Noel: With the hue and cry over the extreme violence in Hostel: Part II, some pundits—like Mark Harris in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly—have dredged back up the old complaint that the MPAA punishes honest expressions of human sexuality with an NC-17, while allowing graphic violence and torture through with an R rating. I'm sympathetic to that position. Back in 2000, I co-authored a long article about the inequities in the MPAA, particularly in regard to sex vs. violence, as well as sex vs. smutty PG-13 innuendo. And I still feel that American movies are far too babyish about sex, especially when compared to music, books, and even comics and TV.
But you know what? I no longer hold the MPAA responsible for the sex vs. violence gap in our cinema. And you know what started to change my mind? Kirby Dick's MPAA documentary "exposé," This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
I went into This Film Is Not Yet Rated last year expecting to have my animosity for the MPAA fully validated. And I thought at least one sequence in the film was brilliant: the one where Dick shows gay sex scenes and straight sex scenes side by side, and proves that the MPAA is, at the least, frighteningly homophobic. But as the movie ground on, with one more spurious claim after another made by a horde of conspiracy-minded filmmakers, I got increasingly irritated, and I started picking holes in everyone's arguments. By the time the movie was over, I'd decided that Dick and company's claims were basically bullshit.
But it isn't just Dick-spite that turned me around on the MPAA. Becoming a parent has also played a small part, as has growing up and growing weary of knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism—which at a certain point becomes a kind of impotent "poor me"-ism, and a weak excuse for personal failure. So with that in mind, my argument here boils down to three points:
1. Ratings-wise, the MPAA gets it right 90 to 95 percent of the time.
2. When they get it wrong, the injury caused is negligible.
3. When people complain about the MPAA's decisions, they're most often really complaining about something that the MPAA doesn't control.
(I hasten to add that I'm strictly talking about the ratings here. I don't want to get into the MPAA's frequently misguided—and suspiciously studio-friendly—anti-piracy efforts, or their oft-asinine regulation of movie marketing.)
There's not much to say about the first point. I've already mentioned the gay-vs.-straight disconnect, which I find egregious, and I do think the MPAA could be generally laxer when it comes to sexual content. But those two issues rarely come up. More often, the MPAA is dealing with violence and language. When it comes to the latter, I'm sorry: I don't think words are just words. It may be fundamentally nonsensical, but as a society, we've ascribed a taboo power to certain words. And no matter how much some protest, I don't think we really want it any other way. We need "shit" and "fuck" to mean something stronger than "crap" and "screw." We need those degrees, because they clarify our meaning. And because of that, we don't need "shit" in a G-rated film, or "fuck" in a PG. (Or even a PG-13.) We should be comfortable, as freedom-loving Americans, having those words in movies, but we should also be comfortable with the warnings and restrictions that we place around them. As a parent, I need to know where those zones are, and then I'll decide when my kids are old enough to enter them.
As for violence, I think that's a point where the anti-MPAA crowd gets really disingenuous. They love to hold up the beautiful purity of onscreen sex and the soul-shredding awfulness of graphic violence, but I have to wonder: If the MPAA weren't so prudish about sex, would those same crusaders be so worked about the violence? Or is it just the seemingly insane disparity between the MPAA's approach to the two topics that gets them so steamed? Because I'm sure if you asked Brian De Palma or Quentin Tarantino, they'd say that the MPAA isn't permissive enough when it comes to violence.
Let me ask you, because I know you were shocked by the violence in the R-rated Hostel: Part II. Answer me honestly: Is the movie something that only someone 17 or older should see? Would it have been too much for you to handle at, say, 16? (With a parent or legal guardian by your side, of course.)
Scott: The MPAA ratings board exists for the express purpose of helping parents make informed decisions about what they choose to allow their kids to see. For this reason alone, I concur with Harris' eloquent argument in Entertainment Weekly that the NC-17 rating should be thrown away, because it forbids anyone under the age of 17 to see a movie, regardless of whether their parents are permissive enough to allow it. I don't believe it's the MPAA's right to make those kinds of decisions for adults; requiring someone under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian strikes me as a reasonable enough restriction. What bothers me about Hostel: Part II isn't that it's rated R, but that it's R while Henry & June is still NC-17. And it isn't just that I disagree with the MPAA's standards regarding sex and violence—and boy howdy, I do—it's that those standards aren't consistently applied.
You say the MPAA is right 90 to 95 percent of the time, but I'd argue that most movies are tailored to receive a specific rating anyway, and the other 5 to 10 percent of the time, the MPAA's decisions are baffling and even damaging to the medium. This summer, the two big examples that stand out for me are Hostel II and Once. Both films are rated R. Along with copious nudity and violence involving both sexes, Hostel II includes [Really gross spoiler warning.] one scene in which a naked woman is suspended from the ceiling while another naked woman slashes her from below with a scythe and bathes in her blood. It also includes a scene in which a man's genitals get lopped off with a pair of scissors. [End spoilers.] Contrast this with Once, the great micro-budgeted Irish musical about the creative collaboration between a busker in Dublin and a Czech immigrant. The film has no violence. It has no sex. It's been rated R for "language," but I have no memory of the language being particularly salty, certainly not enough to warrant the tougher rating. It would be perfectly appropriate for budding young cinephiles to see without their parents. It would be absurd to assert that these movies fall within the same ratings spectrum, and it makes you wonder anew what the MPAA is trying to accomplish.
Hostel II is a good example of the frequent anti-MPAA argument that if you cut off a breast, it's rated R, but if you a kiss a breast, it's NC-17. Hence, Hostel II is suitable for kids under 17 to see with a parent or guardian, while something like The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci's steamy tale of three amorous young people who take part in the '68 Paris student riots, is forbidden to all but adults. The difference between the two, of course, is that the male and female nudity in The Dreamers has a sexual context, while in Hostel II they're a pretext for bodies being ripped apart. As I said earlier, I'd be in favor of both films getting an R rating and having NC-17 tossed out altogether, but the blatant hypocrisies of the system tick me off. At bottom, I think the MPAA supports a set of values—permissive about violence, puritanical about sex, viciously anti-gay (ever wonder why a Lifetime-ready movie like Longtime Companion got an R?)—that's completely perverse and in need of radical retooling.
Before I go any further, a little more on the folly that is the NC-17 rating. Back in 1990, when the NC-17 was first used for Henry & June, I believe the intent was good, even if it was misapplied in that particular case. Before NC-17, any movie for adults that the MPAA didn't deem within the parameters of an R (and some of those decisions, like Midnight Cowboy, are pretty questionable in retrospect) would get an X, which wasn't an official rating at all, so it was equivalent to just tossing a film out altogether. NC-17 was supposed to separate artistically motivated adult films from out-and-out pornography, but it backfired immediately. Newspaper and television outlets refused to run ads for NC-17-rated movies, some theater chains refused to book them, Blockbuster refused to carry them on its shelves, and filmmakers wound up contractually obligated to bring their work in at an R. The MPAA did a horrible job of introducing the rating, and its stigma remains intact. To quote Harris' EW piece:
The X rating was invented at a time when hardcore-porn movie houses were springing up across America. But those theaters are gone, and kids who want access to porn are only a Google away. Today, the NC-17 protects nobody and preserves the illusion that R-rated movies like Hostel: Part II are okay for kids because if they weren't, somebody would have rated them NC-17.
You weren't the only one irritated by This Film Is Not Yet Rated (though I liked it) but I think your animus toward its rhetorical failings have led you in the direction of sympathy for the devil. What does the MPAA do right? If you could create your own ratings system, would it share the same values as those reflected by the MPAA's? I'll concede that the public generally finds the MPAA ratings system more workable then, say, the hilariously inane TV ratings system, or the utterly ineffectual "Explicit Content" warnings on CDs. But that isn't setting the bar terribly high. You seem to suggest that anti-MPAA types such as myself have contempt for the very idea of a ratings system, but that couldn't be further from the truth, at least personally speaking. I think parents really do need an advisory rating to help them make good decisions about what their kids should see; it's just that this particular system is often unhelpful, if not downright risible.
And what's this business about the injury caused by the MPAA's mistakes being negligible? What about all the films that have been compromised or not even made because of the ratings system? I'd say the board has had a profound creative impact on the movies, but clearly you feel otherwise, yes?
Noel: Well first off, I still don't see what's so "unhelpful" about the MPAA's ratings system. We've lived within its parameters for so long that I think we have a general idea what PG-13 means and what R means. Yes, the line does move sometimes for no apparent reason. Dick's film makes that point well, when one of his interviewees—I believe it's Kimberly Peirce—talks about an oral-sex scene from Coming Home that got an R in its day, but now would be tagged with an NC-17. By and large, though, we know what to expect from certain movies based on their ratings, and now that the MPAA is offering short explanations ("Rated PG-13 for strong language," etc.) there's no reason why anyone should be unduly shocked by what's on the screen. And if they feel the MPAA is under-informing them, there's a ton of websites and print reviews to complete the picture. When it comes to the bottom line of what the MPAA ratings board does—tell parents what general age-level a movie is appropriate for—they're rarely off-base, if you ask me.
As to your point about "all the films that have been compromised or not even made because of the ratings system," I wish we were chatting live so that you could give me some examples I could shoot down. I can really only think of one: Eyes Wide Shut, which Warner Bros. altered for its theatrical release by inserting digital figures to block an orgy scene. In a world where unrated directors' cuts clog DVD racks at big-box stores everywhere, it's disappointing that Warner Bros. still hasn't released the unadulterated Eyes Wide Shut domestically.
But here's the rub: We do live in the world of unrated directors' cuts. So what's being suppressed, exactly? Who's really being prevented from making movies as sexy and bloody and sweary as they want?
I understand that the argument cuts both ways, and you could contend that it's stupid for the MPAA to restrict material in theaters that I can pick up unrestricted at my local Wal-Mart. But I'd push right back and say that the experience of watching a movie at home by myself or with friends is far removed from the experience of watching a movie with a bunch of strangers—some of whom may be kids. It's sort of like the difference between telling a sexist joke to my wife, who knows I'm kidding, and telling it on the radio. Context—and company—matters.
The argument I often hear from MPAA-bashers is that it's silly to work so hard to keep teenagers from seeing nudity and non-explicit sex in a movie when "they can get porn on the Internet." But is what people do privately really meant to meet anyone's idea of "community standards"? Is it even a standard that rational people want to apply? I grew up in a pre-Internet age, but I still saw plenty of porn long before my parents let me go to an R-rated movie. Isn't that just an accepted rite of passage? There's the adult material we sneak around and see before we're supposed to, and then there's the adult material we get to see in a socially approved setting. Again, I think the MPAA could be a little more lenient when it comes to sex, but neither I nor any reasonable person should demand a complete absence of restrictions. Shortbus, for example, should never be rated R.
And what about Shortbus? Because I think I know the counter-argument you're itching to trot out in response to my "unrated DVD" comment. You're going to say that movies are meant to be seen on the big screen, and the MPAA is preventing that from happening. Then explain Shortbus. How does John Cameron Mitchell get to make a movie with explicit gay and straight sex, and get it shown in theaters around the country? The answer: He bypasses the MPAA entirely, and the studio system, and he makes a little movie with a tiny budget that reaches exactly the audience that it's intended for, with little to no public outcry. Everybody wins.
But what if Mitchell wanted to make a movie on a bigger budget, and he needed the marketing and distribution push of some studio or another, in order to recoup the investment? What if he's like Atom Egoyan, trying to make Where The Truth Lies and getting dinged by the MPAA because of some untoward thrusting? Well, he's still got options. One is to trim the "offensive" material back some, and release the movie with an R rating, knowing that he can put the thrusts back in on the DVD. Another is to work with a studio that can pressure the MPAA into changing its mind, which happens from time to time. Yet another is to release the movie unrated, or to take the NC-17 and deal with the consequences.
And this leads me to a third point: Those consequences, unfortunate as they are, have little to nothing to do with the MPAA. But I don't want to get ahead of myself, so I'll throw it back to you to clarify a few points from your previous salvo:
Can you name some movies that have been irreparably harmed by the MPAA ratings board? (As in: No one will ever get to see them the way the director intended, ever?) And why do you think the ratings system we have is so unhelpful, given that you concede my point that the MPAA rates movies correctly almost every time? And if you had been 15 or 16 when The Dreamers came out, would you have wanted to watch it with your parents?
Scott: Thought you could slip Shortbus by me, did you? Nice try, buddy, but now you're the one who's being disingenuous. For a split second there, you had me thinking, "Well, maybe he's right. Maybe an R rating doesn't quite cover a movie in which a dude fellates himself, and later participates in a three-way that climaxes with a guy singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' into another guy's caboose." Then I remembered that Shortbus was made and released independently, and thus was never obligated at any point to appear before the MPAA, which obviously would have slapped it with an NC-17 within the first five minutes. There is simply no way that a major studio would ever produce/release a film with hardcore sex in it like Shortbus has, so it's pointless to include that film in any discussion related to the MPAA ratings system. Remember: The MPAA is a studio-supported system of self-regulation, so any distributor who operates independently of MPAA membership is under no obligation to bring their films in front of the board.
Shortbus is an extreme example—and again, nothing that a major studio or studio boutique would have anything to do with—but I'm a little uncomfortable with the marginalization of adult-oriented films, which you seem to endorse to an extent. Your example of Where The Truth Lies—which theoretically could have enjoyed a broad commercial life, had Egoyan executed it better—is more in the ballpark, but I don't like any of the "options" you're giving it once it's been tagged with an NC-17 rating. Let's look at them one by one:
1. "Trim the 'offensive' material back some, and release the movie with an R rating, knowing that he can put the thrusts back in on the DVD." First off, you neglect to mention that it wasn't mere thrusts that earned the film an NC-17. It was that those thrusts were part of a three-way involving two men, which crosses that homoerotic line that the MPAA has drawn so insidiously. I think we can agree that an NC-17 rating for that film was completely unwarranted, and I applaud ThinkFilm (not an MPAA member) for releasing it unrated. But to your larger point, I'm generally not a fan of unrated cuts or directors' cuts on DVD, because as long as we're still going to movie theaters—and as long as repertory houses are screening release prints years after the fact—I want to see the movie as it was intended on celluloid, and I would guess that artists like Egoyan would agree with me. (And as an aside, I think the filmmaker's point of view on this issue is paramount, so long as we're still willing to consider film as art. I think you'll find very few with nice things to say about the MPAA.) I don't like the practice of preparing multiple versions of a film—one for theaters, one for DVD—because it creates confusion about which is the "real" version, and also because the whole unrated-cut trend has more to do with marketing than creative impulse. Ideally, there should only be one version of a film, and the MPAA should not have a hand in determining what it will look like.
2. "Work with a studio that can pressure the MPAA into changing its mind, which happens from time to time." Yeah, unless your name is Steven Spielberg, good luck with that. I thought This Film Is Not Yet Rated did a fine job of picking this line of thinking apart. For one, the MPAA doesn't have a clear set of standards for how it rates films, and there's absolutely no transparency to the process. Second, if a film comes back to a director with an NC-17 rating, the board does not get into specifics over what needs to be cut. And until Dick's film convinced the board otherwise, filmmakers could not cite precedent in their appeals for a different rating. In any case, the MPAA exists at the pleasure of the studios, and has historically only responded to the most powerful forces in Hollywood. Hence, Spielberg convinced the board to change Poltergeist from an R to a PG without a frame being cut from the film; later, the public outcry over the intensity of movies like it and the Spielberg-backed Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Gremlins led MPAA chief Jack Valenti to accept Spielberg's suggestion of a rating between R and PG, which became of course PG-13. The board's recent decision to revamp its appeals process and change the rating on the Iraq documentary Gunner Palace from R to PG-13 is a step in the right direction, but I'm not yet convinced that smaller films have much of a chance to win a desired rating without cuts.
3. "Release the movie unrated, or take the NC-17, and then deal with the consequences." The consequences, as you well know, are severe. As I spelled out earlier, some theater and video-store chains won't exhibit NC-17-rated or unrated movies, and some TV and print media outlets won't run advertisements for them, either. Under those limitations, the best possible scenario for a film to be successful without compromise would be something like Shortbus, which stayed below the radar and collected the maximum amount from independent outlets that would carry it. Since the film was tailor-made to do just that, it could be considered a success. But an adult-oriented film of a higher budget and greater box-office expectation can simply not afford to be stigmatized by an NC-17 rating. And that's where the MPAA oversteps its bounds: Ratings are supposed to advise parents about what their children should see, not limit access to films made for free-thinking adults.
To get to some of your other questions, you ask why I consider the MPAA unhelpful if I concede that it gets the ratings right most of the time. Again, I think that films are made with a certain audience in mind, so there's usually broad consensus over what rating is appropriate for most of them. And I'll give the MPAA credit for being more specific about why films are given a particular rating than they have been in the past; if its purpose is to help parents make better-informed decisions, I'm all for the MPAA providing resources for people to do just that. What I object to are the values that underpin the MPAA's ratings decisions, particularly its severity with sexuality and laxity with violence, which puts it completely at odds with other ratings boards in the Western world. I guess you could argue that the MPAA is merely reflecting America's values on sex and violence, but that opens up another can of worms.
So what movies have been harmed by the MPAA? You mention Eyes Wide Shut, an example of the MPAA taking the last work of a master director and eliminating the thrusting in a way that made us all look like thumb-sucking babies. The website for This Film Is Not Yet Rated itemizes some of the MPAA's "Greatest Hits": Martin Scorsese was forced to desaturate the color of blood in Taxi Driver in order to get an "R" rating, William Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes out of his notorious 1980 film Cruising, Kimberly Peirce had to cut shots from a love scene between two women in Boys Don't Cry to get an R, Paul Verhoeven has fought many times and lost footage in the process, and the Trey Parker/Matt Stone team has battled with the board time and time again, losing its appeal with Orgazmo and getting South Park and Team America through only after repeatedly submitting them. And then there are examples of NC-17-rated movies that have been cut down to "R" for video, because Blockbuster and the like wouldn't otherwise stock them, including stuff like Bad Lieutenant and The Dreamers.
But what concerns me is that filmmakers are forced to censor themselves long before the MPAA even gets to them. I imagine that if Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez didn't have to worry about the MPAA, Grindhouse wouldn't have had to spread its filth so thinly over three hours, and it might have more closely resembled the outré trash that it's trying to emulate. While the MPAA doesn't have clear, spelled-out standards for what constitutes an R and what constitutes an NC-17, I think a lot of vital filmmakers like to push the edges, but know when to pull back. And I think it's a shame that a filmmaker should have to put these pre-emptive limits on where they can go, even while I acknowledge that working under limitations (of budget, time, etc.) can be creatively stimulating. Citing films that haven't been made—or, in the case of Grindhouse, haven't been made to the fullest—is admittedly an abstract argument, but I think it's undeniable that the MPAA's system can make filmmakers feel hamstrung.
And to answer your last question, I'm still not comfortable watching anything remotely racy with my parents, but when I have children of my own, I'll feel much better about them seeing The Dreamers than Hostel: Part II. But I'm thinking our parenting philosophies might be different, too, which is yet another reason why the MPAA shouldn't overstep its advisory bounds.
So let's get to your third point: What do you mean when you say that people who complain about the MPAA are complaining about things the MPAA doesn't control? And while you're at it, can you think of some ways the MPAA can serve parents and filmmakers? Or do you really feel the system is more or less fine as is?
Noel: It's important for me to emphasize that by no means do I think the MPAA is perfect. They're inconsistent, they're inexplicably prudish in some matters, and their policy of not giving filmmakers a set of specific objections is inefficient at best, borderline censorious at worst. But in the broadest terms, no, I can't imagine a better system. I certainly don't want a return to local review boards, especially since I live in a small Southern town that won't allow liquor stores, let alone non-MPAA-stamped smut. Nor do I want a system as fine-toothed as the one in the UK, where the age-appropriateness of movies gets broken down to an almost absurd degree. The only really valid complaints I can see regarding the G/PG/PG-13/R/NC-17 spectrum are that the PG-13 may be too permissive, and the NC-17 too restrictive. But those aren't really complaints about the ratings themselves, are they?
Let's talk about that dreaded NC-17, which once upon a time film critics fought for, and now you and Mark Harris want to abolish. I'm old enough—and you are too—to remember when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were advocating for an A rating, between R and X. Then the MPAA capitulated. And when—as you pointed out—the new NC-17 rating backfired, Ebert claimed that since NC-17 had effectively replaced X in the public's mind, we still needed an A rating, between R and NC-17. As though it were the letters that were the problem, and not the intent.
What's the likeliest outcome if NC-17 were abolished? A new level of creative freedom under the R rating, or the same old arguments that are happening now, only with "Unrated" as the new bad guy? Because so long as parents associate R with a certain level of sex, violence, and raunchy talk, they're not going to be so sanguine about the standards being changed. (And after all, the MPAA exists to keep angry parents from leading angry e-mail campaigns.) Anyway, why can't NC-17 be a viable rating? As you mention, the studios fund the MPAA. It's their ratings system. So why aren't they going to the mat to strengthen the ratings category they created?
Because here's my third point: The theater chains that won't play NC-17 movies, the newspapers that won't carry ads for them, and the video stores that won't stock them? None of that can be laid at the feet of the MPAA. They don't own the theaters, papers, or video stores. What you're really saying is that the MPAA should adjust its standards to the realities of the marketplace, and let more things slide into the R category so they can get advertised and booked. But again, where do you draw that line? How far down the path do you go before you start saying that Shortbus deserves the same "fair shot" at the market as Where The Truth Lies?
Let me be clear about something else: I'm sure there are plenty of teenagers who would get a lot out of Shortbus, and could handle the explicit sex. That doesn't mean I want to sit in a theater full of teens and hope that they're all going to be mature enough to watch the movie without hooting. Ultimately, I've got no problem with seeing adults-only fare exclusively at festivals, or on DVD, or in rep houses someday. If a few pelvic thrusts are that vital to the overall meaning of a film, I'd rather see that film away from the milling throng, who may well not take the movie in the intended spirit. Does the MPAA treat us like babies? Maybe. And maybe, as a culture, we are babies.
Because there's another aspect to this debate that no one on the creative side wants to acknowledge—and that you expressly ducked. It's that maybe community standards really do exist exactly as the MPAA assumes, and maybe movies with explicit sex ultimately don't have much of a potential audience on the theatrical side—as opposed to on home video, where viewers are more accustomed to porn and quasi-porn. (Yes, that's hypocrisy. It's also reality.) Whereas when it comes to depictions of violence, Americans are more tolerant, and maybe the MPAA is reflecting that as well. Maybe, when it comes to the 5 to 10 percent of the movies each year that get rated incorrectly, the MPAA is erring on the side of protecting Hollywood from itself, and avoiding a Fox News-led outcry of "Why Hollywood Doesn't 'Get It'" in response to the introduction of hardcore porn at the multiplex.
I'd feel a lot worse about my sneaking suspicion that American culture at large is infantile if I didn't also feel that we're living through the last days of traditional entertainment distribution models. In other words: Movie theaters as we know them are on their way out anyway. In the near future, we'll be going to the movies for big events and arthouse fare, and that's about it. And the self-selecting arthouse audience has always been more tolerant of the outré. We live in a country that, by design should have something for everybody, whether it be coy, broad pop junk, or daring high art. We should be able to enjoy both in their place, and not have to worry that the wrong audience at the time is going to ruin the experience for those who know what they're getting into. The ratings system helps protect thatLook, I believe that some filmmakers have a legitimate beef with the way they've been treated by the MPAA. I also believe that their beef could just as easily be directed at studios that won't go to bat for them, and an American public that's never going to be widely interested in their edgy visions. If you want to make movies that touch on sensitive, adults-only subjects, you have to either lower your budgets along with your commercial expectations, or start thinking about alternate distribution models. You talk about the Grindhouse that didn't get made, but I'd counter by noting that Showtime's Masters Of Horror series has presented plenty of genuinely gruesome, grindhouse-worthy fare, all produced on a low budget. If Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had worked cheap enough, they could've made their movie as gamy as they wanted to, and hit their niche audience in the select theaters willing to book their film.
Ultimately, my overarching point is that while the MPAA ratings board could use some tweaking, this constant anguish over ratings travesties has gotten hackneyed. "The MPAA" has become like "the government" or "corporate America." It's just another cloud of mist for people to flail against, thereby tiring them out too much to fight the real grassroots battles for freedom of expression that take place every day in public schools and public libraries. Banning books worries me. A few extra seconds of cunnilingus in an art film, by and large, doesn't.
Scott: To judge by your closing remarks, I sense that many of our differences come from our current stations in life. I live in the big city, where cultural restrictions on anything are not terribly common, so the flaws of the MPAA ratings system seem more pronounced and censorious to me. You live in the middle of Arkansas and have to drive across county lines to get a beer, much less buy a ticket to Shortbus, a film that likely didn't recoup much of its budget below the Mason-Dixon line. These grassroots battles that you have to fight over books being banned or "intelligent design" being taught alongside evolution in public schools make the strong differences we have over the MPAA amount to so much hair-splitting. But since I'm used to having my way, I press on…
Though I'm not thrilled with its restrictiveness—again, I think ratings should be advisory in all but the most extreme cases—the NC-17 rating wasn't such a bad idea, and I'd like to believe that the MPAA instituted it in good faith. What it failed to do in 1990 was adequately lay the groundwork to support its new rating. Whether Jack Valenti and company mistakenly assumed the rating would bring widely accepted legitimacy to serious adult-oriented fare, or were simply incompetent in rolling out the NC-17… That's unclear, but the time to make the rating work was in the very beginning. Before introducing the rating, the MPAA should have shored up support among major theater chains and media outlets first, assuring them of the rating's intent to bring artistically credible films for adults under its protective umbrella. I don't know whether it tried to do this or not, but the launch was so dismal that the NC-17 was dead on arrival. And that's a good reason why I agree with Mark Harris that the MPAA might as well give it a burial, because its corpse has been stinking up the place for nearly 20 years.
Is it too late to strengthen support for NC-17? I think so. From the start, the rating has basically been a scarlet letter—or rather, two scarlet letters and two scarlet numbers—that made it very easy for squeamish exhibitors and Moral Majority types to pick off "objectionable" films. I remember working at a movie theater as a teenager in Cobb County, Georgia—Newt Gingrich's district, to give you an idea—and when we picked up Henry & June for a brief run, we did get a few angry phone calls, including one from an ex-employee, incensed that we were showing such filth. That was my first indication that the new rating was doing the opposite of what it intended to do, and actually damaging the films to which it was supposed to lend legitimacy. And throughout its history, the NC-17 never had that breakthrough moment when it was attached to something so commercially irresistible that the market would have to make way for it. (Showgirls is probably the most prominent attempt, and we all know how that turned out.)
I agree with you completely that proposed alternatives to NC-17, like Ebert's A rating, are largely bunk. A new letter doesn't solve the problem, unless that new letter was promoted more effectively than NC-17 was at the outset. And I'll confess that Harris' proposal to just drop NC-17 altogether is problematic, too, even though I endorse it. As I said in an earlier example, the disparity between Hostel: Part II and Once, both given R ratings, is comically broad. I could see myself watching Once with my grandmother, but if I tried to complete the double feature with Hostel II, she'd probably never want to see me again, provided that her heart didn't give out during reel four. But while I'm concerned about the R being too broad—maybe broad enough to warrant another rating, if that didn't mean severely restricting a film's chances for success—perhaps R is enough of a warning that a film is intended for adults. At a certain point, aren't you rendered mature enough to see whatever you'd like? Have you ever heard of a person who was allowed to see an R-rated film, but forbidden to go near an NC-17-rated film?
I'm a little surprised by your cynicism about how the MPAA treats us like babies, because "as a culture, maybe we are babies." I think you're right to say that the MPAA perhaps does reflect community values in the United States, which are by and large prudish when it comes to sex, and more tolerant of depictions of violence. But I feel like those values are completely backward, and I curse the MPAA for validating them so mindlessly. I think it's reasonable to expect the ratings board to have a more enlightened perspective about sex and violence, or at least narrow the ridiculous disparity in how it weighs the two. In the past, ratings systems have adapted (or been dropped altogether) in response to the changing values of the times, and it's my feeling that a change is long overdue in how the MPAA weighs the kissing of a breast against the slashing of a breast, or how it implicitly regards homosexual relationships as aberrant, or how it punishes female sexual pleasure.
But I'm not exactly holding my breath. A few months ago, the MPAA finally bowed to pressure from the anti-smoking lobby to bring depictions of smoking into consideration when determining a rating. As a cinephile, that sort of stuff just makes your heart break, because the way smoke mingles with the lights has long been one of the more seductive visual tricks in the book. Which leads me to close with my favorite quote from This Film Is Not Yet Rated, courtesy of Newsweek's David Ansen: "Even though [the MPAA is] supposed to protect children, it's turning us all into children."