"Raw Language Of War Will Fall On PG-13 Ears," headlined the Washington Post last Friday. The story told of how a new documentary about the Iraq war, Gunner Palace, is to be viewed without its original "R" for language, since the Motion Picture Association's Ratings Board had upgraded its earlier rating, "agreeing with the filmmakers that the raw language of real American soldiers in Baghdad was appropriate for younger audiences -- who themselves might be considering joining the armed forces." Actually, the whole concept of the ratings board, instituted by Jack Valenti back in the 1960s, was based on the idea that what was "appropriate" for their children was a matter for parents to decide. The Board was just supposed to tell them with its ratings what was in a movie, and "raw" language of a certain description automatically meant an R rating.
The question of "censorship" also arose with respect to the Iraq documentary "A Company of Soldiers" aired last week on PBS's "Frontline." The language used by soldiers who had come under attack was not, as described by one commentator I heard, "profane." Any amount of profanity -- that is disrespect for sacred or holy things -- will hardly get you an "R" rating anymore, and it can be heard routinely on television. What this observer meant to say was "indecent" or "obscene" language -- that is the formerly forbidden words for bodily functions and sexual acts about which the FCC and the ratings board both remain unaccountably fussy. But surely, these words are signifiers of authenticity? As Friday's Wall Street Journal put it, "War is never pretty, and bad language is the least of it. In the documentary, the curses underline the alarm and fear among men literally fighting for their lives." Well, yes they do, but only because they were once forbidden. Now that they have become so common everywhere except for network television and in PG-13-rated movies they have lost much of their power to "underline." As the Journal's editorialist points out, the things described by the naughty words are often to be seen even on network TV, though the words are not heard.
The larger problem here, I think, is entertainment overload. We spend so much time watching TV, including what TV itself with considerable chutzpah calls "reality TV," that war itself and men in danger of their lives just looks to us like more TV. As one of the soldiers in Gunner Palace puts it in a rap lyric: "…for y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie." The documentarians themselves contribute to the problem by operating in a too-predictable world and with a too-familiar language, so that soldiers on TV nearly always look like TV soldiers. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the directors of Gunner Palace do their darndest to color within the lines laid down by Vietnam War documentaries, so their soldiers are alienated and isolated and remote from the thoughts and concerns of those who have sent them into harm's way. And "A Company of Soldiers," though it is less politically motivated, just can't get enough of the men's emotions when one of their buddies is killed. Didn't even one of them tell the film-makers to get their cameras the bleep out there when they were trespassing on a private grief?
But of course there's no such thing as a private grief anymore in the view of TV, just as there is no more an absolute prohibition against indecent language on TV, and for the same reason. In both cases, those most sympathetic to the soldiers and their mission are likely to apologize for the breaking down of traditional barriers on the grounds that it makes us all love our boys who are doing such a fantastic job over there even more than we already do. It makes them look more "real" -- at least "real" in the televisual sense. I am alert to the hopelessness of bucking the cultural tide which would abolish -- and very nearly has abolished -- the distinction between public and private. But at least I may point out that those of us who are hold-outs against the trend for more and more titillating forms of indecency on the airwaves are fighting the same hopeless fight.