Ratings, warnings and ‘Sue’s Clues’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Ever since the infamous Hays Office opened for business in 1922, people have been grumbling about movie censorship. And the latest incarnation of Hollywood’s attempt to control everything on film, the government-sanctioned Motion Picture Association of America, is cheerfully exposed in the new-to-DVD movie, “This Film is Not Yet Rated.”

If you think the contents of the CIA, the old NKVD, or the lingerie section of Herbert Hoover’s wardrobe, have been kept top-secret, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The MPAA, which rates virtually all the movies we normally see, has no rules, no accountability, and we’re not even allowed to know who the movie raters are or how they work. We are the only country in the world with such a veil of secrecy surrounding such a film board.

Kirby Dick’s light-hearted documentary about this paranoid organization didn’t show in many theaters after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Most of the large chains won’t show movies rated NC-17, which Dick’s film was rated by the irate rating board – a delineation he playfully “surrendered.” Additionally, films rated NC-17 cannot advertise on network television or in many newspapers. I happened to catch it on the Independent Film Channel (bless their hearts), but the film is also now out on DVD, and I heartily recommend it to anyone truly interested in movies.

Jack Valenti, the Big Cahuna at MPAA for 38 years, refined their deep, dark rule book (also kept secret), and appointed mansion-dwelling, registered Republican Joan Graves to run the rating unit. She hires all other raters, and ostensibly reports only to current MPAA President Dan Glickman, who’s only credentials for his office seem to be the fact that he served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for six years.

Besides carefully outlining our collective cinematic moral code in 1930, first Prez Will Hays later distinguished himself by helping to write the infamous Hollywood Blacklist of 1947. Perhaps the juiciest bit of irony is the fact that in recent years, the MPAA has championed the fight against movie piracy – but was caught making unauthorized copies of a particular film despite the copyright owner’s refusing permission. That film, of course, was “This Film is Not Yet Rated.”

We shouldn’t actually be surprised. This group was formed in 1922 “to advance the interests of movie studios,” so by definition independent films get short shrift.

Critics of the MPAA often cite the fact that they are quite strict about the boundaries of sexual conduct, but eye other kinds of violence, even extreme violence and rape, with a somewhat cavalier attitude. They gave an “R” rating to such blood-drenched, female-degrading releases as “Sin City” (2005), “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2003), “The Hills Have Eyes II” (2007) and worst of all 1994’s “Natural Born Killers,” while the independent touching love story “The Cooler” (2003) was issued a NC-17 and had to be re-edited before release because a brief glimpse of Maria Bello’s pubic hair was detected in one scene.

“This Film is Not Yet Rated” continues, full of jaw-dropping instances that seem to, at best ignore, but more often trample on our God-of-the-cinema-given rights. And Mr. Dick keeps it light by documenting the way his team of private investigators cracked the wall of secrecy and revealed the names of the raters.

Another shortcoming of the system was pointed out to me by one of our long-time readers, Sue Dolan of Lock Haven, Pa. After seeing the coming attractions for “The Bridge to Terabithia,” she took her preteen grandchildren to see it. About halfway through the film, there’s an unexpected death (of a young person) tossed into the plot. Sue’s grandchildren were distressed, and she had a great deal of uncomfortable explaining to do.

Yes, the film had been rated “PG” but the reason was vaguely worded. Sue suggested there should be some special warning sign connected to the ratings, i.e. “KD” if a kid dies in the film, or “DD” for the death of a dog. “Bambi,” then, would have been rated “G – MD,” indicating that Bambi’s mom would not fare well before the blazing guns of the hunters.

And so, while the nervous members of the Justice Department may serve at the pleasure of the president, I serve at the pleasure of the reader. Henceforth, we’ll add a special section to “Carly at the Movies” when appropriate, which will be entitled “Sue’s Clues.” If something looks like it might rock the boat for the teenies, I’ll provide the high sign in my review. And thanks, Sue, for your suggestion.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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