Earlier this week, members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association condemned the Motion Picture Academy of America for refusing to grant Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut an R rating without a bunch of ludicrous digital alterations during a ritualized orgy. Yippee: another occasion for bashing the ratings board. I saw the picture before the fig leaves were applied and the sequence in question was no more erotic than dental surgery--but that's neither here nor there.
My point is that the film critics are blaming the wrong party. The villains in this scenario are not the anonymous fuddy-duddies who sit on the ratings board but the sanctimonious hypocrites who preside over some of the country's largest video and media chains. These are the people who treat any film rated NC-17 as leprous. NC-17 was originally meant to eliminate the porn-related stigma that came with the earlier X rating. But the very same chains that refused to carry ads for X films refuse to carry ads for NC-17 films. With a film held hostage by Blockbuster et al., any studio with, say, $50 million to $100 million on the line feels compelled to hack at their movie and play footsie with the MPAA until they get their R.
Take Blockbuster, which prides itself on being a "family video store." A stroll through the aisles will take you past displays of such wholesome fare as Meat Cleaver Massacre, as well as innumerable soft-core made-for-video serial-killer-stalking-models-in-lingerie flicks. You have to wonder whose family the store caters to--the Mansons? But Blockbuster and other such outfits have, with the help of the MPAA, given themselves a veneer of righteousness while trafficking in the same kind of sleaze as every other entertainment conglomerate. That's capitalism.
In a column for Daily Variety, Roger Ebert argues that a new rating, A--something between R and NC-17--would allow audiences to see the original cuts of movies such as Eyes Wide Shut and would "provide a category for adult films that would be acceptable to theater owners and advertising outlets." He goes on: "Theaters would not shun them. Everybody understands the concept of an adults-only category. And because NC-17 would remain in business, newspapers, TV stations, and theaters would remain free to discriminate against it."
I wish I could support Ebert's suggestion but I'm not so sure that A would work. Wasn't that the purpose of NC-17 to begin with? And does Ebert really trust the MPAA to distinguish between films that have artistic merit and those that don't? EyesWide Shut might be a no-brainer because of the Kubrick imprimatur, but what about South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (a title whose second meaning allegedly passed straight over the MPAA's heads)? Before cuts for its R, there were allegedly lines about sex with the Almighty. A or NC-17? How long before Blockbuster and those big newspaper chains announce that they won't be carrying ads for A films?
The larger issue is what the MPAA's distinctions say about our culture. In its press release, the Los Angles Critics Association notes the disturbing "double standard the MPAA continues to maintain when it comes to sexual and violent movie content ... The PG-13 rated movie, Wild Wild West, for example, opens with a 'humorous' decapitation, and the PG rated movie, Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace, contains numerous violent deaths." I'm fond of citing Albert Brooks' experience in 1985 with Lost in America because it so gorgeously encapsulates the issue. The MPAA gave the film an R rating because of a scene in which Brooks' protagonist babbles to his wife (Julie Hagerty) that he wants to "fuck" her over her office desk. That's unacceptable, said the ratings board, because "fuck" is used in a "sexual context." Brooks pointed out that if the character, instead of saying, "I want to fuck you over this desk" had said, "I want to fuck you over with this desk," the film could have gone out with a PG-13.
But if the MPAA is puritanically intolerant of sex, it also has peculiar notions of "acceptable" violence. A director who frequently tangled with the ratings board told me an instructive story. He did some research on fistfights and discovered that a lot of them last one punch: In real life, one person's nose gets broken and the other person's hand gets broken. There's a lot of blood. I once watched a friend get his nose broken in a (brief) fistfight and it remains one of the most ghastly things I've ever seen. Now, let's pretend I want to film such a fight for the purposes of making violence realistically horrible--so that anyone who sees it will think twice about getting into a fight. I put in the sound of cartilage being crunched and show the bright red blood pouring out of someone's nose, and I give you a close up of the other person's broken fingers beginning to swell. Agony, right? And very likely--if I do my job correctly--an NC-17. Too explicit for children. Now let's pretend I decide to restage that fight and make it painless--ten punches back and forth, Popeye-style, with no blood and both guys walking away unblemished. That's a G, folks. The lesson for kids is that violence is funny and bloodless and without real consequences.
It really won't matter if it's PG-13, R, NC-17, or even A until we figure out just what it is that we wish to protect children from. The next step is to ask ourselves what's wrong with a cinema exclusively for adults--and why we can't seem to keep from stigmatizing it.