Sunday, January 24, 2010

This Essay Is Rated PG for Thematic Material

Art is subjective. One person can look at a painting, go to a play, listen to a song or watch a movie and have a completely different interpretation or reaction than anyone else. This allows for passionate discussions and debates, which can expose people to different perspectives. I believe that censoring someone's artistic vision, and therefore robbing the people who appreciate art of the chance to take it in and think about it, is wrong - criminal even.

Enter in the Motion Picture Association of America, which classifies films with G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 ratings in the United States. I have to admit that I do think that it's important for some kind of ratings system to be in place. However, I think the current system is deeply flawed. Personally, the ratings board has always appeared to me to be a glorified censorship board. NC-17 means that no one under 17 is allowed to see the film, and due to that, most theaters will not carry films with NC-17 ratings. If a film is given that rating, the filmmakers can: a) take it and receive a very limited release; b) reject it and go "unrated," which also grants a very limited release; c) edit the film blindly (the MPAA doesn't share their specific reasons for ratings) and resubmit it, hoping to get a R rating. I should also note that the people at the MPAA are a little more talkative when it comes to films being released by the larger studios, not so much when it comes to smaller films.

In terms of transparency, I really think that the MPAA could be doing a lot better, with both filmmakers and moviegoers. Seeing that a film is rated PG-13 for "Some Language and Violence" really does not tell me much. Including the reasons why, such as "the word 'ass' was used 79 times" or "included a scene depicting a character falling off of a building," can only be helpful for parents. While one kid's parents might find something perfectly suitable for viewing, another kid's parents might find the same thing unsuitable. I think it should ultimately be up to the parents or guardians to make the decisions about what their kids watch. To a certain extent, they determine what their kids eat, what they wear and what other art their kids are exposed to, so why should movies be so different? I can't even remember the first PG-13 or R rated movie my parents let me see, and I turned out fairly okay. (Even if I didn't, I wouldn't say that the movies are to blame.)

Smoking has recently been a topic of debate in regard to its appearance in movies, as the MPAA has started to give harsher ratings to films that show characters puffing on cigarettes. While smoking might not be the healthiest thing in the world for a person to do, I think that it is absolutely ridiculous that the MPAA is doing this. Smoking is not illegal (unless you're under 18, of course), so I think it should be perfectly fine for a film to depict it. I mean, what's next? Are you going to give a romantic comedy a harsher rating because the lead's having a few cocktails with her friends? Are you going to give a film a harsher rating because one character eats unhealthy food in every scene? All of these behaviors, while they might not be the healthiest in the world, are perfectly legal.

Don't even get me started on the violence and sexual content debate, as the MPAA seems to let a lot more brutally violent films skirt the edge with a PG-13 or R rating, while films that contain certain amounts of certain sexual behavior are almost automatically slapped with a NC-17. Sex (in most cases) is perfectly legal. Violence (outside of war) is illegal.

The New York Times recently reported that current MPAA president and chief executive Dan Glickman will be leaving his post in April. I hope they find a new leader that will take more films and more people into account. I think this could be achieved by abolishing the NC-17 rating and a more transparent system of providing the reasons for a film's rating. If a parent knows why a film is rated R and still thinks it's okay for their kid to see it, then it should be fine. It might even promote more of those passionate discussions and debates. I'm not going to get my hopes up though, because after MPAA founder Jack Valenti left, I hoped for the same thing. Then we got the smoking ban.

If you would like an entertaining tutorial on the MPAA, I recommend director Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, in which he interviews people in the film industry who have gone toe-to-toe with the ratings board and takes it upon himself to start investigating their practices. (Probably about half of the information I shared in this article subconsciously came from details in this film - the other half being stuff that's probably in the movie that I knew about before I saw it.) Here's a taste:


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