Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Movie Career

by Jean Roberta

As a writer and an English instructor, I love books. I've always loved movies too, especially those that are based on novels. Something is always changed in the transition from words alone to a visual production involving actors, costumes, settings, dialogue, music and cinematography. The movie is never the same as the novel, but sometimes it is just as good in a parallel way.

When I was offered a position on the Saskatchewan (Canada) Film Classification Board in the early 1990s, I was delighted. My role was to watch new movies in a basement viewing room with two or three other board members, take notes and vote on a classification (General, Parental Guidance, Parental Accompaniment, or Restricted, with various possible warnings). I was told to notice exactly when the following elements appeared in particular movies: violence, nudity, sex or "coarse language." This meant I had to pay more attention to each frame than I ever had as a popcorn-munching member of a general audience.

I was also privileged to watch vintage movies, including some from the era of silent film, to re-rate them according to current "community standards." I learned that Hollywood war movies of the 1940s and '50s showed war as a bloodless exercise, while routine thrillers of the 1980s and '90s were often splatterfests. I learned that several of my fellow board-members considered images of shooting deaths on film more acceptable (less "violent") than images of beating, stabbing, drowning or burning, whether or not these events were shown as resulting in death. People who contacted us to express their views were usually more concerned about the effects of images of sex or sexually-suggestive nudity on underage viewers than about images of violence in any form or context.

One of my fellow-board members claimed over and over that our job should be to promote "media literacy," which sounded like the kind of literary analysis I encouraged my students to do, but nuanced interpretations of film seemed beyond the limits of our role as enforcers of the literal rules about content.

I noticed that most people seem to be more affected by images on a screen than by words on a page. Historical movies based on old novels about sexual relationships that were socially unacceptable at the time are often treated like brand-new imaginary scandals. When The Scarlet Letter (starring Demi Moore as an adulterous wife in Massachusetts colony, circa 1640) came to the film board to be screened, several of my fellow board-members insisted that the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (circa 1840) was never that lurid when they read it in school.

My stint at the film board came to a climax (so to speak) in 1994, when we had to rate Exit to Eden, a cops-and-robbers comedy awkwardly superimposed on the plot of an erotic novel of the same name by Anne Rice, set in a BDSM (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism) resort named Eden. While the novel includes thought-provoking riffs on BDSM as self-exploration and a route to intimacy, the movie features "SM lite," as one of the actors described it at the time (whips that don't hurt, velcro bondage that can be escaped by the flick of a wrist).

A majority of my fellow board-members (including the chairperson) voted to ban the movie from Saskatchewan. The Film Classification Act which was our legal guidebook included a reference to "degrading scenes," and my colleagues knew degradation when they saw it.(They knew how easy it was to send or bring films across borders undetected, but they were determined to uphold "community standards" on principle.) The resulting media circus caused the Appeal Film Board (which rarely met) to be brought in to reconsider the "Not Approved" rating. They overturned it, and filmgoers flocked to see what the fuss was about. (Note that the Wikipedia article is wrong about the legal protocol.) (film)

Two years later, the film board was quietly disbanded; films shown in this Canadian province are now rated elsewhere. I still love movies, but I have no desire to make them instead of writing stories or teaching the work of other writers. Powerful scenes seem more likely to remain below the radar of law enforcement when they exist only in the form of words, to be played in the private cinema of each reader's imagination.


  1. Hello, Jean,

    You continue to amaze me with your broad and unconventional life experiences. What a great post!

    I only hope that your comments about writing "remaining below the radar" are correct.

    Thanks for joining us at the Grip!


  2. I remember wondering WTF the casting director was thinking when the leads were announced for this movie. *sigh* It had the potential to be quite a film. Alas, the only true H-O-T-N-E-S-S that made it onto the screen was when Dana Delany lifted her skirt/robe and sat bare onto the slave's back.

    Great post! Thanks, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  3. Thanks, Lisabet and Alessia,
    and happy New Year to everyone here!

    I'm sure the process of making the movie of Exit to Eden would be a fascinating tale in itself, especially since the movie (IMO) has a completely different tone from the intensely erotic and philosophical novel by Anne Rice (who majored in philosophy in university). My guess is that no Hollywood studio would have touched that novel if its author hadn't become famous for her other work, starting with Interview with the Vampire. Mainstream culture (at least in the US & Canada)was & is very ambivalent about sex! Lisabet, I should have remembered that writers aren't always below the radar of the law. :(
    I don't intend to post a sermon, so I'll stop here. :)
    - Jean (who can't seem to post here except as Anonymous)

  4. I wonder what they would make of her novel Belinda?
    It's sad that vanilla people see the implements of BDSM and automatically think it's explicit. They never seem to take into account the story around the whip, the emotional connection, or anything that would matter in any other sexual situation. Leather? *caution* Whip? *screeching red light* And yet, it's entirely acceptable to show degradation without those signifiers. *sigh*

  5. Jean!

    Thank you for being my guest here. Its a pleasure.

    I've been reading M Christian's How to book on writing erotica, and he's pretty serious about the consequences of taking erotic writing on. But it seems to me times are changing quickly from the days when you could go to prison if customs found a copy of "Tropic of Cancer" in your suitcase. Now you can read that book for free on Google books. These days popular culture is so drenched in sex, most of it not all that deep, that I'm beginning to think we will soon lose our notoriety. Maybe that's good. I think in its time, there was no way anyone could do a good treatment of "Exit to Eden" except to play it for laughs. I think that's changed a lot. I recently saw "Lolita" with Jeremy Edwards as Humbert-Humbert, and there is a moderately explicit sex scene in it, with the underage girl, Lolita, more explicit that Nabokov dared go. I don;t know what it means, but things are changing very quickly. For the better I think.


  6. I hope so!

    - Jean Roberta

  7. Hi Jean,

    I was fascinated to have an insider's view on this process. Thank you for sharing


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