posted: 07.27.99
In MPAA We Trust
by Brian Miller.
With the recent controversy concerning a few movies this summer, many people are coming down on the MPAA with reckless abandon. While I admit that certain actions made by the Motion Picture Association of America seem excessive and unnecessary, I can see a motivation. There are many problems with the movie business these days, and censorship is certainly one of them. However, many factors create what we, the general audience, perceive as the MPAA, and I don't believe the blame should reign over them exclusively.

The MPAA is not solely at fault for the ludicrous goings-ons of late. Sure South Park really should've been rated NC-17, and denying the use of the word "hell" or the graphic appearance of the Headless Horseman on a poster for the legend of Sleepy Hollow is stupid, pointless, inane, and generally laughable, but instead of just flaming Jack Valenti, one must think about why this is happening. Is it that the people working at the MPAA or CARA are idiots? Perhaps. Is it that they're responding to heavy pressure from multiple angles while still trying to "do the right thing"? More likely. Is it that they're stuck between a rock and a hard place? Most definitely.

In a perfect world, the MPAA, in all of their wisdom, would rate every movie equally with their established system, General, Parental Guidance, no children under 13 without Parental Guidance, Restricted to children under 17 without Parental Guidance, and No Children 17 and under. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. Two intertwined problems stand in the face of this idyllic state: Society and Business. Currently, in our society, taboo subjects have basically degraded to the following: sex. The U.S. has this weird thing with sex like no other country (except perhaps India or Pakistan). We have no problem with extreme violence, and profanity is squirreling it's way into our way of life as well (the word "asshole" is now allowable on TV), yet as soon as sex comes up, the general public clams up.

Obviously then, the MPAA, doing their job, rates the pornography of our time as X (now NC-17), since the content is not appropriate for young children (which is true). I see no problem whatsoever with this. The problem is that this creates a bias in the public, linking all NC-17 films to porn. Since not all X-rated films are adult for those particular reasons ('A Clockwork Orange', 'Midnight Cowboy', and 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover' being just a few examples), it's still branded as porn and boycotted. This blind aversion to anything marked NC-17 is what I see as wrong. Not only because it denies the artist a fair chance at reaching an audience, but also because it influences so much else.

Because of the fact that people won't go see NC-17 films, many theaters won't run them. Not only are kids, the driving force of today's movie-going audience, explicitly denied entrance, but the parents don't want to see "another porno" in theaters either. Why go see something like that when you can take your kids to see Starship Troopers instead?

Therefore we are left with a verdict: "People don't go see NC-17 films." To the studios this translates directly to "NC-17 films don't make any money." Thanks to the movie-going audience of today's America, this is a law written on every mission statement of every big movie studio in Hollywood, effectively outlawing the rating all across town.

So what happens when a credible filmmaker wants to make a film aimed at adults? In an ideal world he could make the film he wants to, acknowledging the fact that only adults will be able to see his film. However, this doesn't make any money, so the studios can't let that happen. Instead we see cutting, curbing, and compromise in getting what many times should be a NC-17 rated film down to R. While this stringent control of content has had unknown consequences in the past (the whole Film Noir era), it's getting a bit much today.

Recently the poster for Tim Burton's new film, 'Sleepy Hollow', was rejected because it displayed a portrait of the headless horseman. The original title of the South Park film was rejected because it contained the word 'hell.' 'American Pie' was threatened with an NC-17 because of the "amount of thrust" Jason Biggs used with his pastry delight. Most famously, digital voyeurs were added to Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' to mask the movement of lovemaking. All of these things seem very minor to me when determining whether or not a small child should be allowed admittance. How about the complicated themes of infidelity and adultery that the plot of 'Eyes Wide Shut' revolves around? Ideas and concepts that a child is most likely not going to (and shouldn't) grasp. How about the intensely offensive humor that 'South Park' draws upon for its bite. How about the fact that there's close to 400 swears in less than 90 minutes? These are things that the MPAA should be judging; the other stuff is secondary. An adult film is usually adult for many reasons; cutting out one or obscuring another will not change the rest of the film. However, the studios use these specific scenes to grease their product into R audiences.

Alas, with the world being the way it is, we will never see studios openly accept an NC-17 rating. It's not completely their fault; if people weren't so taboo about sex and adult material, the theaters wouldn't be empty, giving the studios something to work with. That will never happen unfortunately.

Clearly things must change however. Trapper's rant on the kiddies in his theater at 'American Pie' is certainly not the first, nor the last. I myself saw young children sitting next to me in 'South Park', 'Boogie Nights', and 'American Pie'. Although the theaters aren't quite as stringent as they should be about admittance, parents are largely at fault as well. The movies are becoming an increasingly easier substitute for daycare, which simply should not happen. But what can the parents trust as a guide when films such as 'Natural Born Killers' gets the same rating as 'The Shawshank Redemption? To combat this, the MPAA states that parents have a double standard, and so they have to as well. As lame as this sounds, it's true. The parents of today let their kids run rampant then complain about the lack of control. Organizations such as the MPAA are simply caught in the middle, fodder for media blitzkrieg every time they don't deal with an impossible situation ingeniously.

So what can be done to make everyone happy? There's a lot of talk about a new rating: A (for Adult). I'm guessing the logic behind this is to introduce another rating exactly like NC-17, hoping the same connotations don't affix. In this case why not revert NC-17 to its previous letter: X. Changing the letter didn't work once, and I feel the addition of yet another letter will just broaden the horizons of the blacklist on the studios' and the theaters' doors. Another alternative is to start labeling the rating with sub-ratings. Restricted for Violence and Nudity. So instead of R we have R: V, N. In my experience as an interface designer, this is clearly too complex for the general public. People will say "SS, AT, V... what the hell do these mean? Ah... R... ok son you can see it." Another alternative being discussed by certain underground ringleaders of rabid internet mobs is the end of ratings altogether; the complete and utter destruction of the MPAA. I predict this would quickly end with the parents blaming someone else (probably the studios) about a lack of guideline from which to disregard and let their kids see anyway. It won't work.

Ultimately, regardless of what quick fix we choose, the same problems will resurface. The problem is not in the MPAA, it is in the pressures put down upon the MPAA. As always things are not as simple as we'd like, and there clearly is no one single enemy. To throw rocks at Jack Valenti is to to kill the messenger. He's simply the most visible piece of our puzzling and convoluted relationship with the entertainment industry and our society.

Written amidst the controversy of summertime movie politics, this harsh and gripping look at the Motion Picture Association of America is true Brian Miller style.