Monday, September 15, 2008

The Case Against Ratings

In the world of moviemaking, events that give film scholars an opportunity to editorialize occur nearly every day. When I first started this blog, I knew it would be but a matter of time before something happened in the film industry that gave me probable cause to opine about censorship. Last week, I followed a link to a story on AVClub posted on IMDB that sent my senses reeling. Read the story and decide for yourself as to whether or not it makes sense.

Before I comment on the issue at hand, I wish to disclose my bearing of mind toward freedom of expression. As a fervent First Amendment supporter, I believe that, with few exceptions, neither the government nor private enterprise has any right to suppress freedom of expression. Instances I consider exceptions to this rule include, but are not limited to, child pornography, snuff films, shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, falsely accusing someone of committing a crime, and picketing funerals. Any person responsible for committing these acts deserves punishment on the basis of violating laws that protect individual rights.

That being said, why did the MPAA's handling of the poster for Zack and Miri Make a Porno boost my blood pressure? The same reason I objected to the government's reaction to the Janet Jackson Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. At the time, the major networks ran parental advisory disclaimers when airing the story on the evening news, but gave no such consideration when they showed the latest military combat footage from Iraq. Mere titillation, it seems, is less offensive than actual violence. Now, the MPAA wants us to join them in their objection to a pair of suggestively placed heads on the poster advertising Kevin Smith's upcoming comedy. When the film hits theaters next month, American audiences will have to settle for a different poster showing stick figures while Canadian audiences will see the original poster in theater lobbies. Perhaps it's the MPAA's own petty way of getting back at Kevin Smith following their appeal of the film's original 'NC-17' rating to 'R'. One wonders if the MPAA would have raised any objections to the poster had it showed appendages or splattered blood.

This decision leads me to ask an important question: do we really need movie ratings anymore? More to the point, did we need them to begin with? Social conservatives argue that MPAA decisions reflect a tolerant -- if not permissive -- response to provocative content in comparison to the Will Hays Production Code, but anyone who knows anything about American film history knows that that isn't saying much.

From its inception in 1966, the association has promoted itself as a reliable resource for moviegoers, especially parents. In codifying film ratings to the scale currently in use, the MPAA created a convenient, easy-to-understand system that helps viewers make quick decisions as to the films they want to see. While the idea reflects innovation, the system is not without its drawbacks. A grouping of alphanumeric characters may tell you that a film is offensive (at least to the body who applied the rating), but it doesn't tell you why. True, the rating card may read "rated R for violence, nudity, and sexual situations", but that's as specific as said descriptions get. How much of the film's running time accounts for these offenses? How many scenes feature bare buttocks, drug use, or spurting arteries? An accountable group would make these statistics (not to mention the identities of its members) public, but their actions send a clear message: just trust our judgment; you don't need to know how we work.

The 'NC-17' (formerly 'X') rating represents the group's most disingenuous tactic. This scarlet letter classification is designed, so the movie cops claim, to protect children from the worst of the worst in cinema: pornography. While keeping intense depictions of violent and sexual acts out of children's hands is a good idea, these decisions need to be made by parents and no one else. What, then, is the actual reason for shackling films into this pillory? Why, to cripple the box office potential of films the association wants to see fail, of course. Watch Kimberly Peirce's interview footage in This Film Is Not Yet Rated for a firsthand account of this malicious practice. In Kirby Dick's fascinating documentary, Peirce revealed that Boys Don't Cry initially received an 'NC-17' rating from the MPAA, which was later appealed to an 'R' after a number of sex scenes were trimmed. The group had no qualms with the graphic violence in the film; just the sex. It sounds like someone isn't exactly dealing from the top of the deck. Metaphorically speaking, the MPAA is standing at the jukebox and they expect the industry to dance to the tune. In other words, if directors expect their films to enjoy the benefits of advertising and theatrical release, they have to play by the MPAA's rules. If this isn't an abject bully tactic, I would certainly like to know what is.

The MPAA, like any other censor board, uses the ratings system to impose their morality on the public. If the God-fearing members of the MPAA object to a certain film, you know it must be bad. Wouldn't it be nice if we all reacted to raunchy flicks the way they do? What the MPAA fails to realize is that, while some attitudes are universal, morality is a subjective creature. This is not to say that morality changes from day to day, as the late Tony Snow once said on Real Time with Bill Maher, but that it often varies from person to person. With regard to movies, not everyone shares the same thoughts and feelings on sex, violence, or depictions of these acts in films. One man's poison is another man's popcorn. A fair system would let a film's content speak for itself (more on that later) and then let the public decide whether it succeeds or fails. But obviously, this approach is out of the question.

Does this mean that I enjoy every act I see depicted in films? Absolutely not. Though I consider myself a tolerant viewer, there have been times when I have grown uneasy while watching a film. The masturbation scene in Gus Van Zant's abominable remake of Psycho, the final fifteen seconds of Boogie Nights, and the disgusting Kinky Kelly sequence in Clerks II were all gratuitous. Still, in spite of my displeasure, I support the artist's right to include these scenes in their films, and I would never take action aimed at preventing such films from being released. Rather than organize a boycott, a tactic I have always found ineffective, I would give the films little or no attention. Otherwise, why give a movie you want to see go down in flames free publicity? In the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The strongest criticism I have of the MPAA ratings system is its inconsistency. While growing up, I can recall seeing movies with a 'PG-13' rating that featured at least one character getting shot, bared breasts, and no less than two F-bombs being dropped in the course of two hours. On the other hand, I can recall seeing films that had but one mention of the dreaded F-word get slapped with an 'R' rating. These decisions raise a number of questions: Were the people who rated the 'PG-13' films the same ones who rated the 'R' films? If so, what specifically led to their rulings? Are the qualifiers for ratings (assuming specific ones exist) subject to change? Did the members see the films in their entirety? Or did they just watch the trailer? While we may never know the answers to these questions, one fact with which not even the staunchest of conservative film raters can argue is that some viewers are less tolerant than others and in turn, will be more likely to set their ratings phasers to 'R' or 'NC-17' whenever they see or hear something on screen that causes them discomfort. The MPAA allegedly staffs its body of raters with a diverse sample of adults that represents the population at large. Even if such a feat were possible, how does the association handle a disagreement over a given film? While I'm on the subject, why does the MPAA insist on shrouding the identities and voting records of its members in secrecy? Not even the Supreme Court operates in that fashion, and they're a far more important voting body.

How do we solve this problem, then? I propose an alternative to our current film ratings protocol: a content disclosure system. Using every medium of movie advertising, I would publish a list of statistics in place of a simple letter or alphanumeric combination. (e.g., 75 mentions of the F-word, 3 instances of full frontal female nudity, 25 instances of violent killings, 2 scenes involving drug use) A system like this would help parents make an informed decision as to whether or not they would feel comfortable allowing their children to watch a particular movie, much less watch a movie themselves. One objection some may raise to this proposal would no doubt criticize the amount of time and effort required to examine the statistics. The best response I have to this opposition is a question. When a good parent shops at a supermarket, do they pile food into the cart without a second thought or do they stop to read the nutritional information first? Should advertisers worry about the amount of time they would have to buy for fitting statistics in a trailer, the amount of time needed would be but an extra three to five seconds. Now that I think of it, what's wrong with displaying those statistics in a black bar at the bottom of the screen à la CNN headline crawls while the trailer plays? An announcer's voice or a separate title card could then wrap up the trailer by instructing the audience to visit the MPAA web site for a full list of the film's statistics. Though there is no such thing as pure objectivity, raw data in the form of mathematical or scientific results arrived at via rational processes is the closest we can come to this ideal. After all, numbers -- unlike people -- never lie. A system like this would save parents from having to preview a film for their children, and would reveal potentially objectionable scenes without spoiling key plot points. Once potential viewers have this data on hand, they can apply their own ratings. Anyone opposed to a system like this is too scared and lazy to think independently, and wants everyone else to have that comfort, too.

If the MPAA won't change its ways, it would be nice if they lightened up. But I'm not holding my breath. As long as they're allowed to conduct their business the way they do, it's only a matter of time before those self-appointed morality cops find another stimulus to activate the panic center in their brains and sound the alarm in kind. The true pornographers in this or any society are not those who have sex on camera, but those who think they can tell the populace which works among music, film, radio, television, and literature are acceptable for consumption, and then have the gall to unilaterally censor such material based on their own moral convictions. Contrary to the beliefs held by crusading xenophobes, catching sight of certain images or hearing certain words will not turn a person into a drug dealer, a serial killer, a terrorist, or a pedophile. To paraphrase what Tom Braden once said on CNN's Crossfire, "Each of us has a personal responsibility [to decide what we want to see and listen to], and that's as far as it can go."

Do you agree with the MPAA ratings system? Would you like to see it changed, if not abrogated altogether? Whatever your opinion, please leave your comments. When you do, be assured that, so long as you don't circumvent the law, I will not censor your words.

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