When director Elia Kazan released his 1956 black comedy Baby Doll, the National Legion of Decency fought to have the film banned in several American cities because of its exaggerated sexual content.
For decades, scores of controversial movies--Midnight Cowboy, Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris--fought for the right to even be seen by discerning adults. Keep in mind that most of these landmark films depended solely on movie theaters as venues because home video had yet to be introduced.
Ultimately, in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America introduced its rating system, slapping G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 on films. While the MPAA said its primary purpose of these ratings were "to guide parents," it continues to keep its NC-17 category, occasionally tagging films with an even-stricter rating that results in nothing short of censorship.
Many of America's leading publications and television outlets don't allow advertising for NC-17 movies, which usually cripples the films at the box office. Consequently many of the nation's top theater chains are reluctant to screen movies that no one has heard anything about. And to make matters worse, the nation's top DVD distributors, including Redbox, refuse to stock NC-17 films.
Occasionally NC-17 movies can find a home in art houses accustomed to screening alternative entertainment. But Idaho presents another roadblock. The same law that allows The Flicks to serve beer and wine forbids the theater from screening movies that are in violation of Idaho's code on indecency and obscenity. What's indecent or obscene? According to Idaho Code 23-614, it would include "acts or simulated acts of sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, oral copulation and flagellation," and "any person being touched, caressed or fondled on the breast, buttocks, anus or genitals."
And, yes, that includes a lot of R-rated movies.
"Actually, yes, a lot of R movies would be in violation," said Lt. Robert Clements, chief of Idaho's Alcohol Beverage Control Bureau within the Idaho State Police. "Of course, it depends on what's in the movie."
And all of that leads us to Shame--undoubtedly one of the best movies of 2011--which, according to the rules, will never be shown at The Flicks. Shame is rated NC-17 for its extremely adult subject matter. Michael Fassbender, in one of the finest performances of the year, plays Brandon, whose suits cost more than most people's rent. He's a brilliant businessman and presents himself as a perfect picture of manners and political correctness, but he is also a ferocious sex addict. Brandon masks his secret with outward aplomb but retreats to a sparse apartment, devoid of any character or personality.
When his extrovert sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) insists that she stay with him for a while, he is in desperate fear of being revealed. While in her presence, he attempts to have traditional dates but can't perform literally or figuratively. He ultimately spirals into an abyss.
Fassbender and Mulligan are brilliant. But unless critical acclaim, public demand or both unlocks the doors of the nation's theaters, Shame may become 2011's best kept secret.
There is pornography and there is pornography. On any given evening, our movie screens are splattered with mindless violence and exploitation. But when there are mature moments of such intense intimacy that we are all laid bare, the cinematic power cannot and should not be denied.