Paint Drying

Paint drying on a brick wall.

Paint Drying (2016) is a film created solely to annoy British film classifiers. This 607 minute epic shows paint drying on a wall. For ten hours and seven minutes. Nothing else. Fourteen hours of footage was shot, however the final cut depended on the funds available to cover the per minute cost of classification. The funds were raised through a Kickstarter project. The BBFC duly reviewed and classified the film as a documentary, suitable for all ages. It’s unclear if this film was intended to be a reboot or sequel to Paint Drying: The Movie (2009), a 90 minute film available from Amazon.

The idea is amusing enough, and got social media support from people opposed to classification systems, but as a protest it’s not very effective. Film classifiers, depending on the country, are either working for the government or working for the film industry. Either way, they have no say in the laws or corporate agreements that require classification systems. In addition, classifiers in countries that require all films to be classified are used to watching enormous amounts of straight-to-video horror and porn (although, at least in Ontario, classifiers fast forward through porn films). They would probably find watching ten hours of paint drying a welcome break.

More significantly, opposition to classification systems tends to ignore the public demand and support for these systems. Democracies that run film classification and censorship systems do so because elected politicians brought in and maintain laws requiring these systems. In countries such as the United States, where classification is run by the film industry, the intention is to make it unnecessary for the government to respond to the public demand. These systems receive complaints for being too restrictive, particularly from artists and academics, but they also receive complaints for not being restrictive enough.

It’s not just overprotective parents who support classification systems. Theatre owners and video retailers support them. In Canada, distributors of exempt material, such as TV shows, obtain classifications to make it easier to sell their products. Possibly the businesses that support classification are still responding to the overprotective parents, and the rationale for classifications is often based on faulty assumptions, but regardless of the source and legitimacy of the demand for classification, it does exist. Film makers need to live with it.

A key concern of this project was the cost of film classification. The BBFC cost is £121.80 ($230) to submit, plus £8.51 ($16) per minute. This is much higher than in Canada, where rates are typically $2-$4 per minute. All agencies claim to be non-profit, though some Canadian agencies have been sources of income for the government. For major studios, classification costs are negligible, but for independent films they can be prohibitive. Classification agencies, and the lawmakers who control them, need to be more aware of the heavy costs classification can impose. This is where Paint Drying, which cost £5,936 ($11,175) to classify, may be able to draw some attention. Instead of trying to annoy the classifiers, or protest classification, film makers and film viewers need to ensure the government is not placing barriers in the way of independent productions or films with limited appeal. Canadian agencies offer some exemptions from classification or classification fees, but these vary from province to province and have limitations. For example, a festival film does not require classification in Ontario, however the viewers must be over eighteen.

This is not the first time artists have attempted to stymie classifiers. In the early 1980s, a group of artists submitted the anti-pornography documentary Not a Love Story (1981) to the Ontario Board of Censors (as it was then called). The Board refused to classify the film, leading to the claim that the Board had banned an anti-porn documentary. When the matter went to court, the judge noted that the artists had no legal right to exhibit the film, and that the Board was under no obligation to perform hypothetical reviews. The myth of the ban persists. Although the artists did score an anti-classification victory with another film, most films in much of Canada are still subject to prior restraint and bans. Rightly or wrongly, there is public support for this.

Deadpool

Deadpool is a parody of Marvel films, from its mock opening credits to its frequent fourth wall breaks to its post credits non-gag. However, it remains faithful to the formula it mocks. It also continues, without irony or comment, the standard, sexist, and tiresome tropes of men fending for themselves and protecting women. You cannot rely on social authority, and women need rescuing. That’s not just the driver of the revenge plot, culminating in the usual mano a mano battle, but in the set up, where our hero is a member of a group of vigilantes. Although apparently set in contemporary society, police are invisible. Even after a major freeway crash and prolonged shootout, there’s not so much as a siren. The sexism (hooker with a heart of gold, gratuitous strip club scene), is hardly redeemed by two tough female sidekicks. One helps the hero, and one helps the villain. A minor subplot reinforces the message that women are prizes for men to fight over.

Then there is the violence. It’s frequent, and sometimes gory. The hero and villain are both largely immune to pain, allowing extended fight scenes, and the hero’s abilities allow him to sustain almost injury, including dismemberment, without lasting ill effects. Films featuring male action heroes being brutalized have uncomfortable messages about masculinity, and those are reinforced with the plot, character, and other elements here. I’m not sure whether the Wile E. Coyote level of injury, the jokes, and the fourth wall breaks lessen those messages or make us more susceptible to them. We are constantly reminded that this is just a movie, and it’s all in fun. It’s as playful and full of wisecracks as 1994’s The Mask, with more sex, swearing, and blood.

Film classifiers are not concerned about violence per se, let alone messages about masculinity. Their only concern is suitability for children, as per objective guidelines. Ontario and Manitoba settled on the high 18A rating, and this also makes Manitoba the only province where no one under 14 can view the film. Ontario threw in almost every content warning they have. The rest of Canada settled on a mid-teen classification, and consistently warned about violence, nudity, and sex. As usual, the Americans have the highest classification. Other jurisdictions I checked all set a mid-teen restriction, with no allowance for parental accompaniment. This makes Canada one of the few countries where a fourteen year old can see the film, unaccompanied in most provinces.

The additional details offered by many jurisdictions just list the elements affecting the rating, but Quebec and New Zealand integrate the rating into a synopsis, and acknowledge the humour. Alberta provides a separate synopsis and elements list, and also lists thematic elements. For Deadpool, these are:

  • Heroism versus revenge
  • Humour as a coping mechanism
  • Love and connection

As Pauline Kael said of The Road Warrior, “for all its huffing and puffing, this is a sappy, sentimental film,” and that’s perhaps an apt message about masculinity. The list of thematic elements are good points to ponder. I’d like to think that by acknowledging problematic messages in the film, we are less susceptible to them – and can enjoy, guilt free, a fantasy of power and love.

Look up ratings by agency.

How to be an Anti-Porn Activist

I recently read Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, (2013) by Whitney Strub. Strub discusses the origins and operations of the anti-pornography group Citizens for Decent Literature in the 1960s, and touches on later individuals and groups such as Robin Morgan and Women Against Pornography in the 1980s. It struck me that much of the rhetoric of these earlier groups is the same as that used by contemporary anti-pornography individuals and groups, such as Gail Dines and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. There are several common approaches:

  1. Do not define pornography. It can be anything that is vaguely sexual, from lingerie ads to risque TV comedies, from erotic videos to photos of child abuse, from artistic nude paintings to stolen topless selfies. It can also refer to prostitution, kidnapping, or any number of sex crimes.
  2. Declare a crisis. Claim pornography is more common than ever, due to the new technology of cheap paperbacks / storefront 16 mm theatres / 8 mm home movies / videotapes / phone sex lines / DVDs / the internet / mobile phones / high speed internet. Also claim it is more violent / explicit / depraved than ever before.
  3. Stress that this is a public health matter, not a moral or censorship issue. Pornography causes masturbation, homosexuality, communism, rape, aggression, passivity, premature sexual activity, delayed sexual activity, erectile dysfunction, cheating, loss of interest in sex, sex trafficking, prostitution, abortions, divorce, child abuse, suicide, nightmares, drug addition, racism, sexism, brain damage…
  4. Blame greed. Point out the massive profits of pornography producers, to make it clear that this is not about free expression or artistic desire.
  5. Fudge or fake data. Since pornography is never defined, it’s hard to verify if any claimed facts or conclusions are valid, but that does not stop them from getting made up and repeated. The massive profits reported in the 1960s originated in Citizens for Decent Literature‘s completely unsubstantiated claim that porn was a two billion dollar a year industry. More recently, in her book Pornland, Gail Dines lent her academic authority to the claim that porn is a thirteen billion dollar a year industry in the United States. Her source was a web page on an advertising website. There are no sources provided for the financial numbers, or any of the other shocking statistics on the page. The information is not just unsubstantiated, the source is biased: The company that maintains this page sells the internet filtering program Net Nanny. As another example of false data, many sources claim 300,000 children are sexually exploited in the United States, despite this figure being debunked. Claims about porn’s effects, contents, availability, viewing by children, and internet dominance have similarly been debunked.

If pornography is harmless, why are so many people devoted to stopping it? Notwithstanding the statements of some anti-pornography advocates, the primary concern is often old fashioned morality. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, known on Facebook as Pornography Harms, was founded as a Catholic group, and until recently was known as Morality in Media. Anti-porn groups typically stress that they are not opposed to sexuality, but the sexuality they support tends to be straight, married, and limited to procreative vaginal intercourse (pulling out is not only poor birth control, it’s apparently inspired by porn). Anti-porn feminists have dismissed gay porn as simply substituting men in the women’s oppressed positions, and dismissed lesbian porn as simply a show for men, effectively denying these sexualities.

There’s also money in fighting pornography. The many non-profits that fight porn, including Gail Dines’ own Stop Porn Culture, all raise funds to pay their staff and raise more funds. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation‘s Finances page is a broken link. Citizens for Decent Literature collapsed when its founder, Charles Keating, was jailed for financial fraud. Women Against Pornography, which actively opposed sex shops in New York’s Times Square, received generous financial support from developers eager to see the businesses shut down, so that the properties could be purchased at low prices. When it comes to academics, current concerns about campus sexual assault and providing safe spaces for students make being an anti-porn academic a safe route to publications and tenure.

An old tactic for fighting pornography is to distribute it. Citizens for Decent Literature did this, and Stop Porn Culture continues the tradition, with several downloadable slide shows on their website [Update April 2019 – the site no longer available]. This is hypocritical for two reasons. First, it presumes that enlightened anti-porn viewers will be immune to the claimed harms of the images. This is reminiscent of old obscenity laws which were intended to protect the easily corrupted (i.e. women, children, servants, the poor, foreigners, etc.). Second, the examples allow viewers to indulge whatever interests they may have in the material, in a ‘respectable’ manner.

Anti-pornography advocates do raise some valid issues about the consumption of porn. What is often overlooked is that the issues raised are not unique to porn. For example, many films and television shows promote sexual violence. Most obscenity laws and anti-porn advocates are only concerned with this when there is explicit sexuality, but studies have shown that the degree of sexual  explicitness has minimal impact on changes in attitudes. Studies have also shown that there is considerably more sexual violence in mainstream films than in pornography. In other words, if we are concerned about portrayals of sexual violence, we need to be looking at Hollywood, where most of it comes from. For the film review boards in Canada, extreme sexual violence is not a concern in widely seen mainstream films, but limited distribution porn films can be banned for simple coercion, even as mild as the ‘sex to pay for the pizza’ story line.

There are also valid issues about production. Defenders of pornography often note that performers participate of their own free will. Successful performers sometimes promote their work as a lifestyle choice. However, many other performers, such as the countless young people in the pro-am genre, make the choice due to economic necessity and limited employment options. Some producers encourage consumers to shop for ethical porn, which acknowledges the exploitative nature of parts of the industry. Rather than attack a symptom of dysfunctional economies, efforts to stop young people from being exploited for pornography should ensure they have other options.

Anti-pornography advocates have the advantage of a simple, strong argument: Porn is bad. People who defend pornography rely on more complex arguments. They call for considerations of  cultural and media context, acknowledge social and production concerns, quote research studies, and struggle to balance sexual expression with freedom from offense. Pornography makes many people uncomfortable for various reasons, and makes a great scapegoat for social ills. Anti-porn advocates take full advantage of this to advance their own moral or financial interests. They have been making their claims of a public health crisis for more than fifty years, with false or fudged data, but there are still people happy to donate to the cause, in the vain hope that fighting pornography will make a better world.

Ontario Film Authority

The Ontario Government has spun off the Ontario Film Review Board to a new agency, the Ontario Film Authority. This is an independent non-profit agency which will administer the Film Classification Act. In letters to distributors and retailers, it appears the only change is that fees are now payable to the agency instead of the government, and that there are taxes on some of those fees. According to a news release,

the OFA will:

  • Offer the convenience of a single point of contact for the film and theatre industry
  • Have more effective and efficient service delivery and enforcement
  • Reduce the regulatory burden on the film sector and businesses

It’s not clear how the new agency will deliver these changes, since, at least for now, nothing is changing. In addition, the Film Review Board has operated at a profit for many years, and the government is now losing that income. However, the web site has received a long overdue update. Check it out here: http://www.ontariofilmauthority.ca/

Spectre

It’s a Bond movie, and we know what to expect. As the Irish Film Classification Office notes, there is “frequent intense action violence consistent with the franchise.” Across Canada, violence is the advisory. Everyone gave it a PG classification, except Quebec. which does not have a PG equivalent. Quebec noted the film was not suitable for young children, and Manitoba also noted that, even though their PG clearly indicates films with that rating are not suitable for children under 12.

Most agencies give additional information on their web sites. Ontario is the only jurisdiction to warn about a little sexuality, and Alberta and Manitoba warn of alcohol use. British Columbia, which always counts coarse language, noted three uses. The BBFC noted the following uses of “mild bad language:” ‘bloody’, ‘bastard’, ‘shit’, ‘moron’, ‘asshole’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘hell’. Presumably not all of those words are considered coarse language in BC.

As usual, Canada’s ratings come in below the MPAA rating, however their PG-13, though higher than PG, does not have any age restrictions. Overseas, some countries have age suggestions, some have a requirement for adult accompaniment, and South Africa has an age limit, not allowing any children under 13. New Zealand’s age 16 suggestion seems high, but this classification is automatic when Australia classifies a film as M. Australia’s M means recommended for ages 15 and over. Mature can be a confusing term, since Manitoba uses it to mean viewers over 12.

The BBFC notes that the distributor made changes at the post production stage, in order to achieve the desired classification. These were presumably cuts, and the DVD release might include them as additional footage, though this could only be a few seconds of material, or different angles.

Look up ratings by agency.

Vacation 2015/1983

2015

1983

I’m not sure if the latest Vacation is a sequel, a reboot, or a remake, but whatever it is, something is missing. Rotten Tomatoes gives the original 93%, and this one a mere 25%. The new one has the same general storyline and crude humour, but in a misguided effort to refresh the story, the crude factor is turned up. The respective trailers show the difference in tone. By comparison, the original looks like a masterpiece of sophisticated comedy.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia. The ratings of the original and new version, posted below, are the same in many jurisdictions, though Quebec, the BBFC, and Australia felt a higher rating was required. However, there is also ratings creep, the well documented tendency of each classification to allow more mature content over time. In other words, the current 14A allows more crude materal than the 14A of twenty years ago. While this is not deliberate on the part of the agencies, they are required to keep up with social trends, so if we are more relaxed about crude humour than we used to be, then permitting more of it in the same age classification is reasonable. The new Vacation is cruder in absolute terms, but not much cruder in relative terms.

Whether more crude humour is a good idea is questionable. Box office returns have been fair at best, and some American critics have blamed the R-rated humour, pointing out that previous sequels were more family friendly. However,  the similarly crude (but ultimately family values promoting) “We’re the Millers” did better box office than Vacation is doing. Perhaps the problem isn’t too much crude humour, but too little of anything else entertaining.

Look up the ratings by agency.

Area Classification
1983
Classification
2015
Advisories (2015 Version)
Maritimes 14a 14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Quebec  generalq  c13 Langage vulgaire
Ontario  14a  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
Manitoba  14a  14a Crude Content, Coarse Language
Alberta  N/A  14a Coarse Language, Crude Content
British Columbia  N/A  14a Coarse & sexual language
MPAA (U.S.A.) R  R Crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.
BBFC 15  R Strong language, sex references, nudity
Australia M  15+ Strong nudity and coarse language

Mad Max: Fury Road

The first three Mad Max films are all violent, but different in tone. The third, Beyond Thunderdome, was not even originally a Mad Max film, which explains some of the differences. Mad Max: Fury Road promises to be different again, if nothing else because of time that’s passed. It’s been thirty years since Beyond Thunderdome. The film makers promised minimal use of CGI, but if you are using it to remove safety cables, you’re still taking advantage of new technologies. They also have a bigger budget for cool vehicles (and have finally corrected the questionable but cinematically impressive use of a clutched blower). Purists might argue that filming in Namibia instead of the Australian outback is a cheat, but thanks to climate change, the actual environmental degradation of the outback does not look like environmental degradation, so another location was necessary. (Read an article about the actual and imagined environmental issues of Fury Road.)

Consistent with the earlier films, Fury Road is violent. There’s not much else to cause offense – a touch of non-sexual nudity, a couple of swears – but lots of violence, as noted by classifiers everywhere. There are many deaths during the chase sequences (i.e. most of the film) but less gory violence than I was expecting, based on the advisories. A few disturbing moments were narratively justified, not simply to show off effects or for shock value.  Across Canada the rating was consistently 14A, and most other jurisdictions also set a mid-teen age limit, though in several countries that limit is regardless of adult accompaniment.

There is a controversy about the portrayals of women in this film – not because they are victims, but because they do something about being victimized. One men’s rights reviewer called for a boycott of this subversive film, while feminist reviewers have celebrated the film. The best response is this one. The argument that Max is relegated to a lesser role in favor of a female hero is silly. In both Road Warrior and Thunderdome, Max is a helper to other leaders – a pregnant teenage girl in Thunderdome. He’s the wandering stranger that comes to restore social order, but does not become part of it. There’s still a traditional romantic subplot in Fury Road, and the presence of strong female characters and gender issues adds depth. However, the biggest difference in tone compared to the earlier films is not the strong female characters or the gender issues, but the ending. There’s no place like home.