Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sept Dare Day 7 - A Little History of The Production Code and Ratings

Yes, we're still talking about the f-word and sundry other expletives. If you don't want to hear about it, cover your ears and sing "la la la la la la la..." really loud. The rest of you gather around.

Here's a little history lesson:

Before movies had the MPAA ratings we're all familiar with, there was just the Production Code. It was created around 1930 (though it wasn't fully in force until a few years later), largely by Will H. Hayes - so it's often called the Hayes code or Hayes era, or sometimes it's just called "The Code". (Movies made before that time are now called "Pre-Code" and there's some hot stuff out there.) It worked a lot like the broadcast Standards and Practices for TV: that is, it was basically a censorship board. All movies for all audiences had to adhere to the same codes. You either got approved or not. There were no gradations for children's films and grown up stuff.

When the sixties hit, the Production Code got real useless real fast. So by the end of that decade the MPAA has come up with a sliding scale for movies. Currently those ratings are G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 (otherwise known as X). This is a straight up and down scale. It doesn't try to sort out cultural differences, it just applies a rule so people know what they're going to get. And though many theaters are reluctant to show NC-17 flicks, such pictures aren't not actually forbidden. (NC-17 itself was created to differentiate legitimate film that took things to extreme from the porn industry.)

I tell you this because I think these codes and ratings have shaped our whole perception offensive language more than any other factor in film. Violence and nudity and "mature subject matter" can be hard to measure, but a word is a word, and you can put it on a list and you can count the number of occurrences. So it's really easy to strictly enforce.

In the real world, we have varying views on what's a bad word, and which words are worse than others. For instance, for many Christians "damn" is a much worse word than "fuck." The f-word is merely crude and offensive. The d-word is blasphemy. However, The Code (and ratings, and common television "standards and practices" censors) did not agree.

"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," was said in 1939, when the Code was fully in force. (And I recently watched the full uncut Gone With The Wind at our local theater, and frankly my dear, I'm surprised at a LOT of scenes that got past the censors - but I'll talk about that later when I get to subjects other than words.)

Because the code accepted it, we were more exposed to it, and because we were more exposed to it, most of us are less offended by it. And even those who object see it as a lost cause.

But with the ratings system, at least everyone has a good idea of what kind of language to expect from each rating level. We may not all agree, but we have a good idea of what we'll get. Mostly. There are a lot of attempts to refine the system. Television, video and games now have ratings systems that break down into various elements. As each industry breaks it down, though, it becomes more variable, and pretty soon I expect a lot of this to be like plain old reviews. We'll read about the product and try to judge if the reviewer has the same standards as we do.....

Now I want to get back to the "we're more exposed to it, so we're less offended by it."

This is the major deal for writers. Back in 1939, saying "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" was stunning! Yes, it passed The Code, but it was still not something a gentleman would say to a lady. Not ever. But that was the point of the story with GWTW. For all the genteel ways of the South, and all the airs put on by the characters, he was no gentleman, and she was simply no lady. She tried, but she never did succeed. And that damning statement really brought it all home.

That line in modern times just doesn't mean as much. Yes, the personal connotations of "I don't care any more" is still there. It's still powerful. It still works. And part of the reason it still works is that it is delivered in such a plain way. There is no acknowledgment that this is a really blunt statement. But there was no need to acknowledge that at the time. It was blunt, and it was an extra layer of satisfaction in it for the audience. (Here's the scene in all it's glory - though all by itself it comes off melodramatic. You've got to remember that there were three and a half hours of drama going on before this.)

Strong language is like tears or romance or anything else - hold back on it, and the effect is stronger, and it has much more meaning. Use it too freely, and you end with with the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome. We get tired of reacting to it.

However, there are a few directors who have made effective use of carpet bombing with the f-bomb. What some of these masters of exploitation cinema have learned is that sometimes you can cure the problems with "too much" by using "WAY too much." I'll talk about this one next time.

(Part 1 - Cussn' and other issues of Standards and Practices, and Part 3 - Strong Language at Full Saturation.)

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