Observations on the Box Citizen Ruth Came In

Written by Jester

I just watched an amazing movie called Citizen Ruth. I was going to write a rave review here, but then I realized that this was pointless, since the movie's already on video, and maybe me and Laura Dern have heard of it (Laura Dern plays the lead character). I was going to use all sorts of cool reviewer phrases like "Ruth is the main character, but she is only articulate when she is swearing in rage. We are only given tantalizing glimpses at what her character is like, feels deep inside, and what happened to make her life such a mess." I also had "subtle to stinging barbs" and shit like that all ready to go. But let me get right to the point. Citizen Ruth is particularly unforgiving satire on the abortion issue, giving it to Pro-Life and Pro-Choice (whatever you want to call them) right up the ass. It would have been easy to pick on one particular side, but the people behind this move realize that sometimes, neither side of the issue makes a whole hell of a lot of sense. Oh, shut the fuck up whoever I just pissed off with that last statement. We'll save that debate for another time. So let me conclude the review with this: it's a great movie, Laura Dern is an incredible actress, go rent it. Now let me move on to what I really want to talk about.

If you're going to take my advice and rent that movie, you might want to hold off reading this, because there are lots of spoilers.

I was just looking at the cassette box the video came in. I rented it from Rogers Video. As we all know, there used to be a billion video stores, all run by different people. Convenience stores, gas stations, whatever. Now there is only Rogers Video, or Blockbuster. These stores are great for stocking 4,500 copies of the latest comic book movie that was in the theatre for two showings, but they're not so hot if you want to watch something other than a summer blockbuster of the past five years.

Usually, video stores would put their videos in blank, plain plastic cases, sometimes with the movie franchise logo all over it. Then they put the box they came in on the shelf, with a little plastic tag or something to indicate whether the video is in or not. Rogers goes a little further than this. They put the empty cardboard shell on the shelf, with the video in a plastic case behind it. But they actually write a description on the back of their plastic box. At first I thought it was the usual bullshit with the description lifted from the back of the distributor's box, with the usual quotes from whatever media source they can dig up ("Three thumbs up!" -- Pickering Nuclear Power Plant Newsletter Film Cavalcade & Review). I actually sat down to read the Rogers box of Citizen Ruth, and discovered that's not what's there at all. They actually took time to rate the content themselves, and provide a quick breakdown for parents. They cover the sex, the drugs, the violence, the swearing... Here's the breakdown, verbatim:


Citizen Ruth  319864

After she accidentally becomes pregnant, an indigent, substance- abusing young woman (Laura Dern) finds herself at the centre of the abortion war.

Parent's Guide:

Sex/Nudity: In the opening scene, Ruth has sex with a man, mostly clothed.

Drugs/Alcohol: Ruth drinks too much, sniffs from spray bottles, and smokes from a bong.

Violence/Scariness: The scenes depicting Ruth's drug habit will be disturbing to youngsters, as will the issue of abortion; Ruth hits a little boy.

Objectionable Words/Phrases: About 55

Lesson to Learn: In the abortion war, both sides manipulate the same woman they claim to protect.

Drama, 1997, Approx. 106 min., Release Date: 06/97, CC, Rating Pending

For some reason, I find this wonderful. Like a book store, I can spend a whole day in a large video store/rental outlet, checking out obscure little movie, Grade Z slasher movies, and just how many sequels can be made out of a kick-boxing movie. Now I don't know if Rogers has done this for every video in the store, but I can't wait to go back and find out. It blows my mind that someone had to be paid to sit down, go through this movie, and list the content. I'm pretty confident that someone did sit through most of the movie. Sure, you can determine some things about a movie just by looking at the poster (Hey, I wonder if there's violence in the latest Jackie Chan movie? There is? Well bugger me), but no press kit I know of lists "Objectionable Words/Phrases." It blows me away that someone is paid to sit there and count how many "motherfuckers" are in a movie, even if it is a rough estimate. Or play with the frame advance to determine if you can see Laura Dern's breast. Do they get confused when you can see her nipples through her bra? Does that count? And what is an objectionable phrase anyway? This movie has 34 objectionable phrases, 35 if you count "Suck my armpit."

I'm thinking of other movies I've seen and wondering with glee what Rogers has written on the back of the box:

Showgirls -- Sex/Nudity: There is all of five minutes of people wearing clothes. I've seen pornos that had more wardrobe than this.

Reservoir Dogs -- Objectionable Words/Phrases: About 5,542,678 objectionable words and phrases. There are about 20 non-objectionable words and phrases.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn -- Lesson to Learn: Uh...don't fuck with Captain Kirk?

Fatal Attraction -- Violence/Scariness: Both Michael Douglas and Glen Close overact a storm. Douglas threatens to remove his clothes on more than one occasion. Close boils a bunny. What a bitch.

ET -- Drugs/Alcohol: There is no alcohol or drug use in this movie, but Drew Barrymore turned into a real lush about five minutes after this movie stopped filming. I could use a good spliff right about now myself.

Another thing that intrigues me about this system is the complete lack of critical appraisal. True, whether a movie is any good is a subjective thing, but so is an objectionable word. Personally, I'd find it much more useful to know whether a movie is a carefully concealed piece of shyte rather than whether Eddie Murphy gets to use the "F" word and "H-E-Double hockey sticks." Of course, if a movie is a complete travesty (see Can't Stop the Music review, CapNasty Volume II, Issue 23) and the box lets you know it, you're not going to rent it. On the other hand, if you're told that you can see Laura Dern get it on with some guy, that might get you to rent it, even if it is a piece of garbage. There is also, I'll admit, a wider divergence of opinion on whether Natural Born Killers is an original and thought-provoking movie than whether "fuckface" is an objectionable phrase. Incidentally, Natural Born Killers spanks major goat penises. Even the original script by Tarantino blew. The one by Ollie Stone's lads is a billion times worse. Oh, shut the fuck up whoever I just pissed off with that last statement. We'll save that debate for another time.

Of course, the danger with this appraisal is that it doesn't tell you whetherthe movie is any good. I think that kids should see movies with sex and violence, provided that there's a larger issue on hand, and an adult to guide them through it. This rating system doesn't tell me if the movie has a brain in its head or not. It doesn't tell me anything truly useful. All I know from reading the back of this box is that Laura Dern apparently plays a low-life. Even the Lesson to Learn doesn't really help me. I don't know if there's a skillful handling of some extremely sensitive issues (there is). I don't even know if the movie is good for a wank or two. People are going to rent movies or not, based on these words. You can't summarize a truly good or even a bad movie in so short a space, with so few words. People are going to be mislead by these ratings, and maybe miss something good, or pick up something crap. That really bothers me.

I'll end this thingee with a few comments on the box's appraisal of Citizen Ruth (it even fails on its own terms at times). I'll be spending more time at Rogers, because I have to know what the Lesson to be Learned is for Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity.

Parent's Guide:

Sex/Nudity: They missed a couple couplings. A young girl gets hot and heavy with her boyfriend. A woman kisses another woman. There are a number of scenes were Ruth wears very little clothing, and poses in a very seductive fashion. The sex act at the beginning of the movie is actually unerotic; Ruth looks bored out of her skull. Is this category supposed to be "sexual content?" What about the vibrator Ruth finds? There is at least one very sexual act referred to, as well.

Drugs/Alcohol: What, cigarette smoking isn't covered? There's a lot of this.

Violence/Scariness: Ruth drops a heavy piece of porcelain on someone's head, and also threatens someone with a gun, but this is not mentioned. Also, there are a number of threats issued throughout the movie. Nasty ones. In one scene, Ruth awakens to find herself bleeding. She's even self-abusive on one occasion. That's scary. They describe Ruth's drug habit as "scary" but at times it almost seems comical. And what about violence to property? There's a scene where Ruth trashes her ex-boyfriend's car.

Objectionable Words/Phrases: What about political messages? Now we sail into some really unclear waters. Nobody with any kind of a brain would say that a movie promoting the actions of the Nazis is anything but objectionable. But what about a situation that isn't so cut and dried? Both sides in the abortion debate take the matter very seriously. Neither side is likely to appreciate the picture presented by Citizen Ruth. Is that considered objectionable?

Lesson to Learn: There are quite a number of things you can learn from Citizen Ruth, not just the line printed here. Ruth is not a heroine. At times, she's a thoroughly rotten person. She is very manipulative, at times even succeeding in manipulating the viewer. At one point she comes into $15,000. Another character in the movie, Harlan, who is supposedly on her side when she tentatively decides to about her fetus, listens to her very ambitious plans with the money. He tells her that she will blow the money in three days. You can't help but feel he's right. Ruth may be unredeemable, something neither side of the issue seems prepared to accept. It's not a very nice lesson to learn that some people can pass the point of no return, but it seems likely that Ruth is destined to die of a drug overdose. There's also lots to be learned about hypocrisy, and how individuals get lost in the debate of a larger issue. The movie's messages are lost on this box, because there's just so much going on this movie (much like any movie), that you can't break it down in a dozen words or less. This category is where the real injustice is going on.

I discovered this movie largely by accident. Some people think that some analysis of the movie is better than none at all. But I can't shake the feeling that very little good can come of this system. I'll be checking out more cases at Rogers, so stayed tuned for another instalment.