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.)
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.