Let’s talk about photo ID and its use in American culture. Observe, a handy chart.
- Pulled over by a police officer: # of times asked to produce photo ID- 1.
- Attempted to purchase alcohol: # of times asked to produce photo ID- 1.
- Attempted to open an account at a bank: # of times asked to produce photo ID- 1.
- Attempted to see Shame, the NC-17-rated film directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender: # of times asked to produce photo ID- 3.
That’s correct. According to the policies of many an American theater chain (AMC being the locale of my particular experience), it’s considered reasonable and even necessary to safeguard the nation’s youth from serious sexual content in film by setting up an ID checkpoint system that would make the Israeli Defense Force blush. It takes ID to buy the ticket to the rare NC-17 film, be granted access to the theater lobby and then be granted access to the screen itself. On top of all that, an AMC employee patrolled my theater no fewer than three times during Shame‘s svelte 95-minute run time.
The funny part about this insane amount of security is I can’t really figure out why Shame is deserving of the NC-17 rating to begin with. Despite some erroneous, sensationalist reporting suggesting that the film features genuine sex acts, the sex in Shame is hardly the most graphic simulation in the history of mainstream cinema. For being a story about an emotionally tortured sex addict, the steamy scenes in Shame are downright tasteful.
Now, stepping back, I have to admit that the MPAA’s criteria for what separates R from NC-17 are especially subjective. The only real item on the list is the assumption that the average parent would not approve of their children seeing the movie. This is rather absurd considering that the condition for individuals under the age of 17 seeing an R-rated movie is accompaniment by a parent or guardian, something that never really happens anyway (hell, I could be wrong. Maybe some intrepid 16-year-old is begging his mom to take him to see Drive at this very moment).
No, the real difference between R and NC-17 is, as McQueen’s movie’s title suggests, a larger sense of social discomfort. Consider last year’s highly publicized work of NC-17 art: Blue Valentine, a movie made not-at-all-titillating by filling its sex scenes with agonizing emotional weight. Sure, it eventually got bumped down to an R after a critic-fueled campaign to save it from a potentially box-office-killing brand, but the message is still clear. NC-17 isn’t there for sex, it’s for sex that isn’t the sensual equivalent of explosions and car chases. Shame isn’t likely to get the same re-branding, though that’s thematically appropriate. It’s a film about how sexuality is complex and fraught with emotion, though still so poorly addressed on a society-wide level that it isolates those who lose control of it. Throwing Shame into the NC-17 ghetto almost seems like an essential part of the art. It alienates the film from the general public and almost certainly from the Academy, just like Fassbender’s sex addict Brandon is alienated from his friends, family and society as a whole.
So, if you haven’t yet lived through the inconvenience and public, well, shaming of having to assert your adulthood and enduring the suspicions of a poor theater employee tasked with patrolling your movie-going experience at a local screening of Shame, I encourage you to embrace the absurdity. It’s essential viewing for the year, an honest film if ever there was one and a rare chance to feel the plight of a fictional protagonist in your own life simply by watching the movie.