Why Bruno’s NC-17 and Corporate Censorship Don’t Matter

There’s one major reason why none of that matters, and I promise I eventually get to it at some point during my rambling, nonsensical rant.
By  · Published on March 30th, 2009

After taking my afternoon nap and watching Journey to the Center of Time like I do every Monday, I checked around online to see what else was new in the wild world of film. I struck gold when I found an interesting entry over at /film regarding Bruno‘s NC-17 rating and the inevitability of Universal stepping in to ensure that the rating goes away. One run-on sentence later, I’ve decided that it’s an idea worth disagreeing with if for no other reason than it’s incredibly hyperbolic.

Author Brendon Connelly points out that since Bruno has earned an NC-17 rating, it is being forced by the system in place to cut the film down so that it can retry for an R. This is an unarguably bad thing as it changes the director’s vision of the film entirely. Although he’s really posting up news with the edge of his opinion, and not going full out editorial style, I think Connelly gives a voice to a common frustration amongst fans and and filmmakers alike.

However, that frustration is completely irrelevant.

This is a pretty common story between good and evil. The good is represented by the filmmakers – creative, pushing boundaries, giving audiences something new and interesting to look at. The evil is represented by the corporation or the studio – money-obsessed, greedy and un-artistic. The MPAA is also wearing the black cowboy hat – a big brother organization trying to lord its morality over us. So it’s easy for a ton of fans to get into the fight. Good should triumph over evil! Director’s shouldn’t have to compromise their vision! Rainbows should pop out of clowns’ mouths and everyone gets a puppy dog!

The point of my editorial here is not to champion the evil corporation or to praise the industry of art. The conversation caused by the collusion of art and commerce has been going on far too long and will continue past all of this, and it definitely doesn’t need my two cents in the mix. There are frustrations. It makes sense. Commerce needs art for a product. Art needs commerce for a larger audience than it could get on its own.

Still, just as I see no reason to dig deep into that confusing discussion, I don’t see any point in flagrantly smirking toward the corporations or even accusing Universal of “corporate censorship” just because they actually want people to see the film. It’s an expedient position to grumble against how unfair the world is for the artist, but it’s a marketing reality that an NC-17 rating will guarantee that your film won’t be seen or make money. At least in the United States. There’s no filmmaker that doesn’t realize that, so it would make sense that either Sacha Baron Cohen and friends either tested the waters genuinely in order to see if they could get away with the most possible (or to sneak in what they really want) or that they handed a version of the film over to the MPAA that they knew would garner an NC-17 (which also happens to be an incredible marketing tool as long as your film doesn’t actually end up with it on opening day).

In that regard, the production has succeeded. Christopher Campbell over at Spout even remarked on how all the foolish, frantic film blogs jumped all over the bait and gave Bruno a ton of free publicity. The line between reporting honest bits of news and accidentally promoting a film is for another discussion, but the point is there. No one is delusional about this not helping the film in the long run.

But what some seem confused about is whether or not Universal should be entitled to change the film or whether they should. Both answers are yes. Contrary to a small belief floating around out there, releasing it as an NC-17 is not a good idea. It’s a disastrous idea. Also contrary to that belief – Universal’s audience is not adults. A large portion are adults, but Universal is hoping lucratively for (and perhaps contra the good taste of the MPAA) to have a core of teenagers sneaking their way into this thing. It inflates their ticket-sales and, well, that’s sort of the only reason they need.

I could have sworn that I was going to make a point here somewhere, and I’ve just remembered it: the existence of the Director’s Cut DVD makes all of this irrelevant. Unless you feel like expending the energy to champion the cause of seeing the director’s cut on the large screen, you should rejoice that people everywhere will be able to see it (toddlers and grandma alike) on the small screen for a rental fee. The art won’t be lost. The commerce will win. Everyone gets a puppy.

Our very own Rob Hunter was able to check out some advanced footage of Bruno here at SxSW, and from his report, it might be reasonable that the MPAA gave what amounts to a veto stamp. There’s obviously a ton of sexual content, some of it (shockingly) still taboo for middle America. And I have no doubt that all of it, in its unrated (or, hell, NC-17) glory will appear on the DVD. Whether or not you care that Universal and the production team have to cut out or change what they thought was a finished product in order to get it in front of more eyeballs doesn’t matter. Whether or not art is being destroyed here or whether corporations have a right to defend their investments even if it means altering them is irrelevant. We exist in a marketing world where the film needs an R-rating for that sweet, sweet wide release, but the programmer at your friendly, neighborhood megaplex can’t tell you what to rent or buy down on the DVD rack – even if that means Bruno is right next to Butt Bandits 3.

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