Censuring the Movie Censors

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The independent movie The Cooler, a sentimental story about an unlucky casino employee and his girlfriend, had just been smacked with an NC-17 classification — no one under 17 allowed to attend — by the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America. The film's offending passage was a tender love scene between William H. Macy and Maria Bello that included the briefest glimpse of the actors' genitals.

That rating angered Bello, in part because she had just seen the horror comedy Scary Movie, in which a psycho killer stabs a woman in her breast and removes her silicone implant with his long knife. Yet Scary Movie was rated R, meaning it could be attended by any kid with an adult in tow (assuming the local theater management enforced the rating, which is not always the case). The disparity between the gentle realism of The Cooler and the grotesque brutality of Scary Movie, and the knowledge that the grosser film had received the softer ruling, spurred Bello to petition the MPAA for a ratings change — as she puts it, "to go in and fight for my pubic hair."

The Cooler contretemps (which ended with the scene "substantially intact," in Roger Ebert's tantalizing phrase) is among the titanic Hollywood battles itemized in Kirby Dick's very entertaining documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. The movie is a broadside against the MPAA on behalf of indie filmmakers, and is sponsored by the Independent Film Channel. It's a jazzy jeremiad that dances around the whole dilemma of ratings. Should children be kept from seeing adult films? Can a child's movie maturity be determined by his or her chronological age? If there's a ratings system — by any other name, a censorship board — should it be run by the government or the movie industry?


All national film ratings systems are supposedly created to protect impressionable children from adult content. But the U.S. scheme differs from the ones in other countries in several major ways. The first is the body that does the ratings. In most countries, ratings boards are maintained by the government. Their classifications, usually by the lowest age of the person permitted to see the film, have no wiggle room: if you're not that age, you're not allowed to see it. In France and Germany, those ages are 12, 16 and 18; in Britain, 12, 15 and 18; in Japan, 15 and 18; in New Zealand, 13, 15, 16 and 18; in Switzerland, seven, 12, 16 and 18. Once you've reached 18, you're on your own.

The U.S. system, founded in the mid-'60s, is controlled not by a government agency but by the very industry that manufactures the product — to be precise, by the six major studios that constitute the MPAA. In a way, it's an earlier, more overt form notion of regulation popular in the Bush Administration, where lobbyists frequently write the legislation that cover the industry they works for. The MPAA is basically the big studios' lobbying organization, pressuring Congress to pass certain laws (like the ones against movie piracy) and to hold off on others (like, heaven forfend, a federal ratings system).

The MPAA format might seem the most liberal of any major country, since on its face it's advisory, not proscriptive. Anyone can see any film rated G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance) or PG-13 (not recommended for kids under 13). Only the R and NC-17 ratings can theoretically keep kids out of a movie. The rest is up to parents. Indeed, the MPAA's professed purpose is to suggest to parents which films would be suitable to children of varying ages (and to insist that exhibitors enforce these suggestions). So instead of a committee staffed by psychiatrists, film professionals and civil servants, the MPAA ratings board is meant to comprise parents of children from five to 17 — adults whose home job as well as ratings mission is to ask themselves, "Can my child handle this movie?"

To me it's naive, almost touching, this idea that modern parents have such financial power and moral authority over their children that they can keep the little ones from seeing a forbidden film, especially when kids usually go to the movies on their own, and are adept at buying tickets for a PG-rated picture and then sneaking into an R-rated one.

But, hey, it works, at least in sustaining itself and suppressing any challenges to its monopoly. Led for 37 years by Jack Valenti, the former Lyndon Johnson aide who maintained many friends in Washington, the MPAA is one of America's most effective lobbies. Consider this: With all the agitation from conservative Christian groups about the perilous state of popular culture, there have been few concrete attacks on the way the movie industry polices its content, and no consistent demand to hand the ratings job over to the federal government. The MPAA's success since the mid-'60s, when it established its ratings guidelines, is stunning. Back then, many state and local censorship boards existed, each with the power to ban or eviscerate films. Today, there are none.

The MPAA boasts that the ratings system is a "voluntary" process. Voluntary to the studios, that is. Mandatory to filmmakers, who must fashion their films to fit the contours of an R rating, or suffer the consequences.

You might ask why powerful directors don't just straighten their spines, forget about the megamillions and go make their adult movies, NC-17 or no. The answer is that, for an American filmmaker, art and commerce are always in tension. The artist wants his film to be seen as he envisioned it. The businessman, who's taken millions to make the picture, also needs to satisfy his investors that the product will go into the widest market. A R-rated movie can play in any U.S. movie house; an NC-17 is verboten to many large theater chains and video stores, and will have trouble being advertised in newspapers and on TV.

Kimberly Peirce, the director of the 1999 Boys Don't Cry, which won a Best Actress Oscar for Hillary Swank, puts is bluntly: "The studio won't release your film if you have an NC-17." Which raises the question most relevant to filmmakers: Does the U.S. have a place for movies you wouldn't want your kids to see?

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