Freedom of Profanity and Gore? Is That the Best We Can Do?

Written by Steve Pauwels on July 18, 2014

It’s estimated a total of 50,000 colonists perished or were wounded during America’s Revolutionary War. Lives, fortunes and sacred honor upended — all in the pay of a liberty cause which eventuated in a formal compact of divinely-bestowed rights. Principle among them was “freedom of speech”, long cherished ever since. It’s a blessing purchased at great sacrifice and indulged colorfully, if sometimes dubiously, in our churning entertainment world — recently, for example, by Sylvester Stallone and a celebrity-studded spectacle in one of our major cities. 

I often feel sad when I think about Stallone. There’s no denying he’s a copiously talented guy — not only a filmmaker, but writer and painter, as well. The New York City native can claim credit for some of the most financially successful, landmark movies of the modern era (e.g., the “Rocky” and “Rambo” series.); and pursuant to that, some of the most immediately identifiable characters of popular culture. “Sly” has demonstrated when he takes a stab at ambitious cinema, he can attain it (the first, second and final “Rocky” flicks come to mind, along with 1982’s First Blood and ’97’s Copland.)

Interviewed, he comes across as a nice chap, reflective, intermittently waxing philosophical over big, story-telling aspirations. I’m told he’s a professing, church-going Christian. Indicators all of an individual who rigorously reveres Constitutionally ratified freedom of expression. 

So, what’s creative-spirit Stallone doing lately with all that liberty, aesthetic ability and big-screen vision?’s Michael Kennedy informs, “In an unsurprising, yet what for many will still be a disappointing turn of events, the MPAA has officially bestowed a PG-13 rating on the Sylvester Stallone produced action threequel, The Expendables 3.” 

As can be inferred from that announcement, the decision is expected to ruffle some movie-going feathers. 

Stallone explains, “[I]t’s very close to an R, believe me, it;’s right there. But I think we owe it to the next generation.”

Kennedy specifies: the thriller’s PG-13 status means “the level of graphic violence and dropped f-bombs” one might expect in a ” ‘hard R’ blood-fest” will be lacking. 

So, I’ve gotta ask Expendables 3‘s sixty-eight-year-old main man: Kudos to you, Sly, for toning things down a bit, but why the defensively apologetic tone? Is look-at-me bloodletting and credits-to-credits profanity so filmically indispensable you need to squirm just for taking a partial pass on them?

This particular pop culture ripple reminds me of similar grumping which stirred when Bruce Willis’ Live Free or Die Hard (number four in that franchise) had the temerity to snip the unvarnished f-word out of hero John McClain’s signature insult (“Yipee-kay-yay mother-@#!$%^&”). Then again, obscenity-cherishing hosannas followed when the full imprecation was crassly plugged back into number five’s Good Day to Die Hard

Honestly, my gut reaction to the cinephiles pounding the table for more silver-screen viscera and vulgarity is rather blunt: Grow up. Please

Which brings us to the fictional Rocky’s hometown – Philadelphia — site of another recent sleaze-heaping happening. CBSPhilly reports: at July 4th’s ” ‘Welcome America’ concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway … nearly all the musicians filled their performances with expletives.” 

Before a crowd of thousands — including lots of kids — performers like hip-hop band The Roots, Nicki Minaj (“in buxom getup” says phillymag‘s Victor Fiorillo), British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (whose new tune apparently prominently features Die Hard‘s favorite crudity) and comedian-host Marlon Wayans reportedly peppered the evening’s supposedly family-friendly festivities with gutter language. So overwhelming did the coarseness become that the gathering’s broadcaster, WPVI, repeatedly abandoned attempts at bleeping individual words and unsubtley cut away from the concert altogether. 

Note: some observers insist the TV stations’ bowdlerizing efforts were unnecessary — that the offending parties actually self-censored, not exactly enunciating the bad words.

Who knows for sure?  In any case, the original, unsanitized songs, despite their florid feculence, have become musical staples of our age – and now fodder for an annual, patriotic celebration. A degraded national culture? The putrefaction of America’s common standards? This stuff is inescapable testimony to it.

Ours is a day of cheap laughs, cheap thrills, cheap titillations. Cheaply applied liberties.

Sure, there exist imaginative ways to genuinely, but still tastefully, entertain: the great Crooners managed it for decades; as did funny men like Sid Caeser, Jonathan Winters, Red Skelton and, more contemporarily, Jerry Seinfeld (in his stand-up routine, at least) and  Brian Regan. Furthermore, believe it or not, there was a stretch when memorable and lucrative movies proliferated minus the  wallowing-indulgently-in- the-dregs requirement. 

Yet, in today’s jaded environment? Accomplishments of that commendable tenor won’t come easily. A purposeful determination to plumb harder earned creative depths will be required. Along the way, artists’ talents will be maximally developed and audiences ultimately treated to a product that doesn’t befoul them — perhaps actually elevating them — while providing some enjoyment. But again, it won’t occur without stubbornly principled, unfashionable intentionality. 

Trailblazers consistently devoted to top-shelf artistry and thematic/stylistic decency are needed. For a spell, seemed like Mel Gibson might be the ticket (in the filmmaking universe). Alas, he self-immolated. Mr. Stallone, then? Doesn’t appear to be so, at least not as of this writing.

One of liberty’s downsides, by definition, is its perks can be squandered – say, in a coarse and throw-away shoot-’em-up or a geyser of low-rent musical numbers. It doesn’t have to play out that way; obviously, it shouldn’t; but painfully and maddeningly, it regularly does.

Today’s Sylvester Stallones – the creative community’s high-profile types – are those, in large part, who’ll shape the form taken by this dearly won, first amendment right. Noble expressions of truth and beauty? Or something else which degrades or, at best, is merely a waste; but always a shame?

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Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.