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MPAA: Four Little Letters; One Giant Pain
by William Bartlet

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So cute yet so dark and violent, and that's just the dog.

So cute yet so dark and violent, and that's just the dog.
INDIANA JONES returned to movie screens over the weekend to one of the largest hauls in movie history, and becoming potentially the biggest blockbuster of the year. It is only natural that after a near twenty year absence that one would get nostalgic about the "Indy" series.

Over the last few weeks I re-watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and remembered why I fell in love with the series to begin with. I re-watched LAST CRUSADE and was charmed by the amped up wit, charisma, and chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery even if I was a bit off put by the focus on comedy over action. I even managed to re-watch the tripe that was TEMPLE OF DOOM and remember why the PG13 rating was first invented.

It is that rating which brings me to this rant of mine: the Motion Picture Association of America's rating board. Perhaps one of the most awkward and ass backward groups known to man. Much like the Federal Communications Commission, the MPAA exists for a competent reason yet, rarely goes more than a few months without showing off the incompetence surrounding it.

The original controversy involving INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM started with parents and director Steven Spielberg himself. Both parties were unsatisfied with a PG rating being applied to a film that featured such themes as: child slavery, brutality towards children, occultism, graphic imagery (including a heart being pulled from a man's body and exotic "foods" being served for shock value), and an overall darker them that would disturb many younger viewers.

In 1984, when TEMPLE was released, there were only three real ratings that the MPAA gave out. G was given to movies considered acceptable for all audiences, PG for films that were acceptable for younger audiences but parents were warned that some of the content might be questionable, and R in which a movie was only intended to be viewed by adults unless a parents or guardian was present with someone under the age of 18. Other ratings such as X and NC17 have been applied on and off throughout the history of the MPAA, but are so rarely used that they hardly get mentioned even by the MPAA themselves.

That did not leave a lot of elbow room, thus when TEMPLE made it to the big screens, the MPAA was stuck between a rock and a hard place. There was nothing to give the film an outright R rating. There was not enough violent content, not enough sexual content, and the film was almost devoid of any objectionable language. On the other hand, a PG just did not seem strong enough for a film that was liable to give some children nightmares after watching.

Thus, the PG13 rating was invented. A PG13 simply said that the movie in question would be appropriate for older children (teenagers), but parents were strongly cautioned against allowing young children from viewing the film.

It took the rating a while to work out the kinks. Movies like NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION and REPOSESSED were both given PG13 ratings, yet still featured content that many parents would find objectionable even for children in their young teenage years. Namely, brief but blatant nudity.

Perhaps saying that the MPAA "worked out the kinks" is giving them a bit too much credit. Over the years, the MPAA has shown a slip shod sense of handling movie ratings. The list of films that seem to carry the wrong rating (yet they are given the correct mark as declared by the MPAA) is quite long.

SHOWGIRLS made pop culture history in the mid-90s by being touted as a softcore porn coming to major theaters everywhere. It even garnered an NC17 rating, a rare rating by the MPAA that signified anyone under the age of 17 could not enter the theater, even with a parent or guardian. Yet, an R rating seemed more suitable as there was only one sex scene (simulated of course), but there was loads of nudity.

Other films had shown gratuitous nudity in the past and escaped with only an R rating (the similar film STRIPTEASE with Demi Moore comes to mind), yet a single, simulated sex scene is enough to garner an
Point the finger of blame right here.

Point the finger of blame right here.
NC17? What about all of the films that have shown multiple simu-sex scenes? Why did they escape the NC17? What about BASIC INSTINCT

BASIC INSTINCT was a film that many felt could have justified an NC17. I am one of those that feel that it would have had justification. The movie had a litany of objectionable content that even many liberal adults would find hard not to squirm at a time or two. Sex mixed with violence, rape, homosexual characters designed only to arouse, graphic dialogue, and of course the famous interrogation scene that showed more than many movies on Cinemax (at the time) would be willing to show were only a few of the areas that would be considered offensive to many viewers. Yet, BASIC INSTINCT hit theaters with an R rating.

In 1998, a new controversy arose when SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was released and became acclaimed as one of the greatest movies of all time. It also became known as one of the most violent and graphically realistic portraits of World War 2 ever brought to the silver screen. The opening sequence from D-Day featured the bloody battle from every angle with as much blood and gore as a standard slasher flick (if not more.) Many heralded the film for having the courage to show just how gritty and brutal the war really was. Yet, many also blasted the MPAA and director Steven Spielberg for not placing an NC17 onto it.

Some argued, including Spielberg, that the film was of historic value and even some younger viewers deserved the chance to be a part of it. Though, that argument had a hard time holding up.

A similar argument went up in 2004 with the release of Mel Gibson's religious film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. The film, like RYAN, showed graphic sequences of an historic event. In this case, it was the crucifixion of Christ which was given the horror movie treatment with plenty of blood and gore to let the audience get a feel of the pain and torment Christ went through while He was executed. Even with such torturous and barbaric scenes being displayed in the film, PASSION was given an R rating causing division not only in movie circles, but also religious circles as well.

Two distinct debates raged then, and continue to drag on even today over whether or not sex should be the only thing that warrants an NC17 rating (SHOWGIRLS is the only major, mainstream film in the last twenty years to garner such a rating) or should violence not be included in the list of criteria.

If historical documentation is the only reason that films should be given a pass on the adults only rating, then Penthouse's original owner Bob Guccione can rest easy knowing that any re-release of the 1980 film CALIGULA will get nothing more than an R rating even if it is left uncut, CALIGULA by all accounts, was a pretty valid look at the Roman Empire under the reign of the eccentric (if not out and out insane) imperial title character.

The movie featured graphic violence (men being emasculated, women being raped, a man being beheaded for entertainment, women being tortured, and even a child being executed.) If that wouldn't be enough for anyone with a weak stomach, the film also features several simulated and non-simulated scenes of sex and sexual content. In addition to simulated incest and bestiality, the film climaxes (no pun intended) with an over the top orgy that sees innumerable sex acts that leave nothing to the imagination.

Now obviously, such a film would get an NC17 rating today (if it would be allowed wide release in this day and age at all.) Yet, one has to wonder if the MPAA's stance on historical films would hold up if the sexual content was removed or toned down a great bit. I would say we wouldn't have to worry about such a thing, but one day there will be another CALIGULA to come down the pike and challenge the MPAA using its own historical precedents against them.

Some have pointed to the fact that slasher films of the 1980s were originally released with X ratings (that era's equivalent of the NC17) as a sign that the MPAA has not always had their heads
Bridging the objectionable content divide for more than 20 years.

Bridging the objectionable content divide for more than 20 years.
buried in the sand. The FRIDAY THE 13th series throughout much of the 80s were forced to undergo copious amounts of editing each time as the MPAA continually placed X ratings on the finished products. At that point, the MPAA were saying through their actions that graphic violence was worthy of an adults only audience, and that no one under the age of 18 should be allowed to witness it. Though, one could also argue that the amounts of violence and gore left in movies of that type were still over the top.

It would seem that in today's world, where violent crime and acts of barbarism have started being performed by younger ages (just look at the alarming rise in school shootings over the last decade), that the MPAA would seem more justified to try and give parents a heads up for lethal doses of violent content. Yet, the exact opposite has happened.

The 2000s have seen a dramatic increase in a genre some critics have labeled as "torture porn." These films (such as HOSTEL and SAW) feature elaborate scenes of violence, gore, and overall disturbing images that often (especially for HOSTEL) are closely linked to sex or other elements that might make the violence more lurid for those watching. The films were marketed strongly towards a teenage audience, and the MPAA backed up such an endorsement to a crowd under the age of 18 by giving each film an R rating.

Many, myself included, have criticized the MPAA for not taking stronger measures and giving such films that not only glorify violence but also torture an NC17 rating. One can hardly comprehend why the MPAA would so staunchly disregard the protests and objections of parents, politicians, religious leaders, and even some in the movie industry. Unless, it is in fact that the MPAA gets their palms greased by studios to ensure that certain films do not get treated too harshly

If someone needs an argument for this long standing Hollywood "urban legend" then they need look no further than the Walt Disney company. Disney animated films of the 1990s were often criticized for violent or dark content while being branded with G ratings that would all but ensure the target would be young children.

ALADDIN showed a minor character dying in the opening moments of the film, the LION KING dealt with the murder of the title character's father by his own uncle, TARZAN ended with the graphic depiction of a man having his neck snapped by a noose made from a tree vine, and perhaps the most controversial of Disney's 1990s films was the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME which many felt had too dark of a tone for a family picture while at the same time propagating stereotypes and harmful social attitudes. Even with such elements, these Disney features were continually marked with family friendly G ratings.

It is also interesting to note that the prior to the 1990s, the only animated movie the Walt Disney company released with dark themes or content was the BLACK CAULDRON. The film was given a PG rating and did poor at the box office (exceptionally poor by Disney standards.) Some believe that the PG rating connected to poor box office numbers might show why Disney would be so adamant about ensuring their features garner more family friendly ratings.

On the other hand, a reversal in the trend has been seen in the last decade with Disney films being given what some see as a harsher hand by the MPAA. LILO & STITCH and ATLANTIS were both animated Disney features that were given PG ratings due to darker themes. Then again, by the time both were released, Disney was focusing more in Pixar productions rather than their own traditionally animated features. Thus, it could be argued that they allowed the MPAA to act unimpeded (if any shenanigans were to be found beforehand that is) simply because they did not care if their traditional films failed or not. In fact, if they did a little poorer at theaters in might be just the kickstart Disney needed to move full steam ahead into the world of computer animation.

While it can be said that the MPAA seems to turn a
Doesn't this image just scream

Doesn't this image just scream
blind eye to dark and violent content, there is a hefty argument that the MPAA also tends to give films garnered to towards children a more difficult time getting soft ratings (at least when not produced as a Disney cartoon.) PIRATES OF CARIBBEAN was released with a PG13 rating for strong violence, and even after the film became a hit, the two sequels were not given any lesser treatment by the MPAA. Much like INDIANA JONES, the PIRATES franchise did not feature anything too graphic or objectionable, but was just questionable enough that a PG13 was the only answer.

Perhaps the film series that has been given the most difficult time is HARRY POTTER. Starting with the fourth film, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, the HARRY POTTER series has been given PG13 ratings for perceived darker themes surrounding the rise of chief villain, Lord Voldemort. While the tone of the stories have gotten darker, the overall objectionable content has not. Yet, the MPAA is covering their tracks by handing out a stronger rating rather than getting a public backlash for a film that is geared towards children. It probably doesn't hurt that the HARRY POTTER series took on a lot of derision from overzealous religious groups even before it ever made it to movie screens.

Another problem the MPAA system faces, especially in a world that sees movies get re-released on home video, cable television, and even the internet everyday, is the prospect of virtual outdated ratings. Obviously, if INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM landed in hot water over its content in 1984 and its director even acknowledged that it deserved a stronger rating, it does not make much sense that TEMPLE is still branded with the family friendly PG rating with every modern day video release and television showing.

Many older films suffer from a similar problem with PG ratings being applied to some films that might deserve stronger ratings, and some (such as the originally X rated MIDNIGHT COWBOY) may have stronger ratings from the past that would be considered too harsh in retrospect.

A suggestion I will often bring up to anyone within ear (or this case eye) shot pertains to the MPAA re-rating films after so many years before any re-release. In this case, the Indiana Jones series is being re-released to DVD and it will have been twenty-four years since TEMPLE OF DOOM'S original rating was issued. Perhaps now would be a good time for the MPAA to re-evaluate the film before letting it hit store shelves with a PG rating?

With all of the obvious problems the MPAA rating's system has, and all of the problems it is sure to have for decades to come, the best advice for parents or guardians (or even those who wish to avoid objectionable or outright offensive content) is to do research on the film before viewing it. Never go by ratings alone as there are so many variables that it would be near impossible to determine one set ratings guideline criteria.

There are numerous websites that have developed over the years (Screen It comes to mind right of the top of my head) that are designed specifically to give movie goers a heads up on any potentially offensive content in the movies that have been released both in theaters and in the home video market. It is the parents' job to know what the subject matter and content outline of the film (or even television show, music album, or video game) their children are about to be entertained by. Let the MPAA be a vague outline of what the movie in question provides, but it should not be the be all end all of parental decision making when it comes to their children's movie going adventures.

The best bet above all else would be for a parent to watch a movie before their child does and then give it their own rating based on their convictions and what they feel their children are old enough to deal with. The more responsible the parents are, the less responsible the MPAA has to be (as if they've ever been anyway.)




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Reel Rantings
Every other Saturday

Reel Rantings is simply what I feel like talking about as far as it pertains to movies and the movie industry. One week it maybe serious, the next comical (or my idea of comical) and the next abstract in design.


Other Columns
Other columns by William Bartlet:

To Tell the Truth: Stories Behind the Movies

Hollywood and Vine in Downtown TV Land


William Bartlet
My (pen) name is William Bartlet. I graduated high school in 2000 and briefly "attended" (or got jacked around by) the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) before dropping out to try my hand as a writer. Here I am today still trying, and having a great time doing it. As far as movies are concerned, it can be said that I am a walking clash of styles. I love action adventure movies as much as I do "chick flicks." I cheered during "The Punisher" and cried during "Pretty Woman."


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