The Man With the Golden Arm
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
A number of high-profile films have challenged their MPAA ratings this year, most notable among them being the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams romantic drama Blue Valentine and the British biopic The King's Speech. The latter was hit with an R rating for one scene involving excessive profanity; the former was given the dreaded NC-17 for a scene involving oral sex. Both films, however, claim that context is everything, and that these scenes are not gratuitous, but rather are in service of the story. Both films are major Oscar contenders distributed by The Weinstein Company, whose head honcho, Harvey Weinstein, is hiring a team of high-powered lawyers to dispute the MPAA's decisions.
For as long as there has been some sort of governing body overlooking "standards and practices" in film, it seems, there have been filmmakers chafing at it, doing their best to push the envelope of what is considered "tasteful" in the name of making art. The double standard of violence over sex continues to be in play, and as Blue Valentine's Gosling has recently stated, there is also a strong element of sexism behind these decisions.
At last night's screening of The Man With the Golden Arm at the Loews Jersey City, I was pleased to learn about that film's battle with the production code. Director Otto Preminger had a history of pushing the boundaries with his films. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch was a guest at the screening, and after the film he talked about the making of Arm and how unique it was in that no one had ever talked about drug abuse so explicitly in film before. The MPAA wouldn't certify it, and that's how it was eventually released - and it became a success anyway. (Also, the movie was different from the book it was based on, much to the dismay of the book's author - very different ending, for one thing.)
Sometimes I question the necessity of a ratings system. The MPAA attempts to apply a uniform code of standards with their ratings, but as they've shown repeatedly, those standards appear to be arbitrary, and often, they don't consider context. Most of all, the identities of these unelected individuals are notoriously kept secret, so it's unclear how representative of the American moviegoing public they are. How many blacks are part of the MPAA? How many women? How many gays? How long do they serve? And yet, history has shown that despite the attempts to limit the audience for edgy, quality films like Arm, they usually end up getting recognized and appreciated, if not in the short term then over time.
I hardly ever pay attention to what rating a movie is anymore; I haven't for years - but then, I'm a single adult with no children. Many people find it easier to accept a rating without considering whether it's an accurate one or even if it truly reflects their personal tastes in movies. The power needs to be put back in the hands of the consumers to decide for themselves what films are good - educating oneself about a given movie is a fine start - and it needs to be exercised properly, because it's clear that the MPAA, as it is now, seems unable to evaluate movies well.
Another thing I learned, according to last night's emcee, is that Arm star Frank Sinatra, a Jersey native, used to attend the Loews, coming by trolley car from nearby Hoboken. The story goes that one night he saw a singer perform there (I forget who the emcee said it was) and he was inspired to become a singer himself as a result.
I went to see Arm with John and Sue again. I think I've gotten them hooked on the Loews. They really dig the theater. We're probably gonna skip the holiday programming next month, though.