July 2, 2007

Movie Ratings, Part Deux

Posted in Movies at 3:48 pm by Calico Jack

In 2004, when The Passion of the Christ fervor swept across America and many fundamentalists were treating the premiere as the Second Coming, Ebert and Roeper suggested on their eponymous television show that if Passion didn’t receive an NC-17 rating for explicit violence, no film ever would. Their comments were sadly prescient, as Passion was handed an R rating and millions of people subsequently took their kids to see a two-hour film where Christ and flagellation were co-stars.

Several months ago I pointed out the overwhelming hypocrisy in the MPAA’s ratings system, a problem only exacerbated by the ridiculous decision to include smoking in its list of objectionable content. In a followup post, I wondered if there was any way to fix the ratings system; or, failing that, whether or not to just scrap this relic entirely. As a way to inform parents about possibly objectionable content in a film, the ratings board has failed miserably, but parents have also become lazy in what they let their underage children watch. There’s a lot of blame to spread around.

Several critics have lately taken the MPAA to task for its double standards and “What were they thinking?” moments. Entertainment Weekly critic Mark Harris addressed this issue in a recent column, suggesting that the presence of an NC-17 rating gives parents the impression that anything less is possibly acceptable for their children to watch:

Having seen Hostel: Part II, I’ll spare you my feelings about why can you top this? horror comedies about torture are not my idea of a fun night out (although contrary to rumor, Roth is neither untalented nor the Antichrist). I’d rather expend my indignation on the people who gave the movie a rating that, in practical terms, is no different from a G. All that an R rating mandates is that a child doesn’t walk into Hostel: Part II alone, as if the presence of a grown-up ”guardian” magically renders a movie more appropriate for grade-schoolers. Of course, the raters could have given it an NC-17, which would have kept all children out. But they looked at that nude, tortured woman and genital mutilation, and decided it didn’t cross the line. For that — and in the spirit of Roth’s movie — I say off with their heads…

Some have suggested that the U.S. adopt the tiered system of age cutoffs at, say, 8, 12, and 17 that some European countries use. But that’s unfeasible in an era of understaffed multiplexes and Internet ticket purchases. There’s also an argument for putting more teeth in the NC-17, taking a harder line about what’s unsuitable for children. But I’d give that about five minutes before every interest group in America presents its own petition of topics they want to be automatic NC-17s, and we’re back to a prudish laundry list of do’s and don’ts that was abandoned decades ago…

That leaves one solution that’s both radical and sensible: Dump the NC-17 completely. Provide maximum information about movie content, create a website with plot specifics and exact age recommendations, and leave it at that…Today, the NC-17 protects nobody and preserves the illusion that R-rated movies like Hostel: Part II are okay for kids because if they weren’t, somebody would have rated them NC-17. If Hollywood places the decision about what children should see in the hands of their parents, where it belongs, many parents will, of course, make those decisions irresponsibly. But overall, could they possibly do a worse job than the people who are now paid to do their thinking for them?

I’m not sure that Harris’s proposed solution is appropriate. It feels like a half-hearted measure that only tackles part of what makes the ratings system so unworkable. Putting all NC-17 movies under an R umbrella means that clueless parents might take their kids to see something that’s really not appropriate, like Shortbus. When I saw Grindhouse (a film I enjoyed, but one that is entirely inappropriate for kids), there were at least a dozen children in that theater under the age of 10. One small girl, in fact, kept crying throughout the film because she was scared — and her moron of a father simply told her to hush up. It’s only a movie, after all.

The MPAA already has a website which lists the reasons for a film’s rating, although it’s often so vague as to be useless. Quite frankly, I doubt whether many parents would even go to a website with detailed descriptions about a film’s content. It requires additional work, and too many parents are unwilling to take the slightest extra step towards protecting their children. What I would like to see, at the very minimum, are audible descriptions of a film’s rating played after TV and radio commercials. Many TV spots either list only the letter rating or have content descriptions in such small print that one has to squint his eye at the screen to discern anything intelligible. I think having an announcer intone “Captivity has been rated R for strong violence, torture, pervasive terror, grisly images, language and some sexual material” might give a few parents pause before dragging their children to Elisha Cuthbert’s latest torture-porn flick.

The best solution to this mess seems to be one which Harris casually discounts. The British Board of Film Classification has five ratings commonly used for films: U for universal, PG, 12A (no one under 12 admitted unless accompanied by an adult), 15 (no one under 15 admitted — period), and 18 (again, no one under 18 admitted, regardless of whether or not there is an adult present). The major difference between this and the U.S. system is that underage children are restricted from seeing films over their age bracket. This also allows flexibility in rating movies that may be appropriate for older teenagers. And unlike the U.S., Britain has no qualms about slapping a film with a restricted rating due to its violence.

One could argue that the U.S.’s R rating takes the place of Britain’s 15, and our NC-17 is comparable to their 18. But it’s impossible to get around the fact that the NC-17 is useless to American audiences, and parents can still choose to take their six-year-olds to see the latest misogynistic torture film if they so choose. Having a strict cutoff for children’s ages is a bit draconian, I admit; but I have no difficulty believing that seeing gruesome murders committed on-screen is as damaging to a child’s psyche as anything else out there. And contrary to Harris’s opinion, I have no doubt that movie theaters would be able to effectively screen underage children if they so desired.

There are no good solutions to this problem, unfortunately. The most desirable outcome would happen only if parents started caring about their children and started clamping down on the movies they see, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Either way, the U.S.’s system is broken; and only a drastic overhaul will stop the travesties that occur when a film like Hostel II gets a rating that lets unwitting six-year-olds witness genital mutilation in the comfort of their parents’ arms. People really are that stupid.

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