Saturday, July 26, 2008


I've never seen This Film is Not Yet Rated, but watching The Dark Knight made me think about how incompetent the MPAA is. That movie was PG-13? Really? I know, Nolan artfully cuts away right when something hideously gruesome is about to happen, but that makes it worse! So I'm just gonna run down a few movies that got the wrong ratings, and then I need your help to finish it out:

1.The Matrix (1999)
Rating: R
Should've Been: PG-13
I guess there is a lot of shooting of (virtual) people, but this movie is exactly the kind of fun fantasy that should be PG-13. Iron Man, for example, is much more troubling and violent.

2.Once (2007)
Rating: R
Should've Been: G
I guess the F-bomb is dropped a few times in this perfect musical that, otherwise, anyone could watch. Way to rate a movie that a 4-year old could enjoy R, MPAA.

3.The Dark Knight (2008)
Rating: PG-13
Should've Been: NC-17
Seriously, I'm not really a horror movie connoisseur, but I think this might be the most terrifying movie I've ever seen. And remember, when I say this movie should be NC-17, that's because lots and lots of movies should be NC-17, if the MPAA weren't a bunch of hypocritical do-gooders.

These are the big three I can think of. Ordinarily I wouldn't post until I had more, but this time I'd rather just hear from you guys. What else has the MPAA blown big time?


David said...

Waiting for Guffman was basically a PG movie, but then the F-word was used once in a sexual context and it got an automatic R. Very idiotic. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had insane amounts of violence for a PG, and it should have been a PG-13, but it wasn't. I remember my little brother screaming in the theater when I went see that. Fahrenheit 9/11 should have been PG-13, but it was rated R. I kind of wish wall-e was PG, because when I went to see it, there were tons of bored kids whining and crying about boredom when they went to see it. It wouldn't be hard to just slap 'thematic elements' across the rating and give it a PG. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been PG, but it was PG-13. There are many more out there, but these were the ones I could think of.

scary film reviewer said...

I agree that Dark Knight shouldn't be PG-13, however NC-17? Have you seen any NC-17 films? I don't think it warrants that at all.

Check out "We Own The NIght" for a similar plot, similar film, with no bat and an R rating.

Or check out "Running Scared" with Paul Walker, similar plot turns, no bat, and Rated R.

Now for Nc-17? Those usually include highly offensive sexual content. Like the movie "A Dirty Shame" where people start becoming sex addicts from getting hit in the head.

I agree, the MPAA sucks and are idiots.

Just look at the latest Kevin SMith film that he's trying to get rated. The MPAA keeps giving his film an R rating. Meanwhile, they gave Clerks 2 an r-rating even though there is a guy doing a donkey in the film!

I could go on and on, MPAA is dumb, and that film "This FIlm Is Not Yet Rated" is awesome.

Graham said...

David: Yeah, I'm with you on Wall-E, and definitely Indiana Jones as well. But I think your best point is Prisoner of Azkaban: no way that movie should have been anything less than PG-13. But it was Harry Potter, so of course it gets PG.

Scary: I'm not saying The Dark Knight should have been NC-17 by the standards of the MPAA, I'm saying it should be NC-17 by my standards, which is to say that it seemed to me to be lots scarier and more intense than any R-rated movie I've ever seen. I haven't actually seen an NC-17 movie.

If I were the MPAA, I'd probably just do 2 ratings: G, R, and NC-17 (or maybe NC-16 or NC-15). The distinctions between G, PG, and PG-13 escape me (as in Wall-E and Azkaban). And then I also believe that there should be some 16 and up movies only, and that both violence AND sex should be taken into account for those.

david said...

I forgot to mention gunner palace. That film was had INSANELY harsh language, but was PG-13 because it was a documentary. I needed to make that point to get the point of Fahrenheit 9/11 across. Gunner Palace had a fair amount of violence, too.

Fletch said...

Graham, I don't mean to be offensive, but perhaps you ought to broaden your horizons. I know you explained your reasoning, but the thought of The Dark Knight actually getting an NC-17 scares me more than the MPAA ever could.

I can think of a couple "intense" scenes, but I barely think it qualifies for an R. Seriously, what was so scary? I'll give you Dent's face, but I don't know if I think scary is the right word there. What else?

Graham said...

Fletch: I'm certainly not going to take offense. Maybe it's just because I saw it in IMAX, but I've never been so horrified at a movie. And it's not so much the stuff that you see - Dent's face didn't bother me at all - but what you don't see.

Seeing someone stick a pencil through someone's eye into their brain probably wouldn't bother me that much - I love zombie movies, pretty much that exact scenario happens in Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2.

On the other hand, having to imagine a pencil go into someone's brain through their eye, or imagine someone having a bomb surgically implanted in their abdomen, or imagine however those scars were made by whoever made them, well, those have all been sticky with me.

So maybe I'm crazy, but something like Silence of the Lambs, with its gore and its scenery chewing, was considerably less disturbing to me than all the Hitchcockian mind games that Nolan played by forcing us to imagine the horrors.

And by playing them, he got his necessary PG-13 rating, which is one hell of an irony.

Fletch said...

I'll grant you that some of the implied violence is disturbing. If we had actually seen either of the gory details of the two events you point out (the pencil in the head, the cellphone surgery), the movie would have been an R, for sure. So yes, there's definitely a benefit to subtlety.

Call me sick, but the pencil scene is one of my favorites in the film, and pretty hilarious, I might add.

Though, if we really want to rail on the MPAA (and this is a strong point from This Film is Not Yet Rated), what's really sick is that a film like this, even with implied/offscreen violence, can get a PG-13 while showing skin (even in a non-sexual manner) gets an automatic R, if not worse.

Graham said...

Yeah, well, if there are three censorship options:
1.European/Canadian: Sex good, violence bad
2.US: Violence good, sex bad
3.Japanese: Torture porn with tentacle sex is acceptable reading on the train!

I'm with the Japanese on this one. But certainly, the U.S. perspective is much sillier than the European one.

One of the posts I didn't get written about The Dark Knight is how I think it has its own genre: The Terror film. Which is to say, not a horror film, which is supposed to scare you, but a terror film, which is supposed to paralyze you with dread. And although I walked out of the theater amped up, I was also pretty traumatized. So beyond the violence, implied or otherwise, the main thing I thought made it seem a step beyond any R-movie was the sheer terror it inflicted upon me. But maybe I was unique in that response.

The pencil action is BY FAR my favorite moment in the movie. My wife never wants to hear me quote it again.

Luke Harrington said...

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the MPAA's rating website:

"Indeed, if you are 18 or over, or if you have no children, the rating system has no meaning for you. Ratings are meant for parents, no one else."

Out of curiosity, how many people here that are complaining about the rating system have kids? And if you don't, why is something that doesn't affect you at all such a problem?

Don't get me wrong -- I agree that the ratings system is obsolete, antiquated, misused, misunderstood, in desperate need of an overhaul, etc. But the moral outrage people have over this thing...well, it kind of makes me laugh.

Let's not forget that the MPAA (or more accurately, CARA, the MPAA's Classifications and Ratings Administration arm) has to rate movies for the entire country, which, in terms of demographics, runs the gamut from the craziest conservatives to the most wacked-out liberals. No matter what rating you give a movie, SOMEBODY is going to disagree and express some amount of moral outrage.

That's the funny thing to me, though -- CARA's not in the business of making moral judgments -- or at least, they don't see themselves that way (though I'll admit they've arguably put themselves in a position that gives them de facto moral weight -- this is an unfortunate side effect though, not their intended purpose). Their only purpose, as far as they're concerned, is to give parents a guide as to what their children should see. To that end, they provide a general rating of the film, and content descriptors, and theoretically let parents make the call from there. Obviously not a perfect system, but often a misunderstood one.

In other words, most the criticism of the "R" rating is generally misguided. Yes, a movie with a single female topless scene gets the same rating as a movie with a hundred decapitations and a thousand F-bombs -- but to infer that this implies some sort of judgment that they are morally equivalent is ignorance. All the R rating implies is that the content is beyond a certain point at which a child should have express parental consent before viewing it (hence the content descriptors). Not everyone will agree, of course -- and this is why the ultimate decision is left up to the parents.

As for NC-17...yeah, I'd like to see it used more (and more honestly), too, but experience shows the most restrictive rating in a system never gets used, anyway -- particularly if the whole system is voluntary (witness the ESRB's "AO" rating). As long as society is going to interpret these ratings as moral judgment, the "highest" one will always be anethema. Hypocritical? Yes. But good luck changing it. :)

Fletch said...

Luke - I see where you're coming from, but think that that outlook is extremely naive and short-sighted. It cracks me up that the MPAA has that quote on their site - it's almost as offensive as some of the other stuff we've talked about here.

Ok, I don't have kids. Does that mean I shouldn't and/or can't care what they're taught in school? If the Board of Education decrees that all curricula include a section on "people in the world you should hate" or decides that teaching history is a bad idea, should the childless masses have no say in the matter?

Yes, someone, somewhere might get offended at a rating from time to time - that surely can't be avoided, and I don't think anyone really expects it to. But it doesn't matter what their intended purpose is - they do in fact serve as a moral compass, and anyone in that position is going to get called out from time to time. Why so shocked?

Oh, and if you don't think there are agendas at play when it comes to the ratings, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

Graham said...

Luke: I have to say that I disagree that the ratings have no meaning if you don't have kids. That's just disingenuous. Here are people that the ratings matter to, whether or not they have kids:

1.My Grandmother (will not see a Pg-13 or higher movie)
2.People who make, advertise, and distribute movies
3.People who run movie theaters
4.Sanctimonious conservative hypocrites like James Dobson
4.Sanctimonious "liberal" hypocrites like Joe Lieberman

In other words, whether you have kids or not, the MPAA affects filmgoing and the film business.

I also find the idea absurd that "Yes, a movie with a single female topless scene gets the same rating as a movie with a hundred decapitations and a thousand F-bombs -- but to infer that this implies some sort of judgment that they are morally equivalent is ignorance"

If they're not making a moral judgment, then what are they doing? If there's no moral judging going on, then why should kids not be allowed to see those things? And if they've created a system of moral judgment in which one nipple gets a film the same rating as a hundred decapitations, what is that besides moral equivalence?

Graham said...

Man, Fletch got there while I was typing my post. And said it all much, much more succinctly - the education analogy is perfect. What kids are and are not allowed to see, and the people making those judgments for them, should and does affect all of us.

Also, all of us were once kids. The MPAA system, since my parents took it seriously, was a painful part of being a teenager. Kids and post-kids should care too (ie, all of us)

Luke Harrington said...

I admit that I find your list of people who have to deal with the ratings and aren't children interesting, Graham. You mention "People who make, advertise and distribute movies" and "People who run movie theaters," but what you fail to note is that those two groups are by definition involved in the movie rating process, as CARA is set up as a joint venture between the MPAA and NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners). In other words, these two groups have voluntarily chosen to associate themselves with the ratings, in order to assign them and enforce them.

As for James Dobson and Joe Lieberman -- well, again, you seem to be missing the point here. These two are examples of people who have spoken out against R-rated films being marketed to children -- so again, the focus is on children. (In any case, if the ratings matter such a great deal to Dobson, why does Focus on the Family have its own publication where it "rates" movies for parents?)

Your granmother is, of course, a different case -- she's chosen to use the rating system to determine her own viewing habits. It should be obvious, though, that the system wasn't intended for her, and no one is enforcing it on her other than she herself. This is merely a case of someone using something for a purpose it was simply not intended for. (The people who make cribs for babies can hardly be held responsible if I try to sleep in one.)

Again, this seems to be what's going on here: y'all have forced your expectations on a system -- i.e., that it should be a moral code with which you agree -- and then become upset when it didn't live up to your unrealistic expectations. Why should we be surprised that a system intended to have no moral weight turns out to be morally ambiguous?

As for your "school" argument, Fletch, I'm gonna have to cry "false analogy" on that one. There's a key difference here: public schools can determine what a child must learn, whereas the CARA rating system can only determine what a child can't see. That second half will stand a bit of qualification: The rating system can only bar you from seeing certain films if you're under 17/18, only in the theater, and only if your parents don't consent -- and furthermore, it doesn't have force of law behind it. In other words, if you have parental consent or money to buy a DVD, no one can stop you from seeing whatever films you want to, regardless of your age (and theater owners can let whoever they want into whatever films they want, without fear of legal retributuion). Somehow I'm failing to see the connection between hatred taught in the public schools and a lack of nipples onscreen -- but if it's important to you that five-year-olds see nipples, you're more than welcome to buy them tickets, as far as I'm concerned. :)

Graham, I'd like to come back to the argument over one sex scene vs. 1,000 decapitations -- where again, you seem to be missing the point a little. There's a whole spectrum out there: all the way from Leave it to Beaver to House of 1,000 Corpses, and the point is that you have to draw the line somewhere on the spectrum. Since R is the only real restricted rating (in practical terms, NC-17 doesn't really exist outside of MPAA threats), everything beyond the "line" on the spectrum is by definition R-rated. CARA is assuming here that most parents would like to be consulted before their child sees 1,000 decaptiations, but they're also assuming most of them would like to be consulted before their child sees a sex scene. Or sees a single decapitation, or sees 1,000 sex scenes. These are all at different points on the spectrum (and we could argue forever as to where, exactly), but again, you have to draw the line somewhere. To rate them all R isn't to call them identical, it's merely to say they're all beyond the line of parental consent.

Let me conclude with this: I'm mainly playing Devil's Advocate here. (If you all were defending the ratings, I'd likely take the other side.) If I had my way, I'd like to see the rating system replaced with something that acknowledges its philosophical implications and societal responsibility, and preferably isn't tied directly to the commercial interests of the industry. At the same time, this is a system with a history, and designed with a very specific purpose: to help parents decide what to allow their children to see (consumer-side), and to prevent government censorship (industry-side). To ask it to be or do anything else is to ask to become something it isn't. In the end, its a relatively weak structure (it can't really prevent anyone from seeing anything), and it governs only movies, which are a fairly small part of most people's lives (though admittedly a much bigger part of ours). Does it need a lot of work? Sure. But does it deserved all the outrage? Nah.

Fletch said...

You're vastly underestimating the MPAA's sphere of influence, Luke. 20 years ago, there were no TV or video game ratings boards. Guess what - there are now, and where do you think they take their cues from?

But even if you don't watch movies, or TV, or play video games, I would still insist that you're being way too literal and missing the point yourself. The intricacies of my school example may not match those of the ratings board, but the fact remains that a small group of people is deciding (or, if you'd prefer, "guiding parents") what it right and wrong for children to see, and if you can't see the socio-political implications there, I can't help you.

I don't think any of us is outraged. But if you don't consistently have checks and balances on these types of things, you're likely to get an uncontrollable beast on your hands.

Graham said...

Yeah, again, I'm with Fletch. Outrage isn't the right word, but there is a problem. I also still don't understand how you don't perceive this to be a moral issue. The MPAA is trying to help parents guide their childrens' morality, and they're guiding it:
1.Towards violence and against sex
2.By looking at surface concerns and not examining ideas.

Both of those are big problems.

You're also, when mentioning that those who make and show movies, confusing positive and negative freedom. Sure, you're negatively free to make any kind of movie you want; no one is stopping you. But you're not positively free to do so, because there's a "voluntary" board that will supervise your work and then tell the people who are going to be showing it (who themselves might not like the board, but are beholden to it) how moral it is.

So yeah, you're negatively free to make any sort of movie you want, but you're not positively free to reach the audience you want with the movie you want. So you "voluntarily" make the choice to restrict your own artistic creation, because the institutions of society are stacked against you.

Luke Harrington said...

Fletch, you're actually wrong about there being a TV ratings board -- TV shows are all rated by their own producers. As for videogames -- sure there was no ratings board 20 years ago, but there were hardly any videogames, either. :) In both cases, the ratings that arose essentially replaced overt censorship (or at least the threat thereof). (In any case, I would argue that the ESRB is a huge improvement on CARA, in that it's independent of the software developers and it standardizes its reasons for ratings. It may some cues from CARA, but it's learned from its mistakes, rather than repeating them.

I really do think you're both putting more stock in MPAA ratings than they deserve. Especially with the rise of the Internet, anyone can see anything at any time, outside of a movie theater. Add to that the fact that every other country outside the U.S. has its own ratings system, and the "sphere of influence" starts to shrink. A lot.

Whether or not any of this is a "moral" question really rests on a bigger question: What does morality consist of? Most would agree that it's immoral to do certain things, but is it immoral to see certain things?

Finally, I'm not really buying the positive/negative freedom thing. Every filmmaker should be free to make whatever he or she wants, but a studio should also be free to decline to fund or distribute whatever product the want. Most films that are controversial would be so with or without a ratings system. If a filmmaker has a message that everyone has to hear, and the only way to communicate it is through an NC-17 film (could this situation ever possibly happen?), he or she is more than welcome to make it and distribute it however they please (put it in the Internet -- that thing loves controversy) -- but to force studios to fund it, or to force theaters to show it, would be a violation of their freedom. In the real world, it comes down to compromise, which is why we end up with a questionable ratings system like this.