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Our Last 50 Referrers

« A New "Blair Witch Project"? | Main | T-Bone Walker »

September 09, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Who are the people who make up the MPAA, the movie industry's rating board? And what qualifies them to rate movies? Filmmaker Kirby Dick had the inspired idea not just to ask these questions but to make a movie about them. It's entitled "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," and it has just been released with an NC-17 rating of its own. The answer, by the way, is that the MPAA is mostly made up not of parents, psychologists, etc, but of film-industry people. Dick speaks to C.H.U.D. about his discoveries. In one passage, he clears up a lot of mysteries:

This is not a moralistic ratings structure, it's very much bottom-line driven. I think the MPAA, if they had their choice, wouldn't have any ratings at all. But if there is going to be one, they want to control it because they want to make sure their films get out to the widest possible marketplace, and to do that they want to make sure their films get the least restrictive ratings. Which explains why violence gets off so easy -- their target audience right now is adolescents, and violent films appeal to adolescents. That's why they make sure those films get off easy in the rating system. But look at their competition, which is independent films and foreign films -- they tend to make films with more mature themes and more adult sexuality. It's those films that get the NC-17 rating.

I wrote a posting about America's embrace of adolescent values here.



posted by Michael at September 9, 2006


Every time you find out what's "really going on" with anything, it is rampant with self-interest, self-dealing, hidden agendas, screwing the competition, getting the leg up. I know everybody talks about the "best of humanity" or the "best in ourselves", but it is limited (sometimes only to a few family members, or maybe a circle of buddies) and sporadic (like a Labor Day parade). I'm beginning to think "cynical" has a bad name---it's just perceptive and realistic. On another point, it is sort of horrifyingly amusing that "violence" is considered so casually by this board---adolescents like violence, so give it to 'em. Icky. There are some sex scenes that seem so purely gratuitous as to be an uncomfortable delay in getting back to the plot of the movie, or sex jokes that just seem to be more in bad taste than anything, but it is only due to violence that I've only ever been actually nauseated --or walked out of a movie entirely.

Posted by: annette on September 11, 2006 8:31 AM

Yeah, what she said.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 11, 2006 12:28 PM

One of the MPAA board's more amusing policies concerns the use of the "F word." Until a few years ago any use of that venerable Anglo-Saxon term in a movie would be a guaranteed R rating no matter how inoffensive the rest of the flick might have been. Bowing to pressure, however, the board then modified its position slightly. Today a movie can feature the F word and still get a less-restrictive PG-13 rating, so long as it's used only a few times and as an exclamation. An R rating is mandatory if the word is used repeatedly, in a sexual context, or together with mother.

Posted by: Peter on September 11, 2006 1:36 PM

Michael -- Of course the ratings board is bottom line driven. One of the reasons that it exists is to bypass the past phony authority of the Catholic Church. Historically, the archbishops in the Boston and Philadelphia dioceses would regularly ban films, which predictably had a terrible effect on box office revenues. Similarly, the MPAA sought to get around efforts of censorship imposed by Congress (whose baleful effects are seen now in the reflex-hysteria of FCC fines over bad language and nip-slips on TV).

Some European (and American) films are released “Unrated,” to avoid the stupid NC-17 rating, which in most areas means that your film will not be advertised in newspapers or on TV, or later carried by some video chains. This is the kiss of death. Ironically, the porn industry hijacked the X rating (turning XXX into a certification of raunch) because the film board failed to trademark X and its variants.

I think we are lucky that the ratings board is not composed of psychologists or other experts. The ratings are supposed to be descriptive and advisory, not the prescriptive be-all and end-all. I think that parents are stupid who reflexively try to use the ratings to substitute for their own knowledge of their children. Parents got bit in the butt before on this: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was too intense for younger children and gave rise to the PG-13 rating. Later, parents apparently did not read the reviews for “Batman Returns” even though a number of film critics warned that children might be frightened by some of the scenes that depicted children being threatened or harmed. They figured that the film must be OK since Batman was a comic book figure, and that fast-food franchises offered toys. But I remember parents angrily walking out, leading crying children by the hands when The Penguin was shown onscreen rounding up the young children of Gotham.

Even though one of my local newspapers regularly prints family-friendly information about the contents of films, and even though there are a number of websites with similar information, I find it interesting that a number of friends just ask me about films because they know I am a film freak, or complain later that they didn’t know about a film’s unacceptable content despite all the information available to them. On the other hand, I do not think that any film should be automatically forbidden to, say, people age 13 or older, with their parent’s consent.

Nor am I particularly concerned that film violence appeals to many adolescents. This just seems to be part of human nature and growth, even if you want to ignore the Greek concept of catharsis (which applies as much to melodramatic stuff as to high tragedy). Most kids enjoy mischief, thrills, action, narrow escapes, shocks and excess. This is part of the whole point of being a kid, the right to moments of irresponsible fun. I loved the excessive violence of Three Stooges shorts when I was a kid and yet tended toward pacifism for much of my life. I also noted that even though the Stooges fought each other, they always ended up together and more often than not joined forces to combat the fuddy-duddies, the censorious, the scowlers and permanently serious folk with sticks up their butts. More importantly, neither I nor my parents nor others responsible for me ever viewed cartoons or movies as the source of moral values (I do confess, however, that the moral code of The Lone Ranger had a serious impact on my worldview).

Posted by: Alec on September 11, 2006 6:17 PM

"Similarly, the MPAA sought to get around efforts of censorship imposed by Congress."

What? I'm a Hollywood historian, and have never heard of Congress imposing restrictions on the content of movies. Radio and TV broadcasts do come under the purvue of the FCC, so unfortunately they can be held to standards of decency.

Movies are initially shown in theaters. Laws regulating broadcasters don't apply. Any attempt by Congress to regulate film content would be a blatant example of government censorship and would fail a legal challenge.

I have little interest in seeing this documentary because the whole thing strikes me as a non-issue. I don't feel deprived because Team America's filmmakers couldn't how one of their marionettes rimming the other. I don't think any film is artistically emascualted by the marginal difference between the explicitness allowed in an R rated film versus the little bit more you can show in an NC-17.

My favorite films were all made before the '70s and I can't think of any of them that would be improved by the inclusion of all the elements that "edgy" artists seem so enamored of today. You can suggest a lot with creative imagination, which most films and culture today seem so bereft of.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 12, 2006 12:52 AM

Peter L. Winkler – You’re absolutely correct that Congress did not impose restrictions on the content of movies. What I tried to say, and should have said more clearly, was that some movie executives claimed to fear Congressional action if they did not keep control of movie ratings within the industry. This fear may have been exaggerated, but there you are.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that motion pictures were not covered by the First Amendment, and cities soon began passing ordinances prohibiting the depiction of “immoral films.” Later, the U.S. Customs Department prohibited the importation of the Hedy Lamarr film, Ecstasy, and the ban was upheld due to the earlier Supreme Court ruling. This set the stage for the later battles over what could be shown in movies.

I note that your favorite films were made before the 1970s, but you obviously must know that a great number of pre-Hays Code films featured near or total nudity, mature themes and material that you would denote as “edgy.” People enjoyed these films, and did not feel that their explicitness or themes demonstrated a lack of imagination. I remember watching Kay Francis in a Code-flaunting comedy (I think “Girls About Town,” 1931) and noting that in some scenes her wardrobe was skimpy or sheer almost to the point of non-existence, and this was fine by me. The movie was pretty good too, and featured a character who was obviously pimping young women to wealthy businessmen. Scandalous fun.

I understand but totally reject the idea that a filmmaker should be less free than a novelist to depict whatever he or she thinks is necessary to a work of art, understanding that an audience is equally free to accept or reject the final work.

Hays Code of 1930

Wikipedia on the Hays Code

Posted by: Alec on September 12, 2006 4:07 AM

UmdU?? I'd be hard pressed to think of a film that doesn't have the F word in it. They even manage to insert it into films for the childrens market, usually in pirates' or gangsters' speech. When you go to the movies any sensitivity about language has to be checked at the door.

This is not to say that strong language doesn't have its place. When used sparingly, by a character who ordinarily wouldn't use it, it can put the exclamation point, so to speak, on a pivotal scene in a film.

But used as filler? As a substitute for um or and? Why? The only thing I can think of is that the filmmaker is saying: I'm degraded, I'm debased, so I'm going to degrade you too; then we can all be debased and degraded together. It's the only standard I'll allow.

Posted by: ricpic on September 12, 2006 7:53 AM

This MPAA and movie topic and resulting commentary sounds awfully familiar to a previous topic you discussed a few short weeks ago.

Publishers and books.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I know, I know.
Every industry's entitled to make a profit. I think it's the oliy veneer of odiuosness about the MPAA and the publishers that gets my goat in both these topics.

Both seem to be of the Captain Louis Renault school of human behaviour; pull one eye down with your finger while expressing Shock!

Posted by: DarkoV on September 12, 2006 9:43 AM

Television's censorship standards are even more illogical. Last week I watched the season premiere of Nip/Tuck on the FX Network. It was about as close to soft-core pornography as you'll ever see on TV. In one scene, a character had a three-way with a woman and her daughter; in another scene, he treated his psychiatrist to some dog-style lovin'. There was more thrusting and moaning and intertwining of naked bodies than you'd ever imagine. And yet, through all this you *never* got so much as a fleeting glimpse of (drumroll please) Bare Tit. I guess *that* would give the censors conniptions.

Posted by: Peter on September 12, 2006 1:01 PM

Dear Alec:

Good post. I wasn't arguing that restrictions on content stimulate better filmmaking. Though maybe they do. That's a subject I'd have to think about more before drawing any definitive conclusions. If the MPAA disappeared, I wouldn't miss it.

However, I think that the explicitness allowed in even an R-rated film allows nearly anything to be said or shown. And in my personal, anecdotal experience-I don't pretend to speak for anyone else-as films have become way more explicit the average quality of films in their ability to entertain me has declined precipitously.

I also think that equating the mild or suggested nudity and sexual subject matter of the pre-Hays film you mentioned with what I called contemporary edginess is simply incorrect.

Frontal nudity, depiction of intercourse and other sex acts, extreme violence, trash talking dialogue that would embarass a longshoreman, etc. could all be in a film today and it could still sqeak by with an R. Nothing close to what was seen pre-Hays.

Double Indemnity. One of my top ten. Phyllis Dietrichson visits Walter Neff's apartment to close the deal. They talk. They sit on the sofa. Cut. They're till on the sofa, but Neff is recumbent, smoking a cigarette. Any adult watching the film in 1944 knew that Phyllis and Walter had had sex. It passes the Hays code. Would showing them coupling have improved the film? I think not.

Was the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice an improvement over the original? The filmmakers were able to show a lot more and they did. Did it help? I think not.

I also don't think it correct to analogize novels and films. They are accessed in different ways. Films are something closer to a broadcast medium than novels. I can understand why a parent going to a film with their children might be unhappy if the film was far more explicit than what they had been led to expect. The current rating system, however imperfect, is useful and there is a valid rationale for some kind of rating or labelling system.

Novels don't play themselves for a reader merely by having their covers displayed face out at the bookstore or library. It's much easier for parents to select the reading material they want to let their children tead without imposing restrictions on the writer's artistic choices.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 13, 2006 4:00 AM

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