Thursday, October 21, 2010

Debating the Rating

When it comes to filtering what is deemed acceptable in film, how much responsibility should to be placed on the viewer? Now I am not talking about the film buffs who can argue the merits of Spielberg and Kurosawa, I mean the average filmgoer. The person who helps Jackass 3D make 50 million dollars instead of supporting an independent or foreign film being shown in the same theatre. Currently the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is the governing body that determines what rating a film will get. They are the ones who decide that Toy Story receives a G rating while Inglourious Basterds receives an R rating. When it comes to the MPAA, Alan Moore’s famous line “Who watches the Watchmen?” is often quoted. Yet I think the phrase “Who profits from the Watchmen?” is more appropriate.

This question has been on my mind for a few weeks now since I first heard that the MPAA had given the movie Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating. Giving a film an NC-17 rating is essentially the kiss of death for any film. Besides the fact that it restricts anyone under the age of seventeen from accessing the film, it also gives the stigma that the film is as offensive as pornography. After seening Blue Valentine at this year’s TIFF, I was stunned that the film received such a harsh rating. According to Deadline , the film received the rating for a scene “in which the characters played by Gosling and Williams try to save their crumbling marriage by spending a night away in a hotel. They get drunk and their problems intensify when he wants to have sex and she doesn’t, but will to get him off her back. That hurts his pride and the result is an upsetting scene that makes you squirm

Having sat through the infamous scene in question, I can say, without spoiling the film, that there is no violence in the scene and things do not unfold they way you initially think it will. The scene is actually one of my favourite moments in the film for reasons which I will elaborate more on when I post my review. Still, the fact that a film can get such a harsh rating for simply making the viewer squirm raises concern over whose interest are the MPAA really serving?

Now this is by no means a rant for the abolishment of the MPAA, unlike most film lovers I actually believe the MPAA can be a useful organization. I just think that they have lost their way in regards to ratings. Instead of taxing big budget studio films that will be seen in 2000 plus theatres, the MPAA seems to more often than not punish the films that the average filmgoer would not be seeing in the first place. With the exception of Showgirls, which is a teenage boy's wet dream of a movie, how many of the following NC-17 rated films were the average underage person really eager to see: Crash (Cronenberg’s version)? Bad Lieutenant? Requiem for a Dream? Mysterious Skin? Lust, Caution;? Chances are good these films would not have played to a wide audience even if they had received an R rating. So why do these films get the NC-17 rating while other films like Inglourious Basterds, Predators, The Expendables, Splice and the Jackass movies are allowed to play in close to 3000 theatres?

Some may argue that it is an issue of escapist fare versus more realistic themes. How then do you explain Oscar nominated films like Precious? The main character in that film is repeatedly raped, has a television thrown at her, etc. While I really enjoyed Precious, it was just as, if not more, unsettling as Blue Valentine, yet no controversy at all. I wonder if Tyler Perry and Oprah had not produced the film if the ratings would be different. It is time for the MPAA to really look at the big budget studio fair with the same fine toothed comb it looks at the smaller independent films. There should be no reason that you can watch people die on screen in gruesome ways, yet intimate character studies, that would play primarily independent, get penalized so savagely.

Again, I am not calling for the disbanding the MPAA, they are an important organization to have around. Their intentions are valid, it just that their systems for ratings films needs to be updated and clarified. The easiest and most effect solution would be to first do market research on the films that the general public are most likely to see. The research should cover everything from age, types of movies the person regularly watches, the theatres they most often go to etc. Then, based on the overall feedback, the MPAA should adjust their overall standards accordingly. There is no reason small films that skew to a more adult audience, such as Blue Valentine, get slapped with NC-17 ratings while you can go into any multiplex and watch films like Machete, or The Town without even a second thought.


  1. NC-17 is a tricky thing. I think it's a useless rating given to films because of the "ewww, sex" factor our society presents in public (put them behind close doors, it's a different matter entirely). We prefer innuendo to visualization.

    I wouldn't mind NC-17 if it also went to films which are more graphic in violence as well. That strict direction towards sex, and the occasional sex+violence twofer, which causes me to question its value.

    Great post!

  2. @Univarn - I have never understood North America's use of sex in the media. You cannot have anything that hints at real sexuality in films, yet you can use sexuality to sell every product under the sun in print ads and television spots.

    I agree though that the NC-17 is a rather pointless rating outside of pornographic movies. For it to be effective the MPAA needs to get tougher on mainstream films with graphic violence.

  3. I read an article a long while back (so long I don't even remember who wrote it) analyzing, specifically, the US and violence + sex. Noting we use violence as a substitute for sex in cinema.

    There seems to be a big divide among people between what they're willing to see in their homes and what they're willing to see around others. Yet that doesn't account for why they still don't see the movie once its on DVD. For some reason people seem to want to associate sex with negative unless conveyed in a nondescript manner. Though I think with each generation that perception dies off a little bit more.

  4. @Univarn - I had never thought of it in those terms before but the whole violence as a substitute for sex makes ideology makes perfect sense. Sexuality is a topic that most people are told from young not to talk or think about.

    I know that in the horror genre, and certain thrillers, sex was always something to be demonized. So more often than not the virgin had a better chance of surviving the killer instead of the horny teenagers. Yet violence is widely accepted as a form of entertainment in everything from film to sports. The more over-the-top it is on screen the less people feel that personal connection. On the other hand, sex is something that most people will encounter, in one way or another, at some point in their life. Very interesting...I will have to see if I can locate the article online. I would love to give it a read.

  5. I have a big problem with the way the MPAA rates films. I wouldn't expose a child to most PG-13 films because of the violence in them, but there are several R rated films I wouldn't hesitate to let them watch.

    You mentioned the MPAA having a problem with the way a specific scene made them feel. This also happened with Sucker Punch. I know I liked it better than most people, but the MPAA's decision made the director remove the most important scene in the film - the one that actually gives an important story arc for Baby Doll.

    They had a problem with the scene because she is seduced and she chooses to accept the man's actions. The MPAA wanted it changed to be where the man forces himself on her. Only the MPAA could determine that a woman choosing to have consensual sex merits an R rating, but a man choosing to have non-consensual sex merits only a PG-13.

    Because Snyder was contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 movie he had to cut the entire scene, and therefore the most important scene for Baby Doll. Thankfully the scene was restored on the Blu-ray Extended Cut.

    Here is what I had to say about it: "Seeing the High Roller scene before it, and especially listening to his dialogue, now makes the following scene understandable and more poignant. I feel that that is what bothered the MPAA – the following scene is more emotionally disturbing because of the High Roller scene and I guess they couldn’t handle that. I say that it gives some clarity to a movie that was already open to interpretation in many areas."

    Without this scene, and with the 77other changes the MPAA required, the movie was much worse. The restored, R rated version of the movie was a lot better.


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