My mind was reeling as I left the theater in early September after a screening of British director Steve McQueen’s newest feature, a provocative drama entitled “Shame.” On the surface, “Shame” is about a man with a sex addiction but taps into the paradoxically isolating nature of modern, high-tech society in surprising ways. Unfortunately, it’s the first part that’s been getting the most attention, and having seen the film, I can’t say that I blame people. Oscar-worthy performances by stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan aside, my initial reaction was to wonder who would be brave enough to distribute it in a climate much friendlier toward heads being blown off than a hint of below-the-belt nudity. Fortunately, Fox Searchlight Pictures stepped up to the plate, and “Shame” hits theaters today in limited release under an NC-17 rating.
Short for “No One 17 and Under Admitted,” NC-17 joined the ratings ranks in 1990 after then-president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Jack Valenti decided that a growing number of films possessed content too strong to merit a mere Restricted (R) rating. As for the lengthy moniker, “X” had already been embraced by the pornographic industry. The irony here is that despite the film industry’s attempt not to conflate NC-17 and X, the stigma remains, giving rise to phenomena like Unrated, usually given to an uncut version of a film whose filmmakers have surrendered an initial NC-17 rating, and Not Rated, when a film is not submitted to the MPAA at all and thus is likewise an evasion tactic.
There have been some 200 films rated as NC-17, although this number is slightly skewed by those that subsequently appealed to receive R status. The point is that the number is intentionally low, because for a majority of filmmakers and distributors, NC-17 is like a death sentence with limited prospects for advertising and exhibition. Speaking to the Associated Press recently, John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, reported that, according to a survey, 97 out of 100 theaters would play an NC-17 film and further stressed that the fear of the rating is unwarranted. So what makes “Shame” a potential game changer?
First of all, McQueen is a true artist who was recently awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his decades-long career in London’s art world prior to making his acclaimed feature-film debut in 2008 with “Hunger.” In the past several months, “Shame” has generated plenty of buzz on the festival circuit, beginning with a strong debut at the Venice Film Festival that earned prizes for Best Film as well as the Volpi Cup for Fassbender as Best Actor. Critics continue to laud the film heading into awards season, and so far, the team has been promoting it as though on campaign. In addition to the requisite press engagements, just days ago, Fassbender was on hand at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards along with other Oscar hopefuls sent by their respective studios. If Fassbender were to receive a nomination, it could be a big step in revitalizing the image of a rating that never should have gotten such a bad rap in the first place.
Furthermore, where others would have appealed or re-cut the film, McQueen and Fox Searchlight have embraced the picture’s NC-17 status. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter during their annual directors roundtable, McQueen stated that he found “Shame” to be “not particularly” shocking.
“We all have sex, we all see what Michael and Carey have, as far as being naked,” he elaborated. “What’s unfamiliar, at least to me, is someone with a gun shooting someone in the head. I think we made a film that was responsible. I don’t care–NC-17? Brilliant! Fantastic! Bring it on! I take full responsibility for it. I think most violent films are not responsible…Films should reflect real life. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
In an interview with New York Magazine, Fassbender similarly defended his character’s nudity, saying that, “Yeah, and some of us have [penises] and most of the rest have seen them, so what’s the big deal?” Going a step further to address the sexism intrinsic to the ratings system, he also complained that, “Women can parade around naked all the time, but the guy conveniently has his pants on.”
Just last year, Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” backed by the venerable Weinstein Company, appealed to get its NC-17 rating reduced to an R. The content in question? A scene in which a man goes down on his wife. The filmmakers were successful, but just think about how many unquestionably R-rated movies you’ve seen in which a man receives a blowjob.
It also deserves to be noted that the sexual acts depicted in both “Shame” and “Blue Valentine” are decidedly un-erotic. Yes, the scenes are graphic and reveal more skin, but unlike their campy R-rated counterparts, these portrayals are disturbing and uncomfortable to watch–perhaps because they appear to be so eerily realistic rather than merely performances. Still, for those who still equate NC-17 with X, the rating makes the material seem more titillating, and, in this instance, undeservedly so.
Of course, change won’t come all at once, but at the very least, “Shame” promises to expand the ratings discussion. If it can play well to audiences outside the industry and help legitimize the NC-17 rating, the effects could be far-reaching. Many have commented upon the “ratings creep,” a trend in which the amount of harsh content (language, nudity, violence, etc.) in each ratings category increases over time, but in truth, these broad ranges, particularly in the R domain, result from hasty re-cuts in avoidance of what might actually be the more appropriate rating. Not just the portrayal of “taboo” subjects, but the very artistic integrity of the medium itself is at stake.
“I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter,” Searchlight President Steve Gilula declared to The Hollywood Reporter just last month. Speaking highly of McQueen’s work, he added that, “It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original.”
Here’s to hoping that “Shame” carries that badge all the way to the Academy Awards in February and perhaps, along the way, encourages other filmmakers not to compromise their vision.