As movie ratings mean less and less, Christians must develop their own discernment.

The frustration of serious filmmakers over the shortcomings of the ratings system is now reaching the boiling point. Serious films given a deserved X are written off by theater owners as hassle-inducing pornography. Faced with the financial ruin of an X rating, producers of such controversial films as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! have opted to ignore the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and release them unrated to theaters. All three movies have enjoyed critical and financial success. If this trend continues, the entire rating system could go by the wayside.

The MPAA rating system—G through X—is increasingly criticized by both filmmakers and moviegoers as misleading and ineffectual. Many filmmakers regard the system as a capricious and arbitrary obstacle, an attempt to censor their art. Its intent was to avoid government censorship by indicating the content and moral tone of movies. Now, however, concerned parents often find the ratings system useless in determining the suitability of a movie for their children. The fact that filmmakers are more and more ignoring the MPAA entirely by releasing unrated films and videotapes is prompting an outcry of protest from parents and the pulpit.

But censorship and ratings systems have always fallen into the trap of illogical checklists. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho—one of the most psychologically horrifying films of all times—was screened to general theater audiences and plays unedited on television. Studio censors did not object to the knife murder of a woman in the shower—as long as the knife was not actually shown penetrating her flesh. Her nude, lifeless body could be shown—as long as her buttocks, genitals, and breasts were not revealed.

Indeed, Hitchcock understood that the impact of the movie was not dependent simply on blood or nudity but on the moral tone of the world view underpinning it. Hitchcock’s personal loathing of women, and his fascination with their torture and humiliation, reached a wide audience because he played the studio’s game. His final movie, Frenzy, was released in 1972 with an R rating. But even with its revoltingly graphic portrayal of sexual violence, Frenzy would probably earn a PG if submitted to the MPAA today.

Changing Values

The MPAA ratings were designed to rate movie content against general, mainstream values. But values change from place to place and year to year. Thus the ratings system has changed, and the blame cannot be placed entirely on the movie industry. Its plan to create a range of categories—G, PG, R, and X—was intended to allow for differentiation between movies. But as moviegoers avoided both G and X films, producers lost huge amounts of money. In spite of the availability of four increments, the overwhelming majority of films soon fell into the two commercially profitable ones: PG and R.

For example, when Star Wars and Chariots of Fire were initially given G ratings, the panicked filmmakers inserted just enough profanity to bump them up to a more financially promising PG.

The X rating initially meant that a film was not suitable for children. In 1969 the X-rated Midnight Cowboy, starring Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, won the Academy Award for best picture. Its X rating was appropriate, because the story of a male prostitute was not something kids needed to see. Likewise, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange, was rated X. Now, however, both films have been rerated R, and without the benefit of any editing. What did change was how the X rating was interpreted.

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Pushing The Limits

Pornographers began labeling their hard-core films X or XXX. The stigma of an X rating led filmmakers to push the limits of the R category. An R began to include more sexually and violently explicit scenes—movies that previously would have been rated R were now PG.

The R rating became a catchall for serious, social-issues movies such as El Norte and The Killing Fields, soft-core pornography such as Emanuelle, and mad-slasher/rape fantasies such as I Spit on Your Grave—any movie that stopped short of graphic, gynecological detail. Directors began “shooting X and cutting to a hot R”: They submitted their explicit films for rating, then cut just enough for them to be rerated R. The R rating that had been intended for mature films that ought not be seen by unaccompanied minors now included soft-core pornography. Not surprisingly, many parents began writing off all R-rated films as gratuitous sex and violence, while the X rating became the exclusive province of hard-core pornography. G virtually ceased to exist, while PG evolved into a grab bag of kiddy films and near-R adult movies.

With virtually all films, from Disney to dismemberment, squeezed into PG and R categories, parents were left with virtually no sense of what might be suitable for their children. Into this milieu stepped Steven Spielberg, who prevailed upon the MPAA to create the PG-13 category when his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom received an R for, among other things, a scene where a man’s heart is ripped from his chest. Targeting the film for kids and young adults, Spielberg feared an R rating would alienate parents—and result in a weak box office.

Compounding the confusion were the pressure tactics of activist groups, which actually worked against their own basic goal: to keep their kids out of immoral, graphically explicit movies. The confusion over the X rating meant that theater owners were confronted by pickets and angry phone calls when they screened X-rated movies. Newspapers refused to run ads for X films. But rather than being banished from the theaters, explicit movies were released with R ratings after the filmmakers had made only minor cuts. Teenagers who could not get into an 18-orover X film, could now slip past the ticket booth to see a less-rigorously enforced R. Thoughtless parents could now take their small children to the R version.

Among the films transformed in this ratings change were Angel Heart, a Faustian tale of murder and rape, which went from X to R after losing only 10 seconds of a surrealistic sequence in which the stars copulate under a shower of blood; and Scandal, which lost a few seconds of an orgy scene to qualify for its R. Both films are now available in uncut, unrated videotape versions. Had these videos been released under an X rating, kids would have a tough time renting them.

In Quest Of A New Level

TV critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have recommended the addition of a new A rating. This A rating would mean “adults only,” and it would be copyrighted to protect it from pornographers’ attempts to exploit it. It would differentiate serious adult films from pornography and sexploitation, which would still carry a self-imposed X or XXX. By removing the stigma of pornography, adult films could thus be restricted to those 18 or over without insuring financial disaster. The danger in this is that if protesters prevailed upon theaters and newspapers to reject A-rated films, the situation would revert to the present chaos.

While Siskel and Ebert’s idea may be workable, it still falls short of fully informing parents about a movie’s content and impact: Simple categories are severely limited in their ability to describe. Checklists can offer broad, general guidelines, but they cannot really inform on a deep level.

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In the long run, trying to ban films will probably backfire. The film industry competes in a free market for the public’s entertainment dollars. In fact, expecting an industry that has largely been abandoned by Christians to produce entertainment based on biblical standards is a pipe dream. And if history provides any lessons, we could expect protests against X- or A-rated films to result in those same films being released as R or unrated.

An expanded ratings system may be a positive step. But what would be more helpful is for parents to study film reviews critically for themselves instead of looking to checklists, one- to four-star ratings, or a superficial thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment. Reading and analyzing several reviews of the same film usually gives a pretty clear sense of the film’s moral tone.

Newspaper and magazine writers are quite responsive to readers’ positive comments. Letters of encouragement and appreciation to reviewers who deal with moral and ethical issues would reinforce the need for discerning critiques and would accomplish more good than picketing theaters.

Rather than trying to change the film industry and moviegoing public, Christians would do well to develop the critical and analytical skills needed to guide their own children through the moral pitfalls of the popular culture. Working with, rather than against, an expanded rating system would also be helpful. The more information parents can obtain, the better able they will be to guide wisely.

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