Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix An Immodest Proposal

It's time to give the ratings system an X-it

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 30, 1999:  As usual, the controversy was bigger than the film. Eyes Wide Shut, the latest victim in the perennial struggle between movie censorship and freedom of expression, between self-serving hypocrites and money-grubbing moguls, opened July 16 to great expectations. The final film by the late Stanley Kubrick! Years in the making! Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman naked! What a pretentious bore. Despite a marketing campaign of unprecedented cynicism and a big opening weekend, the movie slowly sank from sight.

Well, not entirely. Ever the innovator, Kubrick (so we are told) had devised a novel method of avoiding the NC-17 box-office kiss of death from Jack Valenti's MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating board. Using the computer version of a fig leaf, he inserted hooded heads and stationary nude female bodies (female nudity apparently not rating as highly as the other gender's) to conceal male genitalia and "coital motion" during the film's orgy sequence.

Even granting the contention by Eyes Wide Shut's studio, Warner Bros., that Kubrick had voluntarily imposed these blocking heads himself (in a film ostensibly about sexual repression, these were actually among the subtler touches), critics were outraged, both at the studio's bowdlerization of a renowned filmmaker's last work and at the MPAA's increasingly clueless despotism. "A force of censorship," the Los Angeles Film Critics Society labeled the MPAA, "with a chilling effect" on the creative process. "Out of control," added the New York Film Critics Circle. And more recently, the Boston Society of Film Critics (of which I am a member, along with fellow Phoenix critics Tom Meek, Gerald Peary, Alicia Potter, Gary Susman, and Steve Vineberg) chimed in, stating that "the current ratings system... in its present form is now doing more harm than good."

How to fix it? Roger Ebert thinks he's put his thumb on the solution by proposing yet another category -- the Hawthorne-esque "A" for "adult," or perhaps "arty" -- to be inserted between "NC-17" and "R" for films that, though unsuitable for those under 17, are not mere exploitative trash. But who's to judge? The guy who gave a "thumbs up" to The Haunting?

Matt Stone, who challenged the ratings board more directly (and more coherently) in his and Trey Parker's brilliant South Park, suggested recently in Variety that we could include "symbols for nudity, violence, language, drug use, etc.... and add qualifiers such as M for mild and E for extreme."

Enough scarlet letters already -- the alphabet is not long enough, and anyway it was never intended for such abuse. It's time to pull the plug on a system that's been moribund since its beginning. The film industry can fulfill its potential as the perfect fusion of American art and American business only if those quintessential American principles -- free expression and free enterprise -- are allowed to apply.


Unfortunately, such principles are invariably undercut by traditional vices like greed, cowardice, hypocrisy, intolerance, and irresponsibility. And then there are always those who will object if they suspect someone else is having a good time. As long as there have been movies, there have been people willing to prevent others from enjoying them.

Like the poor slobs who lined up to see the exotic dancer Fatima chastely gyrate in an Edison Kinetoscope at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In a sad foreshadowing of Kubrick's Eyes, Edison was compelled to insert cross-hatchings on the image to protect the scandalized.

As films grew more technologically developed and commercially lucrative, censors became more organized. In 1907, the police in Chicago and New York clamped down on nickelodeons showing crime flicks "ministering to the lowest passions of childhood," in the words of the Chicago Tribune.

These local threats of censorship spurred what has since become the film industry's traditional response -- self-regulation, or the appearance thereof, to avoid outside interference. A variety of more or less ineffectual, often acronymmed figurehead organizations followed -- the National Board of Review, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI). By beginning of the roaring '20s, the studios -- confronted by Hollywood scandals like the Fatty Arbuckle case, faced with a declining box office, and shadowed by censorship boards in several states -- decided to get tough, or at least appear to.

In 1922, they formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and appointed former postmaster general Will Hays (himself a refugee from the financial scandals of the Warren Harding administration) its head. Although nominally enforcing a list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," the so-called Hays Office served mostly as a smokescreen for a brief period of filmmaking license called wistfully the "pre-code era."

First instituted in 1930, fully implemented in 1934 under the philistine czarship of Joseph Breen, the Production Code tyrannized Hollywood until its zombie-like reincarnation as the ratings system in 1968. With the Depression darkening the box office and religious organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency breathing down their neck, Hollywood studios kow-towed to reactionary moralism in this puritanical list of strictures enforced with arbitrary rigor by the bluestocking Breen.

By the 1960s, however, the keepers of the code faced greater challenges than Clark Gable saying "damn" in Gone with the Wind. The Golden Age of the studio monopolies was defunct, and the old Hollywood that remained was out of touch, awarding Oscars to films like The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady while a new generation of viewers experimented with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Foreign films by Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, and Godard stimulated audiences' imaginations with provocative material while young American filmmakers chafed at their inability to do the same. More to the point, the box office was at its lowest ebb ever.

How could Hollywood placate conservatives, tap new talent, exploit the huge youth audience, and quash the competition of foreign film industries -- in short, extend the life of an obsolete system? To the rescue came Jack Valenti, then an adviser for the Lyndon Johnson Administration. Put in charge of the newly named MPAA, he tinkered for a while with the existing code, then dumped it altogether for what would become, after a few revisions, the current ratings system. In theory, filmmakers could make the movies they wanted, and then Valenti and his board of anonymous viewers would decide who could watch.

And so followed the film renaissance of the late '60s and early '70s, in which daring, X-rated films like The Killing of Sister George, Blow-Up, A Clockwork Orange, and Last Tango in Paris could be made and seen and even -- in the case of Midnight Cowboy -- win an Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, though, this burst of creativity occurred despite Valenti's restoration of the code dinosaur, not because of it.

The chance to kill the code once and for all had passed; instead, it was allowed to linger on in the form of the X rating. Once the cultural and political radicalism of the '60s gave way to the reactionary backlash of the Nixon years, the X and its cosmetically altered successor, NC-17, became a symbol of depravity rather than audacity. With theater chains refusing to screen NC-17-rated films, newspapers denying them advertising, and video stores like Blockbuster excluding them from their shelves, the rating became an ad hoc form of censorship.

And, consequently, of control. It's no coincidence that the films given X's and NC-17s over the years have tended to come from independents, minorities, foreign filmmakers, and women -- those outside the fold of the seven major studios who are members of the MPAA. So much for Valenti and his ratings system's intent to protect artistic expression. The MPAA's sole interest, like that of all bureaucracies, has been to protect itself and what it sees as the interests of the corporations it represents. But the MPAA board has long since failed to serve the film industry, either in its capacity as an art form or in its capacity as a business.


It's time to complete the process that was begun more than three decades ago, before Valenti was brought in as a stopgap measure to save the Production Code. Exterminate the brute. End the farce of the MPAA rating system and let free expression and free enterprise reign.

Wouldn't that let pornography and ultra-violence flood the screens? Well, ask yourself what onslaught of smut could equal the Starr investigation, the federal government's $40 million movie that dominated the media for more than a year. People were sick of it when it was being aired for free; would anyone in America have paid $8 a pop to see it on the big screen? Filmgoers are more discriminating and sophisticated than that, and in the rough-and-tumble of the movie marketplace, stimulating stories, characters, and themes have staying power, not sensationalism, tawdry sex or cheap thrills. Besides, graphic images don't disturb the current gatekeepers -- what could be more shocking than the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan? what could be less threatening than its flag-waving finale? -- so much as unconventional ideas. And those will never prevail as long as films are regulated by the kind of people who equate indecency with too many thrusts at a pastry, as was one of the criteria behind the "R" rating for American Pie.

But doesn't on-screen sex and violence cause similar behavior in real life? That sure was the bandwagon a lot of politicians hopped on after the Columbine High School shootings. Funny, though, not many have suggested that the day-trader shooter in Atlanta or in Buford Furrow might have overdosed on viewings of The Matrix. From the claims made in a 1912 news story that a youth killed in an attempted railroad heist had been inspired by a viewing of The Great Train Robbery to current litigation against Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, movies have been accused of inspiring crime, but the evidence has been less than convincing. Certainly movies are less harmful to children than an assault rifle in the hands of a neo-Nazi.

Well, then, who's going to protect children from inappropriate material if there's no MPAA? Conservative parents -- who tend to distrust big government and Hollywood anyway -- should ask themselves whether they really trust the judgment of "protectors" who didn't catch the double entendre of South Park's subtitle, Bigger, Longer and Uncut. The truth is, standard ratings will never work in a country that doesn't have standard parents or standard children. Some folks might want to protect their charges from the crude humor of Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me; others might be more concerned by the misogyny of Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Both films are rated PG-13 -- parental guidance suggested for children under 13 -- but with no explanation to guide the parents.

And these days, parents have plenty of information that's readily available. Thirty years ago, the MPAA may have been necessary as a comprehensive source of information on movie content; but since then a whole industry of alternative sources has sprouted up, from on-line outlets to the six o'clock news. Detailed descriptions of every major release aren't just available, they're unavoidable. Those parents who want real control over what their children see -- something they'll never get from the MPAA -- might consider watching a film like South Park themselves and then talking to their kids about sex, drugs and violence on the screen before these become part of real life.

In truth, even though I am one of the "small band of constant whiners" -- i.e., film critics -- whom Jack Valenti lambasted in a recent diatribe in Variety, I don't "view with withering contempt the rubes who live Out There." Unlike oligarchs like himself, or the latter-day Legionnaires of Decency who seek to deny others the right to see films they don't approve of, I think that when it comes to a voting booth or a box office, most Americans will choose to keep their eyes wide open.


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