  (And once their decision is made the tension does evaporate and the move is just increasingly stupid from then on out, but that’s a different problem…)

Unplanned could have been much worse.  But it doesn’t need to be worse to deserve its rating.  Maybe you think babies are just blobs of cells and won’t mind them writhing in agony as they’re suctioned into pieces.  In that case, maybe you’d just be put off by the squick of women bleeding profusely down their legs.  You don’t usually see that in PG-13 movies.  I understand why some people think it shouldn’t have gotten an R rating; they want it to get a wider audience.  Wider audiences are all well and good but they shouldn’t include children.

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No One’s Ever Really Gone

I wasn’t going to watch the Episode IX trailer because, well, obviously it’s going to be crap and we’ve reached the point when even a fan like Isambard isn’t going to bother to see it in theaters and he’s the only reason I saw Last Jedi but… Isambard said I had to watch the trailer just so I could watch this:

They deserve no end of mockery.

(The only thing I have to say about the actual trailer is NO NOT BILLY DEE TOO.  Oh, well, who cares?  I refuse to acknowledge the canonicalness of any Star Wars outside of the theatrical release version of the original trilogy.  No one can talk me out of this.)

Le Samouraï

Le Samouraï (1967) is deliberate in all that it does: deliberate sound, deliberate dialog, deliberate color. It’s not a film with anything special for a plot. It’s a plot that’s been done a thousand times. But here it’s not about plot, it’s about the execution and Le Samurai nails it.

Le Samurai 1967 Jef Costello Alain Delon

Jef Costello (Alain Delon) is an assassin. He is tasked with murdering a night club owner. But when Jef is picked up in a police round up, the man who hired him decides he’s too much of a risk and needs to die.

The beginning is a perfect illustration of what I talked about recently when it comes to sound: the scene opens on Jef smoking in bed with only the sound of his bird chirping and the traffic outside. He goes out and steals a car. He meets a man in a garage who changes the license plates and hesitatingly hands over a gun. He goes to his girl’s place. Not a word is said until she greets him through the door. Not a word in necessary, nor is any exaggerated acting style, for the viewer to know exactly what is happening.

This reticence towards dialog continues throughout. Not a word is wasted.

This is the first of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films to be made in color but one almost gets the impression he didn’t want it to be. The color is muted. Lots of natural tones, white, blue, gray. Jef’s room is painted in a grungy, inconsistent gray, from which he stands out oddly despite being dressed in navy blue. Most of the bright colors are incidental, like advertisements on the side of the street.

Jef is a bad guy. Here there is no repentance, no signs of remorse. He kills because he was paid to.  He kills in revenge.  The story is simple, the execution beautiful.

Sound, Sometimes

I am not going to go as far as to say that sound was a mistake. Because silent films were never really silent. If you’re watching cheap copies and free prints of Archive.org you’re either getting no sound or–worse–crappy public domain piano pieces looped again and again over action it doesn’t match. The difference between that and films where they have a new or restored score or–even better–good live accompaniment is a world apart.

Silent movies tend to get a bad rap. The acting is too exaggerated, there’s not really cinematography, and so on. Silents suffer from the fact that they were the dawn of film making. Techniques hadn’t been perfected. Technology didn’t allow for much if any camera movement. Some silents are amazing simply because of being able to see the innovation occurring. (See Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse.)

In Hollywood The Jazz Singer (1927) changed everything and movies quickly transitioned into talkies. Only oddballs like Charlie Chaplin had to have their fingers pried off the format. What this means is that the silent era never made it to mature film making. It stayed rough and experimental because sound took over and art moved on.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Japan held on to the silent format for much longer. Because, being Japan, they did it differently. Movies were accompanied by a benshi, a sort of narrator who explained the plot and spoke lines for the characters

I’ve only seen a few Japanese silents so far and the first one I ever came across was amazing. Dragnet Girl (1933) is a film by Yaugiro Ozu, whom Wikipedia claims is “widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential directors.” Whether or not that’s true, Dragnet Girl is an excellent film and showcases the difference that changing techniques and camera technology can make. It’s still a silent through and through but it also looks like a movie from the Thirties and not the Twenties, which can be a little odd when your brain is programmed to expect certain type of thing and this isn’t it. The sad thing is that one can’t really experience the film as it’s intended. Benshi might be found at film festivals occasionally but those of us watching at home will never get but a piece of what these films are supposed to be.

There’s no real reason that silents couldn’t still be made today–and have been occasionally like The Artist (2011)–except that people have been taught to hate them. I met someone not that long ago who started, rather at random, to spew his dislike of silents when discussing his enjoyment of “old” films. As people say that silent acting was exaggerated and stupid, so there are people who say the same of acting in the Fifties. Styles and technologies moved on but silents were more than just a technological necessity. They were an art form in of themselves.

Color Was a Mistake

Welcome to the Punch 2013The main thing I remember about Welcome to the Punch (2013) besides the incoherent message about guns is that it was blue. Extremely pointlessly blue all the time. This is a symptom of movies which try to be arty. They think it’s clever to give the film a one or two color palate.

Color in film has been around a long, long time. Some early films were actually hand colored but various color processes like Technicolor date back to the very early 1900s. Early technicolor films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) appreciated that they had something more to work with. The older films had a tendency to use vibrant and contrasting colors. The black and white of Kansas against the violent colors of Oz. The green of Robin Hood with the red of Sir Guy.

The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938

But then what happened? What did Hollywood do with color? Well, not much and that’s the problem. In most movies, color is just there. There’s absolutely nothing special about. It’s not used artistically at all. And when it is, we get stupid uses like Welcome to the Punch and its pointless blue filter.

Like the Hayes’ Code’s restrictions on content forcing filmmakers to be more creative, black and white’s limitations forced a very creative use of light and shadow. Not every B&W film is a masterpiece but even B films frequently had beautiful chiaroscuro lighting used to great effect. You’ll notice also the early color films held over some conventions especially in the use of shadows, something that almost never appears in film today.  The lessons learned with B&W were forgotten and laziness sets in.

Color was a mistake. Black and white is beautiful.

Richard Basehart in He Walked By Night