Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

**The following is a paper I wrote in March 1997 for an English class my freshman year at Georgia State. I’ve wanted to share it for some time, and I’ve made some personal notes based on observances of the past 14 years. I hope you enjoy! For more on this subject, check out the fantastic 2006 documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated”.**

“I need another hit you fuck!” That line is from director Danny Boyle’s 1996 film “Trainspotting,” a modern day “A Clockwork Orange,” and is spoken when Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, is punished after he is caught using heroin by his parents. In the ensuing moments, Renton has a hallucination caused by his heroin use that is not only disturbing, but also mesmerizing. The line is also an example of the kind of dialogue spoken in present day film. For anyone who has not seen the film, it is rated R (as is “A Clockwork Orange”). “Transpotting” included, films such as “Basic Instinct,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Clerks,” “Pulp Fiction,” and many others have become famous for the fact that not only do they include highly profane language, but they also contain heavy (and sometimes graphic) amounts of sex and violence and have been able to get away with an R rating.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, rating, as it regards to film, is defined as the following: a classification, based on content, restricting the age of those who may attend. But are these so-called “ratings” effective in making the viewing public aware of the film’s content, and more important, are they effective in making sure that the inappropriate audience does not see the film? First of all, how are these ratings decided? There are people out in the public who feel that the current system is being enforced properly and does not need to be changed. However, there are other people (filmmakers included) who feel that the system needs to either be explained better to the movie going public, including the reasons a film received its rating, or the idea that the process of rating films should be changed in order to make individual film ratings fair and accurate. Therefore, the following paragraphs will discuss the history of the ratings board; the landmark dates and controversial decisions made by the board in the past; and that the ratings system currently in use should either be better enforced or changed.

Before beginning to discuss the movie ratings system as far as some of its decisions and the overturning of some of these verdicts, it is important to know the history of the board, known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and how the ratings system got started and how it evolved. The MPAA was founded in 1922 and was the main association in American film. The Association’s initial task was to, “stem the waves of criticism of American movies, then silent, while sometimes rambunctious and rowdy, and to restore a more favorable and public image for the motion picture business.” The MPAA’s board of directors consists of the Presidents and Chairmen of the eight major U.S. film and TV distributors, which includes Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, MGM, Turner, and Sony.

In May of 1966, Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA and has been ever since. In the summer of that year, Valenti had watched America evolve into a place where riots, protests, doubts about marriage, the “abandonment of old guiding slogans, and the crumbling of social traditions” began to take over the country. This rebellious change in America also began a sort of revolution in the film industry, where filmmakers made films that were “frank and open, and subject to very few self-imposed restraints.” Valenti was presented with his first controversy regarding a film within weeks of his new assignment, when the film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was brought to the MPAA and featured the word “screw” and the phrase “hump the hostess” (both of which sound restrained compared to some of today’s films). Valenti met with MPAA’s general counsel, Louis Nizer and the head of Warner Bros., Jack Warner and his aide, Ben Kalmenson. These four talked for about three hours and decided to remove “screw” and keep “hump the hostess.” Not only did Valenti believe that grown men sitting around and talking about that kind of matter seemed wrong, he also found it very disturbing that this was only the beginning of a new era of filmmaking.

A few months after their decision on “Virginia Woolf?”, the MPAA was face with another bit of controversy, regarding Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow Up.” Valenti met with the CEO of MGM because “Blow Up” “represented a first– the first time a major distributor was marketing a film with nudity in it.” (It wouldn’t be the last, for either a major studio or MGM.) The Production Code Administration, which is located in California, refused to give the film the seal of approval and Valenti agreed, which led to MGM releasing the film through a smaller company. MGM’s decision mocked the agreement between the MPAA and its member companies that “none would distribute a film without a Code seal.” According to Mr. Valenti, “In April 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutional power of states and cities to prevent the exposure of children to books and films that could not be denied to adults.” He realized that the old system of self-regulation had broken down, and that the few threads holding the MPAA’s original structure together had snapped. Ever since he had become the MPAA President, Valenti had been sniffing at the Production Code formed by Will Hays, one of his successors, and found a scent of censorship in its “Do’s and Don’t’s” section. Within weeks of the Supreme Court’s decision, he had discussed the formulation of a movie ratings system with the president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and the governing committee of the International Film Importers & Distributors of America (IFIDA), which is a group of independent distributors and producers. Up until the fall of that year, he had met with NATO, IFIDA, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Directors Guild (DGA), Writers Guild, and others for more than 100 hours about his proposed ratings system.

In the early fall, Valenti and NATO affirmed their objective of “creating a new and, at the time, revolutionary approach to how we would fulfill our obligation to the parents of America.” Unfortunately for Mr. Valenti, that “revolutionary approach” turned into a big mess that has still never been completely fixed. The first thing Valenti did was to abolish the Hays Production Code. On November 1, NATO, the MPAA, and IFIDA announced the new ratings system, which all three organizations would monitor and guide. The four rating system looked like this:

G=General Audiences, all ages admitted
M=Mature Audiences, parental guidance suggested, but all ages admitted
R=Restricted, children under 16 (now 17) not admitted without accompanying parent of adult guardian
X=no one under 17 admitted

Pretty simple, right? Wrong! The Constitution to our country probably had less revisions while it was being written. (Bill of Rights not included.) All of the category symbols were trademarked by the system, except X, because this allowed anyone who would submit a film to the board to self apply the X or any other symbol not trademarked by the system. Originally, Mr. Valenti’s plan was to have just three ratings, which wouldn’t include X and would able parents to take their children to any movie they choose. NATO, on the other hand, wanted an ‘adults only’ category to avoid any possible legal problems involving the laws of individual states. Not only did the ratings system mean that the movie industry would no longer “approve or disapprove” of the content of a film, but it would allow parents to make good decisions about what they should allow their young children to watch.

To a certain extent, this is true. But in the long run, this had complicated the decision-making of some parents (a poll states that 76% of parents with children under 13 find the system “very useful” to “fairly useful”). Throughout the 29-year history, however, the ratings and their meanings have changed. For example, the M category was “regarded by most parents as a sterner rating than the R category.” And so, the rating was changed to GP (General audiences, Parental guidance suggested). Later, the GP category was changed to the present day PG rating, which still means “Parental Guidance suggested.” In the summer of 1984, controversy arose again, this time regarding the violence in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and whether it should receive a PG or an R rating. In order to resolve the situation, the PG-13 category was created and means that the film is of higher intensity than a PG rating, but not as intense as an R rated film. In April of 1986, the MPAA stated that any film showing or referring to illegal drugs would automatically receive a PG-13 rating. This decision was made after the film “Sixteen Candles” was released two years earlier showing teenagers using marijuana. In September of 1990, the board made two more changes in the system. First of all, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), which is industry-supported and was formed in 1968, started to explain why a film received an R rating, and they urge parents to learn more about the film before they take their children to it. The second change made was that the MPAA changed the X rating to the current NC-17 rating (no one 17 and under admitted). This change came about because many directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and others protested “the old X rating, which lumped together works of art like ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and hardcore porn like ‘Debbie Does Dallas.'” This change also came about because the board’s meaning of what they wanted the X rating to mean to parents was lost. According to Valenti, the goal of the X (and now NC-17) rating was, “an ‘adults only’ category explicitly describes a movie that most parents would want to have barred to viewing by their children.”

Valenti states that the purpose of the system is simply to give parents advanced information on a film and whether or not their children should see it. He then goes on to say that the system is only parents and if they don’t care about the ratings, the system becomes useless. He also states the fact that the board does not rate movies based on quality and that role is left for the film critics we read in newspapers and magazines. As the saying goes, Mr. Valenti, two out of three ain’t bad. From observations in the past 6 or 7 years, the ratings system does not give parents “advanced information” on the film. Valenti says that, “The criteria that goes into the mix which becomes a Ratings Board judgment are theme, violence, language, nudity, sensuality, drug abuse, and other elements.” The ratings are decided by a group of 8-13 board members (Valenti not included), who watch the film, and then discuss what parents would rate the film. Then the board votes on the rating, and a majority vote is needed to rate each film. The submitting parties have a right to know why their film was given the rating it received. The producers also have a right to either reedit the film and resubmit it in order to get a lower rating, or they can go to the Rating Appeals Board in order to get the rating they want by not having to edit the film more. The Appeals Board is made up of 14 to 18 members who are involved with the industry organizations that govern the ratings system. A two-thirds vote is required to overturn any Ratings Board decision, and the Appeals Board’s decision is final. Not all producers or distributors have to submit every film they want to release to the board, however. Instead, they can go ahead and release the film unrated as long as it is not familiar to any of the trademarked ratings of the MPAA.

According to an article in Entertainment Weekly (and Mr. Valenti), the NC-17 rating was “supposed to make the ratings system easier.” Nice try. Since the introduction of the NC-17 rating, while there are many video cassettes available to rent with the rating, only two films (both by major studios) have been released in theaters with it. The first one, Universal’s “Henry and June,” was critically acclaimed and is more of a period piece where the sex is tastefully done and not pornographic. The second one, MGM/UA’s “Showgirls,” possibly the most critically panned film in history (yes, 14 years later I know the inaccuracy of that statement), was just a soft core porn flick that is easily the sleaziest film ever and an excuse for the filmmakers to probably get off (again, this is more inaccurate now), and tanked at the box-office. The chances of NC-17 at the box office will be tested again this year with two independent films: Fine Line Features’s “Crash,” which could force Time Warner to reconsider its “New Line and Fine Line division, acquired during last year’s merger with Turner” (note: it didn’t), and Triumph Films’s “Bliss,” both of which sound more like “Henry and June” in their sexual content than “Showgirls.”

With the exception of these four films, both major and independent studios have tried to stray away from the NC-17, and have resubmitted or appealed their films constantly to lower their film to an R. This scenario was well-known to directors who had to deal with the X rating as well. One film where the X rating didn’t hurt in the least was 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which made history by being the only X rated film ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award (over the lighter “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). There were other films, however, that did have to cut down on the sex and violence. This list of films includes movies that could be considered “classics” today: Stanley Kubrick’s ultraviolent “A Clockwork Orange”; and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” as well as the original “Street Fighter,” which became the first film to receive the X rating due to violence instead of sex.

The process of resubmission and sometimes appeal (not to mention plain confusion) was never more evident than in 1994, however, which was easily a year when more filmmakers got more headaches from this rather goofy ratings system than any other film year. A perfect example that illustrates how confusing the system has become is a quote from Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers’s “Year in Movies” article where he discusses the controversy regarding the film “Jason’s Lyric,” where the two black leads are shown making love, and the film receives an NC-17. The quote goes as follows:

“Jim Carrey gets a blow job while swinging from a ceiling in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” the film wins a PG-13. That’s a funny blow job. Michael Douglas gets a blow job from Demi Moore in “Disclosure,” and the film wins an R rating. That’s an all-star blow job. But let two unknown black actors go to bed and make passionate love in “Jason’s Lyric”– in the missionary position yet –and out comes the Valenti crowd with an NC-17, spewing hellfire and fearing the corruption of youth.”

He couldn’t be more right, either. He also explains the two ways filmmakers such as Doug McHenry (“Jason Lyric’s” director) can have sex and not have an NC-17 stapled to their film. First, they can make the film for one of the major studios, because they pay the board’s salaries and can talk their way out of the rating. Second, they can add violence to it. An example of the latter is “Basic Instinct,” one of the most graphic films (sexually and violently) ever made. The only way this film got an R was because of Michael Douglas being in the lead role. Two other examples of this include Oliver Stone’s ultraviolent “Natural Born Killers,” which had Juliette Lewis screwing a man, and then shooting him, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” which showed (in semi-graphic detail) a man being raped by two other men, and then the two rapists being killed. One example of a film that received this dreaded rating for not sex or violence, but vulgarity, is Miramax Films’s “Clerks.” The film doesn’t show one ounce of blood, or one second of sex; all it does is talk about sex and violence in a way that would make the most squeamish viewer sick to the stomach. And so, the makers of this film took the decision to the Appeals Board, and the NC-17 was overturned and changed to an R. Another reason to complain about the ratings system can be examined in the controversy regarding “Color of Night,” a film that shows (at least on video) Bruce Willis’s penis. CARA decided to give the film an NC-17 unless the scene was cut. It was and the film was released in theaters as an R (the Director’s Cut, featuring the show, was also given an R). The controversy lies in why “Color of Night” received an NC-17 and films like “The Crying Game” and “The Piano,” both of which show full frontal shots by men, can get an R rating. The answer is simple: While “Color of Night’s” shot is done during a sex scene, and could be left out and not damage the story, “The Crying Game’s” shot is basically the whole focal point of the story and without it, the story (not to mention the shock factor) would be wrecked. As for “The Piano,” because of the artistic aspect of the film, it is not the focal point of the film and is not very shocking. The issue of the frontal nudity in “Color of Night” can also be debated with Sharon Stone’s much-publicized crotch scene in “Basic Instinct,” a shot that, according to Premiere Magazine, is “widely thought to have been sprung on Stone by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven (who would later make “Showgirls” together) on the day it was filmed.” More confusion existed when the thriller “Speed” featured Dennis Hopper getting decapitated and the film getting away with an R, while in “Natural Born Killers,” a shot of Tommy Lee Jones being decapitated had to be taken out in order to just receive an R. This explanation is also simple: “Natural Born Killers’s” whole storyline is about violence and shock value, while “Speed” is more about action and suspense (the fact that gore is minimal doesn’t hurt either). These are just a few examples of how messed up the ratings system is.

Ever since I have become an avid movie goer, I have noticed not only the confusing decisions made by the board listed above, but also the fact that movie theaters seem to just let anyone go see movies, no matter what the rating or the person’s age. Mr. Valenti states that:

“NATO estimates that about 85% of the theater owners in the nation subscribe to the rating system, and will not admit a child under 17 to an R rated motion picture without an accompanying parent or adult guardian, or admit a child 17 and under to an NC-17 rated motion picture under any circumstances.”

If that statement is true, then a good number of those theaters who do not subscribe to the system must be in Georgia. The only time I have seen a window worker not admit a person to an R film was at AMC Mansell Crossing 14 when the person working the window would refuse to let a person who had proper I.D. buy a ticket for a friend unless they were present and were 17. The movie they were trying to see was “Pulp Fiction,” a film that pushes its R rating to the extreme. I remember how good it was to see the theater doing what it should do, which is enforce the ratings a film receives instead of just letting anyone in. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any other theaters who have done that since. What the MPAA and NATO need to do is make sure that 100% of all theaters abide to the ratings system, and always check for proper I.D. before letting teenagers not accompanied by adults into films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Trainspotting.” (Author’s Note: Now that I’ve worked at a theater in box office myself, I know not only how impractical the latter is, and how theaters do try and enforce the system.) Another thing the MPAA needs to do is to make rating decisions on films that are both accurate with the subject matter from film to film and fair to the filmmakers so utter confusion about these decisions is a thing of the past. Parents can help the theaters by learning more about a film (especially R rated ones) before they take their children with them. It always amazes me to see children brought to films such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Ransom” (about the kidnapping of a child), films that children should not see until they are older.

In conclusion, while the process of rating a film is very easy to understand and does not need to be changed, it would be nice to see some semblance of consistency rating to rating and film to film. What this means is to give films with similar content the same rating. It would also be nice to see theater owners and parents work together in order to make sure children see films that are appropriate for them and are not able to see films that not only are too mature for them, but are also liable to give them nightmares about what they see on screen.

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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