Friday, January 20, 2006


It's a reasonable thing to say that if the MPAA hadn't been formed, Congress would have tried to enact some fairly restrictive legislation in its stead. For the most part, they leave Hollywood alone, because not enough people complain that Hollywood is trying to Corrupt Our Children. Hollywood self-regulates enough that society leaves them to it.

Not that the MPAA ratings are really of much use. By their very nature, they represent the opinions of a small number of people whose job it is to watch these movies and rate them. True, they try to rate according to the mores of the day... but there's ultimately only five categories: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. There's also a line of text that tries, in a paltry handful of words, to convey what it is that might have earned a movie the rating it got -- "Some sexual content" says the R rating stamp for Casanova. That doesn't tell me much. Is that a handful of female nipples? A single female frontal nudity shot? Is there any man-ass? No visible genitalia, but maybe lots of scenes of people discreetly screwing?

How about Hostel? It's rated R, "for brutal scenes of torture and violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use." You know, "brutal scenes of torture and violence" could apply to Schindler's List, which was rated R "for language, some sexuality and actuality violence." The violence in Schindler's List isn't as visually graphic as the violence in Hostel, but Hostel's violence is horror-movie-esque random excessive slaughter, whereas the violence in Schindler's List is based on actual atrocities committed here in the real world, motivated by racial hatred and with the intent of wiping out entire ethnic groups. I find that kind of violence a lot more objectionable than the random, cartoonish "horny backpackers get punished for their lust" violence shown in gorefests like Hostel. But does the MPAA agree? Noooo, so Schindler's List gets "actuality violence" whereas Hostel gets "brutal scenes of torture and violence," which sounds a lot worse, if you don't know that Schindler's List is about the (actual, real) Holocaust and Hostel is gross-out fiction.

And then there's the fact that Hostel and Casanova are both rated R, even though Casanova features less sexual content than Hostel, and apparently no violence, language, or drug use worth mentioning. R is a broad, broad category. (Except, as everyone "knows," any sexual or language content will get you an R long before an equivalent amount of violent content.)

Okay, I don't really put that much stock in the MPAA's ratings. I don't think most people do; to give the cynic in me equal time, I'll say that the MPAA is primarily a tool of the movie industry that lets it dodge heat from moral watchdogs. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this; the MPAA is a corporation and a tool of other corporations (the studios), none of whom have any morals or scruples, because, hey, they're corporations. Nobody expects corporations to have a conscience. The MPAA exists because society demands it of the studios, not because someone had an attack of moral conscience and thought, "We must protect the children!"

Before I turned 17, I paid close attention to the rating each movie received. For any movie that looked vaguely interesting, I always made sure to check the rating as soon as possible. Nothing was more frustrating than learning that "THIS FILM HAS NOT YET BEEN RATED." I checked the newspaper daily to find out when a rating had been assigned. Amusingly, I never once got asked for ID to see a rated R movie before I was 17, and only once after I was 17. (The Puppet Masters, in case you care, which you don't.)

Practically the day I turned 17, I suddenly found that I no longer cared about the MPAA rating, since I was now allowed to see any MPAA-rated film. (This was back when NC-17 meant "seventeen and up OK." By the time they changed it to mean "eighteen and up OK," I was already 18.) These days, I never pay attention to a film's rating unless it comes up in conversation, or there's some other cultural significance to it -- I'm well aware that Revenge of the Sith is rated PG-13, mostly because there was so much coverage of that fact. But otherwise, I don't really care, because the MPAA rating of a film gives me no useful information -- I never use the rating of a film in deciding whether I want to see it.

But now I have an eighteen-and-a-half-month-old son, who will probably soon be able to focus his attention long enough to actually sit down and watch a movie. Am I going to start paying attention to the MPAA ratings? Hell no. They're still of no use to me, because they don't tell me anything about a film. I'm of the strong conviction that there is very little a child should be forbidden from seeing, as long as there is a responsible adult around to explain it to them and answer any questions. My parents were always there to discuss movies afterward. My father made the point many times that violence should always be an absolute last resort.

Does this mean I'll let my son see any movie he wants? For the most part. There's always the chance that something will come along that I don't think he should see, but then if we raise him right, anything I don't think he should see, he probably won't want to see either, so the issue may be obviated.

There's a website called ScreenIt that "rates" movies by thoroughly listing every conceivably objectionable thing the movie contains. It's got the obvious categories like "Violence," "Sex/Nudity," and "Profanity," but also categories that are presumably of interest to the modern parent -- "Disrespectful/Bad Attitude," "Music (Scary/Tense)," "Imitative Behavior," "Tense Family Scenes," and so on. Each movie's rating page has extensive lists of every event in the movie that can fall into one of those categories. By casting a wide net, they ensure that virtually everyone will be able to tell whether or not the movie contains material they'd be okay with their kids seeing. Here's their review of Brokeback Mountain, for example. (Warning: Contains man-ass.)

Of course, there's a problem. The categories they use are intended to be so broad as to cover everything that any significant number of people might object to their kids seeing. (Or even seeing themselves -- not all adults can comfortably watch gay cowboy sex.) But they can never cover everything that anyone might find objectionable. They don't have a category for, oh, I don't know, "Kindness Toward Animals," which would no doubt offend certain fundamentalist segments of society who think that Man's dominion over the world precludes kindness or sympathy toward the lesser beasts.

Okay, that's a stretch, but the point is made: No rating system can ever completely substitute for seeing a movie yourself and deciding whether it's appropriate for your kids.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Losing the fun

The more practice I get at screenwriting, the harder it becomes for me to enjoy watching movies and TV. I find myself constantly analyzing the story structure and dialogue. I suppose this is a good thing for my craft, but it's making it harder to enjoy stuff.

I also find it harder to be pissed off by bad material, because I see it more objectively, examining its structure, rather than its aesthetic value. I'm not sure if that's an upside, exactly, but there you have it.

Actually, this happens a lot more with stuff I've seen before than with new stuff, thankfully. But it means it's harder to go back and enjoy my favorite stuff without automatically starting to tear it apart.

Random question of the day: What line of dialogue, story beat, or other element of a movie did it take you surprisingly long to figure out? For me, the most memorable was in The Princess Bride. We start off hearing about how Westley always replied to Buttercup with "As you wish," but really meant, "I love you." After she pushes him down the hill (in the guise of the Dread Pirate Roberts), he shouts it out to let her know who he really is. And then, much later, in fact the very last line in the movie, after the Grandson asks if the Grandfather could come back and read him the story again tomorrow, he says, "As you wish."

I swear, I saw the movie dozens of times before I realized that the "As you wish" = "I love you" actually applied to that last line. I understood before that he was referring to the "As you wish" bit from earlier in the movie, but not that he really meant "I love you, Grandson" when he said it. Now every time I think of that scene, I tear up. Seriously. I had to stop writing this entry a minute ago to rub my eyes. I know, I'm real manly.

Anyway. What's your answer?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A History of Violence

No, this isn't about A History of Violence.

If a person A wants to kill a specific person B, there is a very, very high probability that A will succeed. In modern America, there is a fairly low probability that they'll get away with it, but that's not the issue. If someone really, really wants you dead, you're pretty much screwed. If you know about it in advance, you can take steps to defend yourself; set a trap for them, or kill them preemptively.

The situation changes if A intends to do the deed themselves, or if they intend to get someone else to do it. In the first scenario, you only need to eliminate A in order to save yourself. In the second scenario, you need to eliminate A and whoever they hired. You may also possibly need to eliminate other people, since even though A might be the primary Architect of your doom, they might have friends who will take up their goals if they die. (I'm thinking, like, the Mafia.)

Many, many action movies are predicated on the idea that Bad Guy A wants to kill Good Guy B, and ultimately fails. On its face, these failures are highly implausible; B usually survives by having better luck than anyone in history, and also because A's minions are all terrible, terrible shots.

A is also willing to underwrite a great deal more violence than is plausible in Western society. In the real world, if A sends five black sedans full of minions out to kill B, resulting in a chase through a shopping mall and dozens of injured or killed bystanders, the most likely result is that dozens of police would show up and end up arresting the minions (assuming the minions didn't start some kind of hostage standoff in the mall). With that many minions, A would definitely get named, and there'd be a huge big ol' trial and it'd be the biggest news story around for months on end.

In the movie, the minions will either all get killed or evaded during the chase, no police show up, and A proceeds with his evil plan for another act and a half before B, of all people, personally kills him.

In the United States, the rule of law is very strong, and there is virtually no chance that any such large-scale attempt to murder someone would result in anything less than an overwhelming police response. Take a real-world scenario where one guy kills another guy. No accomplices, no grand plan, no minions. The perp is sitting at home, with no idea that the cops are coming to arrest him. How many cops? Probably a dozen, at least, for this one guy, even if they know for a fact that he's home alone, unarmed. Five sedans of minions driving through a mall, shooting helter-skelter at their target, would draw no less than a hundred cops, SWAT teams, and possibly the military.

Nonetheless, we accept the Wealthy Villain With Countless Minions (as well as massive, and massively implausible, chase scenes) as a standard trope of action movies. Why?

Friday, January 06, 2006


At its simplest, a screenplay's protagonist is also the main character and the hero, where the protagonist is the one who learns/changes the most, the main character is the one with the most screen time, and the hero is the one who we want to see "win."

Most films follow this mold, as well as most great films. What are your favorite films that do not contain any characters who serve all three of these purposes?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A black guy, a Chinese guy, and a Jew walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What is this, a joke?"

If Alex Epstein, Craig Mazin, and John August think it's an important topic, then by gum, that's one bandwagon I'll gladly dive aboard.

First off, what's the issue at hand? I suppose it's a question of how to address the ethnicity of your characters. I think August is right in that readability is an important practical issue that can be helped by picking distinct non-whitebread surnames for secondary characters. But this is only the case because most of the people reading the script will be white.

The real issue is that most screenwriters are white men. Most studio executives are white men. Most directors and Big Movie Stars are white men.

Now, wait a damn second. What do I mean, "issue?" Do I mean "problem," as in something that needs to be fixed? Or am I just talking about the current state of things, without judgment?

Why do we write screenplays? The desire to express ourselves creatively in general, the desire to be a part of filmmaking in particular, the desire for lots and lots of money. I suspect that these are all motivations for all of us in varying degrees. I love creating, and I love movies, and I also love money.

What does it matter to me whether my characters are all named Smith, Brown, and Johnson, or whether they're named Yamaguchi, Nmebe, and Ramirez? At its base, nothing, particularly. When I first conceive a character, unless a particular ethnicity or gender is immediately an important part of that character, I automatically envision them as a white man. Not consciously, but when I think about what the character is going to do now that I've created him, in my mind's eye, he's white.

Why? Probably because I'm a white man, and being a white man is what I'm most familiar with. Most of the people in the office I work in are white; my whole family is white; most of the people where I live are white. Doctors, cops, judges, thugs, villains, heroes -- with rare exceptions, in my mind they're white guys. Or white women, if the gender matters.

Their ethnicity only changes if there's a reason for it. Like John August, I usually don't even specify it. I don't do the ethnic-surname thing like he does, although that seems like a very good idea. But the main characters in my spec scripts are probably always going to be white people. Is it a great idea to "ethnicize" the secondary characters, when the main characters are all white?

So why don't I just write non-white main characters? Because I know what it means to be white; it's what I'm most familiar with. And the journeys of the main characters are the most important element of any story. It follows that it will be much easier for me to write stories about white people than it will be to write stories about non-whites.

I'm not going to get into the social-justice issue; I hear enough about social justice from my wife. ;)

I'm not dead yet

Been writing a lot, went to Disneyland yesterday with the family, yadda yadda. New entry soon.