In “How many ‘F’ words in a film is TOO many?” I critiqued Michael Medved (nineteen years after the fact) and the moralistic-checklist cultural criticism that he and his culture war ilk represent. (Whew, that’s a mouthful.) Brad Haggard responded as follows:
Randal, I think I know what you’re saying, but i still am somewhat sympathetic to Medved. I get really bothered at movies which go right to the limit of their curse word quota and then insinuate a few others to keep their desired rating. Transformers 3 is the example I have in mind. Perhaps I’m thinking more as a parent than a cultural critic.
Since I saw Brad’s response conflating a few different issues I decided to take the extreme step of responding in a blog post. As I continue you will have to as yourself: was this follow-up itself gratuitious?
It seems to me that there are at least two issues here: gratuitious content and age appropriate content. Let’s deal with them separately.
Gratuitious content is that which, by my definition anyways, is included within a film simply to shock or titillate (or both). Nothing I said should be taken as challenging the notion that film makers ought not include gratuitious content in film. Nor was I challenging the notion that including gratuitious content can be viewed in moral terms such that a director who includes that kind of content is immoral for doing so. Lars von Trier is an example of a director who frequently produces movies that are exploitive and include gratuitious content. For example, read a review of von Trier’s infamous 2009 film “Antichrist” which I have not seen but which is viewed by many critics as exploitive trash. There, do I sound like Tipper Gore yet? That’s okay, there are few things in this world that irritate me as much as an artsy-fartsy director who thinks that the more shocking and unpleasant a film is to watch the more artistic it is.
Now for age appropriate content. This is also a source of deep irritation for me. I don’t know about “Transformers 3” but from what I can see that entire movie — indeed the entire series — is completely gratuitious so it may not be the best example. I would also note the complexity of different rating systems. I don’t know how the MPAA rating system works but in Canada ratings are provincially based such that a film may get different ratings and warnings in different provinces. Consequently, a film might seem to include content which is age inappropriate due to no fault of the director but simply to the irresponsible decision of a particular ratings board.
Leaving that aside, let me note an example where the blame falls on the shoulders of the director and producer: “Happy Feet”. While this was generally a very well done film with a good environmental message and a great score, I thought the highly sexualized character of “Lovelace” was inappropriate for the film’s targeted demographic.
So I enthusiastically agree that films can have content which is gratuitious or age-inappropriate. And I also concur that this involves a moral dimension of appraisal which is, sadly, often left in the background of the reviews by professional critics (except in rare occasions like in reviews for “The Passion of the Christ” where rendering obviously moral judgments is suddenly a badge of honor).
But let’s keep in mind the core premise at the heart of Medved’s argument. As I summarized it:
(1) If it is possible for a director seeking to make an effective ganster film to do so without using ‘F’ words then he ought not use ‘F’ words.
This, it seems to me, is simply false. If you hang out with wiseguys for an afternoon you probably will hear a couple hundred “F” bombs, so if a director wants to maintain verisimilitude in a film he’ll include a couple hundred “F” bombs in the script. And the person who asks “Why can’t you make do with ten or twenty “F” words?” is simply asking the wrong question.