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February 21, 2014 9:37 AM Why I Do Not Warn Movie Viewers About Content That Could Be Upsetting

By Keith Humphreys

I take a break from film recommendations this week to address an ethical issue about film reviewing.

Beyond denoting some of my film recommendations as being for children (e.g., Treasure Island) and mentioning in other recommendations that a movie is definitely not for children (e.g., Layer Cake) I don’t provide any warning about content in movies that may be upsetting to viewers. I thought about this recently as I was writing a recommendation of a film about Southern white resistance to school integration (The Intruder, my recommendation of which will appear next month). I spent a few moments contemplating whether I should warn people that, for example, the film shows racist ugliness including violence and many people spouting the N word. I decided, keeping with my usual practice, not to do that. Here are my reasons for not including “viewer advisories” in my film recommendations, to which I welcome reactions and rebuttals.

1. Warnings about upsetting content can ruin a movie’s plot for viewers. I once saw the play - the title of which I will not share so that I don’t ruin it for you - which culminates in a murder after a long, tense build up. Unfortunately, everywhere in the theater and in the program were solemn warnings that there would be a gun shot during the play. I suppose that was intended to protect us in some way from emotional shock, but it’s true impact was to give away the ending of the play. 45 minutes before what was supposed to be the surprising conclusion, I was sitting there realizing “The gun shot hasn’t happened yet, so probably character A is going back to location B to confront character C whom we know carries a gun and then C will shoot and kill him”. That’s exactly what happened. The climactic confrontation scene itself had no tension for the audience from the moment the one character drew a gun. No one was wondering “Will he shoot him?”, rather we all knew he was going to shoot him because of the warnings plastered all over the theater.

Some magnificent movies could be ruined with viewer warnings. For example, if you’ve seen it, you will know that the impact of one terrific American film would be lessened if viewers were told up front: “This film includes a father’s impregnation of his own daughter, so don’t watch it if that is upsetting to you.” (I am not saying which film obviously, so that those who don’t know what movie I am referring to can still appreciate it).

2. It is impossible to know what is upsetting to everyone who might watch a movie I recommend. Depending on viewers’ personal histories and tastes, events in films can be traumatic to some people but not to others. The films I have recommended include some with frank portrayals of war, illness, death, divorce and poverty to name only a few of the things that some people might find traumatic. I don’t want anyone to be traumatized obviously, but I don’t see how I can guess for every or even most individuals what elements of a film might be bothersome.

3. Anyone who is upset by the content of movies does not need to watch movies. In the end adults are responsible for deciding whether they watch movies or not. If they do so, they are accepting the fact that sooner or later they will see something they find upsetting. Film reviewers don’t have the power to prevent that from happening, no matter how hard they might try to issue warnings about this or that. As for the artists themselves, I doubt filmmakers could succeed if they set the goal of creating movies that could not possibly upset anyone, anywhere. But I am sure that if they did try, it would be the death of cinematic art. If we have vibrant film industry, we will have films that are upsetting to at least some people. Anyone who can’t accept that should simply not watch movies.

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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