Mr. Bookworm rented a movie called Tigerland the other day, about men being trained to go off to the Vietnam War. I found it unwatchable, in large part because every other word was a filthy obscenity. There was almost no substance to the dialogue, just foul language. Thinking back, this has been part and parcel of Hollywood war movies from the past twenty years or so. According to Hollywood, anything military personnel says is wrapped in dirty words (and sex), from ig to zack.
I’d sort of buried this thought in my mind, but resurrected it when I read this NY Times story about new censorship guidelines, and whether they’ll affect a PBS documentary. Read the start of the story, and it’s clear that you, as a good American who believes in the virtues of Ken Burns’ documentaries and is opposed to censorship, should be shocked:
The PBS documentarian Ken Burns has been working for six years on “The War,” a soldier’s-eye view of World War II, and those who have seen parts of the 14-plus hours say they are replete with salty language appropriate to discussions of the horrors of war.
What viewers will see and hear when the series is broadcast in September 2007 is an open question.
A new Public Broadcasting Service policy that went into effect immediately when it was issued on May 31 requires producers whose shows are broadcast before 10 p.m. to adhere to tough editing requirements when it comes to coarse language, to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission.
Most notably, PBS’s deputy counsel, Paul Greco, wrote in a memo to stations, it is no longer enough simply to bleep out offensive words audibly when the camera shows a full view of the speaker’s mouth. From now on, the on-camera speaker’s mouth must also be obscured by a digital masking process, a solution that PBS producers have called cartoonish and clumsy.
In addition, profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety so that viewers cannot decipher the words. In the past, PBS required producers to bleep only the offensive part of the compound word.
This sounds bad, because we know from the Civil War series Burns did that he is a masterful documentarian, and it would be a shame to mess with another American masterpiece. I’m almost ready to call the FCC myself, when I read down two more paragraphs:
Mr. Burns, in an interview, said he was not worried that his work, which he called a “very experiential take on the Second World War,” would be affected by the policy, noting that while the series includes some “very graphic violence,” there are just two profanities, read off camera. [Emphasis mine.]
So this really isn’t about Ken Burns’ at all, is it? In a 14 hour documentary, two seconds might be affected. The news story’s real goal picks up steam. First, we get the obligatory Bush dig:
Mr. Burns, perhaps best known for his prize-winning series “The Civil War,” insisted that “The War” would be shown in the preferred time slot of 8 p.m. He said he was “flabbergasted” that F.C.C. policy was being applied to documentaries, particularly when President Bush himself was inadvertently heard using vulgar language, broadcast on some cable newscasts, at the recent Group of Eight summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Then we find out about the shows PBS and the NYTimes are really worried about:
Margaret Drain, the vice president for national programs at WGBH in Boston, said her station was already examining how it would probably have to edit references to sexual activities in a coming “Masterpiece Theater” production, “Casanova.”
She said that while she understands how PBS arrived at its policy for documentaries, the station might not adhere to it for series like “Frontline” and “The American Experience,” particularly when tackling war topics where strong language reflects reality.
“The decisions we make in the future, to pixelate or not, may put us in the position of negotiating with or telling PBS about our position,” she said.
Ms. Sloan of PBS said, “This is an unhappy situation for all of us and we’re very concerned about the situation,” but added that producers are required to submit F.C.C.-compliant material.
In mid-June, shortly after the PBS edict, “Frontline” scheduled a last-minute rebroadcast of an episode on the Iraqi insurgency and digitally obscured the mouth of a soldier. Ms. Drain said that the same decision might not be made today, “now that we’ve had time to absorb everything.”
Frontline, by the way, is so hostile to the Bush administration you can practically see the producers foaming at the mouth in the back rooms as they make the show.
I don’t like profanity. I don’t use it and I don’t like to hear it used around me. I especially hate it when I hear it spewing out of childrens’ mouths. Nevertheless, I recognize that, in the entertainment world, there are certain places when it is appropriate. A well-made documentary that uses profanities in context may be acceptable, where a trash TV show or movie that relies on them in lieu of dialogue is, to me, unacceptable. I do recognize, though, that certain sectors of society don’t speak like saints. Indeed, if we were to wipe all obscenities out of movies, we’d end up with every movie being filled with the stilted dialogue that makes Guys and Dolls so charming.
In any event, I want to go back to a point at the beginning of my post, which is Hollywood’s love affair with soldiers and obscenities. My question to those of you who are now, or who have ever been in the military, is this: Do military personnel really use extreme profanity in practically every single sentence they utter? And, guys, I know you’re young, hormone-filled, and female-deprived when you’re in the military, but are all your references to women really in such graphic and demeaning terms as these same Hollywood films would have us believe? It’s okay if you answer yes — I won’t respect you less because I respect what you do, and it’s none of my business how you talk to each other. I’m just curious and want to know where the truth ends and Hollywood begins.